Pick Up the Mantle (Jun. 21-27)

Sunday, June 27
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Focus Theme
Pick Up the Mantle

Weekly Prayer
O God, you set us free in Jesus Christ with a power greater than all that would keep us captive. Grant that we might live gracefully in our freedom without selfishness or arrogance, and through love become slaves to the freedom of the gospel for the sake of your reign. Amen.

Focus Reading
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 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.

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. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 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.

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.” 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.” 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. 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.

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?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 with Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 or
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 with Psalm 16 and
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 and
Luke 9:51-62

Focus Questions

1. What do you think Elijah was feeling as he made his way toward the river Jordan?

2. What do leaders need today, in the church and in secular settings as well?

3. What do you need to follow God’s will for your life?

4. How do you discern what God wills for your life?

5. How do we participate with God in raising up leaders for the church?

Text for Meditation

Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah / that had fallen from him.

by Kate Huey
Of course, there are prophets, and then there are prophets. Most of us are familiar with the big names, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and even with some of the “minor” prophets like Amos and Micah (they’re called “minor” because their books are shorter, not because they’re less important). And then there’s the greatest prophet, Moses, in whose footsteps, one way or another, every prophet in the Old Testament wants to walk. Elijah and Elisha, who don’t have a book of the Bible named after them–they belong to “the non-writing prophets”–are no exception, and this story about them rings bells in the memory of anyone who’s heard the stories about Moses, whether he was parting the Red Sea, or traveling a long way to the River Jordan, or turning his leadership over to his successor, Joshua.

Walter Brueggemann helps us to understand why these somewhat odd stories about Elijah and Elisha, the most familiar names among the non-writing prophets, are important in the larger scheme of things. He first describes “The Great Tradition,” with all those stories so important in the life of faith, like creation, exodus, time in the wilderness, the Sinai experience, the Promised Land, and so on. Next to those grand stories he places the “little stories” that provide “memories that helped shape the world and situate Israel in it.” This week’s passage does more than simply recall the stories about Moses: Brueggemann says that it helps us to see the hope in those “little” people, like dusty, wandering prophets who live outside the courts of power and answer to a very different authority. While history, even in the Bible, may provide long lists of rulers, Brueggemann says that stories like this one “open to the listeners in daring imagination the claim that the world does not need to be perceived or engaged according to dominant shapings of power, to privileged notions of authority, to conventional distributions of goods, or to standard definitions of what is possible.”

Difficult times for Israel

Elijah and Elisha were working in difficult times for Israel, the northern kingdom, about nine centuries before Jesus. The Omri dynasty–of which Ahab and his wife Jezebel are, alas, the most well-known representatives, was not a stellar time for God’s people up north. It required many a prophet, not just Elijah or Elisha, to speak against the Baal worship of the wicked or at least weak King Ahab and his pagan wife. However, it wasn’t only the worship of false gods that got the Omri dynasty into trouble with Yahweh, because the kings of Israel often lived out what Lord Acton would say so well many centuries later, about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. As we know, none of this was pleasing in the eyes of God. By the time we reach the end of Elijah’s work, and the beginning of Elisha’s, the reigns of Ahab and then his son, Ahaziah, have both ended in death, and now Ahab’s other son, Jehoram, is king. Poor Jehoram: James Newsome writes that he “will feel the wrath of the revolt instigated by Elisha and led by Jehu, who ultimately decimates this family and removes them from power in Israel.”

This second chapter in the second book of Kings appears to give away the ending of Elijah’s story when it mentions that God was about to take the prophet up in the whirlwind (notice, by the way, that it was indeed the whirlwind and not the chariot that carried Elijah away), but we know that Elijah’s story goes on, in fact, even for Christians, his presence is felt in many ways in our New Testament. We may recall his appearance with Moses at the Transfiguration, or the perception that Jesus was calling for Elijah at his death, but even more significant is the way Jesus and his words and deeds made people remember Elijah.

However, our passage is from the Hebrew Scriptures, and the story it tells there is so rich with meaning that the commentators find it difficult to agree on what is going on inside the hearts and minds of its main characters. It’s rather interesting to try to figure out why Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, or why Elisha refuses to leave his teacher, or what Elisha means when he cries out at Elijah’s departure. Perhaps Newsome is right when he says that Elisha just wants “to savor every last minute of fellowship with the great prophet of God.” but Tremper Longman III is more persuasive in his claim that Elisha–who really wants to succeed Elijah–knows that he actually has to be with the great prophet in order to succeed him. We can imagine Elisha saying, “I’m not letting you out of my sight until I get that mantle of authority placed on my shoulders!” In fact, by this time, there may be a bit of tension between the two prophets, teacher and student–or, more accurately, according to Kathleen Robertson Farmer, teacher and servant. Maybe Elijah wasn’t too crazy about this upstart that he had to accept just because God told him in I Kings 19:16 to anoint Elisha as “prophet in his place”; after all, Farmer says, Elisha followed him as his “servant” and not as his successor. On the other hand, Terence Fretheim reads something else in Elijah’s command to Elisha to stay behind, for “this is not a test for Elisha, but the provision of a way for him to follow freely,” perhaps a more tender-hearted interpretation. Still, we have to wonder why Elijah has even a moment’s doubt that Elisha is called by God to receive his mantle, his authority, as his heir.

Why take the long route to where they were going?

