A little girl once asked her mother if the Bible story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was real or pretend. How would you have answered her question? The little girl’s mother wisely responded, “That’s a great question, what do you think about the Elijah story?” The mother’s answer didn’t just tell the little girl what to think. She invited her to think, as a member of the Christian community; she engaged her imagination.
The Story in this Sunday’s reading of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot teases our imagination, and get us wondering. Elijah was one of the greatest of Israel’s prophets. He was so great that the book of Malachi speaks about Elijah mysteriously appearing to prepare the way for the Messiah.
The Early Christian Church picked up that thought and spoke of John the Baptist as the Elijah figure who prepared the way for Jesus.
But back to our story about Elijah, the most spectacular part of the story is the ending– with Elijah gloriously carried away into heaven. You could say it’s a dramatic way of speaking of God’s approval of Elijah, and is intended to inculcate awe and respect for this powerful prophetic figure. But if we focus only on the spectacular – the fireworks if you like – we miss some of the meaning of the story that comes in an ordinary way.
Change can at times be frightening, disconcerting and something we tend to resist. This story is all about change, about transition. Elijah’s time is up. He has had a powerful ministry but he is nearing the end of his life and needs someone else to take on the role and responsibility that he had carried. And standing in the wings is Elijah’s protégé Elisha. Elisha has been shadowing Elijah like a sheep dog following the sheep.
He has been Elijah’s apprentice, learning from the wise old Prophet until the day when he will take up the mantle and be given the role Elijah had.
It’s often hard work for someone to step into the shoes of a beloved, trusted and famous leader, and this story is about helping us as readers to transfer our allegiance from the old to the new. It shows us that Elisha is up to the task; he’s doggedly persistent, he knows what’s going on and won’t be fobbed off, and at the last is given Elijah’s staff – a symbol of the authority invested in the Prophet. Also and most importantly this story is seeking to reassure us that the authority and quality of Elijah’s ministry is going to continue in a similar vein with Elisha in the role.
We are living in a time of great change, and it’s hard not to remember how things were in the past when churches were full, and so it’s easy for us to believe that the best days of the church are over – but are they?
What do we need to hold on to and take with us into the future, and what are the things that can get in the way of moving on? How will we prepare the next generation and build a future, and what kind of future do we want to build? One thing that helps us as a community of faith is the knowledge that God is eternal, the same yesterday, today and forever and yet ever new who promises to be with us always – even to the end of time.