II Kings 2:1-19a

This morning in our series of sermons on Elijah and Elisha, we finally come to the event that has been portrayed on the cover of our bulletin for the duration of this series. Elisha watching as Elijah is being taken to heaven in a whirlwind with horses and chariots.

The events of today’s reading happened all in one day. I want to give a brief outline of that day, then we will look at the day from the perspective of Elijah and then follow that with a second look at that day from the perspective of Elisha.

The day began in Gilgal. There are several places known as Gilgal and this one was probably a community in the hills eleven kilometers north of Bethel on the southern border of Israel. God had revealed to Elijah that he was to set out on the final chapter of his life, his last day on earth. Early in the morning on this last day, Elijah and Elisha set out.

The journey from Gilgal to Bethel was about a two hour walk, descending out of the hills. After this two hour journey, Elijah made his farewells in Bethel and then left for Jericho. This was a nineteen kilometer journey, again mostly downhill, that took about half a day. He said farewell to the company of prophets in Jericho before setting out on the last leg of his journey.

After another eight kilometer descent to the Jordan River, they crossed over at the same place where Joshua 400 years earlier had led Israel into the Promised Land.

From here they walked a bit, in the area of Mt. Nebo where Moses had died and Elijah’s day came to an end when he was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind.

Elisha then retraced their route, crossing back across the Jordan River and the day came to an end.

Now let’s take that journey learning from Elijah as we go.

When was it that Elijah knew he was at the end of his life? Was it the week before, the day before or in the early hours of the pre-dawn morning? At any rate, I imagine that Elijah had a hard time sleeping that night and set out early in the morning with Elisha rising and following him. Not much was spoken. There was too much tension in the air to speak. There was a lot of silence but Elijah’s thoughts were racing fast and furious.

What would this be like, to be taken up into heaven in a whirlwind? What would it be like to pass from this world to a heavenly existence? I suspect that there was anticipation of the adventure on which he was about to embark, maybe apprehension, maybe even a measure of excitement at what was to come.

But anticipation of adventure was not the only emotion Elijah was experiencing. As he walked, he remembered the day he first saw Elisha, a strong young man plowing his field behind a pair of oxen. That day Elisha left his field and followed him. Elisha had been devoted to him for a long time now. This young man walking beside him had been a stranger but over the years he had become like a son. They had spent years of walking together, eating together, talking together. Years of shared experiences had given them an intimacy that allowed Elijah to know how Elisha would respond in any given situation. He knew what food Elisha liked and did not like. He knew what made him laugh and what made him sad. He knew his strengths and his weaknesses. He loved this young man walking alongside him and today would be the last day he would see him. Today that relationship would come to an end.

Elijah’s anticipation was covered with grief at the loss of this “son” of his, his closest friend.

Another part of Elijah’s thinking may have concerned the matter of Elisha succeeding him as prophet. God had told him to go anoint Elisha to succeed him, but that had been so long ago. He loved Elisha and knew how heavy a burden it was to be the Lord’s prophet. Was it necessary for Elisha to be the one who now would carry that burden? Wouldn’t it be better for Elisha to be released from his calling and go find a young woman to marry and have a family?

So shortly after setting out, Elijah broke the early morning silence.
“Stay here; the LORD has sent me to Bethel.”

The Lord has sent me. Not us but me. The Lord has sent me to Bethel. This is my journey. It does not have to be your journey. It is OK. I release you from your call.

But Elisha’s immediate response was to refuse the offer.
“As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”

And so they continued on to Bethel. Elijah made his farewells and they set out for Jericho. Again, he offered Elisha the opportunity to be set free of the burden of being God’s prophet.
“Stay here, Elisha; the LORD has sent me to Jericho.”
And he replied, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”

As they walked along toward Jericho, I wonder if Elijah’s thoughts drifted toward Moses and Joshua. Jericho was the scene of Joshua’s first great victory as leader of Israel. Joshua had succeeded Moses and had born his responsibility well. Joshua had been a strong and successful leader. How would it go for Elisha if he succeeded him as God’s prophet to Israel?

After saying farewell to the company of prophets in Jericho, he left to go to the Jordan River. Elijah was now heading not only to where Joshua had led Israel across the Jordan and into the Promised Land, but over to where Moses had died. Moses had died and God had picked Joshua to succeed him. Today he would die and would it be Elisha who succeeded him? Once more he offered Elisha release from this obligation.

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.”
And he replied, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on.

