For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday before Lent – 2 Kings 2:1-12
Arnold van Gennep was a French folklorist who lived from 1873 to 1957, and is most famous for his work on ‘Liminality’, describing what have come to be called ‘Rites of Passage’, or little ceremonies we pass through when things change in our lives. He identified three stages, the pre-liminal, the liminal, and the post-liminal (‘limen’ is the Latin word for a doorway or threshold). So a marriage, for example, is a ceremony which moves a couple from being two distinct people to one couple. In the pre-liminal phase couples arrange the wedding, go shopping for stuff for their house, try on dresses and suits and generally think their way into being married. The actual wedding day is the liminal phase, and then post-liminal life is about making it all work out in reality rather than fantasy!
The transition from Elijah to Elisha as being the key prophet in Israel is a story of liminality par excellence. It isn’t just a journey through change: there’s a physical journey too. In fact the journey is a reversal of Joshua’s route into the Promised Land, as they retrace his steps across to the far side of the Jordan, and the next section is going to show us Elisha returning alone to begin his ministry.
As with a wedding, a funeral, childbirth, a move from Cubs to Scouts or any other rite of passage, there are more people involved than just the immediate protagonists. In this story there are three ‘characters’: Elijah, the outgoing incumbent, Elisha his successor, and the ‘company of the prophets’, a kind of theological college full of students for ministry. All of these ‘characters’ plays their part in the narrative. The company sound a bit insecure at the thought of an incoming boss, and don’t seem quite sure what to make of Elijah or the coming transition. Elijah seems to want to shake off Elisha – perhaps he feels that his ministry is being ended prematurely and wants to busy himself and put off the evil day. Or maybe he’s testing Elisha – just how committed are you to this task? Wouldn’t you rather just stay where you are and put your feet up? And Elisha doggedly follows his master, determined not to miss the spectacular departure, and keen to take over the role with the Spirit’s help.
Times of transition are never easy to negotiate, even when the rite of passage is entirely positive and hoped for. There’s insecurity in the air, anxiety about how we will all play our parts in the story, and what the post-liminal phase will hold. There will be sleepless nights with a new baby, desperate grief after the death of a loved one, fears about how we’ll cope at a new school, university or job …
Today represents the pre-liminal part of Lent, which is of course itself the pre-liminal part of Holy Week and Easter. So what will it be like? And especially what will it be like this year? Our church has invited us to a virtual imposition of ashes via YouTube, reminding us of the importance of touch and action in our faith and our worship. What can we ‘give up’ when we have already given up so much for the past year? What might we ‘take up’ when we’re either rushed off our feet with homeschooling and working from home, or we’re furloughed and have already found more time than we know what to do with for prayer and Bible-reading.
But no-one need have worried – this is a story of the action of God, not the action of human beings. The company seem to adjust well to their new boss, even though his style is very different from that of his predecessor. God clears the way for Elijah’s ascension, opening the river in a reversal of Joshua’s entry into the land, and, when challenged in v.14 he proves his presence with Elisha by letting him back in. God’s ministry is going to continue whatever, and no-one need worry about that.
Where would you put yourself in this story? I’m Elijah: recently retired but keen that anything I might have achieved in 40 years of ministry will continue to bear fruit, although I’m sure in some ways I had never expected. Some of us might be contemplating some kind of a new role, and feeling a bit anxious about it. Will we be up to the task? Like Elisha we might be hungry for the anointing which the Spirit brings: God knows that and grants his request. By the way the ‘double portion’ in v.9 doesn’t mean that Elisha wants to be twice as good at it as Elijah was – it simply means he wants to be the heir – the eldest son who gets twice as much as any other heirs, and who will take over the family business.
Or maybe you feel like you’re in the crowd scene, where others play the major parts and you have no option but to get caught up in it and have your life changed by the actions of others. I guess we’re all feeling that quite a bit at the moment as our lives are governed and restricted by a little virus too small to see.
But the message here is that through change and chance God still leads on, doing what he wants to do, appointing and disappointing people who will influence the lives of others, and working towards what we know will be the end of the story, the making of a new heavens and a new earth. Lent reminds us of the insecurity of this life, our addiction to sin, and our need to be changed and blessed by God. But maybe what we need most of all this year is to rest in the loving arms of a God whose purposes can never be thwarted, who is never surprised by what goes on in his world, and who has promised that whatever changes he will lead us through and weave everything together for good.