Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2016
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 Commentary
God doesn’t usually whisk presidents, pastors, church leaders and other workers up to the heavenly realm upon their retirement. Nor do their successors generally actually pick up their articles of clothing. Yet it’s appropriate to reflect on this Sunday’s appointed text anyway. God, after all, remains deeply interested in human leadership and its transitions.
2 Kings 2’s Elijah has known for a long time that Elisha will succeed him. Yet it’s almost as though he deliberately tries to shake his successor as he chases him from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho. Elijah repeatedly tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.
Along the way they encounter, among others, “the company of the prophets.” These were very early prophets whom the Lord used to counter both Israel’s’ kings claims to absolute power and false religions’ invasion of Israelite society.
Elijah meets several of these companies along his apparently pointless trip. Perhaps the Lectionary omits verses 3-5 because it’s hard to know why II Kings describes his meandering, except to show that Elisha is determined to stay right with Elijah. It also reinforces the company of prophets’ message that God is going to take Elijah away.
When he finally arrives at the Jordan River, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water with it. This parts the Jordan so that Elijah and Elisha can walk through it on dry ground, much as Israel earlier crossed the Jordan and even earlier crossed the Red Sea.
On the far side of the Jordan, Elijah asks his disciple what he can do for him before he leaves. Elisha answers by saying that he’d like a double share of his mentor’s spirit of prophecy. He’s treating his mentor as his father by asking for the inheritance Israelite fathers gave their oldest sons. Before Elisha can inherit a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, however, Elijah insists he must pass a rather strange test. Elisha must somehow watch mentor be taken from him up to heaven.
We sometimes think God took Elijah to heaven in the chariots of fire. However, verse 11 insists that Elijah goes up to heaven “in a whirlwind.” Other places in the Bible link such a whirlwind to God’s action or revelation. Elisha passes the test of succession, according to verse 12, by seeing his mentor mysteriously disappear in this whirlwind.
In response, Elisha says something strange that we hear again only at his own death. “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” (12). Clearly horsemen and chariots were fairly common symbols of royal power. These particular horsemen and chariots are, however, in some ways extraordinary. They’re horsemen and chariots of “fire,” which the Old Testament so often links to God. Twice II Kings they’re part of God’s unseen army, sometimes only visible to eyes of faith, battling God and Israel’s enemies.
So we sense that these fiery horsemen and chariots are God’s secret weapons. We might even equate them with some of God’s hosts of heaven with which God battles God’s enemies. Often the Old Testament describes “holy wars” in which God fights for God’s people. During the Exodus, as well as the time of the judges and Joshua, Israel’s battles are actually God’s battles.
Yet this still leaves us to wonder why God associates weapons like fiery chariots and horsemen with prophets like Elijah and Elisha? The answer nudges us toward one of our text’s lessons about leaders of all sorts. While even prophets are tempted to wield various weapons of war, God’s word is one of God’s most effective weapons. God uses the word God gives to prophets like Elijah and Elisha to do things like challenge kings, defeat the Syrians and topple royal dynasties.
The need for God’s prophetic word through Elijah and Elisha to King Ahab was particularly great. Many of Israel and Judah’s kings wandered away from God. However, the prophet’s contemporary, King Ahab, was particularly determined and systematic about it. So in such a dangerous time, God used God’s prophets to turn the tide of faithlessness.
2 Kings 2’s preachers and teachers may want to use this as an avenue to explore 21st century faithlessness. While many Americans still go to church, many parts of our culture seem increasingly antithetical to the gospel.
In this context, we commission church leaders to be kinds of prophets. The Christian Reformed Church’s Form of Ordination calls its elders to do things like “be compassionate, yet firm and consistent in rebuke and discipline.” God also expects them to gently speak out when those in our care fail to follow Jesus Christ.
The Form for Ordination also challenges deacons to “be prophetic critics of the waste, injustice and selfishness in our society,” and to “be sensitive counselors to the victims of such evil.” God expects our deacons to lead God’s people in speaking out against the evil of things like materialism, greed and waste.
