2 Kings 2:1-15
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. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
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.
15 When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”
In today’s scripture passage, the prophet Elijah sets out a final test for his student, Elisha, to see if he is truly called to be the next great prophet of Israel.
I’m reminded of a story about a couple whose son had graduated from college, but was still living with them at home. The parents were a little worried, since the son couldn’t seem to make a decision about his future career. So the father decided to do a small test.
On the kitchen table one morning, he carefully laid out a twenty-dollar bill, a Bible, and a bottle of whiskey. Then he and his wife hid just outside the kitchen, pretending they had already left for the day.
The father told his wife, “If our son takes the money, he will be a businessman, if he takes the Bible, he will be a preacher, but if he takes the bottle of whiskey, I’m afraid our son will be a no-good drunk.”
At about 11:30 in the morning, the son finally came downstairs and saw the items laid out on the table. Peeking around the corner, the couple watched as their son picked up the twenty-dollar bill, and slid it in his pocket. After that, he took the Bible, flipped through it, and put it under his arm. Finally, he grabbed the bottle of whiskey, opened it and took an appreciative whiff to be assured of the quality. Then he left the house, carrying all three items.
The father slapped his forehead and said: “This is worse than I could ever have imagined!”
“What? asked the wife. “Our son is going to be a politician!”
Obviously, Elisha does a little better on his test. Today’s scripture passage is one of the most recognizeable stories in the Old Testament. Elijah’s grand exit in a chariot of fire has inspired countless works of art, poetry, music, and even film. But as impressive as it may be, the flaming chariot is not really the point of the story, or at least not the only one. There are lots of things going on in these verses. But since this is the last sermon in our series about the prophet Elijah, we’re going to start with him. Then we’re going to talk about Elisha and transitions, and finally we’re going to talk about you, me, and being prophetic in our world today.
In our first sermon, we encountered Elijah’s message. It’s as simple as his name: Yahweh is my God (and, by extension, the one true God of all Israel).
In the second sermon, we encountered Elijah the man — like us, he had good days and bad days, moments of great triumph and success, followed by times of doubt, weakness, and vulnerability.
In last week’s sermon, we encountered Elijah the myth — the larger-than-life superhero who singlehandedly fought and defeated legions of bad guys with supernatural powers.
In today’s passage, we see all three of these things: Elijah, the man, the myth, and the message. His humanity is most apparent in his relationship with Elisha, and we’ll come back to that later. The mythic proportions of this story are pretty obvious–not just anyone gets taken up into heaven in a flaming chariot of fire. But what often gets missed here is Elijah’s consistent message, right to the very end of his life (or at least his story). That’s because through the centuries, we have come to identify Elijah with the chariot…but that’s exactly the opposite of how it would have been perceived in his time.
The first time a chariot appears in the Bible is in the story of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, the one whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. But things got better for Joseph, and in Genesis 41:43, the Pharoah of Egypt takes him under his wing: “He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command; and they cried out in front of him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.”
The next time we see chariots is in Exodus, when six hundred of Pharoah’s hand-picked chariots are chasing Moses and the children of Israel in a desperate race to the red sea.
When the Israelites come into the promised land, Judges 1:19 tells us that they “drove out the inhabitants of the mountain, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.
The book of Deuteronomy gives rules for warfare, and in 20:1 it says, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you.”
When the people of Israel decide they want a king like other nations, the prophet Samuel tells them, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots.”
When King David’s son, Adonijah, decided to pre-emptively declare himself King while his father was still alive, he let people know his intentions by preparing for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before them.
See the pattern yet? Chariots represent the Pharoah, the King, earthly power and might. And no King of Israel was more associated with his chariots than Elijah’s great enemy, King Ahab, and later his son Ahaziah. Ahab’s chariots would have been known throughout the land as “The Chariots of Israel.”
And so in his last dramatic display, Elijah parts the Jordan river like Moses before him, and then rides into the heavens in a fiery chariot. The message is clear: Yahweh is the true King of Israel, not Ahab or Ahaziah. Elisha acknowledges this by saying “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And THAT is the moment when Elisha becomes a prophet–not when he puts on Elijah’s mantle, but rather when he puts on Elijah’s message. Only then can he put on the mantle, and part the waters of the Jordan like Elijah and Moses before him. Incidentally, only one other person in the Old Testament parts the waters: It is Joshua, the hand-picked successor to Moses. By analogy, Elijah is the new Moses, and Elisha is the new Joshua.
