Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church – the day we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We’ve heard the story in our first reading for today: the believers were all together in one place when they heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the room, and they saw little tongues of flame that rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability.
But I’m not going to preach on this passage this morning. Instead, I want to take you to a rather obscure verse in the Old Testament, because I think it sheds a lot of light on what we’re celebrating today. In the 2nd Book of Kings, we read this request from the prophet Elisha to his old mentor, Elijah, who is about to be taken up into heaven by the Lord: “Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9b).
Old Elijah was the first great prophet of the people of Israel, and he lived about 850 years before Christ. He appeared without warning in 1 Kings chapter 17, during the reign of King Ahab, one of the most wicked kings ever to rule the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was married to Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who worked hard to introduce the worship of the Sidonian god Baal in her new country. Ahab went along with her, and together they won over much of the population of Israel to the extraordinary idea that there could be more than one god worshipped by the people of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
So Elijah appeared in 1 Kings 17 and announced to King Ahab, “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”. Then Elijah disappeared into the wilderness, and for the next three years there was no rain in Israel.
Eventually after three years Elijah appeared again (I’m summarizing here!), and he challenged the prophets of Baal to a public contest on Mount Carmel. “Let’s each build an altar and lay out a sacrifice”, he said; “and we’ll each pray to our god. Whichever god answers with fire to burn up the sacrifice, we’ll know he’s the true god”. The prophets of Baal agreed (there were 450 of them, by the way), and Elijah invited them to go first. So while all the people were watching, they built an altar, laid out their sacrifice, and began to pray. They prayed and danced and worked themselves up into a frenzy all day long, but no fire came.
Then it was Elijah’s turn to build his altar and lay out his sacrifice. We’re told that he even went so far as to pour buckets of water over it, to make it even more difficult for Yahweh! Then in a very simple prayer he asked God to vindicate his name and show everyone that he was the only true god. Immediately fire from heaven fell and consumed the sacrifice and the stone altar. The people were suitably impressed and all fell down and worshipped Yahweh, the God of Israel. As for the prophets of Baal, they quickly came to a sticky end.
One person who was not impressed was Queen Jezebel, and she sent word to Elijah that she’d make sure he died just like her prophets had died. So Elijah, the great man of faith, ran away. He went to the desert, to Mount Sinai where Moses had received the law of God. There he prayed to Yahweh and complained that there were so few followers of Yahweh left, and that Jezebel was trying to kill him. But God met him in a quiet place on the mountain and told him to go back; “There are more of my followers out there than you think”, he said. He told him to anoint new kings in waiting for Israel and Judah, and he specifically commanded him to take on an apprentice, Elisha son of Shaphat, to learn the prophet-business from him and to take his place when he was gone.
So Elijah did as he was told; he went and found Elisha and, in a symbolic action, “threw his mantle over him” (1 Kings 19:19c). Obviously the mantle symbolized Elijah’s prophetic office, and Elisha understood immediately what was going on; he went home, told his parents he was leaving, and then ‘set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant’ (19:21c).
There are a few more chapters of stories about Elijah in 1 Kings; always he is speaking the word of the Lord in judgement against the idolatry and injustice perpetrated by Ahab and Jezebel. But eventually, in the last chapter of 1 Kings, God’s judgement comes upon Ahab. He goes into battle against the Arameans at a place called Ramoth-Gilead, and even though he has disguised himself so it won’t be obvious who he is, he is struck by a chance arrow, and in the evening he dies. His death is the last major scene in the first book of Kings.
And so we come to 2 Kings chapter 2. Elisha has been following Elijah around as his servant for some years now, and we can assume that he’s been suitably impressed with the old man’s faith and courage. I think we can also safely assume that he’s terrified by the idea that one day the old man will be gone, and he will have to take his place. After all, that’s how we would feel, isn’t it? Imagine yourself in Elisha’s place; you’ve been watching all this time as Elijah boldly prays to God for miracles, fully expecting that God will answer – and God does! Elijah is constantly speaking the word of God to kings without fear – or so it seems to Elisha – and his words always seem to come true! Talk about a big pair of shoes to fill!
