(2 Kings 2: 1-15)
The two men journey together, as they’d done for a while now. They go wherever God leads. And when they go, they go together. Mentor and pupil, seasoned veteran and young protégé. They’d done this so many times that it feels to them like an old coat that just seems to fit right. And as they go together, they support each other along the way. They know each others’ strengths, they know each others’ weaknesses. They are a team.
But on this day, there is something different. Noticeably different. The familiar tune they’d grown so accustomed to over the years has now changed timbre. Not a word is spoken about this between the two. Because, perhaps, no words are needed. They already know. Three times, people along the way tell young Elisha – don’t you know, haven’t you heard, today is the day Elijah will be taken up! Three times he replies, yes, yes, I know, but keep it quiet.
The awkwardness of the unspoken only seems to grow. Three times, Elijah tries to blow Elisha off: Wait here, God has sent me on ahead. And three times, Elisha sees right through it: Not on your life! I’m with you all the way. I’m not letting you out of my sight.
They now come to the River Jordan. So many God-moments at this river. And now it is Elijah and Elisha’s turn, and they need to get across. Elijah takes off his mantle, his stole, raises it high into the air, slaps it down on the water, and the water parts aside. Elisha watches all of this in awe and wonder. Together they walk across.
A little further and they’re right where they’re supposed to be. The time for unspoken secrets has passed.
Elijah asks, What can I do for you?
Elisha answers, Your life, repeated in mine,
We’ll see, Elijah says. We’ll see.
What happens next, from Elisha’s point of view, could only be described as indescribable. The only words that could ever come close – a chariot of fire and horses, coming out of nowhere, coming from above. It sweeps Elijah in it and whisks him away, whisks him up. Elisha can do nothing but stand and watch as his mentor, his master, his friend disappears from sight – straining to see him until he becomes nothing more than a tiny dot in the sky.
And when his strained eyes could no longer see him, Elisha casts his gaze down on the ground, down where he sees Elijah’s mantle, left behind. The same mantle the prophet always wore, a sign of his prophetic authority. The same mantle he just used to part the Jordan’s waters.
How long does he stand there, looking down at that mantle? Is it to Elisha like a precious artifact, only to be observed, never touched? Does it seem odd, so odd, for it to now be separate from its owner? And at what point does the thought enter his mind that this is no accident?
How long does he stand there looking down at that mantle? Long enough for him to realize who it’s left there for.
So he picks it up and puts it on. It feels heavy, oppressive on his previously unburdened shoulders. He knows, Elisha does, that to wear the mantle means more than just sporting a new garment. And so, seeing his future before him now, he heads back the way he came; and the way leads him once again to the River Jordan and its unparted waters.
How long does he stand there, looking at those waters? Is it to him an uncrossable barrier, the only thing standing in the way of where he’s meant to go and who he’s meant to be? And how long does he hold that mantle high above his head, a single muscle flex away from slapping it down on the water’s surface, experiencing the hope of what might happen and the fear of what might not?
How long does he stand there? Long enough for hope to trump fear. He slaps the mantle down. The waters part. He walks across. He moves on.
This story of Elijah and Elisha in our scripture today is a story of transition. A story of past meeting present and moving into future. And it finds its way into this sermon series Grace and I are preaching right now, because this series is about awkward moments in the Bible. Times when we scratch our heads and ask ourselves, “what is going on here?” And as it turns out, this story of Elijah and Elisha blesses us with not just one awkward moment, but two. Did you catch them, I wonder? The two awkward moments?
Awkward moment #1 – when Elisha watches his mentor and friend taken up in a chariot of fire. Now, let’s be clear: the whole chariot of fire thing is awkward enough; it wasn’t like one of these made an appearance every so often in Biblical times. It was as awkward then as it would be today.
And saying goodbye – that’s always awkward. No good way to do that.
But the real awkward moment happens after he’s gone, after that tiny dot disappears in the sky, and Elisha looks down to see his master’s mantle lying on the ground. Now that is awkward! Because Elisha realizes that it wasn’t left there by mistake. It was left there for him. And he knows what it means the moment he picks it up. He knows everything will change.
And while scripture doesn’t say it explicitly, I have to think that he didn’t just reach down and pick it up right away. I have to think he took pause, trying to fully grasp the significance of it all, with a single question running through his mind the whole time, consuming his thoughts. And that question was this:
What do I do now?
We know this question, don’t we? How many times in a given day do we find ourselves asking, what do I do now? We come to a crossroads – some big ones, some small. Everything from a change in weekend plans, to a new job offer, to a relationship beginning or ending, to something as pertinent on this day as graduation. We’re at that moment where we intuitively know that the script we’ve been living by is going to be revised. But we don’t always know where the revision will take us. So we ask ourselves, what do I do now?
