Elijah and Jesus Prepare Their Successors
The Last Sunday after Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
February 14th, 2021
We have two dramatic and memorable stories as our readings this morning. From the Second Book of Kings, we have the story of the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, witnessed by his disciple Elisha. In the Gospel reading this morning, we have the transfiguration of Jesus, in the presence of his disciples, and Elijah and Moses appear during the event as well.
It is no coincidence that these two stories are placed together in the lectionary this morning, and that they are the texts for the last Sunday in Epiphany. In many ways both of these stories are about transition and change, both for the main characters, Jesus and Elijah, but also for their disciples, Elisha, and Peter, James, and John, respectively. And, in the liturgical year, we are about to enter Lent, which itself is a transitional season between Epiphany and Holy Week, where we are transitioning from reading about the works of Jesus’ ministry, to the events which will lead up to his passion and death.
Let’s start with the story of Elijah and Elisha. And, to begin I think it is important to go back to the first book of kings which recounts the story of how Elisha became Elijah’s disciple.
Elijah was the chief prophet of Israel and lived during the time of King Ahab. Ahab was not a faithful ruler and did things that “were not pleasing to the Lord.” Elijah’s chief complaint against him was that king Ahab married a foreign woman named Jezebel, who insisted that shrines to the foreign god Baal be erected in the land and that Baal would be worshipped. Further, she was also killing off the prophets of YHWH. Desperate to see the end of the prophets getting rounded up and killed, Elijah gets an audience with Ahab and basically tells him that he needs to choose between YHWH and Baal.
In order to convince him to choose in YHWHs favor, Elijah sets up a contest between YHWH and Baal, to see which god would respond to the requests of their respective prophets. Baal did not respond to the voice of his prophets, but YHWH responded to Elijah’s plea. So YHWH wins, Ahab declares his allegiance to YHWH, and Elijah kills all of the prophets of Baal.
Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, however, was furious at Ahab for being so easily persuaded by Elijah’s demonstration. And, Elijah, himself was said to be the last remaining prophet of YHWH in the region, so Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah. Desperate for his life, Elijah had to flee in the wilderness. Elijah was so depressed at the state of things and his own sense of failure, that he asked that he might die. He said, “It is enough; now O, Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)
Alone, depressed, and afraid, he fell asleep under a broom tree. While he was sleeping, an angel came to him, provided him with some food, and then gave him three tasks, one of which was to anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, to be Elijah’s successor. Elisha then accompanies Elijah for about 8 years before Elijah was to be taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. The text seems to suggest that Elijah did not want Elisha to follow him to his death. Why this is the case we can only speculate. But Elisha is persistent and follows Elijah all the way to the end. And just before Elijah is taken up, Elisha asks him for a “double portion” of his spirit.
So what is this about? There was a tradition that the first-born son would receive a double portion of his father’s inheritance, since he would assume the responsibility for being the head of the family. While Elisha was not Elijah’s biological son, as his principal disciple and obvious successor, Elisha asks for something quite remarkable. He asks for a double portion of Elisha’s “spirit.” “This is a hard thing you have asked for,” Elijah says. Why is that? Not because he asked for a double portion, but because he asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. This was a request that only YHWH could grant. It was not something Elijah himself could give. And, the fact that the Elisha had the wherewithal to ask for it seems to suggest that he not only recognized the enormity of the responsibility that was about to be placed upon him as the new chief prophet, but also how much he respected and admired Elijah.
To ask to be granted a portion of someone’s spirit is to ask to be blessed with someone’s character, to include their wisdom, and judgement, and in the case of Elijah, his spiritual power to perform miracles in service of YHWH to help him along in his new role. The role of the prophet is to continue to witness to the covenant of YHWH and call God’s people to worship and to be faithful. In this story we see a transition of leadership from the master to the disciple. But Elisha is aware, I think, that the challenges he will face as the new chief prophet will be different than the challenges Elijah faced. He will have to live and be a prophet in a different context, under a new set of rulers, and will have the responsibility of raising up new prophets to succeed him as well.
Now, let’s turn to the transfiguration. Jesus takes only three of the 12, Peter, James, and John, the principal leaders among the disciples, up to the mountain where he is transfigured. And, who appears with Jesus, but Elijah and Moses. Elijah and Moses are the representatives of the two great foundations of the Hebrew religion. The Law and the Prophets.
In the Gospel story we have a couple layers of transition happening. First, the appearance and disappearance of Elijah and Moses is pointing to the fact that Jesus, as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, is himself the ultimate prophetic successor to Moses and Elijah. And the depiction of Jesus’ clothes being transformed in the dazzling white is to reveal him as a vindicated martyr. A foreshadowing that Jesus is the giver of the new law and is the new prophet, the one called to lead God’s people into a new era of relationship with God the Father after his death.
