May 20, 2020 - Eve of the Ascension
Every good story needs a good ending, but every true epic needs to go on forever. I don't really know if that's true, but I do know the difference between finishing a book or a movie and feeling the satisfaction of a well-wrapped-up, clearly-concluded narrative and coming to the last episode of a beloved series or finishing a classic novel and experiencing the strange combination of heartache and hope that the story and its characters might continue even if there is nothing else for the viewer or reader to see. For example, I love Lonesome Dove, but I haven't ever wanted to read or watch Return to Lonesome Dove. I'd rather have a connection with what wasn't written but lived on in my heart and my dreams. This is Frodo Baggins climbing into the ship and sailing off to another realm. This is Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer continuing their friendship beyond the view of the cameras.
The last episode of Elijah's prophecy, which we read in 2 Kings 2, is one of those moments. In the repetitive, tedious, tension-building sequence that starts the chapter, we read about the prophet and his protégé, making their way to the Jordan. For the entire chapter, both we and the characters know that this will be the end. Elijah's opening words encourage Elisha to stay behind because the end is already set: "Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha will not stay: "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you."
At each stage of the journey, the prophets who lived along the way come out and say to Elisha, "Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away?" And each time Elisha responds, "Yes, I know; keep silent." There is more than a suspected inevitability. Everyone is aware of what must happen. And yet there is such uncertainty in the unfolding of the text.
Will Elisha stay with his master? Will Elijah grant him his request? Will the younger prophet persist with his tutor long enough to receive the promised spirit? What will that mean for Elisha? Will he become even half as great as Elijah? What will this mean for the ongoing battle between faithful prophets and faithless kings? There is so much more that must be told, yet we know this will be the decisive end of an era.
In the end, when the time came, the chariots of Israel came down from heaven and took Elijah away from the realm of mortals and transported him to the realm of God. It couldn't have been told any other way. Elijah's legendary encounters with God and with God's people needed to live on not only in the hearts and minds of God's people but actively in their experience. It would not be enough for Elijah to lie down in his bed and rest with his ancestors the way nearly every other biblical figure had. We need to know that, even though Elijah had died, his work, in a sense, is not finished yet. Physically and spiritually, this continuity is represented by the prophet's mantle, which falls to the ground and is picked up by Elisha. It becomes the instrument through which God's power is channeled now through the younger prophet. It is the sign that Elijah's spirit has been shared with his student.
Tonight, we prepare to celebrate the difficult, strange, and powerful ending of Jesus' earthly ministry. We may pretend again each Eastertide that the risen Jesus walks on the face of the earth, but Ascension Day isn't an annual reenactment of Jesus' disappearance into heaven but our renewed proclamation that his power and presence lives on beyond his physical presence on earth. It couldn't have ended any other way. In the Acts of the Apostles and in the annals of Christian history, just like in the Book of Kings, the narrative continues with new actors, but their power is drawn from the one who came before. At this point, my literary analogy breaks down. Those continuations aren't sequels in the sense that the first story has ended and the second picks up where it left off. The first story carries on in unwritten, unobserved ways, while the new one draws its power from what continues to unfold off the page or screen. Elijah's spirit is given to Elisha. It doesn't die, but his time on earth must end. Jesus' spirit is given to the disciples. He lives on in them in ways more significant than their memory.