At the end of the first book in his Lord of the Rings series, JRR Tolkien, writes of an interaction between the main protagonist Frodo Baggins and his companion and friend Samwise Gamgee or Sam. In this scene the entire Fellowship of the Ring, that is this group tasked by the elves to ensure The One Ring was taken to Mordor and destroyed, is on a riverside. All but Frodo, and as we find out Sam, are fighting back a hoard of orcs who are trying to kill the fellowship and impede their ultimate goal. However, in the midst of this skirmish Frodo realizes that they can not go on as this large group of 7 persons and decides he will continue the venture alone, and leave the rest to do their own works. He gets in a canoe and begins to paddle onto the river to reach the other side and continue his journey. Determined to go alone he doesn’t look back until he hears the familiar voice of Sam urging him to come back, to reconsider. Frodo sees in Sam determination to be on this journey with him. To help Frodo complete this task, even against Frodo’s best wishes. Frodo realizes there is no point in trying to get rid of Frodo and therefore helps him into the boat, and they journey together. (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien. pg. 396-397)
Today we have a story of a prophetic line with similar tenacity as we read of the final days of the prophet Elijah. We are introduced at the beginning of this passage to that information as we read, “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” (2 Kings 2:1) As the stage is set we realize this is no normal trip for Elijah or his apprentice and prophetic heir Elisha. Elijah tries over and over again, specifically in verses 2, 4, and 6, to turn Elisha away from this journey. Elijah knowing how it will end wants to, in effect, spare Elisha the grief and heartache of watching his master be taken to heaven. The Hebrew word for heaven in verse one is shamayim and speaks of this ethereal house of God. It means heaven or sky, and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, it is used in multiple occurrences to represent that otherworldly beyond of God. (https://thebible.org/gt/index 2 Kings 2:1 “heaven”)
To note here, Elijah is not dying, well not in the manner we may understand it. He is being taken to heaven, one of two people in the Hebrew Scriptures to have this happen, the other being Enoch in the book of Genesis (Gen. 5:24). This instance akin to the ascension of Christ himself, but in this instance for Elisha it represents the loss of a master. End of life presents for us a moment of grief. A grief expressed in the final verse we read today. “Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.” (2 Kings 2:12)
Knowing that this will most likely be how this ends, why does Elisha go along with Elijah? Why does he subject himself to this?
I think it is because of the journey. I believe that Elisha knows that while the journey may end in grief the journey itself will be fruitful in overcoming the heartache to come. He will be changed by the journey and become the prophet that God has plans for him to be.
This Sunday in our Christian Calendar is all about change, a physical and spiritual change. This Sunday we observe and reflect on the story of the Transfiguration. In the book of Mark this story happens in chapter 9 and tells of the time when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a hilltop and he is transfigured, that is his appearance changes. His clothes became the brightest of white and he was joined by Moses and Elijah. After an off-handed comment from Peter, God proclaims the Son-ship of Christ and the Disciples and Christ are left alone on the hilltop. This story occurs right after Christ predicts his death, and proclaims it to the disciples. In this time the last thing the disciples needed was reiteration that their Messiah was going to be killed, but as we learn from the story of Elisha the journey is where our change lies.
In the story of the Transfiguration, there was a physical change, or transfiguration, in the appearance of Christ, that is the meaning of transfiguration. A change in appearance. However, Jesus was not the only one transfigured by the event, the disciples were also changed by it. They are changed by the journey of going with Christ and learning from him. Elisha shows us the importance of this aspect of spiritual transfiguration, that is our spiritual form is transfigured to echo that which God has planned for us. We must be willing to go beyond the borders of that which might hurt us to allow God to for and transfigure our lives. There is something about a journey, no matter the end, that strengthens us. Our spiritual own transfiguration is realized in the manner we live into and are a part of that journey. It is not that our grief at various points may not be justified, because they most assuredly are, but we, like Elisha can recognize the impact that that part of the journey had on us, and pick up the mantle and continue on in the light of those who have led us.
