Mantles of Change

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

I’m going to share something that I don’t think I’ve ever shared from a pulpit before. As much as I have been preaching from a pulpit for two decades now, I still do get nervous about it. In fact, I like to say that if I’m not nervous about preaching on a Sunday morning, then I have something to be nervous about. That much is true, and I’m very much open about sharing that, but something I’ve never really shared from a pulpit is that I do occasionally get anxiety dreams about not being ready to lead worship. I remember that my Dad would talk about his anxiety dreams when it came to teaching, and I know I’m not the only one.

Quite often the themes that have come up is that I’ve forgotten my sermon notes, when the service has already started, or that I’m not dressed appropriately and I can’t find my robe. I remember having one years ago, where the platform behind the pulpit was shaped like a dome, and I kept sliding off of it. These aren’t nightmares, but I have to say, waking up to realize that it was merely a dream is both welcome relief, but truthfully it helps me focus. In my career so far, I’ve never had a waking version of my anxiety dreams… and this has even included worship services that have had thunderstorms so fierce that all power has been lost in the sanctuary, and people were more distracted by the startled bats that were flying around.

I think the most common cause of anxiety when it comes to performing a given task is that we feel that we might not be up for it. We want so much for things to go right, that our brains work overtime on what could go wrong. It’s part of being human, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but if we’re not careful it can consume us, and we miss a very important piece to this.

There’s a story buried in the second book of Kings that maybe gives us some insight into worry and anxiety. We have Elijah being carried up to heaven, leaving his successor – Elisha- to take up the mantle as the prophet of God in a difficult time. I would like to think that I’ve helped us to identify with Elijah’s human side, about his own self-doubt and struggles with faith… but by the time that we encounter this legendary prophet in this morning’s story, he seems to have stepped well out from our own experience… and we might have a much harder time relating to him.

…but truthfully, it’s Elisha that needs our attention today. Elisha is the successor to this great prophet, but even at the point where the mantle is passed to him, he is having his own anxieties about the task ahead. Although in his case, his anxiety dream seems to be a living one. Even with all the mentoring and preparation that Elijah had given him, he doesn’t feel ready, and that’s what today’s story focuses on.

The stories of Elijah and Elisha are little gems scattered throughout 1st and 2nd Kings, a pair of books that would otherwise give a dry analysis as to how good or how bad a given King of Israel was. They usually weren’t kind. These are in many ways fun, entertaining stories that are largely short and easy to remember. There’s a reason that Jesus is compared to Elijah, rather than any of the prophets who have books named after them.

In this story, it is a rather fantastic telling of the death of Elijah… complete with an image of him being carried up into heaven in a chariot of fire in a great whirlwind. Rather impressive… but the story is more about Elisha, and his anxieties around not being ready for assuming the mantle of prophet.

The story we heard this morning skips a few verses that has Elisha seemingly following Elijah around like a lost puppy. They move from one place to another, and Elijah keeps saying to his student, “stay here” –yet sensing that something was up, Elisha refuses to leave his mentor. Trying to stay with him and hold on to him. Elisha’s anxiety rises, as it becomes increasingly obvious that these were Elijah’s last moments with him.

The anxiety shows up in a few places.

  • Elisha being rather hard-headed in refusing to stay behind as Elijah makes his final pilgrimage.
  • Elisha asking Elijah for a “double-share” of his Spirit.
    1. This bit may seem a little bit odd, but it does make sense. In this culture first-born of a household was expected to receive a “double share” of the inheritance from their father when they died. The double-share was largely granted, because the firstborn was expected to be the one who carried the family tradition forward. It was appropriate for Elisha, but it also displays his own anxiety about being able to follow in his mentor’s footsteps.
  • When Elijah is taken away, Elisha displays his grief openly. Crying out, tearing his clothes.
  • Lastly he picks up the mantle, and sorrowfully returns to the river… striking the water, but seemingly needing to do it a second time.

This last part of the story is where Elisha makes the connection, and begins to learn a lesson that I think all of us need to. After all this anxiety that he has experienced over not being ready for the task that has now fallen to him, he is reminded that he’s not alone in this. Yes, Elijah is gone, but he is still learning… but whatever power Elijah had been seen to wield was not his, but God’s. When he remembers that his work is ultimately in God’s hands, it gives him the encouragement that begins to reduce that level of anxiety.  When we encounter Elisha in stories later on, he’s downright cool about it, and begins developing his own style, trusting that ultimately God is the one who draws the good out of these experiences.

I think all of us will find ourselves amidst anxious moments, where we confront our own self-doubt about our own abilities. Those anxiety dreams that all of us have remind us of our own humanity… but we need to remember that people like Elisha were also human, complete with their own anxieties and self-doubts. It is not helpful to put these people, or anyone for that matter, up on a pedestal, because they were just as human as you and I are. The difference is, at one point, they were able to hand over their anxieties to God. Not to let them go, but to allow God to be with them in those moments of stress, and to help them through those moments. For you and I, maybe that’s what we need to remember. If a great prophet like Elisha can have those anxious moments about not feeling ready, then why should we beat ourselves up about our own fears and anxieties? The real trick is to not let them get the better of us, and trusting that God is with us in those moments is one big step towards that.