2 Kings 2:1-14, Mark 9:2-10
Our readings today are from the suggested lectionary readings for the Sunday preceding Lent. Jesus is transfigured before some of his disciples and shows them his heavenly glory. In the Old Testament reading Elijah is taken up to heaven alive and Elisha takes up his mantle.
Let’s think about the Old Testament story first. (2 Kings 2:1-14)
Taken up to heaven
Elijah had done many mighty deeds. He had stood up to wicked rulers such as Ahab and Jezebel. He had resisted and defeated the false prophets of Baal. He had performed some remarkable miracles, including raising the dead. He had maintained faith in the Lord in Israel at a time when it looked as if the whole nation was going to turn pagan.
Now has come the time for him to depart this life. It has been revealed to Elijah that he will not die, but will be taken to heaven alive. Elisha his assistant knows Elijah is going to depart but he does not like to think about it. He will miss his master Elijah, and all the responsibility of leading the prophets will fall on him.
Elijah had set up training colleges or seminaries for young prophets. They were groups of young men know as the Sons of the Prophets ( or the Company of the Prophets in the NIV). They lived a communal lifestyle. Together they prayed, studied and prepared to become spokesmen for the Lord. Elisha was going to have to take on the responsibility of leading several hundreds of these young prophets.
In the story the young student prophets keep coming to Elisha and reminding him that this is the day on which the Lord is going to take his master away. Quite naturally Elisha does not like to think about it. ( In the same way we do not like to think of the departing of our loved ones – even when we know they are going to be with the Lord.)
Then Elijah and Elisha came to the banks of the River Jordan. Elijah rolled up his cloak or mantle and used it to strike the waters. This was just what Moses had done with his staff when he parted the Red Sea. And the waters of Jordan parted for Elijah and Elisha to cross over to the other side. Meanwhile the fifty or so young prophets who saw this happen were amazed at the miracle.
When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
“You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours— otherwise not.”
The heir’s portion
Now why would Elisha want a double portion of Elijah’s spirit? Was he asking to be twice as powerful as Elijah had been in word and action? (In actual fact Elisha did perform about twice the number of miracles that Elijah had done. They included such wonders as raising the dead, healing lepers and feeding multitudes – the same kind of miracle Jesus was to perform later.)
But I don’t think Elisha was actually asking to be twice as powerful as Elijah. The double portion was the eldest son’s portion. When a man willed his property to his sons on his deathbed, the eldest son always had twice the portion of the other sons. This was the heir’s portion, and responsibilities went with it. It would be the heir’s task to continue the family name and to lead the clan.
So we see Elisha was asking to be confirmed in the role as Elijah’s heir and successor – the one who would carry on his work. And he needed all the strength of God’s Spirit to fulfil this task. He wasn’t being greedy, or ambitious in a selfish way. He needed the power of the Spirit if he was to take on Elijah’s role.
And it so happened that Elisha was with Elijah when he was taken into heaven. As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
(This is the origin of the title of the film “Chariots of Fire”, also of the old Negro Spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.)
Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”
What do these words mean? Probably that the loss to Elisha and to the nation was as great as if the whole army had been destroyed. Elijah was the nation’s chief asset.
And so Elisha tore his garments as a sign of his loss and grief. Then he looked around and noticed that the cloak or mantle had fallen from Elijah as he had ascended into heaven. Stooping down, Elisha picked it up. Holding it in his hands he paused a moment in thought and then deliberatly walked to the river bank. The fifty or so young prophets on the other bank watched him intently.
Then, just as Elijah had done previously, Elisha struck the water with the cloak and then he cried: “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”
When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.
The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha. And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. Thus they acclaimed him as Elijah’s successor. And so the work of the Lord continued in Israel.
Now when we move on to the New Testament reading ( Mark 9:2-10) we come across Elijah again. Seven hundred years later Elijah appeared in Israel. This time it was on the top of the Mount of Transfiguration, along with Moses, talking to Jesus in his glorified form.
We can see this event as a foretaste of the Ascension. Jesus shone with heavenly glory and the three disciples who were there might have thought he was about to ascend to heaven with Moses and Elijah right there. After all, had they not appeared to escort him to heaven? But this was not to be, for Jesus had a work to complete before he could go back to heaven. He had to offer his body on the Cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. He had to accomplish this task before he could rise and ascend to heaven.
Passing on the mantle
When he did finally ascend to heaven his disciples were there and saw it happen. Ten days later the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. They became “heirs” of Jesus. They were appointed and anointed to carry on his work on earth. It was now their task to go out with the Gospel to all nations.To extend the Kingdom of God world-wide.
We can say they metaphorically took up the mantle Jesus had laid down when he ascended. When those Apostles died they went to glory and the mantle passed on to the next generation. And so on, down through all the generations to the present day. And we who believe in Jesus are the heirs today. The mantle has passed on to us.
Do you know this poem?
Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
Like Elisha when he took up Elijah’s mantle; like the Apostles when they took up the task of evangelization, we also have the help of the Spirit. We are empowered for the task. Now we may not perform the miracles Elisha did, or the Apostles did, but the same power of the Spirit is with us to show forth God’s healing and saving power.
When Elisha saw Elijah depart he cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”
Elijah’s departure was a great loss to the nation and Elisha felt it. And yet when Elisha himself came to die the same words were spoken of him ( 2 Kings 13:4). In other words Elisha was enabled by the Spirit of God to serve the nation as well as Elijah had.
And might that not be true of us also? Whenever we bewail the passing of the great leaders of a former generation let us remember the same Spirit is with us too. These men and women served God in their generation and we can do so in our generation, in the way that is appropriate to these times. The mantle of Elijah falls on us and so does the power of the Spirit.