We catch a glimpse of the prophet Elijah today, not only in our first reading but in our Gospel: one of two figures who appear at Jesus’ side at the scene of Transfiguration. Elijah, symbolizing the ministry of the prophets, along with Moses the law-giver, the traditional author of the first five books of the Bible. The picture we have in the Gospel is a triptych of sorts: the law and the prophets, in other words, alongside the figure in the center, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his life and teaching summarized all the law and the prophets in the commandment to love God and to love the neighbor.
Our first reading gives us part of Elijah’s story, the very end of it in fact, and in the process gives us a clue as to the meaning of the Transfiguration. Elijah is one of two persons in the Old Testament who depart into heaven without the intervention of death; the other is the shadowy figure of Enoch in Genesis, who (we are told) walked with God, then was no more because God took him (Gen. 5:24). So, here we have the story of Elijah’s departure, told at greater length: Elijah, accompanied by his disciple Elisha, travels down to the valley of the Jordan and crosses over the river.
It’s a point of transition, not only for Elijah but also for Elisha, who will inherit his mantle, and take up Elijah’s ministry of proclaiming God’s will, especially to the kings of Israel. He’s been promised a double share of the Spirit of God. It’s also a point (and this is most crucial in terms of understanding the Transfiguration) at which God’s power will be manifested, in cloud and fire. As it says in the reading, “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’” (2 Kings 2:11-12).
Here’s where the story of Moses comes in: the third figure from the triptych. Cloud and fire are the point of connection; the symbols of God’s power providing the clue. When Moses led the People of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai in the desert, to encounter God and to receive the law. As the People drew near, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently” (Ex. 19:18). Moses goes up the mountain to meet the God who has come down, in cloud and fire, to give the People the law.
The chariots and horses of fire and the whirlwind that are glimpsed, when Elijah goes up to God, are signs of God’s power and presence. They look back to Moses’ experience on the mountain, and forward to Jesus’ revelation on the mountain of Transfiguration. God is at work in Elijah’s ministry; the spirit that animates him, and that Elisha covets, is the Spirit of God himself. The whirlwind that comes out of the desert is a cloud that obscures the vision of the physical eye, but that reveals the presence of God. The chariots and horses of fire that are seen signify the Lord God of hosts, the God of battle, who comes to manifest his power.
Christians look for the signs of God’s presence, in obscuring cloud and revealing fire. Part of our job as faithful people is the task given to the prophets like Elijah: to pay attention to events in the world and to discern how God is at work. Discernment is not easy: we have to listen carefully and pray unceasingly, in order to understand what God is up to.
God hardly ever works in obvious ways, or at least in ways that are indisputable. There’s the presence of the obscuring cloud. If you consider events in the world over the past year or so, you perhaps have caught a glimpse of the whirlwind; felt the presence of the cloud. Yet God’s chariots of fire keep propelling us forward, getting traction on the earth and announcing the arrival of the Lord God in our midst.
There’s also the question of the obscuring cloud and the revealing fire of God here at St. Matthew’s Church. If God is at work in the world (and he is), then God is particularly at work in McMinnville. It has been an extraordinary year in the life of our church. All along, God has been powerfully present here at St. Matthew’s. The Holy Spirit has come as cloud and fire in our midst, giving us a double share of what was given to Elijah.
Remember, the other part of the prophetic vocation is not just to discern what God is doing but to proclaim it to the world. That task is ongoing at St. Matthew’s Church, as you continue to pay attention and to carry forward the work. “Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’” (2 Kings 2:12).