Do you ever wonder if your church or organisation or your place of work would cease to function, that the world would stop rotating, if you ever stopped doing whatever it is that you’re doing? That you have to carry on because there’s no-one who can possibly take your place? Or perhaps you know someone like that? If so, then our text from 1 Kings is for you.
Elijah is a larger-than-life character. A hairy man, with a big leather belt, who outruns chariots, raises a widow’s dead son, bests a bunch of prophets in a trial by fire and gets fed by angels and by birds. He twice calls down destruction on a group of soldiers and at the end, if you can call it the end, he doesn’t die but gets taken up to heaven, on standby to talk to Jesus at a later date.
It’s how we often think about former Vicars isn’t it? We moan and groan when they’re here but when they’re gone it’s as if they walked on water.
Who on earth could follow all that? Who could follow in Elijah’s illustrious footsteps and take up the mantle? Well, Elisha, actually. Elisha who is at the back of the plough-line, with 11 other teams in front of him, eating everyone else’s dust. Elisha, who we learn a few chapters later, is bald rather than hairy. So, you can tell where my sympathies lie…
40 odd days before the point where we join the story, Elijah had proved that Yahweh was supreme by defeating the hundreds of prophets of Baal and Asherah by calling down from fire from heaven. He’d shown that Yahweh wasn’t just one of many gods and that it did matter which one you picked. Arguably it was the high point of his prophetic life so far.
That event should have convinced the rulers and the people of Israel to dramatically change their ways – but instead he’d got death threats from Queen Jezebel. Elijah fled into the desert, exhausted and confused and needing to make sense of what had just happened. Everyone wants to feel that they’re making a difference – and Elijah was no exception. Feeling utterly alone he handed in his resignation, there in the desert. He quit. He’d had enough.
But God gave him food and rest, he looked after his physical needs, before guiding him to Mount Horeb, the place where Moses had received the 10 Commandments. And perhaps Elijah stayed overnight in the same cave that Moses had all those years before. And there he laments, he complains, he gets things off his chest. In management speak, he was having a 1-2-1 with his supervisor.
Working your notice
And that takes us to our verses today. God tells him, OK, I accept your resignation – but you need to work your notice first. Here’s a list of things that need to happen to set things in order. And they’re not small things. God asks Elijah to rearrange the political landscape in Israel and in Aram, which we now know as Syria. He asks him to incite a revolution and replace the two kings there.
And you’re to anoint your successor too, says God. And I’ll tell you exactly who it is and where you can find him. As it happens, it’s Elisha, not Elijah who anoints the two new kings.
Oh, and by the way, you’re not on your own, God says. You’re not the only one left. In one of the verses omitted from our reading today, God points out gently that there are 7000 others who remain faithful to the Lord. 7000! Sometimes we over-estimate our knowledge and vastly under-estimate God’s provision.
The prospect of help is enough to get Elijah out of the cave and so he heads north, finds Elisha in the field, throws his cloak, his mantle, over him – and walks away. No words, no ‘follow me’. No dramatic visions or burning bushes for Elisha. No cherubim or seraphim or a reassuring word direct from God like the other prophets. Just an old cloak thrown at him. Our calling can come in unusual ways!
But that mantle represents Elijah’s authority and crops up again in their story. This is the same mantle that covered Elijah’s face in the presence of God – and the same mantle that will later separate the waters of the Jordan, not once but twice. But somehow Elisha recognises what the act means and runs after Elijah. It’s similar to the disciples dropping their nets and immediately following Jesus.
A new vocation
Unlike Jesus’ disciples, however, Elisha asks to say farewell to his family first – but that act of farewell is to make sure that there’s no going back to his old life. He kills and cooks his oxen, his livelihood, using the wooden yoke to make the fire, and he feeds the people. It’s a powerful visual commitment to his new vocation.
Elisha turns back – but to do what the rich young ruler couldn’t do in the Gospels. Elisha distributes all that he has, to follow his new master. But to begin with, Elisha has to become a servant. He doesn’t automatically get zapped with miraculous powers. It seems that he has to closely attend to his new boss first.
[However, the word ‘minister’ or ‘disciple’ is probably better than ‘servant’ to describe what Elisha is doing. Elsewhere the same Hebrew word is used to describe priestly, royal or angelic service (Exodus 28:35, 1 Chronicles 27:1, Psalm 103:20). Or the relationship between Joshua and Moses (Exodus 24:13). Anyway, we have several chapters to get through in 1 and 2 Kings before Elisha gets to be a prophet.]
Difference in ministries
And I wonder how well the two of them got on. When it does come time for Elijah to go, he wants to do the final journey on his own. But Elisha refuses to leave him. That’s when he asks for the double portion of the spirit, a gift that only the Lord could give. Elisha then sees the ascension of Elijah, gets the prophet’s mantle and starts his career as a prophet. And, in some senses, he directly carries on Elijah’s work. He anoints those new kings and sees off Jezebel.
But how they conducted their ministries was very different. Elijah was a loner while Elisha lived in towns and had more connections with ordinary people. There are many more stories of Elisha performing miracles among the people and they are similar, in a way, to the ministry of Jesus. Elijah tended to do big, dramatic, eye-catching miracles – Elisha was less high-profile. But from the strength and integrity of their respective witness, Israel knew that there was both God and God’s prophet in Israel.
What we learn
So, what? What’s all this to us? Well, firstly, whatever it is that we do, I think that at times it can all get too much, and we need to escape to our own version of Mount Horeb and spend time alone with God. Time to get the bigger picture.
Secondly, we need to learn to be honest with ourselves and with God. Sometimes things do seem to go wrong – and we need to voice that, to lament it. But God’s solution may not be to wave a magic wand and make everything go away. It may be for us to do something different and maybe to put new people in place.
Thirdly, God does have a succession plan. Elijah didn’t come up with the idea or with the candidate. That was all on God. But there were stages in that process. The handover didn’t happen overnight. You don’t get to just walk away. And for the successor, it may be a less than glamorous start to the new role.
Fourthly, it makes me think of those who will be ordained in the next few weeks – putting down their old work, burning the equivalent of the ox’s yoke and taking up a completely new vocation. Please hold them in your prayers in these coming days.
Finally, the successor may do it differently to the one who went before. Whether it’s a new Vicar or a new person doing the brewing up, they’ll get the job done but they’ll do it in their own God-given way. It’s incumbent on all of us not to undermine them but to give them the space and the grace and the support to allow them to do whatever it is that God has called them to do. Amen