Friday, July 12, 2013

“Elijah and Elisha: Taking Up the Mantle” - July 14, 2013

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-13, Galatians 5:1, 13-25

I had not been in town long when I heard about Rev. Plummer.  Ken Plummer had been pastor at the Methodist church in town for 40 years.  Forty years!  That is a long time for anybody to be pastor of the same church and absolutely unheard-of for a Methodist in a small-town church, as they are generally moved to a new parish every few years.

When you are pastor for forty years in the same place, you can’t help but make your mark.  Rev. Plummer’s influence was felt in the entire community.

Rev. Plummer died before I moved to town.  He had retired several years before that, but even in retirement, he still did a lot of weddings and funerals, still was active in Rotary, still very influential in the community.

In this small town, other than the principal or school superintendent or high school basketball or football coach, the pastor of the Methodist church had perhaps the most public, high-profile job.  It was the biggest church in town, with a lot of business people and community leaders.

Ken Plummer was a tough act to follow, made even harder by the fact that he was still around, serving as supply preacher or interim pastor for any church that needed it.  The fact that he did interims was ironic in that Methodists don’t generally have interim pastors themselves.  One minister leaves and the district superintendent immediately sends another.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  Methodists generally don’t officially have interim pastors.  While his title wasn't Interim Pastor, the poor guy who followed Ken Plummer was an interim pastor, make no mistake about it.  There was no way he could follow a living legend. 

When I arrived in town, Ken Plummer had been dead for a few years and retired several years before that, but he still influenced the town.  Shortly after I arrived, a member of our church died.  He had not been an active member for some time, and I had not yet met him.  The family asked the Methodist pastor to do the service.  They didn’t know the Methodist pastor either, but they asked him to do the funeral because everybody liked Rev. Plummer so much.  Never mind that the Methodists were now on their third pastor since Rev. Plummer.

Some people can be a tough act to follow.  The prophet Elijah would definitely fall into that category.  Elijah would out-Plummer Kenneth Plummer.  People remembered his exploits, like the time that he defeated the hundreds of prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, calling down fire from heaven.

People remembered things like that.  Elijah was considered the greatest prophet ever.  Oh, he wasn’t perfect, far from it, but all in all, he had been a towering figure.  At the Passover meal, Jews would come to set an extra place at the table for Elijah, because it is thought that he could turn up on Passover to announce the arrival of the Messiah.  It was Elijah, along with Moses, who appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

God had told Elijah to find Elisha, who would be his successor as the chief prophet.  In our scripture a couple of weeks ago, almost as an aside but in one of those foreshadowing moments, Elisha was out working in the fields, and Elijah walked by and threw his mantle—his cloak—over him.  Elijah just kept walking so Elisha had to run after him.  When all was said and done, Elisha became Elijah’s assistant, his apprentice.

In our text for today, we have come to the end of Elijah’s life.  King Ahab was now gone, having died in battle.  Queen Jezebel no longer ruled; she would suffer a violent death and the dogs would lick up her blood in the streets, just as Elijah had said.  Ahab’s son Ahaziah had succeeded him; he had a short and miserable reign and was followed by his brother Jehoram, who was only marginally better.  Elijah’s work really wasn’t finished, but then a prophet’s work is never done, and his time was passing.  He knew it, and Elisha knew it, and the rest of the company of prophets knew it.

Elijah sets out on a road trip.  Along the way, he keeps asking Elisha to stay as he travels on, but again and again Elisha says, “I will not leave you.”  Elisha just refused to leave him.

Why did Elijah want to travel on alone?  It’s hard to say.  Maybe he wanted to spare his young disciple the pain of goodbye.  Or maybe he wanted to spare himself.  But time and again, Elisha vows not to leave Elijah.

At the Jordan, Elijah takes his mantle, the one he had thrown over Elisha to anoint him as his successor, and rolls it up.  He strikes the water with it, and it parts, like Moses and the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.  They cross to the other side and find themselves alone.

Finally, Elijah speaks of what is coming.  “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you,” he says.

How would you answer a question like that?  What could have been going through Elisha’s head?  What does he need?  He needs to know that he can carry on, he needs to know that he is up to the task, he needs to know that he won’t fall on his face.  He needs to know how to be a leader, because until now he has been a follower. 

What he ends up asking for seems like a big request.  “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” he says.

Well, the mathematics of it makes sense.  Elisha feels he is half the man, half the prophet Elijah is, and so he will need a double portion of Elijah’s spirit just to break even.

Beyond that, there was the inheritance tradition of the culture where the eldest son would receive a double share of the inheritance.  If we think of the company of prophets as Elijah’s children, then for Elisha to receive a double inheritance of Elijah’s spirit would mean that Elisha was indeed recognized as Elijah’s eldest son and successor.

“You have asked a hard thing,” says Elijah, who apparently was given to understatement.  It was a hard thing for two reasons:  First, because Elijah did not have the power to grant Elisha’s request.  It was God’s decision.  God had told Elijah to anoint Elisha in the first place, and it was God who would confirm that choice, who would decide whether Elisha had proven worthy of the call.

