Grace Presbyterian Church
June 26, 2022, Pentecost 4C
Don’t Look Away
When last we left Elijah, the prophet had just been rebuked (mildly, to say the least) by the Lord for his pronounced myopia and “I alone am left” whine, not least by being ordered by God to go anoint his successor, a man named Elisha who at the time was apparently living with his parents tending their fields and livestock. Whether enthusiastically or not (after all, we don’t know if Elijah even knew Elisha at this point), Elijah at least obeyed that command by throwing his cloak at him, upon which Elisha left the farm and family (slaughtering twenty-four oxen on his way out and giving the meat as a feast for the locals) to follow Elijah. Elijah did have a couple more prophetic encounters left in him, including his dramatic condemnation of King Ahab over his theft of the vineyard of a neighbor and one more destructive conflict with Ahab’s successor, Ahaziah. By the time we get to today’s reading, though, Elijah’s time is up, and Elisha seems to know it.
Our narrator certainly knows it, and is almost blasé about it at the beginning of our reading. How often do you see a sentence that begins “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” and continues in blasé fashion about Elijah and Elisha’s journey? I suppose after all the over-the-top things that have happened in Elijah’s term on earth, one more crazy thing doesn’t seem like much, but we are talking about a man who is going to be gathered up by a chariot of fire and whisked away. That seems worth a little bit of excitement. At any rate, it seems like everybody, including Elisha, knows that something extraordinary is about to happen.
And if he didn’t know it, there were plenty of others along the way to clue him in on the subject. As they travel, they encounter companies of prophets, (more refutation of Elijah’s “I alone am left” ranting) and in each case members of those prophet groups take Elisha aside and say “you know he’s going away, don’t you?” and each time Elisha responds “yeah, yeah, I know, just hush” and determinedly plugs along with Elijah, even though Elijah keeps trying to put him off as well.
Remember, Elisha hasn’t really been the prophet yet. He has so far been functioning like an understudy, or perhaps like an Assistant Prophet of Yahwistic Theology still awaiting tenure. Even though God specifically commanded Elijah to go anoint Elisha as his successor, it’s not even clear that Elisha was a prophet at all before Elijah showed up and ordained him, so to speak. At the end of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah comes to anoint him, Elisha was plowing in the fields (his parents’ fields, evidently) with twelve yoke of oxen. And before following Elijah, Elisha wants to return home to say goodbye to mom and dad and to slaughter those oxen for a great feast. Doesn’t sound much like a prophet in the making, and his name doesn’t appear again in the Kings narrative until today’s reading, and yet here Elisha is, doggedly following his apparent prophetic mentor to the last.
And this most likely wasn’t an easy life for which he was signing up. You might remember the gospel reading for today, in which Jesus warns those who say they want to follow him. “Nowhere to lay his head.” For that matter, no turning back – sounds like Jesus would have been less inclined to indulge Elisha’s wish to say goodbye to his parents and throw that going-away party. This is not a glamorous life. We have elevated these characters from the Bible to the status of heroes, but that wasn’t necessarily how they experienced life. It wasn’t easy, particularly when you had an angry king and queen hounding you as did Elijah. But, still, Elisha was there, following Elijah to the end.
So, let’s follow what he sees.
With some of those other prophets following at a distance, Elijah and Elisha come to the Jordan River. Ii isn’t one of the Great Rivers of the World, but it’s not small. One doesn’t just wade across it, or swim across for that matter. Elisha watches as Elijah takes his mantle (the same one he had wrapped around his face on Horeb the mount of God, at the “sound of sheer silence”) and rolls it up to strike the water, and the water parts. No doubt Elisha and the others recall the Hebrew people crossing the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership as they finally approached their promised land after years in the wilderness. Elijah and Elisha cross, as the other prophets watch.
