2 Kings 2:1-13
photo credit: Nonac_Digi via photopin cc
When I was growing up we had a small terrier, Daisy. For all practical purposes she looked like a light brown Toto from the classic, Judy Garland Wizard of Oz. Daisy was a great little dog, and, of course, a bit spoiled. OK. More than a bit. But we loved her. She was our girl.
Daisy, like most dogs I know of, had a bit of a problem, though, when vacation time came. The problem was that she didn’t get to go. Whenever those suitcases were pulled out of the closets and the clothes started to pile in them, Daisy got into a funk. She moped around the house, got underfoot, barked to go out more than necessary, then barked to come back in. I can remember one time when I was packing, I had gone down the hall to the laundry room to get some clothes from the dryer and when I returned Daisy had packed herself. There she was, this cute little dog, smack dab in the middle of my suitcase, comfortable in a pile of clean t-shirts and socks. I don’t think she wanted to come with me as much as she just didn’t want me to go.
That’s what I hear in Elisha’s voice this morning. I don’t think he wants to wander all over Israel with Elijah as much as he just wants Elijah to stay with him. But that just isn’t in the cards for either of them.
It’s declared right there for us from the start. “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven….” I have to believe from the way the story unfolds that both Elijah and Elisha knew it too. In fact, from what we hear EVERYONE knew it. And so, it seems Elijah needs to get packing for his farewell tour. Elisha is beside himself. He’s not ready for this time to come; he’s not ready to be on his own prophesying in the land, speaking God’s word, healing and leading God’s people. Elisha all but crawls in the suitcase between them – just to stay near Elijah to squeeze every nugget of wisdom, every ounce of blessing he can out of his master.
More than sensing his anxiety, Elijah tries to protect his protégé, his friend. “Stay here,” he says. Elijah doesn’t see any need for Elisha to come along and witness all that he needs to do to tie things up, wrap up his business. He doesn’t see any need to prolong this difficult and painful good-bye. But Elisha sees it entirely differently. Again, he doesn’t so much want to travel from here to there to anywhere as much as he just doesn’t want to be separated from Elijah, “…as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” He climbs into the suitcase.
And who can blame him? Elijah is his teacher, his mentor, someone so close he calls him “Father! Father!” He is the greatest prophet any of them have seen, the greatest any of them could ever have imagined since Moses. Who would be ready to see him go?
Certainly not Elisha. He knows it’s going to happen, though, and he knows it’s going to happen soon. And the thought of it, the stress of it, has him torn up inside and out. He is, in an over-used and understated word, stressed. He worries about his future. He worries about his ability to effectively follow God. He worries about being alone. He worries about serving God’s people. He worries about losing his teacher. He worries about his credibility. He worries about what death will be like. He worries about the things he doesn’t even know how to worry about yet.
He is filled with fear and worry and grief and sadness and self-pity and feelings of insignificance and incompetence all at the same time. And what about that horrible Greek chorus of the company of the prophets? Everywhere they go, in Bethel, in Jericho, at the Jordan, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” It would be comical if it weren’t like a knife digging into him each time he hears it. “Do you know? Do you know?” Of course he knows! It’s the only thing he knows right now! It’s what’s brought him on this trip; it’s what keeps him up at night listening to the sound of each breath of his master. Of course he knows!
The kind of grief and worry and stress Elisha feels isn’t confined to the epics of Scripture. We know it well, too, don’t we? Too well. We know it when we get the news that a parent is dying. We worry about what it will mean to be the patriarch or matriarch of our family. We worry about how we will fill those shoes when the family-buck stops here. We worry about what kind of pain they will experience. We worry about the finances we will face. We worry about how we have treated them in the past. We worry about how we will care for them in the future, however long that future will be.
We know this worry and stress when the job we have come to depend on is suddenly at risk, reduced, or gone all together. We worry about how we will support our family. We worry about how we will stay self-sufficient. We worry about how we will keep our home, our car, our kids in clothes, and the whole family fed and warm and healthy. We worry about what the future bring, how the past has prepared us, when we will be out of this, from where the next paycheck will come
We know Elisha’s worry when the friendships and relationships we thought we would have forever don’t seem so close anymore, when people move away, apart, or in different directions, when confidences are broken and feelings are trampled in the wake of arguments, insecurities, and misunderstandings. We worry about secrets told that haven’t been revealed, but could be. We worry about facing the world without someone by our side. We worry about starting over, building trust from the beginning again when everything before felt comforting and full of love.
