Scripture – 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – June 26, 2016
The family business. Grandma’s recipe. The unfinished research project. The peace movement. Royal succession. All of these and many more beg to be continued by the next generation or a willing heir or an impassioned protégé or risk death. The family business won’t be a family business any more unless the owner’s children take it over. If one of us doesn’t learn how to make Grandma’s potato salad, it will be gone forever when she goes. The researcher’s life’s work must go on until the cure is found. The royal line will abruptly come to an end without a blood-related descendent.
All of these examples assume a search on the part of the still active soon-to-be ancestor for someone to carry the torch, to carry on the tradition, to keep the movement going. But there is another side to this as well: the perspective of those who are searching their souls and scouring the world around them to identify who or what is calling them. What of the countless directions in this vast potpourri of purpose will tug on their individual souls, their psyches, whispering, “Go this way! This way, this place, this endeavor is where you’ll find your niche, where the desires of your soul will meet the needs of the world…”
Prophets don’t seem to have that luxury. The prophets we know from the Bible, like Elijah, don’t seem to have the luxury of discerning how they will spend their hours. God calls them and tells them where to go and when and what to say and do. And in our story this morning, God is the one who put Elijah’s young successor Elisha right into his path. Back in 1 Kings God tells Elijah to leave the cave and get going and among the other things he’ll be doing, he (1Kings 19:16) “shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” Elijah goes forth and finds Elisha plowing his father’s field; and Elisha follows him and becomes his servant.
We meet the two of them this morning as Elijah’s time on this earth is coming to an end. Some see Elijah’s suggestions to Elisha to stay behind as tests of his desire to continue as Elijah’s successor. In fact, although the whole of it is not included in our passage, Elisha is tested three times. Stay here; I’m going to Bethel. Stay here; I’m going to Jericho. Stay here; I’m going to the Jordan. And each time, Elisha is steadfast: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
There’s a lot happening here, whether or not Elijah is testing his servant, his successor prophet. He may be trying to protect him. He may be trying to avoid him. Each one of us acts a little differently when we reach the time of our own endings, whether it’s the ending of our working lives as we retire, or the ending of parenting as we have known it as our kids grow up and go off on their own, or the ending of our very lives as our bodies give way to set our souls free. As we make those preparations and come to those realizations, our attitudes towards our successors may range anywhere from tenderness to resentment. Stay here, I’ll do this last part. Stay here, I want to do it myself. Stay here, you’re bound to distract me. Stay here, I feel responsible for you. Stay here, you won’t want to see this.
From young Elisha’s perspective, it appears there may be a myriad of emotions and motivations on his part as well. I will not leave you: I’m afraid for you. I will not leave you: I want to soak up every last minute you’re here. I will not leave you: I still don’t know enough. I will not leave you: I’m afraid of what’s next…or what won’t be next. I keep following you but is this what God wants for me? Will I be the prophet you are? Will I be a prophet at all?
The two cross the Jordan on dry ground thanks to the power of God made manifest in Elijah and his mantle and, seeing that his servant is still sticking with him, Elijah asks him: “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”
“Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” In the context of their time, a double-share of the inheritance is what was distributed to the firstborn son, the rightful heir to his father’s estate. Elisha is asking not only for the spirit which has moved in Elijah, the divine power which has led him, protected him and given proof of his message, but his request for a double share indicates his desire to be acknowledged and treated as his firstborn son. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”
Rector Haywood Barringer Spangler of Virgina calls to our attention the mounting suspense in this passage. Throughout this story, Elisha never really knows what is about to happen next. When will Elijah be taken? How will he be taken? Where? Will I inherit his spirit? How will that happen? How will I know I have it? Does God even know about this?
When it comes to identifying our own paths, discerning our own directions, choosing our own lot in life, whether it’s how we will embark upon it and live it or start to wrap it up, there is no lack of suspense for us either. For our high schoolers heading off to college, over this past year or two, they have visited campuses and searched their heads as well as their hearts to determine where to submit applications. Where will I be happy? Where can I pursue my interests? Which in the end will be affordable? And the letters of acceptance came and there was a whole new round of discernment. And now, they’ve sent in their deposits, bought the sweatshirts, and they still don’t know what’s ahead of them. Will I like my roommate? Will the courses be hard?
Then it will be jobs and careers and for some joining with partners-in-life and making families and later mid-life choices and maybe physical moves and career changes and on through later life and how to live well then.
But see, here’s both the important part and the good news: it’s the thing the prophets do that we can do, too, and that is throughout the whole thing to keep listening for God, to keep watching for what God does next, to allow God to be the one to guide, to trust in the One who knows better than we do, and if we can tune in to that still, small voice, and follow its call, we can’t go wrong. You may not make a lot of money, you may struggle in the aftermath of your decisions, but you will be rich and you will be content and you will walk through life with a sense that you are never alone and that someone greater and wiser than you has your back and will not steer you wrong…..because by allowing God to guide us, we make God’s will our will. We carry on God’s work in the world by allowing our lives to reflect God’s light and love and purpose. I love what Rector Spangler says about this:
“This challenges us to develop and maintain a God-centered perspective… Sometimes we may prefer security and certainty to God’s empowering us for a risky calling. In seeking security and certainty, we may ignore or confuse our own desires and conventions with God’s direction. Elisha’s experience invites us to seek critical distance from our own interests, to grapple with uncertainty, and to strive to forward God’s purposes in the choices we make.”
Just like Elisha, the answers come to us bit by bit, directions unfold a little at a time. You have asked a hard thing, Elisha, a double share of my spirit; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you. And the chariot and horses of fire swung low and Elisha watched Elijah being taken up and he kept watching for as long as he could see him. And when he was gone, he tore his clothes in grief. Alone, he bends over and picks up Elijah’s mantle, still not knowing whether that spirit has come upon him, until he tries what his master-mentor-father did before him and strikes the water…and the waters part before him.
Whether we’re in the first or middle or last third of our earthly days, our lives are full of the suspense of what will come next. And the mantles we have inherited and will pass on are not much different from the mantle assumed by Elisha: to carry on the family business of God as our faithful ancestors have done for ages, to duplicate and practice and pass on the recipe for trusting in the providence of our Creator, to continue our own individual important research of how best to listen for the Spirit, to join in the ongoing peace movement started by Jesus 2000 years ago, and to remember that we are all royal heirs to his promise. May we inherit the determination and the trust and the faithful action of Elisha and may God fill us with a double share of the Spirit. Carry on! Amen.