Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

7th Sunday after Pentecost 

II Kings 2:1-14

Elijah had burst upon the stage of history with a bang, announcing a drought.  Today he exits that stage with a bigger bang, the definitive example of an Old Testament deus ex machina, this heaven-bound whirlwind of fiery horses and chariots.  And in between the Big Bang of the beginning and this Bigger Bang at the end, Elijah has literally burned his mark on the face of Israel.

It’s like John the Baptist and his departure in our Gospel Reading.  It is well known that John is called the Elijah of the New Testament.  John even dressed like Elijah, with a camel hair robe and a leather belt around his waist.  John, too, burst suddenly upon the scene at the Jordan River, like one of Elijah’s ravens, crying in the wilderness, feeding Judea with God’s Word in a Wordless time and place.

And as our Gospel Reading tells, John had his run-in with his own Ahab and Jezebel, the monarchs Herod and his incestuous wife, Herodias.  But while Elijah escaped Jezebel’s murderous intent, John the Baptist…well, his head is lifted up and handed to the queen on a platter.  In with a bang, the Sword of the Spirit, God’s Word; out with a bang, the sword of state on the chopping block.

It reminds me of a saying by C.S. Lewis, the eloquent Oxford don and engaging defender of the faith, whose early life was spent in skeptical atheism.  Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.  I always knew a bottle of port would do that.  If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity!” 

Well, we Lutherans might suggest a tall glass of good German beer instead of port, but otherwise Lewis’ observation is, as the British say, “Spot on”!  And our various texts today confirm this…big time, especially with Elijah.  There is this whirlwind!  Shades of little Dorothy, whisked off from black & white Kansas to the technicolor world over the rainbow.

But here in II Kings…what a whirlwind this is!  The whirlwind is mentioned at the beginning of the scene, v1, and then at the climax, v11, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them.  And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.  A violent, whirling storm, with fiery horses and chariots caught up in all of it.  Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry Elijah home!

Oh…but the chariot of that old spiritual, is not “sweet” in any Hallmark, Precious Moments, Thomas Kinkade sort of sweetness.  No sir!  This “sweetness” is in the way of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected again, My Body, My Blood for you, Taste and see that the Lord is sweet sort of sweetness.  That’s Elijah’s ride!

Because there is always, always an element of judgment in the Bible whenever God uses the whirlwind to make Himself known.  In the Book of Job, after all those chapters of Job’s increasingly noisy complaint about God, God finally appears, in a whirlwind, to put the smack down to Job’s complaining.

The prophet Isaiah, working a century after Elijah, speaks of God’s impending judgment on Israel in this way: “You will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest and the flames of a devouring fire.”  It’s the violence of the coming Babylonians.  Not the sort of chariot you want to see swinging high or low!

In fact, this sounds more like Moses at Mt. Sinai after the Exodus.  When Moses went up to God there was all that thunder and lightning and shaking earth and darkness and dreadful blasts of the trumpet of God.  And the people were terrified!

Which is why it is significant that when Jesus is on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear to speak with Him about His own “Exodus,” His crucifixion.  Oh yes, there would also be His resurrection.  But the violent glory of the resurrection is preceded by the darkness and earthquake of Jesus’ own Mt. Sinai called Golgotha, preceded by the bloody cries of His being lifted up by the chariot of the cross, borne aloft by the equestrian flames of that baptism.  Judgment is there.  Terrible judgment.

So…if Elijah’s exodus in a whirlwind of fire has an element of judgment…judgment for whom?  For Elijah himself?  Who sinned, that this judgment has come?  Ah…that is the question which self-justifying sin always asks. Who sinned? Who sinned that all those homes were destroyed in the Colorado wildfires?  Who sinned that we have to endure this drought?  Who sinned that two carefree kids on a motorcycle had their lives snuffed out this past week at the infamous intersection of Hwys 51 & 22?

Or…recoiling in horror from those kinds of questions, we vehemently deny that sin has anything at all to do with any of it.  It just happened.  Things happen, ya know?  It’s sad.  It’s tragic.  But that’s the way things are.  Are they?

