Taking Up The Mantle
Easter Sunday is meant to be a day of joy. Across the Christian church, it’s set aside to remember that Jesus, God made flesh, had triumphed over sin and death, reconciled us to God the father, and has gone to prepare a place for us. In the evangelical tradition, I know of many churches who have their participation in baptisms on Easter. This year, my church was no different. This week, as a way to relive those moments, we had a montage video of the experience. It was heartwarming, and endearing. Men and women of all ages, joining together to celebrate their faith, and participate in that outward sign of their newfound identity in Christ. The video culminated with the moving depiction of a 17-year-old girl joyously being dunked and then brought back out of the water and into her new life in Christ. As I was driving home, I started thinking about what happened to that young girl, and about my own identity in Christ, and how I’d been standing still for far too long.
To tell this story, I need to jump back into the Old Testament. 2 Kings 2: 1-14 tells the story of Elijah and Elisha, both Prophets of God Almighty, and how the mantle of authority was passed from one to the other. It is the story of Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire while still living. Before he is taken up, he first asks Elisha, his disciple, his heir, and his son what it is he can do to for him to help him in the days ahead? It's a common question that parents ask inwardly and outwardly thousands upon thousands of time in their hearts and mind and aloud with their voices throughout their lives. Sometimes the child will hear, sometimes not. Elijah does not give room for interpretation or misunderstanding; he cuts to the chase with the question; how can I help you? "Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?" (2 Kings 2: 9)
The wording of Elisha’s response is "let me inherit a double portion of your spirit." RC Sproul contends that this can be taken one of two ways. The first is that way that most protege's will want to impress and out do their mentors and teachers. If you do X, I'm going to do X times 2. You did good things? I'll do great things. In the framework of Elijah and Elisha, basically, all that stuff that you could do, all that power that you had, that influence, all that? I’ll take two, please and thank you. In Sproul's own words "I don't think Elisha was that dumb."
What? Dumb? Why?
Because all the years that Elisha was with Elijah, he got to see the good... and the bad. He got to witness the loneliness, the mockery, the ridicule, the hate, the shame, the snares and traps of this world that were set against the Prophet of the Most High God. He got to see how being set apart by God carried it’s own consequences, trials, and that the weight of that could be a load to great for the human soul to bear. To ask for a double portion of that spirit that animated Elijah that gave him the power and authority to speak in the Lord's name, to command under the mantle of the lords power, and to perform the miracles and wonders that he did just to outshine the old prophet would have been foolish (idiotic could certainly qualify as well) indeed.
Rather, Sproul believed as I do, it was Elisha’s way of asking for the power, spirit, and vitality of the Most High God that would be necessary to merely try and merely live up to the same responsibilities that Elijah did. Whatever Elijah could do, Elisha believed that he needed double the reserve, double the power, double the presence of God just to do the same things. I believe that this was an admission by Elisha to his friend, father, and mentor that he didn't think he could do it without the power of God, but more so that he didn't know if he had what it takes to fill the elder prophet's shoes; that the elder prophet had something that Elisha did not and that God would need to make up for this deficit.
Elijah's response is, I believe, a confirmation of Elisha’s intended subtext and is meant to assuage all of these fears in a single moment. The old prophet says “you have asked a difficult thing... yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.” (2 Kings 2:10)
My translation:"Look, that's not my call to make unilaterally. We both know that this responsibility is going to pass on, and when all’s said and done you're going to have choose to take it up when I'm gone… or not. Whether that's going to be a super-sized portion of the God juju or not, that's up to the Boss, not me. But son, please hear me on this, what you are asking for is going to come with a cost. Because all those things that I could do came with a cost, as you well know. If you ask for double, you get a double of the good, but you get a double of the bad. That's just how it goes, and you will have to face that when it comes, if it comes, which I can't promise. But I CAN promise you this; it takes courage to do the right thing. It takes courage to be God’s chosen man. It takes courage to stand for the Lord our God when kings, priests of false gods, and whole tribes of men are set against you. It takes courage to do what must be done even when it is hard. It takes courage to face what is seen and rely upon that which is (gale-force columns of holy fire not withstanding) unseen. It's going to be super easy to look away, it's going to be so much more convenient to not speak up. It's going to be so much more comfortable to let people get by with what they think they know, and not speak the Truth into their lives. It's going to be so much easier for you if you just look away.
"But... if you do that, you gain nothing. If you don't take up the task, nothing gets accomplished. If you don't speak the Truth, the lies get worse. If you look away, your fear grows darker and more controlling.
"Don't look away.
"I know it's going to be hard. I know you'll be afraid. But if you can have courage and count on the promise of the Lord God here and now, it will be a double blessing for you in the long run when you must rely on your behavior now as a standard for your behavior then.
"Son, don't look away. The Lord will bless you if you don't look away."
Then comes the chariot of fire. Horses of fire. Whirlwind. Elijah is taken up. His mantle, the symbol of his authority, is left on the ground... in the dirt... for Elisha to see. Give that some serious thought… the rest of him and his possessions are taken up along with the man. Elijah has already said that Elisha’s going to be his heir when it’s over and done with. Everyone knew that. Elisha was there for that ceremonial shindig. But it’s a whole other ballgame when there’s no one around, when grief, or anger, or lust, or any other intense emotion has got you by the throat and the options on the table are “bail” or “step up”.
Elisha had a choice. It's a simple choice, but it's not an easy choice. One choice is to walk away... to say adios to the hardship, the suffering, the loneliness, and the added reality that now he doesn't even have his father and friend to keep as company. He could teach. He could preach. He could set up a very comfortable life for himself where he would be able to have his pick of students to disciple and lead, and women to marry. He could be a father to his own children. He could live in comfort and a degree of ease unseen by him before now.
