2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
June 30, 2013
This is the time of the year when in my denomination, United Methodist, changes of pastoral appointments are happening in profusion. In our polity, bishops, along with their cabinets of district superintendents and a few others, determine where the pastors who are in good standing and available for appointment will spend the next year of their ministries. In this century this appointment process began some months ago with consultation with churches about their current pastors and their hopes for future pastoral leadership. Of course, there is consultation and there is consultation; some churches get a lot of conversation around their futures and others very much less. In any case a lot of pulpits will find new pastors inhabiting them this Sunday or next.
Pastoral changes are hard. If a pastor has been there a long time, congregations are loath to give him/her up, and look with some apprehension to the one who is to come. I recently participated in the retirement of a beloved pastor from the church he served for thirty-three years. The celebration was a grand one, with choirs, four friends offering words of commendation, and the pastor, through tears, thanking the 1000-plus members in attendance for his years of being with them. I was deeply honored to have been asked to speak for my colleague in ministry to laud a life in the faith well lived. On the flip side, I do not envy his successor. Following a giant in the ministry is not unlike following a rich meal with a bowl of watery rice pudding—it can be sweet but runs the risk of little satisfaction. I resolved to pray heartily for that new pastor's success and fulfillment.
2 Kings 2 describes the transition of the prophetic leadership of Israel. The mercurial Elijah flitted hither and yon throughout the land for the years of his ministry, doing supernatural deeds, confronting pagan priests and evil kings, and generally making life richer for the marginalized and miserable for the powerful. It is what Israelite prophets do after all. Just ask Ahab, the potent king of the northern country of Israel whose desire for a vegetable garden near his palace leads to the murder of Naboth and the confiscation of his land and to the appearance of the troubling Elijah who seems to know all and is ever ready to call any and all to account in the name of YHWH (1 Kgs. 21).
But his time of ministry has now passed, and his disciple, Elisha, is about to discover the difficulties of prophetic succession. Surely a grand retirement celebration would be the order of the day, with some eloquent speeches, a sumptuous banquet, and an appropriate gift, perhaps a new cloth of gold mantle or a silver-plated chariot to ride off into a comfortable old age. But this is Elijah who never does things expected or in a traditional way. He is not even going to die, it seems, but rather YHWH plans to take him up into heaven in a whirlwind! Talk about an exit! But first Elijah proceeds to make another journey throughout Israel.
"YHWH has sent me to Bethel," says the aged man to Elisha while they are together in Gilgal, a sacred shrine of hoary history in the northern mountains. "You stay here." A trip from Gilgal to Bethel is not a long one, but it does represent a journey through old Israelite history, from the days of Saul and Samuel and their confrontations at Gilgal, even back to the time of the patriarch, Jacob, who consecrated Bethel eons ago while fleeing from his enraged brother, Esau. Not a chance, responds Elisha. "I will not leave you" (2 Kgs. 2:2). Elisha knows too well that Elijah has a disconcerting habit of going places so rapidly and so unexpectedly that one can never be fully certain just where the old boy will turn up. Better to stay close during one of his peregrinations, thinks Elisha.
But Elijah tries twice more to shake his student, telling him that the trip to Bethel was only a short stop which will lead first to Jericho, a longer trip down the mountains toward the Dead Sea (2 Kgs. 2:4), and finally to the Jordan river, scene of so much crucial history in Israel's long story (2 Kgs. 2:6). At each of these three hallowed spots Elisha is told by various prophetic groups, "Do you know that today YHWH will take your master away from you?" This sounds very like a taunting phrase, a warning to the prophet that Elijah will soon be gone, and what will you do then. What will you do when leadership is thrust upon you? Are you ready? Each time that Elisha hears the taunts, he replies with no little pique, "I know, so shut up!" I know my day is coming. I fear that I am not ready. I fear that I am no Elijah. Elisha is plainly afraid in many ways for what is coming to him.
Coming to the Jordan, Elijah reenacts a central event in Israel's long saga. He takes his cloak, rolls it up, and strikes the river. "The water was parted to the one side and to the other until the two of them crossed on dry ground" (2 Kgs. 2:8). One need have no deep acquaintance with Israel's story to recognize this act as a memorial to Moses' parting of the Sea of Reeds as the decisive act of the Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 14), as well as a memory of the parting of the Jordan by the priests and the armies of Israel as they first entered the land of promise (Josh. 3).