Third Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Elisha said, ‘As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.’
*Please Note: I am usually pretty good at proving how imperfect I am in this writing. There is always some typographical error or spelling mistake that I miss in editing. The mistakes are usually small, and are rarely even noticeable unless you are really paying attention. I made an error last week that was a doozy, though. I misread my lectionary calendar and used the texts for this week instead of last week. I realized it when I saw what my pastor was preparing to preach, but it was too late to make any changes. This, unfortunately, meant that I had already written on what I should write today. I realize this error would probably have been unnoticed by most of my readers, especially those who do not use the lectionary, but it left me with a dilemma. I have decided to use some alternate texts that can be used on this Sunday, and it turns out that they continue the story in a really good way.
If you recall, last week we saw Elijah having a pity party for himself, “I, only I am left...” He was afraid because his life was in danger, threatened by Jezebel because he had destroyed her priests. God appeared to Elijah, not in the wind, or the thunder, or the earthquake, but in a quiet voice. He told Elijah that he was not alone, that there were others, and that He was with him always. He promised that Elisha would take the mantle of authority and continue the work Elijah began, so Elijah was obedient to God’s command, willingly facing the threats for the sake of God’s kingdom.
We also saw that Elisha was willing, but he wanted to cut off all ties to his old life as his first act as a prophet. As soon as he slaughtered his livestock and filled the bellies of the people he was abandoning, he followed Elijah. Elijah seemed indifferent, “Come or don’t come. It isn’t my problem.” This attitude was so much different than Jesus’ when the three men approached him about being a disciple. They, too, seemed to want to cut off times with their past, but Jesus said that they would be unworthy if they took care of the business of their lives. The difference between Elisha and the three men is that he was truly willing, they were making excuses. “I want to follow you, but...”
The cost of following Jesus is heavy. It means giving up everything, including family ties and the work we think we have to do. It is easy to find excuses to put off following Jesus, but He is not willing to accept excuses. “Follow me now,” He says, “or don’t bother.” It isn’t that He has no compassion or patience. It is just that He knew that they would never survive the trials of discipleship if they fell into the temptation of their excuses. The one who wants to turn to look back is like Lot’s wife; they will be trapped in the past and will never be able to commit fully to the work of the Kingdom.
Elisha knew where he needed to be; he needed to follow Elijah. The journey left from Gilgal and it was to be Elijah’s last journey. Elijah tried to push Elisha away, but Elisha would not leave him. When Elijah said he was going to Bethel, Elisha insisted on going also. At Bethel the company of prophets came forward to tell Elisha that his master was about to be taken away. Elisha answered, “Yes, I know it. Hold your peace.” Two more times Elijah tried to go on without Elisha but Elisha insisted on accompanying him. Emphatically he said, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” At Jericho a company of prophets met them with the same news; Elijah would be taken away today. Elisha answered again, “Yes, I know it. Hold your peace.”
This must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being God’s prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elijah felt so alone, but Elisha was still willing to take on the mantle. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is about the proper succession of power. Elijah was about to be taken to heaven and it was time for a new head prophet to be selected. Elisha insisted on accompanying Elijah on his trip, a trip that took them along the journey of previous Hebrew leaders. It was a journey Moses was not allowed to take. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised and restored into a right relationship with God. Elijah traveled back to the Jordan, to go into the land where Moses was buried.
Religious communities were situated at each of those places, gatherings of prophets who did the Lord’s work. They all considered Elijah their father, in the sense that they were sons who might inherit the place as lead prophet. They followed Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan, constantly reminding Elisha that he’d be left alone. Elisha refused to leave Elijah, thus showing his commitment to the task that would be required of him. Being a prophet was never easy; being God’s voice against the injustice and sin of His people meant persecution.
When they arrived on the opposite bank of the Jordan, Elijah asked Elisha what he could do to repay his loyalty. Elisha asked for a double portion of the spirit. This was not a greedy request. He didn’t want more spirit than Elijah had. Elisha was asking that it be made perfectly clear that he was the true heir and successor to Elijah’s ministry. With so many other “sons,” all of whom may have been hoping that they would become the head prophet, it was important that the inheritance was made clear. The first born, the rightful heir, was always given a double portion of the inheritance: not twice as much as the estate, but twice as much as any other son. Elisha was given what he asked, the mantle of leadership fell on his shoulders and the other prophets recognized him as the head prophet.
Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of God’s blessing on Elisha’s ministry. His request was granted. Elisha mourned the loss of his master, but picked up the mantle and returned to the other side of the Jordan. He crossed the same way Elijah had gone over, by hitting the water with the mantle. The water parted and he walked across to the company that waited. They recognized the sign that the spirit of Elijah had fallen on Elisha, but they did not believe that Elijah was gone. They wanted to send a company of men to search far and wide, thinking that God had lifted him and set him down on a mountain or in a valley. They were blinded by their own desires.