With the company of prophets from Jericho watching Elijah and Elisha at the edge of the Jordan River,
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

And now they headed toward Mt. Nebo, the mountain from which Moses looked out to see the Promised Land he was not permitted to enter.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

This was the moment. This was the climax of this day. Elijah had taught Elisha everything he knew. He had instructed Elisha, corrected and challenged Elisha, comforted and encouraged Elisha and now was his last chance to be of assistance to him. “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

Let me explain what Elisha was asking and what this does not mean.

In Levitical Law, asking for a double portion was asking for the right of the firstborn to receive the inheritance of the father. The firstborn son was to receive a double portion of all his father had as sign that he was the successor to his father.

Elisha was not asking to have twice as much power as Elijah had. He was asking that he be the successor to Elijah as God’s prophet to Israel. This is how Elijah understood him which we can see in his response.
10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise not.”

What was difficult about Elisha’s request was that it was not in the power of Elijah to grant that request. Elijah did not control the Spirit of God. The Spirit was not his to give. Elijah was a servant of the Spirit of God, not his master.

And I think there is still a sense of sadness in Elijah that Elisha who he loved as a son would have to take on this burden of being the Lord’s prophet. Three times he had told Elijah to stay behind, giving him the option of being released from his call and three times Elisha expressed his determination to remain with him and to take the mantle of authority Elijah carried.

This last request sealed the choice. Elisha was determined and so it was up to God. What was about to happen would not be seen with human eyes. Only eyes opened by the Spirit of God would be able to see what happened next and if Elisha saw what was to come, then he would know God had granted him his request and he would fulfill what he had been called to do. He would be the Lord’s prophet.

11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.

And thus ended Elijah’s day.

Now let us go through the day once more, looking at it from Elisha’s perspective.

This day that began in Gilgal and ended on the east side of the Jordan River was the last day in the life of Elijah, but in many ways, it was the first day in the life of Elisha.

Because of my experience of how God works, I do not imagine that the day when Elijah came to the field where Elisha was plowing was the first time Elisha had thought about following God and becoming his prophet. God is the great orchestrator and Elisha was like fertile soil, well prepared and watered and ready to accept the seed that was sown. So when Elijah came and draped his cloak over the shoulders of Elisha, Elisha knew instantly that this was what he had been waiting and longing for. He burned the yoke and plow and cooked the two oxen who had been pulling the plow to provide food for an impromptu farewell celebration he threw before leaving to follow Elijah.

And Elijah became his mentor, his teacher, his friend, his father. I don’t know when it was that Elisha discovered that this day was to be the last day of Elijah’s earthly life, but Elisha knew that last morning in Gilgal and was lying awake in the predawn when he heard Elijah get up. He was up in an instant. There was no way Elijah would leave without him. And they set off together.

I think Elisha was probably afraid to break the silence. This was so different and so strange. He didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t know what would happen or when it would happen. But he knew he would be there. He had thought about this and decided. He would not leave Elijah even for a minute.

So when Elijah broke the silence with Gilgal still in view behind them, “Stay here; the LORD has sent me to Bethel.” Elisha did not have to think about his response. He had thought and he had decided. “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”

In the silence that followed as they walked together down the hill toward Bethel, Elisha thought again about the choice Elijah had presented him. His brothers had all married and he was now an uncle many times over. He had visited his family from time to time and seen the pleasure they received from seeing their children growing up. He had seen the comfort that came from living in one place, having a home. He had seen what could still be his if he accepted what Elijah was offering him. He could stay behind and go back to the family farm.

He had also seen the weight that was placed on Elijah’s shoulders. He had seen the struggle Elijah experienced when God spoke to him and he had to carry an unwanted message to someone. He had seen Elijah struggling in the middle of the night with the weight of a decision he had to make.

Elisha thought again and knew he had made the right decision. He would not leave Elijah on this day.

When they arrived in Bethel, they walked to where the company of prophets met and Elijah made his farewells. And then the company of prophets came to Elisha and pulled him aside.
“Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “but do not speak of it.”

Is this an indication of the grief that Elisha also was feeling, knowing that he would be separated from his friend and mentor that day? Was it too difficult to speak of this?

Or was it that with all the uncertainty of the day that Elisha did not want to upset the waters. He would follow and keep his mouth shut. He was not going to mess up this day. He was going to be at Elijah’s side until the end.

They set off for Jericho and as they came to the edge of the city gates of Bethel, Elijah spoke again to him.
4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the LORD has sent me to Jericho.”
And he replied, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”

As they walked toward Jericho, I wonder if Elisha’s thoughts didn’t also go to Moses and Joshua. Mixed with his determination and grief must also have been some measure of uncertainty. God had called him. He had learned much in his years with Elijah. He had seen God use him to do miracles, but always this was with Elijah at his side. What would happen when he was alone? Moses had died and Joshua had taken over and as God used to talk with Moses, now God talked to Joshua. Would this be the case with him as well? Would he be able to be the Lord’s prophet to Israel? Would God work his miracles through him?

