The Spirit and Power of Elisha

Sermon for the ordination service of Andreas Beccai at the Volunteer Park Adventist Church in Seattle. September 8, 2018

The movie opens with a panoramic shot of wilderness. It’s a wide valley, a sea of yellow and brown grass stretching up to where juniper trees begin dotting the hills on either side. Down through the center of the valley runs a thread of green, a desert river lined with trees and following the river, a road, a dirt track.

We see dust kicking up. Something moving on the road. As the camera zooms in we see two men, walking. Closer still we hear them talking.

One is Elijah, the most celebrated prophet in Jewish history. Elijah was so great, so famous, that he was seen as the symbolic predecessor of the Messiah. The other was Elisha, Elijah’s servant and heir apparent.

They’re chitchatting. Conversation wandering and easy. Then the old man stops. He turns and looks at Elisha.

“We know it’s coming.” he says. “God is going to take me away. So, what can I do for you before I’m taken away? What do you want from me before I go?”

Elisha does not hesitate. He has been thinking about this for months at least, maybe years. “I want a double portion of your spirit.”

You have been mighty for God. I want to be even mightier. You announced a nation-bending drought and it happened just as you said. You brought down fire from heaven. You pronounced curses that caused kings to grovel. You have been mighty for God. I want to be mightier.

The old man smiled. It is exactly what he would want to give this young man. It’s what he would pray for the person who was going to take his place.

Andreas, this old man takes great pleasure in seeing you exceed me. I watch you do things in ministry I have touched only in my dreams. Just this morning at Green Lake Church I sat and watched someone else preach. As Hanz was preaching, I was thinking this is how I preach . . . in my dreams. And I remembered when you were at Green Lake Church. And after just a few months, people were asking when you were going to preach next. If I had been younger I might have been touched with jealousy. As an old man I was filled with delight.

Elijah looked at Elisha on that desert road, and heard his request: I want to do what you have done–only better. I want to serve God like you–only better. Elijah heard and smiled. And when I hear your passion for ministry, I take great delight.

The camera zooms back out. We watch the men continue walking and talking. Then we see dark, roiling clouds sweep in from the west. Ominous walls of swirling cumulus clouds. Then out of the blackest cloud comes two horses, their manes are whipping curtains of fire. Their bodies gleam and sparkle and flash. Their exhalations are flame. They are pulling a chariot that appears to be on fire, a diaphanous vessel of light. Instead of wheels it rides on pillows of blazing glory. The chariot swoops down to the men, pauses, Elijah steps into the fire and it swoops up and away and disappears back into the clouds.

Elisha cries out, “My father, my father!!!! The chariot and horses of Israel.”

As he stands there looking after the chariot. Elijah’s robe floats down from the sky and plops on the ground beside him.

He walks back the way the men had come, reaches the place where they had crossed the river. He shouts to the sky, “Where is the God of Elijah?” and swats the water with the old man’s robe. The water parts and Elisha walks across the empty space opened before him.

That night he replays the days events and remembers what Elijah had told him about the grand showdown on Mt. Carmel. He remembered the stories that had been told around the dinner table in his parents’ home about those days.

The prophet had marched into the royal palace and announced, “No more rain until I say so. That’s what God has sent me to say. Shame on you for doing evil. Shame on you for failing to resist evil. Shame on you. Repent!” And with that he disappeared.

The drought lasted three years. It broke the nation.

Finally, Elijah confronted the king again. “Meet me on Mt. Carmel. Be there. And summon the entire people to be there, too, including those phony prophets your wife is so enamored with. Be there!”

And the king, instead of arresting the prophet, obeys.

And there on Mt. Carmel Elijah summoned fire from heaven–fire so hot it burned up even the rocks of the altar.

How do you double that? He had asked for a double measure of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah said he would get it. What would it look like? How do you double fire from heaven that had the entire nation on its face in dumb-struck terror?

It began in the morning. While Elisha was eating breakfast, the elders of the town arrived. They had a problem. The water from their springs and from their wells was brackish. It was nasty to drink. Bad for irrigation.

Elisha healed their water.

A preacher’s widow came to Elisha and told her story. Her husband had been one of the prophets, one of the seven thousand people who had remained faithful to Yahweh while Elijah was hiding up in the village of Zarephath.