Now we turn to Elisha. Whereas Elijah appears mysteriously out of nowhere, with no real name, no real lineage, and no real home of origin, Elisha seems a bit more grounded. In a previous chapter, we are told that he is the “son of Shaphat” from the town of Abel-meholah–a town mentioned in several other books of the Bible.
Elijah’s name means “Yawheh is my God” while Elisha’s name means “God is my salvation.” This is a logical progression, as Israel ultimately moves from *accepting* Yahweh as their only God, to actually *relying* upon Yahweh to lead them and save them.
The relationship between Elijah and Elisha is more than just a teacher/student relationship. When Elijah first calls Elisha to follow him a few chapters prior to this one, he literally throws his coat/mantle over Elisha. This is not the typical way of choosing a successor (that involves anointing with oil). Instead, this is a ritual of adoption, a father’s promise to provide clothing and shelter for his adopted son.
Elisha asks Elijah for a “double portion” of his spirit. That doesn’t mean he wants to be twice the prophet Elijah was. A double portion, in ancient Jewish culture, was the inheritance reserved for the eldest son.
When the other prophets (company of prophets is literally “sons of the prophets”) twice ask Elisha if he knows that today the Lord will take his master away from him, Elisha, obviously upset, tells them to be quiet. When Elijah tells him three times to stay behind, each time he refuses. And when Elijah is finally taken from him, Elisha calls out “Father, Father!” and then tears his clothes in the traditional sign of mourning.
Michael William Locke was not my father the day I was born, although he came into my life just a few years later when he married my mother. When I was 13 years old, he legally adopted me, and I became his eldest son. He didn’t exactly throw a coat over me, but he did give me his last name, which, ironically, had been given to him in childhood by his adoptive father. Actually, he gave me a lot more than a last name. The things I love most in this world I learned from him–everything from computers and technology to ancient languages and medieval history. And my sense of humor (he was pretty nerdy).
Just ten short years after he adopted me, Mike Locke was taken from this world, too soon, and I still mourn that loss in my life. I still carry that mantle, too, and I try to live my life in a way that would make him proud, and in ways that convey his message, all that he taught me about life and the world around me.
I tell you all this to show firsthand just how powerful that kind of relationship can be–to be called and chosen by someone, to be loved like a son or daughter, to be given a spiritual inheritance that can never be taken away, that outlives and outlasts the one who first gave it.
And that brings us to today, to you and me, and what it means to be prophetic in our own time, in our own way.
Because, you see, we believe in a God who calls us and chooses us, who loves us as his children, and who gives each of us (if we seek it) a double portion of his spirit as our inheritance.
When Elijah comes to the river Jordan, he rolls up his mantle and strikes the waters, miraculously parting them and allowing him to pass to the other side. Elisha, taking up Elijah’s mantle, does the same thing on his return journey.
The Hebrew word translated as mantle is אַדָּ֫רֶת (adareth). It means a coat or a robe, but it comes from an even older Hebrew word that means “glory” or “splendour.”
I think there’s a beautiful metphor here: When God calls us as his own, we take our mantle, our glory, our splendor, our God-given talents and abilities; we roll them up and strike the waters, the obstacles in our path, and then God leads us to the other side. Sometimes (as in the case of Elijah, and my dad) the other side is where God carries us into our heavenly home. More often (as in the case of Elisha and hopefully all of us here today) that means leading us back into the world, into our mission and our calling; into a land where our politicians, our professions, and our possessions all cry out, “I am God–bow down before me; give your time and your money and your talent and your allegiance to me first!”
Like Elijah, we say, “No. My God is greater than these things.” We roll up our mantle, we roll up our glory; we strike the waters, and we pass through again…and again. We work, we vote, we consume what we need, but we don’t put our faith, our hope, our trust in these things. We don’t put our faith, our hope, our trust in the Kings or the chariots of this world. Like Elijah, our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Whether Elijah was a man, a myth, or a little of both, his message (Yahweh is my God) truly lived, and his mantle was passed from generation to generation, long past the time of prophets and kings. Eventually, prophets gave way to poets, and one of them, the author of Psalm 20, put it this way:
“May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion. May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans. Some take pride in chariots, and some put their trust in horses, but we will remember the name of Yahweh, our God. They will collapse and fall, but we will rise and stand upright.”