We all are on this journey. We journey with Christ in the present throughout the Christian year. We are with Christ in his birth, we witness his miracles, we hear his parables, and we even journey with him to the very end. Each and every step of that journey changes our physical and spiritual being. We have others whom we journey with. Those mentors who have guided and shepherded us through our faith journey. I am sure we all have an Elijah, or many Elijahs, who took us under their wing and taught us, and then one day they were gone. The pain of that hurt, but the blessing that we received from that impacted our faith and the way we live out God’s call.
It is in the journey that Elisha remains close with his master, and comes to ask Elijah, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2 Kings 2:9b) A weird request at its face, but James Howell, pastor and renowned preaching professor at Duke Divinity School, talks of it saying:
“Elijah had his protégés, but 2 Kings narrates the life of only one. Elisha, pitifully and rather heroically, asked the dying Elijah for a “double share” of his power. Commentaries explain how an oldest son would receive a dual portion of an inheritance. But I prefer to think Elisha knew that with Elijah gone he would need not only his own resources or what he had soaked up from Elijah over the years, but an extra dosage. Evidently he received that extra dosage. Elisha’s miracle output exactly doubled Elijah’s, 16 to eight! Jesus promised the disciples that they would do “greater things.” How could anybody top Jesus? Of course, the church has never competed with Jesus, because the church is Jesus. We are the body of Christ down here. “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” The remarkable narrative in 2 Kings 2 invites us not to trust in our divinely endowed skills or to put our abilities to work for God, but simply to make a promise to plunge headlong into the water, to refuse to let the other alone: “I’m coming with you.” Feeling a bit foolish, having loved and lost, and with no real idea what the future might hold, we emerge from the water, and a mantle is draped around our shoulders. At first it doesn’t fit; we pray for a bigger share, some burst of power we know won’t really be enough…” (https://jameshowellsweeklypreachingnotions.blogspot.com/2017/10/what-can-we-say-come-february-11.html)
I hope that from my mentors I have received a double portion.
We receive all Christ and our mentors have offered us, all that they are, and seek to continue their legacy. I also know that with Christ and through Christ “greater things” are to come through me. Yes, we grieve losses. We rip our clothes in two and weep and cry, but we also get up and go on, better, stronger, and changed by the journey that brought us to that point. WE MUST TAKE UP THE MANTLE!!! If we read the next 2 verses following our passage today in 2 Kings 2 we read, “He [Elisha] picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” (2 Kings 2:13-14)
Pastor B. Kevin Smalls reminds us, “Elisha grieved deeply when he saw his mentor being taken up in glory. He ripped his clothes. But he also picked up the mantle to carry on…Congregations long for those leaders they can’t seem to replace. The preached word should require us to pick up the mantle, not as a replacement for grieving, but as a treatment for it. The hope in this message is often found in our affirmation of faith, the Apostles’ Creed, as we believe in the communion of saints. This communion comes alive in us as we do the work that has been left in our hands.” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2018-worship-planning-series/february-11-2018-god-is-speaking-transfiguration/transfiguration-of-the-lord-2018-preaching-notes)
We are about to enter a season of deep personal reflection. A time of traveling with Christ as he is on a journey to his death. Yet, we receive our strength as disciples in this time. We are reminded of the great work that Christ did for us, and we take up Christ’s mantle in our response to his death and resurrection.
Reflect inwardly on your journey. How have you been changed, transfigured, by the journey you have been on? Who has been pivotal in that transfiguration? How do you feel that double portion? How have you picked up that mantle of Christ to seek those “greater things” to come?
At the end of the Lord of the Rings series, in the final book, Sam is at another crossroads of whether or not to let Frodo go. Frodo is going to be taken on another “adventure” but Sam will never see him again. Sam struggles with letting him go in this manner but knows it is the right thing to do. Frodo tells Sam, “…Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.” (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King by JRR Tolkien. pg. 1006)
We too must live on, having been changed by the journey behind us, and travel ahead with the new perspective and mantle gained transfigured and changed for the better.