He was dead. Her two sons were going to be slaves soon. Payment for family debts. It was hard being a single mom in that world.

Elisha asked what she had in the house. All she had was a jar of oil. “Go borrow all the jars, jugs, and pots you can from your neighbors.” She and her sons borrowed and filled their house. She went back to Elisha. “I’ve filled my house with pots and jars and jugs. Now what?”

Use your little oil jar and fill all of the containers with oil. Then sell the oil and pay your debts.

The doubled spirit of Elijah did not produce a bigger bang, more spectacular drama. Instead it flowed in sweeter service and wider healing. Elisha brought no fire from heaven but sweet water from a spring. Not a national drought, but a single mom’s oil jar turned into an oil well.

Andreas, there will be days when you will crave the power of Elijah. You will hunger to do something dramatic for God, to shut up evil doers and evil sayers. You will hunger for a display of God’s power. But it may be that God will call you instead to bring sweet water out of a brackish spring. God will call you to help a single mom turn her oil jar into an oil well.

There will be no fire. No hordes of thousands on their faces in terror at the mighty power of God. Instead, the little people of God will comfort and aid in your ministry. Instead of being whisked away by a fiery chariot into the clouds you will be called to ride among your people in a creaking oxcart. And God will ride with you. Be there.

Another Elisha story.

The kingdom of Damascus was constantly threatened Israel’s northern border. At one point the king of Damascus began sending raiding parties across the border to ambush caravans and carry off goods and people to sell in the markets of Damascus. It was a successful project for awhile, then suddenly his raiding parties started coming back empty.

Repeatedly, they’d set up on a road they knew was a popular route only to find themselves sitting there for several days staring at an empty road. Finally, the king in exasperation summoned his cabinet together.

“Someone here is a traitor,” he said. “One of you is giving the king of Israel our secrets. Who is it?”

Finally, with great trepidation, one of his courtiers spoke up. “It’s not us. It’s the great prophet, Elisha. He tells the king of Israel your pillow talk with your wife.”

“Go get him.” The king barked.

I imagine the army commanders groaning. They are not oblivious to the lunacy of the king’s order. They are supposed to organize a raiding party to go kidnap the guy who is telling the king of Israel the secrets of the raiding parties. But they were soldiers. They had their orders.

They heard the prophet was in the town of Dothan. So thinking, here goes nothing, they put together a special forces raid on the town. And surprise, surprise, when they arrive, the prophet is still there. Apparently God had not bothered to tell Elisha about this raid.

In the morning, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, went up on the roof and saw the surrounding army. He raced back down in a panic. “Elisha! Elisha! We’re surrounded!

The prophet seemed curiously calm. “Come on, Gehazi, let’s go back upstairs.”

Sure enough, from the roof, they could see the raiding party surrounding the city. Chariots and horses covering every possible exit. “Count them.” Elisha orders. So Gehazi begins. One, two, three, . . .

Elisha interrupts him. “Not to worry, Gehazi. We have more on our side than they have on theirs.”

Gehazi stared at Elisha. Had he gone completely nuts?

Elisha prayed. God open his eyes. Suddenly Gehazi saw out beyond the invaders another army, chariots and horses riding in the sky, ten times the number of the invaders.

Andreas, it is one of our most constant duties to help our people see the invisible chariots of God. The chariots of evil are readily visible. It is easy for them to occupy our entire field of vision. Pray and preach that they may see the heavenly chariots.

It may happen in your own life that enemies will come for you, people who are annoyed by the work God has called you to do. Part of you will be terrified. Naturally. After the initial panic, call to mind the chariots of Dothan. There are more with you than there are with them. Take your time. Let God work.

Let’s follow this story. Elisha prays for God to smite the invaders blind. God does so. Elisha goes out and offers to lead them where they want to go–not exactly true. He leads them to the capital city of Israel and into the central square of the city. There surrounded by armed and ready Israelite soldiers Elisha prays for God to open their eyes.

The king asks the prophet, “What shall I do with the these soldiers? Shall I kill them?”

Andreas, it will happen that your enemies or the enemies of your people will fall into your hands. Your word will decide their fate. Remember the story of Elisha.

Elisha said to the king, “If you had captured these soldiers yourself, you would be obliged to treat them as prisoners of war. You would be obliged to feed them. So feed them and send them home to their master.”

