The Powerful Truth in Myth, Symbol, and Metaphor

The Powerful Truth in Myth, Symbol, and Metaphor February 13, 2024

The Powerful Truth in Myth, Symbol, and Metaphor
2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

Star Wars
Photo Otto Rascon

Movies, like the Stars War collection, use a biblical pattern. There’s a prequel, main event, and sequel. In the Bible you know the end before the beginning. The light of the Transfiguration shines back on the translation of Elijah into heaven. Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain talking with Jesus. You understand the concept if you watched The Last Jedi.

Luke Skywalker appears and confronts the First Order, allowing the surviving Resistance to escape. Kylo orders the First Order’s forces to fire on Luke, but they fail to harm him. He then engages Luke in a lightsaber duel; upon striking Luke, Kylo realizes that Luke is not physically present, but projecting his image through the Force.

Our texts are a progressive preacher’s dream come true: The miraculous nature of the story. The hagiography accorded to Elisha, the fiery chariots, Elijah leaving this earth without dying, Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus are all part of a historical/mythological set of metaphors.

John Gray, in the Old Testament Library commentary, I and II Kings, reminds us the Elisha-saga indicates that Elisha was a “figure of real historical significance and the subject of hagiology that includes Elijah’s ride to heaven in a fiery chariot. History mingles with hagiology to indicate the passing of the prophetic mantle. Elisha enters our consciousness through story and symbol. Our texts today function as David Buttrick puts it “as symbolic logic.” Such stories are not meant to be preached as here-is-what-actually-happened. Huge meanings are hidden in the words of the texts. The story of the Transfiguration, for example, gives us symbolic references from the Old Testament.

The transfiguration, which may be a misplaced resurrection story, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus are vital Christian doctrines, and I believe that some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. The words of the Nicene Creed lift my spirit every Sunday: “The third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end.” This is taught throughout the New Testament from Acts to Revelation. But there are elements in these events bathed in symbolic language.

The Elijah/Elisha drama is the prequel. The transfiguration is the main event, and the preaching and witness of St. Paul and the church across the centuries is the sequel.

There’s a lot of talk in the Pentecostal/evangelical world about “anointing” and “prophets.” Only God has true anointing power. Popes, bishops, and local church bodies represent God, but anointing belongs to God. And it is not something you pick up at Wal Mart at a discount. A preacher can announce that he is a “bishop,” but he’s nowhere in the apostolic succession. A preacher can have a group of his buddies say he is anointed, but that doesn’t make it so. There’s a practice among some evangelicals to declare a kind of self-anointing. Be careful. There’s a challenge in receiving the blessing, catching the mantle out of the air, and being anointed. And when God anoints someone, God can take back the anointing.

The Prequel


Start with the story of Elijah transported to heaven in a whirlwind with fiery chariots and a military escort. Elijah passes the prophetic office to his student, Elisha. It’s like Master Yoda training Luke Skywalker. As difficult as it is for Elijah to “pass over” from one world to another, it is even more complex for Elijah to “pass along” to Elisha the power of God. The passing of the baton to the next generation is always difficult. Elisha has one last test to pass. In order to receive the force, the power of Almighty God, Elisha must see Elijah ascend into the air.

Now fast forward to Elijah taken up in the whirlwind. Of all things, Elisha asks for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. He knows that he doesn’t measure up to Elijah. “I can never take his place, fill his shoes.”  Suddenly, Elijah rises into the air and Elisha starts shouting, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elisha sees!

What happens? The Lord whispers in the ear of Elisha: “Pick it up Elisha. Pick up the mantle of Elijah.” We should consider the cost before we start picking up power like this. I looked up mantle in the Old Testament. Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Job, and Ezra are the major mantle wearers. This is not a hot fashion item. The power of God is in this mantle. With the mantle you can part the waters. With the mantle you can rain down justice like water. With the mantle you can set the oppressed free.

But there’s pain and agony with the mantle. Listen to the mantle wearers: “And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God” (Ezra 9:5).

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground and worshiped” (Job 1:20). 

The current rage of happy sappy worship can’t touch the hem of the garment of this kind of worship. My old eyes can’t fathom preachers dressed like rock stars wearing the mantle of Elijah. Not fashionable enough. Not even with jeans and a T-shirt and those massive screens.

What Elisha mean to us? There’s power available for us. We tend to believe that these kinds of things don’t really happen in our world, and this hinders our willingness to expect God’s power to be available. We have spent too many years thinking we are powerless when the force has always been with us and available to us. Pick up the mantle, pick it up church!

The Main Event

Jesus Transfiguration

Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in the transfiguration. Moses, representing the Law and Elijah representing the prophets encourage Jesus in his mission of suffering, sacrificing love.

In Luke’s version of the transfiguration, we are told that Moses and Elijah are there to converse with Jesus about his “departure” or “exodus.” Here’s Moses, the leader of Israel who was denied entrance into the Promised Land, who died under suspicious circumstances (there’s talk God killed him), and who was buried by God in a place never to be found. And there’s Elijah who never faced death but is said to have ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot. Jesus, after his death and resurrection, will also ascend into heaven.

Now, look at the deep connection between Elijah and Elisha and Jesus. The power transitions from generation to generation. When we closely at the grave that could not hold Jesus, we will see that he left the mantle for his church. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciple entered the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there neatly folded and left for the church to receive the power/force. How odd that the dark side enemies of God would wrap the dead body of Jesus in the linen robe of God’s death-defying power. Did you know that when new converts in the NT church emerged from the waters of baptismal immersion they were clothed in a new white linen robe/mantle? You see don’t you? Tell me that you see all this rich symbolism. Baptism bequeaths us the power.

The Sequel: The Preaching of the Church

Baptism is our ordination to preaching. We are called to put on the mantle and offer faithful preaching. The way we know we have the power is when “We preach.” That’s what Paul says: We preach. Preaching a sermon is not a one-person job. The language of the church is preaching.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger (HY-deh-gur) says in Letter on Humanism: “Language is the House of Being. In its home human beings dwell. He then argues that language is being rapidly devastated by our mere use of language as a way of dominating others.

That’s the connection between the mantle of Elijah, the linen wrappings of Jesus, and the “We preach” of St. Paul. This is how we are taught who we are as human beings who can and must become more fully human.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. This is our test. Do we see the great cloud of witnesses? Are we Jedi material? Are we shouting, “Father, father! The cloud of witnesses”? May the force be with you!

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