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November 21st, 2016

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  (Psalm 90:12)

2 Kings 2:1-18

 

Retirement announcement

I have an announcement to make about my retirement. I’ve been here almost 24 years, and no pastorate can last indefinitely.

Here’s my announcement: I’m not retiring yet. I think I’ve got some good years left. I’ve actually never been more excited about what’s happening and about the future.

I’m not retiring yet, but I do think about it more and more. I don’t think about it in the sense of looking forward to getting in my woodshop or finally writing my book or whatever else I’ll be doing when I retire. I do think about what I’ll leave behind. I pray about who will be your shepherd. I wonder how the future of Corinth will play out.

A couple of years ago the elders approved a succession plan, with a timeline of 5-10 years. There’s also an emergency succession plan if anything unexpected happens, but the elders and pastors think it’s important that my retirement, whenever it happens, is not a surprise. It could be next week or twenty years from now, but my ability to lead a congregation – especially a large one – will come to an end. So will my life, for that matter.

Here’s a news flash. So will yours. I hope you are strong enough spiritually and emotionally to take a forward look back on a fairly regular basis. Your life, your work, your active, visible place in this world – they will come to an end.

Moses wrote, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). 2 Kings 2 is a story about that. This is not the last sermon in our series on Elijah, but it’s the last chapter of his earthly life. This story gives us so much to ponder as we take a forward look back.

Two transitions

When you first read this text, your reaction is probably, “Huh?” There are so many aspects of this story that make no sense until you dig a little. The dig is worth it. I thought about sharing the story verse-by-verse, then making some applications. But there are applications all the way through, so I wound up with a 15-point sermon.

Two transitions happen here. Elijah moves from this life to the next, and he also transfers his role as the leader of the prophets to Elisha. As I apply this passage, it may seem as if I’m going back and forth between those themes. Some of these points have to do with the believer’s death, and some have to do with succession planning.

When I get to the end of my journey and look back…

  1. Heaven will be worth it (1). As we open this passage, the Lord is about to take Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind. Let’s pause right there. This passage is a rarity in the Old Testament in speaking about heaven as a destination for people, even believers. Some Old Testament authors seem to have a very limited grasp of the afterlife. Elijah is told in advance that he is being taken to heaven. It gives him much confidence and joy on this final day of his life.

With so much more light, heaven gives you and me an even greater confidence and joy. We may not know everything about what comes next when we leave this earth, but we know it will be worth waiting for – for ourselves and our loved ones.

  1. I will be what I have become (2). Elijah and Elisha make their way from Gilgal to Bethel. At this point of the story, we may not know much about the relevance of these places to what is happening to Elijah, but these are two significant locations in the previous history of Israel. Gilgal is the place where the children of Israel first camped in Canaan after they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. They had taken twelve stones from the river and they set up a monument in Gilgal (Joshua 4:19-20). Bethel is where Jacob saw the stairway to heaven and exclaimed, “The LORD is here and I didn’t know it! How awesome is this place! This is the gateway to heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).

As they set out to walk the eight miles from Gilgal to Bethel, Elijah turns to Elisha and says, “Stay here.” We’re not told why, but here’s my guess. Elijah has always preferred solitude. He’s a loner. He has a pattern of self-isolation. Here on the last day of his life, that hasn’t changed. This has me thinking. I’m shaping what I’ll be when I leave this world – ornery, selfish, inconsiderate, or kind, gracious, caring.

  1. I will need my friends (2). Elisha answers with an oath: “As surely as the LORD lives and you live, I will not leave you.” Good for him. Sometimes people think they need to be alone, but they don’t. To be sure, at the end of life we want and need to limit the people who are around us, but to have that special friend or two who says, “I will not leave you, not now,” that’s a blessing.
  2. Secrets will be hard to keep (3). When Elijah and Elisha draw close to Bethel, the “company of the prophets” comes out to greet them. They say to Elisha, “Do you know the LORD is going to take your master from you today?” Elisha answers, “Yes, I know, but do not speak of it.” What’s going on here?

Now we know another reason these two cities are important. Each hosts the Israelite version of seminaries. Young men studied Scripture and prepared for ministry. It seems that Jezebel is no longer influential or powerful – not since Ahab died. It’s a little safer to be a prophet these days, even if the people haven’t turned back to God. Bethel has a “company of prophets,” and we learn in 2 Kings 4:38 there’s one in Gilgal as well. What I find interesting is that we’re not told how these guys knew Elijah was being taken away – or how Elisha knew. Maybe God gave them all the same message. Or maybe Elijah whispered it to Elisha and told him not to tell anyone, then Elisha told it to a prophet at Gilgal and told him not to tell anyone, and he told another guy who ran to Bethel and so on. Who knows? But the word got around.

