Exit, Stage Left
2 Kings 2:1-12. The Transfiguration of Our Lord.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts. (II VII) As You Like It
So says Shakespeare in As You Like It. But one player on this world stage made his exit and then waited for his entrance while many acts were completed. Elijah’s “exit stage left” was well cued. Poor Elisha was harangued with it. The sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” Elisha knew too well that his master and mentor, the prophet Elijah, must be taken from him, but he was in no mood to hear it. “Yes, I know it; keep quiet” (vv 3, 5).
Even more remarkable than the way his departure was heralded was the nature of his leaving. For perhaps only one man had previously left the world’s stage in a similar way before him, and only one since. Back in history, before history as we know it, there was a man named Enoch. Now while Genesis tells us of all his ancestors and descendants that so and so’s days were so many years and then he died, it does not say this of Enoch; rather, it says, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Gen 5:24). But all others died. That was the nature of their exit from the world’s stage. That will be our exit too, if the play still runs at the end of our days. But Elijah took his bow in a different way. “And as [he and Elisha] still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more” (vv 11–12a).
Elijah did not die, and his part on this stage was not yet finished. So while he was poised in the wings of the stage and dozens of generations came on to perform their own parts—while the monarchy of Israel rose and fell; while the kingdom divided and the people were scattered; while the Assyrians and Babylonians came and went; while Greece encroached and Rome overcame; while one prophet after another (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a full supporting cast) took center stage to deliver the lines prepared for them—Elijah was not forgotten. Although his leaving is recorded early in 2 Kings, still, even in Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament canon, in the last chapter, in the second to last verse, we are left with this reminder: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5).
Then there was much commotion on the world’s stage, but we cannot see the plot advancing for about 400 years—the intertestamental period. The author’s words are not heard, and the director’s hand is obscure. Until, way backstage, a player takes his place. He enters in the ordinary way, being born of a woman. This woman was uncommonly old when she bore him, it is true, and even before his birth, he made his first contribution. For while he was still growing in his mother’s womb, he suddenly perceived that the coming of the great Day of the Lord was very near, as near as his mother was to her cousin. And he leaped for joy. Later, he was driven to speak the divine lines which spoke of repentance and the kingdom of God. And it happened again: that same presence that had made him leap in the womb passed near him, and he called out, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). He dressed for his part, in camel’s hair and leather girdle, unmistakably the costume of Elijah. So people asked him, “Are you Elijah?” He said no and continued to speak as only a prophet can, to take his exit as prophets tend to do, prematurely and by violent hand.
But here is what you must know. What that sensitive soul felt from his mother’s womb, what he shouted about as the Lamb of God, what everything he ever said and did was getting ready for, was this: the author himself was taking the stage. From the beginning, the production had been ruined by the scandalous improvisations of every actor, their senseless and arrogant departures from the directions in God’s script. What was so beautifully conceived and written was unfolding as a shambles at the hands of its incompetent performers. “Get this sorted!” was the John’s message. “Straighten it out, because the one who is ‘the Author of life’ is visiting.”
Enter the Author of life, although he played his part with such conviction that he did not simply take the role of a fellow player; he emptied himself to become one, and did so in every particular—except he did not share their aberrant disregard of the directions scripted for them. Now he knows the plot better than any, he who responded at length to the one who came before him—the one who leaped for joy to feel his presence, who declared him to be the Lamb of God, and who prepared his way and died at the hand of a weak and incontinent wretch taking the part of a king. That one, the one who came before, whom they knew as John the Baptist, “That one,” said the Author of life, “if you are prepared to accept it, that one is Elijah who is to come.” Not, I think, Elijah called on from the wings for his reprise; no, that must wait just a few more months. But this one’s role was clear: he came on to cue the final act and to announce the arrival of the King and Lord and Savior in the costume of humanity and humility.
And finally, the wait for Elijah’s return was over. On a mountain. Peter, James, and John with Jesus. Enter Moses—the Lawgiver of old, the character who led his people from slavery, their guide and mediator with God. Enter Elijah. At last the prophet of old, the one who will be sent, before the final act. And Jesus for a moment de-masked, seen without the costume of his humility, outshining the sun, and overshadowed by the cloud of divine presence and the voice of his Father, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
And then, the most important thing of all: “And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only” (Mk 9:8). If the entrance of Moses and Elijah was important, their exit was more so. For their departure means that Law is over and prophecy is past, and truly God is doing a new thing. These were only temporary. “As for prophecies,” said St. Paul, “they will pass away” (1 Cor 13:8), and with Elijah we see their passing. As for the Law, “the law,” he says, “was our guardian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). The Law was never going to be the decisive thing on this great stage. So the guardian went, and with Moses we see its passing. Neither the prophetic words of the script, nor the directions of the Law instructing our performance, are the decisive twist. But the new thing is announced on the mountain of the transfiguration. As Law and prophet depart, “This is my beloved Son.”
And from there, the beloved Son, the Author of life, engaged in the great scene, as it happens, enacted at a place called the Place of a Skull, where he took his exit in grotesque suffering and abject humiliation, made infinitely more bitter because he carried no deficiency in his own performance, but shouldered that of every other twisted soul, right down to mine.
But the transfiguration hinted at something more. It was a glimpse of what was to come. Elijah waited for centuries before he was called back onstage; Jesus, only days. And just days after Good Friday, Peter, James, and John saw Jim again, having been killed in agony and shame, rising in triumph and in glory. And so Jesus remains, never to die again, and although he had to leave this stage again, as did Elijah, ascending to his Father, he will return for us.
And if it is so that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” as we have made our entrance on the same stage after all these things, what is our part? We have a role and a purpose, and it is this: In the words of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). There is a script, and that is our part in it, to live for the praise of his glory. “[He has made] known to us the mystery of his will,” it says, “according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9–10).
And when the time of our exit comes, there will be a place for us in his purpose and his will. It will not be, like Elijah, to walk again on this world and in this life, but to live for the praise of his glory, where he is forever. Amen.