Set Down Your Mantle

Thanks to Cheryll Fong, Joyce Denham, Pastor Matt Kennedy, and all my other wonderful hosts this past weekend at Minneapolis’ Bethlehem Covenant Church. We discussed the Pietist Option on Friday night and Saturday morning, then I preached this sermon on 2 Kings 2:1-15 at worship services on Sunday.

Don’t let anyone tell you that God doesn’t have a sense of humor. See, I spent a lot of hours growing up in pews like these, ignoring people speaking from pulpits like this. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in church, but I had better things to do than listen to some 42-year old guy talk for twenty minutes.

No, even then all I wanted to do was read about the past. So I would piously crack open my pew Bible and turn to the stories of the Old Testament: Genesis and Exodus; Joshua and Judges; 1 and 2 Samuel. And my favorite books of all: 1 and 2 Kings.

Here I stand, about to preach a sermon on 2 Kings 2. God has a sense of humor.

Now, what I liked best about 1 and 2 Kings were… well, the kings. Rise, fall… battles, intrigues… Some kings good, most bad. All interesting to a budding military and diplomatic historian.

Icon of Elijah
Russian Orthodox icon of the prophet Elijah – Wikimedia

But the central figure in each half of this book is actually someone quite un-king-like: a humble prophet. An otherwise anonymous person who speaks for the Lord Almighty. The same God who spoke Creation into existence speaks through Elijah, a man whose very name is a testimony: “The Lord is my God.”

After sixteen chapters of kings rising and falling, Elijah appears out of nowhere in 1 Kings 17. All of a sudden he’s standing in front of an especially wicked monarch named Ahab, prophesying drought. We’re told nothing about him other than his hometown: Tishbe in Gilead.

And Elijah’s exit from the story is as abrupt as his entrance. It’s described in 2 Kings 2, just after the grisly death of Ahab. Elijah is accompanied by the younger man who is about to succeed him — a balding farmer who will become the dominant figure in 2 Kings.

It’s a strange, unforgettable story, reverberating with echoes from Scripture: from the Old Testament, Enoch being “no more” after “God took him” (Gen 5:24); from the New, Jesus ascending to heaven. And I’m sure eight-year old Chris would have wanted this sermon to linger on verses 11-12, with its flaming chariot team and whirlwind sucking Elijah into heaven, leaving Elisha to cry out in horror and rend his garments in sorrow.

But sorry, kids: mid-life Chris is more interested in the next three, less dramatic verses.

[Elisha] picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. 

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. (2 Kgs 2:13-15)

“He picked up the mantle of Elijah…” First things first: What’s the mantle? A simple cloak or robe that Elijah gathered around himself in 1 Kings 19 as he left a cave to speak to God. In a book named for kings of richest garb, Elijah’s cloak might seem like a terribly humble garment.

But the Hebrew word translated as mantle is related to words for magnificence, splendor, and glory. That rough-hewn garment is a reminder that the true theme of this book is not the fleeting strength of earthly rulers, but the eternal power of our heavenly Lord.

By the same token, Elijah’s mantle is a reminder that mortal existence — whether for kings or prophets or anyone else — is transient. Whatever else it’s about, human history is about transitions.

That’s what Elijah learns from God in 1 Kings 19, when Elisha is introduced as his eventual successor. We’re not told much more about him than we’d learned about Elijah. Elisha is just a farmer, plowing his field with a team of oxen. “Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him” (v 19b). We aren’t told why, or what Elisha felt or thought.

It passes by in a flash, but Elijah throwing his cloak over Elisha is an anointing as sacred as the one that starts the book: when the priest Zadok anoints Solomon with oilThen as Elijah exits this life and enters the full presence of his God, Elisha picks up his mantle, marking him once and for all as leader of Yahweh’s companies of prophets.

If we haven’t quite caught the point that this is a momentous transition… Both Elijah and Elisha use the mantle to part the River Jordan. And my Exodus-loving 8-year old self would have known to think of Moses and the Red Sea at that point… I might even have remembered that Moses, before dying, handed over leadership to Joshua, through whom God also parted the River Jordan.

Bloch, The Transfiguration
Carl Heinrich Bloch, “The Transfiguration of Christ” – Wikimedia

Again, the story of 2 Kings 2 is full of echoes from Scripture. Not just backwards, but forwards. For in our gospel text for today (Mark 9:2-9), who joins Jesus at his Transfiguration but Moses and Elijah?

In a sense, Jesus has taken up Elijah’s mantle from Elisha. There are later prophets in the Hebrew scriptures — Isaiah shows up in 2 Kings 19, six chapters after Elisha’s death — but none possess the miraculous power entrusted to Elisha, whose very bones bring the dead to life. For centuries, Jesus’ ancestors have waited for such a figure. The last words from a prophet before that voice goes silent predict the return of Elijah (Mal 4:5-6).

