While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Chariot of Fire
It’s amazing what an impact a single scene from the Bible can have: our image of the prophet Elijah being caught up into Heaven resonates across our language and culture.
It gives us our expression of one person “taking up the mantle” of another as they step into a recently vacated position because that’s what we see the prophet Elisha literally doing just after our reading ends. Elijah had dropped his outer garment, his mantle, as he was caught up in the whirlwind and when Elisha took it up it became a lasting symbol.
We know that the Chariot of Fire has grown into something remarkable – an instantly recognizable and moving musical theme from the movie “Chariots of Fire” where it morphed from one chariot into many, echoing a later scene in 2 Kings where Elisha is backed up, in a vision, by a mountainside of horses and chariots of fire.
And the movie itself was likely inspired not only by the scripture but by William Blake’s poem: “Jerusalem” and the hymn it turned into in which the chariot of fire became part of his arsenal along with spear, bow and arrows to take on the mental fight of transforming his homeland into a holy place worthy of being called the New Jerusalem from Revelations – the place where people can live on this earth in the presence of, and in harmony with God.
Clearly the image is an inspiring one and has thrilled the imaginations of people for millennia. But the first people who heard it were practical – they would have imagined it in concrete terms that are worth considering:
For example, a chariot of fire and flaming horses present some practical issues for human beings. We are not fireproof and the writers of these books knew that.
People sometimes assume that Elijah was collected by the chariot. But no, he was taken up in a whirlwind – the job of the chariot was to separate Elijah and Elisha; to drive them apart so Elisha wouldn’t be take up as well. The chariot was something no human could survive; clearly a kind of divine intervention and Elisha was overwhelmed by it to the point of babbling.
That babbling – that baffled inability to speak sense is a hallmark of a theophany. It is a typical human reaction to an experience of an infinite divinity breaking into a limited and fragile world.
Clearly, what we are to understand is that a direct experience of God is overwhelming. It leaves a profound impression but it is nearly impossible to find the words to really express the experience.
There is a parallel experience in our reading of the Transfiguration where Peter says frankly silly things about building shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus on the side of the mountain. The gospel writer clearly tells us that Peter didn’t know what to say because all three disciples were terrified.
We know what that’s like. Different people react to stress in different ways, but we all know someone whose first response is to start talking – whether they have engaged their brain or not. I tend to be one of those people and learning to shut up and listen as a first response can be a real challenge.
But for both Elisha and Peter, this is evidence that they were overwhelmed; that their words weren’t enough to express the profound experience of encountering God, even second-hand in a flaming chariot and horses or in a vision of two long-dead bible heroes conferring with their friend and teacher in a blaze of glory.
We are a jaded generation, really. We have had movie magic try to convey this kind of thing and we are less and less impressed every time we see the bright lights that seem to bore a hole in the screen.
But try to imagine what this would be like if we faced it in real life. Would we still be calm, cool and collected? Would we refuse to believe our own eyes because this kind of thing can’t be rationally explained? Or would we let it change us, leaving an impression that we might never be able to really express?
It is probably a mercy that most of us won’t have a mountaintop experience of God’s presence. The people I have met who claim to have had them can leave you feeling quite uncomfortable. There can be an intensity about them that is unsettling and I find myself wondering if it was a real event or if they experienced a psychotic break?
And then I have to wonder if that’s even a real question. How could someone experience the creator of the universe without it having some kind of overwhelming effect?
The people we read about who have had these experiences are forever changed by them. Elisha has a whole book written about what he went on to do (II Kings). Peter, James and John went on to have profound influences on the newly developing Christianity.
And what we have from them is a kind of handed down inspiration: the image of a chariot of fire that can defend God’s people, that can be part of a spiritual battle to change our own reality and make our everyday land into a holy place where we can all experience the presence of God every day, without being overwhelmed.
We have the image of Jesus transfigured, moved beyond humanity to embody something divine; the image of the law and the prophets coming together with the teachings of Jesus to bring us an experience of God that promises to transform all of us.
Maybe that’s all the inspiration we can handle and maybe it’s all that we need. These few short verses have inspired stirring music, a powerful film and a cultural vision of a country transformed into a better place.
They have given us the words to imagine ourselves, supported by divine strength as we wrestle with the challenges of life; and we are shown the possibility that we humans are not limited by our mortal flesh but that we are touched by the divine and have the spiritual opportunity to grow closer and closer to the unimaginable wonder that is our creator.
That inspiration has fired the imagination of William Blake and countless other artists. Let’s see what we can accomplish when we let these stories of people transformed by God transform our hearts and minds and inspire our dreams.