Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
Start with the story of Elijah transported to heaven in a whirlwind accompanied by fiery chariots and a military escort. Elijah passes the prophetic office to his student, Elisha. It’s like Master Yoda training Luke Skywalker. As difficult as it is for Elijah to “pass over” from one world to another, it is even more complex for Elijah to “pass along” to Elisha the power of God. The passing of the baton to the next generation is always difficult. Elisha has one last test to pass. In order to receive the force, the power of Almighty God, Elisha must see Elijah ascend into the air. That faith does have to do with seeing is strange to our ears but visions have always mattered a lot to Jews and Christians.
The darkness attempts to obscure the vision of young Elisha. Suddenly, Elijah rises into the air and Elisha starts shouting, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elisha sees!
Now add the story of Jesus on the mountain and the disciples see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about his departure (EXODUS). The departure of Jesus will be more traumatic – the agony, the pain, the suffering of nails driven into hands and feet, the fall of darkness, the apparent victory of the dark side, and the cry of despair, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But it’s never over when it comes to the light. Suddenly, within three days the force, in all it glorious power, is loosed against the dark side forever and death is dead.
Elijah in a whirlwind with fiery chariots and Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus about his departure – these are our stories. Now add Paul’s words for a triple-text sermon: “We preach.”
The story of Elijah and Elisha has a prequel. Elisha doesn’t just show up out of nowhere. There’s always prequel/history. No one, not even the best of Christians, came from scratch. One day, years earlier, Elijah passed by Elisha and threw his mantle over him. What can it possibly mean for us?
Well, of all things, Elisha drops what he is doing, and says, “I will follow you,” but first he goes home to kiss his mom and dad. We better have enough sense to not write off parents. We better value the tradition.
Now fast forward to the story of Elijah taken up in the whirlwind. Of all things, Elisha asks for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. He knows that he doesn’t measure up to Elijah. “I can never take his place, fill his shoes.”
What happens? The Lord whispers in the ear of Elisha: “Pick it up Elisha. Pick up the mantle of Elijah.” We should consider the cost before we start picking up power like this. I took the time to look up mantle in the Old Testament. Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Job, and Ezra are the major mantle wearers. This is not a hot fashion item. The power of God is in this mantle. With the mantle you can part the waters. With the mantle you can rain down justice like water. With the mantle you can set the oppressed free.
But there’s pain and agony with the mantle. Listen to the mantle wearers:
And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God (Ezra 9:5).
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground and worshiped. (Job 1:20).
When the mantle comes into the action, there’s rending and ripping and tearing. There’s sackcloth and ashes. There’s terror and destruction. There’s a power that we can’t control. And it is in the context of worship: I fell upon my knees and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God. Worship! The current rage of happy sappy worship can’t touch the hem of the garment of this kind of worship.
The world tries to imitate the power of God wrapped in that holy mantle. Remember when King Saul got the witch of Endor to conjure up the spirit of Samuel from the grave? Desperate despots will try any way to get an edge. Saul needed foreign policy advice and we went to a witch for help. Well, the witch got Samuel and Saul got more than he bargained for. When the witch saw Samuel she was scared. Saul asked her what she saw and she said, ‘An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a mantle.’ So Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and worshiped. A witch can conjure but the dark side can’t worship. A witch can show the shadow of a prophet, but only a prophet can cause kings to bow to the ground in worship. The truth speaks to power. The mantle is the power of God.
So guess what? Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah. What do these stories mean to us? There’s power available for us. We tend to believe that these kinds of things don’t really happen in our world, and this hinders our willingness to expect God’s power to be available. So we need to begin to think differently, because the power of God is real and available. We have spent too many years thinking we are powerless when the force has always been with us and available to us. Pick up the mantle, pick it up church!
Now, look at the deep connection between what happens with Elijah and Elisha and Jesus. The power transitions from generation to generation. There’s a current that is never broken from creation to resurrection to us. Some scholars think the story of transfiguration is a misplaced resurrection story, so if we look closely at the grave that could not hold Jesus, we will see that he left the mantle for his church. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciple entered the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there neatly folded and left for the church to receive the power/force. How odd that the dark side enemies of God would wrap the dead body of Jesus in the linen robe of God’s death-defying power. So there should be no surprise that when new converts emerged from the waters of baptismal immersion they were clothed in a new white linen robe/mantle. You see don’t you? Tell me that you see all this rich symbolism. The dark side simply can’t destroy the mantle of God.
