2 Kings 2:1-14 (NRSV)
2 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.
It is so good to be back! Not that I didn’t enjoy my vacation, mind you. I did. I spent time with friends, heard many inspiring messages, ate great food, got the Parsonage in order - mostly. Read. Rested. Relaxed. Cuddled with my cats. Poor Doof was kind of traumatized by all the changes. Nermal’s a kitten. She thinks chaos is normal. All three of us are pretty well settled in now. But when you love your work as much as I love this work, it’s really good to be back.
This is a story about Prophets. There were a lot of prophets in the Old Testament. Most of them are nameless, or maybe mentioned once or twice, like the groups of prophets described in today’s story. Some were women. Deborah, for example. Some could foretell things to come, some could work various sorts of wonders. Mostly their job was to remind the people what God expected of them. As Micah said, God’s people were instructed to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with God. The prophets would remind them of their need to be hospitable, to care for the weakest among them, to love one another. Every king employed prophets, many of whom would say whatever the king wanted them to say. Some didn’t. Some of those, like Nathan with King David, survived their head butts with their king. Others didn’t. But in each generation a prophet who could do amazing things through God’s power would appear. Elijah was one such. You might remember from a few weeks back the story of Elijah causing the widow’s flour and oil containers to be self-replenishing, until such time as the drought should end. He restored her son to life. Like Moses, he was able to invoke God’s power to part the water of a river so he could get to the other side. He defeated Ahab and Jezebel. He did many wonders, many good things. He was a powerful man. And he was a humble man. He prayed for God’s help. He followed God’s direction. He listened for God’s voice in the wind, in the fire, and in the stillness.
I don’t know about you, but I always got Elijah and Elisha mixed up. Their names are so much alike, they were active at roughly the same time. I knew one replaced the other but I could never remember which was which. But, as with anything else, the more I read the Bible, the more my understanding grew. Elijah was one of the great prophets, like Moses. It was Moses and Elijah who met Jesus on the mountaintop, that time when Peter and the others wanted to build them shelters to stay in. Elijah was one of two people in the Hebrew Scriptures who didn’t simply die or have a burial site. Moses went up on a mountain alone and disappeared. Elijah was lifted up, he ascended in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire. Later, Jesus would also ascend into the sky, another proof that he was one of God’s great prophets.
I have a confession to make. I am not all that fond of Elisha. I think he is arrogant, more concerned about his own power and reputation than with his calling as a prophet of the Most High. Elijah told him He seems to be a bit closed minded. I mean, he clearly doesn’t want to hear anything he doesn’t want to know. Every time one of the other prophets try to prepare him for what is to come, he’s all, “I know. I don’t want to hear it.” When Elijah asks “What can I do for you before I leave?” Elisha asks, not for a bit of the power Elijah holds, but for double.
And this is where it becomes important which translation you use when interpreting Scripture. I understood that bit, which actually says “spirit” to mean power. That troubled me. So I checked through a lot of translations, the vast majority of which use the word Spirit. Only a few translate that word as Power. The Contemporary English Version even goes so far as to say, “Please give me twice as much of your power as you give the other prophets, so I can be the one who takes your place as their leader.” According to a Jewish Study Bible I have, however, what Elisha is actually requesting is not double his power as a prophet and worker of wonders, but double the blessing that the other prophets receive, just as an older son received double the inheritance of the younger sons. OK. So maybe he’s not as bad as I thought. As I read further I found that he cleansed the well of a city, saying that from now on it would cause neither disease nor miscarriage. He tried to dissuade a group of men from going to search for Elijah’s body, knowing they would find nothing. Both good and admirable things. But then, later on in this same chapter, when a group of young boys make fun of his bald head, he curses them and they are all savaged and killed by a bear. Not nice, not nice at all. Not what I would hope for from a representative of the Lord.
But the one thing Elisha was, without a doubt, was loyal. “Stay here,” Elijah said. “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Not once, but three times, Elijah told him to stay and Elisha refused. He was determined to go with his master to the very end of the journey. Even though he knew that at end of the journey he would lose his Master, he went. From Gilgal to Beth-el to Jericho to the River Jordan and beyond, Elisha stuck by Elijah’s side. He waited as all the good-byes were said, all the final instructions given. He refused to listen to the other prophets who tried to dissuade him from going on. Rather, he stayed to the very end, though the appearance of the fiery chariot and horses would have chased off any other man, and kept watching until he could no longer see his Master. Then he grieved. Then he tore his garments. Then he turned back the way he came, to take up Elijah’s mantle - literally - and continue the work that had been given to Elijah, reconciling the people of Israel with the Lord their God. Especially the leaders, for as the leaders went so went the nation. When the leaders sinned, when the leaders worshipped other gods, so did the people.
Elisha may not be my favorite Biblical character, but his loyalty, his determination to go where ever his Master leads, that is admirable. And in my mind, that quality alone goes a long way to make up for his character defects. He was unpopular even among the other prophets, but he was dedicated and determined to continue the work that was given to Elijah. He was single-mindedly focused on returning Israel to the Lord their God, as was his Master before him.
We may know someone like Elisha, someone who is maybe a bit hard to get along with, but whose dedication to doing the work of Christ in the world is undoubted. You might see them giving care and love to the homeless, the hungry, battered women, abused or abandoned children - or animals - and giving a seriously hard time to anyone who gets in the way of them doing their work. You might see them in city council meetings fighting for their projects, or on the news being taken away from a protest in handcuffs. I have friends who tend to make me slightly crazy with their seemingly single minded dedication to a cause. But whether or not I agree with their position, I admire their dedication. I understand that they are following in the footsteps of their Master, doing the work to which they were called. They refuse to turn back. And I cannot fault them for that.
Like Elijah, Jesus’ mission was to reconcile the people with their God. And we have been given a great commission to fulfill that mission. We have been called by name to follow Jesus, as Elisha followed Elijah. We have been called and sent out into the world to bring healing in the name of the Christ, to share love in the name of the Christ, to serve the least of our brothers and sisters in the name of the Christ, to do the work that Jesus left for us to do. We come here, to this place, to be equipped for that work. Let us be like Elisha in our determination to go forward, no matter how difficult that journey might be. Let us be like Elisha in our refusal to turn back, in our refusal to listen to those who would dissuade us from our course. Let us be like Elisha in our refusal to let even a chariot of fire turn us back. Let us make the decision to walk with our Lord, to follow in his footsteps, no matter where that path may take us.