BEFORE RESURRECTIONS, BEHOLD ELIJAH
2 Kings 2: 1-12; Mark 9: 2-9
So many people today name themselves as “spiritual” but not religious. Such a position is understandable in so many ways. Many churches that have been called fundamentalist, charismatic, contemporary, traditional, Protestant, or Roman Catholic have had their church names or the names of staff members in the news for things that can rock the foundation of a person’s faith. Sometimes a person will not join a church, or check the “religious” box in a poll, because of a malaise of suspicion created by religious actions you have heard about or experienced. Today I say to you: I understand! I once knew a man who took six years of my befriending and connecting with him before he finally said “yes’ to joining this church. He had preferred to just “sit in the spectator seats,” so to speak, at church, rather than being asked to “be in the game.” I got to know him so well that one day I asked him why he was reluctant to join. As Rev. Gee pointed out in her sermon last Sunday, we can’t just expect people to answer a question like “Are you saved?” without getting to know them first. I learned that his story went back to the 1930s when he was a boy and times were hard. One cold night, there was a knock on their door and his father answered it. A deacon of the church was there and asked if he could come in. His father invited him in and asked him to sit down. He told his children to leave them alone for a few minutes, and the boy went out of eyesight but not out of earshot. The deacon was telling his father that the church knew he had already given to the church, but they needed more to meet their budget. His father grew silent, and suddenly asked the deacon to please leave. Their family was strained financially; the boy could tell by the hushed conversations his father and mother had over many days. The boy grew up and sat across from me that day, more than 60 years later, reluctant to join a church because of the perception he gained on that cold night when he was a boy. I said, “On behalf of churches everywhere I apologize to you for that time when an insensitive deacon doing what he was asked to do affected you and your father so badly. I promise you I will seek to honor your needs and desires with sensitivity, and care, and with love.” He joined the next month; it was a big day for both of us! But we had become friends, trusting friends, before we became pastor and parishioner. He finally had a church connection, and it gave him great peace, all the way until his death. And I presided at his funeral not as a visiting clergyman, but as his pastor. We had grown to love each other.
Other people have stories about why they haven’t joined a church, checking the box “spiritual” instead of a religious preference. With a forward by Practical Psychologist Parker Palmer, Erin Land wrote in her book titled: Lessons in Belonging from a Church-going Commitment Phobe! “Among Millenials it’s not simply that we’ve chosen not to belong; it’s that we’ve forgotten how.” This is one of the problems in America.
Today I want you to feel safe as I hope to give you some Christian guidance on a timeless question: What happens after we die? People who are spiritual and do not go to church may explore the Internet or ask friends on Facebook faith questions like that one. But information without interpretation can sometimes be misguided or difficult to understand. For example: If you search “What happens to us after death?” on your own, you will find some who believe that there is no afterlife; others who believe in the resurrection of the body; others who believe in the immortality of the soul, others who believe in reincarnation, and still others who believe that when we die we become gods. It can be seriously confusing to search web pages or resources in journals on this matter. So it is my hope each week from this pulpit and from our Sunday School classes that we can be a guide for you who are seeking to learn more about, and grow closer to, God.
Historically biblical characters in what is called the Old, or First, Testament, died and were remembered for what they did in their lives. There was no general belief that they went on to an afterlife. Sarah died in Genesis 23 and Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah, at great cost, to be her final resting place. In Genesis 25 Abraham breathed his last and was buried in the cave next to his wife. People mourned for them, and then the mourning stopped. But they remembered them forever. Still, there was no thought that they had gone to heaven. The same was true with most everyone else in the Old Testament; life was lived from birth to death; only after one event did the idea of the great prophets living on in Heaven ever cross their minds: it was after people heard the story of Elijah, considered one of the greatest prophets of Israel. He was great because he challenged the prophets of a false god in a place called Mount Carmel and he won; but he also was great because people were told about what happened in our text today: 2 Kings chapter 2. They did not call it resurrection, because it was not resurrection. It was the story of Elijah, the great prophet, being “taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.” He commissioned a new prophet—Elisha—to carry on his ministries, and then a most breath-taking thing happened: as he and Elisha were walking and talking, a chariot—a chariot of fire being drawn by horses, came and took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind! It was unheard of; it had not happened before and did not happen in the same way since. But the spiritual anthem we heard today, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, was written by ones who were longing for a better life than they had on earth. So they hoped for, and prayed for, a chariot to come and escort them to a better life! Times of strain make people think about, and long for, the afterlife.
Elijah became almost mythical because of his transport to heaven; it never says he died; it just says he went to heaven. That was talked about for ages. And when John the Baptist came with great voice and conviction, and people asked him: “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21) You see, there were superstitious people then as now! They thought that perhaps Elijah’s soul had inhabited a new body! But John the Baptist dispelled such nonsense: “I am not,” he said. In Matthew’s gospel we read that Jesus once asked his disciples: “Who do others say that I am?” And again the superstitious answer was given: “Some say you are John the Baptist (who had just been killed) and others said you are Elijah (who had died centuries before.) Jesus did not dignify their guesses with a response. What he did, we find, is show them who he was in relationship to the other great prophets of the faith. Two people were considered the greatest of ones of Israel: Moses and Elijah. So on that mountain, recorded in Mark chapter 9, we find the answer. Jesus was not Elijah or Moses; they were prophets in and of themselves. But he was at least as great as they were, and in a visit to a mountain when Jesus shone like the sun, a voice—not unlike the one that came from heaven at Jesus’ baptism—called out for all to hear: “This is my beloved son: listen to him!” Now that’s an instruction! He was real; he was a prophet; and more than that he was the beloved Son of God.
With the same authority that Christians for 2000 years have given to the Bible, we find four other places—in Matthew, in Mark, in Luke, and in John, that give witness to the extraordinary event that happened to Jesus: He really died; it was not like Elijah who went up to Heaven alive. Jesus died on earth, the victim of a brutal death. His body was taken to a tomb; guards watched the tomb during the Jewish Sabbath so that no one could come in and take the body. But when the Sabbath ended, faithful followers, beginning with the women charged with lovingly anointing the dead body, came to carry out their task. For Christians, Easter is the glorious day when something happened that changed everything: it was not reincarnation nor was there a chariot waiting; it was resurrection; the risen Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples, and we learn in 1 Corinthians 15 that he also appeared to more than 500 others, lest doubters call the disciples liars. It happened! People saw and began to re-orient their lives around not just a carpenter named Jesus, but a prophet, a rabbi, and a Savior who made a new life possible for you and for me. Jesus’ apostle John said it best: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3)
Finally John was blessed with a vision shared by Jesus, in the book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, which means “a revealing.” We do not get a guided tour of the afterlife, but we get an assurance of its wonder and it’s beauty! Heaven is a game changer, where there will be no more crying or pain or sadness. What a different world that is! Christians believe that we have life after death. It is a resurrected life, not a continuation of this life. And it can be yours! This is what the church has taught, and still teaches. There are plenty of sources of information, but I choose sources that I trust. I invite you to join a journey of questioning and learning and growing and accompanying one another. Choose Jesus! And then when you leave this life, by your choice and the grace of God, you can have a glorious life in the hereafter! Choose life; both now, and then.
Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: we can only imagine what it was like to see you in such radiant glory on that holy mountain. But we too bow in amazement and are humbled in your presence. Now in your resurrected glory, shine, Jesus shine!
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 15, 2015