Sunday 13 • 26 Jun 2016

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Rev. Chris Udy

Transitions are often traumatic.
They can bring out the worst in us -
they expose our prejudice and fear -
and those who seek to lead us
often prey on our anxieties and weakness.
But transitions can also reveal
hidden strengths and depths
in people we might never have considered ready
to step up and take on
the stresses and trials of power.

Today we read about a leadership transition
from Elijah to Elisha,
and it’s yet another rich and significant story.
Elijah appears in Israel
after the northern kingdom of Israel
had done a sort of Brexit
and separated themselves
from the southern kingdom of Judah.
Down south they still had Jerusalem and the Temple
to keep them united and faithful to Yahweh,
but in the north King Ahab and Queen Jezebel
wanted their own focus for politics and religion –
so Jezebel, who was also a priestess
of the Canaanite fertility God Baal,
imported priests of Baal and encouraged the building
of temples and shrines throughout Israel –
and that’s when Elijah bursts into the story.
As we’ve read over the last few weeks,
Elijah declared himself Yahweh’s defender,
and took on Baal, and Jezebel, and Ahab,
in a bitter struggle for the heart and soul of Israel.
Baal was meant to control the clouds,
and thunder, and rain, and dew –
so Elijah first declared
that Yahweh would impose a drought,
and then he did all he could
to provoke the king and queen
and to undermine the worship of Baal.
That was, understandably,
a lonely and dangerous course,
and Elijah was constantly in fear for his life,
so he chose a successor – Elisha –
whom he encountered ploughing a field.
Elisha paused only long enough
to kill his oxen and boil them up
on a fire made from the wood of his plough –
so his was an absolute commitment
to following Elijah as his disciple,
and there’s an echo of that dedication
in our Gospel reading.

Elijah threw his mantle over Elisha’s shoulders,
essentially adopting him as a son –
and for the next seven years or so
Elisha followed and worked for
and learned from Elijah.
At the end of that time
Elijah embarked on a strange little pilgrimage
Starting from Gilgal, he walked to Bethel,
then he walked from Bethel to Jericho,
and from Jericho to the Jordan
saying, as he left each town,
‘Elisha, you stay here’,
and every time Elisha replied
‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live,
I will not leave you.’
Each of those places had been significant
in the relationship between Israel and Yahweh:
at Gilgal, when the Israelites
emerged from their Exodus
and crossed the Jordan River
they built a circle of 12 stones –
one for each of the tribes of Israel –
and the men who had been born
during their years in wilderness
were circumcised to reaffirm their place
in Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham.
At Bethel Abraham had built an altar to Yahweh,
and it was there that Jacob dreamed of heaven
and had his name changed to Israel.
Jericho was the city where the walls fell down
as Joshua led Israel back into Palestine,
and the Jordan river marked the boundary
of the land Yahweh had promised to Abraham.
It looks like Elijah
was both training and testing Elisha,
literally walking him through
the story of their relationship with Yahweh
and giving him opportunities to rest in the past
and to let that story end.

As they moved around
Elisha was also being approached
by little groups of prophets
who sidled up to him to say
‘Do you know that today the Lord
will take your master away from you?’,
But every time they said it
Elisha replied -
‘Yes, I know, but be quiet -
don’t talk about it.’
For some reason the writers of the lectionary
left out those three verses -
maybe they didn’t want to talk about it either -
but really they’re fundamental to the story.
Elijah was coming to an end
of his ministry and his life,
and everybody knew it -
Elisha, the prophets, and Elijah himself
had all imagined a day
when Elijah would not be there,
but for some reason they found it too hard
to talk about that future.
For Elijah there was probably some grief
at leaving his purpose behind -
and maybe some concern
that those who were coming on
might not do things the way he would.
For Elisha there was also grief,
at losing his mentor and protector,
and maybe also some concern
that now he would be responsible and capable,
that he might have to take some risks,
and that he might not do as well
as those who had gone before.
And for the groups of prophets -
who perhaps represent the rest of the people -
there was that anxiety of transition,
watching to see what would happen,
hoping for safe hands,
and wondering whether
everything would fall apart.

In times like that
it can be hard to be open,
to know and name the fears and express the grief
and take the risk of deepening
the distress or anger
of people who are already under stress.
So instead of speaking plainly
we whisper and gossip -
‘Did you know - have you heard’ -
or we shut up and struggle on in silence.