They arrived in Jericho, Elijah made his farewells and then they left for the Jordan River. One more time Elijah offered him freedom to go back, but once again he refused.

At the Jordan River, Elijah rolled up the cloak he wore, the same one he had put over Elisha’s shoulders the day he called him to be a prophet. Elijah struck the river with his cloak and it divided so they could cross over.

As they walked along, Elijah stopped and asked him
“Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

They had spoken so little that day and Elisha had thought so much. His determination to fulfill his calling as a prophet burst up in him and he cried out
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,”
I want to follow in your footsteps. This is what matters most to me. I know I have a family farm to which I can return. I know that I could have a different life, but this is the life I want. I want the life for which I was chosen that day you came up to me and put your cloak over my shoulders. I’ve seen the things you do and I want to be able to do those things as well. I want to be filled with the Spirit of God and be used by God to do the things he wants done in Israel.

10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise not.”

They walked on and Elisha barely dared to blink. Now they were no longer silent and talked with each other. Perhaps they reminisced about what had been. Perhaps Elijah gave him last words of advice. Then
suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.  12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more.

Elijah was taken up and Elisha cried out “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” I see them! I see them! God has opened my eyes and I see! You said if I saw you when you were taken I would be your successor and I do see you!

And then he was alone in the desert. All that remained was Elijah’s cloak, physical evidence that the spiritual authority of Elijah had been passed on to him. He tore his clothing as a sign of grief, picked up the cloak of Elijah and set back for the Jordan.

The prophets of Jericho were waiting for him and watching to see what would happen. There is some ambiguity about what the Hebrew at this point says exactly. It is possible to read it that Elisha rolled up the cloak as he had seen Elijah do and struck the Jordan but nothing happened. Then he cried out
“Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?”

Again he struck the water and
it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

He was now God’s prophet and the company of prophets from Jericho witnessed this transition of spiritual power.
The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

What can we learn from the events of this day?

1. Elisha knew his calling and was determined to follow it. What is your calling?

From the beginning of time, God has had a plan for you. Do you know what it is he wants you to do? You may be looking toward graduating from high school and going to college. You may be just starting a career. You may be in the middle or at the end of a career. It does not matter how much of your life you have lived. I want to challenge you this week to go home and ask God what he wants you to do. You may be used to making decisions about where you should go and what you should do, but I encourage you to spend some time this week and ask God to reveal to you what you should do with your life.

A friend encouraged me to do that when I was a senior in college and the result of my prayer was that I went to seminary rather than apply to medical school. God’s call is not always to go into ministry, I don’t want to give that impression, but pray and see what it is that God puts in your mind and on your heart.

2. Elisha wanted nothing less than all that God had for him. He asked for a double portion of the Spirit.  How much of God’s Spirit do you want?

Elisha asked for a double portion. He wanted to be the successor to Elijah. He wanted all that God had in store for him. Elisha was not willing to settle for less than everything God wanted him to have. Do you trust God enough to open yourself to him without holding back?

How much of the Spirit of God do you want? Just enough to make you feel a bit of peace? Just enough to help you to feel a little loved? Don’t settle for less than God wants you to have.

When Jesus was washing the feet of his disciples, Peter objected that Jesus, his master, should wash his feet. Jesus replied “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Don’t settle for just a bit. “I don’t need much Lord, just a tiny bit is OK with me.” Ask for everything. Wash all of me. Give me a double portion. Give me everything you have in mind for me because I trust you and know that what you want for me is going to be what is best for me.

Open yourself fully to the Holy Spirit this morning.

3. After Elijah left, Elisha picked up the cloak and headed back to the Jordan and when he reached the Jordan, he rolled up the cloak, just as Elijah had done and struck the water. When God calls you, do not be afraid. Step out in confidence.

That day was not just a big day for Elijah and Elisha. I believe it was a big day in heaven with angels cheering as Elisha made the decision to stick with Elijah. I believe there was rejoicing in heaven, including a newcomer named Elijah, when Elisha picked up the cloak and headed for the Jordan.

You also have a cheering section in heaven. When you discover what it is God has called you to and you step out in obedience, there is delight in the cloud of witnesses watching you.

In just a moment we will have the opportunity to come forward to share in the Lord’s Supper. When we do so, we remember that Jesus held nothing back from us. Jesus gave all he had for us, Jesus died for us, taking our place so we could be spared an eternal spiritual death.

When you come forward, will you respond to all that Jesus gave for you by giving all you are and have to him?

Come to communion.

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.  21 Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
24 To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—  25 to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.