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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/29/2013

I’ve never seen a tornado; I hope I never do.  The one in the Wizard of Oz was scary enough for me.  I remember being a little freaked out when I stayed in a dorm at Indiana University for a basketball coaches clinic years ago and there were signs in the hallway and in the elevator about what to do in case of a tornado.  I’d never seen that before and didn’t really want to know but then there was a pretty bad thunderstorm one night and up on the sixth or seventh floor I was thinking about retreating to that shelter in the basement.  When you see pictures of the destruction a tornado can cause though, like what happened in Oklahoma a while back, it can’t help but create some sense of fear and awe.

I don’t know if the whirlwind that carried Elijah away was a tornado or not, although it must have been something like one.  It doesn’t really matter; the image of Elijah ascending into heaven in a whirlwind accompanied by chariots of fire and horses of fire is memorable and you get the idea that the author wants us to sit up and take notice.  This represents a key event in the sequence of Elijah/Elisha stories and we’re supposed to remember it.

As I’ve said many times, this is not straightforward historical reporting.  It’s what those who study such things call symbolic narrative.  The intent is to create an unforgettable image and with this one you have to say, mission accomplished!  But then, we’re supposed to do more than to just picture the image and say “Boy, that’s awesome!”  That might be the starting point; the image is an attention getter, but as a symbol it should also lead us to ask questions about what’s going on because an image like this has the power to ignite the imagination of faith.

Elijah and Elisha were heroic figures who appeared at a time when faith in the Lord, the God of Israel was threatened so in the books of First and Second Kings they are presented as great defenders of the faith.  We’ve heard a few Elijah stories over the past few weeks, the contest on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the raising of the widow’s son, Naboth’s Vineyard, last week the Lord appearing to Elijah not in wind, earthquake or fire but in a sound of silence.  As the book of Second Kings begins, there’s a transition as prophetic power is being shifted from Elijah to Elisha and that’s today’s reading.

Before moving forward though, let’s back up for a minute.  Despite the fact that some of the first readings we’ve had over the past few weeks have been pretty long, large portions of First Kings have been omitted.  In part that is because a lot of the omitted material is pretty boring, dull and formulaic names and dates:  “In the 26th year of King Asa of Judah, Elah son of Baasha began to reign over Israel in Tirzah; he reigned two years.”  Then you get a list of deeds or misdeeds, sometimes with the king doing what was right in the sight of the Lord, more often doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord.  Then you move on to the next one, “In the 27th year of King Asa of Judah….etc.  Not real interesting, intended primarily to convey the basic history along with the reminder to be good because here’s what happens when you have a bad king.

What’s interesting though is that all of a sudden with no introduction or explanation, in the midst of this rather tedious and formulaic recital of names and dates and actions, you get “Now Elijah the Tishbite…” and we’re off into this different sequence of stories that we’ve heard over the past few weeks about this legendary character.  There’s no effort to explain who Elijah is or anything about where he came from or what his credentials are, just all of a sudden he’s there as the great defender and spokesman of the Lord.

What that means is that in the middle of what you might call the official history of the period, which is the history of the rich and powerful, the leaders, in the middle of that you get these other stories; so it’s as if those who put this stuff together said, all of that’s fine, all that stuff about King Whosey and Whatsis doing good and evil; that’s all fine, but that’s not where you’re going to find real truth.  Real truth is going to come from characters like Elijah and Elisha, figures without past or portfolio who are outside of the usual power structures.  All those other people had a certain kind of power, the kind that the world pays attention to and is impressed by, but the power to transform life is found elsewhere.

And so the writers give us this alternative history, an alternative that conveys a different kind of truth, an alternative that really started back with Abraham and Sarah and which continues through Moses and Elijah and the prophets into the New Testament with Jesus.   As you read through the Bible this is a theme that is always there running beneath the surface, appearing more prominently now and then in characters like Elijah and Elisha.

Elijah especially becomes part of this alternative history and the image of him disappearing in the whirlwind was a dramatic and memorable way to carry his story into the future.  Like I said, I think this image of his mysterious departure is intended to get our attention and to raise questions about what it means.  High on the list of what is means is the possibility and expectation of Elijah’s return.  He didn’t die, so he could come back.  Elijah becomes a representative of hope for the future, hope for God’s future, hope that isn’t tied to the usual arrangement of things.  So, for example when Jews celebrate the Passover meal an extra chair is set at the table in hope and anticipation of Elijah’s return.  If he shows up, there will be place for him.

But Elijah also plays a significant role in Christian tradition, more than you might realize, still as a messenger and image of hope with Luke’s gospel making  the Elijah connection a particular emphasis.  At the beginning when Luke announces the coming of John the Baptist an angel tells father Zechariah that the spirit and power of Elijah will go before John.  So right away, with the mention of Elijah there is a hint that this is not ordinary history.  Luke always mentions the people who supposedly were in charge, “In the days of King Herod,” “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.”   Luke pays his respects, but with the mention of Elijah Luke also says, “What I’m about to tell you is different.”

It’s even more dramatic when Luke tells about the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”  Luke’s got all the prominent political and religious names in there; he pays his respects but then the next phrase is, “…the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” 

The word of God came to John.  It’s like Luke dismisses all those previously mentioned; the word of God didn’t come to them.  Conventional history is going to be interrupted by the strange character of John the Baptist just like it was interrupted by Elijah.  Of course the pattern continues with Jesus, another figure from outside the halls of power, another figure identified with Elijah as in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?” you get  “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah,” and so forth. 

The point is that the pattern of this alternative story continues and it always will.  Another part of today’s reading was the passing of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha.  Even though Elijah was gone the word of God would continue to be heard, this alternative, under the surface history of hope would go on, told by and lived out through unlikely characters.

It’s a good thing to remember living as we do in a time when there often doesn’t seem to be much reason for hope; it can seem like as a culture and as a society that we’ve pushed the self-destruct button and it can’t be reset.  This week we celebrate the Fourth of July and think about some of the great people and events of our national history while we live in what sometimes feels like the decline and fall of the empire.

Which makes it a time to think about the alternative history, to remember people like Elijah and Elisha and John the Baptist and Jesus who brought hope to people not much different than us.  In Jesus we have the truth that God embraced this world as broken and messed up as it can be, and he won’t let it go.  That alternative, undercurrent of history still flows.  The voices of its prophets are still heard and interpreted through the church and new prophets will emerge and their voices will be heard.  I believe that; it may seem like foolish hope, it may not seem very likely based on what you see going on, but I believe it because the Bible tells me it’s true.

If my hope depended on the government and politicians to change things I wouldn’t have much.  But my hope is in the God revealed in Jesus, a God who does new things, surprising things, things that those who trust only in traditional history say are impossible.  I have hope because I believe in God, the God of the whirlwind, the God revealed in Jesus, a God who even brings new life out of death.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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