We feel the stress Elisha feels whenever the comfort and stability of life that is not only predictable, but pleasant and good and life-giving, is ripped out from under us and we find ourselves facing a world that suddenly looks unfriendly, hostile even, foreign, and unknown. It’s the worry and the stress that comes not just with death and grief over a lost loved one, but that comes with change of any kind that seems to turn our lives on end no matter what our age or what our change. And it’s that stress that is multiplied every time the doomsday chorus of newspapers, commentators, and on-lookers shout in our ears – “We’re still on our way down; rock bottom is yet to come.” “It’s the worst we’ve ever seen.” “It can’t be beaten this time.” “You know he’s leaving you today.”
“Silence!” we want to shout. “Be silent!” Not because we want to avoid the inevitable, but because it does us no good to hear it over and over. Not because we think we can ignore the pain, but because we have to find our way through it. “Be silent,” we say, so that we can focus on the only thing that will get us through.
Elisha knows he can’t make this transition, he can’t survive this change on his own. Ministering with Elijah he knows the realities of life and disease and sinfulness he will face. He knows the task of going forward that is in front of him, and he knows he doesn’t have what it takes. Aware of his abilities and inabilities, aware of what he does and doesn’t have, Elisha begs for something more – strength, spirit, faith.
Elisha doesn’t try to stop the inevitable. He doesn’t beg for the impossible. He asks Elijah, and at the same time God, to deliver what it will take for him to face that which is already discouraging him, grieving him, and threatening his very sense of call. This isn’t to say that he has lost faith in the strength and the miracles of God. I’m pretty sure Elisha would have happily taken a miracle in the moment, and maybe he even got one in the prophet’s ascension instead of his death. But it is to say that in the midst of one of his greatest crises he lost his need to demand miracles. Instead his prayer, his request, was the spirit to go on.
What could our prayers be? What could we ask for in the face of the stresses that threaten to discourage, disturb, and disrupt our lives to the core? Beyond the miracles we can and will request, what could we pray that will help us move forward, continue on in our own stressful situations?
Like Elisha could we pray for strength for our weakening spirits? Could we pray for wisdom in planning? Trust in the future? Rest in the midst of emotional and physical and spiritual exhaustion? Maturity in youthful faith? The companionship of the body of Christ in loneliness and despair? Maybe now is the time to beg God for courage to follow, dedication to our call, grace in our relationships. Maybe this is the time to ask for endurance for the race, compassion in grief, glimpses of glory that we might continue in faith. And like Elisha- - why not ask for a double portion of it all?
I love that part of the story. Elisha had no delusions of grandeur as he faced the daunting task before him. No one could accuse him of over-confidence as he reluctantly said good-bye. He wasn’t waiting with excitement about how he would do it different, follow better, heal more, or lead successfully. Instead, Elisha new the best posture for him to take was one of the grateful recipient, not the greedy entitled. He didn’t reach out to grab what he thought was rightfully his, but with humility and wonder, and even fear at what lay before him and what was going on around him, he looked up into the whirlwind.
Elisha turned his face not inward to whatever abilities he possessed or THOUGHT he possessed, but turned his face upward to the churning and powerful presence of God. What was going to bring him through his trial was not what he held onto inside of himself. What was going to bring him through his loss, his grief, and his worry was God who is above it all.
And it is God who will bring us through ours. Whether we are struggling with the loss of a parent or friend, whether we are facing economic stress or a crisis of belief and faith, whether we are missing our child or our sense of childlike wonder, God is not only present in the whirlwind above, God is blessing us and calling us out of that turmoil.
As Elijah is taken up into heaven with the power and presence of God enveloping him, something falls behind. His mantle, the symbol of his strength and his call, comes falling down as he is taken up. And as the cloak of blessing comes floating to the earth, right there, in the middle of probably the greatest change of Elisha’s life, God is there and God is calling. The way forward isn’t reverting to past roles no matter how comfortable, no matter how stable. The way forward is in watching the whirlwind of God’s presence for the sign of God’s next call.
Friends, trust in this good news. Trust in this comforting promise of God’s love. Our ability to go forward comes not from ourselves. Our strength to continue loving the Lord and serving others in the midst of our grief and fear comes not from the emotional muscle we have attempted over time to build up and pack on. Our courage to face whatever this day and the next and the one after that throws at us comes not from anything we have or have not mustered up inside ourselves. Our strength, our spirit, our courage to carry on comes from God who is present in the whirlwind, God who blesses us with faith to look upward, God who trusts us with a continuing call to ministry in God’s most holy name. Amen.