Passing Through Water (on dry ground): Feb 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12
A prophet strikes the water, and the water parts to one side and the other, and they walk across on dry ground.
Where have we heard that before?!? Perhaps more than once…
We remember when the people of God were escaping Egypt and came upon the Red Sea with Pharoah’s army close on their heels. God instructed Moses to “lift up [his] staff, and stretch [his] hand over the sea” to divide it. He does so and the Israelites cross on dry ground, with the water forming a wall on their right and a wall on their left.
The Israelites passed through the water, and the hope of the Promised Land sustains their wandering in the wilderness… year, after year, after year. It took far longer than they ever could have imagined… 40 years… more than a generation… an eternity. Even Moses himself doesn’t make it the whole distance. Moses died overlooking the Promised Land, seeing it but never entering it. But God was faithful… God is ever faithful… and God called Joshua to succeed Moses.
It was Joshua who would lead the people out of the wilderness and into their new lives. With the Israelites camped on the banks of the Jordan River, God instructed Joshua about how they would cross over. The Ark of the Covenant containing God’s instructions for how they are to live would lead the way. And that wasn’t the only way the methodology of the crossing was different from earlier times, from Moses’ time. Those carrying the Ark had to get wet. God promised that when the soles of their feet touched the water, it would pile up. They did so and the water did as God said it would. And the people passed through the water… they crossed over the Jordan on dry ground.
Years and years and years have passed since then, but the stories of all that Moses and Joshua did remained strong in the people’s memory. Early community leaders, the judges, have come and gone. Kings Saul and David and Solomon have come and gone and new kings have arisen. Today, however, as one commentator describes, “the historical accounting of the performance of the kings of Israel and Judah is interrupted by the momentous event of prophetic succession. The chapter marks both the end of Elijah’s ministry and the beginning of Elisha’s.” (NIB, 173) Recently, it is the prophet Elijah who has been God’s strongest voice in holding kings to account, but today his remarkable career comes to an end and another begins. God, it would seem, saw this day coming, for it is several chapters ago when Elisha was called to the vocation of a prophet. Elijah threw his mantle over him as he was passing by and Elisha has been faithfully following ever since. Today, his day… a new day… has come.
What is about to happen is so important, so unbelievable, that the storyteller tells us right off what to expect: “the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…” But first, Elisha reenters the story for Elijah’s final journeys and his own rite of passage. Elijah is headed to Bethel and tells Elisha to stay put. And Elisha will have none of it: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Off they go and the prophets in the area warn Elisha: “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” “Yes, I know; keep silent,” he replies. I wonder why the silence? Did he just not want to hear it? Does he not want to believe it? Or could he be trying to protect his mentor Elijah?
Whatever the case, the journey is not done yet. Elijah tells his protege: “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” And again, Elisha has none of it: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” And the repetition continues with the company of prophets in Jericho repeating their warning to Elisha and Elisha offering the exact same response.
And a third time, Elijah instructs Elisha to stay behind while he travels on, this time to the Jordan. Elisha’s response is the same… young people… they never do as they’re told! How many times will this pattern repeat, we wonder? It doesn’t take long to find out, for this time the company of prophets hang back. The time for warnings, for preparation, it would seem, has passed. Elijah and Elisha approach the Jordan River. I wonder if they remembered Moses or Joshua at that moment? I wonder if they recalled those other times, those other liminal moments on the banks of the Jordan River? There where Joshua and the Israelites first set foot in the Promised Land, Elijah rolls up his mantle, strikes the water, and the “water parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.” Clearly, Elijah is a prophet like Moses and follows in the footsteps of the leader Joshua. But what about Elisha? What will his fate be?
“Having crossed the Jordan, they are now in the region where Moses had died.” (NIB, 176) Is that the fate that also awaits Elijah? While we wait to find out, we witness a tender moment between the two prophets. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elijah asks. I wonder when he realized that was the point of the journey? Elisha assured the prophets in Bethel and in Jericho that he knew what was happening. Did Elijah know all along too? Elisha replies: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” A commentator explains that Elisha is “asking to be treated as Elijah’s principal heir… [with] the ‘double portion’ refer[ring] to two-thirds of the inheritance… not twice the measure of prophetic spirit…” (NIB, 176) Such a charism is not for Elijah to give and yet he assures him that if he witnesses Elijah’s departure, his wish will indeed be granted.
Pretty soon, the moment comes. A chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two. It isn’t the first time God has shown up in a spectacle of fire. And in the midst of the pandemonium, Elijah ascends in a whirlwind to heaven.
Elisha can’t help but to cry out… and then… in the silence that follows, Elisha tears his clothing in grief. There in the land where Moses died, Elijah too is gone. Whatever happens next… whatever Elisha’s ministry will now be… whatever this elaborate rite of passage through water means for his future… the first order of business is to grieve. His mentor is gone and so Elisha tears his clothes in mourning.
When I first read this story early this week, I thought… “oh my goodness… what happens next?!?” And so I read on… and I encourage you too as well. Read it again and get caught up in the drama of it. And as you get caught up in the wonder of it… ask yourself where are you in the story? What about it bugs you? What inspires you? What scares you? What uplifts you? How does your story connect with this story?
One of the through-lines in our sacred story is of connection and change…key elements in the transformation of our lives and communities. Back in the fall, Don McLeod talked about 3 elements of transformation held together by communication… there’s our head, our ideas, thinking, vision; there’s our hands and feet, our acting and doing; and there’s our hearts, our feeling and experience. We hear about all of these in our rite of passage story today… Elijah and Elisha physically journey from place to place; they are both mindful of God’s direction and ultimate purpose. We can only imagine Elijah’s experience of entering into God’s glory in such spectacular fashion but we do hear most poignantly of Elisha’s experience of grief upon Elijah’s departure.
The power of these ancient stories is that they communicate how our ancestors in faith lived through the transformation of their lives and communities. Connecting our stories with them helps us in the transformation of our own lives and communities. Our faithful ancestors experienced real and profound change and they told their stories as a way of also staying connected to the larger story of God’s purposes, God’s quest for abundant life for all, throughout the generations. Things didn’t stay the same and so they grieved their losses while they trusted God to lead them into newness of life, even when they didn’t know what that might look like. Perhaps this is a good model for us in this, our 60th year. As we remember our past, what losses do we need to recognize and grieve? What successes do we need to celebrate? As we contemplate our present, what gives us joy? As we dream about our future, what is our hope for new life?
In the story of our church year, today we celebrate the last Sunday before lent with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. In it, we hear echoes of the earlier stories of the prophets and of the power of God to transform. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus to remind us that Jesus too passed through water, his baptism by John, as his rite of passage into his life of ministry. We too have each passed through the waters of baptism into a life of ministry. In a moment, we will reaffirm the covenant we made in baptism as we remember our passage through water, as part of the long line of the faithful people of God.
As we do, may we live into our prayer from the beginning of worship this morning… may we invite God to open our eyes to the transformation of our lives.