Elijah was a prophet that was opposed to the prevailing attitudes of his day. Most people (even in Israel) believed that there were many Gods. Elijah’s belief in only one true God put him at odds with King Ahab. Ahab was making economic alliances with Israel’s neighbours, especially with the kingdom of Tyre. He did this by marrying Jezebel, princes of Tyre. To further this alliance Ahab began to worship Jezebel’s hometown god, called Baal, and set up centres for the worship of Baal.
With the support of the royal family, worship of Baal spread throughout Israel. Over time Jezebel became the real power in the royal family and she had many of Israel’s prophets killed for opposing her, and Elijah found himself in the middle of this disastrous time.
Elijah was a John the Baptist style prophet. He lived in caves, dressed weird, and “called the authorities out” on how they turned their backs on God and were leading the people away from God.
There are a couple of stories that are Sunday School favourites that feature Elijah. One is the Chariot of Fire story we read earlier today and the other is when Elijah was in a contest with the prophets of Baal (a feet of strength if will of a “My God is bigger than your God” sort of thing). Elijah had two big piles of wood set out, and said that whichever prophet could get their god to light their pile of wood on fire is the better God. To drive his point home, Elijah had his bond fire pile doused in water. In the end God did light Elijah’s wood pile on fire and many people turned back to God and away from Baal when they saw this miracle. The prophets of Baal were executed as traitors and this infuriated Queen Jezebel who then looked to kill Elijah. Elijah escapes and goes into hiding in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.
While in hiding, God visits Elijah and charges him with a couple tasks. He is to anoint a couple of new kings (replacing the corrupt leaders of the day), and he is to anoint his own prophetic successor Elisha.
This roughly brings us up to our Chariot of Fire story today were we see Elijah taken into heaven in a very unique fashion and Elisha becomes the new spiritual leader of Israel. This transferring of spiritual leadership is symbolized in Elisha tearing his own coat and putting on the one Elijah left behind. In some translations it says that “Elisha took up Elijah’s mantle.” Mantle is an old word for cloak, and it is also a word we use as a symbol of leadership. When you pick up the Mantle you are continuing on with a task or cause that someone else began. In a way, everyone in this room has taken up a “Mantle” that someone else has laid down. No one here is the founder of this Church Community, and even then, every church plant is really just a new set of leaders trying to pick up the mantle that the early church left for us so long ago. And this process of picking up the mantle, of raising up new leaders happens again and again in the story of God.
- Share a time when you took up a mantle someone else laid down, a time when you took up leadership responsibilities from someone who came before you.
- As a community, what do you think are some “Mantle’s we need to pick up? How can we be good leaders?
- How do we pick up where those who came before us left off?
- How do we live life in a way that intentionally empowers and prepares future leaders?
I think anytime you find yourself in a position of leadership, it is very important to know that your time in the grand scheme of things is short. A good leader is always preparing the way for themselves to be replaced, they look for opportunities to pass leadership on to the next person in training. We see how important this was in our story for Elisha. The last miracle Elijah does is to strike the river Jordan with his cloak and have it part, and the two prophets cross dryly over to the other side. It is no coincidence that the first miracle Elisha performs is to again strike the Jordan with the same cloak and part the waters.
Looking at how leaders have been raised up in the bible is very important for us as The Commons. We need to pay special attention to these stories, because one of the goals of The Commons is to be a community that raises up leaders.
When we as a community were working through whether we should stay in the space at The Freeway with our previous denomination or whether it was time to move on to a new phase in our journery, the cohort made a list of all the things we valued. These were the things we felt were our mantle. We took that list and we went through each item deciding what we would get to keep and what we would have to let go of depending on if stayed at The Freeway or moved on. Do you know what the straw was that broke the camel’s back? We wanted to be a community that raised up leaders not followers. We wanted to be able to pass on the leadership Mantle over and over again in our community. We wanted to empower people to be good leaders, and we knew that for us to do that it was time for us to move on to a new tribe, that valued grass roots leadership.