And second, it was a hard thing because Elijah’s job was a difficult one.  The prophet’s job was to speak truth to power, and the powers did not always take kindly to this.  It could get a prophet in trouble.  It could be a lonely and very trying vocation.

Elijah gives a strange response: “If you see me as I am taken up from you, it will be granted; if not it will not.”  In advance, this makes no sense, but afterwards Elisha understands.

As they continue to walk and talk, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two and take Elijah away in a whirlwind.  When he could no longer see Elijah, Elisha tore his shirt in two in the traditional expression of mourning.

Seeing Elijah taken up in a chariot of fire brought it home to Elisha: now it was his turn.  Now it was up to him.  Now he was the prophet in Israel.  Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle.  Now he is the prophet in Israel.

If nothing else this morning, this scripture may help us to be a bit more Biblically literate.  There are so many expressions in our language that come from the Bible, and the origins of many of these expressions are understood by fewer and fewer people, because fewer and fewer people are familiar with scripture.  There was a movie a number of years back that I’m sure many of you have seen, “Chariots of Fire.” And there is this expression of “taking up the mantle.”  Now you know where they both come from.

Elijah has an intuitive sense of time.  He knows when the time is right; he knows when the time has come.
We are all like Elijah in that our time will come.  Chances are we will not be taken up in a chariot of fire, but our time will come.  Elijah does not fight it or deny it, but moves toward it.  Death comes for all of us, and we all do well not to deny it or refuse to face up to it.

We live in a death-denying culture; we don’t want to talk about it or think about it, but our fear of death can create barriers between us and loved ones.  Our denial of death can keep our focus away from God’s care that extends even beyond this life.

On the other hand, I have known folks advanced in years who have said something like, “I have lived a good life, God has blessed me, I’m ready to go, I don’t fear dying.”  Those who can say that have a peace about them that helps them to truly live all of their days.

While he knew his time had come, Elijah demonstrated a concern for Elisha, his son in the service of God and his successor as God’s prophet.  As he left this earth, he was still thinking of Elisha. 

We can learn something from Elijah, but many of us may relate to Elisha in feeling that we may not quite be up to the task before us. 

When my grandmother died, my mom and dad became the oldest generation in the family.  Now my mom’s brother and all of her cousins are gone, and 8 of my dad’s nine siblings are gone, so they are not just the oldest generation but pretty well the only ones of their generation left in the family.  Some of you have had that same experience.

Elijah was taken from Elisha.  Many of us know how that feels.  It may be expected or it may be unexpected, it may come after a long life or it may be when one dies far too young, but however it happens, it is never easy to lose one whom we love.

Elijah was taken up in the whirlwind, carried away by chariots of fire, and Elisha realized that now, it was up to him.  It was his turn.  It was his moment.  And after he can no longer see him, he takes up the mantle of Elijah.

There’s a story about a famous preacher who was a bit of a fraud, because the sermons were great but no one ever realized that in fact they’d all been written by the staff assistant.  Finally the assistant’s patience ran out, and one day the preacher was speaking to thousands of expectant listeners and at the bottom of page two read the stirring words, “And this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk…” only to turn to page three and see nothing but the words, “You’re on your own now.”

“You’re on your own now.”  That’s what Elisha felt the day Elijah departed to heaven.

But in the request that he made, and in God’s response, Elisha finds that he really isn’t alone.  God’s Spirit is with him, empowering him as it did Elijah.  And in a sense, in the training and the experiences and the memories and the tradition that Elijah had left to him – all represented by his mantle – Elijah was still present with Elisha.

We have all been blessed by those who have gone before us.  By grandparents, by parents, teachers, by friends, mentors, coaches.  In this church, we have been blessed by so many people who have shared their gifts.  Youth leaders and choir members, folks who have welcomed newcomers and kept up the facilities and cooked the dinners and provided spiritual leadership and shared a loving and caring presence.

Many of those folks are gone.  They are no longer with us.  We miss their gifts and their spirit, and things are never quite the same without them.  Yet by the way they have blessed us, they continue to have a positive impact on us long after they are gone. 

Elijah is gone, but the good news is, God raises up new leaders.  New teachers and friends and mentors and coaches.  God provides folks with skills and gifts and abilities and ideas.  God provides men and women who offer spiritual leadership and wisdom and discernment and enthusiasm and a loving presence.  And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about us.  I’m talking about you and me.  God has given us all the gifts that we need, and they can be found in this room.  It is time for us to take up the mantle. 

Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  As followers of Christ, we seek to open ourselves to God’s Spirit, which is made evident to us, as our scripture from Galatians tells us, in things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Elijah is no longer with us.  The prophets and leaders of old are gone.  But God is still here, ready to pour out the Spirit upon us, ready to bless us with good gifts.  And there is that mantle, just waiting to be taken up.

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