Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 11 February 2018.
There certainly was and possibly still is a fashion for job interviews to include awkward questions in which the candidate is expected to demonstrate special awareness, self-promotion or flair in approaching the post to be filled. The stress is on the candidate selling himself or herself to the panel, rather than on the panel discerning for themselves who is the best person for the post.
In its way it might be useful but it does throw back on the interviewee the responsibility for self-presentation, even self-promotion. In some ways it then places on the most defenseless person in the room the task of carrying the most weight.
And in some ways it is there as we elect our bishops who have to complete forms and undergo a similar kind of beauty contest. The most appealing candidate will surely win, for the process will be covered by a handful of prayer book collects and of course a statutory celebration of the Eucharist.
Yet in our readings there is something else, in which those whom God has selected for greater tasks is put through a process of self-denial, and in which the task is more one of watching and waiting than of showing how socially and politically aware he in this case, is.
In the Old Testament, Elijah did everything he could to discourage Elisha, who had come to serve him in his ministry. And so they journeyed together from Gilgal, by Jericho to Bethel in the highlands by Jerusalem, and then back to Jericho and across the Jordan.
And knowing that Elijah was going to leave him Elisha determined to follow him, wherever he went, in the wilderness and up and down the mountains and then across the river. He could have pushed off to find a more profitable position with better prospects but no, Elisha stayed in his duty, and was determined to stay with Elijah regardless of what came next.
And when Elijah asked him what he wanted, Elisha asked for something of Elijah’s life and ministry, rather than for position or wealth for himself. And the answer was ‘Fine: if you can keep up.’
And so it was – Elisha was there to the bitter end, serving Elijah when he knew that he would soon be on his own. And yet he did indeed have a powerful and wonderful ministry – not the same as Elijah or with his epic battles and confrontations – but rather as the prophet in Israel in what were still going to be troubled times.
Writing to the church in Corinth Paul also looked at the question of being accepted or rejected. Again he was not looking for programmes of social and cultural awareness, or how to speak truth in the gospel to the powers of the land.
Rather Paul’s idea of the prophetic church was in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, knowing full well that it would be despised and rejected by many just as Jesus Himself had been despised and rejected.
For many the gospel would then and now still is patent absurdity and evidence of simple minds easily seduced by skillful religious leaders. It would be abused and ridiculed, yet the task of the church would be to continue in proclaiming it, much as Elisha had stayed with Elijah come what may.
If the powers and the sophisticated of the world so acted as to exclude themselves then they could only blame themselves if it turned out to be true. But if the church had not proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, then they would encounter the rebuke and the judgment of God.
And so we come to the Transfiguration of Jesus as He led just 3 disciples to witness it. It was, again, a hike up a mountain and no creature comforts when they got there except silence and the wind. But that was what Jesus needed just then. Total focus and no distractions.
For here Jesus was also to have a close and personal look at what lay before Him. Here He was looking at the cross and was first of all supported by Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets who would find their final vindication and fulfilment in Jesus’ total self-giving.
Here they spoke of what had been accomplished and what was yet to come. And they were doing it, not in a conference centre before the reporters and cameras of the world but in a place of silence and isolation, with only the wind for company.
And yet here also God drew near and spoke out loud for all to hear. He had done so at Jesus baptism and when in utter exuberance Jesus had called on Him to glorify His Name.
Now the situation was more somber, and as it here that Moses and Elijah were passing the baton on to Peter, James and John. It would be their task to make sure that the message of the gospel was not throttled by the culture of the times or by the distractions and entertainments of political life.
And here Jesus was at the centre looking back at what Israel had accomplished and then looking forward to what tasks would be before the church.
As with Elisha, it is the task of the church not to be distracted by more fashionable and glamorous causes. With the Corinthians it is our task not to be dismayed by opposition. And with Peter, James and John, it is to hear the words of Jesus and to ponder them, live them, and see in them a fulfilment and not a stumbling-block.