A sermon preached on 1Kings and 2Kings, at Wabash Church of the Brethren in Indiana, June 26, 2016.
Sometimes in these scriptures, I find myself caught up in the whole sweep of the stories and the depth and quirks of the characters. This week as I was preparing this sermon, as I looked for the good news of the passage, I was enthralled. So this morning, I just want to tell the story, with some of my own interpretations and inferences thrown in for free.
Some of you may have heard it before, and most of you know the characters. But this morning, as you hear it, I invite you to imagine yourself somewhere in the story – maybe as one of the characters, perhaps as a bystander. And I invite you to listen for the way God is speaking into your life through this story.
This is one of the beautiful things about good stories – they meet us where we are, no matter how many times we hear them. And each of us can find ourselves in the midst of them, can hear the voice of God in a way unique to us. Settle in, and let me tell you a story.
Elijah was very discouraged. He had been prophesying drought and destruction to kings and sponsoring contests between Yahweh and Baal. He’d been doing just what God asked of him, but he was getting in trouble. Kings don’t like to be shown up. Jezebel had just declared that she and all her men would be hunting him down.
He believed in God’s word and work. He’d seen it so many times. He had lived into his name: “Yahweh is my God and my strength” And he knew these would be the realities of being a prophet when he got into it. But none of that changed the fact that he felt utterly alone and simply exhausted.
Perhaps his favorite work God had called him to was feeding a widow and her son who were close to starving. The drought Elijah had foretold was meant for the kings but it was hurting the poor. Elijah had a keen sense of compassion for the poor. So Elijah spoke, God worked, and the widow’s oil and flour did not run out.
But even then, things had gone wrong and the boy had died. God raised the son back to life through Elijah, and ever since then, Elijah had been especially aware of both the power of God and the fragility of life.
So he sat down under a tree in the desert and said, “Enough now, God. I’m done.” He didn’t eat or drink, he just slept. An angel came and woke him and pushed him on to the mountain of Horeb, where God came to him. After wind and fire and earthquake, God came in utter silence. How Elijah had longed to see God, to be face to face with the one whose voice he had followed for so long. God allowed him a glimpse of God’s self, but only God’s back.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“I’m alone, the only true prophet in Israel. And I’m tired, God. The powerful people you keep telling me to chastise, God, they’ve had everyone else killed and now they’re after me. That’s what I’m doing in this cave…”
God gave Elijah the task of appointing two kings and then told him to appoint his successor. Perhaps Elijah grumbled and hurrumphed down the mountain, God having given him yet another task when he said he was done. Perhaps Elijah skipped down the mountain, thinking of the things he would do in his prophetic retirement.
When Elijah got to the field where Elisha was plowing with 12 yokes of oxen, maybe he grumbled at the youth of the boy. What was he doing in the field with 24 oxen!? Or maybe he just felt relief. Whatever he was feeling, he evidently threw his cloak over Elisha and without saying anything, just kept walking.
Elisha had heard of this man. He was a local hero, though he was elusive and hairy and not the kind of man anyone would spend much time with. Elisha knew of the way he told off the kings and fed the hungry. People called him “man of God” and believed that he was a political power broker between heaven and earth. For a power broker, he was no smooth talker, but Elisha had perhaps admired the way that he spoke truth to power – the way that he put kings in their place no matter how dangerous that was.
It probably took Elisha a moment to figure out what was going on. Minding his own business and concentrated on fieldwork, it took a moment to realize that this mantle was not just a piece of clothing – it was a calling. He ran after Elijah and said, “Let me say goodbye to my family and then I will follow you.” I imagine Elijah shrugging and grunting before he says, “Go back, for what have I done to you?” If Elisha was like me, he said, “huh? Uh… okay… see you in a bit.”
Elisha went back to his family, had a feast, said goodbye, gave up all the tools of his trade, and became Elijah’s servant. They traveled and worked together for quite a while. Elisha watched his mentor stand straight in the halls of power and accuse the king of murder for selfish ends. Elisha was there when the king’s men came to arrest his mentor for foretelling the king’s death. Twice, Elijah called down God’s fire to consume the 50 men who had come. The third time, the regiment begged for mercy and Elijah showed mercy.
