2 Kings 2:1-12 | Psalm 50:1-6 | 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 | Mark 9:2-9
The book Gilead by Marilyn Robinson is a fictional account of the life of the Congregationalist Minister John Ames. The book is written as a series of letters from the old John Ames to his young 7-year-old son. Ames, who had the child late in his life, knows he will soon die of a heart condition and won’t be there for most of his son’s life. The letters are an attempt to put down in writing the important family stories and life lessons Ames has learned over the course of his long life, since he’ll be unable to convey these lessons and stories to his son after he dies. The book begins…
[Read first two paragraphs of Gilead]
How good is that? Everyone should read it. I was reading this book for the second time when I decided I wanted to be a pastor. Gilead is a masterpiece of wisdom, humor, joy, sadness, and struggle. One of my friends once said, “You could read Gilead as a devotional every morning.”
Our reading today from 2 Kings, about Elijah (who is, coincidentally, from the village of Gilead!) and Elisha is also a story of transition, a story of an older prophet, quite literally, passing the mantle to his young protégé. Back in 1 Kings 19, Elijah comes upon the younger Elisha, plowing a field with his oxen. As Elijah walks by him, he throw his mantle on him, and thus begins a beautiful mentor/mentee relationship.
Elijah was the greatest of Israel’s prophets. Elijah confronted political corruption (because, remember, the theological is always political), performed miracles, and proclaimed the words of God.
One of the most famous stories of Elijah (before Elisha comes along) is when he has a competition with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). He has two alters built, and two bulls slaughtered and laid on the alters. One alter is for Elijah, and the other is for the prophets of Baal. Then he says to the prophets, “You call on your god, and I’ll call on my God. Whichever answers ‘by fire’ is the true God.”
Being the nice guy that he is, he lets the prophets of Baal go first. So, from morning to noon they cry out to Baal asking him to answer them, but they get nothing. Meanwhile, Elijah, the holy man of God, just sits back and makes fun of them. The NRSV translates his words as, “Surely he is a god; either he is mediatating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened,” but our puritanical sentiments get in the way of a true translation. Elijah really says, and this is even a little mild, “Maybe Baal’s on the toilet.” The prophets of Baal become desperate, they even start cutting themselves to get Baal to answer, but, of course, nothing happens.
Then Elijah builds his alter, and surrounds it with a moat. He has the people douse his alter with the bull on it with water three times, until the moat is brimming with all the excess water. Then he calls on God, acknowledges God as the true God, and asks God to hear him. Then fire flashes from the sky and consumes the offering and the alter and even “licks up” all the water in the moat! Then, in Old Testament style, Elijah kills all the prophets of Baal.
But this didn’t make King Ahab and Queen Jezebel very happy, since they worshiped Baal, so they say they’re going to kill Elijah, so Elijah runs away into the wilderness, and there God feeds him and keeps him alive, and brings him to Mount Horeb. And while Elijah is on Mount Horeb, God speaks to him not in great wind, or in an earthquake, or in a fire, but in the silence, in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19).
In addition to all that, over the course of his ministry Elijah brings a widow’s son back to life, ends a drought, and performs other miracles.
This is the prophet Elisha is learning from, this is the prophet he’s supposed to replace. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill!
Our reading today begins by casually mentioning that God is going to take Elijah up in a whirlwind. No big deal. It’s like he news reporter started the day out saying, “It’s Tuesday morning, the weather’s mild, and today God’s going send a whirlwind to take Elijah up so that he doesn’t taste death.”
And it really is as if there was a news report broadcasting this information, because, as shocking as this sounds to us, it seems to be a known fact to everyone we meet in this story. Elijah presumably knows what’s coming, so he tells Elisha not to follow him. But Elisha says, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Isn’t that interesting that he adds, “and as you yourself live?”
It’s like Elijah already considers himself gone, taken up, but Elisha reminds him that he’s still here, and so Elisha won’t leave him. He wants to soak up every last minute he has with Elijah, his mentor, the one he will call “father” at the end of this story.
Then a company of prophets show up and ask Elisha, “Don’t you know that God’s going to take Elijah away today?” and Elisha responds. “Yes, I know! Thanks for rubbing it in. Be quiet.” This happens a few times. 3 times Elijah tries to stop Elisha from following him, and 3 times Elisha refuses. Twice the prophets remind Elisha that his master will be taken up that day, and twice Elisha tells them to shut up.
Then, Elijah performs his last miracle. He takes his mantle and strikes the Jordan, and it parts, and he and Elisha walk across together. Then Elijah asks Elisha, “What do you want from me before God takes me away?” And Elisha’s answer is similar to Solomon’s when he asked God for wisdom. Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.
Elisha knows that the shoe’s he’s called to fill are too big for him. He’s sure that he can’t live up to his mentor, the greatest of Israel’s prophets, a prophet so extraordinary that God won’t let him die. Elijah says that this is a very hard thing, but that if Elisha sees him get taken up, then his request will be granted.
John Ames’ son probably doesn’t know, at the age of 7, what Elisha knows: that he needs all the wisdom he can get. But certainly, when John Ames’ son gets older, he’ll treasure that letter from his father. The younger generations need the wisdom and guidance of the older generations.