Hold onto that question, if you will – back to Elisha and Awkward Moment #2. It’s the moment Elisha holds the mantle high in the air above the unparted Jordan. And again, it doesn’t say it in scripture, but I have to think he took pause here as well. Because he knew what would happen – or not happen – when that mantle hit the water. He knew it worked for Elijah – but would it work for him? So I have to think there was another question running through his mind, consuming his thoughts. And that question was this:
Is this really gonna work?
And we know that question too, don’t we? How many times in a given day do we find ourselves asking, is this really gonna work? True confession: “is this really gonna work” is a question I ask myself every time I step into this pulpit, you know? I bring words on an iPad, thoughts, musings, some study, a story or two. But will it convey something meaningful? Will it work?
I think about our high school graduates driving to their new college some mid-August morning; the back seat stuffed with dorm room essentials. They’ve done everything they’re supposed to do: they have a fall class schedule, they have a dorm room and roommate. Everything is good to go. And yet some part of them wonders: is this really gonna work?
I also think about our graduate parents, driving back from that college in mid-August. For eighteen years they’ve had their son or daughter living under their roof. Sure, things changed: they got older, they garnered independence. But they always have been there. And now they’re somewhere else. As a parent, you try your darndest to raise your kid right for this very moment, so that when they leave you, they’ll do fine without you. And I think as a parent, this is when you realize that the question is not just how they will do without you, but how you will do without them. So you ask, for your sake as much as theirs, is this really gonna work?
You know, it strikes me, when we think about it, that so much of our walk of faith, so much of life in general, boils down to these two crossroads moments and the deeply evocative and gut-wrenching questions they pose:
What do I do now?
Is this really gonna work?
And the thing is, I don’t know that either has a definitive answer to them every single time. I don’t know that it’s automatically a “yes” and a “yes,” just because we want it to be. Sometimes, the truth of the matter is that we don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes we have no clue if something is going to work out or not.
Besides, as I think of Elisha in this story, I’m not sure that definitiveness is what he’s going after anyway. I think there’s a deep, deep faith he’s on the cusp of living into; a faith that moves head-first into the questions long before he’s figured out the answers. He doesn’t wait to determine what he’s supposed to do next – he just picks up the mantle. He doesn’t form a committee to create a task force to do an in-depth study into the likelihood that the waters will part when he hits it with the mantle – he just does it.
In one of her keynotes at last year’s Montreat retreat, our speaker MaryAnn McKibben Dana talked about this idea she called theology of improv. It’s the notion that we are all partners with God and with each other in life – life as it happens, life when it goes according to plan and especially when life goes off-script. She called this kind of faithful living “Yes…and,” much like an improv comedian takes whatever’s been given by the person before and builds something new on top of that – rather than seeing obstacles as something to get rid of or a barrier to bring things to a screeching halt. “From Moses to Ruth to Jesus,” MaryAnn says, “scripture is full of people saying ‘Yes-and,’ pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances.”
You can throw Elisha in that mix too. Elisha essentially says “Yes-and” twice – when he picks up the mantle and when he strikes the Jordan’s waters. All that awkwardness, all those questions – and he goes forward, creating something new, making it up with God. And it works! Not because of what he’s doing, I suspect, as much as who he’s doing it with.
You know, the last time I preached on this passage was almost three years ago. It was an important Sunday in my life and the life of the church I was serving at the time. It was our last Sunday together, my last Sunday with them before I took the call to come here. I remember in that sermon I talked about laying foundations and building on those foundations and the people who go before and the people who come after; and how we all create something new with God every step of the way. And in the middle of the sermon I had ushers pass out over a hundred mantles – stoles, similar to the one I was wearing, fashioned out of fabric from a local store in town; a stole for every man, woman and child. We passed them out – it took about ten minutes, we had piano music playing – and when everyone in that church had a stole, this is what I said to them:
My brothers and sisters in Christ, you now have your own mantle. And I want you to keep this mantle on as we continue worshipping and head to the Fellowship Hall for the reception. I want you to wear it there and then wear it in the car on your way home.
And when you get home, my prayer is that you’ll take your mantle and hang it somewhere in your house where you’ll see it every now and then – in your closet, on your bedroom doorknob, over your dresser mirror. And I hope that every once in awhile when you need to – and you’ll know when you need to – I hope you’ll take your mantle and put it around your neck and think to yourself, or even say out loud: I am a child of God, and together with God and my sisters and brothers in Christ, I am building something new at every turn, living into discipleship, growing in faith and becoming the church that God has called us to be.
Now I didn’t have time this week to make each of you your own mantle. Sorry! But even so, mantle or no mantle, the fact remains: God has called you and me to pick up our mantle and part waters and live into the answers of the questions we’re faced with. What we do we do now? We go where God leads. Is this really gonna work? Yes! Because we go with God and we go with each other. And we figure it out together.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.