Posted 9 days ago ago by Scott Huie
Sermon Series: “Saying Good-Bye Part 1: Letting Go”
2 Kings 2:1-12
Emmanuel Presbyterian Church
October 6th 2019
Quick. Who is the only Biblical character never to die? No, it’s not Jesus. It’s Elijah (and perhaps Enoch too). This well-known passage from 2 Kings recounts the absolutely incredible and even mysterious taking of the prophet by God into heaven. It is done by no ordinary mode of transport. In the presence of his successor Elisha, as the text tells us, Elijah is transported into the sky through a whirlwind aboard a horse-drawn chariot of fire. Such vivid imagery with high-powered pyrotechnics would make for a great Hollywood movie scene indeed!
What do we make of such mysterious high drama and intrigue? Can we get out of this passage more than just interesting Bible trivia or more than just riveting entertainment that has us on the edge of our seats? I surely hope so. This episode is one of transition. This scene brings an end to the tremendous prophetic life of this larger-than-life figure in the lore of Israel. The gavel of authority is now being transferred from Elijah to his successor Elisha.
And yes, Elisha had some big shoes to fill. His mentor, Elijah, was a mighty man of God—up there with Moses and David as the preeminent figures in the Old Testament. After all, Elijah had earlier by God’s power brought a small boy back to life. Elijah had confronted more than one evil king and destabilized their power. Elijah had even stood toe-to-toe with the prophets of the goddess Baal to proclaim the truth of the God of Israel.
You could easily call Elijah the premiere prophet of the Old Testament. And so Elisha was like Dickie Simpkins. You know Dickie Simpkins, don’t you? He was shooting guard of the Chicago Bulls who had the task of replacing the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. Can you imagine being Dickie Simpkins? Can you imagine being Elisha having to fill the shoes of the Michael Jordan of the Old Testament?
And so when the passage tips us, the reader, to the impending end of Elijah’s earthly life, we know that as the two prophets journey together, Elisha’s insides must have surely been churning. He is scared. He doesn’t want to let go. Elisha cannot or will not do as he is told, to no longer tag along, to no longer accompany Elijah as Elijah heads for the end of his earthly existence. They journey from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan, and along the way three times the master commands the disciple to remain behind. Three times the disciple refuses. In these three responses, Elisha uses the Hebrew term, “zeb,” that is, abandon. It is as though abandonment is on the mind of Elisha, so that he clings dependently on Elijah. Elisha simply does not want to let go.
I think we all can easily relate to that feeling: not wanting to let go. I know I do. I hate change. I am a creature of habit. But if you really think about it, life is essentially a series of letting-go and dealing with change. From the womb to the tomb, from the beginning of life to the end, we are confronted by the need to let go. At birth, it’s as if we cling to the womb not wanting to come out into the big, bad unknown world causing Mom a whole lot of pain as she pushes. When we get out, the letting-go’s continue. Soon you must let go of that good, ol’ mother’s milk and move on to cow’s milk. Soon we must let go of diapers and then pull-ups as we graduate to real underpants. It’s not long before we come to the first day of school and must let go a little bit of home and family. I’ll never forget Mom dropping me off at Winnona Park Elementary School on the first day of kindergarten. I was furiously fighting off the tears as she left, trying to be a big boy and yet fearful of what the future held.
As we grow, peer relationships grow more important. We fall in love, perhaps more than once. And often we reach a point in a relationship where we must let go. I’ll never forget Penny Holcolm. I loved that young woman with all my heart. We became soul mates. I really thought that she was the woman for me, God’s gift. But then one day, she ended it. She broke up with me. I was devastated. I did not want to let go. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. This was the woman I thought I was going to marry. It took me months to get over her and really let her go. But soon I started second grade and found another girlfriend.
Letting go. There is indeed pain in such an act. Moving away from a community you’ve become attached to can indeed be a gut-wrenching experience. You loved the way things used to be: your old friends, your home, your community, your work. You hate having to say good-bye and going to a place where you virtually know no one.
Letting go. We all go through it. Sometimes there’s a need to let go of a certain lifestyle. After that recent visit to the doctor, you realize that you better do something quick, change your ways, and adopt a new eating and working regimen or a stroke or heart attack is virtually a sure thing.
Sometimes we need to let go of family members: our parents or children, though we simply want to hold on. You’re walking down the aisle with your daughter dressed in white holding your arm. As so many are watching, you in your tuxedo are a proud father as you smile from ear-to-ear. On the inside, however, part of you is crying—you don’t want to let go of your little girl.
Sometimes we simply need to let go of a phase in life, like our childhood. We need to grow up a little, become responsible, maybe even move out of the house. College is just around the corner. You’re feigning excitement on the outside, but inside you’re scared to death of leaving home. And before coming here to Emmanuel, I wsa a youth pastor for 22 years. Some might say that youth pastors that stayed that long simply don’t want to grow up! They don’t want to let go!
