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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Succession.

2 Kings 2:1-12

I.
The prophet Elijah’s work is just about finished.  He has been grooming as his successor Elisha, who was chosen by God back in 1 Kings 19.  Now it is several years later, Elijah’s time on earth is up.  And before he is taken to God he has to confirm that Elisha is really the one who will take over when he is gone.
So Elijah takes Elisha on this odd road trip, from the town of Gilgal, to Bethel, back to Jericho, and then across to the east side of the Jordan.  Along the way they meet with the company of prophets in each town.  These prophets are also independently aware that this is Elijah’s last day.  But Elisha instructs them to be quiet about this.  He doesn’t want this intense charismatic experience to be defiled by too many confining, limiting words.
Words necessarily carry baggage and preconceptions.  It is interesting how many times in the Bible people are instructed not to speak.  It happens at the end of today’s gospel reading, when, after this dazzling experience on the top of Mt. Tabor, Jesus tells his disciples not to mention this to anyone.  If it were put into language, people would certainly misunderstand.  Words, especially regarding experiences like this, just create confusion.  They cannot adequately express what the Holy Spirit is doing much of the time; they only get in the way.  Jesus does not want people proclaiming him the Messiah, or giving an account of this experience on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.  And Elisha does not want the prophets telling everyone that Elijah is about to die.  Who knows what ideas people would conclude from such news?  
As they are traveling, Elijah instructs Elisha three times to stay behind, and three times Elisha refuses and remains with the older prophet.  It is as if Elijah is testing his apprentice, and Elisha surprisingly passes the test by his disobedience, by not doing what Elijah says.  I wonder if Elijah isn’t trying to assess whether Elisha is obeying him, or God.  Elisha intuitively knows his own calling and God’s will for him.  Is he focused on Elijah and what Elijah says?  Or on what the Spirit is telling him to do?  Not even Elijah’s commands are allowed to overrule the call of the Spirit to Elisha.
Sometimes, when someone knocks at the door of a monastic community and asks to join, he is curtly told no, and to go away.  And he gets the same answer every time he asks.  But if he keeps asking, after a few days of literally camping out in the doorway, he will be allowed in.  It’s like he has to prove his seriousness, patience, humility, and dedication.
Elijah wants to be sure that Elisha is a disciple of the Lord, not him.  Even the best leaders are not to be followed and obeyed blindly.  People must stay true to their callings in spite of what earthly leaders command.

II.
Fifty prophets from the local towns follow them down through the wilderness to the Jordan River.  In the witness of these prophets we see the living presence of the community, ratifying and verifying what is happening.  Neither Elijah nor Elisha is having a private, personal, exclusive experience of God’s Spirit.  Both of them are called by God directly, but that calling is affirmed by others who recognize God’s hand upon them.
They get to the river and the prophets watch from afar as Elijah goes down to the water, takes off his mantle, that is, his robe, which may have been made of animal skin, rolls it up like a towel, and smacks the surface of the river with it, at which point the water parts, leaving a path of dry ground for Elisha and him to walk across.
This intentionally reminds us of Moses, who separated the waters of the Red Sea by striking the surface with his staff, at God’s orders.  And it also reminds us of when the people came across the Jordan into Canaan.  In that case the flow of the Jordan also stopped, leaving a dry path for the people to cross over on.  Any mention of the Jordan also places us on the interface between the wilderness and the Promised Land.  Crossing the Jordan was the last step in the journey of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.
In deliberately invoking these ancient memories of the people, Elijah is expressing the continuity of his ministry with those events.  It’s almost as if he is saying we have to continually go back to these primal stories and events, reviewing and representing them, as we journey into the future.  The people of God must never lose sight of what happened at the Jordan, and the Red Sea, and in the wilderness between, when they were given the Law and molded into a nation.  Most of the Torah tells the story of the Exodus and the time in the wilderness.  These are the stories that formed God’s people.
It is for the same reason that we regularly remember our baptism, which is our symbolic and ceremonial connection to the Jordan and these stories.  In our baptism we pass over into the new life in God’s promise.  Just as Elijah goes back to the Jordan to pass the torch of his ministry on to the next generation, and just as Jesus himself was immersed in the Jordan, at which point his identity and ministry was confirmed by God, so we also gather around the font each Sunday to reconnect to these formative stories in which our faith is rooted.  When Elijah returns to the Jordan he invokes the taproot of the faith of the people of God.

