Jason Crosby, preaching
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2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-10
Our passage today is one about transition. Actually, it is a passage about transition couched within a transition. Second Kings 1 documents the death of King Ahaziah. Second Kings 3 describes the assumption of power by Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram to the throne. In between these accounts of political transition in Second Kings 2 we encounter a story about the way God produces change involving the prophets Elijah to Elisha. I do not believe this is mere coincidence.
Transition has always been and remains a process fraught with potential instability and uncertainty. When political power is up for grabs, people often reveal their ugliest sides. All you have to do is turn on your computer, television, or radio for confirmation of this statement. In ancient Israel, in a monarchical system, power shifted from one person to another based on family ties. The rationale used to support this process was that it ensured smooth transitions that would not lead to chaos. Of course, it was also a mechanism by which those in power preserved their power. Like monarchies, however, democracies, at a fundamental level, are systems that facilitate the smooth transition of power, but do not always perpetuate real change.
One of my fondest childhood memories is of my trip to Washington DC for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. I recall the tens of thousands of people who flooded onto the mall between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument. I recall watching the Clintons waving to the crowd as they walked down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Inaugural Parade. Even though I was only fourteen years old and could not understand everything that was happening around me, I still got a sense of the uniqueness of the moment. I recall thinking that it was pretty remarkable that the most powerful position in the free world could be passed off from one person to another, from one political party to another, at regular intervals of time with tranquility, at least relatively speaking. As I stood there among the monuments, the stately, heavy buildings, and the crowds, I remember being overcome by a sense of pride that I lived in a nation that could pull off such a feat.
This story involving Elijah and Elisha reveals the process of transition in the spiritual realm cannot be prescribed as easily. It does not begin with primaries or caucuses. We begin with Elijah and Elisha passing through three important places – Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho. These were venues where Elijah did his prophetic work. Elisha’s presence with Elijah at each of these stops foreshadows an impending transition, but in no way assures that authority will pass from Elijah to Elisha. At each stop, Elijah asks Elisha to stay put, but Elisha responds in each instance by saying that he will not leave Elijah’s side. At Bethel and Jericho a company of prophets appears. This was likely a group of Elijah’s receptive listeners in these places. The group tries to get Elisha to listen to Elijah’s wishes, but Elisha tells them to keep their mouths shut and thoughts to themselves.
Why Elijah tries to distance himself from his companion is unclear. Perhaps, Elijah was putting Elisha to the test. Perhaps, this was an attempt to see how much mettle Elisha possessed. The life of a prophet is not an easy one. Why Elisha refused to obey his mentor’s request is also a mystery. Maybe, Elijah perceived this to be a test and he wanted to prove that he possessed the tenacity necessary to fulfill the prophetic role.
Maybe, he was just scared. Both men, particularly Elisha, found himself on the brink. They stood at a precipice from which he could not see what was before them. Their worlds were about to be shaken to the core, and not only was the final outcome uncertain, the path to that outcome was shrouded in mystery as well. Nothing can be more frightening than the unknown. When uncertain transition looms, the tendency exists to replicate previous modes of behavior, and to hold on to people and things, as we have known them, more tightly than ever. Resistance to change is often a feeble attempt to assuage our fear of change. Although he would become an esteemed prophet, maybe Elisha was reacting in fully human, very familiar fashion. Maybe Elisha refused to leave Elijah’s side in an attempt to feel safe and secure just a little longer.
Elisha couldn’t cling to what had been for long, however. Elijah and Elisha eventually find themselves on the banks of the River Jordan. Once they crossed that divide, things could never be as they once were. Again, this location is significant. The land on the other side of the river represented the unknown, the wilderness. In a move reminiscent of Moses parting the Red Sea, Elisha takes the mantle in his hands and parts the waters. Elijah and Elisha cross over to the other side of the river. Together they enter into the not known. They cross over into the wild side where the order of human time and political and ideological constructs did not prevail. In making this move, they moved into a world where God’s presence roamed unfettered, and their futures were no longer in their hands. On that side of things, try as they might to cling to what they believed gave them control over their lives, they would be putting themselves in God’s hands and at God’s mercy fully and completely. Elijah asks if there is anything that he can do for Elisha before being taken away. Interestingly, we are not told Elijah will die. Rather, Elijah is being taken away, presumably by God to do God’s work in another time and place. Even in the wilderness, Elisha takes another stab at controlling his own destiny. Okay, says Elijah, if you must go, give me a double portion of what you got, your God bestowed spirit. Elijah knows in God’s wild territory this is not something that he can dispense. Rather, he intimates that it is up to God whether or not God’s spirit will fall upon Elisha in the same way it had come upon him. Elijah cannot grant it, but he does instruct Elisha to look for a sign. If you can see me as I am taken up, you will get it. If not, I am sorry.
