Elisha’s Extreme Makeover
In 2003 a new show premiered called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In this series that just ended its 10 year run on ABC, deserving families were chosen to have their homes torn down and rebuilt into something new over the course of 7 days. As the cameras rolled, properties were transformed from the sometimes uninhabitable or unsafe to beautiful and functional. As Ty Pennington, the host of the show, and his crew called out “Move that bus!” the family caught their first glimpse of their new home. Often there were tears of joy and surprise. As we continue to watch, we realize that this makeover has not only changed the houses, but also transformed the lives of those who built and lived in them.
Transformation is an interesting process. Sometimes it happens suddenly – like an entire house being re-built in a week, and sometimes it happens over time. The families who no longer had to worry about living in fear that their home would make them sick from mold, or worry about a disabled child who could not move around freely because the house was not accessible, were changed over time. They eventually reached a place where rather than living fearful lives wondering what would happen next, they were free from constant anxiety. While the physical transformation took 7 days, the spiritual and emotional took longer.
Today’s readings are of a familiar transformation – -at least the New Testament reading is. Each year on the Sunday before Lent we remember an event in Jesus’ life called the Transfiguration. Jesus goes up to the mountain where he is changed before the eyes of Peter, James and John. His clothes become dazzling white, and they know that they will never be the same. As Jesus is shining in the sun, Elijah and Moses appear, and Peter offers to build them dwelling places so that they could stay on the mountain forever. In this account we see parallels between the lives of Jesus and Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. In Jesus, Elijah, and Elisha, we see individuals who were transformed into something new by God. They were called to be prophets; to enter into reality and relationships with God’s people and to love them enough to tell them the truth about their condition. In order to do this, the three had to depend on God’s mercy and grace.
In our reading for today, we see the transition of leadership from the prophet Elijah to the prophet Elisha. Elijah’s ministry begins in 1 Kings. Reading through that book, we see that he was indeed a prophet who communicated the message of God to the people. He has lived a long life. The first thing we are told today is that it is almost done – the Lord is about to take Elijah up into a whirlwind. Elijah was not alone in his ministry. He was accompanied by his student and servant Elisha. Elisha and Elijah traveled together – as Elisha learned from Elijah. As Elijah’s time on earth draws to a close, Elisha is put into a place where he will continue the prophetic work of Elijah. The student becomes the teacher, and the cycle continues.
On this Sunday when we think about being transformed, we recognize that Elisha was transformed on his journey, just as Jesus was transformed. Seeing their transformations allows us the space to see how God is at work transforming us. Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus were all transformed by their journey, in a community, and through their vulnerability as they looked to God.
It can sometimes feel clichéd to say that we are all on a journey, and that we will all be different when we reach the end than when we began, but like most clichés, there is a bit of truth to the statement. The word “journey” can conjure up images of traveling from point A to point B physically – such as when we enter a destination into our GPS and head out on a road trip. Thinking about journeys can also have us reflecting on our own lives, and our destination. How often do we hear “it’s about the journey, not the destination”? It is on the way that we are called to allow God to enter into our lives and change us, direct us to where our journey will end. Elisha was changed along his journey. He and Elijah wandered through the desert, stopping first in Gilgal, the place the Israelites camped after crossing the Jordan River, then to Bethel, the sacred spot where Jacob dreamed of angels. Next they went Jericho, the site of the Israelite’s famous battle, and finally onto the Jordan River. These significant places were not the site of Elisha’s transformation from student to leader. That transformation happens at an in-between spot, in the middle of the desert, between places. Elisha’s pivotal moment occurs not in a scheduled time at a scheduled stop, but as part of the journey. As we journey, how are we being open to God at work in us as people, and as a community of faith?
It is not just the journey that transforms Elisha, but also the company. Elijah gives him three opportunities to leave and not have to witness Elijah’s departure. Three times Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here for the Lord has sent me to… Betehl, Jericho, the Jordan.” And, three times Elisha says, “No. As you live and as the Lord lives, I will not leave you.” He is persistent and committed to seeing this journey to its end. A company of prophets says to Elisha, “You know he is leaving today, right?” and Elisha answers, “Yes. Be silent.” Three times, in three places, prophets say to Elisha, “he won’t always be here – today is the day your life changes” and Elisha hears their words. Perhaps he has to hear the words multiple times – -if he is being transformed on the journey, then the words will sound different to him each time he hears them. In Bethel, perhaps they are a warning. In Jericho, perhaps they sound like an opportunity to soak up all of what his teacher has to offer, and by the Jordan, perhaps they are lament. How often do we hear the same passages of scripture over and over again, and receive them differently depending on what is happening in our own lives? Elisha knows that he will not receive what he needs for his ongoing ministry until he reaches the end of Elijah’s journey, and so he stays. While we may think of prophets as lonely, solitary figures, that is often not the case. Elijah and Elisha are “bound to each other, to the larger band of prophets, and their families”. It is often the community of faith that equips us for our journey, through teaching, preaching, and support. We gather in community to learn and worship and we come to be changed. We come and acknowledge that if we will allow God to work in us, we will be transformed into something new. Elijah and Elisha travel to the banks of the Jordan River, accompanied by fifty prophets. The prophets keep their distance as Elijah strikes the water with his mantle and the waters part. They are there as witnesses and as support. When Elijah is taken away, the community is silent – they do not say anything, but are there to support Elisha on the next stage of his journey. They witness God at work in Elisha, and support that transformation. Elijah and Elisha are part of a larger community. Jesus also was surrounded by a community in his ministry – he had disciples, friends, and followers. He does not make his journey alone – even to the cross. Jesus shows his followers and his community that he will have to fully rely on God, just as Elisha will have to have that same reliance on his journey.