Another aspect of transition that is going on is the preparation of the disciples for what is about to come. It must have been quite an experience for Elisha and Peter, James and John, to witness these extraordinary events that happened to their master teachers.
For the disciples, the experience was somewhat different, than Elisha’s, since they didn’t see Jesus taken up into heaven at this particular juncture. The transfiguration was happening as a foreshadowing of the new life after death the Jesus had been talking about. It should be clear to Jesus’ disciples at this point that he is going to die. And, the question is, where does that leave them?
Where it will leave them is the same place that Elijah’s departure left Elijah, i.e. with the burden of responsibility and leadership that their positions as disciples and successors have placed them. The disciples will be called to lead and make disciples for Christ in a post-resurrection environment. An environment that will pose unique challenges for them and the emerging church, challenges that they didn’t have to face when Jesus was among them.
And so, I believe, like Elisha and Peter, James and John, this question of leadership and responsibility as disciples is a question that is also put to us. While we may not be called to be Elijah’s successor, or to be the first disciples who were contemporaries of Jesus, the question of responsibility and leadership is a question all of us as baptized Christians must consider. And, we have to consider what that means for us today, at St. John’s, in Montgomery, AL, in 2021.
I mention this today, now, in this context, in light of the readings, because I think that St. John’s is in a threshold moment and important transition point in its long history. It has said goodbye to a very long tenured rector, and just called a new one. Also, the pandemic is going to affect how we do church in the future. What that looks like, I don’t know. But I think that there will be a “re-emergence” of the church in some interesting new ways. We have some new opportunities waiting for us, but it is going to require some imagination, the willingness to try new things and to take some risks.
We also just installed a new class of vestry members. It is “meet and right so to do,” as it were, because the vestry, your elected formal leaders, have just spent the weekend with John thinking about the kind of leadership that will be needed to take St. John’s forward into our post-pandemic future, and into the new reality that the church will be operating in. There was much discussion not only about how to grow the church in the face of declining membership, but how to witness to the message of God’s love and healing and forgiveness in our new age of digital worship and connection. There was also an emphasis on how to position St. John’s to be a resource for the city of Montgomery more broadly. To put it another way, much of the weekend was focused on preparing St. John’s to become a thriving parish not only for those of us who are here now, but perhaps more importantly for the next generation.
But one of the biggest mistakes we might make I think is to respond to this opportunity the way Peter did to the transfiguration. With fear.
When Jesus was transfigured, Peter said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” Yes, indeed, true statement. But then he said, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you and one for Elijah and one for Moses.” But, the text goes on to say that Peter did not know what to say because he was afraid.
But notice his instinct. His instinct was to build three dwellings, one for Elijah and Moses and Jesus. If you recall last week, John had talked about how that was the traditional Jewish way of experiencing God, to go to build a dwelling place where one could encounter the Holy. And, when the Temple was built, that became the permanent dwelling place where God would encounter his people.
But as John pointed out last week, one of the radical things about Jesus, the incarnate God, the one who is enfleshed, is that he cannot be contained in a dwelling place. Jesus goes out to meet people, in their homes, or in the synagogue, or on the road, or on a boat, or by the sea, or wherever people are. It is after going out to them, that they become his followers. And, the point in going out to encounter people was so that they could experience in that encounter the glimpse of new life that Jesus had promised to all who believe in him.
That is the direction that John and the vestry are calling the parish to embrace. That while one point of encounter of people with God would be worshipping in this space, where we come to give thanks for all that God has done for us, the first task is for us to carry that message of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness and healing to those we encounter into the world. I suspect most of us did not encounter God for the first time in a church, nor perhaps, where we experience God most frequently. And, so that will be an area of emphasis for our future ministry.
Like Elisha, will we need a double portion of Elijah’s spirt to sustain us in our task? Most definitely. Like Peter, is the prospect perhaps a little terrifying? Most likely. But, will God leave us to our own devices and to fail? No, I don’t think he will. Just as when Elijah was in the pit of despair and asking for death, God renewed him and helped him go find his successor. Jesus did not leave his disciples unprepared either. I think that it is the task of this congregation, here and now, in 2021, to set out on the task of finding our successors, the next generation who will continue to lead the church faithfully, just as the generation of our predecessors has done for us. And to trust that God will be faithful and supply us with the courage, creativity, and faith that we will need to sustain us. Amen.