“May you live in interesting times”

The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), Year C.

Track I

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Over the last few years, I have often reflected on the ancient Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. Of the many words one can choose to describe our recent history, of the ones that you can say in church, “interesting” may be the most accurate. As someone who loves history, I had always wondered what living through the great moments of change were like. However, in these past few years, I have decided that I much prefer reading about history than living through it. Whether we like it or not, we are living through interesting times; times of great change where the world we knew and thought we understood has passed away. And as we move further into the future we never expected, we are faced with a question: what kind of world are we going to leave behind when the new generation takes up the mantle?

Despite the interesting nature of our times, our same dilemma is faced by Elijah as he prepares to be swept into heaven. Like all prophets, the weight of history sits heavily on Elijah’s mantle. As a prophet and someone tasked with telling the people God’s will, throughout his story in First and Second Kings Elijah is keenly aware of his place in history, and deeply concerned about what the future holds for the people of Israel. Elijah lived in a time of great political turmoil. According to the biblical account, the kings over Israel and Judah were constantly wavering between being faithful to God and good stewards of God’s people, to falling into the temptations of the world, forgetting God and the people in favor of wealth, war, and all the false gods of the earth. By the time Elijah began his ministry, this cycle of political and religious turmoil had been going on for generations, and Elijah was called by God to break the people out of this cycle and fulfill their covenant of being God’s ambassadors to all nations. Elijah’s career proves to be quite spectacular, not in the sense that he truly succeeds, but more in that the man knew how to put on a spectacle: miraculously duplicating food (I Kings 17), raising the dead (I Kings 17), winning a contest with the priests of Baal by calling down a fire-tornado (I Kings 18), and of course, as a retirement plan, being swept into heaven by chariots of fire (II Kings 2).

Yet for as miraculous and spectacular of a career as a prophet Elijah had, the times he lived through still proved to be interesting. As we saw last week with Elijah losing hope and until he saw God in the still, small voice, even a prophet as great as he struggled with his moment of history. Elijah’s faith was restored not by the grand miracles, but by God’s promise of a successor, Elisha. Despite the undertones from today’s reading that the two men shared a deep bond and affection for one another, I can imagine Elijah being interesting as a mentor, to put it politely. Outside of today’s story, the only other interaction we have between the two is when Elisha is first called. In I Kings 19, Elisha is minding his own business plowing his field when out of nowhere the mantle of history is thrown on him, quite literally. Elijah throws his mantle on him and keeps walking. Elisha has to chase him down to let him know that he will join Elijah, and Elijah tells him “Go back again; for what have I done to you?”. Well Elijah, you did throw a coat on the kid out of nowhere.

Years pass, and even though Elijah has a spectacular career, the times remain interesting. Elijah knows that he is living through a time of great change. He also knows that it is his time to trust in God and his successor, and let that change happen, even without him. That weight of history, that mantle, the mission, it was never his to begin with and it will carry on. The ministry of God will always go on. If there is one thing that Elijah has seen more than anything, it’s that God is always at work, especially in the most interesting of times. It is here that our story picks up, and the focus shifts away from Elijah to the new generation, Elisha. True to his character to the end, the hardened spiritual warrior who defeated the priests of Baal and showed the people the glory of God, walks Elisha through their history in a final test to see if he’s ready to carry the mantle.

They go to Gilgal, the place where the Israelites crossed into the promised land, completing the Exodus (Joshua 4:15-24), and, centuries later, where Israel’s monarchy was established (I Samuel 11:14-15). Then they go to Bethel, a royal sanctuary between the boarder of Israel and Judah, a symbol of the painful fracture of the two kingdoms (I Kings 12:26-33). They go to Jericho, the site of Israel’s national unity through the famous victory God gave them over the city (Joshua 3-6) centuries ago, and the treachery of the present political establishment, who rebuilt the city in spite of the ancient curse. Finally, they end at the river Jordan, where Elijah takes his mantle, and parts the waters as Moses parted the Red Sea so he and Elisha can speak privately. It is in this final moment that the real question is asked: are you ready?

Are we ever ready to live through times as interesting as these? We never asked for any of this, yet here we are trying to make sense of it all and survive this curse. Yet, the funny thing about that ancient Chinese curse, like most ancient Chinese curses recorded in English, its neither ancient nor Chinese. The phrase came from an Englishman in 1936 in response to his own interesting times, after Hitler had broken yet another treaty.[1] As we look back through history, perhaps our moment isn’t as unique and daunting as it may seem. The times have always been interesting, whether today, or standing just across the Jordan with fiery chariots on their way.

Are we ready to face interesting times such as these? Yes. Like Elisha, we have walked with the never-failing succession of prophets and saints. God does not stand still, but through His prophets speaks, moves, and acts in history. As much as we are tried by the temptations and false gods of the earth, God constantly calls us back to righteousness, and the covenant of our Baptism. We too, are God’s ambassadors to all nations. We are ready to carry that mantle because we have been given a mission. And that mission will go on. Whether we are the ones who are worthy to carry that mantle or not, the mission will go on. We have been given Good News, and the task of establishing justice and righteousness on earth. Though it may feel that the future has gotten away from us, the fiery chariots sweeping our sense of security away, the mantle is lying before us. The only question left: will you pick it up?


[1] 1936 March 21, The Yorkshire Post, Lesson of the Crisis: Sir A. Chamberlain’s Review of Events, Quote Page 11, Column 7, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

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