People are flying around in the air, there are clouds and lightning and chariots of fire and prophets appearing and disappearing—it’s very Hollywood.
But the truth is that these stories are really about human relationships, and they have a lot to teach us about God and ourselves.
The story of Elijah’s departure from earth, taken up to heaven as Elisha watches, is incredibly poignant, partly because of the events leading up to it.
This is a long and drawn out departure.
They travel together from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the banks of the Jordan River—all powerfully symbolic locations for the people of Israel, and probably places Elijah and Elisha had traveled together to many times before in their prophetic partnership.
They weren’t alone.
The company of the other prophets was with them, and they kept asking Elisha over and over again, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?”
And Elisha replies, “Yes, I know. Keep silent.”
Elisha doesn’t want to hear it, hates the truth he has to admit that his beloved teacher and friend is about to leave him forever.
We don’t know what the tone of the company of prophets was.
They could have been mocking Elisha, taunting him about his pain.
Or they could simply have been trying to get through to a friend, seeing that he was in denial about what was coming and trying to prepare him for reality.
This gets to the heart of the human truth of this story: it is so hard to say goodbye to someone we love.
Think of the times in your life you had had to say goodbye.
Sending a child off for the first time to kindergarten, to summer camp, to take a driver’s test, to college, to the altar with his or her new spouse.
Saying goodbye to a spouse or partner when the death of a marriage can no longer be avoided and the painful road of divorce is the only path available.
Saying goodbye to friends and colleagues when we leave a job.
Saying goodbye when friends leave a church over hurt feelings or differing theologies.
And the most final goodbye of all, sitting by a loved one’s bedside when the end is coming, wondering how to say the right things, trying not to say the wrong things, the future without this person a blank and strange territory impossible to imagine.
This is exactly what Elisha is feeling in our story from 2 Kings today.
And all of these feelings descend on Peter, James and John in a nauseating rush in our gospel story from Mark.
They all know the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven in the chariot of fire.
They assume that they are witnessing the same thing about to happen to Jesus.
Peter panics and does what we all do when we are in denial about death—he tries to bargain, tries to arrange the circumstances so what he fears will not come true.
Let’s build some houses for you and Elijah and Moses, Peter says to Jesus. That will be great, won’t it?
Then you won’t leave us.
Because for both Elisha and Peter, there is a greater fear here than just the grief of the end of a deeply meaningful personal relationship. When Elijah and Jesus leave, Elisha and Peter have to take charge of the ministry.
This story in 2 Kings is where we get the phrase, “take up the mantle of leadership.” In verse thirteen, the verse right after our lectionary passage, it says, “He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.”
This is exactly what Elisha and Peter fear.
Now the leader is gone, and they have to go to the edge of the deep water and find a way to lead their people across.
But of course, Peter doesn’t have to face this challenge, at least not yet.
Jesus does not ascend to heaven. He comes back down to Earth and continues his work with Peter, James, John, and the other disciples, patiently preparing them to do the work of leadership in the church they are so afraid they do not have the power and the skill to do.
This is the promise Jesus makes to us, too.
When we have to say goodbye to something or someone, we have the knowledge that Jesus will not leave us, but returns to us again and again, any time we ask it of him, to take us by the hand and lead us forward in our ministry tasks.
But the comfort of Jesus’ return, the fact that he does not disappear into the clouds at the Transfiguration, is of course temporary.
Peter, James, and John will soon find themselves right back with Elisha in that state of panic and denial as they must face Jesus’ departure three more times—his arrest in the Garden at Gethsemane, his crucifixion on Calvary, and his ascension into heaven after the resurrection.
Each time, Jesus promises to see them again, to return to them, and each time, more miraculously, he does.
They see him again after his arrest.
They see him again, even after his death.
And now we, along with them, await his return at the last day.
We think of death and resurrection as such mighty concepts that we reserve for big, earth-shattering moments like the Second Coming and the original Easter Day.
But when we think of them in the simple human terms of saying goodbye, facing the future alone, and believing we’ll meet again, we see that God has engineered our lives and our human experience to train us in the pattern of death and resurrection, over and over again.
Because there is always another person in our goodbyes.
It’s so easy to be focused on our own pain and grief when a loved one is leaving or dying or a chapter in our own lives is coming to a close.
But there is someone else on the other side of that equation, someone who is undergoing something very important, someone who is facing a change.
That other person is dying to an old self and being transformed into a new self.
That other person is going through a transfiguration, just like Elijah and Jesus.
And part of saying goodbye well is loving that other person faithfully enough to embrace the mystery of his or her transfiguration, to send him or her off into that change, which will always include some shade of death, with generosity and freedom.
We know how hard that is to do, to release someone to the other side of a monumental change. Elisha and Peter demonstrate that for us.
But as for Elisha and Peter, there is always more work to be done after a goodbye.
When Elisha finally comes to accept the truth that Elijah is leaving and there is nothing he can do about it, he makes a very wise request right before Elijah departs.
“Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” Elisha says.
Elisha knows that the ministry must go forward, and he knows that he does not have the skills and expertise to carry it on himself without Elijah.
So he asks to inherit not just a little spirit, but a double share.
He wants not just the power of Elijah’s spirit to uphold him in the work, but the comfort of a breath of Elijah’s presence to carry him forward and uplift him in the long, lonely days ahead.
The prayer that was wise for Elisha is wise for us, and Jesus has already answered it.
After he ascends to heaven, he sends the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and we inherit a double, a triple, a hundredfold share of the Spirit to strengthen, encourage, and advise us as we carry Jesus’ work forward into the world.
And like Elisha, we also have the comfort of the very real presence of Jesus in his Holy Spirit.
“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus said before he departed. “I will not leave you comfortless.”
And that is true.
The loneliness for Jesus is what propels us onward to rejoin him in his everlasting kingdom, and his absence is also the necessary condition for us to stand on our own two feet and find out what we’re made of when we have to take up the mantle of leadership ourselves.
The same was true for Elisha, and the same was true for Peter, James, and John.
And so we see that goodbyes are really opportunities for transformation and transfiguration, practice for death and resurrection.
Underneath the whirlwinds of fire that can seem to accompany a major transition in life or a relationship, there is a simple set of human truths that God is asking us to enter into and be transformed by.
We are to be transformed into people for whom the path of death and resurrection is as real and as basic as breathing in and breathing out, saying goodbye, saying hello, braving death, rising in resurrection.
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