So 2 Kings chapter 2 tells us that the time has come when the Lord is going to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind: the old prophet is so great that he won’t even die a normal death! So Elijah and Elisha walk together to the place where this will happen. They come to the Jordan River, and Elijah takes his mantle – the very same mantle that he threw over Elisha’s shoulders when he took him on as an apprentice – and strikes the river with it. The water is parted before him, and the two men walk together on dry ground.
Now at last Elijah speaks to Elisha. He says, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you”. Elisha replies, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit”. Elijah says,
“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not”. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
He 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 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”. (2 Kings 2:10-15)
And indeed, as the 2nd Book of Kings continues, Elisha does the same sort of things as Elijah, only more so. He speaks the word of God without fear to kings – not only Israelite kings, but foreigners as well. He performs extraordinary miracles, and God protects him in spectacular ways. I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve been told that Elisha is recorded as performing exactly twice as many miracles as Elijah – obviously the writer wants to make the point that God answered the prayer for ‘a double portion of Elijah’s spirit’ in a literal way!
Now, what connects the old story of Elijah and Elisha with the story of Jesus, the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, and us today?
The first thing is the miracles. A lot of people have the impression that the Bible is full of miracle stories from start to finish. Actually, it isn’t. The miracles tend to cluster around specific periods in biblical history. The time of Moses and Joshua is one of those periods; the time of Elijah and Elisha is another. The third period is the time of Jesus and the early apostles. It’s not that miracles are absent at other times; it’s just that they’re rather rare.
Elisha prayed that he would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and his prayer was answered: God worked mighty miracles through him, even more so than through his mentor Elijah. Interestingly, Jesus promises his early followers the same sort of thing. In John 14:12-14 he says,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it”.
Greater things than Jesus? How can that be possible? It’s possible because he is ‘going to the Father’, and he is going to send the promised Holy Spirit on his followers.
Now, the truth is that we do not see the early Christians performing twice as many miracles as Jesus did. Yes, there were many spectacular healings, but there were also times when they experienced unanswered prayer, just as we do today. But where their works did exceed those of their Master was that the early Christians preached the gospel to far more people than Jesus did. Jesus restricted himself mainly to the people of Israel, but the early Christians obeyed his command and went not only to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth, and many thousands became believers through their witness.
I’m sure that they found it hard to believe that they would do ‘greater things’ than their master, just as Elisha would have found it hard to believe that he would actually receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and do greater things than his beloved mentor. And I’m also sure that the early Christians would have had a hard time believing another thing Jesus said to them in John 16:7:
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”.
‘The Advocate’, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Now if you’re like me, you might have found yourself thinking from time to time that we modern believers are at a disadvantage. We’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh. We’ve never heard his voice with our physical ears. We’ve never seen any of the miracles he did in the gospels. So aren’t we somehow ‘second class Christians’? Isn’t it actually to our disadvantage that Jesus ‘went away’?
Not at all. After all, if something is being taken away from you, your reaction will depend on what’s being given to take its place. And in our case, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an inferior gift at all! In fact, in several places in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit is referred to as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ – just as Elisha talked about receiving a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. When Jesus walked the earth as a human being, he could only be in one place at a time, so if he was with a group of his followers in Jerusalem, he couldn’t be in Galilee at the same time. But now that the Spirit of Jesus is available to every believer we can all experience the help and support we need from him as we try to do the work he has called us to do.
So today, my sisters and brothers, you and I are probably in the same sort of place Elisha was as he contemplated his beloved mentor being taken from him. How could he possibly carry on Elijah’s work? The old man had such a powerful faith, while Elisha, in contrast, probably felt his own faith was weak. Elijah seemed fearless, while Elisha probably was desperately aware of his own fears. And when we think of carrying on the work Jesus began, we probably have similar feelings.
But remember last week’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ command to his followers: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). As Jesus spoke these words, was he perhaps thinking about the story of Elijah’s mantle falling from heaven to clothe his successor, Elisha? ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’, and just as surely the Spirit of Jesus rests on you and me today. So let’s turn from our fears and pray that the Spirit will fill us and give us the gifts we need – and the courage we need – to do the work that Jesus has asked us to do. And then let us go in the power of the Holy Spirit and do even greater things than Jesus did, just as he promised, taking the message of his power and love to people who have not yet come to know him, so that his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.