Wherever each of us has been, wherever we are all going as God’s people at St. Augustine’s Church, God’s promise is, “I will not leave you.”
But in this morning’s Old Testament lesson, those words are on Elisha’s lips, and not just once, but three times.
As we talked about yesterday at the Quiet Morning, there’s significance to numbers in Scripture stories; just like I often use the number “50 billion” to be “a lot,” the authors of Bible stories use numbers like three and forty as symbols. We talked about Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days a few weeks ago on a Sunday, and today as Elijah and Elisha move around Israel, the Promised Land of God, there are three stops, three times Elisha says yes — do you remember another time in Scripture when someone is asked to follow or to affirm his convictions three times, and maybe he doesn’t say “yes” each time? (Peter during the Passion)
Three is a symbol of being complete, full, whole. God is three in one, Jesus is in the tomb three days, people are often asked the same question three times throughout Scripture. It’s the kind of thing that God does. Is there perhaps another three that’s close to each of our hearts? Three communities merged into one? (wink wink, St. Augustine’s)
The point here, in this conversation and this event in 2 Kings, is that Elisha is given opportunities to say no, to change his mind, and as he affirms his chosen path three times, it’s a way of communicating, “I’m all in. I will not leave, and I mean it.” “As the Lord lives” he says, “and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
“I’m going with you, Elijah, I’m going wherever you’re headed, even to the end of the earth. I’m not going to let you get away, I’m not going to let the mission that you’ve been carrying, God’s mission, fail and fall. I’m taking up responsibility for this, too. I’m committing myself, I’m committed.” Elisha says.
So, to be clear, Elijah is this old, great, legendary prophet; he’s the one who went up against the evil king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Elijah is the prophet who prayed that it wouldn’t rain for two years, and who proved that God was real and most powerful by soaking the altar sacrifice so much that there was a moat around the altar, and God STILL burned it all up. Elijah is the prophet who was so exhausted that he went up to a mountain cave and was like, “God, I’m done. Take me now.” And God came to him in the sound of sheer silence. So Elisha is the apprentice, his most persistent disciple. God had done great and fearsome things through Elijah. And in today’s lesson, it’s time for Elijah to rest, it’s truly time for his ministry to end.
So in this last day of his ministry, he and his apprentice start out at the beginning of the Israelites’ story in the Promised Land; Gilgal, where Scripture says this duo had just left, is where the Israelites camped when they’d just crossed the Jordan river; it’s the place in their history and relationship with God where he had led them through the waters and brought them safely into the Promised Land itself. It was the beginning, in a way; it was the new start, washed by the Jordan river, stepping fresh feet on the ground that God was holding for his people.
Here Elijah says, “Elisha, stay here. This is good enough. Just hang out here while I go on to Bethel.” Elisha is not content to stay at the starting line. He knows his call isn’t to sit still by the river. He is determined to go on to Bethel. So they go.
Bethel is where our forefather Jacob spent the night before he met his brother Esau for the first time in years; this was the brother who he’d violently wronged in stealing his inheritance when they were young men.
Jacob wrestled with an angel there and saw a ladder rising up to heaven; it was at Bethel, that night, that Jacob’s name was changed from Jacob, which means “trickster,” to Israel, which means “God wins.”
Elijah and Elisha arrive in Bethel, where humanity struggled with God, and God won. This is where the name and fortune of the father of this nation, and through him, the name, identity, and fortune of all of God’s people for all history to come, was changed. From this place, Beth-El — which name means “House of God” — Elijah is called on. Again, he tells Elisha to stay here. Hang out in Bethel, this is far enough. “I’m called on,” Elijah says, “but that doesn’t mean that you have to go. Stay here in the house of God. This is a good place. There’s good work to do here. This is a place to struggle with God. This is a place where God has done good work, and will interact and struggle with you. God will win. Stay here where God wins.” But again, Elisha says, “I’m not going to leave you. wherever it is that you are going, I’m going too. This is a good place, and a important stop, but it’s not the end of the road. I’m going to the end of the road. Your road is my road.” I imagine Elijah shaking his head, and trudging on, Elisha following along like a persistent puppy, or like an insistent toddler I know.
