“He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other.” II Kings 2:14
Henry Ford didn’t the invent the car, but once he got started, no one ever made them the same way again. Fats Domino wasn’t the first to play the jazz piano, but once you had heard him, they said, it was like something entirely new. People had dunked a basketball before Michael Jordan stepped onto the court, but now you can’t imagine that feat without him.
Elijah wasn’t the first prophet, either. People had been moved to speak God’s Word before, they had stood fast for the truth when it wasn’t popular. But the mysterious man from Tishbe changed the meaning of prophecy forever.
Elijah had called the people to spiritual renewal and denounced corrupt kings face to face. He worked great miracles of healing and destruction. He had summoned fire from heaven and withheld the rains for three and a half years. God fed Elijah in the wilderness with bread delivered by ravens and revealed to him His glory on the side of Mount Sinai.
Elijah did it all clad in a mantle.His mantle was the symbol of his prophetic office, a rough cloak, made of animal hair. It was the dress of a man of the desert, one who sat lightly to societal compromises and drank in the divine Word unfiltered. He had used the mantle to hide his face from the Presence of God, and it had hung over his shoulders as he healed the sick and cried out against idolatry.
I don’t know that any of us has ever met someone quite like Elijah, but we have all known singular characters. We might assume that a leader as gifted and charismatic as Elijah would stand alone, that the gift of speaking God’s Word comes only rarely, that it would vanish when this legend left the scene. If God had intended it that way, Elijah would have borne that mantle around his shoulders when God assumed him into heaven.
Elijah had redefined prophecy--but his new model was for imitation as well as admiration. Elijah had disciples, and Elisha, the best of them, would walk away from Jordan’s bank with the old prophet’s mantle around his shoulders.
Elijah had operated a series of seminaries, schools of the prophets, training young leaders in God’s law and forming them to direct the faith of the people. He had called Elisha as his successor years before, when the young man was plowing his father’s field. Elijah had thrown the same mantle around his shoulders then. When he knew his death was coming, Elijah made the rounds, visiting the sons of the prophets, with Elisha trailing behind him, hanging on his word until the very end.
As he was preparing to depart, Elisha asked his spiritual father for a double portion, the share of the inheritance due to the firstborn. Elisha wanted to be leader of the spiritual family that Elijah had started. Elijah left behind his mantle as a sign of this inheritance--a physical reminder, a sacrament of God’s power revealed in human words and deeds. As Elijah parted the river with the mantle, so now does Elisha. As Elijah had once spoken, so does Elisha. Elijah worked fourteen miracles, the Scriptures tell us, Elisha twenty-eight.
I don’t know if Elijah’s mantle came to rest on still more shoulders when Elisha’s work was finished, but I’d like to think that it was so. God certainly continued to raise up prophets, generation after generation, to warn of idolatry’s perils and to spread hope in dark days. The desert winds and the beating sun had likely reduced the old cloak to shreds centuries before, but when the last prophet appeared, he too wore a mantle. He was in the desert, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist, the final Elijah pointed out the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
As Elijah went up to heaven, his successor cried out, “the chariot of God and its horseman.” The phrase is obscure, and perhaps he was just describing what he saw, a wagon of light, borne by angels, “the sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” But it’s also possible that Elisha meant it as a reverent description of his master. The chariot was the greatest military technology of the ancient world--the supersonic jet and nuclear missile of its time, a symbol of awe-inducing power. Elisha may be saying that through Elijah, God had come to the world in glorious might. Through Elijah’s words, God’s thoughts were revealed. His deeds declared God’s intentions. Through Elijah, God’s glory was poured out into the world.
Jesus shone brighter than the sun on the mountain, and Elijah stood beside Him, pointing to the goal of his own striving. Elijah may have been the horseman of God’s chariot, but Jesus is still more, God Himself in flesh, ever ancient, ever new. Jesus worked miracles, and spoke truth, but still more--he reconciled humanity to God through the gift of His own life. Jesus blazed with the uncreated light of God’s presence, and His disciples shielded their eyes from a scene that opens a window onto the world to come. There is no question that Jesus is singular in a way Elijah could never be. Jesus is the only-begotten One, who discloses the Father’s glory in a complete and final way.
And yet, Jesus too has disciples. He would raise them up that day to walk down the mountain beside him. In time, He would send them out to share His Gospel, committing to them His power to forgive sins and to call down God’s blessing. He would hand on to them the words and actions that make ordinary water into a bath of new life and bread and wine a means of union with Himself. He would breathe upon them His own Spirit, to encourage, guide and strengthen them in their work, and to rest upon those they would call to continue that work after them.
There are, of course, physical signs of that continuing ministry, like the wonder-working mantle that Elisha took up from His master. The stoles worn by bishops, priests and deacons are signs of that yoke of Christ. They do not themselves work miracles, but they point out a sacred power protected and directed by God Himself, so that His people may receive all things necessary for life in fellowship with Him.
And in another sense, has not Christ given to each of us, to all baptized in His Name, a share in that grace-giving power. He has given to each of us the power to keep His commandments. He has given good news for us to share with friends and family, a word of hope for those in despair. He gives us insight and compassion to feed the hungry and comfort the sick. We all have the same Spirit, and the great company of heaven interceding for us--so that we might reveal God’s purposes to all.
We are in the midst of the church season for taking stock of our inner lives, examining our consciences, as the Exhortation says, “to perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed.” You are invited to confess privately to me on Shrove Tuesday evening, and we will all confess together in the penitential services of Ash Wednesday.
We do well to examine ourselves in light of how much power and strength God has vested in us. We should think over the high privileges of baptism, the grace extended to each of us. I will read through the vows I made at ordination when I prepare my confession this week, and perhaps you could consider reviewing your baptismal promises.
It’s not enough to bring before God our disappointments with the ways we fail to measure up to our own standards. God has made us for deep holiness, lives of clarity and power that reveal His truth, goodness and beauty. He has made us to be “chariots of God and horsemen,” entrusted with life-changing gifts for others. In the grace extended in absolution and renewal in His Holy Spirit, may we find the fulness to become mirrors of His glory.