Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2022
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 Commentary
There’s no getting around it: this is a very curious story. It’s also a story with some good old-fashioned suspense, a bit of intrigue, and some humor. The writer tips off us readers right from the get-go of verse 1 to say that Elijah was departing via a whirlwind. The way the writer just drops in that startling little detail lets you know he was writing this for people already well-acquainted with how the great prophet Elijah departed this earth.
After all, if you are addressing a group of people who have no idea that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, then you are unlikely to begin by saying, “So anyway, on the day when Kennedy was shot . . .” If you did that in front of people who have no idea he had died terribly, they’d stop you and say, “Whoa, wait a second—Kennedy was killed?! When did that happen?”
But you sense here that no one reading 2 Kings 2 had that reaction—they knew how this story ended already and so the author is filling in the details of the final days of the great prophet. Maybe that is the part of the story that was less familiar.
And it is a funny little story. Elijah keeps trying to take leave of Elisha and Elisha keeps insisting he’d not hear of it. No way was he going to miss spending his master’s last minutes with him. It happens three times in a row in identical language. Was Elijah testing Elisha’s faithfulness? Was he trying to spare him a tearful farewell? Was Elijah himself a little confused as to what he was supposed to do?
The text offers nary a clue. Instead we just get this sequence of vignettes with Elijah shooing Elisha away, Elisha coming along anyway, a group of prophets informing Elisha of Elijah’s imminent departure, and Elisha’s then shushing up those prophets as something he just didn’t care to go in to. Maybe it was too painful for Elisha. He obviously loves his master, as is clear at the end of the story when he cries out to him “My father! My father!”
So weaving in and through this repetitive tale are two servants of God who really love each other and care for each other. For his part, Elijah has one last divine miracle up his sleeve as he snaps the Jordan with his coat only to have it part for him. And then he asks what he can do for Elisha, who asks to be made just like his master Elijah only more so.
Next thing you know we get this fiery display from heaven that about blinds and disorients all who saw it and when the fire and wind and dust had cleared, Elijah was just gone. Elisha then as much as says, “Well, let’s see if God has given me any of my master’s moxie” and so repeats the little trick of parting the Jordan River and once that actually works, everyone knows Elisha is God’s anointed heir for the great prophet.
Still, the company of prophets wants to make really sure that shifting their allegiance to Elisha is a good thing to do so they sent out a search-and-rescue party for Elijah just in case that whole fiery chariot thing had been a mirage such that Elijah was wandering lost somewhere. They don’t find him, of course, prompting Elisha to utter the ancient equivalent of “Duh! Told you he was gone!” And from that point on and in upcoming chapters Elisha becomes the center of attention and the source of a whole bunch of miracles, some of which will tend to be on the small and mundane side of things (getting an axe head to float, fixing a badly prepared soup) and some of which will be quite amazingly spectacular indeed.
But what are we preachers supposed to make of this story in 2 Kings 2? I suppose there are some meta-lessons that could be drawn from it involving God’s faithfulness in always raising up a new generation of leaders or how amazing God’s Spirit is in communicating with so many people at once (how did all those companies of prophets know Elijah was to depart just then?).
Perhaps, though, we can center on the simple idea that there is such a thing as friendship such as the one between Elijah and Elisha and that this is a profoundly good thing that we sometimes don’t celebrate in the church today. But the Bible frequently shows close kinship among friends and even though in Matthew’s Gospel (as Tom Long once pointed out to me) it’s never a good thing to be called “friend,” mostly in the rest of the New Testament “friend” is a very positive term. Jesus calls his disciples friends and there is even a sense in which the various fruit of the Spirit such as the Apostle Paul details in Galatians 5 had as much to do about allowing good friendships to form and be maintained as any other higher or more noble purpose. Urging gentleness and kindness over rudeness or gossip, for instance, surely goes a long way toward propping up and sustaining good relationships, including those among friends and acquaintances in the church.
Elijah and Elisha were inseparable until that time came when separation was forced upon them. But because of their close bonds and because Elijah had gently mentored Elisha for a long time, Elisha was able to carry on in the spirit of his departed friend and mentor in ways that would prove vital to Israel in his day. Maybe that’s a too simple lesson to draw from this story and maybe it doesn’t seem to lead to any kind of an inspiring sermon. But just maybe there is something to this detail and facet of this story—something perhaps worth savoring.
From Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark (Harper Row 1988)
“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” the Book of Exodus says (33:11) and in the Book of Isaiah it is God himself who says the same thing of Abraham. “Abraham, my friend,” he calls him (41:8). It is a staggering thought.
The love of God. The mercy of God. The judgment of God. You take the shoes off your feet and stand as you would before a mountain or at the edge of the sea. But the friendship of God?
It is not something God does. It is something Abraham and God, or Moses and God, do together. Not even God can be a friend all by himself apparently . . . Is it a privilege only for patriarchs? Not as far as Jesus is concerned at least. “You are my friends” he says, “if you do what I command you.” The command, of course, is “to love one another,” as he puts it. To be his friends, that is to say, we have to be each other’s friends, conceivably even lay down our lives for each other. You never know (John 15:12-15). It is a high price to pay, and Jesus does not pretend otherwise, but the implication is that it’s worth every cent. (p. 50)
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