The king of Israel did so and the Bible reports. War stopped.

For awhile.

Andreas. In dealing with enemies, remember your highest calling: To make peace.

Another story: Elisha and the ax head. 

A group of students planned a trip to the woods along the Jordan River to get wood to build an extension on their school. At some point in the day, one of the young men is chopping away at a tree when the head of his ax comes off and sails out into the river. Oh no!!!! It was a borrowed ax and ax heads in that time were pricey items easily worth several years of disposable income for a poor student.

The student went and found Elisha. Elisha asked the student to show him where the ax head had fallen. The student pointed. Elisha tossed a stick into the water. The stick sank and the ax head floated. What a fantastic miracle!

But there is another lesson in this story. What was Elisha doing there in the woods with a bunch of young men who were cutting trees?

At the beginning of the story we read that when the students decided to go to the woods, they invited Elisha to go with them. Why? They were not expecting him to swing an ax. It was just that life was better when Elisha was around. Elisha was like God’s chariot. Not his war chariot, his everyday, go to market chariot. Elisha bore in himself the presence and favor of God. No matter what they were doing, the people wanted Elisha around.

A reflection of the ministry of Jesus.

Elijah was seen as the symbolic precursor of the Messiah. John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus, was seen by the New Testament believers as a metaphorical Elijah. And we Adventists imagine ourselves as a last day Elijah preparing people for the future coming of Jesus.

It would be better to be Elisha, to incarnate here and now the life of Jesus.

But there is a flip side to the glory of identification with God. One of the worst stories in the Old Testament occurred during Elisha’s time. There was a famine. Not a judgment from heaven. Nothing supernatural about it. It was one of those random things, something bad happening to good people. People were starving. In the capital city the people were reduced to cannibalism.

One day, a woman accosted the king when he was out on his daily rounds. She begged him to help her. Her story?

She and a neighbor woman had agreed that the only way any of their family were going to survive was by eating their littlest children–kids who were going to die anyway because of the famine. So they killed her son and ate him. Then when it was time to eat her neighbor’s son, she hid him.

The king recoiled in horror. He decided to kill Elisha. The king couldn’t get his hands on God, so he would deal with God’s ambassador. God had allowed or sent this famine. God was responsible for mothers eating children. Something had to be done to express his horror at what God was doing (or not doing).

Andreas, sometimes, if we do our job well, if we represent God faithfully, people will take out on us their anger at God. They would attack God if they could, but since God is not available, they take out their outrage, their desperate impatience with evil and heartbreak on God’s ambassador–and that’s what the church makes of us.

There are times when we must hold the reasonable anger of people toward the God we represent. Do not let it destroy you. But neither give in to resentment or self-pity. God does not manage the universe in ways that make sense to us sometimes. He does not explain to his ambassadors what he is doing.

Elisha lived long. During his ministry, he worked every miracle Jesus worked. He gave sight to the blind. He multiplied loaves of bread to feed a crowd. He raised the dead. He healed leprosy. Like Jesus after him, Elisha won the hearts of his people.

Elijah was the harbinger of the Messiah. Elisha was the Messiah.

Let’s replace our aspirations to be like Elijah, pulling fire from heaven and intimidating evil doers with a holy ambition to relive the ministry of Elisha. Let’s replace our arguments about the future return of Jesus with a demonstration of the living, present Jesus. Let us so live that when people go to cut trees they want us with them. When they get into debt they come crying to us. When the water in their lives turns brackish they imagine we might be able to help.

Elisha got old and feeble. It happens even to good people. (smiles) Other people had to feed him. He needed help to get up to the bathroom. The king came to see him. When the king saw Elisha lying there in bed, weak, breathing with difficulty, he wept. He exclaimed, “My father. My father. The chariot and horses of Israel.”  The same words Elisha shouted when he saw Elijah disappear into heaven.

When the king saw the little old man lying in that bed, and contemplated life without him, he was filled with dread. Elisha’s departure felt like the departure of God.

Andreas, as you engage in the ministry God has called you to, I pray two things for you: First, I pray that you will be kept safe and holy by the heavenly chariots. May the heavenly armies attend you and keep you.

And two, I pray you will be filled with the spirit of Elisha–that you yourself will be transformed into the oxcart of God, prosaic, pedestrian, vessel conveying the presence and favor of God.