The other choice is to take up the mantle. It means that he will have to endure things that his fore-bearers did not have to endure. It means he will have to carry on the line of Prophets who speak, and counsel with the authority of God. It means the weighty responsibility, and doubly so. But this isn't like some warlord who simply took what he wanted, seized the power that was available or filled the vacuum left vacant by another’s absence. It was stepping into a role for which he was selected, groomed, and chosen purposefully... and to do it of his own free will knowing the price that would be paid. It would be surrendering all of his dreams of his own ambition and glory, all of the things he could think of and want on his own and saying, "I am stepping into the role and onto the path that God Almighty has prepared for me, for my life, and for the lives of those who I will touch on his behalf." It's a choice of self-sacrifice.
And it's lying there, on the ground on the very place where Elijah once stood.
It's an easy thing to die for your faith. The new testament is rife with the fates of the early church, and we church history know of those beyond what is documenting in scripture. Paul was beheaded in Rome. Andrew crucified. Peter crucified upside down. Some beaten to death, run through, torn to pieces. Terrifying things to happen to the body, but all it requires is that single choice to die for the faith that you profess. After that, it's eternity with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen, hallelujah, praise the Lord.
It's another thing to choose to live for Christ. That's a long-term ball game. 40, 50, 70 years of choices, not just day to day, but moment to moment, where the odds get less even, and the cost gets greater as the years tick on. Looking around the world today, a world that Elisha never knew, we have a world where people are still killed for their faith, but it's also a world now were standing for the faith can cost you dearly. The wrong opinion on abortion, on gender, on sex, on marriage, on ethics and morals in broad strokes, even the invocation of the Book used as the authority for your statements can cost you your job, your friends, your family, it can have you removed from the digital world that everyone holds so dear. You can have your whole life upended just by a retweet of an unpopular opinion, and that opinion could have been one that you made a decade ago. The rules continue to change, the rules are unevenly applied, and the chaos is a feature of the modern world, not a bug. To choose Christ in the middle of all of this is to say, "upon this solid rock I stand, and I swipe left on your shifting sand". That declaration is one that is unfavorable by the standards of the world and its lesser gods. That’s what Easter should, to me (and maybe only to me) be a reminder of (second only to the whole paying for the sins of all mankind throughout the ages when God made flesh died for his children).
Elisha knew about that flavor of unfavorable. He may not have had social media to contend with, but he did have to give the word of the Lord over to people who were in person, and culturally more apt to choose violence as an acceptable remedy to interpersonal conflict. He may not have had Twitter to contend with, but he had his reputation and the reputation of all of the Prophets who came before him as the reputation that he would now be walking in. For his entire life, he must live for God. He will live as unpopular and as the outcast because of the absolute necessity of living by the Word of God. Elisha took up the mantle, he used the mantle as it was intended, and he was recognized as a prophet upon whom the Spirit of Power rested.
Saints, each of us are called to take up the cross and follow after Christ. We live in a world that is like cotton candy; sweet but ephemeral, delicious and colorful as long as you're OK with it being devoid of substance. It's a world that is crying out for clarification amid uncertainty, hope in the midst of fear, light amid darkness, cunning mirth in the fracas, and ultimately waiting on the next terrible thing for the news to make us afraid of. The world is begging for something more. It’s pleading for clarity and consistency. It’s anxiously waiting for a lifeline to help draw them out of the frantic madness that is devouring the mental, physical, financial, and spiritual health of the world with ravenous glee.
Over the Easter weekend, my church celebrated hundreds of baptisms at our campuses. It was, as always, a joyous time to be a part of the body of Christ to see lives be given hope, joy, peace, and a moment of clarity in a world that seems to view all of those things as the most terrible of threats. Like I said before, the capstone of the video to relive those experiences was the baptism of a 17-year-old girl.
She took her own life 4 days later.
I don't know what her social circle talked about, I don't know what her online life was like, and I don't know what could have spiraled so quickly after such a joyous and welcome day. But I do know that we live in a world where we are being forced away from one another for our own good. We're being forced to hide from one another for our own good. We're being shamed if we connect for our own good. We're being scorned for our own good if we want to gather and celebrate life.
Chaos. Fear. Hopelessness. Even on well-adjusted and mentally resilient adults, a year of conflicting information, chaos, violence, and uncertainty can be taxing at best. Mental health cases have been at their highest records for a year. It's a fact that when people are at their lowest isn't when they do something terrible. They don't have the energy to do anything about it then. They have no drive, no ambition, no will to engage. It's when things are getting better that the opportunity for disaster strikes.
Humanity is beginning to find it's normalcy again, and with that is going to come this same scenario; new found energy levels but the same rhetoric and lies being spoken into peoples lives, and so to break the cycle, those who are depressed and resigned do the thing they have been thinking about but haven't had the energy to act on. Pills. Jumping. Razors. The method doesn't matter, the result is the same.
You can see all around you what the cost has been for remaining silent. It's time to get in the game. Jesus died for the sins of all mankind so that we might be reconciled to God and that we might have life, and have it to the full(Jn. 10:10). His hope, his Truth, his message, and teaching are like water to those dying of thirst, and you have buckets to give. He loved them, and so must we. For the 17-year old’s who feel so alone they feel they have no other choice. For the 20-somethings who feel like no good can come from their 30s. For the elderly, and for all walks in between. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. Now it's our turn to love the world, to remind the world there is hope, to remind them there is Truth, and to remind them where they can find it. Saints, we're standing in the same place that Elisha was standing. Each of us has seen the miracle of God come and call up his Chosen into Heaven with the promise that he would come back again. Now, we are left with a choice; to take up the mantle or not.
Armor up. Sharpen up. It's time to go to get back in the fight.