2 Kings 2: 1-12; Mark 9: 2-9
In 1976, America’s Bicentennial offered celebrations of many kinds across our country. One day Mary Ann and I went to downtown St. Louis, facing the Mississippi River, to watch an air show. Perhaps like in the days of Elijah, St. Louis is on the west side of the river, like Israel is on the west side of the River Jordan. As we looked east over the Mississippi River, our heads turned fast to the left, and fast to the right as a jet from McDonnell-Douglas aircraft flew by us. First, they demonstrated the F-4 jets; nicknamed the “Phantom.” They were real workhorses and they had plenty of speed. We were so close, yet we heard nothing, until after the jet passed with a “woosh” in the air, and then we heard the roar of the jet engines. We could have watched it all day. But there was more. There was the McDonnell-Douglas new pride and joy: the F-15 Eagle. What could it do that was better? As it flew in front of the crowd, it suddenly angled skyward and flew straight up like a rocket; not at a steady angled climb, but straight up unto it actually disappeared from our sight! We were astounded; we were amazed; and we were slightly deaf from the engines pointing right at us as the jet ascended! It was a sight to behold!
Can you imagine a chariot, drawn by horses of fire, taken up into the sky, out of sight, not from jet engines, but from a whirlwind? Today in Second Kings we are invited to witness that after a passing of a torch ceremony, though in this case, it was a mantel. The young prophet Elisha did not want to let go of his mentor, Elijah, who was about to go “the way of the fathers.” He clung to his hero, perhaps like we cling to those who cannot hang on to life in this world anymore. Like the expression “O Love, that Wilt Not Let Me Go,” Elisha clings to Elijah, not wanting to let him go. Together, in their last time together, they went from place to place—they left Gilgal and arrived at Bethel. They departed for Jericho and then they crossed the Jordan. And at the apex of the story, Elijah ascends to heaven- he does that on the other side, not on Israel’s side; in a desolate place. They had crossed the River before the final words were shared and Elijah died. Elijah was then taken up into heaven after he gave Elisha his mantel of responsibilities. Elisha had to carry on, in existential and prophetic ways. Afterward, as sometimes happens in our own lives, the mourner Elisha retraced his steps toward home—in this case re-crossing the River Jordan—stopping at Jericho and ending at Bethel again. The story used a deliberate structure that involved Elisha going out and then returning; the same structure was found in the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
Today I want us to speak openly about a difficult subject: death. What happens when we die? Today we are reminded that Elisha clung to Elijah and begged him not to leave him. When Elijah earlier hid in a cave during his dark night, 1 Kings 19:12 says that after all the sounds of earthquake, wind, and fire, there was a sound of sheer silence. As Elijah and Elisha met with a company of prophets at Jericho, they said to Elisha: “Do you know that today the Lord will take your Master away?” Elisha replied: “Be silent.” It is in the silence that reality hits; that people realize the presence of the imminent. The silence of God whispers words of hope and comfort. Sometimes people ask for material things when someone is near death; at other times they ask for words of blessing. Words ring in the ears of those grieving when the one who is dying says something like: “You have never looked lovelier than now;” or “I will always love you;” or “I’m counting on you.” Even in the movie “Ghost” Molly expressed her love for Sam, and typically, Sam just said, “Ditto” while he was alive. But after Sam was murdered, the message “Ditto,” passed through psychic Oda Mae Brown, letting Molly know that Sam was near. Those are sacred times: when someone left behind is commissioned or commended by the departing one. By contrast, in dysfunctional relationships, the one dying or the one still living may call out curses. Those can pierce the soul of both.
If you search on your phone or computer: “What happens to us after death?” you may discover that some believe there is no afterlife; others believe in the resurrection of the body; others believe in the immortality of the soul; others believe in reincarnation, and still others believe that when we die, we become gods. It can be seriously confusing to search web pages for those answers. Our primary source about life after death as Christians is the New Testament, along with trusted pastors or chaplains or teachers. But today, as Elijah makes a cameo appearance on the Holy mountain with Peter, James, John and Jesus, we go back to his spectacular exit from this earth.
