Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Passing The Mantle

1st Kings 19:19-21 and 2nd Kings 2:1-14

 Last Sunday we looked at Elijah’s journey to Mt. Sinai and his encounter with God.  God’s instructions to him there were to find and anoint three men, one of whom was Elisha to become his eventual replacement.  In order for God’s purposes to be accomplished among his people there must be a next generation of spiritual leadership.  

 Part of the responsibility of the called is to prepare a next generation to share in God’s calling.  We talked a few months ago about the temptation to make sure the job is done right by doing it yourself.  But there are real limits to that way of thinking.  Who will “do it right” after we have passed from the scene?  

 So Elijah goes to find Elisha and anoint him.  He finds him in his fields, plowing with 12 pairs of oxen.  Right away we learn that Elisha must be from a wealthy family to have so much land that it would require 12 pair of oxen to plow it.  

 Elijah walks up to him, doesn’t say a word, and simply places his cloak (we often say mantle) on Elisha’s shoulders and keeps on going.  Nothing is spoken in this passing because nothing needed to be.  Elisha understood what this meant.

 The cloak was the most important piece of clothing a person owned.  It was the outer garment, typically made of wool.  The inner garment, the tunic, would be made of something more comfortable.  But the cloak was a multi-purpose garment.  It was your coat when it was cold, your poncho when it rained, your blanket at night, your sleeping bag when you were traveling.  

 Prophets wore cloaks that identified them as prophets.  Sometimes they’re called “hairy” garments, but more likely they were animal skins.  We know that in Assyria the prophets wore the skins of lions to identify themselves.  We don’t know if there was a certain skin worn in Israel, except that John the Baptist wore a camel’s skin.  

 Elisha understands the meaning of this.  He knows he is being called into prophetic ministry.  He runs after Elijah and asks, “Let me go and kiss my father and mother goodbye.”  

 Elijah says something along the lines of, “What have I done to you?”  In other words, Elijah is saying to him, “It’s not me you need to answer to.  I didn’t do anything; it was God who called you.”  Calling comes from God, not from people.  It may come through a person.  Elisha’s call came through Elijah.  It may be confirmed by people,

such as the old priest Eli telling Samuel that it was God who was calling him.  But ultimately, calling comes from God, not human beings.  When Elisha was asking to kiss his father, he may have been looking for his father to give his blessing to this calling.  A kiss was often part of a blessing in that culture.  But neither Elijah nor Elisha’s parents could make this calling any more or less valid.  

 So Elisha sacrifices his oxen and roasts the meat over the remains of his plow and feeds it to his workers.  He cuts his ties with his previous life.  He leaves his comfortable life as the son of a wealthy family and goes to become a prophet, owning nothing more than the cloak on his back.  

 In our fall Bible Study, Experiencing God, we’ve been talking a lot about how answering God’s call on our lives requires that we make adjustments.  We have to leave some things behind to follow God’s will for our lives.  Obedience to the call requires commitment and sacrifice.  We can’t stay where we are in life and also go where God wants us at the same time.  In Luke chapter 9, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”  Either we are willing to be molded by God for his service or we aren’t.  The struggle is that most of us want to serve God on our terms, not his.  Or we’re willing to go this far, but not that far.  

 Elisha demonstrates the kind of commitment it requires to become a servant of God.  He becomes Elijah’s assistant and remains that for several years, learning the ways of the prophet.  Eventually the time comes for Elijah to depart and for Elisha to take his place.  

 It begins with a journey.  Elijah was traveling from the town of Gilgal toward Bethel.  Gilgal was in the Judean highlands, about 8 miles from Bethel.  Elijah tells Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has told me to go to Bethel.”  Several times throughout this story, the same formula repeats, Elijah always telling Elisha to stay where he is because it is God’s will for Elijah to go on.  Maybe this is a final test of Elisha’s loyalty.  If it’s God’s will for Elijah to go on, then Elisha will also go on.  He wants to be found inside God’s will.

 First they go from Gilgal to Bethel, then from Bethel down to Jericho, then from Jericho to the other side of the Jordan River.  They are retracing in reverse the entrance of Joshua and the Israelites into the Promised Land hundreds of years earlier.  

 Several times along the way, other prophets from various companies of prophets tell Elisha that Elijah is going to be taken away.  And Elisha knows it.  He is attuned to the will of God and knows what God is planning.

 A side note here:  There were schools or companies of prophets in ancient Israel.  These were places where people who felt God’s calling could go to learn the ways of the prophet from those with more experience.  They were basically Old Testament seminaries.  There is always wisdom to be found in learning from others who have already experienced God’s calling.  

 Elijah asks Elisha, “What can I do for you?”  And Elisha says, “Let me become your successor.”  Literally he says, “Let me have a double portion of your spirit.”  This goes back to the tradition in that culture that the eldest son would receive a double portion of the inheritance.  

 This was not in Elijah’s power to grant.  God had called both of them, and only God could determine who would become the successor to Elijah’s ministry.  But Elijah tells him that the sign would be that if he saw Elijah taken, then he will become his successor. 

 And that’s what happens. Elisha sees Elijah taken.  And Elijah’s cloak is left behind.  Elisha takes it up and goes back to the Jordan.  He does the same miracle that Elijah had done earlier, showing that he has been filled with the same Spirit that Elijah had been.  The succession is complete.

 We don’t wear cloaks anymore.  Or at least most people don’t.  But there is still a very contemporary relevance to the story:  Mantles have to be passed.  Leadership has to be passed from generation to generation.  

 But that isn’t always easy.  Sometimes it becomes a point of contention in churches.  

 Sometimes the mantle-bearers don’t want to let go of them.  They don’t trust the next generation to carry on the work.  Often because the next generation has different ideas of how things should be done.  Sometimes the mantle-bearers pass on the mantle, then turn around and say, “Give it back.  You’re not doing it right!”  It’s been the cause of more than a few church splits when leadership passes from one generation to the next.

 Or sometimes the mantle-receivers are reluctant to pick them up.  Perhaps there is a measure of self-doubt.  “I can’t do what so-and-so did!”  That can be intimidating.  I have some self-doubt about what will happen when the Algonquin Canoe Program passes to my generation.  It’s been going for more than 50 years, and it’s passed through several generations.  And some of the people who have led it have an almost “legendary” status.  I’m intimidated to follow in the footsteps of the leaders who came before me.  

 But ultimately, “Can I do as well as so-and-so?” is the wrong question.  Because it’s not about what we can do; it’s about what God can do through us.  If God could work through Elijah, then he could work through Elisha, and he can work through you and me as well.  

 When we doubt others or when we doubt ourselves as servants of God, we are actually doubting God, not his servants.  Elijah and Elisha were both powerful servants not because of who they were, but because God was working through them.  And he can work in powerful ways through you and I as well, if we allow him to do so.  Don’t be afraid to take up the mantle of service.  God’s power is always sufficient for God’s calling.

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