II Kings 2:1-12
This morning I’m starting a sermon series on the Second Book of Kings. It isn’t exactly Game of Thrones, but it comes close to it sometimes, without the dragons. It describes the ups and downs of the Kingdom of Israel and some of the surrounding kingdoms over a period of generations, and uses as one of its main frameworks the life and career of the prophet Elisha.
It’s easy to confuse Elisha with his mentor, Elijah. It’s like being around here when David Bretzius, David Bryant, David Hayes, David Shaw, and David Stauffer are all taking part in Bible School with Kathy Hayes, Cathie Shaw, Cathie Yeagle, Karen Bretzius, Karen Stoltzfus, and Karen Kerwin. Elijah was the prophet who faced off against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and whom we hear about in today’s reading. Elisha is the one we’ll hear about in the coming weeks. Today we’ll consider the handoff between them.
Elijah at one point was told by God to find Elisha and let him know that he would be his successor [I Kings 19:16], which he did. He found Elisha just going about his business, plowing a field. In one of those dramatic gestures that prophets are so good at, he just walked up to him, threw his mantle – his cloak – over his shoulders and kept on walking. [I Kings 19:19-20] Elisha understood the symbolism, went home, threw a goodbye party with his family, and left to become an apprentice prophet.
Where we begin in the story today, though, is where the apprenticeship comes to an end. It seems to have been common knowledge, at least in prophetic circles, that Elijah’s time was just about up. We have this great opening sentence:
“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” [II Kings 2:1]
Elisha was not ready to leave him, or to let Elijah leave. The other prophets kept raising the issue with him, and he didn’t want to hear anything about it from them. When Elijah brought it up, Elisha refused to say goodbye.
“As the Lord lives,” he said to him, “and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” [II Kings 2:6]
Elijah tried to wind things up the best that he could, asking one of those open-ended questions that can get to the heart of things. And he got an honest answer about what was going on with Elisha. It wasn’t just that he was losing a teacher and a friend, but that he wasn’t sure that he would be ready to carry on the work that Elijah had dragged him into.
“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.’” [II Kings 2:9]
Elijah wanted to give him that confidence, but what he had done all along, throughout his life, had not been done under his own steam. It had been the power of God that had supported him, and it would have to be the same helper who would be with Elisha. The choice would be God’s.
“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.” [II Kings 2:10]
Right here lies the source of Elisha’s effectiveness as a prophet. Right here is a crucial element in the character of anyone who is going to be a leader in any situation – at work, in the community, in church, in the military, wherever. It’s called “humility”. It’s an openness to self-criticism, maybe, but certainly to hearing the advice of others, but above all the advice and guidance of the Spirit of the Lord.
Go through the Bible and time and time again you will see these elements come together: God calls someone, they question their fitness, God promises to empower them for the task, and together they see it through.
At the burning bush, God told Moses what to do: go back to Egypt, find the pharaoh, and tell him, “Let my people go.” Moses, of course, said, “Sure. No problem. Give me a couple of days and I’ll be right back out here in the desert again, with the livestock.” Right? No. He made excuses and hemmed and hawed.
“Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” [Exodus 6:30]
So God sent Moses’ brother Aaron along with him to be his mouthpiece, and they worked as a team. Actually, when you look at Moses’ life, he almost always had somebody working alongside him. If it wasn’t Aaron, it was Joshua, who would take over from him like Elisha eventually took over from Elijah.
The prophet Isaiah also questioned himself when God called him. Like Moses, he put things in terms of his speech and, by extension, his conduct, but he was really going deeper and saying he was just plain unworthy. “Woe is me!” he said,
“I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” [Isaiah 6:5]
God’s response was to grant him a vision of an angel putting a burning coal against his unclean lips, as if to burn off the wrong.
“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” [Isaiah 6:7]
Then God gave him a message to deliver and said, “Go!”
It was the same for Elisha, I suspect. Travel around with a great and faithful prophet like Elijah for long enough, and maybe you’ll grow to be more and more in awe at what you see happen. You could develop a sense of your own smallness beside someone like that, and maybe that is a good thing if you can also see clearly that the people through whom the Lord does great things are still people, like anybody else. Hold onto the awareness that it was not Elijah that did wonderful things and it was not his own word that he spoke, but the word of the Lord. It was not Moses who parted the Red Sea, but God. It was not Isaiah who gave a suffering people hope of redemption, but the same God who would redeem them.
So when the time came, and God gathered Elijah up to heaven in the most miraculous way, Elisha found Elijah’s mantle left behind, the mantle that had been tossed over his own shoulders when he was first drafted.
“He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’” [II Kings 2:13-14]
He didn’t look for Elijah anymore, but for Elijah’s God. I should say “his own God”, too, because that is the whole point of the prophetic call. It is for people to know that God is alive and present and involved in the nitty-gritty of daily life. God cares what we do and what we feel. God wants us to hope his hopes and dream his dreams. God wants us to forgive as we are forgiven, and to love as he first loved us.
Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah. When he reached the Jordan, he bent over, holding it out as Elijah had done. He
“struck the water, saying, ‘Where is 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.” [II Kings 2:14]
Then the work began.
God is calling you for something. God is calling all his people. Do I know what each precise task is? No. But there is some word to speak, some kindness to show. Are you up to it? No. None of us is. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what grace is about. None of us is in any place to speak, let alone act. But God has provided us with complete pardon through Jesus, the kind of pardon that frees us up to live in better ways and beyond that to move the world toward a better situation because we aren’t (I pray) doing it for ourselves or under our own power.
Just keep asking, “Where is the God of Elijah?”