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A Double Share

Thomas J Parlette

“A Double Share”

2 Kings 2: 1-12

2/11/18

 

This passage today, Elijah’s ascent into heaven in a whirlwind, is the fitting climax to the stormy career of one of the most vividly portrayed figures in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah is depicted as a fierce defender of Yahwism during the 9th century BC in the reign of King Ahab of Israel, a Yahwism handed down to Israel from Moses and which brought Israel as a chosen people into existence. Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God”, sought to purify and preserve Israel’s faith from both internal and external threats of mixing their religion and traditions with various influences from Canaanite cults.

 

Although the figure of Elijah exerted considerable influence on later Israelite, New Testament and Jewish tradition, the cycle of stories about his life and career is relatively brief, contained in less than six full chapters in 1st and 2nd Kings. Elijah is introduced abruptly as an opponent to Ahab’s introduction of the cult of the Canaanite God Baal into the worship of the northern kingdom of Israel. The bulk of the stories about him focus on his aggressive opposition to Israelite heresy, especially among the ranks of the Israelite nobility and royal house.

 

Elijah was a native of the region of Gilead, where the brand of Yahwism he came to defend in later life may have been preserved with a higher degree of purity than the Yahwism of Ahab’s court, which was gradually becoming intermingled with the Baal religion of which Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was a devotee.

 

Following a terrible drought and famine, during which Elijah demonstrates repeatedly that it is Yahweh, not Baal, who actually holds the power of life and death, Elijah confronts the prophets, probably priests, of Baal brought in by Jezebel in a dramatic display at an altar on Mount Carmel. Elijah’s triumph is short-lived, however, and he is forced into hiding, fleeing to the southern edge of the southern Kingdom of Judah, as far away from Jezebel as possible, in an area controlled by the Hebrews.

 

While on Mount Horeb – another name for Mount Sinai, where Yahweh’s covenant with Israel was first established, Elijah experiences a divine moment of his own, just like Moses did, with God speaking by wind and earthquake and fire. Elijah, emboldened by that divine appearance, locates and designates his prophetic successor, Elisha – spelled with an “sh” instead of a “j”.

 

After two more confrontations with unfaithful and blasphemous Israelite kings – one with Ahab over Naboth’s vineyard, and one with Ahab’s successor Ahaziah, who was associating with the cult of Baal-zebub, we reach this moment, the climactic close of Elijah’s career – his ascent to heaven in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire.

 

This passage is about God initiating a transfer of spiritual leadership, from Elijah to Elisha. Even though Elijah gets the dramatic exit here, this story is really about Elisha.

 

This is, as you know, Transfiguration Sunday. It’s easy enough to see why this story is included in our lectionary today – Elijah makes a cameo on top of the mountain with Moses and Jesus as God confirms his son as the next, and greatest of the prophets. But this story is really about Elisha and his transfiguration into God’s next prophet after Elijah. Here on the last Sunday before the season of Lent, it’s good for us to consider what this story might have to say to all of us about our own call to God’s prophets – to speak a word from God in our own time and place.

 

As we’ve talked about prophets before, we know that biblical prophets are not fortune tellers seeking to predict the future. Biblical prophets arise from the religious community and speak a word from God. Prophets do whatever they can to get the ways of the world in line with the values of heaven.(1) Before Elijah departs, notice that Elisha asked for “a double share of your spirit.”

 

What Elisha is asking here is not to be twice the prophet Elijah has been, but simply to be his legitimate successor. (2) A double share was the share of an inheritance the eldest son and legitimate heir would receive from his father in the patriarchal structure of ancient Israel. Elisha wasn’t asking to be greater than Elijah, just his legitimate heir.

 

This was a big ask, and Elijah reminds that this mantle of a prophet was not really his to give – only God could grant that double share of the spirit. So Elijah assures his successor that if he sees him being taken up – then your request will be granted. If not, then it will not.

And when the moment comes, Elisha witnesses his master taken up in the whirlwind. And so Elisha is left with the prophet’s responsibility of doing whatever he can to bring the ways of the world into line with the values of God.

 

With God’s help, that is our call as well – to do what we can to get the ways of the world in our time and place to line up with the values of heaven, to continue the prophetic work of speaking God’s will.

 

We begin this process by doing what Elisha did – asking for a double share of the spirit.

 

As we listen to the prophets, we hear a clear and consistent cry for justice. Isaiah challenges us to “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Jeremiah criticizes those who “do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper”, and “do not defend the rights of the needy.”

 

With a similar voice, Hosea calls us to “hold fast to love and justice”, while Amos says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” According to Micah, the Lord requires nothing more of us than to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”(3)

 

In communities across the country, Christians are challenged to inherit a double share of the spirit of these biblical prophets. When we do, we take action to make sure that all our neighbors are treated fairly, and that the weak and the poor get the help they need. That’s the sort of thing that so many of you do on a regular basis as you participate in the ministries and mission of this church through food pantries and hunger relief programs, support for people having medical treatment, support for those struggling with substance addiction and providing assistance for people struggling with housing through Family Promise.

 

We also reach out to our elected leaders and let them know that we want them to take actions that will benefit everyone, not just the wealthy and the well-connected – as we do through our Forums@First, and as I know many of you have done recently with the local caucauses.

 

When we inherit a double share of Elijah’s spirit, we enter new territory and help people in need. We join God’s prophets in seeking justice, giving voice to the oppressed and defending the rights of the poor – all of which connects the needs of the world with the values of heaven.

 

This work continues when we act in ways that are consistent with the ministry of Jesus.

But here’s the challenge – at times, we neglect the specifics of what Jesus did in the world, focusing instead on his sacrificial death and resurrection. Have you ever noticed that one of our bedrock statements of faith, the Apostles Creed, says nothing about the ministry of Jesus? It begins with the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Nothing wrong with any of that, those beliefs are the foundations of our faith.

 

But what comes next? “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

 

Now, wait a second! The entire life of Jesus is left out! We went from born of the Virgin Mary right to suffering under Pontius Pilate. What happened to all the preaching and teaching and healing and the miracles Jesus did? It doesn’t even get a mention.

 

Well, this omission has not gone unnoticed. Leaders of the Presbyterian Church tried to remedy this situation when they wrote The Brief Statement of Faith in the 1980’s – the one we’ve been using in worship for the last three weeks.

 

The section on Jesus we used two weeks ago begins with the affirmation that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. But then it goes on to say, “Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners and calling all to repent and believe the gospel”

 

The point is this: What Jesus did is every bit as important as who Jesus is.(4) The Apostles creed focuses on Jesus identity; The Brief Statement of Faith focuses on the triune nature of God and what Jesus did in his earthly ministry. His preaching, teaching and healing changed the world, as did his “eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.” When we believe in Jesus, we don’t only believe that he is fully human and fully God. We also believe that his ministry brought the world a little closer to heaven, and that gives us an example of how we are supposed to act in the world.

 

In his book Confessions, St. Augustine noted that we are forced to act within a tiny window of time – the present- since the past is unrecoverable and the future is not yet available. In a sense, we act in between what was and what will be.(5)

 

As a people who are called to continue the work of the prophets by bringing the ways of the world into line with God’s values with the things we say and the things we do, here and now, in the present time, let us follow the example of Elisha. Let us ask for a double share of the prophetic spirit, so we may become instruments of God’s peace and grace as we seek to bring this world a little closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol 30, No 1, p51.

2.    David J Lose, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p435.

3.    Homiletics, Vol 30, No 1, p52.

4.    Ibid…p52.

5.    Wm. Loyd Allen, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p436.