There may have been another reason why Elijah took Elisha on that particular journey. Despite their attitude, the prophets were a reminder that Elisha was not alone in the work he was doing. It is difficult being the one at the top, but it is encouraging to know that there are others whom God had chosen to bear the burdens of the work. Elijah forgot, but he wanted Elisha to know that there were others who would support him, pray for him, and help him. They would remind Elisha that God is with His people, working through them to accomplish His purpose in the world.
It is said that those who do not know history are bound to repeat it. That doesn’t help convince a child in a boring history class that they should learn because what about history might they repeat? “I won’t get into war with the French any time soon, so why do I need to know this stuff?” They don’t realize that it isn’t the particular event that they need to understand, but rather the causes that led up to the event. They need to know more than just the names of the people and places and dates; they need to know why it happened and what could have been different.
Unfortunately, history is most often taught as just a bunch of numbers and names. The children are expected to learn the who’s, what’s, where’s and when’s, but they don’t quite get around to the how’s. The teachers do not help children identify with the people and events in history, so it seems unimportant or irrelevant to their life. I never liked history in school, either. It was not until we lived in England where I could visit the places, see the conditions and get to know what life was like for the people, that I began to love history. Even though the world was a much different place for those who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago, I could better identify with their needs, hopes, dreams and sacrifices.
Many Christians think the Old Testament has little value for the Christian student because it is all past and Jesus has made things new and different. Yet, over the years in this devotion and following the lectionary we have heard the stories of the people of God in the Old Testament, seen their failures as well as their successes. We’ve seen the patterns of humility and trust, rebellion and failure that happened over and over again. As we read these stories today, we see them through the eyes of a new covenant, through grace and the mercy of God. When we rebel and fail, we know from whom we will receive salvation and reconciliation. The questions, doubts and fears are easier to bear because God’s grace gives us the strength to overcome. We can look back to the past to see how God was always with the people, and know that now it is even more so.
The psalmist wrote, “I will remember Yah’s deeds; for I will remember your wonders of old. I will also meditate on all your work, and consider your doings.” When we are in the midst of difficult times, times when it seems that God has abandoned us, we can remember the past and realize that things aren’t that much different between then and now. We can see that God’s hand was with the people, even when they failed. His promises were true for them, and even more true for us today. We have seen the fulfillment of all that God promised. We have seen the Lord Jesus Christ who is the way and our Redeemer. The past can show us our failure, and in seeing our failure, we see how much we need the Lord. When we forget history, we are doomed to repeat it. When we recall the people, places and events of those who came before, we can see what we need and avoid their failures. In every case, God’s people fell because they forgot the Lord; they rebelled against Him and suffered the consequences. Their failure and redemption point to the only One who could truly save them: Jesus Christ.
Accepting this means taking on a mantle that will be hard to bear. Following Christ means we will face difficult times. The world has rejected Him, and they will reject us, too, because of Him. We can’t keep looking back, making excuses for not giving Him our whole selves. Those excuses will keep us from truly being the disciples He is calling us to be. Christ calls us to be free from our old life, but if we keep looking back we will never truly be free. Paul writes, “Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Looking back means being tied to the past, and like Lot’s wife, it can mean never moving forward.
Paul lists quite a few deeds of the flesh: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. We can look at this list and easily say that we are not guilty of some of them, but there are others that are not quite so easy to acknowledge. Who among us has not been like those prophets, hoping to be the chosen one? Who can say they have never burst into anger or felt hatred for a neighbor? We can make excuses or justify some of our actions, but isn’t that like holding on to the past, keeping hold of the things we just can’t seem to give up? Can we truly follow Jesus Christ if we continue to live according to the ways of the world?
Lives filled with grace and mercy are ordered, free from the burdens of slavery to the chaos of fleshly desires. We are also freed from the need to earn our way to heaven. Paul doesn’t give us a checklist of things we cannot do and things we have to do. He shows us how different life is when lived in the Spirit of God. The irony of life is that we seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it is our desires that keep us in bondage. Life in Christ does not give us the freedom to do what we want, but the new life we have in Him frees us from our desire to follow our flesh. God gives us the faith to produce good fruit, fruit that glorifies Him.
There is a difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. In the former, we see actions that can hurt and destroy, emotions that bring pain and suffering. In latter, we see the goodness of God shining through the lives of the faithful. We who follow Christ turn away from our old life and keep God before us, trusting that He will accomplish His work through us. Elisha set his face toward doing God’s will by following Elijah. He took the cloak and was prepared to give up everything. Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and walked forth in faith, knowing that God was going ahead of Him to prepare the way.
Paul reminds us to stand firm in the Gospel so that we will not be burdened by our sinful flesh. That includes the self-centered and selfish pity parties we like to have when we feel like God is sending us into a mean and hurtful world. We seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it is our desires that keep us in bondage. The three men on the road wanted to join Jesus, but they wanted to do it their way. They wanted to hold on to the past while trying to move forward. We suffer from the same temptations. We share in the same failings. We fall under the same burdens. Elisha trusted in God, refusing to abandon Elijah because he knew that he was where he was meant to be. So, too, when we trust in God, we can know that we are never alone, living by the Spirit rather than the flesh, and our lives will reflect the grace and mercy of God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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