Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sermon: 2 Kings 2: 1-25 Taken Up

The End of an Era. It can be a worrying time when the leader retires, particularly if they’ve been in charge for a long time. Just think of Alex Ferguson. He’s been manager of Manchester United for 25 years, won 11 league titles and 11 cups and 9 charity shields - taking them from the wilderness years of the 1980s to the glory days of the 90s and 2000s. When (if) he finally retires, there’ll be pressure on the next manager. Will they be able to continue that success? How will the team cope without Ferguson?

In our Bible reading tonight, we come to the end of the ministry of the prophet Elijah. For many years, he has been the public prophet, declaring God’s word to the people of Israel in the face of opposition, death threats, and rebellion amongst the people of God. He saw great victories against the prophets of Baal (at Mount Carmel). But now the time has come for him to exit the stage.

You can see the way Elijah is regarded when Elisha cries out ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ in verse 12. Elisha sees him as his father, but also as Israel’s army, both attacking enemies and defending the people of God. So if Elijah has been so important for Israel, what will happen when he leaves the scene? How will he be followed? Will the cause of God’s word cease when Elijah ceases? We’re going to look at the passage using three headings - Elijah and Elisha go together; Elijah goes up; Elisha goes on.

Last Sunday night we saw how Elijah called Elisha to be with him, but we’re now quite a few years later, in 2 Kings 2. Through that time, Elisha has been assisting Elijah, learning from him, and watching him work. But now, as verse 1 tells us, the end is near for Elijah. The Lord is about to take Elijah up to heaven. He goes on a journey with Elisha.

You might have noticed the repetition as it was being read - he goes from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan river. At Bethel and Jericho, the same thing happens - the sons of the prophets (that’s like a prophet training school, a bible college) say to Elisha ‘Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?’ To which Elisha replies ‘Yes, I know it; keep quiet.’

It seems that the sons of the prophets are nervous about the future as well. Will Elisha be up for the job of prophet? It’ll be strange without Elijah around. But Elisha is having none of it. He asks them not to speak of it. At the same time, we have this other repetition between Elijah and Elisha - look at verse 2, 4, 6: ‘Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to...’ Elisha’s reply becomes predictable too: ‘As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’

Some writers think that Elijah is trying to spare Elisha from the trauma of his departure, but it’s actually a test, to see if Elisha will stick close to him - we’ll soon see the importance of this. So the text tells us that ‘they went down...’ or ‘the two of them went on.’ At the Jordan, Elijah parts the waters with his cloak, and they pass over on dry ground.

On the other side of the Jordan, Elijah asks this question to Elisha: ‘Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Call it a leaving present, if you will, but what can I do for you? You see, it’s not really Elijah asking this, but God through Elijah - what can God do for you? How would you respond to a question like that? I’m sure you can think of lots of things, maybe even a shopping list pre-prepared of things you would ask God for. Elijah gives him this blank cheque, and do you see how Elisha replies?

‘Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.’ Elisha asks that the spirit that empowers Elijah would also be given to him. Now, it’s not that he’s greedy and asks for double the spirit, but he’s asking for the son’s rightful inheritance - the firstborn’s double portion. We know that it’s not Elijah’s spirit, but rather the Holy Spirit in Elijah that he’s actually asking for.

Do you see how Elijah responds? ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you...’ That’s why it was a test earlier when Elijah was saying stay here, don’t come on. For Elisha to receive the spirit here, he’ll have to see Elijah being taken up.

They’ve crossed the river, and as they walk along, talking, suddenly it all happens. ‘Behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’ It’s not that (as that old song goes) swing low, sweet chariot, Elijah was in the chariot; the chariots of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah is taken up by the whirlwind. It’s as if Elijah is the first rocketman, no need for a jetpack, riding on the clouds, as he ascends to heaven.

Elijah hasn’t died, but goes body and soul into heaven. Later, the sons of the prophets send out a search party, but he’s nowhere to be seen (15-18). Just like Enoch before him (‘Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him’-Gen 5:24), Elijah is taken by the Lord directly to heaven. He doesn’t die. I imagine that this hasn’t been your experience of friends, and won’t be your experience either - so why was Elijah taken up in this way?

Remember that Elijah has been the public spokesman for God through his life. He was so closely identified with the word of the Lord, which was his motivation and passion that, even though he wasn’t perfect, the Lord honours his word by honouring Elijah in this way. It’s like the words of the Master in the parable - ‘well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.’

Elijah goes up, and Elisha saw him no more. The end of an era. What will happen now? Let’s watch and see, as Elisha goes on. He mourns for Elijah, tearing his clothes, then takes up the cloak of Elijah (the one Elijah had earlier placed on his shoulders), and going back to the Jordan. Just as Elijah had done earlier that day, Elisha now strikes the water, and asks that all-important question: ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?’ He doesn’t say, right, Elijah could do this, so I’m going to do it too. His focus is on whether the God of Elijah is with him. Where is the LORD?

‘And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.’ The sons of the prophets recognise that ‘the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’ (that is, that the Holy Spirit is with him), and so they know Elisha will continue the work of the Lord as the Lord’s prophet. We see that further as the chapter continues, as Elisha brings covenant blessings and covenant curses, as he retraces (in reverse) the route he and Elijah had travelled - Jordan to Jericho to Bethel to Samaria.

In the place of death, miscarriage, curse - Jericho; Elisha brings healing and blessing. Whereas at Bethel, when the youths come and taunt Elisha’s baldness, it isn’t a personal vindictiveness that brings the bears - rather, to reject the Lord’s servant is to reject the Lord, which brings the curse of the Lord (‘I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children.’ Lev 26:22). The Lord’s word ‘can bring both healing and harm, either deliverance or disaster.’ (Davis)

The question is, though, what is this passage teaching us tonight? What challenge or encouragement is there in what God us saying to us and teaching us about himself? We’re probably not going to find ourselves in the same position as Elisha, where your mentor is taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. How does the story fit into the bigger Bible picture?

We find here tonight a foreshadowing of the Lord Jesus, his ascension, and what happened next. Just as Elijah and Elisha had been working together, so the Lord Jesus called the twelve disciples to be with him, watching and learning and helping. We saw last Sunday morning that when Jesus told the disciples he was leaving, they were confused and afraid, their hearts were troubled. Would the work of God and the word of God finish if Jesus was no longer on the earth?

And what happens, when Jesus dies, and rises, then he ascends to heaven - and he sends the Spirit on his followers. They continue to do the things that Jesus was doing - just as we’ve seen Elisha continued the work of Elijah. Only it’s not just one person who continues in the formal role of prophet as Elisha did - Jesus’ spirit, the Holy Spirit, is for all who believe, so that all Christians are equipped and empowered by the Spirit to serve him and continue the work of proclaiming God’s word, the blessings and the curses of the gospel.

So as you speak to your neighbour or colleague or school friend, you’re helped by the Holy Spirit; and you might be overjoyed to see them respond to the good news and find blessing. We can also take heart when people refuse to listen that it’s not rejection of us - but rejection of him who sent us - that God’s word will do it’s work of blessing and cursing. I’ve said it before - the same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.

The sons of the prophets might have missed Elijah and thought, wouldn’t it be great if Elijah was here. But the work continues, because it’s the God of Elijah who is in charge, not Elijah. And God is still in charge, so that we continue that same work, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus for the glory of Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 27th February 2011.

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