A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on June 27, 2010.
2 Kings 2:1-18
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” said a young John Kennedy at his inaugural, the first President to be born in the 20th century. With these words, he assumed the mantle of leadership from President Eisenhower, who was twenty-seven years older, and continued the important work of building a nation founded upon the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These words came to mind as I read our text and prepared this sermon. Elijah’s life and ministry were coming to an end. The most revered and beloved prophet of Israel sensed his departure was near and another prophet would take his place.
Following God’s lead, Elijah selected Elisha to be his successor. In 1 Kings 19:19-21, we are told that Elijah went to the field where Elisha was plowing and threw his cloak upon him, symbolizing an exchange of power that would soon occur. Immediately, Elisha made preparations to follow Elijah on the remaining days of his journey.
The final leg of that journey is recorded in 2 Kings 2:1-18. It appears that Elijah made a farewell tour to visit friends because each place he visited was associated with prophets who gathered to study and learn from one another. He went first to Gilgal, about twenty miles north of Jerusalem, and made his way next to Bethel, then Jericho and finally back to the Jordan River. Elisha made this journey with Elijah, even though the older prophet insisted at each stop that it was not necessary.
Near the banks of the Jordan River, the transfer of power took place. Elijah took the cloak that he had cast over Elisha in the field the day he called him and struck the water. The water parted, reminiscent of Moses’ entry into the wilderness after the waters of the Red Sea parted, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.
Once in the wilderness, probably close to where Elijah began his ministry, Elijah asked Elisha if there was any last wish he could grant him. Wisely, Elisha asked for a “double share of his spirit.”
As strange as this may sound, Elisha was not asking for a double portion of Elijah’s power, but the inheritance that would normally be granted to an elder son upon the father’s death. Elisha needed a blessing from Elijah that would let him and all those around him know that he was the true successor to Israel’s finest prophet. This affirmation was crucial to the transfer of power that needed to take place.
Elijah let Elisha know that only God could make that final decision and appoint him heir apparent, but that if he was present when Elijah departed this world, that would indicate that this was God’s will. Elisha did witness Elijah’s sudden and dramatic departure, symbolized by horses pulling a chariot of fire caught up by a whirlwind.
Although stricken with overwhelming grief over the sudden departure of his mentor and friend, Elisha picked up the mantle that had fallen from Elijah’s shoulders and struck the Jordan River. Immediately, the water parted, as it had done for Elijah, and Elisha left the wilderness to begin his prophetic ministry.
What is the message for us today? For me, it is this. It is important that we see our lives in light of those who have gone before and those who will come after us. If we do, I believe it will make a difference in how we live our lives and even how we’ll die.
Recently, I returned to my former church to conduct a wedding. My time there coincided with my six-year-old granddaughter’s last day of first grade. Ellie was excited because, in addition to being the last day of school, it was also going to be Fun Day, a time filled with competitive events on the playground.
I told Ellie that her daddy did the same thing at the end of the school year when he was a student there. When I told her that years ago it was referred to as Field Day, she laughed. “Why did they call it that?” she asked. “Did they go to a farm and play with the cows?” I had no rebuttal.
Most every station on the playground involved putting the kids on teams and having relays. You know how that works. One person receives a baton from a participant in the relay and runs their portion of the race. When they are finished, they pass the baton on to the next person in line.
When they were not running, the kids were jumping up and down, cheering their teammates on. When it was their turn to run, each one took that task seriously and ran with all their might.
What I found most interesting is that no one had to tell the kids to run hard or cheer for their teammates. It was instinctual and contagious. It was also fun to watch!
Our text has a baton-passing-relay-race motif. Elijah ran his portion of the race well, impressively so. To this day, many consider him to be the greatest of all the prophets.
You recall that he and Moses appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Both are pillars of the faith that Jesus professed and practiced.
When Elijah sensed that he was nearing the finish line on his portion of the race, he passed the baton to a younger man by the name of Elisha. There was no doubt in his mind that the race needed to continue, which meant he had to prepare not only for his departure, but for the continuation of the work to which he had been called. Passing the baton was as important as running the race and it is apparent that Elijah didn’t want to drop the baton and interrupt the race. To him, that would have been inexcusable.
What is it time for you to do in the race you are running? Is it time for you to receive the baton from someone who is passing it off to you? Is it time for you to run the race to the best of your ability? Is it time to pass the baton to others and cheer them on?
All three of these come with their own set of challenges, don’t they? As most people get near the starting line, they wonder if they are ready to take the baton and start running the race. Elisha certainly did.
“Grant me a double portion of your spirit,” he told Elijah. He needed to know that Elijah had the same confidence in him to take the baton and run the race as a father would have in his elder son. How this realization must have strengthened his confidence and helped him to step up to the starting line.
Who did this for you? Who told you that they believed in you as you headed off to college, the military or started your first job? Who affirmed you when you got married and started your family? Who helped you to identify the talents and skills you possessed that could be used to make the world a better place?
Who was your Elijah that touched your life in special and powerful ways? Whose voice do you need to hear today because they see in you so much untapped potential?
Likewise, who needs to hear your words of affirmation and receive a blessing from you? What difference would that make as they step up to the line and assume new responsibilites? I encourage you to make that difference.
Running the race comes with another set of challenges, doesn’t it? There are so many distractions we must contend with, including detours, resistance, temptations and fatigue. There is no shortage of reasons to quit the race on any given day. That baton can get very heavy!
Who is dependent upon you running and finishing your portion of the race, though? Who needs you to be mature, responsible, focused and faithful? Who will be adversely affected if you quit?
Can you hear the people who have gone before or those to come after you cheering you on? Do you sense how important it is to them that you finish strong? What would you say to them if you succumbed to the distractions? Give this a lot of thought as you ask God to help you remain in the race to the finish line so you, like Elijah, can hand the baton to someone who is ready to continue the good work you have begun.
The hand-off in a relay race is crucial, isn’t it? It may very well be the most important part. If the hand-off does not go well, neither will the race. Are you struggling with this at this time in your life?
Letting go is not easy, is it? Power, control and authority are addictive and the familiar is very comfortable. This makes it difficult to pass the baton to others who are waiting to run their portion of the race and make their contributions.
Is this a problem you need to address as you are facing retirement, declining health or the need to share responsibility? Are you clutching a baton you need to release? Is it time to pass that baton to others, trust their judgment, cheer them on and be grateful for their willingness to continue the good work you have begun? I hope you will let Elijah inspire you and help you do the right thing. Everybody in the race is hoping that hand-off goes well.