The Preacher’s Study
6th Sunday after Pentecost, 2016
John W.B. Hill
2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20;
Galatians 5.1, 13-25;
Our North American culture is succumbing to a cult of ‘freedom.’ When freedom means nothing more than escape from constraints and regulations, we quickly become captive to delusions and enslaved to our own self-indulgence (what our second reading calls living according to ‘the flesh’); and the self-indulgence of our consumer society is generating a global race toward a climate crisis.
The alternative to all such enslavement, we are told, is living by the Spirit, yielding to the Spirit’s guidance. This alone is freedom.
Elijah was a man of the Spirit, and the story of his career (in the semicontinuous first readings of the past few weeks) shows how the Spirit was leading him to question his own assumptions about the ways of the true God. Originally convinced that the faithlessness of God’s people could be healed by a show of power and vengeance (the great sacrifice on Mount Carmel), Elijah came to see that as a delusion. He retreated to Mount Horeb in defeat, hoping to recover the vision given to the prophet Moses in that holy place; instead, he discovered that God was not in the wind or fire. In the ‘sheer silence’ that followed, the Spirit told him to anoint Elisha as his successor, to ‘pass the mantle.’ Time for a prophet with a clearer vision of God’s ways!
This must have been a hard pill to swallow. Today’s episode (Elijah’s ‘swan song’) depicts a devoted disciple following a cranky and dejected master. Elijah now retreats to the far side of the Jordan; he will expire where Moses expired, somewhat short of his goal.
So what is the meaning of the whirlwind, the chariot of fire, and horses of fire? Chariots are war machines, and fire recalls the sacrificial fire on Mount Carmel. Was Elijah finally consumed by his own craving for vengeance?
More to the point, will his successor see more clearly the ways of Israel’s Saviour? We will have to wait for next Sunday’s reading to give us a clue.
Today’s gospel begins the teaching section in this version of the gospel, and Luke marks that beginning by announcing, “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Why this expression of new resolve? Luke acknowledges this turning point, as all the synoptic gospels do, one way or another — a change of direction foreshadowed by events such as the beheading of the Baptist and the transfiguration. For Jesus recognizes that his offer of the new peace of God’s kingdom is being rejected by God’s people because it clashes with the sacred institutions of Jerusalem. He faces a resistance to God’s will just as massive as the resistance Elijah faced.
Indeed, the figure of Elijah and his stubborn fight against idolatry lies just below the surface of this gospel episode, for the Samaritans were the descendants of the northern kingdom whose monarchs were so determined to kill Elijah. Yet Jesus’ response to their hostility is in complete contrast to Elijah’s: whereas Elijah called down fire on his foes (2 Kings 1), Jesus’ rejects such resort to violence. But the crisis is just as real: God’s people are once again rejecting God’s way, and the consequences will be horrific, as Jesus himself foresaw.
That is why we hear such stern conditions for discipleship. If, in this time of crisis, Jesus knows he must “set his face” toward Jerusalem, his followers must do so too. No one who “looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Fair weather disciples are not disciples of such a master in such a crisis.
What will it mean, then, to be disciples in this moment of crisis, when a self-indulgent society is careening toward ecological destruction?
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada.
Salvador Dalí, Elijah and the Chariot (f.75-4, Plate J)
James Tissot, Elijah Ascends in a Chariot of Fire,
available at http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Elijah-Ascends-in-a-Chariot-of-Fire-Posters_i3488924_.htm?stp=true