Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12 Commentary
I once preached on this text during a worship service in which our church installed new leaders whom we call elders and deacons. At the time it seemed like its story of the transition from Elijah to Elisha’s leadership seemed appropriate.
Yet the Lectionary ends the Old Testament lesson it appoints for this Sunday with verse 12’s “And Elisha saw [Elijah] no more.” So those who don’t cross the Lectionary text’s boundaries leave our hearers “hanging,” as it were. Elisha can no longer see Elijah. End of story. As a result, if one were to apply the Lectionary text to church leadership transition, we’d have leaders leaving. We’d at least figuratively see them “no more.” However, we’d also have no new leaders.
The Lectionary’s Old Testament lesson’s verse 12 boundary even seems odd in combination with its appointed Gospel lesson. After all, Mark 9 describes how the Elijah who disappears at 2 Kings 2:12’s end reappears to Jesus and some of his disciples high on a mountain. But then he promptly disappears again so that no one can see him anymore again!
Yet in spite of all that, those who linger over the Lectionary’s Old Testament lesson may find some nuggets in it – even if they choose to end with verse 12.
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 follows him on his travels from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho. Along the way they encounter, among others, “the company of the prophets” (3). These were people 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 strange trip. He first leaves Gilgal, which is near the Jordan, his final destination. As Elijah travels the short distance to Jericho, he makes a detour to Bethel. It’s hard to know why 2 King describes this meandering, except to show that Elisha is determined to stick with Elijah – no matter what happens.
When he finally arrives at his destination, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the Jordan’s water with it. This parts the river 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 other side of the Jordan, Elijah asks his disciple what he can do for him before he leaves. Elisha answers by saying that he’d appreciate a double helping of his mentor’s spirit of prophecy. In other word, he treats his mentor as his father by asking for the inheritance Israelite fathers gave their oldest sons.
However, Elijah insists that before Elisha can inherit that double portion of his prophetic spirit, he must pass a rather strange test. Elisha must somehow see his mentor be taken from him up to heaven. While we sometimes think that happened in chariots of fire, verse 11 insists that Elijah goes up to heaven “in a whirlwind.” Other places in the Bible, such as Job 38 and Isaiah 29, link such a whirlwind to God’s action or revelation.
Elisha passes the test, according to verse 12, by seeing his mentor mysteriously disappear in this whirlwind. In response, he says something strange that we hear again only at his own death. “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”
Horsemen and chariots were fairly common symbols of royal power. 2 Kings 2’s particular horsemen and chariots are, however, in some ways extraordinary. After all, they’re horsemen and chariots of “fire,” (11) which the Old Testament so often links to God. They’re part of God’s unseen army, sometimes only visible to eyes of faith, that battles 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 against God’s enemies.
Yet this still leaves us to wonder why God associates weapons like fiery chariots and horsemen with prophets like Elijah and Elisha. A possible answer nudges us toward one of our text’s lessons for God’s adopted sons and daughters. God’s word is, after all, one of God’s most effective weapons. The Lord uses that word the Lord gives to prophets like Elijah to do things like challenge kings, defeat the Syrians and topple royal dynasties.
The need for God’s prophetic word through Elijah to King Ahab was particularly great. After all, while many of Israel and Judah’s kings wandered away from God, Elijah’s Israel’s King Ahab was particularly determined and systematic about apostasy. What’s more, his wife and he turned many Israelites away from the Lord and toward Baal during Elijah and Elisha’s time. So in such a dangerous time, God used those prophets to turn the tide of faithlessness.
Both those who proclaim and those who hear 2 Kings 2 today also live in a day of faithlessness. Many parts of our culture seem increasingly antithetical to the gospel. We are naturally wasteful, unjust and selfish. God calls God’s 21st century church to prophetically speak out against the evil of things like materialism, greed and waste.
Yet the things against which we speak out are in some ways even more powerful than ancient dynasties and countries. Military might can’t, after all, eradicate them. What’s more, our hearts, even after God has redeemed us, are stubbornly sinful and resistant to God’s will.
Thankfully, then, God’s prophets know that the word of God doesn’t just convey interesting information. It’s also, by God’s Spirit, a mighty force that affects what it speaks. Jeremiah, after all, called the prophetic word a “fire” that burned in his bones and a hammer that shatters rocks in pieces. As it turns out, Elisha’s words too will also be an effective weapon in God’s warfare against his enemies.
2 Kings 2, however, remains pretty mysterious. After all, as Scott Hoezee notes in an earlier Sermon Commentary on this text, it describes an apparently pointless trip that only Elijah’s inner drive seems to fuel. At every point along his way the prophet seems to want to separate himself from the ordinary world. 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. 2 Kings 2 takes place, after all, between the reigns of kings Ahaziah and Jehoram (2 Kings 1:17; 3:1). On top of all that, Elijah also ascends to heaven from a private place on the far side of the Jordan where only Elisha can witness it.
So this is a story about a realm where there is, as Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, (The Lectionary Commentary, The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts) “there is no time or place.” It alludes to the realm of eternity, the realm of God. 2 Kings 2’s is a mysterious realm that God now largely hides from ordinary eyes. God does, however, give, if still imperfect, glimpses of that heavenly kingdom to the eyes of faith.
This story, Achtemeier goes on, gives us a glimpse of the unseen world where there is both great power and no death. From that place the Lord sends God’s Son and Spirit to do mighty things. From that timeless place and reality God also providentially shapes our world. God even uses flawed but called prophets, including God’s adopted sons and daughters, to speak out for righteousness.
Yet even if those who proclaim 2 King 2 don’t rush past its truths to the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, Mark 9 may be a good place to eventually land. After all, it’s not just Elijah who disappears – twice. All of God’s prophets, including both those who proclaim 2 Kings 2 and those who hear it, also eventually disappear.
As a result, in a figurative sense, all we’re left with is Jesus. Yet it’s more than enough. After all, he’s the one to whom God calls us to listen – even when he graciously speaks through prophets like Elijah, as well as all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Among the United States’ most memorable transitions of authority was the one from Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman’s presidencies. President Roosevelt, of course, died very suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. The United States’ Constitution dictated that as Vice President, Truman immediately succeed him.
However, Roosevelt inadvertently left his successor a kind of “test.” Roosevelt had helped oversee the development of an atomic bomb. However, he seems to have largely kept Vice President Truman “in the dark” about it.
Shortly after Truman was sworn in as President of the United States, Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Harry Stimson, told him about a new and terrible weapon physicists were developing in New Mexico. Truman then had to decide whether to use that weapon on Japan.
People will perhaps always debate whether Truman “passed” that test when he decided to drop not one but two atomic bombs on Japan. But there’s no question the test required all of his wisdom and skill.
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