Sunday, November 13, 2016

Men of God: Waiting for Chariots of Fire

Now the Lord was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”
But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”
Elisha said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”
Elijah said, “Elisha, stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”
But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went to Jericho.
The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”
He said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”
Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”
But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So both of them went on together. Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. Elijah then took his coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?”
Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.”
Elijah said, “You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.”
They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm.
Elisha was watching, and he cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!” When he could no longer see him, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.
Then Elisha picked up the coat that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. He took the coat that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, “Where is the Lord, Elijah’s God?” And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over. (II Kings 2:1–14 CEB)
Now, brothers and sisters, what are we supposed to do with a text like this? To be perfectly frank, these words sound like they’ve been lifted from the latest sci-fi novel. Or, better yet, they resemble something you might see in Hollywood.

Two men walking along a road, background music playing. As they approach an open spot in the middle of a field, the music becomes more pronounced. And suddenly at the crescendo, a fiery chariot swoops down from the clouds. It takes Elijah away with thunderous celebration. As Elijah departs, his friend and apprentice, Elisha, utters those Hollywood-esque words:
“My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”
It would make a great movie, wouldn’t it? But this story did not originate in Hollywood. It came to us from Scripture, and that complicates things, doesn’t it?

We do not live in an age of fiery chariots descending from the clouds. We live in an age of computers and internet. We live in an age dominated by facts and figures. We live in an age of science! What do scientific minds, like ours, do with a text like II Kings 2, a text that is at once exciting and amazing, and at the same time apocalyptic and very much beyond our line of sight? Believe it or not—now this is important—believe it or not, I think that in the answer to that question we will find the message of this text.

I believe the author of this text means for us to leave the world of Elijah and Elisha just for a moment and return even deeper into our past, to the days of the Exodus. This text is filled with allusions to the characters and events of the Exodus. Elijah, throughout the Bible, is often compared to Moses. A few weeks ago, we noticed that Elijah, after his great competition with the prophets of Baal, fled into the wilderness. He, like Moses, thought he was the “only prophet left.” And he, like Moses, eventually found the power of God on Mount Horeb (or, its other name “Sinai”). And in our text for this week, Elijah, just like Moses, reached a moment in his life when he had to hand over the reigns to someone else. Here, Elijah gives way to Elisha. In the story of the Exodus, Moses eventually passed his leadership to Joshua. Which brings us to another interesting comparison: Elisha & Joshua.

Throughout this text, Elisha is traveling the path of Joshua. His very name, Elisha, is a variant of the name Joshua. Do you hear it? Both names mean, “My God saves.” Isn’t that interesting? Because that is exactly the lesson God will teach Elisha on this incredible day: My God saves. And the most obvious allusion to the Exodus narrative occurs as first Elijah and then Elisha part the Jordan River. If you missed the other “hints” within this text that pointed to the Exodus, surely you didn’t miss this one! Just as Moses parted the Red Sea in his escape from Egypt, and just as Joshua parted the Jordan River as he entered into the Promised Land, Elijah and Elisha join that pantheon of great Israelite leaders by allowing God to perform the same miracle through them.

Well, it’s one thing to recognize that there are some similarities between two stories in the Bible. The next, and most important, question is this: Why? Why all of the allusions? Why the comparisons? Why did the author of this text most assuredly want us to remember the Exodus as we watched Elijah disappear into the clouds? Perhaps the answer to that question is given to us in verses 9–10.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what I can 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.”

We learn from Deuteronomy 21 that by asking for a “double portion,” Elisha is asking Elijah for the right of succession. Elisha wants to take Elijah’s place when he is gone. And Elijah agrees to that request on one condition: You have to “see” me leave. Does anyone else think that is an odd request? Why should Elisha’s right to succeed Elijah have anything to do with what Elisha “sees” or doesn’t “see”? I would suggest to you that there is more to Elijah’s answer than we first see! What if this great prophet was asking his apprentice to “see” something even more amazing than a fiery chariot? What if Elijah was saying this:

Elisha, unless you have eyes to see the incredible, unbelievable, nature-defying power of God you cannot stand in the lineage of Moses and Joshua and Elijah.

What if this moment was meant to bring Elisha once again . . . What if this story was meant to bring all of us once again, to that struggle that manifests itself again and again in scripture and in life, the struggle between God and Pharaoh! That struggle has been raging since the beginning. You see, Pharaoh symbolizes that tendency within all of us to tackle this world on our own. Pharaoh was a mighty military presence in the ancient world. Pharaoh was technologically advanced chariots chasing the people of God into the desert. Pharaoh is also that feeling in our gut that tells us, “I can do this on my own.” Pharaoh is doubt that God has the power to:

  • Bring fiery chariots from heaven
  • Or heal a divided nation after an election
  • Or cure cancer
  • Or heal a family after the loss of their 10-year old daughter

Elisha, unless you have eyes to see the incredible, unbelievable, nature-defying power of God you cannot stand in the lineage of Moses & Joshua and Elijah. We have a couple of clues in the text that lead us to believe that Elisha did in fact have eyes to see God. First, after he leaves the scene of Elijah’s departure, he has his own “Jordan crossing moment.” Notice, however, that the waters do not part immediately after Elisha strikes the river with Elijah’s mantle. Elisha strikes the river once. Then he says, “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And then he strikes the water again, this time they part. Only after Elisha acknowledged that the power to defy nature rested with God alone did the waters part. Our second clue that Elisha was able to see all that God intended for him to see comes at Elisha’s death, years later. In II Kings 13, we read that Elisha was on his death bed. Jehoash, King of Israel, went to his death bed and said:
"My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”
The same thing said of Elijah when he was taken up into heaven. It seems that Elisha was able to see, and his request was granted. But as we all know, Elisha was not the only one to make that request, was he?

In our own ways, we have all asked for a double portion. We have asked to stand in the lineage of Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha, or our grandmother or grandfather or mother or father. All of us would aspire to know God and be in deep relationship with God like those who have come before us. And our answer to one question will help us determine whether or not we will stand with them: Are we able to see the power of God? Though the tendencies of Pharaoh continue to dominate this world, the belief that strong government has all the answers, or that all of the world’s problems can be solved with military power or money or human ingenuity or the right politicians, that independent spirit that declares its self sufficiency, even against God, though those tendencies of Pharaoh continue to dominate this world, are we able to see that God is the only master of this universe. And God has the ability to defy world powers or even uproot them, and only God has the power to defy even nature and disease and even death.

We do not live in an age of fiery chariots descending from the clouds. We live in an age of computers and internet. We live in an age dominated by facts and figures. We live in an age of science! What do scientific minds, like ours, do with a text like II Kings 2, a text that is at once exciting and amazing, and at the same time apocalyptic and very much beyond our line of sight? Believe it or not—now this is important—believe it or not, I think that in the answer to that question we will find our calling from this text. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all live up to the name of Elisha and Joshua before him, declaring with our words and our lives, “My God saves”?

No comments:

Post a Comment