Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Chariot of Fire

2 Kings 2:1-12
February 15, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

2 Kings 2:1-12
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. 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."

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. 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."

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.

This is the word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.

At the celebration of the Passover, those gathered for the Seder dinner have four cups in their place settings. Each cup has a particular meaning, and is drunk at a particular time. And at every table, there is also a fifth cup – a cup for Elijah. Elijah was a prophet in about the 9th century BCE, a messenger of God who got into quite a tangle with Queen Jezebel. By the time he was around, Israel had lost the unity of the nation that had prevailed under King Solomon in previous generations. The northern and southern kingdoms were once again divided, and Elijah appeared as if from nowhere, to confront a wicked king.

Now, you remember that the Seder meal, during Passover, which takes place at the same time as our observance of Holy Week, is the annual commemoration in which Jews remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They recall the plagues sent upon the Egyptians, the angel of death passing over their houses, and their miraculous parting of the waters of the Red Sea so they could cross safely into freedom.

Elijah was not part of that story – he came long after Moses and the Pharaoh. But there’s the cup, and the empty place at the table – and after all the prayers have been said, the children go and open the front door for Elijah. Because Elijah is the herald of redemption, of the deliverance of God’s people. When Elijah comes, the next appearance will be the Messiah.

This story of Elijah and Elisha marks the end of Elijah’s presence on the earth, but it is by no means the end of his presence in the Biblical narrative. The time frame is vague so the story takes place in a kind of transitional time and space, at the boundary of one era but not quite in another, neither here nor there – much like this Sunday, as we end one season but are not quite yet in another. The season of Epiphany is past, but Lent has not yet begun.

Elijah’s tenure as prophet of all Israel is ending, but Elisha’s has not quite begun.
So, together, they travel – Elijah and Elisha, from Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, to Jordan.
Three times, Elijah enjoins Elisha to turn back; three times, Elisha refuses –
he will stay with Elijah until the end, whatever that may be.
He will stay with his teacher, his mentor, no matter what.

Twice, the company of prophets warn Elisha of what is going to happen,
“Today, your master is going to be taken away from you.”
Twice, Elisha acknowledges this reality, but also tells them to be silent.
It is as if he knows the truth is too much to bear, too hard to speak of.

At last their journey brings them to the banks of the river Jordan. The river Jordan, the last crossing before the Israelites entered the promised land. The river Jordan, where John the Baptist cried out to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. The river Jordan, where Christ himself would be baptized.

Down by the river, Elijah rolls up his mantle and parts the water. The fifty prophets who had followed them stand back, and watch Elijah and Elisha cross over on the dry land. There, Elijah asks Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." And the plea is, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." Elisha knows that his spiritual father will soon be taken from him. He knows that they stand on the brink of transition, and that the mantle of authority that Elijah once placed on Elisha’s shoulders will now be Elisha’s for good.

So Elisha asks, like a firstborn son would ask, for a double share of the inheritance, a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Even before the chariot of fire descends, even before the whirlwind comes to carry Elijah away, Elisha has seen the luminous quality of Elijah’s spirit. He has seen and known it, and he wants to inherit a portion of it, the right of inheritance of a spiritual son.

A Jewish friend of mine writes,
“According to our Torah, some people shine with more grace than others – however, grace is not some innate quality that people are gifted with, or not. Rather, grace is cultivated by the practice of kindness – and as one practices kindness, our tradition reveals that our face then, shines with the majesty of grace – for ‘heaven will have compassion on those who show compassion to others.’”[1] This is the double portion Elisha yearns for – the double portion of grace.

Elisha’s request is granted when a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them. As Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven, Elisha kept watching and crying out,
"Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" His grief is likely compounded
by his knowledge of the magnitude of his loss by the way the mantle of Elijah now weighs more heavily on his shoulders. Elisha is now the prophet of all of Israel. Elijah is gone.

This was Elijah, the prophet, the one whose name means, “My God is Lord.”
This is the Elijah who appears at Jesus’ side, with Moses on the other side, when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain top. Here’s the story from Mark 9, the Common English Bible:

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus,

“Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. (Mark 9:2-8)

Like Elisha, Peter is overwhelmed by this experience, but unlike Elisha, Peter’s response is not to seek God’s gift to his spirit. No, Peter’s response is to convene a building committee!
God’s voice, speaking from the cloud, asks but one thing: “Listen to him.”

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent begins, the last Sunday before we move into a time of forty days of preparation, forty days of penitence, forty days of recognition of our limitations, forty days acknowledging that the power of death is still in the world, but that the majesty of God’s grace is stronger than evil, stronger than death.

On Wednesday, our foreheads will be marked with ashes, and we will hear the words,
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes remind us of our finitude, our own mortality. Lent reminds us that discipleship is not always easy, and that the chariots of fire and transfiguring moments of glory are uncommon events, while the challenges of life are normal.

Lent reminds us that we are not in control of this world, and that the blessing of our inheritance, like Elisha’s double portion, will come also with grief and sorrow. Like Elisha, like the disciples, we acknowledge that we are helpless in our loss, but that we are also powerful in our compassion, in our willingness to be channels of God’s infinite mercy.

The forty days of Lent are also a time of hope, of waiting, and of preparation, of pouring the cup in readiness for the one who is to come. Elijah, standing at the side of Jesus, up on that mountain, heralds our redemption – promises that the Messiah will come.

These forty days are a microcosm of our life of faith.
We will know difficulty, but we will also know deliverance.
We will know desolation, but we will also know transformation.
We are tempted, like Peter, to build monuments to our experiences of God’s presence with us, tempted to build a sturdy shelter to house our faith and keep it safe from outsiders, from challenges, from change.
But the time is not yet, and we are neither here nor there.

We are not settlers.
We are pilgrims.

The journey continues, even now, from Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, to Jordan, until we cross the Jordan into the promised land, until we see the chariot swinging low, coming to carry us home.

May God’s grace shine through us until that day.


[1] Rabbi Neil Blumofe, FB post on Congregation Agudas Achim page, accessed 021314

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