The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have done us preachers a real favor by pairing this Old Testament reading with the story of Jesus Transfiguration in Mark 9. This juxtaposition of texts will save us from preaching on the importance of mentoring (as many folks will do because the relationship between Elijah and Elisha is an obvious feature of this story). The presence of Elijah at Jesus’ transfiguration tells us that this story from II Kings 2 is ultimately about the Messiah. It reveals how Elijah could appear bodily on that mountain with the Christ and, more importantly, why he would be there. In a word, this story about Elijah and Elisha is the backstory of the Transfiguration.
To understand that, we must recall the historical setting of this Old Testament story. Israel is in a long slow death spiral, because of its wicked kings and sinful people. That descent into chaos and exile took over 200 years for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and nearly 350 years for the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In other words, it took God over 3 centuries to finally impose the curses of the Torah on a stiff necked and rebellious nation. Truly, Yahweh was “slow to anger and abounding in love.” Among the signs of his love for his sinful people were the twin gifts of Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah was the great prophet in the time of Israel’s death spiral. Oh, there were some people who functioned as part time prophets early in that decline (David’s Nathan, for example). And the great writing prophets would come later. But Elijah was the first full time prophet at a crucial stage of Israel’s decline. One of those part time prophets was Moses who laid down the Law/Torah that formed 12 wandering tribes into a duly constituted nation. Elijah was sent to rescue that nation from its violations of Torah and to call them back to an exclusive commitment to Yahweh. Moses and Elijah were the two great iconic figures in Israel’s history, along with Abraham and David.
Our text is in the Bible so that we can be sure both Elijah and Elisha were God’s specially designated prophets. In a world full of false prophets, a world where it is devilishly hard to discern the Good News from fake news, God wanted to make sure that everyone knows these two spoke the Truth from God.
The exquisite craftsmanship of the story is designed to guarantee that we get that point. The opening verse announces what will happen. “When Yahweh was about to take Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind….” That line is designed to stop the reader in her tracks. Wait! What? We’ve been following Elijah through his bloody battle with Baal’s prophets on Mt. Carmel, a battle that ended with Israel finally confessing, “Yahweh—he is God!” And we’ve watched him run for his life as the Baal worshipping Ahab and Jezebel pursued him to the borders of the Promised Land, where his depression is broken by that “still small voice.” Now, suddenly we’re told that “Yahweh was about to take Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind.”
How can that be? How will that happen? And what will become of prophecy with the main prophet gone? That’s what the elaborately stylized details of the story tell us. First, Elijah is accompanied by his loyal understudy, Elisha, who has already been designated as his successor in I Kings 19:19ff. They are on a farewell tour of the 3 “schools of the prophets” in Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho. Is Elijah looking for his replacement? No, his visits are designed to alert the prophets and Elisha to the upcoming departure of Elijah. In each place, Elijah tries to get Elisha to stay behind, but each time Elisha declines, using exactly the same words. The prophets tell Elisha what’s happening, in exactly the same words. In this tree-fold repetition, the action of Yahweh is the point—Yahweh sent, Yahweh is going to take, as Yahweh lives. The imminent disappearance of Elijah and the designation of Elisha is Yahweh’s doing.
To make sure that Elisha is not the only witness of this transition, fifty prophets stood at a distance facing the place where the two prophets crossed the Jordan. They saw Elijah roll up his robe into something that looked like a staff (Moses?) and then strike the river with it. As at the Red Sea with Moses and at the Jordan with Joshua, the water parted, and the twin E’s walked out of the Promised Land on dry ground.
That’s where Elijah asked the crucial question, “What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” In what initially sounds like a greedy answer, Elisha says, “Give me a double portion of your spirit.” But he wasn’t asking for twice the power or influence of his mentor. He was simply asking to be Elijah’s oldest son. The inheritance laws of the day gave a double portion of the inheritance to the oldest son. Elisha was asking to be Elijah’s legitimate son, an heir to the mantel of prophecy. “Let me be your beloved son, so that people will listen to me as I speak the word of God.”
Elijah knows that he can’t bestow that gift. Only God can give his Spirit and make a true prophet. Elijah can only tell Elisha the secret of being a prophet—keep your eyes open to the actions of God. “If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours….”
