Steve Lindsley
2 Kings 2: 1-15

The two journey together, as they’d been doing for a while now. They go wherever God leads them. And when they go, they go together. Mentor and pupil, seasoned veteran and young protege. They’ve done this enough times that it feels like an old beloved garment that just seems to fit right. They go together.

But on this day, there is something different in the air. Something has changed. And not a word is spoken about this between the two – perhaps, because no words are needed. They already know. But still, it is awkward. Three times, people along the way tell young Elisha – don’t you know, haven’t you heard, Elijah is going to be taken up today! Three times he replies, yes, yes, I know, but keep it quiet.

The awkwardness of the unspoken only seems to grow. It’s never easy saying goodbye. Three times, Elijah tries to blow Elisha off: Wait here, he says, God has sent me on ahead. And three times, Elisha sees right through it: Sorry, not going to do it – I’m with you all the way. They go together.

And so now they come to the Jordan River. So many God-moments at this river. And now it is Elijah and Elisha who need to get across it. Elijah takes off his mantle, he raises it high in the air, and he slaps it down on the water. And the water parts to either side. Elisha watches all of this in awe and wonder. Together they walk across.

A little further and they are right where they are supposed to be. The time for the unspoken to be spoken has come.

What can I do for you, Elijah asks.

Your life, repeated in mine, Elisha answers.

To which Elijah responds: We shall see.

What happens next, from Elisha’s point of view, is hard to describe. Hard because it had never happened before. The only words that could come close to describing it are a chariot of fire and horses that come out of nowhere, come from above. Come from the heavens. It sweeps Elijah in it and whisks him away, whisks him up. Elisha can do nothing but stand and watch as his mentor and master and 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 can see him no more, Elisha casts his gaze down on the ground, down to Elijah’s mantle lying there. The same mantle the prophet always wore on his shoulders, a sign of his prophetic authority. The same mantle he had just used to part the waters of the Jordan River.

How long does he stand there, staring down at that mantle, we wonder? Does it seem to Elisha to be a precious artifact, a holy relic; something only to be observed, never touched? Does it seem odd for it now to be separated from its owner, the only person to ever wear it? And at what point does the thought enter Elisha’s mind that it being left behind is, in fact, no accident?

How long does Elisha stand there staring down at that mantle? Long enough to realize who it’s been left there for.

So, he picks it up and he puts it on. It feels heavy on his previously unburdened shoulders. He knows, Elisha does, that to wear the mantle means more than just sporting a new garment. It means that something has changed and changed in him. And so, seeing his future before him now, Elisha heads back the way that he came; and the way leads him once again to the Jordan River and its now unparted waters.

How long does he stand there, looking at those waters? Does it seem to him to be an uncrossable barrier, the only thing standing in the way of where he has been and who he’s meant to become? And how long does he hold that mantle high above his head, a single muscle flex away from slapping it down at the water’s edge, experiencing the hope of what might happen in doing that, or the fear and shame if it does not?

How long does Elisha stand there? Long enough for hope to overcome fear. Long enough for the future to come forth out of the past. 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 the future. It is also an awkward story, with at least two moments that leave us, the reader, the ones experiencing this story thousands of years after the fact, leaves us scratching our heads and asking, “what is going on here?”

Awkward moment #1 happens 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; things like this did not happen all that much back in the day – in fact, they did not happen at all. It was as awkward then as it would be today.

And saying goodbye – well, that’s always awkward. No easy way to do that.

No, the real awkward moment comes after he is 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! It wasn’t like he left a sandal behind. He left his mantle – the sign of his authority as a prophet of God. And Elisha knows he did not leave it behind by mistake. He left it for him. And he knows what it means the moment he picks it up. He knows everything for him 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 think he took pause, trying to wrap his head around 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, some small. Everything from a change in weekend plans to a new job offer to a cherished relationship beginning or ending. We’re at that moment where we intuitively know that the script we’ve been following up to this point is about to be revised in some way. But rarely do we know where the revision will take us. So, we ask ourselves, what do I do now?

Hold onto that question as we pivot back to the story and Awkward Moment #2. It’s the moment Elisha holds the mantle above the unparted Jordan River. 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 what happened when Elijah did it – the question is, would it for him? So, I have to think there was another question running through his mind here, consuming his thoughts. And that question was:

Is this going to work?

And we know that question too, don’t we? How many times in a given day do we find ourselves asking, is this going to work? Is this thing I’ve planned for, invested a lot of myself in, worked tirelessly for, is this thing going to come about as I hope? Is this going to work?

True confession: “is this going to work” is a question I ask myself every time I step into the pulpit. I bring this iPad with a bunch of words, lots of thoughts and musings compiled over the course of the week, a good word a story or two. But will it convey something meaningful to you? That’s the hope, of course. But is it going to work?

I think about someone in the midst of a significant life transition, standing on the cusp of a new beginning in a city that feels like a different world, lost in a mix of excitement and trepidation. The boxes are unpacked, the new job starts tomorrow, and as they look out over the bustling streets from this tiny apartment, I wonder if this leap into the unknown will bring the happiness and fulfillment they’ve been after. Is this going to work?

I think about someone who’s decided to revisit a passion they once had, a passion that gave them such life until life itself got in the way, filled with errands and chores, responsibilities and deadlines. And now, with a blank canvas set up in the spare room, they mix colors for the first time in years. And as they squeeze out vibrant colors onto their palette and stare at the empty white space before them, they wonder if this renewed creative pursuit will reignite the joy they once felt. Is this going to work?

You know, it strikes me that so much of our walk of faith, so much of life in general, boils down to these two crossroads and the deeply evocative and sometimes agonizing questions they present us:

What do I do now?

Is this going to work?

Sometimes the answer comes easily. Sometimes. More often than not, though, the truth of the matter is that we don’t have a clue what’s coming next. Sometimes we just don’t know if something is going to work out or not.

And you know what? That’s okay. Because as I think of Elisha in this story, I’m not so sure that definiteness is what he’s 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 those questions long before he’s figured out their answers. He doesn’t try to know every little detail of what comes 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 gives it a shot.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former keynoter for our church-wide Montreat retreat. You may remember her. If you were there that year, you probably remember her “theology of improv.” That’s what she called it. Basically, a theology of improv claims that each one of us are partners with God and with each other in life – life as it happens, life when it goes according to plan and especially when it does not. She calls 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, as opposed to viewing changes to the plan as obstacles to get rid of or a barrier to bring things to a screeching halt. “From Moses to Ruth to Jesus,” MaryAnn claims, “scripture is full of people saying ‘Yes-and’ pivoting in unexpected directions and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances.”

Seems that Elisha would be a student of the theology of improv, no? Elisha essentially says “Yes-and” twice – once, when he picks up the mantle; and next, when he strikes the Jordan’s waters. All the awkwardness, all the questions – and still he moves forward, creating something new as he goes, making it up with God. And it works! Not because of what he’s doing, I suspect, as much as who he is doing it with.

I wonder, friends – I wonder in what ways those two questions resonate in your life: what do I do now? Is this really gonna work? I wonder what it’s like for you to go forward in the sometimes-vibrant chaos of daily living, switching roles from one moment to the next, not always entirely certain you are who you need to be or where you should be.

If that’s you, beloved, then know this: you are always, always right where you need to be – because God is right there with you, journeying at your side. And the mantle is always there for you to pick up and discover new possibilities and promise – no matter how awkward things might get.

Because God has called you and me to pick up our mantle and part waters and dive into the answers to the questions that come our way every single day: What do we do now? We go where God leads. Is this going to work? Yes! Because we go with God and with each other. And we figure it out together. We’re always figuring it out together.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 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.