Next, Elijah is called to Jericho. This is where Joshua led God’s people in a miraculous victory. The city was an impossible obstacle in the path the people of God were taking through the Promised Land. I wonder if you’ve ever gotten stuck against the wall of an impossible obstacle. I wonder if you might be staring at an enormous wall right now, a big old tower in your path, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it. Elijah tells his apprentice, “stay here. I’m called further. We know the end of the story of Jericho, that this wall crumbles, that God takes the obstacle away. Stay here where you enjoy miraculous victory. This is a good place.” But one more time, Elisha decides not to stay in the charted territory of sure success. He chooses to soldier on into the unknown with Elijah.
Finally, Elijah is called to the Jordan River. He’s been moving back through the whole history of the relationship between GOd and his people in this sacred land. He’s been watching his life flash before him, in a way. Of course, Elijah himself wasn’t there for the battle of Jericho or the wrestling with the angel, or the first crossing of the Jordan at Gilgal, but Elijah’s life is so wrapped up in the life of the people he serves, so intertwined in the story of the Israelites, that their story IS his story. So on this last day of his time on earth, he walks himself back through all these stages and promises and miracles, all these times that God has shown up for his people in staggering and undeniable ways. And Elisha wants to drink all that in. Elisha wants that life, too. Elisha wants to know the story of Israel and of God in his bones. Elisha wants to follow wherever God leads and to lead God’s people wherever they’re supposed to go.
So the great old prophet and his young apprentice cross the Jordan together. Do you remember something else happened at the Jordan river? Jesus was baptized in it, as we read last month; and as I’ve already covered this morning, it’s the boundary the Isarelites crossed to get into the Promised Land. Did you notice that Elijah did some of the same things to the water that Moses had done, back at the Red Sea? Water figures pretty prominently here in this story, and if you think about it, water figures prominently in all of Scripture — there’s creation, way back at the beginning, with God separating the waters, and then the flood, and then the Red Sea where Moses helps the Hebrew people leave Egypt, and then the Jordan where the Hebrew people come into their own land, and then there’s baptism, and there’s the blood and water that comes out of Jesus’ side at his death, and there’s the water he washes the disciples’ feet with… Water water everywhere, right?
The other element we see a lot of in Scripture is fire. And that’s where we end today: Elijah is taken up in a fiery chariot. There’s also the fire that came from heaven when Elijah asked God to burn up the soggy sacrifice earlier in the Books of the Kings, there’s the burning bush where Moses is called to ministry by God, there’s the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through their forty years in the desert, there’s all the talk about Jesus being the light of the world, there’s the parables about the oil lamps and the wise and foolish bridesmaids, there’s the candle that we light for each person who’s baptized, there’s the light that burns all day and night — 24/7 — here by the tabernacle where consecrated bread stays, there’s the First Fire lit at the Easter Vigil, and there’s the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts — looking like tongues of fire. Fire, candles, and light are something used in Scripture stories to point and highlight something else. Jesus as the light of the world isn’t about looking at the bones and muscles of this person, but about the reality of God in and with humanity that the bones and muscles of this person, and even more, the events and situations and words and works of his life point to. The fire of the burning bush isn’t all about the bush, but about getting Moses’ attention so that God can talk to him, can teach him. The candle that burns here isn’t about the candle itself but the thing it draws attention to, the body of Christ, the living God, dwelling, staying, walking in our midst.
And that is what Elisha stays for. Elisha moves through the starting line at Gilgal, he keeps going when he comes to place of struggle and the House of God, he doesn’t stay at where the wall crumbled with a miraculous victory, he doesn’t stop at the purifying and quenching water; he keeps going all the way to the fire. He keeps his eyes open, he is determined not to look away. I will not leave you.
Through all these things, God has been with his people, and from the very starting line, through all the obstacles, floods, crumbling walls, fording of rivers, and coming of fire in your life, God promises to be with you, too. More than that, God promises to be with us all.
God is not finished with St. Augustine’s yet, and as we look to 2018, we, too, are being called to move, to not stay at the starting line where the congregation began four years ago, to not turn away at the big towering obstacles of money and changing leadership and dear loved ones dying, to not drown in crossing the river of details or distractions or dissension, but like Elisha, to walk through each one of those places together, to be the hands and feet of Jesus to each other in prayer and food and sitting together in silence, and always to journey together toward the light, toward the fire, to be focused only on the warmth and the burning and the salvation of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.