But in the end it’s better to speak:
to own our grief for a world that’s moved on
and to say goodbye to a way of life that’s changed
to then to look ahead,
make plans for the future and arrange transitions -
and in the end, it was Elijah who took that on.
Beside the Jordan he finally asked Elisha -
‘Tell me what I may do for you
before I’m taken away’ -
and Elisha said
‘Please let me inherit
a double share of your spirit’.
Elijah told him that would be hard,
but if Elisha kept watch with him,
stayed with him, and could see him
as he was taken away,
then he would receive
what he’d asked for.

So Elisha stayed with him right to the end,
and as Elijah was taken away,
lifted up in a whirlwind into heaven,
Elisha was watching and shouted out
‘My father, my father,
the chariots and horsemen of Israel’.
Israel’s protector and defender -
and Elisha’s model and mentor - was gone,
and Elisha cried out
his sadness and distress.

And then - after Elijah had disappeared
and Elisha had torn his clothes in grief,
he turned around
and picked up Elijah’s mantle -
the symbol of Elijah’s leadership and protection,
walked over to the bank of the Jordan river,
and just as Elijah had done,
he struck the surface of the water.
Water in the Bible is a symbol for chaos,
an image of unpredictable instability -
but when Elijah struck the water
just moments before,
the water had parted.
Just as it had when the people of Israel
followed Moses through the Red Sea to freedom,
and just as it had when they followed Joshua,
leaving wilderness to enter promised land,
the water had parted,
leaving safe and solid ground to walk on.
Now Elisha repeated what Elijah had done,
the water of the river parted once again,
and Elisha walked over on dry land.
The Spirit that had guided Abraham, and Jacob
and Moses, and Joshua, and Elijah,
was now at work in Elisha,
and the purpose and mission of God
had passed into another generation.

At the moment we seem to be facing
a perfect storm of transitions.
Brexit was just the first grumbling clap of thunder
from clouds gathering on the horizon,
with our elections
and possible divisive plebiscites to come,
and then the US election,
and who knows what might follow that,
all thrown into the changing climate
of a world where security and stability
are in diminishing supply.
There are some who seem to be feeding the chaos,
hoping to emerge from whatever comes
with a bigger share of whatever they think
might build their wealth and power –
but when the fundamentals
of industry and trade and community are at risk,
who knows what will have value,
and who will have control.
Others are in denial,
hoping that, if they refuse to read the signs
or listen to reports of change
that threaten what they have
somehow the storm will roll away
and leave them safe behind it.
The tragedy is that there are even some
who are using God as their excuse
to avoid facing up to a challenging future.
But while, like Elisha, we have to know
the stories that have made us who we are,
also like Elisha, we can’t get stuck in the past,
we have to keep moving into the future with God,
and when the time is right,
take up the mantle we’ve been given to carry.

Our Gospel reading for today
echoes Elisha’s story,
and comes from the time of transition
in the focus of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Up until now his focus
had been on calling disciples into community
and teaching them the stories
that we still preserve and pass on
from one generation to another.
But when, as Luke says,
‘the days drew near
for him to be taken up’ – another echo of Elijah –
‘he set his face to go to Jerusalem’.
Up until now the response he’d met
had largely been positive –
but now he met opposition;
first from a Samaritan village
who wanted nothing to do with him
because he was on his way to Jerusalem.
James and John wanted to punish the village –
as Elijah had once done when he’d been insulted –
but Jesus refused, and rebuked them.
And as they walked, Jesus explained
that the way to the realm of God
was neither painless nor popular,
and that a time would come
when following Jesus would involve a choice
and would put at risk
the comforts and securities we cling to.
Living as a disciple of Jesus,
and living in the hope of God’s justice and peace
will mean we have to challenge and confront
the anger and fear
that leads to fragmentation
and the self-interest and greed
that leads to exclusion,
whether they are in our families,
or our neighbours, or the nation, or the world.

Transitions are insecure,
and they can be painful –
but they can also be
times for renewal and rebirth.
The mantle of faith –
God’s calling and protection
wouldn’t be needed if the way forward
was always bright and clear;
but sometimes we need protection from the storm,
and sometimes we need to accept
that days will come
when it’s up to us to step up
and take a lead, or make a stand,
or speak out for someone
who needs to know that they are not alone.
The mantle of God’s calling and protection
moves from one generation to another,
and as we follow Jesus
on his way to Jerusalem,
we will find that we’re also called
to leave some things behind -
but the world we want to live in
isn’t somewhere in the past,
it’s being born;
it’s still on the way;
and today it’s up to us
to help it find its way to life.