Not with a Bang, but with a Whimper

13th Sunday after Pentecost 

II Kings 13:14-25

Elisha’s departure from this life is not at all as dramatic as Elijah’s had been.  For Elijah there were those companies of prophets meeting him along his final road.  There was the parting of the Jordan River so he walked across on dry ground.  And finally, the whirlwind of fiery horses and chariot, and the awe-inspiring ascent up to heaven.  What an exit!

There’s none of that for Elisha!  There is only v20, So Elisha died, and they buried him.  That’s it!  Well…given how much violence there has been over these chapters, toppling kings and all, in which Elisha played the major role, perhaps the man ought to be thankful that his end was that simple and free of drama! He dies.  He’s buried.

But what’s puzzling, is that Elisha does not die of old age.  He’s a very old man now.  It’s been 50 years since last week’s episode, anointing Jehu and the death of Jezebel.  It was another score of years or so before that, when Elisha began this prophet’s road.  He’s old!  Yet his death comes by sickness.  V14, Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die… 

Sickness?!  Could he who had witnessed the cleansing of Naaman from leprosy not have been healed of his own sickness?  Could he who had restored the woman’s son to life not have had his life restored?  Could he who had saved so many not have saved himself? (Sound familiar?)  Could such a powerful spokesman for the Lord not have died a more noble death?  Sickness—which in the context of I & II Kings has claimed so many of the wicked, highborn and low, as we have heard in these chapters of the last several weeks.  A wicked man’s death?

There’s a simple question hidden here in Elisha’s death. Why?  Why was Elisha a prophet?  There’s no great summary of his life’s work written here.  For that matter, why Elijah?  Or Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, plus those other minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi?  Who are they, really?  Why were they called?

The simple answer is that the prophets in the Old Testament were God’s spokesmen, His mouthpiece.  With Elisha and Elijah, as well as those prophets who books of prophecy, the common phrase throughout the Old Testament is something like, “the Word of the Lord came to…” Fill in the blank—Isaiah, Zephaniah, Elisha.

They were not born as prophet’s nor did they go to prophet school.  Some were wealthy and powerful, like Isaiah; some were poor, a farmer like Amos.  Some were eager to serve, like Elisha.  Some were not, like Jonah.  But whoever and whatever sort of man they were, they became a prophet when, out of the blue, God called them and gave them His Word to speak.  In many and various ways—by dreams, visions, a voice in the night, but most often, it doesn’t say. God spoke. They listened, and repeated that Word to the various individuals or nations, most often Israel.

There is a little poem that speaks to the prophet’s calling.  It’s by the British-born American poet, Denise Levertov, who died in 1997.  “I send my messengers ahead of me. / You read them, they speak to you / in siren tongues, ears of flame / spring from your heads to take them. / When I arrive, you love me, / for I sing those messages you’ve / learned by heart, and bring, / as housegifts, new ones…. But soon you love me less. / I brought with me / too much… my desire to please, and worse — / my desire to judge what is right…. When I leave, I leave / alone, as I came.” [Levertov: Poet and Person]

The track record of the prophets is not very impressive.  Not at all.  Oh yes, a few of them do some spectacular miracles, like Elijah and Elisha.  But that’s not why they were prophets.  They had been called as prophet to speak God’s Word to someone, God’s Word of warning or promise, concerning the near or distant future.  In that, they were all highly successful!  Well, except Jonah, who needed a bit of down time with a big fish to get his head straightened around.  But eventually, when it came to their call to speak, they did!  And they all suffered for it (although with Elisha and Elijah, it’s more of an emotional suffering than physical).

But when you consider the results of their speaking…given our modern-day penchant in the Church for measurable, successful, outcome-based results…ugh!…we’d have to say the whole bunch of them were failures!  We preachers bemoan how folks are not as faithful these days about coming to church to hear the Word of God as in past eras.  But even on a bad Sunday, our situation is a whale of a lot better than what these guys faced back then.  And they were even allowed a miracle or two!  Their dismal record of results is here to read. 

