“Elisha picked up the cloak of Elijah”[i] A sermon for the Sunday next before Lent, 19/02/12. Copyright 2012 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.
We’ve just heard how Jesus’ divine nature was revealed in dazzling glory. Moses and Elijah appeared beside Jesus. Why should Elijah appear? There were many other prophets. Why is Elijah so important? Even today, when Jewish families celebrate the Passover, they put out a chair and a glass of wine for Elijah, and they open the door for him to come in. Elijah was believed to be the forerunner of the Messiah.[ii] Elijah would prepare the way for the Lord. Although Elijah was such a great prophet, he struggled, he questioned God, sometimes he just wanted to give up. We can understand his feelings. At times it’s hard to remain faithful to God. At times it’s hard to trust in God’s power.
In Elijah’s day, some of the Israelite tribes had settled in the northern part of the land of Canaan. This was a good land to farm, as long as it rained often enough. In order to ensure rain, many Israelites began to worship a local fertility god, Ba’al, the lord of thunder and rain. Worship of Ba’al was promoted by Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who’d married Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab and many of the Israelites neglected the true God and joined in worshiping Ba’al. If you need rain for your crops, why not hedge your bets? Just pick the most useful bits from both religions. Yet the worshipers of Ba’al sacrificed children[iii] and slashed themselves with knives. Ba’al was a bloodthirsty delusion. When the priests of Ba’al called on their god to show his power, nothing happened. “Is he sleeping?”[iv] taunted Elijah. Elijah denounced the people for bowing down to this phoney foreign god.
King Ahab was furious when he saw Elijah. “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”[v] Elijah told him, you are the cause of Israel’s trouble. You’ve not been faithful to the true God. The king didn’t want to hear the truth. But the prophet’s job is to tell unwelcome truths. Queen Jezebel swore she would kill Elijah. She slaughtered as many of his followers as she could. Elijah ran for his life. Alone and famished in the wilderness, he felt a total failure. He just wanted to die. So many prophets had been murdered. “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”[vi] God knew that Elijah had remained faithful. God didn’t let Elijah abandon his mission. He sent an angel to bring him food for the long journey to Mount Sinai. There Elijah waited at the edge of a cave for God’s presence. A windstorm came, strong enough to split rocks. But God was not in the wind. Then a deep earthquake shook the entire mountain. But God was not in the earthquake. Then a firestorm engulfed the mountain. But God was not in the fire. At last, in absolute silence, came a still, small voice. Awestruck, Elijah hid his face in his cloak. God told him to anoint a new king over Israel. And God told him to choose Elisha as his successor.
So Elijah journeyed back to Israel. Here he found Elisha busy plowing with teams of oxen. Elijah wrapped his long cloak over Elisha. This was a sign that he had been chosen to follow him as a prophet. So this young man joined Elijah on his mission to return the people of Israel to God. They struggled and they faced many dangers in the years that followed. Yet Elijah’s vision of the power of God kept him faithful. Both Ahab and Jezebel died gruesome deaths. Then at last, the time came for Elijah to make his final journey. Three times Elijah ordered Elisha not to come with him. And three times Elisha insisted, “I will not leave you.”[vii] He knew he was never going to see Elijah again. Elijah had been like a father to him. Elisha asked for an eldest son’s legacy: “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.”[viii] Elijah knew from experience how hard it was to remain faithful to God, how difficult it was to be a prophet. He told Elisha, “You have asked a hard thing; yet if you see me as I am taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”[ix] Then Elisha saw a vision: chariots of fire and horses of fire rushed between them and Elijah was carried up to heaven by a whirlwind. Elisha cried out, “Father! father!”[x] He was struck by grief but he did not surrender to grief. Now Elisha had seen God’s power, now he had received God’s spirit. He picked up Elijah’s cloak and he went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. That’s the most important action in this whole story. Elisha picked up Elijah’s cloak. Elisha remained faithful to God. His vision of the firey chariots and the whirlwind, as vivid and exciting as they are, are not as important as Elisha’s faithfulness.
Elijah and Elisha made many long, hard journeys. We Christians are about to start on our journey through Lent. Sometimes Lent can seem long and hard. Most people imagine that Lent just means giving up things, rather like a January de-tox. But Lent also means taking on tasks, just as Elisha picked up Elijah’s cloak. We pick up Jesus’ seamless tunic. We pick up the cross of Christ. It’s hard to remain faithful on our Christian journey. Sometimes it seems easier to give up. Recently, seductive voices have suggested that we should treat religion like a buffet meal. Just pick out all the nice bits of religion, like beautiful art and music. Simply ignore the demands made by a real God.[xi] Ever had de-caff coffee or non-alcoholic wine? You cannot filter God out of Christian art. The Spirit of God is the life blood pulsing through sacred art and music. A living God is the beating heart of our faith. So in Lent, we step back from our hectic lives. We turn away from the wind, earthquake and fire. We pause to listen for God’s still, small voice. God will sustain us on our journey through Lent. The goal of our journey is the joy of Easter: God’s triumph over death.
In a moment, little Marcus will be baptised into the family of Christ. With holy oil, he will be signed with the cross of Christ. His parents and godparents will promise to help him remain faithful. Sometimes, engulfed by all the clamour and false gods around us, you, Marcus, may feel, “I alone am left”.[xii] You are not alone. As well as your parents and godparents, you have the support of all your fellow Christians. “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”[xiii] heroic examples of people like Elijah and Elisha inspire us to remain faithful to God. “Faith is the gift of God to his people.”[xiv] We pray that God will give us his gift of faith. We pray for a portion of God’s Spirit. AMEN.
[i] II Kings 2.13 ‘Cloak’ is the Revised English Bible translation of Hebrew ‘addret , a long loose cloak, similar to the Arabic ‘abbaya. From Grey, John, I & II Kings p425.
[ii] Malachi 4.5
[iii] I Kings 16.34
[iv] I Kings 18.27
[v] I Kings 18.17
[vi] I Kings 19.10
[vii] II Kings 2.6
[viii] II Kings 2.9
[ix] II Kings 2.10
[x] II Kings 2.12
[xii] I Kings 19.10
[xiii] Hebrews 12.1
[xiv] The liturgy of baptism in Common Worship (London: Church House 2000) p352