Historically, biblical characters in what is called the Old Testament died were remembered for what they did in their lives. Stones were put on the graves of the dead to show they had not been forgotten. There was no general belief that they went on to an afterlife. Sarah died in Genesis 23, and Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah, at great cost, in which he placed her body. In Genesis 25 Abraham breathed his last and his body was placed in the cave next to his wife. People mourned for them, and then the mourning stopped. But they were remembered forever. Still, there was no thought that they had gone to heaven. The same was true with most everyone else in the Old Testament; life was lived from birth to death; only after a certain extraordinary event did the idea of a great prophets living on in Heaven ever cross their minds: it was after today’s story of Elijah. He was perhaps Israel’s greatest because he challenged the prophets of Baal in a place called Mount Carmel and he won; but he also was great because 2 Kings chapter 2 recorded that he ascended to heaven in a whirlwind! They did not call it resurrection, because it was not a resurrection. It was Elijah, the great prophet, “taken up in a whirlwind.” But before he departed: he took care of business-like we should take care of business- writing down what you want to write and saying what you want to say. Elijah passed his mantel to Elisha and commissioned the younger prophet to carry on his ministries. Then a most breath-taking thing happened: as he and Elisha were walking and talking on the other side of the river, a chariot—a chariot of fire drawn by horses, came and took Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind! It was unheard of; it had not happened before, and it has not happened in the same way since. But the spiritual anthem we heard today, combining Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Deep River, My Home is Over Jordan” was written by those who were longing for a better life than they had on earth. So they hoped for, and prayed for, a chariot to come and escort them to a better life on the other side! Times of strain make people think about, and long for, the afterlife.
Elijah became almost mythical because of his transport to heaven; it never says he died; it just says he went to heaven. That was talked about for ages. And when John the Baptist came with great voice and conviction, and people asked him: “Are you Elijah?” (John 1:21) You see, there were superstitious people then as now! They thought that perhaps Elijah’s soul had inhabited a new body! But John the Baptist dispelled such queries: “I am not,” he said. In Matthew’s gospel we read that Jesus once asked his disciples: “Who do others say that I am?” And again the superstitious answer was given: “Some say you are John the Baptist (who had just been killed) and others said you are Elijah (who had died centuries before.) Jesus was not Elijah or John the Baptist. He was the beloved Son of God.
With the same authority that Christians for 2000 years have given to the Bible, we find that in Matthew, in Mark, in Luke, and in John, witnesses gave testimony: Jesus really died on earth, the victim of a brutal death. His body was taken to a tomb; according to Matthew’s gospel, guards watched the tomb during the Jewish Sabbath so that no one could come and take the body. But when the Sabbath ended, faithful women, charged with lovingly anointing the dead body, came to carry out their task. On the day we call Easter, Jesus was not reincarnated. There was no chariot waiting. It was resurrection; the risen Lord- Jesus-appeared to his disciples, and in 1 Corinthians 15 he also appeared to more than 500 others. People called him Lord.
In the last book of the Bible, a man named John was blessed with a vision shared by Jesus. We know it as the book of Revelation. We do not get a guided tour of the heaven, but we get an assurance of its wonder and its beauty! Heaven is a game changer, where there will be no more crying or pain or sadness. What a different world that is! Christians believe that we have life after death. It is a resurrected life, not a continuation of this life. And it can be yours! That is what the church has taught for ages. There are plenty of sources of information, but I choose sources that I trust. Say what you want to say while you are well; write what you want while you are still alive. But choose Jesus! Then when you leave this world, you can have a glorious life in the hereafter.
Let us pray: O God from whom we have been created and to whom we can return: comfort us with stories about good life and good death, so that we will not only be remembered when we leave this world, but we will have made an impact on the lives of those we love. In Jesus name. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 14, 2021