Elisha: Chariot of Fire
In today’s lesson, we see the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha. Elijah is modeled on Moses: both flee into the wilderness in fear where their call is clarified; both are able to part the water; and both have a death which is shrouded in mystery. Elisha becomes Joshua to Elijah’s Moses. Both Elisha and Joshua are rooted in the word “saving” – Joshua means “Yahweh saves”; Elisha means “God saves”. Joshua is also the Hebrew form of Jesus’ name.
Today we read about Elijah’s travel across the Jordan – out of the land of Israel and into the “wilderness”. And in the story, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle or cloak (this story is the origin of the phrase, by the way). And just as Elijah’s mantle parted the waters of the Jordan, it does the same in the hands of Elisha.
Elijah is a tough act to follow; and Elisha knows this. In the Old Testament, he is second only to Moses. He stood up to Ahab and Jezebel; and he disappears in a whirlwind! Now that’s an exit. Elisha, by virtue of parting the waters himself, establishes his own prophetic power. He has parallel miracles, including healing, feeding, and raising from the dead. He even takes on corrupt power, lending a hand in a coup. But he’s very different; when he dies, he dies. No whirlwind or chariot. And he’s a hands-off prophet at times, doing miracles from a distance or by proxy.
But the odd thing about the story today is that the transfer of power happens outside of the land of Israel. It happens in the wilderness. It’s the place of solitude and silence. It’s a place to flee. It’s a place of homelessness and wandering. It’s a place of wildness – not in the way we might covet a place to get away; but a place devoid of water, a place with jackals and thieves and sandstorms. Think about the stories in Scripture in the wilderness: Moses flees there when fearing for his life. The Israelites spend forty years there wandering aimlessly. Elijah, too, flees there when fearing Ahab and Jezebel. In the New Testament, John the Baptist is hanging out there, wild hair, clothes, and diet. And before Jesus begins his public ministry, it is in the wilderness where he spends forty days in temptation. Wilderness is a place of purification and refinement. For Elisha, it is where he picks up the prophetic mantle and begins his own impressive prophetic career.
But is there more to the choice of location than all this? Could it be a reverse Exodus of sorts, Elijah tracing the Israelites steps back into wilderness? Is it a reminder of what is at stake in prophetic ministry, a reminder of what this land of promise meant to their ancestors? Or is it a way of getting out of the land that has been defiled, the split kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which have been ruled by corrupt kings? Do they need to go somewhere that is somehow purer for this ritual of exchange, even if it’s a place of such wildness? Or is it just a reminder that the prophetic life is a lonely life, a life of solitude, where you’re facing down powers and principalities?
Maybe somewhere in there is a parallel with our lesson from Luke. Jesus confronts would-be disciples with the realities of what it means to follow him. The first he tells that following him is akin to a life of homeless wandering. Another he tells, quite bluntly, “let the dead bury their dead.” The other he tells to ignore the work he’s left undone. In all cases, I think Jesus is essentially telling them that there must be some sacrifice in following him. It’s not a universal – each person gets an individual response. But the heart of them all is a call: it’s a call to be willing to let go what they have for the promise of what they might gain.
Maybe it’s this call that is the call of wilderness. It’s a place that is in-between. For Elisha, perhaps it’s that call of letting go of a land that’s defiled for the promise of a land where faith can be restored. Or maybe it’s letting go of what’s he has known, following Elijah, for the promise that the mantle holds like some kind of prophetic security blanket, that he is now God’s spokesman.
Can we trust such a place of in-between? Do we prefer to latch onto a bitterness that we know is toxic but is oh-so-familiar? Do we hang onto a destructive addiction because, for the moment, it feels oh-so-good? Have we been asked to step into a new role, but feel like we’re in over our heads? In all of this, in this freaky, wild place of in-between, this is where we can see resurrection for what it really is: letting go of death for the promise of life.
Where is your wilderness? Where is it that you can be alone? Where can you get re-oriented? And once you’re there, are you willing to let go? Are you willing to take hold of that promise?