26 June – Transitions (2 Kings 2:1-14, 2 Corinthians 13:5-11)
Nobody is good in transitions. This was a piece of wisdom Nathan Lattimore, who was here as interim pastor a few years ago, received from Stephen Baxter, his minister at Hobart Baptist. Nobody is good in transitions. It simply means that times of transition in our lives are hard. That none of us behave exactly as we would have liked to during those times. And that we should be gentle with ourselves – and others – at those times.
When I have thought about this morning’s Old Testament reading in the past, I have been focused on the incredible description of the fiery chariot and the fiery horses and the whirlwind that take the prophet Elijah up into heaven, but thinking about it this week what stood out for is that this whole passage is about life – our lives of living in the faith as 2 Corinthians 13 says – about the uncomfortable, unavoidable but necessary transitions in our lives, about the promise that life will go on and the role of the community in this process.
It is clear from the first verse of 2 Kings 2 that this is the story of the end of Elijah’s ministry, but the curious way that the story is told reveals – I think – how hard this transition is, for Elijah, for Elisha and for the community – represented by the companies of prophets.
Three times Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here…God has sent me to Bethel… to Jericho… to the Jordan.” He seems to be intentionally withdrawing from Elisha. I don’t know what your experience of losing a loved one is… I don’t know entirely what mine is! It is still in transition. But there is this sense of withdrawing. Even before they have left us – they are leaving us.
And how does Elisha respond? He doesn’t want to let Elijah out of his sight! He’s like a clingy child – or a younger sibling who follows you everywhere – or in our family – like dogs that get stressed when you pull out suitcases. Three times Elijah tells him to stay, and three times Elisha says, “I will not leave you!”
So, they go on a curious – as I said earlier – journey to the Jordan River. Curious because – as the map shows – by going first to Bethel, then Jericho, they are really going the long way round. Is Elijah trying to shake off Elisha? Is he testing his loyalty? Is this just a kind of prophetic farewell tour? Or is Elijah just saying goodbye to his friends? Whatever it is – it seems that everyone knows what is about to happen. At each stop the company of prophets come and tell Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And Elijah’s response is terse. Effectively, “Yes, I know. And I don’t want to talk about it.” As I said, nobody is good in transitions.
What the prophets literally say is, “Do you know that today the Lord is taking your master from over your head?” Elisha is about to lose that overarching figure in his life, his mentor, master, boss, father. It is something many of you who have experienced – particularly those who have lost both parents. People have said to me that – suddenly – there is no one – no generational layer above you, and you are forced to rethink your identity. Those over your head are gone and you have become the head that is responsible for others.
We hear the trauma of this moment for Elisha in verse 12. When Elijah is taken from him, he cries out, “Father, father!” and tears his clothes. But then he picks up other clothes. He takes up the mantle of Elijah – a verse that is now an English idiom – and goes back across the Jordan to take on his new role as prophet of Israel.
I am reminded of how I felt when Chris Turner left the role of senior pastor here, and I said to Chris later, “I would not have wanted you to leave for a moment. I loved working with you, but I think I have become a much better minister because you left. It has forced me to step up – to grow into the new role that I now have.”
Transitions are hard work. They’re painful. Unwelcome and uncomfortable. Nobody is good in transitions. But they have to happen because people leave, people age, people pass away – that sweet chariot comes for all of us. And they have to happen because new people need to be raised up to respond to new contexts in new ways.
In this ongoing pandemic, with new patterns of working and worshipping and building community and communicating, we will need to navigate transitions. They won’t be easy. Transitions have never been easy. But they will ensure that people continue to grow, that life continues to flourish.
Which is another reason for Elijah and Elisha’s roundabout journey. It acts, in the text, like a series of flashbacks in a movie to another of Israel’s great leaders, Joshua. Gilgal is where Joshua celebrated the arrival in the promised land, Bethel, is an ancient religious sanctuary, Jericho, where Joshua fit the battle! Just as Joshua succeeded Moses, and was quite good at what he did, so Elisha will succeed Elijah and be quite good at what he does. When they cross the Jordan River, the two men reach the place where Moses died. There, Elijah also departs this life, and Elisha – like Joshua – journeys on from this place – crossing the Jordan – to do what God has called him to.
But Elisha must be willing, and the Spirit of God must come upon him. When they stand on the other side of the Jordan Elijah says to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” “Please,” says Elisha, “let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He is not asking for two times the amount of Elijah’s spirit, but to receive the double portion of the inheritance that would go to Elijah’s primary heir.
“You have asked for a hard thing,” says Elijah.
It is a hard thing to take on the mantle of the prophet, to care for the disadvantaged, to live out and speak out God’s justice and truth, to love. It is a hard thing to continue the ministry of Elijah and Elisha in our day – to care for the disadvantaged, to live out and speak out God’s justice and truth, to love. Are we willing? If we are – just like Elisha – Jesus promises us – God will empower us. As our New Testament reading says, “Examine yourselves to see if you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realise that Jesus Christ is in you?” As Jesus says in John chapter 14, the passage we looked at on Pentecost Sunday, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
What does that mean for you? What legacy – when the chariot comes for you – will you leave behind? What new think might God be calling you into now?
There is a third aspect to our life of faith and this is that we do not do this alone. Yes. There will be difficult times of transition. And yes, Jesus promises us that the indwelling spirit of God empowers us, day by day to be caring, courageous, loving. But we also do not do this alone. We do it surrounded by a community of other faithful people.
Elijah and Elisha are not the only characters in our story. There are also these companies of prophets who accompany them. How they go about this, their proximity to Elijah and Elisha is described in three different ways in the text. In verse three they “come out” to meet them. In verse five they “drew near” and in verse seven they “stand at a distance” and witness. Professor of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, Steed Davidson, writes, “Elijah’s departure affects them as much as Elisha and they demonstrate solidarity, insider knowledge, and witness to the continuity of the prophetic community.”
As a community of faith, we are called to do the same for each other. As people experience transitions in their lives, as people step into new things responding to the call of God the gifts that they have been given the community is meant to be there with them. Sometimes we need to go out of our way to meet others. Sometimes we need to come near to those who need comfort and encouragement. Some time we need to be that witnessing presence.
This is not just something that Steve and I and Cecelia need as the ministry team of this church, but it is something that each one of you need, because together we are the company of prophets of Canberra Baptist, we are called to care for the disadvantaged, to live out and speak out God’s justice and truth to love, to go through the necessary, but difficult transitions in our lives and our church, to step into new things welcoming each other’s gifts, caring for each other and witnessing to what God is doing amongst us.
Nobody is good in transitions. But God is good to us in transitions. “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” Elisha asks as he strikes the waters of the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle. And he finds that the God of Elijah is with him, that he is also the God is Elisha. And he is also the God of each of us, the God of the company of prophets of Canberra Baptist.
Two weeks ago at the ACT Council of Churches meeting representatives from the Quakers came and spoke about their lives of living in the faith and they introduced us to the ‘advices and queries’ – a document containing pieces of wisdom and challenging questions that Quakers read and reflect on, and to close I want to read three of these to you – in the light of this Elijah and Elisha story this morning.
#31 Approach old age with courage and hope. As far as possible, make arrangement for your care in good time, so that an undue burden does not fall on others. Although old age may bring increasing disability and loneliness, it can also bring serenity, detachment, and wisdom. Pray that in your final years you may be enabled to find new ways of receiving and reflecting God’s love.
#29 Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community. Let your life speak. When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God’s guidance and offering counsel to one another?
#20 How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.