A sermon given on The Third Sunday After Pentecost at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Choral Eucharist, by The Right Rev’d John Stead, Bishop of Willochra.
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
1 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
Imagine that you have reached the end of your career. You reflect back on the years of service, the surprising interventions and chance encounters that set you on a particular path. The successes, and the occasions when you, at the least, believed that you had failed. This time of reflection is inevitably interrupted by the demands of transition, of succession planning – what needs to be finished, how best to prepare for the next person who will take on the role you are relinquishing, and if that person is already known how do you prepare them for what is to come without interfering? Recollections of the responsibility, the joys, and the sadnesses.
How many of you are sitting there thinking to yourself that I’m speaking about my own immediate experience. Well, maybe I am; but maybe I’m not! Maybe it is more a reflection that impacts each and everyone of us at some point; maybe at many points through our life time.
A few weeks ago when I read the readings set for today, and in particular the reading from the Second Book of Kings, I thought what a God send!
The Elijah cycle in the first and second book of Kings, reaches its culmination in the recount of the events in this reading. To some degree it is an epilogue and follows on from God’s redirection of Elijah’s ministry on Mount Horeb, last Sunday’s reading.
This is a story about succession, about the transition from one leader to another. Elijah is accompanied by an apprentice, Elisha. Elijah in First Kings 19:19-20 has already chosen Elisha by throwing his mantle over him – he has been picked by Elijah and by God, there appears to be a mutual understanding that Elisha will succeed Elijah – that, quite literally the mantel which was once thrown over him will pass into Elisha’s possession, and he shall be prophet. It’s interesting to note how some Biblical phrases have come into common usage – ‘the passing of the mantle’ is one.
There are three parts to this recount, the first is when Elisha refuses, for the first time to depart from Elijah as they head to Bethel from Gilgal. Elisha responds to Elijah’s instruction for him to stay behind with: “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”.
The second occurs as Elijah sets his sights on traveling to the Jordan and directs Elisha to stay behind, again Elisha says: “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Somehow Elisha anticipates that something significant is going to happen. His loyalty toward Elijah keeps him close; maybe his sense that what he does in these moments will make all the difference – not because he wants what Elijah had, for himself but because he has learnt about service, of being at the service of God as God’s mouth piece – God’s prophet. No one in their right mind would want the role unless they had a deep sense of responding to the call of God to serve.
We, of course, already know what is going to happen, we’ve been told that God will take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind.
The third part occurs at the Jordan and is witnessed by fifty men of the company of prophets. Elijah, using his mantle, which he rolls up strikes the water of the Jordan and the waters part – Elijah and Elisha cross the river on dry ground. Echoes of other water crossings on dry land – of the Red Sea and the Jordan when Israel came into possession of the Promised Land. A crossing from one state of being into another – this symbolism is echoed in our baptismal liturgies – through water we pass from one way of living to new life! Everything changes as a consequence!
Elijah’s final question to Elisha is, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha replies, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah says, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”. A transactional element enters into the relationship in this exchange whereas previously the exchanges are solely relational.
A scene unfolds which has inspired artists to represent the ascension of Elijah. It unfolds before Elijah’s eyes eliciting the cry “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”. The drama of the succession of Elisha is completed when he takes up Elijah’s mantle, which is now his, rolls it and strikes the water of the Jordan – and it parts. The transfer of role, of power, and of the prophetic task is complete. This demonstrates that the power of God exercised through the prophet can be transferred.
While the Service of Farewell and the Laying Up of the Pastoral Staff of the Diocese of Willochra on Saturday 2 July involves succession and transfer of role I doubt that it’s going to be quiet as dramatic as the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha. I will not be attempting to part the waters of Spencer Gulf! And, I’d rather not be transported into heaven in a whirlwind.
This passage tells us of the not knowing of these significant events – Elijah doesn’t know whether Elisha will inherit the mantel. Elisha, sensing that something is happening but not knowing what it is chooses to stay with Elijah even when instructed not to. Elisha request a double share of the Spirit but does not know if he will receive it, …until he strikes the Jordan with the mantel and the waters part; there is risk here – what if they don’t part?
Not knowing is part and parcel of discerning God’s will. By embracing the ambiguity of a situation, the lack of certainty, we can journey toward what will emerge – we discern in action, by taking agency in the given situation. God does not impose but utilises our actions to reveal more of God’s purpose for us. Each situation is not only about the immediate purpose of God – but it uses what has happened and prepares us for what will happen.
Our desire is to have certainty and security – but sometimes we have to let go of them to follow where God would lead the way.
Elisha demonstrates for us the requirement to seek critical distance from our own interests – to grapple with uncertainty, to strive to forward God’s purpose.
Elisha is selfless in sticking with Elijah. He seeks after what God wants for him rather than what he wants for himself – he seeks the tools, the authority, and the authorisation to do what God wants him to do – in his case to be a prophet.