Our text for today inspired some of the great spirituals that are still beloved by people of many races. One of my favorites is:
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Coming for to carry me home.”
I love the verse that says:
“If you get there before I do
Tell all my friends I’m a coming too.”
Several of our men have enjoyed singing with the Kentucky Regional Men’s Chorus. It is a wonderful experience to sing a choir of 70 men with strong voices filling the room with their music. On one of the songs that I particularly like, the bass line has the beautiful melody that says:
“I’m gonna ride in the chariot in the morning, Lord,
I’m gonna ride in the chariot in the morning, Lord.
I’m getting ready for the judgment day, my Lord, my Lord.”
Then a spectacular baritone voice rings out in a voice as clear as a bell:
“Are you ready, my brother? (and all the men respond) Oh yes.
Are you ready for the journey? Oh yes.
Do you want to see your Jesus? Oh yes.
I’m waiting for the chariot and I’m ready to go.”
One of the interesting things about the songs inspired by this particular text is that the songs get it all wrong. Notice that verse 11 says, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Elijah was not in the chariot of fire! It was not the chariot that came to get Elijah; it was the whirlwind.
Today I want to make four points about this text as we look carefully at the narrative. This is a dramatic tale told with classic story-telling technique. There is a three-fold repetition, and it ends with a climatic scene with the chariots and a whirlwind.
1) Not IF but When
First, it’s not IF but When. I want you to notice something interesting about this text. The narrator begins the story by giving away the secret of what’s going to happen. Usually, the story-teller will save the climax to the very end and keep the listener in suspense until then. But our story begins with these words, “It happened, when Yahweh would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven….”
Then as the tale unfolds, everywhere Elijah goes there are people who already know what is going to happen. First he goes to Bethel where he finds a company of prophets. These prophets take Elisha aside and say to him, “Do you know that Yahweh will take away your master from your head today?” They already know that this is the day. In the second scene, they go to Jericho and the same thing happens. The prophets take Elisha aside and say, “Do you know that Yahweh will take away your master from your head today?” Each time, Elisha responds by saying, “Yes, I know it. Hold your peace.”
Everybody knows what is going to happen, but they don’t know exactly when it will happen. The question was not IF the Lord was going to take Elijah, it was WHEN.
As I thought about this, I realized there are certain things in life where the question is not IF but WHEN. If we have real faith in God, we do not have to wonder about the IF, only the WHEN.
It is not IF God loves us and will be good to us, it is WHEN God show his goodness to us. It is not IF God will show his grace upon us, but WHEN it will happen. The Bible strongly affirms the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Just as he departed, he will come again. It’s not a question of IF he will come again, it’s a question of WHEN he will come again. The Bible makes it clear that we will all die. It’s not a question of IF we will die, but only WHEN we will die. It’s not a question of IF we will receive eternal life, it’s only a question of WHEN.
Faith gives us a confidence about certain things happening. We just don’t know when they will happen. That was the case in this story as well.
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Second, we find an emphasis on being there, being at the right place at the right time. Elisha has to be there at the right time in order to receive the blessing.
Notice in verse 9 that Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah responds, “Well, yes, you can have it if you are with me when I am being taken up. If you happen to be there at the right time, then you will receive your request.”
This idea was foreshadowed earlier in the text on three separate occasions. When they were in Gilgal, Elijah says to Elisha, “Wait here, for Yahweh has sent me as far as Bethel” (2:2). But Elisha responds, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you” (2:2). When they get to Bethel, Elijah explains that he must now go to Jericho. Again he encourages Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha makes the same promise again that he will not leave his master. He is testing Elisha. After they arrive at the Jericho, Elijah says, “Now I’ve got to go to the Jordan. Why don’t you just stay here?” Elisha says, “I’m not leaving you!”
It was very important for Elisha to be at the right place. He knew that he needed to be with his master in order to receive the spirit that would come through him. He knew that he needed to be at the right place at the right time in order to witness Elijah’s ascent into heaven. Only then would he receive the double portion of Elijah’s spirit as he had requested.
There’s a lesson here for us as well. We need to be at the right place. That’s why it is important to go to church. It is important to be where God’s spirit is so that God can pour out the spirit on us. We cheat ourselves when we are not there.
