2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
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.
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.
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 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.
When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. They said to him, “See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants; please let them go and seek your master; it may be that the spirit of the Lord has caught him up and thrown him down on some mountain or into some valley.” He responded, “No, do not send them.” But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send them.” So they sent fifty men who searched for three days but did not find him. When they came back to him (he had remained at Jericho), he said to them, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?”
Unless you are a parent, a business founder, or a charismatic cult leader, you are not likely to be the first person in any job. There is always the person who came before you and living in community with those who knew them, you will meet with expectations and practices which were built up in a community and more likely than not you will butt against a few of them. No matter how peaceful a transfer of power is, the unspoken presuppositions of a position will come and rear their head.
In particular, transfers of position in the church can cause a lot of trouble. People become attached to their pastors, and if they have been there for any amount of time that attachment will be extreme. It is not limited to pastors either – new council chairs, new mission leaders, Sunday school teachers – all these spiritual workers must undergo some amount of transition and deal with comparisons with the person who came before them. It is an inevitability, and it will only differ in terms of the degree to which people desire to have their expectations subverted by a new person with a new vision.
Today’s scripture takes us through one of the most difficult transitions in the history of God’s people. The greatest prophet in the history of Israel, appointed to inherit the legacy of Moses, was about to end their time on earth and be taken up into Heaven. Elijah was going far away and Elisha was to take up their position and lead the people in a new way. This story does not give us much in the way of transition strategies for those of us within churches, but it does give us a message of God’s faithfulness across generations of spiritual workers. In particular, I hope this message from scripture will give some hope to those of us who – effective July 1, 2019 – are entering into new pastoral roles in the United Methodist Church. Lord, in your mercy.
The beginning of this scripture takes us through the final mission of Elijah. He is led by God from Gilgal to Bethel – a journey that would take about 15 hours to complete on foot. Gilgal is the first stepping stone of the Israelites into the Holy Land. Beginning their final journey here makes it clear that this is a mission built up from the history of Israel, not one that is divorced from its context or from those who went before. The long winding path would have gone past no major cities – it was a walk through the wilderness, through untamed land.
As we enter into a new ministry, we come into an untamed land. This is not to say that we come into an untended environment, neglected by any means. However, the path which we are brought through must highlight the areas of our ministry areas that are so far untapped. A church is like a farmhouse sitting on a massive amount of land. The work of the church will slowly begin to cultivate land, grow crops that produce fruit, and eventually expand to cultivate land that was never worked before. Whenever we enter into a new position or a new church we have to look and take stock of all the places that have been cultivated before, are being cultivated now, and will be cultivated in the future.
To travel through and take stock does not mean that make ourselves critics of the previous work, saying how much better we could have worked in these circumstances. It does mean that we have to honestly look at what has been done and make a plan for the future. That plan may involve some changes, it may mean staying on course as the church always has before. It is necessary, all the same, that we are aware of the lands that we are entering into. That we take time to enter in and understand before we begin to act. We cannot take up the mantle of those who have come before us unless we truly understand one another. Understanding is the key to all cooperation; it is the foundation of true community.
The second leg of their journey ran from Bethel to Jericho. Again Elisha is told that he would do better to stay in Gilgal, the path that has been laid before Elijah is long and as they return to the Jordan they now have to go through a large expanse of mountains. While their previous journey through the wilderness allowed them to follow along valleys, the two now have to pass through the harsh mountains which lead to the river. Their journey would take them across peaks and through valleys that would result in a descent of nearly 3,000 feet.
We can see this in two complementary interpretations. As we move closer to the Jordan, to the point when we cross over into our new role, we do so with difficulty. We are leaving behind the work that we have done and going into unknown territory. We are passing through new worlds which we have never seen before. There are new and unseen dangers in this area – around every corner, we may face an adversary, or maybe find a new ally.
Crossing the mountains, we can see the land that stretches out before us, and all the land that lies behind. This is a time for reflection. What has brought us to this moment in our lives? What have we done in the past and what might we do in the future? The journey is the final steps before we take up our mantle, and what can we do with it? Hopefully, we learn, we understand that our path has not just been us walking alone toward our goals – it is a journey that God has supported at every step.
The ultimate lesson of this comes in the moment that we arrive at our destination. Jericho – the first obstacle which the Israelites faced in their entrance to the Holy Land. It was an insurmountable obstacle which became nothing through the power of God. Though we walk through the difficult paths of ministry, God is always ready to remove the obstacles in our lives. The physical symbol of Jericho reminds us of the spiritual reality, God is with us and God is advocating for us.
The final path across the Jordan is the moment that we take on our responsibility. There is never a moment in which someone in the Biblical Narrative crosses the Jordan and is unchanged by the process. It is here that the Israelites transitioned from wanderers to a people with a home, it is here that Christ began his mission, it is here that impure waters become the means of purifying a people and a world. The passage through the Jordan is the moment of no return, we enter as one person and exit as another.
For Elisha, this meant crossing the river as an apprentice and leaving as a prophet. The work he did with Elijah was just the beginning. The taking up of Elijah represents us the final departure of the person we follow. They are taken up by God and sent to something new, something fundamentally different than what they were doing before.
For the person left behind, there is no trace of them except for their mantle. In taking up that piece of cloth they become something new, they hold all the authority and responsibility that that cloth represents. Taking on a title – becoming a pastor or a council chair or whatever it may be – is taking on a mantle. When you enter into a new position to lead, then you inherit everything that that title means. This does not mean that you become an authoritarian who constantly points to their title as justification, but it does mean that you owe all people you serve what the title suggests – more on that in a moment.
When we take up a mantle we do not do so alone though. We are able to seize the promise which is extended to Elisha. If we follow God all the way through this journey toward our new roles, then God will give us a double share of the Spirit of those who have preceded us. Again, this is not a declaration of our innate skill or that we will be any more glorious or praiseworthy as those who have gone before. God is faithful, and God will do wonders. This is the truth of our ministry and what we must hold to.
God’s faithfulness allows us to pursue even the most difficult appointments. We go forward as people who are anointed not only by the authorities of the Church, but by the Lord God! We cannot shy away from this promise, and we must be willing to accept the responsibility and the abilities that will come from this. A double share of the Spirit allows us to take up our charge, it allows us to use our abilities for the good of our people and our God.
It is the double share of Spirit that allows us to come into our new position and for people to see us and say, “The Spirit of Elijah rests upon them.” The same Spirit that did wonders in the past allows us to do wonders now. God endorses our ministry as long as we stay in that Spirit, follow their movements, do all that we are led to. As said before, the Spirit holds all true authority and power, we must respect that and act as people of the Cross.
There will be resistance. There will be struggles that arise naturally and people who oppose the work which is to be done. Some people will want things to be the way they were, for the new leader to be exactly like the old. These are the people who will send 50 people to any and every mountain they can to try and get Elijah back. Elijah has moved on though, God has taken them somewhere else, somewhere to do works previously unimagined.
The mission goes on though. The Spirit moves and Elisha takes his place in Israel. We all go forward now, in this season of change, as people transferring mantles to one another. Let us not do so with pride or jealousy, but in all places with a Spirit of peace – with the Spirit of God. May God give us all a double share, and may the pat we tread rise up to meet us. – Amen