III.
When they get to the other side of the river, Elijah asks Elisha: “Okay, you followed me all the way over here, against my commands; what do you want?”  Elisha says he wants “a double share” of Elijah’s spirit.  That could mean twice as much inspiration as Elijah has, or it could mean the normal inheritance of a first-born son, which would have been two-thirds of a father’s assets.  He wants Elijah’s spiritual inheritance; he wants to drink the cup that Elijah drinks.
Jesus has a similar conversation with two of his disciples, and he gives much the same answer.  His inheritance is not his to give, but up to God.  Elijah says that if Elisha is able to witness how Elijah dies, he will get that double share of his spirit.  So Jesus’ disciples receive their power and spiritual inheritance from witnessing to his death, and resurrection.  The test is whether you are gifted enough to perceive the true meaning of death, and life.
Then, as they are walking along, it happens.  “A chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
Elisha is able to see this.  I am not sure that just any bystander would have seen it.  Maybe the inspired prophets on the banks of the river could see it.  But anyone else might just have seen someone die.  To the eyes of faith, death is not an ending.  It is not a snuffing of the light but a transformation of the light into a new and glorious form.  It is a merging into the Light of God out of which the whole universe is made.  Death is a victory over the pain and limitations of this world.  That’s why we sing “Alleluia!” at the grave when someone dies.  We celebrate how a soul has passed from somewhere to everywhere!
When he sees this spectacular vision of a chariot and horses ascending into heaven in a fiery tornado, Elisha cries out, “Father, father: the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  Meaning that here in the life and work and death of the prophet, is the true strength and might of Israel.  Not with the kings and their armies, but with the prophets, the ones chosen and inspired by God, the ones who proclaim God’s Word and will.  The prophets are the ones who are the true warriors; not those who shed blood but those who communicate the good news of God’s love for the world… and whose blood is often shed in this cause.
And when he can see Elijah no more, he tears his clothes in a sign of grief, sorrow, and distress.  No matter how strong our faith, when someone we love dies it tears a hole in the fabric of our soul.  It still hurts.  We may have all sorts of feelings about it: anger, abandonment, sadness, grief, denial, and so forth.  In those days to tear your clothing was a visible sign of this distress.

IV.
The narrative continues from there as Elisha literally picks up Elijah’s mantle and uses it to strike the Jordan again, so he may pass to the other side on dry ground.  It is a clear sign that Elijah’s power has been given to Elisha.  “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha,” say the prophets who witness the whole thing.    
This is a story about succession and continuity in the leadership of God’s people.  It is interesting to me what Elijah doesn’t do when he wants to identify a successor.  He doesn’t have an election, leaving it up to the will of the people.  Neither does he leave it up to a committee, that receives and sorts through a pile of submitted resumés.  He doesn’t expect the new prophet to be appointed by the king, God knows.  Neither does he try to turn his job over to his own biological offspring, which he doesn’t have anyway.  And he doesn’t even draw lots, like the apostles in Acts.
This story has to do with watching for the work of the Spirit in someone’s life.  It is about seeing how that spirit is passed on and actually inherited in a demonstrable way by the successor.  We notice protections, like testing Elisha’s devotion to God even by disobeying Elijah; or like having the larger assembly of prophets witness to the events.  Finally, it depends on what Elisha sees when he sees the passing of his mentor and teacher.  The fact that he sees the triumph of God makes all the difference.  And he then shows that he has received Elijah’s power.  It all happens at the Jordan, the symbolic place of Israel’s emergence as a nation.
I wonder if we aren’t now moving into a new age of the Holy Spirit, in which discernment of spiritual gifts won’t be increasingly important in identifying our leaders in the community of disciples.  I wonder if an example like the ratification of Elisha’s succession won’t become more intelligible to us in the future, than it has been in the past.  I wonder if leadership in the spiritual community won’t have less to do with our written standards, and more to do with watching for the Holy Spirit at work in a person in dramatic ways.
I suspect it will not be about the one with the “qualifications,” or the popular one, or the one chosen and groomed by her or his predecessors, though these are not unimportant criteria.  But our leaders will be the ones in whom the Holy Spirit is visibly and tangibly at work.  In the context of continuity with the heart of our tradition and the witness of the gathered community, it will be the ones who see clearly the presence and triumph of God in life, who relentlessly follow Jesus, and around whom miracles persistently happen.
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