There’s a wonderful story about a pastor who had a member of the church who had been a regular in attendance, but for some reason he had quit coming. The pastor when to visit him one chilly night. He knocked on the door and the man greeted the pastor and invited him to sit by the fire. The man knew why the pastor was there so he decided to just wait and see what the pastor had to say. But he didn’t say anything either. It seemed they were both trying to wait out the other. Soon the pastor took the tongs from the fireplace, reached into the fire and picked up a burning coal. He put the burning ember on the hearth and watched. Soon it began to cool and the flame flickered out. After a while, it was cold. Then the pastor took the tongs again, picked up that same piece and put it back in the fire. Before long, the heat had returned the coal into a blazing ember again.
The pastor put the tongs down and said, “Well, I guess I’ll go now.” When he got to the door, the man said to the pastor, “Thanks for coming by. And I appreciate that fiery sermon. I’ll be in church Sunday.”
3) Passing the mantle.
This is a story about the passing of authority from one prophet to another. Elijah has been a mighty prophet performing miracles while Elisha has been the apprentice. Here we have the transition from Elijah to Elisha. In verse 9, Elisha asks for a double portion of his spirit, which means that he wanted to be designated the one who would be his successor and inheritor of the spiritual gifts that Elijah had.
Verse 13 says, “He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him….” As the story unfolds, Elisha winds up doing even more miracles that Elijah did. The mantle was passed from one prophet to the next.
Today, it is important for the church today to cultivate such transitions as well. We need to focus on the calling of ministers in the church. It is important for new ministers to be trained and equipped to take the place of older ministers.
The Church generally is in a crisis for ministers. There are not enough pastors for all the churches that we have. In 1998, there were about 3,300 ministers in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But because of retirements and a lack of students in seminary, by the year 2018 there will be half that number. And our denomination’s goal is to start 1,000 new churches by then. So we will have a lot more churches and half as many ministers.
Some of you have served on pulpit committees and you know how hard it is to find a minister. And it is going to get harder every year.
All of our churches need to be in the business of calling young people to step in and take the role of minister. Our church has taken some steps in that regard in our encouragement of Josh Snyder. He is one of the few college students who have committed to becoming a Disciples pastor. By hiring him to work in our church, we are helping him to get his education and giving him some wonderful experience in serving the church. At the same time he helps us by doing ministry with us.
The Church needs to focus intentionally on passing the mantle from one generation of ministers to another. We need to continue to encourage other young people to listen for the call of God to serve in full-time Christian ministry. Our churches everywhere will soon be in a desperate situation. It is already a crisis, and it will only get worse.
The last point is the word “numb-struck.” At the end of this story, we find Elijah and Elisha walking and talking together. All of the story has led up to this climatic moment. Suddenly, chariots of fire and horses of fire appear along with a whirlwind. Can you even imagine this scene in your mind? The whirlwind takes Elijah up into heaven. The chariots and horses separate Elijah from Elisha.
Elisha is numb-struck. While the Bible doesn’t use that word, it is clear that he has no idea what to say. He mutters words that hardly make sense. He says, “My father, my father,” which is a term of respect for his mentor. Then he adds, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen,” the meaning of which is disputed in academic circles.
Elisha’s response to this heart-stopping event aptly demonstrates the human inability to grasp the divine. No praises to God or shouts of glory escape Elisha’s lips, only a numb-struck descriptive statement. I guess we would be numb-struck too!
If we heed the lessons of this text, we too will find ourselves in places where we are struck numb by the presence of God. It may not be as dramatic as this story was. According to the Bible, this never happened again. But there are other ways in which God makes his presence known to us.
I remember reading a story by Frederick Buechner in which he described such an experience. He said he was in his apple orchard, praying and meditating. All of a sudden, he felt God’s presence in an extraordinary way. He suddenly had the sense that God was going to speak to him in some dramatic fashion. He fully expected something like the chariots of fire. He thought the heavens would roll back, and he would see the face of God. He was listening and looking as intently as humanly possible, waiting for a word from the Lord.
All of a sudden, the wind stirred just a little and two branches of the apple trees hit against one another with a “clack, clack.” He said that’s all that happened, but for him he had a vivid impression of God speaking to him. He was numb-struck. It was a formative experience that he never forgot.
It may be for us something as dramatic as the chariots of fire; it may be as simple as the “clack, clack” of two apple tree limbs. But if we follow Elisha’s example, we can experience it too. If we have faith enough to say, “It’s not IF but WHEN God will come to me,” if we have determination enough to be in the right place at the right time, then we too may receive the mantle of God’s spirit and be struck numb by the presence of God.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.