It’s no wonder people run away from God! Some become the noisy atheists who prattle on and on about the contradictions of God.  Some go looking for the popular religions with a God who sings only the happy songs about victorious living, where life is beautiful all the time.  More, however, are they who simply retreat into themselves, cobbling together a hodge-podge of belief about God that makes them happy.  “I’ll believe in God my own way,” they say.  Such sad and dead end roads…going nowhere…

What’s going on here with Elijah and his ride is not really something we can wrap our minds around.  And it’s not just this whirlwind of fire and horses and chariots.  It’s the whole Elijah saga!  How could judgment be a good thing?  But it is.  Elijah is carried to heaven, to life everlasting…but in so doing, he dies to this world.  We have seen it all along with Elijah, how God humbles in order to exalt, destroys in order to build, kills in order to make alive again.

That’s why Christianity is not some sort of a comfortable self-improvement project, every day in every way getting better and better.  No!  It’s Elijah’s chariot ride each and every day of our life.  God kills us and gives us life anew.  That’s Holy Baptism, dying each day to sin and self, and rising to live the Christ life…not by something we do, getting all bummed about our sin and trying to be good little boys and girls for Jesus. No! That’s the very sort of thing God is killing in us…this notion that we can do such a thing!

The “Old Adam” in us is a slippery devil!  He’s always thinking, “I’m doing it…at least I’m doing better than so and so!  At least I believe.  I go to church.  I’m a good person.  I’m doing the best I can.”  “I, I, I!”  But the only ride “I” is going to take is a ride down…to death!  “I” must be crucified with Christ, “I” must drown and die with Christ, so that “I” no longer live, but Christ lives in me and for me.  So the life “I” live is by the faith of the Son of God!  That’s the Elijah ride!  Death and life, down and up, day by day, until we are carried by God in this chariot of Christ from this world to heaven.

In the Book of Malachi, the last of the prophets, in the closing verses, the Lord declares, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.  And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”  So John the Baptist, the 2nd Elijah, came with his fiery words and his drowning baptism, so that having struck down the people in their conscience, they might not be struck down by God, but lifted up when the Greater One, Messiah, arrived with His Word of pardon and peace.

OK…so how does all of this fit the end of our story?  In vv 1-7 we get these other prophets…and Elisha.  Elijah goes to several places where the prophets who have survived Jezebel’s Holocaust are gathered.  V2, Bethel.  V4, Jericho.  V7, the Jordan River. These prophets are strengthened for their wild ride as prophets of the Lord.

But it’s Elisha, Elijah’s own Simon Peter, who stays so close.  And as Jesus before His ascension asked Peter three times whether he loved Him, Elijah puts Elisha to a threefold test, v2,4,6.  “Stay here,” he says, three times.  But the protégé will not leave his master.  Three times he replies, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  So Elijah leaves Elisha…to his wild ride.

Look, now, how all of this comes to an end.  V8, Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water [of the Jordan River], and the water parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could cross over on dry ground.  Reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea, Elijah and Elisha now stand in the wilderness outside the Promised Land.  From here, like Moses who was taken outside the Land, like Jesus who was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, from here in the powerlessness of the wilderness, Elijah is taken to the greater Promised Land.  And after Elijah’s departure, like Joshua who, after Moses, led Israel home—better yet, like the perfect Joshua, Jesus, who, after the fire of John the Baptist, created a whole new Israel by His Word of grace and truth—after Elijah’s fiery departure, v13, Elisha is left with Elijah’s cloak—the symbol of the prophet’s calling—Elijah’s mantle and a double portion of the Holy Spirit.

Elisha now begins his own wild, sweet chariot ride.  Indeed, he is grief-stricken, v12. “My father, my father!” He tears his garments asunder.  Afflicted, yes, but not crushed.  Perplexed, indeed, but not in despair.  He takes up Elijah’s mantle, v13, and, v14, Elisha strikes the Jordan with it, and goes back through the water, in the name of the Lord, baptized for the work he is called to do: bringing down in order to build up, humbling in order to exalt, by the Word which God will give him to speak; the strange, sweet chariot ride of God.

Now I suppose I could stop here and sit down and say, “Isn’t it grand.  Amen!”  But Elijah isn’t the only one on this chariot ride!  A lot has happened since Elijah’s day.  Best of all, Jesus has happened.  But today, like back then, you have been given a voice here.  And I, for better or for worse, am the voice called to this place, the voice for God’s Word in this Wordless wilderness time.

So, as God has given His Word, I say to you: Beloved, do not be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon you…as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice when His glory is revealed.  As that old spiritual sings it, “sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down…but still my soul is heaven bound.”  Because we—voice and listener, you and I together in Christ—we too are on a sweet whirlwind of a ride to heaven!