Monday, February 15, 2021

A Wilderness Journey


February 14, 2021 – Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:30.

When was the last time you knew a story’s dramatic ending right from the start yet enjoyed hearing the story anyway? If a storyteller is going to hold our attention despite letting the cat out of the bag at the very beginning, either they must be very good at their craft or the story itself must be compelling. In today’s reading from 2 Kings, we get both.

In the opening phrase, we learn how everything is going to work out: “When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” Never before in the stories of Israel had God taken someone up into heaven like that. There is no precedent for this, yet the narrator starts this story as if it were no big deal—as if Elijah’s dramatic ascent were a foregone conclusion. We quickly learn, however, that the journey to that point is as important as the destination. 

This passage is filled with the tension between staying and going. Elijah, the prophet, will depart, and Elisha, his protégé, must remain behind. We know from the very beginning that that is where the story will end, but the narrator fills the story with other examples of that same tension in order to draw us in. “Stay here,” Elijah says to his disciple, “for the LORD has sent me as far away as Bethel.” We are not sure why the great prophet insists on leaving his companion behind. Maybe the journey was difficult. Maybe they were likely to meet some of the king’s soldiers, who had been ordered to kill those prophets, along the way. Or maybe Elijah simply knew that Elisha would be better served by staying behind where the action was. We don’t know why he ordered his disciple to stay behind, but there is no mistaking the younger man’s refusal to obey: “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 

Perhaps in those words we hear the transition of authority already beginning to take place. The junior prophet invokes the name of God, swearing an oath that prioritizes obedience to the LORD over that of his master. He uses a word that carries the force of abandonment in declaring that he will never forsake his teacher. In so doing, the younger prophet declares that his God-appointed duty is to stay with Elijah for as long as he can no matter where his master leads him.

As the prophetic duo make their way through central Israel, they meet loyal members of their prophetic tradition along the way. Each company of prophets provides the younger companion another reason to give up and turn back. “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” they ask. When read alongside Elijah’s insistence that Elisha stay behind, the prophets’ question becomes another argument for giving up. “Why follow someone whose work is already finished?” they seem to be asking. “Don’t you know that it’s time to move on?” But Elisha isn’t interested in hearing how things will end up. He already knows how this particular journey will end, but he doesn’t care. “Yes, I know,” he snaps at the other prophets. “Be silent.” 

With each repeated example, the narrative tension in this story builds not toward an unknown conclusion but toward an unknown purpose. As we follow the two prophets from Gilgal to Bethel and on to Jericho, we are not left wondering what will happen but why the prophets are taking this particular route. Why go from one city to another? Why encounter these companies of prophets? Why bother with these repeated exchanges? But, once Elijah and Elisha leave Jericho and head for the Jordan River, the point begins to become clear. If God is going to show up and do this dramatic thing that has never been done before, the place where that thing will happen is not in the cities where the prophets live but out in the wilderness where God is to be found.

When they come to the Jordan, Elijah takes off his mantle—his cloak—and rolls it up and slaps the surface of the river. Immediately, the water is parted in two—to one side and to the other, until the two of them cross on dry ground. If that sounds familiar, it should. The narrator wants us to see this moment for what it is—a dramatic, Spirit-enabled exodus from the cities of Israel back into the untamed wild. As the company of prophets looks on from a distance, they see the two men effectively retracing the steps of their ancestors, leaving behind the settlements of promise in the land of Canaan and journeying out into the wilderness through which God’s people had been led so long ago.

Throughout his ministry, Elijah had always met God out in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where that “troubler of Israel” had first defined his ministry in opposition to the king and the king’s authority. It was to the wilderness that he had fled when being hunted by the king, and it was there in a cave where God’s still, small voice of silence spoke to him, urging him not to give up. Like Moses before him, Elijah’s ministry had led him out into that place where, as Walter Brueggemann described it, “reliance upon the raw power of Yahweh is a necessity” (1 & 2 Kings, 295). And it was in that place and in that spirit that Elisha literally takes up his predecessor’s mantle and embarks on his own ministry of confronting the powers of this world.

“Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elijah asks his persistent companion once they have crossed the Jordan. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” Elisha says in reply, requesting not twice the power of his mentor but a firstborn son’s inheritance—a double-portion reserved for the one primarily responsible for carrying on the family name. “You ask a hard thing,” the older prophet says, acknowledging that it was not up to him to determine how the spirit of the LORD is doled out. Yet Elijah names the criterion through which that transfer would be confirmed: “if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you.” 

Here, at the end of the episode, we discover what had been true yet hidden all along—that Elisha’s identity as the one to follow in his master’s footsteps is secured not because of his master’s favor nor by the recognition of the prophets who live throughout the land but through an encounter with the LORD, whose unbridled power is manifest not in the cities of Israel but out in the wilderness. Before Elisha can do the work he is called to do, he must have his own encounter with God’s power beyond the reaches of civilization. 

We live in an age in which the wilds of God are shrinking—not only because of a consumerist culture that fuels suburban sprawl but also because the reach of technology has narrowed the places that are tethered to the comforts and security of civilization. As the prophets’ journey beyond the Jordan reminds us, we cannot meet the untamed, unfiltered power of God until we step out beyond the places where worldly power has eclipsed God’s presence. Yet, despite the steady shrinking of the physical wilderness, the gap between those whose security is tied to the powers of the world and those who are threatened by those powers is widening. 

As in the prophets’ day, the futures of the poor and the rich—the destinies of the landowners and the tenant laborers, the outlooks of the stockholders and the line workers—are set on divergent paths. If we are going to claim the mantle of divine leadership and pursue God’s work in our own day, we must step out into that gap—into that wilderness gulf where complete reliance upon the raw power of God is necessary. There we will find the enabling power of God’s spirit. But, to get there, we must leave behind our ties to the comfort and security we find in the cities and palaces and cathedrals of the world.

Fortunately, there has not been a better time in decades for us to leave behind the structures that reinforce our dependence on earthly power and eclipse God’s presence among us than right now in the midst of a pandemic. When else have we needed to look for God somewhere other than the church we love? Why else would we leave behind the established religious patterns that bring us such comfort? More than ever before, this is a time to search for God out in those places where the powers of the world fall short—in tent encampments and warming centers, in Covid units and unemployment lines, in the homes of the grief-stricken and the dwellings of the lonely. There, where complete dependence on God’s saving power is our only hope, we will have an encounter with the LORD. 

We need not assign divine causality to this disaster in order to recognize the strange opportunity provided to us by the challenges of this moment. If we come through this pandemic only to reset everything back to exactly the way it was before we embarked on this wilderness journey, we will have given up before reaching the journey’s end. We will have come back without receiving a double portion of God’s spirit. This is our chance to follow the prophets out into the untamed wilds where God’s power is on display. Now is the moment for us to seek God out where God is waiting to be found.

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