And perhaps the toughest letting go of all is saying our final good-byes to dear ones who die. It’s been a couple years now. The ashes of your late husband still sit on the fireplace mantelpiece. You remember his sitting next to you at the breakfast table as if it were yesterday. The pain, the loneliness just won’t go away. You struggle just to get out of bed each morning. You still can’t let him go.
Even good Presbyterian worship in some ways is about letting go—letting go of our sins. After all, that is what repentance is: letting go of our sins and beginning anew, as we do week in and week out in worship.
Have you ever noticed how churches often have a hard time letting go? In fact, we’re notorious for clinging obsessively to the past. Now don’t get me wrong: traditions are a good thing, especially those built on a solid Biblical foundation. But an unhealthy obsession with tradition for the mere sake of tradition can be suffocating. You do know the seven words of a dying church, don’t you? “We haven’t done it that way before.”
Letting go is a profound reality throughout our lives. Sometimes, it is an easy thing to do, even exciting and invigorating, but more often than not, it is difficult. If you think about it, psycho-therapy is about learning to let go—of gaining the wherewithal to release those deep-seated emotions that go way back usually and tear us apart on the inside. The pain, the abuse, the disappointment when we were younger, we just can’t let it go. But through good therapy, we can begin the process of releasing our grip and gaining a fresh start.
For the last three years I have cherished my time with you as your interim pastor, but my time is up. It hurts to leave, as I am leaving people I love and work I cherish. While I believe that this is a God thing, if I am honest, there is also a little fear and a smidgen of trepidation as well, especially I face the unknown.
Letting Go. Why do we not like letting go? Why do we so often clutch so frantically to the past? I suppose, because letting go can be so painful. It can even be bloody. It upsets the security of the known world and causes us to fall into the unknown that tomorrow brings. And so we hang on, clutch our yesterdays like Linus from the Charlie Borwn Peanuts cartoon clutches his blanket. We refuse to release our grip.
The prophet Elisha definitely does not want to let go. Perhaps he is reconciled to the loss of his master Elijah but wants to delay the loss as long as possible. As they travel together with a company of prophets, suddenly they pull away from the crowd as they come to the Jordan river. Miraculously, the river opens up, reminiscent of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Elijah and Elisha pass through alone. It’s now time to say good-bye.
Elisha has one last request, an appropriate one. He asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah responds with as much assurance as he can give, only his power to reassure is limited. The spirit is not his to guarantee. The most Elijah can do is to offer a chance for the spirit, and a test of it—if Elisha sees the “taking” of Elijah.
Finally, while the two are walking and talking, the “taking” of Elijah is enacted and Elisha does see it. It is an event of wonder unrivaled in the Bible. With the sudden appearance of a chariot and horses of fire, Elijah is taken up into heaven through a whirlwind. Elisha watches this strange event and cries out. It is a cry of bereavement, and Elisha is now confronted by the abandonment he has tried so hard to avoid.
But I am convinced his cry is also one of devotion and celebration. Elisha knows that Elijah has been and continues to be the power of Israel, the one who stands outside royal power, and yet possesses power for life. And yes, Elisha now knows that he has been granted his wish of gaining the spirit of Elijah from God. As the text continues past our reading, Elisha returns down the mountain. The company of prophets bow down to Elisha as they had previously done many times to Elijah. The rite of passage is now complete, and Elisha becomes a prophetic legend in his own right. Elisha is now beginning, as the saying goes, to learn to “let go and let God.”
Elisha’s example indeed has power for us today, for we too are called to let go and let God. For us Christians, not letting go simply will not do. Did you get that? That was one of those double negatives, so let me repeat it to make sure that you get it: not letting go simply will not do! You are commanded to let go. Not invited—commanded. “Follow me.” Following someone or something inherently means we must let go of something. And letting go is a risky thing, for you cannot be certain where it will lead. It’s also a painful thing, letting go—of a person, a job, a place, a phase of life.
And yet we can rest assured that as we let go in our journeys, we do so in the tracks of the one who laid aside his divine glory to clothe himself in our flesh, let go of Nazareth and his mother and earthly father, the hill of transfiguration and the garden of Gethsemane, the sinners he had touched with his forgiveness and healing, and that mixed-up group of disciples. Jesus even let go of the very miracle of being alive.
The thrilling thing, the comforting thing, is that we too, as did Elisha, as did Jesus, let go for a purpose. It is not an end in itself. We let go of yesterday only because by letting go, at the same time we reach out into the future that God has in store for us and we grow in Jesus Christ. We grow in loving communion with God. We let go because we are held in the palm of the One who will not let us go.
And so, my friends, whatever letting go you and I are in the midst of right now, know that as you go, Christ has gone before you to prepare the way. And know with great assurance that as you let go, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.