As important as the role of the community is in helping us see and articulate our transformations, there is also a space for transformation in vulnerability. Being vulnerable is being open, exposed and susceptible. The dictionary defines it as “being open to attack.” The vulnerability we show during times of transformation is not a negative kind of vulnerability. We are not open in fear, lonely, or exposed to the world. The vulnerability we participate in as we are on our journey is one of being open, listening, and being exposed to the presence of God. It is being sensitive to hearing God’s word to us, and susceptible to following it.
Elisha is vulnerable here. He has to open himself up to receive the work that God is doing in him to be able to watch Elijah ascend. Elijah has to admit that he is not capable of completing his transformation, but that God will complete it. In being open and vulnerable, these two are exposed to whatever work God may do in them. In Elisha’s request to be the rightful heir of Elijah’s work we see some of what it means to be the heir of Elijah – a willingness to do more than similar miracles. As David Lose describes it, to be the heir of Elijah is to “go wherever the prophet goes, to bear the same burdens, to risk the same hardship, and to venture into times of solitariness and solidarity in order to receive, and ultimately bear a word of God.” And we see some of Jesus’s story here too. Jesus had to completely trust God as he came down off the mountain and headed to Jerusalem to bear the word God had given him. He had to completely trust God as he knew he would be betrayed, made to suffer, and put to death.
It is in the quiet moments that we see the vulnerability of Elisha and Jesus. It is in the stillness, when they were at their most vulnerable that God filled them. It was when they were quiet that they encountered God. On Mount Horeb, Elijah encounters God not in a cacophony of speech, but in sheer silence. In 1 Kings 19:11 Elijah is summoned to the mountain to see God as God passes by. “There was a great wind, so strong it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks into pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah emerges from the cave where he has been hiding and stands in the silence – exposed, disappointed, vulnerable, waiting to experience the Lord. His face is wrapped in his mantle, and it is in the silence that he hears the voice of the Lord break through, sending him to Elisha. It is when Jesus went alone to pray that he heard God clearly in the silence, and when he was at his most vulnerable – beaten, stripped, and hanging from the cross that God spoke the loudest to him.
In our vulnerability we may have no other option than to depend on the grace, mercy, and care of God to bring us through. No matter what the community says, no matter where the journey has taken us, part of transformation is being vulnerable before God and allowing God to be at work. Where are we vulnerable and dependent on God? Are we vulnerable as we try new things in new times and with new people? Do you seek to find your specific place in your family, in the world, or here? To put your heart’s desire to the best use? How is God Part of your ongoing transformation? What is God transforming you into?
It can be hard to be transformed. God leads us to places we did not want to venture, and shows us things we do not want to see. Elisha never wanted to see his friend pulled to heaven in a whirlwind while a chariot of fire drawn by horses passed between them. He had to depend on the grace of God to be confident enough to pick up Elijah’s fallen mantle and claim it as his own. Elisha picks up the mantle and strikes the water. The river parts, and just as his predecessor did, he crosses the river. The community who was part of his transformation declares that the spirit of Elijah rests in Elisha now. Without being open to God’s mercy and grace, this would not have been possible for Elisha.
Author Ralph Ellison said, “It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.” When we commit to allowing God to transform us, we not only make the deep commitment to change, but know that we will grow as well. In the end, when we commit to be the people called Christians, we commit to opening ourselves up to be changed. We agree to be transformed on the journey. Perhaps transformation happens in a moment, in a in the cacophony of a whirlwind. Perhaps it happens gradually over time. To be strong in our faith, to be one who follows Christ, is to be immersed in ways we are continually being shaped and changed and to see the mercy and care of God in the process. May we continue on this journey together, being vulnerable and open to the transformation God is causing in each of us, as we rely on God’s grace and care to see us through. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
Feb. 19, 2012