For all of Elisha’s work speaking God’s Word, for all God’s Words left to us by those writing prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest—who come in the centuries after Elisha, the people as a whole, do not listen to the Word from God.  They do not listen to His warnings about sin and evil.  They do not hear His great promises of redemption, promises of a glorious, eternal future.

And a century after the death of Elisha, the northern kingdom of Israel at Samaria is conquered by the Assyrian Empire and they disappear in the dust of history.  A century later, 200 years after Elisha, the southern kingdom of Judah at Jerusalem will fall to the Babylonians, because they refused to listen to God, even though He sent them a whole slew of prophets. 

Even when God wraps up His Word in human flesh of His own and becomes His own Spokesman, His own Prophet, in Jesus, even then His listeners are few and fickle.  Like Levertov’s poem, at first they love His speaking.  But then they love it less and less.  “Hosannas” become cries of “Crucify Him!”  And when God departs, on a cross, He departs alone.  And the Roman empire will take them down…because they did not listen.

Which is why in the Church (whether the Church of the Old Testament or of the New), in the Church, success is measured by a very different standard than in the world.  In the Church success is measured by faithfulness to one’s calling.  What results come from that faithfulness, well, that’s God’s business!

So whether it is the particular calling of a preacher, called to be God’s mouthpiece for a congregation, or whether it’s the general calling each of us has as Christian, called to speak God’s Word of warning and promise to each other, this mutual submission in Christ…God has given us His Word to speak, so we do; because we listen to it.  That’s faithfulness!  And whatever comes from that spoken Word, we leave to God’s good pleasure.

Even so, we know!  We know that whether the results are as spectacular as Elijah on Mt. Carmel, or as whimpering as Elisha here in this closing chapter…we know that God is always at work wherever His Word is spoken.  He said so.  And we see it here.

V14, Elisha is sick, as I said.  Joash is the king of Israel.  (It’s been 50 years.) He’s the grandson of Jehu who eliminated the family of wicked King Ahab, and that wicked queen mother, Jezebel. Joash cries, “My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” That’s Elisha’s cry at Elijah’s departure! Here the similarity ends.

We then get this curious ritual.  V15, Elisha tells King Joash to shoot an arrow out of the east window.  East…toward Syria!  The king does so.  V17, Elisha says, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria!”  It’s a promise from God.

Then, v18, Elisha tells the king to take the other arrows in his hand and strike the ground.  The king bangs the arrows on the floor three times.  V19, Then the man of God [Elisha] was angry with him and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”

The implication here, by the way the writer tells it, is that the king doesn’t really believe Elisha about the Lord’s arrow of victory over Syria.  For the king, it’s just a silly, little ritual, the kind of thing the prophet is always doing.  It’s just so much woo-woo!

He didn’t listen.  Even so, v25, the writer notes that God still acts.  We read at the end, Three times Joash defeated him.  “Him” is Ben-hadad, the Syrian king.  The point is, it happened, according to the promise of God concerning His arrow of victory over Syria.  But it was only three times, because of the king’s disbelief.  Still, God is at work, as He promised, where His Word is spoken.

Also hidden here in the narrative, v21, is a hint of ultimate things to come.  As a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man [his corpse] was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man [his corpse] touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.  Elisha’s grave becomes the place of a resurrection, after having died a wicked man’s death.  Now if our Christian ears do not hear the little ringing bell, well, we haven’t been listening enough.  Dying a death with the wicked, and then his grave the source of resurrection?!   Unknowingly, Elisha points us to his Great Successor, Jesus!

The whole of the Elisha saga can be expressed in another poem by Denise Levertov, called Annunciation: “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives? / Some unwillingly, / undertake great destinies, / …uncomprehending.  More often / those moments when roads of light and storm / open from darkness in a man or woman, / are turned away from / in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair / …with relief. / Ordinary lives continue. / …But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.”  [Levertov: Annunciation]

God speaks.  Things happen.  That’s the moral of our story.  God speaks, in many and various ways by the prophets of old; and now in these last days by His Son.  And wherever God speaks, by His human mouthpieces, there He is at work. 

God speaks.  But do we listen?  Ah…that’s the accusing side of the Elisha saga.  The Good News is, God speaks…Elijah, Elisha, finally, Jesus…and today, He speaks to you.