Picking up the Mantle
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 6-30-2013
Based on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
This coming Thursday we will be celebrating our countries 237th birthday of independence from Great Britain. Over the years as a country, we have developed a tradition of celebrating this day with the use of fireworks. Most cities have firework displays and then in the good ol’ days, we as families use to be able to purchase and light fireworks for home use.
For me, the July 4th has very specific memories as to the way my family used to celebrate. As a child in the small town that I lived in, the tradition of celebrating the 4th of July was not just a family affair but also a community affair. The day would start out with gathering at the city park with the extended family gathering for a picnic. About an hour after lunch was over, the adults stayed gathered for an afternoon of visiting while the children went over to the local swimming pool. By late afternoon the rodeo would start which was across the street from the city park at the county fairgrounds. The rodeo lasted until dusk at which time we would then cross back over to the city park grandstands and end the day with a spectacular pyrotechnics display.
This went on throughout my childhood. As my family started coming along, we lived in a much larger city and we started developing our own traditions around the 4th. The family gathering was smaller in number, but the city fireworks had grown into including musical soundtracks that corresponded with the Arial displays.
One of the constants of my childhood that I was able to carry on my new family was that of purchasing and shooting off family fireworks. By the time I had moved to the Pacific Northwest, my children expected this tradition. This was particularly important because as a family we had transitioned into two separate households with their mother living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and my living in the Pacific Northwest. Our tradition had morphed into gathering with several families to celebrate the 4th with potluck picnics and an ever expanding arsenal of fireworks.
Due to the fire hazards and safety issues around fireworks, the tradition of families shooing fireworks on their own has decreased and increased with viewing city displays. In small towns things like family picnics and rodeos and carnivals may still exist, but for me the traditions of how I celebrate the 4th is no longer like the way it was when I was a child. For most of us, this is most likely true, not just in the way we traditionally celebrate the 4th of July, but in most of our celebrations of various Holidays.
Traditions are very important as we celebrate specific events because it gives a sense of continuity for our lives. Yet traditions change from generation to generation for a variety of reasons. Change comes because of change in the basic family unit, or because of economic shifts or popularity in a particular way of doing the expression of the event. The point being, the activities and expressions of a tradition change, but what stays constant is the reason the event started. We will always have the event of declaring our independence from Great Britain; therefore we will always celebrate in some fashion. We will always have a Memorial Day, but the way in which we remember will continue to change. Thanksgiving and Christmas are not immune to the shift in traditional ways of celebrating them.
As a Christian, have you ever given deep thought as to belonging to a tradition? Do you know what tradition that might be? Some would look to the denomination in which they come out of as the tradition of their faith. Yet it goes much deeper than this. As I was preparing for this morning’s scripture text, I found myself chatting with an Old Testament scholar about the foundational meanings of the books of Kings and more specifically about the relationships of Elijah and Elisha.
The story is a very familiar story, where Elijah has now come to the end of his life and is ready to die, and his apprentice Elisha follows along wanting to be given the power that Elijah had, in order to carry on the prophet work that Elisha had been anointed to do. The story tells us that this passing of power was done through the mantle of Elijah going to Elisha. My challenge with this piece of scripture is how to take a seemingly singular event, that of Elijah being taken up to God in a fiery chariot and Elisha being witness to this and as the witness is granted his desire to become a more powerful prophet than was his mentor, and make something relevant to us. How can or how does this impact our lives?
How does Elisha picking up the mantle affect us? How do we as disciples of Christ understand the importance of the picking up the mantle? What my conversation with my Hebrew Bible Scholar friend reminded me was that these two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, are a part of what is known as the Mosaic tradition. Meaning that these two men are understood to have carried on the work of teaching the Torah, which was established by Moses. The Hebrew understanding of the word “Torah” means in the strict sense, “instruction designed to teach us the truth about God. Torah means direction, teaching, instruction, or doctrine.”
As you read through the stories about Elijah and Elisha, you see much of their activities as re-enacting stories that are told of Moses. King Ahab was the worst King up to his reign, treating his subjects no better than when they were slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh. Elijah in his battles with Ahab and Jezebel are distinct events, but are about the older struggle of “enslavement”.
The parting of the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle is a differant circumstance than Moses parting the Red Sea, but shows the same power. The passing on of the Mantle from Elijah to Elisha shows Elisha becoming the new leader of the prophet brotherhood and reminisces of Moses passing on leadership to Joshua. Moses experienced God through the burning bush, and Elisha receives his affirmation by experiencing God through Elijah being taken up by the fiery chariot.
Now let us move centuries forward to that of Jesus. Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer is again comparing Jesus to that of Moses with Jesus as even more important, more powerful. We see old stories retold through stories of Jesus’ live and ministry. The most powerful being the event on the mount of transfiguration story, where Jesus is in physical conversations with the two most powerful prophets, Moses and Elijah. This story reflects the story of Moses on the Mount Sinai receiving instruction “the ten commandments” from God, and of Elijah going to Mount Horeb to seek Gods word. There is no doubt that Jesus should be considered as a part of the Mosaic tradition.
What does this have to do with us? At the end of Jesus’ ministry, he breaths upon the disciples the “Holy Spirit” and at Pentecost the church again receives the power of the “Holy Spirit”, the affirmation of the Mosaic tradition. The church is actually a part of the Mosaic line of prophets. We are a part of this line because we are charged with keeping the Torah. We are charged with giving direction, with the teaching of our history, and with understanding and sharing the truth of God. Elisha was asking for a double portion of the faith that Elijah possessed. Jesus tells his disciples that they will be doing greater things than what he was able to do.
As followers of Christ we are a part of this Mosaic tradition. We have been given power to do greater things than what Christ had done. Yet when we look around our world, I wonder if we truly believe this? According to Christ, we have been given a double portion of what Christ had. Like Elisha, we need only pick up the mantle and go forth!
The way that we conduct our worship, our ways of affecting social justice, our traditions continues to change, but the reason for us existing has not, the call to take up our mantle and continue in the teaching of the Torah. There is a strong tie between the Hebrew Testament and the Christian Bible that gives us the theme over and over and over about our being chosen to pick up the mantle of the Mosaic Prophets. It’s the mantle of Moses, of Elisha, and of Jesus. Let us pick up the mantle and exercise our heritage as Mosaic prophets. Amen