The prophet Elijah is one of the great figures of the Bible, and straddles both the Old and New Testaments. In our first reading today from the Book of Sirach, we have this great paeon of praise for Elijah: ‘How glorious you are Elijah in your wondrous deeds’. There is also a profound hope that he would come again, to prepare the way of the Lord. This hope grows through the Hebrew scriptures, and culminates in the very last verses of the Old Testament, in the Book of Malachi: ‘Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.’ And to this day, when Jewish families celebrate Passover, they leave a place at the table for Elijah, and at one point a son goes to the front door to see if Elijah has come.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples Peter, James and John are coming down the mountain having just experienced the glorious Transfiguration of Jesus. At the Transfiguration they saw Elijah, as well as Moses, who were talking with Jesus. As the disciples walked down the mountain they questioned Jesus about Elijah. They wanted to know why Elijah had not come earlier, as promised in scripture, preceding the coming of Jesus. Jesus told them that Elijah had already come, but that people did not recognize him. ‘Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.’ John came preaching repentance and prepared the way for the promised Messiah. In this way, he was fulfilling the role of Elijah, but the religious leaders simply did not recognize him. They did not recognize him. The scriptures are full of this theme of failing to recognize the one who is in their midst; of not truly seeing; of spiritual blindness. Of course, Jesus’ enemies did not recognize who he was. Remember all those chapters in John’s Gospel, where the Pharisees keep asking him hostile questions about his identity. ‘Where are you from? Who is your family? How do you know so much – you’ve never been taught. You are not yet fifty; how have you seen Abraham?’ Finally, in chapter 8: 25 in exasperation, ‘Who are you?’ as the prologue to John puts it, ‘He was in the world, yet the world did not know him,’
But it was not just his enemies. Even his dear friends, after the Resurrection, did not recognize him. Mary Magdalene in the garden thought he was the gardener. His disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee did not recognize the stranger on the shore. On the Road to Emmaus, as his friends spoke to him, they did not recognize that it was Jesus. They did not recognize Elijah or John the Baptist when they came. They did not recognize Jesus. But what about you and me? Do we always recognize Jesus when he comes to us? During this Advent season I am sure many of us are hoping, expecting, longing, to come to know Jesus in a new and wonderful way. What may be getting in the way of recognizing his presence in our lives?
I particularly love the story of the Road to Emmaus, because it is all about recognizing and not recognizing. Why on earth didn’t they recognize Jesus? It was a long walk and they must have been with him a long time. I think firstly, it is because they were not expecting him. They thought he was dead. Advent is a great time for us to renew our longing, our expectancy to see Jesus. ‘Come thou long expected Jesus.’ Help me to know your presence in my life, now. Secondly, they did not recognize Jesus because they were preoccupied. Their hearts and minds were full of questions, worries, sadness, fear and anxiety. Advent is an invitation to let go of our busy, non-stop preoccupations; to empty ourselves and make space for silence, for listening, for waiting, for prayer. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Then thirdly, it was only when they had invited Jesus into their home, to eat with them, it was only then, as he broke bread with them, did they recognize him.
So perhaps, this Advent may be a precious opportunity to invite Jesus again into the home of our hearts, that we may know him in a new and wonderful way. Perhaps Jesus is longing to be invited. ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you and you with me.’
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