Some folks are incredibly private when it comes to illness and death, and that’s their right. But secrets are hard to keep, and it’s always been my philosophy to be proactive in letting people know what’s going on so that the truth is spread, not rumors.

  1. The Lord will guide my steps (4). Once again Elijah turns to Elisha and says, “Stay here in Bethel. The Lord is sending me to Jericho.” Once again Elisha refuses. Since most of this is déjà vu with another group of prophets, let’s grasp something else here. Elijah keeps saying, “The Lord is sending me….” I don’t know whether God was speaking in an audible and unmistakable voice to Elijah at each of these moments. Regardless, he is confident that God is directing him as he moves. As a believer – now, and through any transition, and at the end of my life – I am confident that as I can trust the Lord to be there directing my steps. I can say with Elijah, “The Lord is sending me to….”
  2. I will be glad God did not answer all my prayers (5-6). The same scene is repeated when Elijah and Elisha get to Jericho. The company of the prophets approaches Elisha and asks if he knows Elijah will be taken away. Elisha answers yes, but don’t tell anyone. Then Elijah wants to move on and tells Elisha to stay, but Elisha refuses.

Whatever’s going on here, we now know that Elijah has not completely been a hermit all these years since we last saw him in active ministry. There is clearly a bond between the two of them that has developed since chapter 19. That’s when Elijah first threw his cloak over Elisha to designate him as successor, and Elisha left everything. He had been plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and to symbolize he was leaving everything he put on a big barbecue dinner for his family and the whole town. He burned the plows to cook the meat, meaning he was done with that vocation.

Just before that earlier incident with Elisha, do you remember what had happened? It was after the great victory on Mount Carmel. When Elijah found out that Jezebel was trying to kill him, he sunk into deep depression and literally prayed to die. Don’t you think he’s glad now God didn’t answer that prayer? (And isn’t it a bit ironic that the guy who’s most famous for praying he would die early didn’t die at all?) He still had a lot of “propheteering” to do, a lot of mentoring to do, and he’s getting ready to take the ride of his life. I suspect that when we get to heaven or even close, we will all be glad that God didn’t answer all our prayers. We have to trust him in the meantime.

  1. I will see that people are a great investment (7). Fifty of those guys from the Jericho seminary follow Elijah and Elisha, who have stopped at the Jordan River. I know I’m really reading between the lines here, but the reason these guys stay close is more than just curiosity. They have been bonded to these two great men through teaching and experience. It takes a lot to select and mentor young believers and raw recruits. Sometimes you wonder if they’re worth the trouble. You don’t know where the roots will grow deep and bear much fruit. But you pour yourself into their lives and trust God. Only recently I heard of a guy who was in our first youth group in Reidsville, North Carolina around 1980 who’s been to seminary and is a Hospice chaplain out west. We connected on Facebook, and in that conversation, he said, “I have used you and Linda in an illustration or two about how you never know how God will use you to impact others for Christ.” He’s one of those voices encouraging me as I look back over my ministry.
  2. I will experience a miracle (8). When they get to the Jordan, Elijah takes off his cloak, rolls it up like a towel, and smites the water. The river parts. Elijah and Elisha walk through on dry ground. There are many intentional parallels between Elijah and Moses, and parting the water is one of them. I don’t suggest God will do that for everyone, but I when we look back over life we will realize that there were some parts of our story we could not have orchestrated. Only God could have done that. As we pass from this life we will experience perhaps the best miracle of all, waking up in his presence!
  3. I will want to keep giving (9a). I love how Elijah turns to Elisha and says, “What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” I don’t know what Elijah was offering or what he thought Elisha might say. Something like, “I need a hug”? But I love the fact that Elijah is still so focused on giving what someone else needs. I’ve seen many people in their last weeks of a job or last days of life doing exactly that. I hope I’m one of them.
  4. God will choose my successor(s) (9b-10). Elisha asks for a “double portion of your spirit.” This is not asking that he will be twice as powerful as Elijah, although I heard in a sermon this week that someone counted twice as many recorded Elisha miracles as Elijah miracles. The “double portion” is a reference to Jewish law that the oldest son would get a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). So apparently all Elisha is asking for is confirmation that he will be taking Elijah’s place as leader of the prophets. Elijah answers, “You have asked a difficult thing. If you see when I am taken from you, it will be yours – otherwise not.” Since we already know that Elisha is the designated successor (1 Kings 19:16), that seems odd. But even at this point, Elijah is saying the same thing Jesus said when James and John wanted to sit at his right and left hand: “That’s not mine to decide. I’ll defer to my Father.”