The difference is that Jesus is more than a prophet, speaking for God; he is the very Word of God, made flesh. He will not only make much food from little; he is the bread of life. He will not only raise the dead, but be raised himself.

And unlike Moses and Elijah, he still had work to do: there’s a reason that Transfiguration Sunday happens just before Lent takes us on the road to Calvary. But there’s a direct line connecting what happens on that “high mountain” of Mark 9 with what happens on the other side of Crucifixion and Resurrection: when Jesus is “lifted up” like Elijah, and “taken up… into heaven” (Acts 1:9, 11). Before his Ascension, the risen Jesus commissions his followers to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). He looks at Peter, James, and John and tells them to tell others of the Transfiguration they had seen with disbelieving eyes.

In effect, they are being told to pick up Jesus’ mantle. Just as Joshua continued the work of Moses, and Elisha that of Elijah, the apostles will continue the work of Jesus. They will “not proclaim themselves,” says Paul in our epistle reading for today, they will “proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

And we, the church, continue that work. We pick up the apostles’ mantle and continue their proclamation, their witness to the ends of the Earth — even Minneapolis, which is about as far from Jerusalem as you can get. We pick up the prophets’ mantle and continue to speak God’s word — sometimes with righteous anger at the cruel injustices humans visit on each other; more often in the quiet, reverent tones of worship, prayer, and Bible reading.

But if we want such words to continue to be spoken, such witness to continue to be borne… we mortals will hand the mantle to others: to people as close to us as our children and our children’s children; and to complete strangers who do not yet even know the name of Jesus, but will come to be saved.

So this is my charge to you today: prepare to pick up your mantle — and to lay it down for others. For there is no church unless you do so.

First, prepare to pick up your mantle.

How do you do this? There are a million things I want to say here about the importance of your calling and formation. But the story of Elijah and Elisha is curiously quiet on these points. We read in vain for stories of the former teaching the latter: Elijah honing Elisha’s skills as a prophet, supplying concrete advice on how to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

Really, there’s just one, enormously important lesson for us: whatever role you take on and whatever you do to prepare for it, remember that you depend on the power of the Holy Spirit. As Elisha puts on Elijah’s mantle, the other prophets recognize that “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” Nothing Elisha will do, nothing that Elijah has done, is possible apart from this “spirit” — the same word the Book of Genesis uses to describe the wind that swept over the waters in Creation (1:2) and the “breath of life” that fills all God’s creatures (6:17). Without this spirit, Elisha has done nothing but put on a hand-me-down coat.

In the same way, Peter and the other apostles weren’t prepared to pick up the mantle from Jesus. (Elisha pledges three times to stay by Elijah’s side; Peter will deny Jesus three times.) They could not truly be his witnesses until after Jesus went up to heaven and the Holy Spirit descended on them.

Valdes, Ascension of Elijah
Juan de Valdés Leal, “The Ascension of Elijah” – Wikimedia

It is this Spirit, says our denomination’s Covenant Affirmations document, that allows us to bear Christ’s witness to the world. With other Pietists, we Covenanters “believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit to instill in the human heart a desire to turn to Christ. We believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit to assure believers that Christ dwells within them. We believe that the Holy Spirit, in concert with our obedience, conforms us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29).”

The Holy Spirit does all these things. And more: for it gives unity to the interdependent body in which we are all members. With other Protestants, we know that we are each part of “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), whether you’re an ordained pastor or not. Only some of us wear a stole, but all of us are invited to take Jesus’ yoke upon us (Matt 11:29). All of us can pick up the priestly mantle and pray for others, study God’s Word, and sacrifice ourselves in service to God.

But the mantle of that common priesthood brings with it different responsibilities for different people. It’s the “same Spirit,” says Paul, but “there are varieties of gifts… there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor 12:4-6). Few of us are gifted to be prophets like Elijah and Elisha, but some are. Few of us are gifted to be healers, but some are. Few of us are gifted to be teachers or preachers, but some are.

So whatever your mantle, how do you pick it up? By depending on the Holy Spirit, by serving as part of the priestly body made one in that Spirit, and by recognizing and cultivating the Spirit’s gifts in you.

Whole sermon series could hardly begin to exhaust those ideas. But I think our text actually points towards a slightly different takeaway:

Important as it is that we prepare to pick up a mantle, it is at least as important — and maybe harder to hear — that we learn how to set down our mantle and pass it to others.

As it did for Elijah, the time will come when you will have to love your God enough to entrust his mission to others, to cede your power and authority and influence and recognition to others.

Scripture gives us models of how to do this — but also how not to do it. On either side of Elijah’s ascension, we meet a new king: Jehoram, who is only in power because his brother Ahaziah displeased the Lord and died before having an heir (2 Kgs 1). Jehoram takes Israel to war against Moab, whose own king is so desperate to preserve his power that he takes his firstborn son, his heir, and burns him alive as a ritual sacrifice (2 Kgs 3).

