Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 Commentary
What a way to go! That’s my first reaction upon reading this story. People my age often talk about the end of life. Many want to live as long as they possibly can, to, say, a hundred, and then die peacefully in their sleep. Others want to go in their prime, after hitting a three hundred yard drive and then keeling over on the tee. Yeehaw! But this story presents a tantalizing alternative—not to die at all, just fly off to heaven in a fiery chariot carried by a whirlwind. What a way to go! What a story!
But how shall we preach it? Well, we could do what I did in my opening paragraph—pick up a dramatic detail in the story and run with it. Elisha’s refusal to leave Elijah could be the theme of a sermon on determination and commitment in our calling. Elijah’s answer to Elisha’s request for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit could be the occasion for a sermon on the importance of seeing God work. Or we could focus on Elisha’s seemingly frustrated question in verse 14, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah? It’s a question we often ask. Such an approach might yield sermons that are “biblical” and practical, but I wonder if they would capture the point of the text and lead to the kind of Christ centered sermon people really need?
I suggest another approach, an approach that pays more attention to the context of the text– not only the immediate context, but also the wider context, not only the chapters before and after this story, but the whole story of redemption. We need to see how this story connects with the story of how God redeemed his people from the powers of darkness, the powers of sin and suffering and Satan. How does this story relate to the story of Jesus and his love?
This story of Elijah and Elisha is set in the larger story of the Kings of Israel, who for the most part led Israel away from their covenant Lord. II Kings 1, for example, recounts how King Ahaziah responded to a health crisis in the midst of war. Instead of seeking a word from Yahweh in his time of need, he sent messengers to inquire of the Canaanite god, Baal-Zebub. Elijah, as he always did, opposed such Baal worship, because it was a violation of the First Commandment and a sure recipe for ruin. II Kings 3 picks up the disheartening story of the Kings of Israel again.
Thus, our story in II Kings 2 is set in the context of a bad time in the history of God’s people, a time of spiritual warfare that threatened the very existence of God’s kingdom on earth. Such a time required a strong prophetic ministry to call God’s people back to Yahweh alone. It was a time for the likes of Elijah. But now that Elijah’s ministry was coming to an end, there needed to be a prophet as strong as Elijah to take his place. That’s what our story is all about. In the midst of the stories of the Kings, we have this story of prophetic succession, on which the future of God’s Kingdom on earth depended. Who will speak for Yahweh in this time of national decline?
The story opens with a promising scenario. The famous Elijah is walking with the relatively unknown Elisha. The last time we heard about Elisha was back in I Kings 19 when Elijah, without a word, cast his prophetic cloak over farmer Elisha’s shoulders and walked away. Elisha dropped the reigns of his plowing oxen and followed Elijah. There is not another word about Elisha until he appears here, doing what he has presumably been doing all along, walking with Elijah, who somehow knows he is about to be taken up to heaven.
Is Elisha the One to take Elijah’s place on the front line of the battle with Baal? That is the question this story answers. First, we see Elisha’s commitment to Elijah and his mission. Three times Elijah tries to lose Elisha. “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel (and then Jericho and then the Jordan River).” What’s up with that? Why would Elijah ditch Elisha? Well, maybe he’s only testing Elisha’s determination. The battle with Baal requires a prophet who won’t quit when the going gets tough (as Elijah notoriously tried to do). Elisha passes the tests with flying colors. Three times he replies, “As surely as the Lord lives and as I live, I will not leave you.”
But, second, it takes more than human grit and determination to serve the Lord in hard times. It takes the Spirit of God. That’s what Elisha asks for. Impressed with Elisha’s commitment (or maybe weary of his dogged following), Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken away?” Without missing a beat, Elisha replies, “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” He knows that he doesn’t have what it will take to persevere in the battle ahead. He needs the spirit that has empowered and emboldened Elijah.
Two things need noting. First, we cannot prove that Elisha is asking for the Holy Spirit. Nothing in the Hebrew is Trinitarian. But knowing what we know this side of Pentecost, it is clear that the spirit that moved in Elijah was the Spirit that transforms all believers into prophets (and priests and kings). Elisha may not have known that, but he knew that he needed what Elijah had.
Second, his request for a “double portion” wasn’t greed. It was a request in keeping with ancient Israeli inheritance laws. He was asking to be treated as the elder son, who received twice as much as the rest of the family. I’ve followed you faithfully; now treat me as your favored son. Give me the most precious thing you have—your spirit, what makes you the prophet for this hour in history. There is a company of prophets over there (verse 7), but I don’t want to be one of them. I want to be the One, like you.
Elijah knows that he cannot give what Elisha asks; “you have asked a difficult thing.” Only God can give this. All I can do is tell you to keep your eyes open, pay attention, so that “you see me when I am taken from you….” If you do that, if you keep walking by faith, which is able to see the unseen (cf. Heb. 11:1 and 27 and II Cor. 4:18), “it will be yours.”