Even this last journey of the traveling prophets is open to more than one meaning. Elizabeth Achtemeier sees their long route as having “no purpose other than to illustrate Elisha’s determination to remain with Elijah and to show that Elisha hears the same words from the sons of the prophets at each of the shrines.” The verses left out by the lectionary do add to the suspense of the story (even if we already know the ending), as Elijah tells Elisha three times to “stay here” rather than to follow him all the way to his end. Elisha’s refusal each time may also add some tension (along with the curious observation–or warning–from the “company of prophets” at each stop who ask Elisha if he knows that God is taking his master away that same day, and Elisha’s answer that he does know), but others hear echoes of the journey Moses and Joshua took long before: “As it was with Moses and Joshua,” Terence Fretheim writes, “so it is with Elijah and Elisha (the names Joshua and Elisha have a similar meaning: ‘the Lord saves’; ‘God saves’).”

However, it is Rebecca Kruger Gaudino’s eloquent reflection that most vividly and movingly connects the work of Moses and Elijah: “Like Moses, Elijah has been working to liberate those who live under the unjust rule of Pharaoh Ahab and consort Jezebel. Crossing into the wilderness and freedom, Elijah experiences his own exodus from a life of hard duty and threat to the promised land of God’s own presence. Elisha’s return across a parted Jordan is a return to an Israel so like Egypt that it needs the continued service of God’s spokesman.” We can almost hear the grief and worry in the questions put to Elisha by the company of prophets, and the grief and worry in the voice of Elisha the Understudy-Soon-to-be-Head-Prophet. Yes, Elisha seems to say, he may be leaving, but don’t talk about it. I can’t bear it yet. And how will I face what is ahead, when I return from the river?

A double share of Elijah’s spirit

When the time comes for parting, Elisha realizes that his own path is laid out for him, and that he will need help along the way. He knows that this great prophet has been a father to him, and he considers himself Elijah’s heir. Not just any heir, but an eldest-son-kind-of-heir, the firstborn son who gets the extra measure of everything for his inheritance. And so, like an eldest son, he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, twice as much as any other heir.

And then there is that dramatic moment when a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two, and Elijah is carried away in the whirlwind, and Elisha cries out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Tremper Longman points out the meaning between the lines here, for “Baal was thought to be the cloud-riding deity. The cloud was his chariot in which he went into battle as a warrior. But here God is teaching Israel that it is God who is the power in the storm and the rider of the chariot.” Trevor Eppehimer says that Elisha is proving that he does indeed see Elijah as he is being taken away, so his call, and that double share of spirit–not really Elijah’s spirit, but the Spirit of God–is confirmed. Interestingly, we also hear these same words from the king of Israel when Elisha himself dies, in 2 Kings 13:14.

Some people say, with good reason, that we have a crisis of leadership in the world. One reads, for example, about the trial of Charles Taylor, the strongman who caused the death of countless thousands in West Africa, and the tragic consequences of bad leadership are brought vividly to life, or rather, to death. We know that Ahab was a bad leader: “While many of the kings of Israel as well as Judah strayed from the Lord,” Longman writes, “few were as determined and systematic about it as Ahab.” Retracing the line of succession from one such bad leader through another, we might ask, “Where is the one who can rule with justice, wisdom, and gentle strength?” Just as importantly, we might ask, “And how will we recognize that leader when they come?”

Times of loss, times of possibility

In the life of the faith community as well, there are moments of crisis, when a beloved pastor leaves, and the community looks for new leadership, even in the midst of grieving. The community, in its feelings of loss and being lost, understandably wants a clear signal that this one is The One and can be trusted. Several writers find reassurance in this text that God will indeed raise up leaders of power and goodness, and will sustain them and their followers in whatever they face. Haywood Barringer Spangler connects this text with the African American spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with “the chariot and the whirlwind [representing] divine support and deliverance [as well as] God’s empowerment of believers for ministry in the world.” Spangler urges us to discern God’s will in our own lives, so that we might live faithfully, “embracing the suspense or ambiguity that is part of life” even as we ask, “What is God calling me to do in this situation?” Like Elisha, we may have to take action in order to find out the answer to that question.

Here the reflection of Trevor Eppehimer is particularly helpful in bringing this discernment process, and this call, into sharp focus, as he draws a bigger picture, for even this “little story” connects after all with Brueggemann’s “Great Tradition.” The story of the Bible and of our own lives is often a story of “the struggle between YHWH and Pharaoh,” Eppehimer writes, for “Pharaoh does not meet his end in the book of Exodus, but he later haunts Israel in the form of its own kings who, intoxicated and blinded by political power, forget that the God under whose authority they serve not only despises tyrants, but also is inclined to intervene against them if they lead the people to apostasy or oppress the most vulnerable among them.” The challenge faced by Israel and by us as well “is remaining faithful to YHWH in a world in which Pharaoh appears to have all the power.” In this “little story” we meet a character, a prophet, Elisha, who “has the requisite vision to perceive the reality of YHWH’s activity in the midst of a world held under the illegal and illusory jurisdiction of Pharaoh and his heirs.” In our search for leaders in the church, we may not phrase the questions quite that way on our ministerial profiles, but perhaps we should spend much more time and attention–and prayer–considering the possibilities of being led by those who vision is matched by hearts set on God and God’s will for the earth and all who live upon it.

A preaching commentary on this text can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.

For further reflection

Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
Whatever you are, be a good one.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century
Every calling is great when greatly pursued.

Paul Simon, 20th century
The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.