In the Spirit of Elijah

8th Sunday after Pentecost 

II Kings 2:15-3:20

After, against, among, around. How I admire / prepositions, small as they are, nothing / but safety pins, their lives given to / connecting.  They are paid help, / maids in black uniforms who pass / hors d’oeuvres.  Or better, they’re the joy / that leaps between us when we get to / know them.  Without connection, what / can survive? … If I could, I would / make prepositions the stars of grammar, / like the star which traveled the cobalt sky / that night sweet Jesus lay in His cradle, / pulling the wise and devious kings / toward Bethlehem, and us behind them, / trekking from the rim of history toward Him.” [Jeanne Murray Walker, Connections]

In the literary world of poet Jeanne Murray Walker, prepositions would be king!  In her imagination, language and people would come unhinged without their reign.  In the world of the Bible, we might say that the prophets are the prepositions.

The prophets of old, and the preachers of the Gospel since the Advent of our King, we are like Jeanne Murray Walker’s safety pins, lives given to connecting.  We prophets and preachers are the maids in black uniforms passing the hors d’oeuvres, although in our own hearts, we know the joys and sorrows of leaping between God and His people.

Oh…but some prophets and preachers in history have been such splendid prepositions, splashing across time—astride, throughout, betwixt and between, over-against, notwithstanding.  Why, just to say those prepositions is like the taste of fine wine on the tongue, pungent and ripe with deep meaning.  And then…then…there are those utilitarian prepositions—at, but, of—monosyllabic blips and beeps that serve more like the grease for the industrious gears of nouns and pronouns.

In the world of 9th Century B.C. Israel, Elijah the prophet had blazed astride the nation, hurling God’s Word betwixt and between the Almighty and a rebellious people.  He stood over-against them, and yet, his fiery career notwithstanding, Elijah embodied God’s favor throughout.  Wow!  What a connection!

So…after the departure of his fiery mentor, Elisha must have felt like one of those bland prepositions—but, next, below—the runner-up, the also-ran, the under-study.

In history, Elijah gets to be like the one who served up hors d’oeuvres with exotic French sounding names!  Elisha is remembered, if at all, for serving up Cheez Whiz on a Ritz.

Ah…but never underestimate the power of the lowly prepositions in, with, for.  The full weight of the Gospel is served to us on such Ritz crackers.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ for us, Jesus Christ with us, Jesus Christ in us.  The very riches of heaven are served up by such lowly prepositions.  And Elisha does the same for Israel.

If our text is any indication, it was not easy at all to follow Elijah, even if Elisha did receive a double portion of Elijah’s Spirit…that would be the Holy Spirit.  No, it wasn’t easy at all.

V15, Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him [Elisha] opposite them, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. 16 And they said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men.  Please let them go and seek your master.  It may be that the Spirit of the LORD has caught him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley.”  Elisha knows better.  He knows Elijah is now with God.  So he says, “Don’t bother.”

V17, But when they urged him till he was ashamed…  “That’s cold, Elisha!  Don’t you care what happened to him?  Maybe he’s lying in a ditch somewhere all beat up from the whirlwind.  There’s a chance the whirlwind dropped him somewhere else alive.  Don’t you want to find out?  Don’t you want to be sure?  Don’t you care?  What kind of man are you?”  Oh, they could have easily piled on the guilt.  Guilt is a powerful motivator.

So, v17, at last Elisha says, “Go.”  They go, for three days, and, of course, they find nothing.  V18, “Told ya so,” Elisha mutters.  “Can’t a guy get any respect?”

And then there’s this thing with the kids.  This translation, v23, says “some small boys” but the words can easily be translated to mean a gang of hoodlums, too.  Elisha is at Bethel, making his north to Samaria.  …while he was going up on the way, some small boys [a gang of youths] came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead!  Go up, you baldhead!”  He’s probably wishing he had gone along with Elijah in that chariot!  First the other prophets doubt his sincerity, now these bratty delinquents diss his looks.

V24, And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.  “That’s harsh, Elisha!  What? No ‘turning the other cheek’?  Harsh, Elisha!  What kind of prophet are you?  We were better off with Elijah…now we’re stuck with this guy.” No…Elisha gets no respect at all.

It’s like that saying, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown.”  Jesus said that.  He also said, “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking and you say he has a demon.  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say He is glutton and a drunkard.”  In other words, to borrow from King Solomon, Better to meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs, than a fool in his folly!  When people are turned against God and His servants, all you can expect is a boatload of grief!  Look what they ended up doing to John the Baptist.  Look what we did to Jesus!