As you preach on this text, you will have to decide how much you want to make of this connection between seeing and believing. Some scholars make much of it, not only because of the kind of texts I’ve just listed, but also because it is obvious that we cannot be prophets of the one true God unless we truly believe in the work of that invisible God. One scholar insists that the 50 prophets who stood on the other side of the Jordan did not witness the assumption of Elijah. “To senses dulled by passion or blinded by materialism, the space occupied by the flaming seraphim would have seemed devoid of special interest and as bare as the rest of the surrounding scenery.” (F.B. Meyer) Only faith could see what Elisha saw. Only faith that saw the work of God could sustain a prophet in the upcoming battles.
So, is Elisha the God-ordained successor of Elijah? He has commitment. He has faith. But has God given him a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit? Here’s comes the big test. After grieving the loss of Elijah, Elisha picks up Elisha’s cloak and strikes the water of the Jordan with it, as Elijah had done moments before. The waters parted for Elijah. Would they part for Elisha? He has the same cloak, the same instrument, but the power is not in the instrument. It is in God. Is God with Elisha?
That’s what Elisha asks in verse 14. “Where now is the Yahweh, the God of Elijah?” One commentator claims that the Hebrew of verse 14 suggests that Elisha had to strike the water twice; the first time didn’t work. That’s why he asked the question, as though to say, “I watched, I saw, as Elijah said, but now where is Yahweh?” It’s the question we ask when we have been faithful and committed, but God doesn’t show up as he has promised.
But then God does show up. The water “divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over,” as Elijah had, as Joshua had, as Moses had. Elisha is the successor of Elijah, God’s person for that hour, as the 50 prophets announce in verse 15.
The reason I mentioned Joshua and Moses above is that the narrator has taken great pains to connect Elisha to that larger story of redemption. Both Elijah and Elisha are prophets like Moses (Deut. 18), who will lead God’s people to victory in the battle with the gods of the nations. That is obvious in the striking and parting of the water. What isn’t so obvious is the significance of the locations that the two prophets visited—Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan. Those are the places Israel visited first when they invaded the Promised Land, but in reverse order. Further, Elijah’s end, like Moses’ death, occurred outside the Promised Land, on the other side of the Jordan.
Finally, the enigmatic mourning cry of Elisha in verse 12 is a confession of faith about the heart of the battle for the Kingdom. Elisha is not only mourning the loss of his newly adoptive father, but he is also claiming that Elijah is the “chariots and horses of Israel.” The battle will be won, not by the kings and their armies, but by the prophets who speak the Word of God. It is God who won the battles over Egypt and its gods and over Canaan and its gods. And it will be God who will defeat Baal and his cohorts, though the work of prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
Elisha stands in the line of Moses and Joshua and Elijah. Indeed, Elisha is Elijah’s Joshua, who crossed the Jordan after Moses death. Elisha means “God saves,” while Joshua means, “Yahweh saves.” All of those great prophets were the forerunners for Jesus who was the fulfillment of that line. He actually was Yahweh saving his people (Matt. 1:21). He and he alone can defeat “the powers of darkness grim.” He alone was faithful unto death, even death on the cross. He alone was filled with the Spirit so that he could withstand the temptation of the devil and sustain the tests of his faith. He alone did the work of the invisible God, not only as the chief prophet, but also as the perfect priest and the victorious king. And he alone was taken up to God after his death and resurrection. To which the law and the prophets bear witness, most notably on the Mount of Transfiguration, where in the presence of Moses and Elijah God said, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
In the end, this story calls us to be prophets like Elisha, because only such men and women can stand in the Battle against Baal. That’s what Jesus was saying at the end of that dramatic conversation with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” When Jesus asked what they thought, “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Perhaps alluding to the likes of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus spoke those earthshaking words about the church; “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:13-18)
In my referring to Elisha as “the One,” movie buffs will hear echoes from the classic movies about “The Matrix.” In a world dominated by computers that produce the virtual matrix in which humans live, there is a group of rebels whose mission is to destroy the computers and liberate people from the matrix. The rebels are brave and ingenious and committed, but their victory depends on some as yet unknown hero. They call him “the One.” He finally comes in the person of Keanu Reeves. Endowed with special powers and an indomitable spirit, he battles the powers that be. Though the Baals are powerful and the battle is long and hard, the One finally prevails, even though it costs him his life.
In the second to last paragraph above, I’ve borrowed words from a wonderful old Reformed confession. In case you’d like to use them in your liturgy for this Sunday, here’s the whole quote. “Why is Jesus called ‘Christ’ meaning ‘anointed?’ Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed by the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.” (Q and A 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism)
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