I sometimes think about who will fill my shoes at Corinth or at Faithful and Welcoming Churches or in my family. I don’t have to know it, much less try to manipulate it. I can trust God. Commenting on this story, Chuck Swindoll writes, “When a man or woman of God dies, nothing of God dies.” He goes on to add, “Never once has God been frustrated, wondering, ‘What will My people do now that he’s gone? Now that she’s no longer with them?” Remember, our stories are not about us. They’re about God and he’s not worried about what happens next. He’s got this.

  1. The transition will be both visible and mysterious (11). There are aspects of the end of life we can see and touch and sometimes hear or smell. But there’s a mystery to it as well. In my view, that tension is what’s going on with the chariot of fire. Notice that the text doesn’t say Elijah rode in a chariot of fire to heaven. The purpose of the chariot of fire was to put a barrier between Elisha and Elijah so that he couldn’t see everything happening on the other side. We’re told in this verse that the two prophetic giants were just walking and talking and “suddenly” there was this firewall between them.

Something like this happens to all of us at the end of life. While there are some New Testament parallels in the idea of the rapture of the saints (1 Thessalonians 4:12-18), in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul speaks of the resurrection body with a farming analogy. You plant a seed in the ground and could never predict the plant that will grow from it. “We will not all sleep,” he says, “but we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). I need to be OK with the fact that some of this will make sense to me and some will not.

  1. The passage will be SO cool (11)! So Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind. I no longer picture Elijah riding in a chariot of fire – more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz rising in a tornado. That’s what the text says. But I don’t think he was terrified. It was an awesome ride. And I don’t know what my passage or yours will be exactly like, but I’m not afraid of it. I expect we are given a glimpse here that whether we are alive when Jesus returns or we die first, the passage from this life to the next will be unimaginably exhilarating and peaceful.
  2. Grief will be unavoidable (12). Elisha’s response is not, “Thanks be to God!” He tears his clothing in grief. When our loved ones are taken from us, grief is not a sign of immature faith. It is a sign of the depth of love, which is a gift from God. He designed us in his image to be joined to one another in this life. Elisha’s grief is not only in his actions, but in his words. He cries out in words that don’t seem to make sense at first: “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”

The “father” comment indicates not only their close relationship, but the fact that he now realizes Elijah’s mantle has indeed fallen to him – the “double portion.” He is also grieving the loss of Israel’s number one spiritual protection all these years. He is humbled by the responsibility that has fallen to him.

  1. My best legacy will be needing God (14). Elisha turns around and heads toward the Jordan, taking the cloak Elijah had left behind and striking the water. “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” he asks. Sure enough, the water parts. He is Joshua to Elijah’s Moses, and there is a validation that God is going to continue his work through Elisha. He’s going to be very different. He looks different. Elijah was the “lord of hair” (2 Kings 1:8) while Elisha is bald (2 Kings 2:23). Elijah was a recluse, while Elisha is pastoral and interacts with people far more.

What they have in common is their need for God. I hope when I pass from this job and from this life that those who follow me will not so much notice anything I accomplished as they will have seen an utter dependence on the Lord.

  1. It will be hard to let go (15-18). In the last paragraph of this story, the fifty young prophets who witnessed Elijah being carried off in a whirlwind make the assumption that he must have been dropped back to the ground. They have witnessed Elisha’s grief, and they want to bring his mentor back. Elisha tells them it’s no good looking for him, but they insist and beg and cry and shame him until he lets them go look. Three days later they come back empty-handed, and Elisha says, “I told you so!”

It’s always hard to let go of a long-time leader. I used to say about Dr. Althouse, who served this church for 40 years, “If Jesus had followed him, there still would have been conflict in the church.” But out of that difficult period of Corinth’s history God did something totally new and different. It’s not my job as a longtime leader to avoid all problems. It’s my job to remind you I’ll be gone one day and you will need only him.

Swing low, sweet chariot

There are so many transitions in life – not just retiring from a long job or dying. One song that comes to mind connected to 2 Kings 2 is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The song reads like it’s about death, but it’s really something known as a coded spiritual.  The words are not about going through death (Jordan) to heaven. It’s actually a song about the Underground Railroad during the days of slavery in the South. It’s an invitation to northerners to “swing low” into the deep South and sneak the slaves across the Ohio or  River to freedom in the North or in Canada.

There’s so much symbolism in the song and in this story about Elijah’s last day on earth. Use this song to reflect on the confidence you have in the Lord as you take a forward look back, pondering the end of this life. What sweet joy we can claim!

“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan and what did I see? Coming for to carry me home. A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.” Amen.

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