Passing the Mantle

The following message is based on 2 Kings 2:1-14 and covers Elijah’s departure from Elisha, and the passing of leadership. It was delivered on November 3, 2013.

Change is never easy. But oftentimes, it is good. Transition is a challenge, but it can be an occasion of growth. We are reluctant to experience change. Sometimes it is downright painful, whether it is the change of a career, the change of a marital status, the experience of loss, or the redirection of life.

Sometimes transition can be seen as a changing of the guard. Speaking of which, it is something special to observe the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Rain or shine, this is done. It is a duty of honor. Because the person laid to rest there is representative of all who gave their lives and went unrecognized.

A lot goes into the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknowns. Their website states: “An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. Soon the new sentinel leaves the Quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the relief commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony.

The relief commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknowns who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor. Then the relief commander orders the relieved sentinel, ‘Pass on your orders.’ The current sentinel commands, ‘Post and orders, remain as directed.’ The newly posted sentinel replies, ‘Orders acknowledged,’ and steps into position on the black mat. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed — the 21-gun salute.”

Maybe you have experienced a changing of a guard. Have you gone through some sort of transition lately? A new job, a death, or a graduation? A new phase beginning? Where is God in those situations? Today’s story is about the changing of a guard. For the last several years, Israel’s chief prophet has been the man known as Elijah the Tishbite. He has done his work. He has defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He has seen the death of Ahab and Jezebel. It is now time for him to go to God. Incidentally, only two people have been taken from the earth in this way: Enoch and Elijah. Everyone else died. We have that mysterious verse in Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.”

Elijah was a special servant of the Lord with unique talents and abilities. But who would replace him? God told Elijah back in 1 Kings 19:16: “Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.” This rite of succession would be formalized by the passing of a mantle or cloak. What was a mantle? It was a Piece of clothing that held significance. It meant leadership or a place of importance. In this instance, God was with both of His prophets and now was the time for the guard to be changed. Back in 1 Kings 19, Elijah had placed the same cloak around Elisha for the first time, as a symbol of anointing this man to take his place and be God’s spokesperson to the nation. The cloak was important.

And now, a few years later, it was time for the ceremony to become reality. As Elijah and Elisha journeyed from Gilgal to Bethel and ultimately to Jericho, two companies of prophets informed Elisha that his master, his mentor was about to depart. These communities were schools of prophets. Elijah was the pinnacle prophet of the nation and now Elisha was assuming his position. Elisha knew that it was time for Elijah to go to the Lord and it was not a happy time for him. He did not want Elijah to go. Verses 1-10 function as a long goodbye. He may have felt something similar to the disciples when Jesus told them that it was good that He would depart, so that the Holy Spirit would come. Jesus said in John 16:7: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

In verse eight, Elijah and Elisha come to the edge of the River Jordan. The act of parting the waters and crossing to the other side was significant. It is a reminder of God’s presence. No one can part water except God. The definition of a miracle is the suspension of the natural elements for the purposes and testimony of God’s greatness. On another occasion, God parted the waters of the Red Sea for His children. At a strategic time, when Israel was most vulnerable, we read of the angel of the Lord hemming the Israelites in and Exodus 14:21 tells us: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. 22 And the sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” God would do the same thing at the River Jordan as Joshua and the people of Israel went into the Promised Land.

When Elijah is about to be taken up in the air by the whirlwind, Elisha asks for something special: a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, in order to do the work of the Lord. This brings up the importance of Christian leadership. Not everyone is meant to be a leader. Each person has his own set of spiritual gifts. Not everyone could be an Elijah or an Elisha. But if you are a Christian, He has called you to be equipped so that you can minister to others. What role does God want you to play in His kingdom? Are you living up to the calling that He has placed on your life? Paul wrote in Romans 12: 4: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”

In addition, interesting are the parallels between John the Baptist and Jesus; Elijah and Elisha. Elijah paved the way for Elisha. John the Baptist did the same for Jesus, being that “…voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘make ready the way of the Lord.’” God allowed Elisha to have a double portion of Elijah’s spirit upon request. John recognized that this would be given to the Anointed One coming after him when he said in Matthew 3:11: “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” When he saw Jesus, he would say: “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” Then, when Jesus came to be baptized, John was hesitant, saying in Matthew 3:14: “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”

God is often depicted as a warrior, fighting for His people. Unlike Baal who was matched by the seat and river, God has complete power over His creation. When Jesus returns, it will be to do battle with the evil forces of the earth. What side will we be on? Revelation 1:7: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.”

Then it came time for the goodbye. 2 Kings 2:11: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. He called out to Elijah as he was taken up into the clouds. It was not to get Elijah’s attention to the events happening around him, but to draw attention to the ministry of Elijah himself. To have the prophet’s presence is to have the chariots and horsemen of Israel. That is why two companies of fifty men were torched when King Ahaziah’s men were on their way to consult Baal-Zebub about the king’s health in 2 Kings 1.

At Elijah’s departure, Elisha tore his clothing and asked a powerful question in verse 14: “Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it.”Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. 15 The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. The mantle had been passed. This was a new day and the changing of the guard/prophet for God’s people.

The challenge is to adapt to the change that comes to all of us. After a time of mourning or readjustment, it is time to serve the Lord with new vigor and determination. Change is inevitable. And change is good. And it is coming, regardless if we are ready or not.

While visiting the U.S. after World War II, Winston Churchill was aboard a train bound for Missouri with President Harry Truman. They were in a special car which had the presidential seal hung up on a wall. Truman noticed Churchill studying the seal and he pointed out that he had changed it so that the eagle on the seal was turned toward the olive branch instead of the arrows. “Why not put the eagle’s head on a swivel,” suggested Churchill. “That way you could turn it to the right or the left, depending on what the occasion warranted.”

On this All Saints’ Sunday, we have acknowledged these loved ones and fellow Christians. We’ve remembered them with a short tribute. We wish they were still here. If they were able, what would they say to us? How would they advise us for years of fruitful ministry? “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” we might ask? He right here with us, as long as we follow Him.

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