Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sermon: June 16, 2013 Robed with the Mantle of Elijah

2 Kings 2.1f, 6-15 – Elijah is taken up to heaven; Elisha inherits Elijah’s mantle
Rev. Andy Ferguson

            Elisha had been the disciple of Elijah for several years. In that time, Elisha had traveled with the older Elijah just as the disciples of Jesus had traveled about with him. Elisha listened as his master taught; he knelt beside him to learn what it was to pray; he was present to witness miracles of healing. He was probably present when Elijah took on the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel.
            What Elisha saw as he followed the older prophet was a man of great faith, someone who walked with God. In a time when different people followed different gods, Elijah was clear that he followed only the Lord, the God who had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the Land of Promise.
            What made Elijah’s faith different from our own? We look at one of the greats and assume that there was quality about their faith that was greater or better than the common run of faith we know. Did Elijah believe in God in a way that was inaccessible to the likes of us? I do not believe so.
[ILLUS;] Someone once complimented a vibrant Christian by saying, “You must have a great faith.” To which that Christian responded, “No, it is not I who has a great faith in God. Instead, I have a little faith in a great God.”

Elijah had a little faith in a great God, and it inspired him to live a life of clarity and power.
[ILLUS;] At Annual Conference, Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, in her sermon at ordination told those who were being commissioned and ordained, “People you meet are not waiting for you to convince them that they should follow Christ. They are waiting for you to show them that you are convinced to follow Christ.” This is the most powerful witness that you and I offer to the world.

Well, this was Elijah – convinced, living a powerful life, walking with God.
            As our scripture opens, Elijah is coming to the end of his life. The old prophet begins a journey on foot: from Gilgal, through Bethel, then past Jericho. In the final step of his journey, Elijah parts the waters of the River Jordan recreating Israel's arrival in the Promised Land and Israel's escape through the waters of the Red Sea. Unlike the journey out of Egypt, Elijah is carried away by God’s chariots, not the chariots of Pharaoh. Through this symbolic journey, Elijah gathers up the great history of God in Israel and carries it to heaven.
            Elijah’s symbolic journey, which ends with him being carried into heaven, stands as a reminder that our history as a nation is also lived before God. We see our days as work and rest; news reports sound much the same day to day; progress is undermined by uncertainty. We miss the hand of God among us by attending to the details. Elijah gathered up the great history of Israel, then, carrying all of that, he was caught up to heaven. What a reminder to all of us that our story is held in God’s hands.

II. At every place he could, Elijah would say to Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me further.” Ordinarily, a prophet’s disciple would follow his master’s instructions to the letter. He was not to question or ask for explanation; he was expected to obey. But Elisha, sensing that his old master was about to be taken from him, refused. “I will not leave you,” he answered more than once.
            APPLIC: I hope there are people in your life that you feel this way about:
·       People whose counsel you trust,
·       People whose path you will happily follow for yourself,
·       People who turn your life in the best direction possible.