We are the ones called to put on the mantle and offer faithful preaching. The way we know we have the power is when “We preach.” That’s what Paul says: We preach. Preaching a sermon is not a one-person job. If we send the preacher out to preach the sermon and we have nothing to do with it, it would be like sending Nick Foles out to face the New England Patriots alone. The language of the church is preaching, prayer, and praise.
This is a particular challenge for Baptists because we have never really warmed up to how Christians in the past have talked because for so many centuries Christian language was taught by Catholics and this we do not trust. Worship is grammar practice. Church is a language lab. The more we read Scripture, offer the great confessions and creeds, say the prayers of the church fathers and mothers, the more capable we are of speaking Christian. I think Baptists are losing the ability to speak Christian to the extent that we turn worship into a passive experience where we sit and listen except when we are singing and we have even lost the passion of singing “lustily” as Charles Wesley put it. Reality check: Catholics and Episcopalians speak Christian more fluently than we do because they have been practicing longer.
Perhaps you think I’m a bit over the top here, but I’m convinced that we are in danger of losing the grammar of our faith.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger (HY-deh-gur) says in Letter on Humanism: “Language is the House of Being. In its home human beings dwell. He then argues that language is being rapidly devastated by our mere use of language as a way of dominating others.
I’m arguing the case that we are losing the ability to speak Christian. Here’s an analogical development of my argument on the positive side. For all the fun folks like to poke at Southerners and our strange accent, there’s something deeply important about being Southern. Growing up in the evangelistic Protestant South, we are intimately familiar with the resounding beauty of the biblical language and the unmistakable rhetoric of sermons, the rhythm and meter, symbols, the metaphors, the cataloging of images, and the building up of tension in the narrative. Novelist Reynolds Price says, “The thing I want to add is that it wasn’t just southerners who were in contact with the King James translation. New England had that; the Midwest had that. But I think that we perhaps capitalized on that in ways that other regions of America didn’t, primarily because the white preachers of our region were largely of Anglo-Saxon stock. We came from long, long generations of people who had spoken the English language, the Anglo-Saxon language. And our language added something that British English never had – a profound involvement with African-American language.” We are losing this rich heritage and it is a profound loss.
When you have been speaking a language for centuries longer than any other group, you have a language skill that is priceless.
There’s a negative side to this. There are millions of intellectual Russians who have grown up with absolutely nothing to believe in. They couldn’t believe in their government, their official belief system of Marxism. But they were offered nothing in its place. They didn’t have Russian Orthodox Christianity, they didn’t have Judaism, they didn’t have anything. It’s terrifying to see all sorts of things springing up in the vacuum – belief in astrology and numerology, cut-rate dumb brands of the occult and worse, and the springing up of anti-Semitism as an explanation of everything that goes wrong. The human enterprise is fragile and Christians losing our language is doing untold damage to our culture. Look at the rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups.
The Christian and Jewish stories are crucial to human survival. That’s the connection between the mantle of Elijah, the linen wrappings of Jesus, and the “We preach” of St. Paul. This is how we are taught who we are as human beings who can and must become more fully human. The need to tell and hear stories is the second most important human need after food.
So I’m sticking with our stories, Jewish and Christian. Elijah is here, there, and everywhere because we are part of an unbroken line, a prophetic succession of force, truth, and the wisdom of God. And Jesus is the culmination of God’s purpose to overcome evil with good, darkness with light. Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets are here so we can preach. Literalize the story, symbolize, or slather it with a gallon bucket of metaphorical paint, the end result is that we are always to preach.
Moses, Elijah, all the prophets, martyrs, preachers, teachers, scholars, disciples are with us. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. This is our test. Do we see the great cloud of witnesses? Are we Jedi material? Are we shouting, “Father, father! The cloud of witnesses”? May the force be with you!