I Kings 13:14-21
The story of Elisha’s death is part of the story of the death of the kingdom of Israel. Even though the kingdom would hold on for a few more generations (more about that next week), there’s a sense of foreboding that comes with the way Elisha says, “Goodbye,” to King Joash.
Joash heard that Elisha was terminally ill, and he went to visit. He fell into tears, and spoke to him the same way that Elisha had cried out when Elijah was taken into heaven, using the same words:
“My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” [II Kings 13:14]
But Elisha is not swept up in a fiery chariot, and Joash is not the inheritor of his prophetic leadership. Instead, there is a scene where Elisha seems to be trying to pass his blessing along, as he places his hands on Joash’s and shoots what he calls “the Lord’s arrow of victory” [13:17], but then foretells that under Joash’s leadership it will turn out to be a limited victory, and that it is somehow Joash’s fault. [13:19]
What’s more, no sooner is Elisha buried than invaders from the land of Moab to the southeast begin what appear to become annual raids on Israel. During one of those raids, something truly strange happens.
“As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.” [II Kings 13:21]
Notice a couple of things about this. One was that this happened long enough after Elisha’s death that his body had turned to bones. Another was that this miracle was a one-time event; people didn’t start carrying their recently-deceased Aunt Esther or Uncle Jacob to Elisha’s tomb in expectation of revival. This wasn’t the discovery of a magic cure-all. It was a message from the Lord to Israel in the midst of their troubles: if they could touch the bones, the core, of what had held Elisha together, and gave him the strength to hold them together, then they would stand up again.
It was the same message that would come, much later, and in a similar way, when the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen to invaders, and even the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. The prophet Ezekiel had a vision:
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ … Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. …I shall put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’” [Ezekiel 37:1-3, 11-12, 14]
In time it did happen. The bare bones of the people, those who survived in captivity in Babylon and Persia and refugees who had fled to Egypt and into the Arabian desert, would in fact find their way back to the land and begin – painfully and against opposition, with some infighting and some fears, but steadily and surely – to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then they rebuilt their Temple.
It was during the same years that they took the words of promise that had been given to them by the prophets and the histories of their ancestors that had been written in books of Kings and in Chronicles of their reigns, along with the stories of their earliest forebears and the laws that they had lived by, and assembled the earliest versions of the scriptures. They reached out for contact with those who had pointed them to faith and to faithfulness. As a result, they stood on their feet again.
There would be more disasters, but they had been given tools to survive them. And anchored by the stories of God’s people and the words of the prophets, there grew an even wider hope. They heard the promise of a savior, and not just a hero like Samson, a king like David, a judge like Deborah, or a prophet like Jeremiah. This would be someone who would embody all the hopes and dreams not only of a nation but also of all human beings ever born.
Centuries later, some of the people who were steeped in those scriptures and anchored in the traditions and life of the people of Israel became convinced that that Savior had been born. They recorded their own accounts of the good news. They told how he had found them and invited them to go with him. They had watched him heal and raise the dead, they heard his teachings and saw the glory of God revealed in him when, transfigured, he spoke with Elijah and Moses. Then his followers watched him, like the entire kingdom of Israel, die at the hands of its own authorities and a foreign occupier. Once more, repeating the cycle, it was back to the graveyard, and he was hastily buried.
Only, when they went back to finish the burial properly, they found him – they thought – gone. That was when he spoke to one of them, who at first thought he was the gardener. Then he showed up inside a locked room where other followers were hiding in fear. He was spotted by two men walking on the road, who recognized him as he shared bread with them and then vanished. Another time he met his friends on the beach. Later on he spoke from heaven to a man named Saul who was on his way to arrest some of his followers in Damascus and turned his life around one-hundred and eighty degrees. To each of these people, one way or another, he brought new life and new hope. He lifted each of them up and set them back on their feet.
Yet all his people rise to find themselves right back in the world as it has been. The man who stepped out of Elisha’s grave still had to face the marauding parties that were attacking his land. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, went right into the arms of his grieving sisters. Thomas, who doubted Jesus’ resurrection at first, believed when he saw that Jesus’ wounds were real. To this day, the people he has given new life by his Spirit, find themselves challenged and put in the front lines where the power of God’s love and grace are most needed.
Fred Pratt Green wrote a hymn about that. Given new life through the savior who is the way, the truth, and the life, but faced with a world that leads people astray, teaches them to be content with lies, and to be satisfied with the world’s anger and resentment and violence, what do we do now?
“The church of Christ, in every age
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.
Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat,
and never live until they die.
Then let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ’s sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ’s humanity.”
We do what Jesus did, and trust. We live by faith. There a power that arises from weakness. It dies, and falls into the grave, and then it springs to its feet again, because on the edge of the loss of everything, we meet the life that has already overcome death. As Jesus taught, those who would find their life lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake, find it.