II.  From the story in the  Bible, you get the sense that both of them knew what was about to happen: Elijah knew that God was about to take him home; Elisha knew that his master was about to be taken from him. They talk as if they are playing a bit of a game with this. Neither of them wants to talk about Elijah dying; talking about death is hard. So, instead of saying it plainly, they play this game: “Stay here; I have been sent on.” And the younger prophet, responding to the master whom he loves, “I will not leave you.” There is something very endearing about their exchange, but I think there is more to this exchange than the affection between them.
            I think I hear Elijah saying to his young disciple, “Are you sure that you want this life?” Are you sure you want to be the voice of God in Israel? Or as the Bishop put it this week at annual conference, “Are you convinced?” This is our question as well.
·       Are you sure you want this Christian life?
·       Are you sure you want to care about the things and the people God cares about?
·       Are you sure you are ready to have your heart broken by the brokenness of this world?
·       Are you sure you are ready to come clean with the people in your life about your deepest commitments?
·       Are you sure you are ready to step outside your comfortable neighborhood and circle of friends to welcome the people outside the boundaries of life?
Elijah played this gentle game with his disciple, Elisha, telling him over and over, “Stay here. God is sending me further on,” as a way of telling him that he must be sure if he follows in the way that Elijah had chosen. We too have to be sure. Here, the church is beautiful; the music inspiring, but the life that comes with following Christ will take your whole life to live enough.
            [APPLIC:] Following Christ must change us.
·       Christ will change our habits and our values.
·       Christ will lead us to make friends with the friendless and the least in this world.
·       Christ will lead us away from our comfortable places into His places.
III. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
             Only two times in God’s story had the waters been divided to provide a way through:
1.     At the Red Sea on the day the children of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt;
2.     At the Jordan River on the day the children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land.
In each case, the dividing of the waters so that the dry ground could appear was the miracle of God. In the biblical mind, only God has the power to divide the waters from the waters and bring forth dry ground. In this story of Elijah crossing the River Jordan, it is a sign that God is opening the way where Elijah could never go by his own power. It is a reminder that following in faith will take us in God’s holy way.
            The fearsome truth is that following God will take us to places that only God can imagine going.
·       We will find ourselves following where we do not know the way.
·       We will find ourselves walking with people through difficult times that we would not welcome.
·       We will find ourselves building for a future that we will leave for others.
This will happen as we follow faithfully the way and the path that God has prepared for us. Like Elijah, we will find God opening the way before us.
            Well, Elijah rolled up his mantle; with it he struck the water; and the water parted so they could walk between the waters on dry ground. Everyone knows there is no magic in a rolled up piece of cloth; it was the work of God in the hands of a servant of God. With that, it was enough to part the waters.
               [APPLIC:] This is the way miracles still happen: ordinary things in the hands of servants of God.
IV. When they had crossed over, Elijah asked the younger Elisha what he could do for him. Elisha responded: “I want a double share of your spirit.” Now, Elisha was not being greedy and asking for more than his share. In that time the eldest son was expected to receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance. At the death of the father, the eldest was supposed to step forward to take the place as the father of the family or the tribe or the village. All the authority but also all the responsibility rested upon his shoulders.
            Elijah asked his younger disciple, “Are you sure?” Are you sure that you want to take up this path and this task? When Elisha assured him that he was sure AND he was ready, Elijah directed him to watch as he was taken up by God. If he saw Elijah being taken, then the double portion would be his. With that, the responsibility would be his.
At annual conference, there comes a moment at the retirement recognition when one of the retiring preachers, wearing the stole of an elder, kneels, recalling this story. Then, the older pastor takes off the stole and places it upon the shoulders of one of the new pastors. It is a powerful image for us; it reminds us that we of the older generation will one day slip off the signs of our ministry and place them upon the younger.
This led me to think about the changes that are happening among us just now.
·       This is the last Sunday among us as two of our pastors.
·       This Sunday, we commission two new Stephen Ministers and one new Stephen Leader.
But these pastors’ leaving is not the end – not the end of their ministry and not the end of our ministry. In the manner of Elijah passing his mantle to Elisha, these pastors pass the mantle of their Church Street ministry now to these Stephen Ministers and to two pastors you have not met.
            Further, their ministry is not something reserved for clergy. This ministry is shared among us all. Baptism is the ordination of the laity – a life-long ordination that sets us apart for the service of God. This ministry calls for the best from each one of us if it is to have life and impact in this community and the world.
            Each generation passes its ministry along to the generation that follows.
·       The older members and older Sunday School classes pass the ministry along to the younger.
·       The departing pastors pass their ministry along to the new ones.
·       Those who have carried the burden for a time pass it along so that others can join in.

Elisha tears his clothes and grieves the loss of his spiritual father. He has to grieve and he has to face the fear of picking up the mantle. Then, he picks it up and, as he finds himself doing the things Elijah did, he begins to trust that the same Spirit at work in his mentor is now at work in him.
It is a time of change. The mantle of those who have gone before us waits for us to take it up. Whose mantle will you pick up as your own? Who are you preparing now so that they will be ready to carry on with the work of God’s kingdom after you? 

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