As they were walking along, getting farther and farther from the prophetic witnesses, “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” Like Moses, Elijah was taken away outside the Promised Land with no grave to be found. Like Enoch, Elijah did not die and have his body rot in the ground until the resurrection at the Last Day. His body went immediately to heaven, so that it could appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
That ultimate Epiphany of Jesus Transfiguration was a transformative moment for the three disciples who witnessed it (II Peter 1). So was this moment for Elisha. In spite of the fiery epiphany, Elisha did not look away in fear. Instead, he “saw this.” And what he saw revealed something he didn’t know before, as we hear in his cry, “My Father, My Father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel!” All his life he had seen the physical chariots and horsemen of Israel; now he saw the heavenly hosts that had been there all along and would always be there.
These fiery beings were the real defense of Israel. They were the real source of Israel’s salvation. So, later, when Elisha and his servant were surrounded by the army of Aram, he told his terrified servant, “Those who are with us are more than those who ae with them.” And when he prayed for God to open the servant’s eyes so he could see, the servant looked and “saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around them (II Kings 6:16-17).”
But Elisha saw Elijah “no more.” And he was grief stricken, so he tore his clothes in sorrow. But apparently an article of clothing had floated down from the whirlwind. It was Elijah’s robe. Though our reading stops before this little detail, it is a big deal, so we can’t omit it. Elisha walked back to the Jordan, and in full view of those 50 prophets rolled up that robe into a staff and struck the water. As had happened for Elijah, the Jordan parted. And the 50 prophets fulfilled their God given role as witnesses. They bowed down to Elisha and said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting upon Elisha.” The transition is complete. There is still a Prophet among the prophets, even though the Main Prophet is now in heaven.
But the Bible doesn’t forget Elijah. He becomes a Messianic figure or, more accurately, a forerunner of the Messiah. After mentioning Moses, the last book of the Old Testament concludes with this promise, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes….(Mal. 4:5)” When Zechariah was told that he would have a son, the angel of the Lord said, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).” When Jesus disciples were doubting that he really was the Messiah because Elijah had not yet come, Jesus replied, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but they did not recognize him….” Then, says Matthew 17:13, “the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”
But the actual Elijah had come, too, in the Transfiguration that had occurred earlier in Matthew 17. Now we know how it was possible that the body of Elijah could appear from out of nowhere to stand with Jesus. And now know why it happened. Moses and Elijah were the great representatives of God in the Old Testament. One had spoken for God at the birth of Israel and the other as it began to die. They were his faithful witnesses, his beloved sons whom he sent so that his people could listen to his Voice. Now, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are in the presence of that Incarnate Voice in order to bear witness to Peter, James, and John that this one is The One. All the work that Moses and Elijah had tried and failed to do, Jesus will do perfectly. “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”
But Jesus Christ did not come only to be the Prophet to whom we should listen. As the accounts of the Transfiguration in Luke (9:30) and Mark (9:10) suggest, Jesus also came to die and rise from the dead. We will fail to heed his teachings, but Jesus came to die for our sins and rise for our justification (Romans 4:25).
The blazing chariot and horses that represent the armies of Yahweh reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ persistent efforts to imagine what angels look like. In his space trilogy, he populates other worlds with eldila, which are invisible, sort of. In Perelandra, two eldila are trying to make themselves visible to Ransom. “And suddenly two human figures stood before him, perhaps 30 feet high. They were burning white, like white hot iron. The outline of their bodies… seemed to be faintly, swiftly undulating as though the permanence of their shape, like that of waterfalls or flames co-existed with a rushing movement of the matter it contained….” As he moves through the planets of our solar system, Ransom becomes aware that the air around him is filled with these eldila, which reminded me of Jesus words in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Don’t you know that I could have called 10000 angels.” They were and are present all the time.
The idea that the story of Elijah and Elisha might have happened so that Elijah could be there as a witness on the Mount of Transfiguration—that ridiculous idea hints at the incredible complexity of God’s plan to save the world. Every detail, every nuance, every person is an important part of that plan. And that thought reminded me of the old saying by Benjamin Franklin about a nail.
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
All for the want of a horseshoe—nail.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 14, 2021
2 Kings 2:1-12 Commentary