When the moment of the ascension finally arrives we see Elisha squinting his eyes, trying to peer through the chariots of fire and upheaval of the whirlwind looking for his mentor, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs, “Father, Father.” Elijah is standing in the chaos of the wilderness exerting every last bit of his will and energy trying to give order and structure to his life. Elisha still is trying to impose his will over God’s.
Elisha’s acts of desperation during Elijah’s ascension and his close encounter with the divine mirror Peter’s response to his face to face moment with God. Thousands of years after Elijah’s ascension, Jesus appeared before three of his disciples surrounded by brilliant light conversing with Moses and Elijah, the very same Elijah we’ve been talking about this morning. Peter in another desperate attempt to make some sense of his close encounter with the divine asks if he and the other disciples should construct a dwelling place for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This question did not even merit a response from Jesus. Peter could do nothing to contain or confine God. Peter could only walk back down the mountain with Jesus speechless. Similarly in the end, a depleted, grief-stricken, uncertain, lost in the wilderness, desperate, at his wits end Elisha, sits alone lost in the wilderness. He tears his clothes in two almost as if to say, “Okay God, I am done. Not my will, but thine, be done.” I am yours.
The passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha sure doesn’t look like any Presidential Inaugurations we probably will ever witness. I don’t foresee the day when an out-going President will cross over the Potomac with a President elect for a close encounter with and anointment by the divine. This is a tale about the passing of spiritual authority from one person to another. It is also a tale about how God goes about enacting change in the lives of anyone who so desires it. God may not be grooming us to be a prophet like Elisha, but God is calling each of us to let God’s spirit into our heart of hearts so that God acts as the guiding light of our lives.
Unlike transitions in today’s political arena where candidates stoop far too often to the basest of levels to win votes, and mechanisms are in place to ensure orderliness, in God’s realm change happens according to God’s timing and desires. We see that change comes in God’s realm very differently than in other spheres of life. God’s movement cannot be confined. God’s timing cannot be controlled. And God’s ways cannot be trumped by our wishes. Unlike transitions of political power that strive to keep upheaval at bay, the change that God hopes to implement in our lives and world is radical, revolutionary, and seeks to reconfigure the very core of our existence. Smooth, prescribed, well-scripted change is not the variety of change that God has in store for us and our world. Thank goodness. We and our world are in need of more than superficial change.
To experience this change may require some lettings go. This episode involving these prophets indicates that those wishing to experience God inspired change in their lives may have to let go of preconceptions of how God, our world, and our lives should work. We may have to let go, or at least redefine, relationships with have with others. Taking such steps into this kind of unknown territory can be anything but smooth. It may be terrifying. Once there, one may find chaos, pain, and grief. But, there, in that place where we let go of what we think should be, in that place we where let go of relationships and make our relationship with God our most cherished one, in that place where we present our lives to God as an blank canvas free from our presuppositions and inclinations, in that place where we must rely fully and completely on God and make ourselves subject to God’s mercy, there God effectuates change in our hearts and world.
Those who open themselves up to God’s change sign up for a wildly unpredictable ride. Through it all, however, through struggles that come with letting go of what we need to let go of, through seasons of life when it appears that our world is crumbling around us, God’s presence surrounds us. We let go not into nothingness. We let go to live in the palm of God’s hand. God’s love and mercy for us is what inspires us and gives us the courage to let go, so that the change we need may come our way. Even as Elisha was sitting on the river bank in agony ripping his clothes in two, God’s presence enveloped Elisha, perhaps then more than ever. The change we need, as difficult as that process may be, can transpire because it occurs under the tender, loving, watchful eye of the one who knows us best and loves us the most.