Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2024
2 Kings 2:1-12 Commentary
On grief and staying the course
From the outset of this story, the reader knows what is about to transpire. This is a story about, among other things, the valley of the shadow of death. It’s right there in the first clause of the first verse: “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind.” However, just because the narrator has clued us in, we are still left to wonder whether the two main characters walking side-by-side through this story know where they are headed. Elijah’s stubborn insistence that his protege leave him suggests he is hoping to save his friend from pain and therefore at least suspects what is to come. Elisha’s even more stubborn insistence that he isn’t turning back — no way, no how — even as he silences the warnings of others suggests he, too, knows the sorrow that lies ahead, even as he marches boldly toward it.
Although it is only a segment of one verse, we mustn’t forgo the sadness and visceral grief Elisha feels in this moment. He had the unique experience of seeing his loved one taken directly into heaven, an experience many long for in releasing a loved one to death. But even Elisha’s unique privilege does not dampen the feeling of loss expressed as he cries out and tears his clothes. Even if the eternal life of our loved one is secure, the weight of their absence from our lives is painful, therefore well, truly and righteously expressed in tears, lament and sadness.
On “Crossing Over”
When God parts the water of the Red Sea for Moses, God’s people cross over from slavery into freedom. When God parts the waters of the Jordan River for Joshua, God’s people cross over from desert to Promised Land. The theme of “crossing over” is significant in Scripture and is always marked by a movement from death to life. The various crossings in Scripture are not lost in this scene. According to the Berit Olam commentary, these historical antecedents are absorbed into this scene as Elijah and Elisha “cross the border of normal human experience in anticipation of Elijah’s remarkable departure.”
Following on from verse 12, and beyond the scope of the lectionary pericope, it is instructive that Elisha crosses back over the Jordan, wielding Elijah’s mantle to part the waters. The text quickly moves him back through the movements that brought he and Elijah to verse 12: Elisha 1) deals with those sons of prophets again, 2) passes through Jericho, 3) then Beth-el 4) until he returns to Samaria. This progression completes the chiastic structure established in the first 12 verse and gives us a profound, if understated, illustration of traveling back into time and ordinary life after the strange suspension of grief.
In addition to this text reaching backward to God parting the waters for Moses and Joshua, this text reaches forward into the New Testament, a pairing the Lectionary holds up for us to observe.
On the mountaintop with his disciples, Jesus is visited by Moses and Elijah. Even Mark with his notorious rush to get the story out spares time in the details of this scene. Jesus clothes are “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Peter was frightened. The whole hiking group was swallowed up in clouds, hearing a voice from heaven, as they had done at Jesus’ baptism.
The whole scene is otherworldly and, in a similar way, Elijah and Elisha step out of “real life” in which death is unavoidable and fiery chariots are scarce, to be present with God and one another. The text of II Kings marks this otherworldliness by avoiding its regular convention of setting each story in time by reference to whichever king was on the throne at the time. According to Berit Olam commentary, “whereas royal successions are viewed as natural, this tale stresses the direct divine intervention that ends the career of Elijah and empowers Elisha.”
Another strange similarity between the two stories is the requests for silence. Nothing in the text indicates that Elisha is angry, harsh or rebuking when he responds to the prophets foretelling Elijah’s death. One translation offers Elisha’s words simply as, “I know. Let’s not talk about it.” The text leaves us alone with our imagination to wonder what was in Elisha’s heart and mind at this moment, trudging toward the impending absence of his spiritual father. Meanwhile, at the end of the Transfiguration, Jesus does what he often does in Mark’s version of events, he commands the disciples not to go spreading this story around. Many Bible scholars believe this is because, without the whole death-resurrection-ascension part of the story, any telling of Jesus’ life was prone to radically miss the point. We might wonder about the similarities and dissimilarities of the silences commanded in these stories.
A distinction we can draw between Elijah and Elisha and Jesus and his three nearest disciples is that the latter ask to stay in this strange in-between space forever. Peter asks Jesus, “Can we bask in this glory forever?” But when Elisha is made the offer of a request, he asks to be filled up and prepared with strength for what is coming next. Note that he is not asking, as it may sound in the English, to be twice as great as Elijah. Rather, he is likely referring to the Deuteronomic law that a father grant his eldest son/heir a double portion of the inheritance. So a translation of the meaning, if not the exact words, might indicate that Elisha is asking Elijah, “Make me your heir.” The narrator demonstrates that God has granted Elisha’s request by, for starters, having Elisha use Eijah’s mantle to similarly part the waters. In this way he demonstrates that he has inherited Elijah’s prophetic power.
Bible scholar NT Wright often speaks of “thin places” in Scripture and human life — places where the thick curtain that usually hangs between heaven and earth is drawn back and, for a moment, only a gauzy veil hangs between time and eternity. Seasoned pastors will tell you they’ve heard these stories more than they might have expected to — especially the most matter-of-fact Calvinists among us. They might also tell you how frequently these stories emerge out of seasons of loss and grief, in hospital rooms and at home hospice bedsides. Those “thin places” become gifted holy ground in the lives of the saints.
It is no mistake that Transfiguration Sunday bumps up against the start of Lent, a season of repentance, of turning toward the cross and preparing for death. Transfiguration invites us to search for the “thin places” along this path we traverse each year — well-worn but no less holy — through the valley of the shadow of death.
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