The things against which God’s 21st century prophets speak out are in some ways even more powerful than the ancient dynasties and countries against which Elijah and Elisha spoke out. Our hearts, even after God has redeemed us, are stubbornly sinful and resistant to God’s will.
However, the word of God God’s people speak doesn’t just convey interesting information about our need for repentance. It’s also, by God’s Spirit, a mighty force that affects what it speaks. Jeremiah called the prophetic word a “fire” that burned in his bones and a hammer that shatters rocks in pieces.
God allows Elisha to see the hidden forces, the horsemen and chariots of God’s Word. This shows the Lord’s prophet that the Lord’s words will also be a weapon in God’s warfare against God’s enemies. Yet those who lead Christ’s Church may not see that weaponry with such clarity. The words we speak may not seem to change anything, much less topple dynasties and change human hearts. Yet, by God’s Spirit, Christians’ words and actions will be powerful.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, however, remains mysterious. After all, it describes Elijah’s apparently pointless trip that only some inner drive seems to fuel. At every point along his trip’s way he seems to want to separate himself from the ordinary world.
Elijah tries to get rid of Elisha who doggedly follows him. The company of the prophets knows that Elijah is going to be taken away, but Elisha won’t let them talk about it. And when Elisha and Elijah finally do reach the eastern shore of the Jordan, fiery manifestations of God’s power separate them.
What’s more, all of this happens in a kind of timelessness. It occurs, after all, between the reigns of kings Ahaziah and Jehoram. Elijah also ascends to heaven from a private place on the far side of the Jordan where only Elisha can witness it.
In short, this is a story about a realm where there is, as Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, “no time or place.” This story describes the realm of eternity, the realm of God. It’s a mysterious realm, a reality that now God hides from ordinary eyes. God does, however, give, if still imperfect, glimpses of that heavenly kingdom to the eyes of faith.
2 Kings 2 gives God’s people a glimpse of the unseen world where there is great power and death no longer exists. From that realm the Lord sends God’s Son and Spirit to do mighty things. From that timeless realm and reality God shapes our world. God even graciously uses flawed but called prophets like church leaders to speak out for righteousness.
2 Kings 2’s preachers and teachers also remember that Jesus calls all of us to stand in Elijah and Elisha’s prophetic tradition. We grieve with and for those whom violence, in its many ghastly forms, has victimized. In a time of much war and persecution, we weep with victims of things like poverty, starvation, abortion, various terror and war. We grieve injuries and loss of life on all sides.
However, we also see in this violence the need for our own confession. Sin, after all, muddies even our best intentions and efforts. Sin runs through every human heart and structure, as well as every human government. So Christians ask the Lord to forgive us for our sins of violence, both those we’ve committed and those we’ve allowed others to commit. We also ask the Lord to send us a renewed measure of God’s Spirit to rekindle in us our love for our neighbors.
However, even as we pray, we commit ourselves to humbly but boldly speaking out for peace. It’s not easy. In our highly politicized culture, after all, we sometimes see those who speak and work for peace as troublemakers. That’s why Christians seek to remember that our primary loyalty is not to any nation or political party, but to Christ’s kingdom.
Our world belongs, after all, to God. So even as we prophetically speak out to others and pray to the Lord, we commend our world to God’s care. After all, God loved it so much that God sent his Son to redeem it.
In a sermon on this passage, Samuel Wells tells the story of about a famous preacher whom he calls “a bit of a fraud.” After all, while the preacher’s sermons were great, no one ever realized that his staff assistant wrote them. The famous preacher, after all, never acknowledged all of the help his assistant gave him in preparing such marvelous messages.
Eventually the assistant’s patience ran out. So one day the preacher was speaking to thousands of eager listeners and at the bottom of page two read the rousing words, “And this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk, which is …” only to turn to page three and see nothing but the dreaded words, “You’re on your own now.”
Nearly ever pastor has felt like that famous preacher at one time or another. Even those who never plagiarized famous sermons have felt the weight and isolation of their calling. Perhaps that’s why we should long to hear people tell us not, “What a great sermon that was!” but “’The spirit of Elijah is resting on’ you.”
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