Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on the Sunday before Lent, 26th February 2006
“When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied” 2 Kings 2
I was trying to teach Religious Education to Sixth Class on Friday morning. It is mostly a vain effort, but I am always anxious that I will get to the gates of Heaven and Saint Peter will tell me, âSorry, but you didn’t try hard enough!”
We began a look at the Psalms and about twenty minutes into the class I noticed a boy at the back sat looking around. I asked him why he wasn’t engaged in writing the answer to a question in the way the others were.
“Because I didn’t get a sheet when they were handed out”, he replied.
“So you have sat for the last twenty minutes and not written an answer to anything? Are you going to secondary school in September?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you not think you will need to show more initiative?”
“Yes,” he replied, looking glum.
“Listen,” I said, “I will tell you a story about what happened in my daughter’s class at school yesterday.”
“They were sitting in a master’s classroom awaiting the arrival of their teacher. They talked as they waited and the Latin master came sweeping into the room and put his books on the table.
They carried on talking.
He called out to one of the girls talking, telling her to come and sit at the front.
He then took out his diary and looked through. “Right”, he said, “we got to page 55 last time. Please open your Latin books.”
Finally one of them spoke up. “Sir,” she said, “this is a French class. We are waiting for our French teacher.”
We need to show initiative, sometimes it will mean doing things, sometimes it will mean being prepared to speak up about things.
The story of Elijah and Elisha is a story about a teacher and a pupil relationship. Elijah has been teaching Elisha and the time has come for Elisha to start out on his own, but Elisha doesn’t want to know about it.
Elijah tells him three times, âStay hereâ? and three times he says to Elijah, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”
His friends tell him twice that Elijah is to be taken away “Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” Elisha replies, “but do not speak of it.”
Elisha realizes that the time has come for him to take the lead, that the initiative is now with him, and he doesn’t want to let go.
Taking the initiative yourself is sometimes not easy, sometimes it is painful, sometimes it is frightening.
I remember being instituted as rector of a parish on 26th June 1989. It was a wonderful summer evening, the countryside around looked perfect, the view across the sea to the Mourne mountains was something from a picture book. At about 11 in the evening it was still daylight, the last of the people had gone home and I was left standing in the parish hall with the two churchwardens. They were cousins, big countrymen of few words, who called me ‘Mr Poulton’, (seven years later one of them still called me âMr Poulton’, he could never quite adjust to the idea that a clergyman might be addressed by his Christian name).
Standing there, I realized that I was 28 years old and I was on my own in looking after this small rural community. I remember feeling almost a sense of fear and panic at about what I was taking on and a great sense of loss that I would no longer be with the rector who had been so kind and helpful during the previous three years.
My feelings would have been no more than a tiny fraction of what Elisha would have felt when Elijah was gone. But what happens to Elisha is a lesson to us in getting up and getting on with things. The lesson this morning stops at 2 Kings 2:12, but one of the most important parts of the story is what immediately follows, “He picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 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.
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.”
Elisha could have been like the boy at the back of the classroom who lacked what he needed so sat and did nothing; he could have stood, as I did in June 1989, and felt bewildered and lost that he had been left by himself.
Elisha could have made numerous excuses as to why he couldn’t continue. If he had been a church leader now he would probably have first organised a memorial for Elijah; then perhaps he would have held seminars on what Elijah’s legacy meant; and perhaps, after a period of reflection, there would have been a conference on moving forward without Elijah.
Elisha does not sit and ponder, he takes the cloak of Elijah and he gets on with the work that God has given him.
We need initiative. The Church of Ireland will not survive, our parish will not survive, if we all sit and wait for someone to come along with a magical solution.
Elisha could have sat and talked about how everything was different in the past, how nothing was the same as it used to be, it could have said things would be different if everything hadn’t changed, but he doesn’t. “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” he asks. He knows where God is, he knows that God is with him.
Ireland has changed, this community we live in has changed. We can moan that things are not what they used to be. Or we can say, “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” confident that God is with us and that God is waiting for us to act.
There is work in this parish for every single one of us; from promising to pray to clearing the grounds, from helping with creche to visiting the housebound.
Inheriting Elijah’s spirit, as Elisha did, means God equips us to do the work he has given us and that we can have no excuse to sit and do nothing.
“Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” – he’s with you and he’s waiting for you to do his work.