In between these stories of failed successions, we have Elijah calmly handing his mantle to a worthy heir. Elisha can see what is coming and asks to inherit Elijah’s role as lead prophet. It’s a “hard thing” to be confronted with so ambitious a successor, but Elijah is accepting. He knows that it is God’s will, not his, that matters: “…if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted to you; if not, it will not” (v 10).

This June this city will host an important transition in the life of our denomination. I doubt chariots of fire will swoop down over Minneapolis or that Gary Walter will be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind, but we will elect a new president. Last month the presidential search committee announced the man it hopes will be voted Gary’s successor at the ECC annual meeting: John Wenrich. Coincidentally, the last time I saw John, he was talking to us Northwest Conference delegates about the challenge of, well, leadership succession. At least at that point, there were 70 lead/solo pastors in the conference who were likely to retire within five years. (It’s not just pastors: for years at our church, I’ve been struck how much we still depend on older members to do the work of the church.) So John encouraged congregations to be intentional about making this transition. He spoke of Moses-type leaders and Joshua-type leaders, but he might as well have said Elijah- and Elisha-types. The vocation of the former was to help prepare the latter, and to step aside when the time of transition had come.

(I’ll say more about the young succeeding the old, but that’s not the only Christian succession story. Other groups in the church must learn to set down their mantle. Including people like me. For far too long, white men have held exorbitant power in most American churches. It is high time that women and persons of color take up responsibility and authority commensurate with their gifts as teacher, preachers, prophets, and administrators. Let us not be like the earthly kingdom that surrounds us, where white men desperately cling to power, whatever the cost.)

Accepting such transitions is never easy. Setting down your mantle takes humility. It takes a strong sense of God’s calling on your life. And it takes time — no sooner have you picked up a mantle than you have to start learning how to set it down.

But it also takes something less obvious: the patient work of befriending. Just as Jesus made friends, not just disciples (John 15:12-17), you must make a point of befriending others. In particular, make friendships that transcend the divisions of age, race, and gender. In short, befriend your successors.

Don Frisk
Donald C. Frisk (1911-2010) – North Park University

That’s what happened to me, about ten years ago. I was new to Salem Covenant, but drawn to its intergenerational community. To this day, the most important friendships I’ve made at that church have been with people much older than me. My pastor — who has become my co-author and frequent partner in mission and ministry. And the two retired pastors to whom Mark and I dedicated our book: Jim Hawkinson and Glen Wiberg. Long before I had any sense that I might find myself writing books about Pietism or — perish the thought! — preaching at local Covenant churches, Glen and Jim made a point of admitting me to their circle of friends and talking to me about the Pietist heritage of our denomination.

One of the people they mentioned often was Don Frisk, a son of our congregation and one of the greatest theologians the Covenant Church has produced. Frisk wrote once of coming back to Salem in the 1980s (when Glen was senior pastor). Six decades after his childhood, many things seemed new and different, but what mattered most hadn’t changed. The language was English, not Swedish, and the location was New Brighton, not Nordeast. But the movement and the mission was the same.

I think Jim and Glen saw something in me akin to what Don Frisk saw in the Salem he visited: something totally new, yet resolutely the same. They knew that Christianity was not something static, something to be possessed. They knew that Christianity was, in Frisk’s terms, “a living and transforming faith only as one generation passes it to the next.”

It’s how Pietists have always understood Christianity. Not a building. Not an organization or institution. 

But a living faith in a God of Creation and Resurrection, a faith that has the power to change individuals and, through them, communities and the world… if one group passes it to the next.

Frisk concluded:

It has been said that God has no grandchildren, only children. That is but another way of saying that Christianity as a living faith is always, as Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten reminds us, “only a generation away from possible extinction.” It is a simple and solemn truth. The message we have been given is not from ourselves. It is not by nature hidden in every human heart. It is a gift of revelation, a Word from God, a treasure we hold in earthen vessels. If others are to hear it and believe we must tell it to them. While we must tell it in words that are fresh and vital for each generation, we must tell it faithfully, lest the message be distorted or lost in the telling.

That’s what Jim and Glen did for me: they told me the story of Jesus Christ and his church in words that were fresh and vital for my generation. While their deaths, in 2011 and 2017, seemed as abrupt to me as Elijah’s departure did to Elisha, I can see now that they had engaged in a years-long process of setting down a mantle that I now join many others — many of you — in picking up.

So wherever this word finds you, may it encourage you to join this story of generation succeeding generation. May it encourage you to tell the story to others, faithfully and creatively, with whatever gifts you’ve been given. May it encourage you to pick up and set down your mantle, trusting in the power of the same spirit that empowered Elijah and Elisha.

Now to him who by the powerful Spirit at work within us is able to accomplish far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus — to all generations — for ever and ever. Amen.