Evensong 23rd February 2020
The Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen
2 Kings 2. 1-12
The Sunday before Lent gives us the mountain top before we plunge into the depths of the desert. Today’s recounting of overwhelming spiritual experiences are probably the least accessible things there can be to a northern European sensibility and spirituality.
Someone once recounted to me a story of two Yorkshiremen, talking after a show which had brought the house down. “Very funny, wasn’t it?”, said one. “I suppose so,” said the other. “If you like laughing”. I just wonder sometimes whether an English, even a Yorkshire, witness of the Transfiguration, or the ascension of Elijah, would have turned to their companion and said: “Well that’s all very well. But it won’t butter any parsnips, will it?”
Today is a day to reaffirm transcendence. It is true that in sharing our humanity God is ‘down to us’, and that in the minutiae and routine of our lives is the capacity for us to hear God’s voice and receive God’s love. But the early Fathers of the church soon realised that if God shared our life, in Christ, so we share the life of God, in Christ. The divine is part of us, and, if God is ‘down to us’, we are ‘up to God’. The whole of the Christian life is about being swept into the life of the Trinity, whose awe and overwhelming power are glimpsed in the whirlwind and the blinding light, in the presence of the law and the prophets on the mountain, in the cloud and the fire and the chariots and horsemen of Israel.
We are designed for transcendence and glory. We are shaped to be overwhelmed and full of awe. Flawed as we are, we are invited into the presence of God. Christ, through his death and resurrection opens that way to us, so that the horizon of the human being alive in Christ is not restricted to next week’s diary and that pressing deadline, the worries and joys of our family and friends, how we are to earn money and keep warm. Our horizon should also be like that of Elisha, looking to heaven. It should be like that of the disciples on the mountain with Christ, seeing him as he is eternally.
And of course, if it’s only that, then it won’t butter any parsnips. Yet my parsnip butterer is a soul, and this must be fed. It is not that there are transcendent experiences which are all very nice, and then in a dualistic way we set them aside and get on with our real life, like going back to work after a holiday. Such transcendent moments are who we are, and take their place in our complete humanity, so that our working and the buttering of our parsnips become part of a greater whole.
After the Transfiguration Jesus is plunged into a world of competing demands and incessant calls upon him. He does not go back to the mountain to do that ‘spiritual’ thing again. He reveals his glory by working with what is presented to him, healing a sick child, teaching about the way Elijah’s ministry is continued in John the Baptist, pointing to the religious tensions which will lead to his death, putting his life into context, leading his disciples.
After the ascension of Elijah, Elisha gets what he asked for, and takes on Elijah’s mantle. The next two things which happen are demanding and practical. He is asked to sort out a water purification problem, and then he gets shouted at by some badly behaved small boys, who make fun of his baldness. He purifies the water, and then teaches the boys a lesson. Let’s quickly pass over the fact that this involves utilising two she-bears to maul 42 of them. But remember the bears next time you call someone baldy.
Not far from here, in Somers Town, a remarkable piece of church mission and service a century ago resulted in the demolishing of slums and the erection of housing fit for humans to live in. The inspiration was a parish priest, Basil Jellicoe. Look him up. What I didn’t know was that he was a mystic, occasionally overwhelmed by visions of the divine. For him the transcendent and the installation of bathrooms went hand in hand. I read this week of him that: “His memorial is more than bricks and mortar; it is also a sacrament of families redeemed and saved”.
The transcendent does not set us apart. It throws us into the detail of our lives afresh, and feeds our souls to live to God’s glory. The liturgy and its setting are made for awe. The community in which we are set needs to meet souls so filled with God’s love and presence that they meet that awe too. The transcendent needs to be available in every aspect of our life. The divine is to be found in competing demands, in the giving of water, in meeting hostility, in saving lives, in the most humble and humdrum of situations. Without the glory we will give people only ourselves. Without the practical we will be of no earthly use.
We are approaching Lent. Perhaps you might aim this year not just to give up something, but to d to be open to awe, to glory, to space, to the mountain top. That could be here, in its beauty, its music and poetry. Or up a mountain. Or it could be in your kitchen, in a conversation, in the annoying phone call, in a conflict. It’s about giving the time and space over to allow the majesty of God to be revealed, and it might be overwhelming. It’s not very English. But it will feed your soul. And it might just feed someone else too.
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