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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”
These are the familiar opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’ words describing 18th century England could easily describe the current climate in our nation.
We have leaders with courage, and leaders with little spine who play to the crowds.
We have Senators like Wendy Davis from Texas who this week literally took a stand for what she believed in an epic filibuster.
We have tectonic shifts taking place that will forever change the landscape of our nation. The Defense of Marriage Act was deemed unconstitutional this week, and the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We are living in what feels like a whirlwind of change.
Dickens’ words could also have described the ancient world in which our two prophets, Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, lived over 2800 years before us.
This is a tale of two prophets. Two prophets who had profound influence on the nation of Israel during a time the monarchies of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, before they were both taken into exile. This story takes place about 850 years before the birth of Christ.
I and II Kings tell us about the rise of the Israelite kings who were faithful, and the fall of the kings who had abandoned the law of God. And the prophets like Elijah and Elisha sent by YHWH to speak truth to power—always calling the kings and the people to return to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Elijah’s apprentice was Elisha. Elisha entered the story back in 1 Kings 19. He was in the field plowing with his 12 oxen, and while he was hard at work, he was approached by Elijah who informed him that he been chosen by God to fill Elijah’s unexpired term as the next prophet. A one person nominating committee.
To seal the deal, Elijah threw his own mantle over Elisha’s back, showing him that both God and he meant business.
“I will go, but may I go back and tell my parents,” Elisha asked? Elijah said “Fine.” So Elisha took his 12 oxen and cooked them up for his family as his own farewell BBQ. He yelled, “Wait up!” as he left the plow and family to heed the out-of-the-blue call he had just received from Elijah’s God.
What I am drawn to most in this slice of the biblical narrative is the very human interaction between mentor and mentee, teacher and student, father-figure and son. The particular compelling piece of the tale is its suspense about Elijah’s inevitable departure, and the painful parting of friends.
Tim and I will see our second child off to college in August. We know that an ending is in sight. Every parent knows that his or her child is going to leave home one day. Maybe you too have been preparing for D-day (some since preschool). And yet, when the day comes, and the goodbyes and hugs have to be shared, there’s a certain surreal quality about what is happening. You mean, you are actually leaving?!
Or when a beloved family member has a terminal illness, the whole family knows what the ending to the story will be. My father-in-law was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the end of his life. He lived with the diagnosis for about one year before his death. With ALS, there is no question about if or how the ending will come. Yet, after all the months of care-giving, when the day finally arrived, when he took his last breath, each family member was shaken.
Elisha knew that his mentor was going to be taken from him.
So when Elijah ordered him to stay put while he ran a couple of errands, Elisha out-rightly refused his mentor’s request insisting that he would go with him. “Not on your life—or the God of your life—will you go without me,” he said. “I will go with you because I need every minute of time left with you.” So, together they went–Elijah, with his mantle slung over his shoulder.
At each stop they took, there was a company of prophets. Prophets who were most likely friends of Elijah’s. Prophets who knew all about his departure.
Two times Elisha was asked by the company of prophets: Do you know your master will be taken up today?
And he basically replied: Yes, I know. Shut up!
But again. “Do you know your master will be taken up today?”
“Yes, I know. Shut up!”
The last stop was the Jordan River. Just like Moses before him parting the Red Sea with his powerful staff, or Joshua parting the same river while carrying the Ark of the Covenant, Elijah rolled up his mantel and struck the Jordan separating the waters, providing the two of them a path of dry ground.
I love the next poignant detail to this story. Two prophets walking and talking like friends do. Even while knowing that something profound was about to happen, they strolled along and exchanged parting words.
It reminds me of Jesus walking and talking with his friends; Jesus teaching the disciples about the kingdom of God, preparing them for his departure and what they would need in order to carry on without him.
Elijah asked his protégé, “What may I do for you before I go?” It was not an unusual request by a teacher to his student.
I imagine the conversation something like this: “Is there anything else you need to know? How can I help make the transition smooth as you take on your new prophetic role? What do you need from me to help you fulfill the heavy call God has placed on your life?”
And Elisha replied, “Give me a double portion of your spirit.” “God knows I am going to need a double portion of your spirit if I am going to be able to do half of what you accomplished! Double the courage. Double the power. Double the creativity. Double the inspiration. A double dose of sensitivity to God’s voice.“
Elisha was not naïve. He was fully aware of the amazing acts of power God had performed through Elijah: the overly-dramatic win against the prophets of Baal when the fire of God came down and consumed the bull offering, the miraculous feeding and then healing of the widow and her son. So, I don’t agree with some commentators who read Elisha’s request as audacious. I don’t think it was audacity that caused him to ask such a bold request, but anxiety. Just as any who is receiving the mantle from their successful predecessor would be.
Elijah responded, “That’s a hard request, to be sure. If God allows you to witness my leave-taking, however, then you’ll know that your request has been given to you.”
As they were walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind (not the chariot) into heaven and Elisha was allowed to witness his master being taken up the glorious storm of holiness.
What was Elisha’s response? Grief! Calling out, “Father, Father!” Renting his clothes in two in an act of profound mourning. No matter how prepared he was, the impact of his beloved mentor’s leave-taking was god-awful.
But just as every person has to do after the grief has lessened, he or she has to collect themselves, pick up the mantle and lurch ahead with life, to do what he or she knows she was called to do. Elisha had to face the challenges ahead but with a double dose of his mentor’s spirit.
The late religious scholar, Joseph Campbell, said this: “A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: ‘As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.’” (from Krista Tippett’s On Being)
Elisha did not jump over the river, but he did touch the waters with his new mantel empowered by the God of Elijah to face the work that lay ahead. Just like every protégé must, Elisha had to take the learning from his teacher and turn it into wisdom for himself.
Some what does this story mean for us? A few questions emerge:
First: Who threw their mantel over your shoulders? Who was it that passed along to you a sense of call or direction in your life? Each one of us, as the saying goes, stands upon the shoulders of another.
Second: What if the church prayed for a double dose of spirit? What would we do with it? What could God accomplish through us?
Third: Are we open to serving God no matter where we find ourselves? There is often lament about a crisis of leadership in society and in the church. But as a dear saint in our congregation reminded me last week, perhaps it’s not that we need more leaders, but that what we actually need are more servants.
I believe it is true: God chooses the most unexpected people to lead, to keep prodding along the rest of us in the ways of justice, peace and compassion.
When we lose our way, we can bet that an Elijah or Elisha—or a Wendy Davis—will be raised up at the right time.
Until our name is called up, however, we are to keep faithfully plowing our fields, fulfilling God’s commands to serve those in need and practice the ways of peace.
Thanks be to God that God’s story goes on.