Sunday, February 22, 2009
God's Extraordinary People: Sermon on 2 Kings 2:1-14
“When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…” Any story that begins with a sentence like that… you know you’re in for quite a tale. The first half of the first sentence, and we know we’re out of the realm of normal people, and into the realm of heroes and mythic warriors, prophets and kings. In fact, the story has a “gather around the campfire” quality, doesn’t it? It should begin “Listen, my children…” Only a few words into it, and we know we’re in for a tale of greatness, one that will include waters parting, mantles being passed, and yes, even fiery chariots. We know that we’re in for a story about God’s extraordinary people.
The lectionary provides us very little time to get to know the prophet Elijah this year—in fact, this is pretty much it: his days as a prophet finished and his spectacular send-off narrated. And there’s much to get to know about Elijah. How, for instance, he faced off with kings and queens, including the notorious Jezebel. How, by acts of derring-do and miraculous demonstrations, he put legions of the prophets of Baal in their place (before he put them in the ground that is, apparently dispatching them with his own hands). Like all the prophets of the books of Samuel and Kings, Elijah’s actions played out on the national and international stages of the ancient near east.
And yet, there are elements of this passage that take us in a different direction, that place the story back on a decidedly human scale. They provide us an intimate glimpse into the relationship between the great and fading prophet and his protégé, Elisha. Details such as this one: “The company of prophets… 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.’” Elisha’s terse response betrays the emotion of a parting that is too painful, just yet, to speak aloud. Elisha is grief-struck. There is a human core to the flashy, miraculous tale of Elijah’s ascension in a whirlwind.
It is, after all, the story of a journey. Two men, on a journey together, and the journey will end, for all purposes, with one of them dying. Men who have challenged and will challenge kings, yes. Men who have called down the power and wrath of God in stunning and even violent displays of power, yes. All too true. But men who are, in the end, friends, fellow servants of God, mentor and follower, trying to figure out how to get through a parting and a transition of power. Dress it in fiery chariots and horses if you like, but in the end Elijah will be gone and Elisha will need to carry on alone.
The complex relationship depicted here is captured, perhaps, in the struggle between the men, repeated three times throughout the story: Elijah, like a dying elephant planning to escape to a quiet and solitary death in the jungle, keeps trying to leave Elisha behind: “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Bethel [or to Jericho, or to the Jordan].” Of course, really, what he’s trying to say is, “The Lord has sent me where you cannot follow.” And Elisha, who seems stuck in the denial phase of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, keeps making the same response: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Clearly, somebody is going to have to leave somebody. But it is up to the timing of God, because Elijah and Elisha just can’t seem to work it out.
In the end, it is a very human story. And if we look more closely at the work of both Elijah and Elisha, we will see that they are very human stories, too. In between displays of the wrath of God at the wickedness of certain rulers and prophets, Elijah and Elisha find themselves dependent upon the kindness of strangers. There are the impoverished and despairing widows for whom they provide never-ending supplies of oil and flour. There are the children of these same widows whom they raise from the dead. There is even a story of a few loaves stretched to feed more than a hundred people. These are miracles and healings that sound a lot like stories from the pages of the gospels, because these miracles and healings are not about bringing queens and kings and prophets to heel. Rather, they are about alleviating the suffering of the poor and distraught. These too are the stories of God’s extraordinary people.
The lectionary pairs this passage from 2 Kings with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, that moment when he and his disciples are on the mountain and suddenly the glory of God shines through him. And so that’s where I think this passage is pointing us this morning: glimpses of the glory of God shining through God’s extraordinary people.
Elijah and Elisha are both figures whose careers are full of the showy stuff of miracles… something we don’t necessarily see (or notice) on a regular basis in our daily lives. And surely, fiery chariots and partings of the water… surely these fall under the category of showy stuff. But is that the only place we see it… the glory of God shining through? Does the presence of God shine through only outside the realm of normal people, and inside the realm of heroes and mythic warriors, queens and prophets? Is it only the big, showy stuff? Or could it be that it is also the human core of this story in which we see the glory of God shining through?
Stay here, for the Lord has sent me where you cannot follow. I wonder whether the glory of God shines through Elijah as he plans to shield Elisha from whatever God has in store this day. There is something that is not much acknowledged in the stories of Elijah. He is, in some ways, a bit of a failure as a prophet. When God takes him up in the whirlwind, the evil Jezebel still sits upon the throne of Israel, despite his prophesies of her death. God has decommissioned Elijah, instructed him to name Elisha his successor, and Elijah may well fear whatever it is God has in store for him. Stay here, Elijah pleads with Elisha not once, but three times, for the Lord has sent me where you cannot follow. Is Elijah trying to protect Elisha? Is that just a hint of the glory of God shining through him?
As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you. This is the response of Elisha to his mentor’s attempts to get him to scram. Wherever you go, I will go. This is the response of one who knows that whatever may come, it will be hard. I will not forsake you. This is the response of the One who, even in our darkest hours, remains with us, abiding as fast falls the eventide. Is it possible that the glory of God shines through these simple, stubborn words of commitment and presence? Is it possible that one of the most godly things we can do is to stay with one another, when every rational argument points us in the direction of leaving, suggests the path of self-preservation?
And no… Let me be clear. I’m not talking about abusive relationships, in which the danger is inherent the relationship itself. I’m not advocating that anyone stay with an abuser. I’m talking about the hard work of accompanying one another through life’s trials. I’m talking about the loving spouse or partner, who maintains vigil in the scary days before and after surgery, or in the hard weeks and months at the end of life. I’m talking about the friend who is willing to listen to the hard story of the breakup of the marriage as it needs to be told and re-told. I’m talking about the child who cares for his parent, and the parent who cares for her child, even when that care demands just a little more of us than we think we are capable of giving. I’m talking about the ways in which we walk with one another when we don’t know what’s coming, but we know it might be scary. Is it possible that it is here we see the very glory of God shining through our human relationships?
Scripture is, after all, the story of our journeys, with God and with one another. Even when we are not a part of the big and flashy stuff, when our lives do not play out on the national or international stage, I am convinced that we can and will find our lives reflected here, even in the stories of spectacular, miracle-performing Old Testament prophets. After Elijah achieves lift-off, after God takes him for one last, fiery, crazy ride, we hear his successor—because the mantle has been passed—we hear Elisha crying out in what sounds like a mixture of awe and despair. “Father, father!” he cries. And when Elijah disappears from his sight, he takes his garments in his hands and tears them… a sign of deep mourning for a beloved family member.
In the end Elijah is gone and Elisha needs to carry on alone. And so he picks up Elijah’s mantle, taps the Jordan with it, and asks a question. “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asks. The water answers him. He watches as the river parts, and walks across. Elisha is able to perform this sign, it seems to me, because, as it turns out, he does not have to carry on alone: the God of Elijah is with him. The glory of God shines through him; he is one of God’s extraordinary people. And the glory of God will shine through him a few chapters later, when he is caring for a starving widow and her family, who are going through some hard days. And the glory of God shines through us, when we bring some extra cans of soup and boxes of oatmeal for the CHOW basket, because we know these are hard days. The glory of God shines through Elisha when he warms the body of a dead boy and brings him back to life. And the glory of God shines through us when we warm the body of a struggling person with a donated coat. The glory of God shines through Elisha when he heals Naaman the leper. And the glory of God shines through us when we offer a healing word to someone who is discouraged. Elijah and Elisha, you and me: we are all God’s extraordinary people. We all have the capacity to let the glory of God shine through us, in every act of kindness, every act of healing, every act of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.