Finally Elijah gives up and asks Elisha what he wants. What do you say in such a situation? Many years before, the newly elevated king Solomon was asked this question by no less than God and had chosen to ask for wisdom. Here Elisha, asked by his prophetic mentor, chooses to ask for what he sees in Elijah, only more. Given what we’ve seen of Elijah this might seem a truly frightening prospect, but Elisha nonetheless sees in Elijah what he needs to step into his call. Except he doesn’t just ask for it, he asks for a “double portion,” language that recalls the share of an inheritance typically bequeathed to an eldest son. He asks for more, for beyond. What makes a “double portion”? Is it more power, more ability to do great feats, more discernment about God’s call to a prophet? We don’t get an explanation. Nonetheless Elijah allows that Elisha’s request will be granted, but only if Elisha sees Elijah is he is taken away.
In other words, don’t look away at all. Don’t even blink. And certainly don’t look down at your cell phone. No pressure there, right?
And yet Elisha, determined as ever to fulfill this call he never expected, manages to keep his eyes on Elijah, until the fiery chariot and whirlwind sweep him away, finally fading from sight.
In a story like this one, with some utterly fantastic elements and a setting clearly unlike anything we will ever know, it can be difficult to relate. Chariots of Fire is a movie about Olympic runners, not something we actually expect to see in real life. But Elisha does show us something we need to see, something we can in fact learn from even in our own very different modern times.
Elisha is wise enough to seek what his mentor had. It’s not that we need to think Elisha saw Elijah as perfect. We’ve seen the ways in which Elijah’s zeal sometimes outstripped his willingness to rely on God’s leading. And yet for all his excess, Elijah was still in touch with God, still a servant of Yahweh, and Elisha knew he needed that if he were to step into Elijah’s prophetic office.
But even at the same time he asked for Elijah’s blessing, he knew that wasn’t enough. He needed more. Elijah’s world was already shifting away. Ahab was no longer on the scene, and even his successor Ahaziah’s reign was short-lived. Israel would be challenged by different enemies. Elijah’s way wasn’t going to be sufficient. Elisha’s prophetic ministry was going to be a different one than Elijah’s, and in his request he was wise enough to grasp that.
We can learn from this. We, the modern church here in Gainesville and around the world, cannot cavalierly dispense with the foundation that our ancestors in the faith have built. It is not perfect. It is not foolproof. We as Christ’s church in God’s world have failed too many times in too many places in too many cases to think we’ve ever been perfect. We’ve endorsed too many evils in the name of our convenience or our status in society. We managed to read the Bible in such a way that we decided keeping slaves was o.k., for perhaps the most egregious example. That’s in our history.
But still, flawed as those saints may have been, they are the ones who have built the foundation on which we stand, and we cannot dispense with that. Neither, however, can we be bound to it or limited to it.
The church of the nineteenth century was not sufficient to witness to the world of the twentieth century, and neither would the twentieth-century church ever be the church that successfully witnesses to the world of the twenty-first century. Just try telling someone they ought to be in church. They’ll ask you “why?” point blank, as if you had suggested they should sprout horns. And if you don’t have a real, honest, authentic answer, you’ve lost them, probably for good. We don’t get to throw open the doors and just expect them to come. Doesn’t work.
We need more. We need things we’ve never understood before. Our challenges are different than those our fathers and mothers, or grandmothers and grandfathers, or any of the generations before us ever faced, and we need to be equipped and prepared to witness to unchanging truth in an ever-changing world.
Elisha did indeed step into Elijah’s prophetic call. Yet his prophetic ministry would be quite different from Elijah’s. No rash challenges to a horde of Baal prophets, no running from Israel to Sinai. And mind you, his own prophetic career wasn’t free of fits of wrath; only a few verses after this story, Elisha curses a bunch of unruly boys basically for calling him “Baldy,” and a bear comes out of the woods and mauls them. And yet his work would see healings, health restored to barren and poisoned lands and wells, and even a powerful foreign general converted to the worship of Yahweh. Not bad.
Can we as a church, both local and universal, rise to that challenge? Can we be a church that witnesses to the eternal in an age like none we’ve known before? Can we speak truth, bear witness, tell good news to a world or a country or a city that is dramatically different that the one in which we grew up?
We would do well indeed to ask for a double portion of the Spirit. Just be careful what you ask for.
For the audacity and the persistence of Elisha, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless indicated): #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord; #—, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)