Sunday, June 27, 2010

Where Is the Lord, the God of Elijah? (2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14)

Ah, the handoff. In my denomination, it happens pretty often, as pastors may move every few years and have the job of preparing the way for their successors.

And the successors have the job of learning the new path they're following. They chart some of it with their own dreams and vision and some of it by looking at what path has been followed before their arrival. And of course, they depend on God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The handoff between Elijah and Elisha is less formalized. Elisha has been Elijah's apprentice and student for awhile now, and the older prophet knows the time is coming for his work to be finished. At first he tries to make his leaving a solitary affair, directing Elisha to remain behind while he travels to whatever place the Lord has decided to lift him up from. But Elisha will have none of that and proclaims his loyalty and devotion to his mentor by saying he will not leave Elijah while either the Lord or Elisha himself are still living. That's an elaborate way of saying "Never," if you're curious.

What, then, would you have me leave you, Elijah asks. A double portion of your spirit, Elisha answers. Elijah warns his student that he's asked a hard thing. In fact, Elijah says, such a gift is not actually his to give, but God's. If Elisha can see Elijah taken up into the heavens, then he will know God has granted his request.

At the river, Elijah strikes the water with his mantle and it parts on either side, a sign of his status as a true prophet of God. God used Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea for the Hebrews to cross safely and later the waters of the river Jordan parted to let the Israelites cross into the promised land under Joshua. The miracle lets everyone know that the one working it does the work of God, listening to him as did Moses and Joshua.

Those men had been spiritual and political leaders of Israel, but since the time of Samuel the roles had separated. The kings were the political rulers and prophets tried to lead spiritually, even though the people tended to drift away from pure devotion to God. It was easy to tell who the king was, but it wasn't always easy to tell who the true prophets were. Anyone could say they were speaking for God like Moses had or like Joshua had, but how were the people to know? Elijah's dry-footed crossing of the Jordan was one proof that he was the real deal.

And then Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind, which seems to Elisha to be like fiery chariots and horses in the sky. The very mantle that struck the Jordan river falls to the ground at Elisha's feet where he stands. He has torn his clothes in the ancient symbol of grief at losing the mentor and teacher he loves. He picks up the mantle and starts his journey back. He saw a great vision, yes, but was it what Elijah had meant? Would he receive the spirit of a prophet, to speak God's word and do God's work in Israel? God was with Elijah, but would God be with Elisha in the same way? There are the fifty from the company of the prophets, watching and waiting. Two men crossed the Jordan, but only one returns. What happened to the other? This man wears the mantle, but is he a real prophet or just dressed up like one? And he comes to the river.

Recently at a local pastor's school I helped evaluate and respond to several people who were training for their local pastor's licenses. Among them was a woman who had been married to a preacher in our denomination. About a year or so ago, he came inside their house and said a wasp had stung him while he was mowing the lawn, and a few minutes later he collapsed, dead. She has had to raise their special needs son by herself as well as deal with the grief of losing her husband. At some point along the way, she decided she too was called to the ministry and is now training to serve churches herself. In her sermon, she said how she understood God was never far away from her and how moving on on in life after her husband's death and even hearing and answering a call to ministry would have been impossible without God's presence.

I knew her husband, and he never would have called himself Elijah in a million years. But this woman's awareness of and faith in the presence of God is the same faith upon which Elisha called when he approached the river. Aloud, he asked the question that he knew the fifty would ask, the question that everyone who saw or heard him would ask, the question that he probably had to admit to himself that even he would ask if he were one of them.

"Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?"

He answered his own question, though not with words but with action. With his mantle rolled up and striking the water, dividing it to one side and to the other, he proclaimed to all who could see and understand:

"Right here!"

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