Yet, this is the same Jesus who, in our Gospel Reading today, has compassion on the crowd, because they are like sheep without a shepherd.  It’s not that the crowd is particularly worthy of Jesus’ compassion.  In fact, as St. John records the feeding of the 5000, this crowd gets more and more selfish, demanding, and dismissive of Jesus before it’s all finished.  But even the undeserving are the recipients of Jesus’ compassion, as ultimately even the most sinful are the ones for whom He went to His redemptive death on the cross.

This hinted at in Elisha.  V19ff, while Elisha was back in Jericho, enduring the scorn and disrespect of his fellow prophets, the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20 He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21 Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it… 

Now some commentators, who can’t see the forest for the trees, get all tied up in knots about this.  They turn Elisha into a mineralogist who knows the exact sort of compound to “cure” the water supply.  But it’s not the salt or Elisha which heals this water. V21, Elisha says, “Thus says the LORD, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”  God did it.  Whether by natural or supernatural means, it doesn’t matter.  The point here is that this is God at work through Elisha, who like a lowly preposition, connects the whole event to God.

It’s like Holy Baptism.  We call Baptism a water of life, not because the water in the font is so holy, or because the recipient has made some sort of holy decision for Jesus.  Baptism is a water of life because God said so!  His Word of promise is there in and with the water.  The pastor has the connecting role of speaking that Word of God, so that all may know that it’s not the recipient, it’s not the pastor, it’s not the water…it’s the Lord God Himself, who makes this water life-giving.

Now, speaking of water…this same thing is at work in the rest of our text today, II Kings, chapter 3.  In v5, when King Ahab had died in that war with Syria several chapters ago, the king of Moab saw this as his chance to get out from under the domination of Israel.  He rebels. 

So, v6, King Jehoram [wicked Ahab’s second son] marched out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. 7 And he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me.  Will you go with me to battle against Moab?” And he said, “I will go. I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”

Now Jehoshaphat is a good king in the eyes of God.  But when war threatens, one cannot always choose one’s allies.  But even with good King Jehoshaphat in the mix, the venture does not go well. V9, when they had made a circuitous march of seven days, there was no water for the army or for the animals that followed them.

So here’s the dilemma. The whole war with Moab is secondary.  This is a story, once again, about faith.  3 armies in the wilderness.  No water.  What to do?  King Jehoram shows himself to be Ahab’s son.  Like Judas Iscariot, he despairs.  No hope. V18, “Alas! The LORD has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.”  He’s ready to hang himself.  Edom is silent in this discussion. 

It’s good King Jehoshaphat who speaks the faith question. V11, “Is there no prophet of the LORD here, through whom we may inquire of the LORD?”  And one of Jehoram’s servants speaks up (perhaps one who remembered what happened when Jehoram’s late brother, King Ahaziah, sent off to Baal-zebub for help). “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here…”

V12, faithful Jehoshaphat knows, “The Word of the LORD is with him.”  And like the 3 Magi at Epiphany, these 3 kings traverse afar, moor and mountain, to go see Elisha.  Which is remarkable.  Elijah had no kings come to him, yet Elisha has three; 3 kings, and their people, drawn to connect with the Lord God by this lowly preposition, Elisha.

Well, the rest of the story is simple in its miraculous telling.  Elisha inquires of the Lord about their predicament.  God replies.  V16, “Thus says the LORD, ‘I will make this dry streambed full of pools.’ 17 For thus says the LORD, ‘You shall not see wind or rain, but that streambed shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, you, your livestock, and your animals.’”  And, v18, God will even throw in the defeat of Moab as well.  No sweat!  Piece of cake!

And the next day, v20, there it is…water, everywhere, appearing miraculously.  Elisha didn’t do it.  God did.  It’s always God who acts; whether He sends the water of salvation or retains it.  But Elisha is the lowly preposition by whom all these pieces are drawn together to God by the Word of God which Elisha is given to speak. 

It is the same work for us today.  God is at work, by His Word, which we preach, and which you hear.  And for some, like good King Jehoshphat, there is joy in the hearing.  For some, like wicked King Jehoram, it’s another strike against them.   And for all of us, we hear and take to heart both the strike and the joy in God’s Word.  But for our hero, Elisha, this lowly preposition prophet, well…his connecting work has only just begun.