And I imagine many other things Elisha learned and Elijah taught. After all, Elijah loved Yahweh and loved the people of Israel. He wanted there to be a prophet after him to speak the word of the Lord when no one wanted to listen. His compassion for the poor meant that the ministries he had started, he needed to leave to someone. Elisha sat at his feet, walked roads alongside him, watched and learned, absorbing as much as he could. The people needed a prophet among them, and God had, in Elisha, declared his intention that they should always have a prophet among them. There would be someone to take up Elijah’s work, and I imagine this was bittersweet for Elijah.
And then one day, Elijah knew he was done. It was time for God to call him away.
The two of them traveled together to Bethel. There Elijah told Elisha to stay because God had called him on to Jericho. Elisha, though he was technically a servant, had learned to love this man as a father and teacher, so he refused to stay.
The two of them traveled together to Jericho. There Elijah told Elisha to stay because God had called him on to the Jordan River. Elisha, though he did not know what to expect, had learned to follow this prophet and trust his hearing of the voice of the Lord. So he went on with Elijah.
The two of them traveled together to the Jordan River. There Elijah told Elisha to stay because God had called him to cross over. Elisha, though he was not sure he could stand Elijah being taken away from him, had learned to trust the will of God. So he went on with Elijah.
Elijah took his cloak, the one he had thrown on Elisha on that first day they met, rolled it up and hit the water. And as the Red Sea did for Moses and the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, the Jordan River parted and they walked through on dry land.
Elijah looked at his successor, this young adult who had become a man before his eyes. Elijah thought of all the things he had handed down, of all the hopes he had for the people of Israel – hopes he would now be placing in Elisha’s hands. Elijah thought of all the struggles and joys of being a prophet – struggles and joys that Elisha would now face without him. And Elijah thought of the faithfulness of God, a God who would not leave his beloved people without a prophet to speak God’s will to them.
“What do you want from me before I leave, Elisha?”
“I want a double share of your spirit,” Elisha said. “I want to be more than a servant to you, I want to be your firstborn son. I want to inherit a double portion of the life you have lived. I want your spirit to live on in this world through me.”
“What you ask is hard,” Elijah replied. Elijah knew that it is only God who can grant such inheritance, but he was glad his son asked. Being a prophet will be hard for Elisha. Being a prophet requires being able to see God’s work everywhere, even in the midst of difficulty and loss. So Elisha needed to pass one last test, to learn one last thing, in order to truly take up the mantle. The one thing Elijah most wanted to teach him… the vision to see God.
“If you see me go up, Elisha, you will inherit my spirit as my son. If you do not, you will not.”
They kept walking and talking, waiting for God. And suddenly, they were separated by fire, chariots and horses of fire. Elijah was carried up to God before Elisha’s eyes. The company of prophets on the bank of the Jordan could not see this, but Elisha could. His gaze was steady, even while his heart was pounding. “I see it, Father! God’s horses and chariots!” Even in this parting, holiness was all around.
He watched until he could not see his teacher anymore. And then he sank to the ground and tore his clothes in grief. The mantle was in the dust. After a while, Elisha rose, picked up the mantle and went back to the Jordan River. He rolled up the mantle and asked “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” as he hit the water. As it had for Elijah, the water parted. And as Joshua had crossed the Jordan River, entering the promised land without Moses, Elisha crossed back over and traveled to Jericho.
Other prophets wanted to look for Elijah. He let them, but he knew that his master was gone. When they did not find him, they were disappointed but he was not surprised. Elijah’s spirit rested on Elisha, though, and that was enough for now.
Not sure what to do next, or maybe very clear that following the old paths was the call of God, Elisha retraced the steps of his beloved teacher – to Jericho, to Bethel, to Mt Carmel, and to Samaria. He followed the footsteps and carried the vision of Elijah.
But he was different. Elijah’s love of the poor and help of the hungry found even more expression in Elisha. There were new challenges to face, new kings to call to right living. Elisha would have a long prophetic career filled with comforting the lowly and challenging the powerful. And at the end of his life, King Joash would call him “father” as he had called Elijah “father.”
Elisha’s name means “my God is salvation.” Through Elijah, God had spoken to the world of his sovereignty and strength. Through Elisha, God would speak to the world of his salvation.
But through every age, the people of God would have prophets. Prophets who would speak truth to power. Prophets who would have the vision to see the touch of God in the face of what seems to be God’s absence. Prophets who would love the people enough to intercede for them.
So even in the midst of the loss of Elijah, even in the uncertainty of the new form Elisha’s ministry would take, Elisha walked with a double share of the spirit of Elijah, and Elisha knew that God is faithful.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make is face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.