The younger generations in this church need the wisdom and guidance of the older generations. Our church has changed a lot in the last year or so, hasn’t it? You called a new, young pastor (that’s what everyone says when they meet me: “He’s so young!”), younger people are coming in, even the board has changed a lot. Close to half our board is made up of new people.
I don’t really know what the church was like before I came, but I’m sure that along with all the excitement of the new things that are happening this could be hard for some of us. As new people take on leadership, perhaps it feels like those who have been here longer are getting pushed out.
I think I can confidently speak for all the younger people in our church when I say to you that we need you. We are like Elisha. We don’t want you to move on without us, and we don’t want to move on without you. We want to keep walking with you. We need you to keep walking with us. We need your wisdom and your guidance.
While us younger folks are excited to take on more responsibility, many of us are new to leadership, and we need you to show us the way.
At the end of the story, Elisha does get to see Elijah be taken up. Our Scripture reading this morning says, “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. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.”
From the passages that follow our reading this morning, it becomes clear that Elisha did receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. The first thing that happens in the verses following this morning’s reading is Elisha takes Elijah’s mantle, and strikes the Jordan again, and it parts again. And when the company of prophets from Jericho see Elisha they says, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 King 2:15). And Elisha would go on to do twice as many miracles as Elijah (Elijah: 16, Elisha: 32).
But I wonder if seeing Elijah get taken up was really where the wisdom came from, or if it came from all that walking together. Was it in that moment of fire and wind, or was it in the humility Elisha showed, when Elijah kept tell him to leave him, and Elisha kept refusing, adamant that he spend as much time learning from Elijah as possible?
This is a word of wisdom to those of us who are younger, and newer to the congregation (and to life in general). We shouldn’t take those who came before us for granted. They are an invaluable gift to us, and we would be wise to learn all we can from them.
God didn’t wait until after Elijah’s ministry was over to call Elisha. There wasn’t a clean break between the two prophets. Instead, their stories blended together, overlapped. The latter part of Elijah’s life was spent investing in the young Elisha, and the young Elisha didn’t rush to the place of Israel’ premier prophet. Instead, he spent the beginning of his ministry in humility, learning from the great prophet Elijah.
Similarly, healthy churches don’t jump from one generation to the next, but instead there should be integration and overlapping. Our board, committees, and congregation shouldn’t look too much like any one generation, but there should be a healthy mix.
That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Grant Park Church, and something I continue to brag about. People often ask me what the age range is like, and I’m always so happy to talk about what an even spread we have (as far as adults go, we’re a little sparse in the middle school/high school department). Back when I thought I might be a church planter, one of my greatest fears was that the church I started would just be a bunch of young people. I knew that a healthy church needs what my church growing up called “senior saints.”
Even Jesus, the Savior of the world, God become human, sees himself as part of a story that came before him. He meets with Elijah and Moses on the mountain and speaks with them. Even Jesus is shaped by those who came before.
This last Wednesday, during Coffee and Conversation, our doorbell rang. I went to the door and saw John Prutsman standing there. John was a regular at Coffee and Conversation last year, but I hadn’t seen him yet this year. John grew up in Grant Park Church. His parents were founding members. He said that when people became members they would be assigned a number correlating with their place in the chronological order of the church. The first member was #1, the second #2, etc. John said he thinks his parents were #8 and #9.
John was baptized in this church, but not in this building. As many of us know, after the wonderful work Mitch S. and Carol did preparing for our 90th anniversary celebration in 2016, this church began in a house that sat on this lot. John was baptized in that house-turned-church.
He has all kinds of stories about this building. He said the church used to have a bell that he bought (and I think he said he helped install). Quinlyn gave him a tour of the upstairs, and John told us what every room used to be, and how the architecture had changed. He told us about practicing with the 60 person choir in one of the upstairs rooms, and he told us he used to teach Sunday school in another one of the upstairs rooms.
All of these things, all these facts about the building, were fascinating, but what made this place so special to John wasn’t the architecture or the rooms or the house that used to be the church building. It was, of course, the people that made Grant Park Church what it was. John mentioned pastors and choir directors who shaped him. He mentioned families who became life-long friends with one another, their kids growing up together, the parents growing old together.
It’s humbling to think that we stand in a long line – hundreds and maybe thousands of people long (what number would each of us be?) – of faithful Christians who came before us and called Grant Park home, who paved the way so that we could be the church we are now.
I’m especially thankful for our previous pastor, Gregg Sneller, who helped Grant Park become such a loving, wonderful place. I just called Gregg a couple weeks ago to get some advice from him, as I do from time to time. And I’m thankful for Slayden, who served as the interim pastor and helped me transition into my new role as your pastor, and who continues to be a source of wisdom and humor.
And I’m thankful for each and every one of you who have kept this church going, who volunteered and sacrificed your time to this church long before I came, you who have welcomed us newcomers with open arms, and have encouraged us. We appreciate you, and we love you. Please continue to guide us, to help us, and to shape the identity of Grant Park Church.
We are who we are because of you. Amen.