Now taking up the Mantle of leadership does not mean everything will be exactly the same from Generation to Generation (or month to month for that matter). Elisha was a very different style of prophet then Elijah. Elisha wasn’t that wild voice in the wilderness, always on the run from the authorities. He lived in a house where Kings and others would come to consult with him. He had a much more respectable societal life then Elijah. Not that he didn’t live up to the role “of calling people” on their misbehaviour; It just seemed to happen in a more holistic way then in Elijah’s day.
Another area where Elisha was different than his predecessor was that he performed way more miracles:
- There is a story where he multiplies a widow’s oil, so she doesn’t run out, no matter how much she uses.
- He raised some dead people back to life.
- He fed 100 people from twenty loaves and some grain.
- He heals some people of leprosy.
- And my personal favourite, he causes an axe head to float.
The axe head notwithstanding, there are a lot of similarities to someone else we read a lot about in the bible, and this got me thinking about connections between Elisha, Elijah and Jesus.
As we have been going through some of these crazy “Old Testament” stories a number of people have commented on how hard it is to speak on these old stories. We at the Commons are very committed to looking at stories in the bible and talking about what they mean for us today in our context in this city. But we find it way easier to see the connections when reading stories that are about Jesus, and not so easy when we read about prophets, wars, killing, and floating axe heads.
As we have been starting to journey with our new tribe as Mennonites, I am hearing a theme over and over again of how the entire bible is to be looked at through the lens of Jesus; God inserting himself into our very human story. Whether that be some crazy event in the old testament like Elijah going up to heaven in a chariot of fire or whether we are reading some really hard thing written by the apostle Paul. We need to take all of these extremes and look at them through the lens of Jesus. That is where God intersects with our own story, that’s where we find the relevance.
To think more about this I want to show you a short film by Jim Henson called “Ripples.” It was created to be showcased at the Montreal Expo way back in 1967.
I think the idea of Ripples is a good thing to keep in mind whenever we read a story outside the Gospels. In this video we were shown a stone tossed into a pond causes waves in the water that spill out in every direction. There were also some images in that video of science (meant to represent the future) and images of history (obviously the past) interlaced with the ripples, reminding us that all events cause ripples that effect things beyond the immediate act of disturbing the waters of time. Time just like everything else is a creation of God, and when God inserted himself as Jesus into our story we can see echoes or ripples of that insertion in both events that took place before, and after Jesus’ time on earth.
I don’t want to get into the philosophy of this, if I was back in University, I’m sure my philosophy professor would have a heyday with this making our brains melt by trying to work through ideas of future events changing past events, compared with past events foreshadowing future events in anticipation of a pivotal moment in history. I can actually feel my brain getting mushy (and leaking out my ears) just saying this stuff right now.
I don’t want to get us wrapped up in that unwinnable debate (I’ll let you in on a little secret, most philosophical debates are completely unwinnable).
What I would like us to think about (keeping the images of ripples in our minds) is where do we see echoes (or ripples) of Jesus and the Gospels in the stories of Elisha & Elijah?
Here are some of the things we came up with:
- Like John the Baptist we have the the Queen seeking to kill the prophet.
- Elisha waiting for Elijah to be taken away is like the garden Gethsemane.
- Crossing the Jordan – Waters part, harkens back to Moses, Joshua, and ahead to Jesus walking on water.
- Chariot of fire like Jesus’ Ascension
- Passing the mantle like John the Baptist and Jesus
- Couldn’t find Elijah’s body, just like when Jesus had risen.
- Elisha will go on to perform many miracles,
This exercise was practice for us today. I would really encourage everyone as they wrestle through these stories for themselves or in preparing a teaching segment for Gathering, to look for the Ripples (or echoes) of Jesus. If we start training ourselves to look for them we will start to see them in stories from the Old Testament, The New Testament, and even in our own story today at The Commons. And this is a very good thing because the Kingdom of God doesn’t just belong to us, it belongs to those who came before us, and also belongs to those that will come after us; the people who will pick up the mantle of the Kingdom and continue to tell a story of how God inserts himself into the middle of our very messy human lives.Please note that the back story in this teaching segment about Elijah and Elisha were taken from Nelson’s Illustrated Dictionary. The Photo at the top of this post is called “Chariot of Fire” and is by Austin Mann Photography. You should check out more of his work here.