Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 06/30/2019

Immediately after last week’s part of the Elijah story when he was mostly feeling sorry for himself, the Lord came to him again with three tasks, one of which was to anoint Elisha as his successor. With that, Elisha became Elijah’s disciple and then, in today’s reading, the transfer of power became official when Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. At a very basic level then, this story has to do with the transition of authority and leadership and such transition is important. In the church we have rituals to mark such things, installations they are called as pastoral authority moves to a new individual. Last Sunday I attended such an event as a new pastor, Don Ludemann, was installed at Prince of Peace, Harvey; some of you were present when Bishop Katherine was installed as bishop a couple of years ago at the cathedral in Marquette.

Installations like those two are always impressive and celebratory events, however, neither of them involved the previous pastor or bishop disappearing in a whirlwind into heaven. Our installations are done in good order according to long standing liturgies. In contrast, there is nothing particularly orderly in the move from Elijah to Elisha. Instead we get this story that is beyond reason, unbelievable we might say, a story that refuses any simple explanation. As I mentioned last week though, with the expected return of Elijah, it is a story that has continued to fascinate within the tradition of Judaism, maybe because it does defy explanation. Unbelievable as it is, you can’t help but picture it; it lingers in the imagination.

As Christians, it may be that our best approach to a text like this is to do the same kind of thing, to resist the temptation to want to explain it or explain it away, and instead to simply be amazed by it. In amazement, what you find is that the Elijah story has lingered in Christian imagination as well. Its echoes are found quite clearly in Christian tradition.

One of the reasons I think it’s good to use the semi-continuous Old Testament readings is because they provide an opportunity to hear those echoes of Elijah and of others, and to see how those who wrote the New Testament used Old Testament images and stories as they told the story of Jesus. In particular, in this case, the larger than life character of Elijah can be seen impacting the larger than life characters of John the Baptist and…Jesus.

In the case of John the Baptist, the first connection is Elijah being described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist,” and John described as being “clothed with camels hair with a leather belt around his waist.” That’s a pretty obvious connection. In chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel, when John’s father Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth will have a son, he is told that…the spirit and power of Elijah will go before him, so there’s another obvious connection. More subtle and I think perhaps more interesting is a wilderness connection between Elijah and John.

Throughout the Bible, the untamed wilderness is often where the untamed power, mystery and presence of God are likely to be found. In the Elijah/Elisha story, the two of them crossed the Jordan to the other side, the other side representative of…wilderness. It’s there that Elisha receives his prophetic power just as Elijah had also emerged from the wilderness with prophetic power. Then, after Elijah’s departure in the whirlwind and…empowered by the spirit, Elisha re-crossed the Jordan, symbolically leaving the wilderness and returning to the settled land of the empire where he would continue the prophetic work of Elijah. So…empowerment happens in the wilderness but the work of a prophet is done in the public square most often with words that those in power don’t want to hear.

When the adult John the Baptist is introduced in chapter 3 of Luke, there’s also a contrast between wilderness and empire. First there is a detailed description of the royal structure of the empire including names that are familiar, names like Pontius Pilate and Herod and Annas and Caiphas. That passage concludes with the introduction of John the Baptist but with less detail, simply saying that “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness” so…another prophet receiving wilderness empowerment to proclaim a message that the establishment doesn’t want to hear, another example of Old Testament imagery being used to tell the New Testament story.

It continues with Jesus. The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is another unbelievable, out of time story that it’s best to just be amazed by, but remember, in the telling of it, there on the mountain with Jesus as he is transfigured are Moses and…Elijah. The Transfiguration represents a key moment in Jesus’ identity being revealed and placing Elijah at the scene connects Jesus to the power and authority of the legendary Elijah, power and authority not limited by the usual boundaries of time and reason. Again, wonder and amazement are our best response.

With that, it’s not hard to hear echoes of Elijah in Jesus’ Ascension, yet another unbelievable event. Unlike all the characters that came before him, including the great ancestors of the faith, people like Abraham and Moses, unlike them, Elijah did not die. The end of his earthly life is a continuation of his life in God’s presence as he is swept up in the whirlwind. In similar fashion, Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, continuing his living presence with God. Logic and reason would say that it’s all unbelievable, but again we’re in a realm that goes beyond logic and reason, a realm that calls for amazement.

For me, the best approach to these stories is not to worry about whether or not they represent accurate historical reporting or to make belief in the literal nature of these events a litmus test for faith. More important is to ask what these ascension stories mean; what’s the point?

For me, the point is to say that having ascended, the figures of Elijah and Jesus are not finished. In writing his account of Jesus’ Ascension, Luke uses the Elijah story to make the point that Jesus continues to have a role to play in the life of the world. For both Elijah and Jesus, the focus is not on their departed past, but on the potential of their future. They continue to be part of our understanding of the world. If a literal understanding of these stories helps you to get to that point, that’s fine. If a more poetic, metaphorical understanding helps you to get to that point, that’s fine too.

As I said earlier, the ascension of Elijah in the whirlwind does signify a transfer of power and authority. There’s an echo of such a transfer of power and authority in Jesus’ ascension too. It’s a little bit different though, in that Jesus didn’t appoint an individual successor although to be fair, I guess the Catholic Church would identify Peter as that appointed successor. We would be more inclined to see the church as the collective successor to Jesus, the church empowered by the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost story we heard a few weeks ago, another unbelievable story that invites us into amazement.

However one understands it, what is most important is that we become part of the succession, part of the transfer of power, part of the continuing ministry. Elisha continued the ministry of Elijah; Peter and the early church continued the ministry of Jesus. In our time, we continue that ministry.

We continue in the belief that the ascended Jesus, while not physically present, is truly present in our ministry. When I talk about echoes from the Old Testament into the New Testament, that presence of God might be the most important one. The Lord, the God of the Old Testament, the God revealed in Jesus, has been and continues to be active in the world, not just a God of the past but a God of the future, so in faith, we follow.

I’ve mentioned several stories that I’ve called unbelievable; Elijah being lifted up in the whirlwind, Jesus’ Ascension and Transfiguration as well as Pentecost. Added to that, in today’s reading you have Elijah and Elisha unbelievably striking and parting the waters of the Jordan clearly echoing Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. What it doesn’t take long to see is that throughout the Bible there is a chain of these unbelievable events, with one event or character often echoing one that has come before.

The Bible also includes lots of more conventional stories that we might say have a moral to them; encouragement to be kind and loving and forgiving, things like that. It also includes exhortation to behave or not behave in certain ways; the Galatians text today is evidence of that with one of Paul’s lists of vices and virtues. What we really need though are the unbelievable ones because they are the ones that convey the unbelievable theological truth of a God of grace.

It’s a different kind of unbelievable. I wound up watching the beginning of the National Hockey League draft a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t help but notice how often the adjective “unbelievable” was used in describing the top two picks: unbelievable skating ability, unbelievable stick handling, unbelievable vision, you get the drift. Now of course they didn’t mean “not to be believed,” they meant “extraordinary.” That’s probably a good way to think about these unbelievable Bible stories because…it does take an unbelievable, extraordinary story to convey unbelievable, extraordinary truth.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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