I was with my mom the last time she ever saw her grandmother. Mom and her grandma had a very special relationship. For weeks at a time mom would go visit her grandparents on their small farm in rural Illinois. Those were sacred times for my mom. Grandma Goldie was instrumental in her faith formation. She prayed for mom (and all of her grandchildren!) fervently. She listened well. She handed the faith that was given to her onto my mom. More than anything she loved.Their special relationship never waned. Even into her late 70’s, Grandma Goldie would make long drives to visit us, and my mom would take trips to visit her. After the years had passed where Grandma Goldie could no longer drive, my mom would go get her and bring her home where they’d spend a week or two together. They’d laugh. They’d shop. They’d tell stories.
I remember the last time we went to see her like photographs and short video clips. For some reason, it was just mom and me. We drove out to the old farmhouse and it was so dark. It was a hot July night and not even one star seemed to lend us any light. As dark as it was outside, it appeared only slightly less dim in the house. Grandma Goldie was dying. The lights were low. She lay in a bed weak, intermittently crying out for water. The first clip I can replay from that night was my mom bending over close and barely squeaking out, “Grandma, you’re going to see Jesus soon” with tears flowing down her face.
After standing in the room for a while as quietly and as reverently as we could a great moment of lucidity came over Grandma Goldie. She looked into my mom’s eyes, held her hand, and spoke these ancient words of blessing:The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.
My mom said good-bye, and as we left the room Grandma Goldie said over and over, “love you, love you, love you…” Two weeks later she passed. That night was so difficult. It was hard for me to watch my mom so sad. It was a pain I’d never seen her in before. The weight of death seemed too heavy for her to bear. At the same time, it was such a holy moment. Her words—spoken so gently with a faintness of breath pushing them from behind—carried incredible authority. Grandma Goldie’s mantle fell on my mom. This blessing would sustain her. It gave her assurance. God was with Grandma Goldie, even as she lay dying, and the Lord would remain present with mom.
The episode of my mom saying goodbye to her grandma plays over and over in the reading of 2 Kings 2. Elisha knows that life as he knows it is coming to an end. Though Elijah’s ascent into heaven is peculiar in that it is not death, it must feel like death to Elisha. The pseudo-funeral procession begins as Elijah sets out for Bethel, and as does so he shoos his protégé away. The response: “no master, I will not leave you.” A company of prophets meets them, and their bluntness is too much to for Elisha to handle. Elisha’s mentor is leaving him. The first time Elijah had thrown his mantle on Elisha it meant he was to leave all that he knew to follow in his footsteps. At least he was able to first say goodbye to his family and throw a party, but the life he knew it ended when he burned his plow to make the meal. And now these prophets are reminding him it’s over. “Yahweh is going to take him soon” they deadpan. “Yeah, I know. Shut up” (my translation).
Elisha clings to his master. The story repeats itself in Jericho. “Stay here.” “No, I will not leave you.” “Your master will be taken soon.” “Yeah, I know. Shut up.” One more time Elijah makes the effort to leave his apprentice behind, but once more Elisha insists. This time would be the last at the Jordan River.
As Elijah travels to the place where he would ascend to Heaven, each of the places on the way hold great significance in the history of Israel. The journey begins at Gilgal, where Elijah and Elisha would certainly pass the monument of twelve stones commemorating the mighty acts of Yahweh. The would notice the stone at Bethel where wayfaring patriarch Jacob laid his head and saw the glorious latter that reached the heavens and received this promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). In Jericho the rubble of the collapsed walls would lay under their feet. As they reached the Jordan River, they’d remember the stories of how Yahweh had separated the waters so all of the people of Israel could pass on dry ground.
If there is any speculation that Elijah is not one of the great prophets of Israel up to this point (even after having defeating the prophets of Baal so handedly), all doubts are put to rest when he rolls up his mantle, dips it into the Jordan, and the waters part. This was surely a mighty act of Yahweh. He and his apprentice walk on dry land to the other bank.
After they cross, Elijah questions Elisha on how he can be assured. This is the reason why Elisha has persistently followed him—he wants assurance that leaving everything was the right thing to do and that he has what it takes to speak the truth of God. He wants to know he’s ok. To ensure that he will be, almost to hedge his bets, he asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit. Then, maybe then, he’ll be ok.
This scene is reminiscent of a later scene in scripture when the disciples are standing on a mountaintop with Jesus. The gospel reading this week (Luke 9:51-62) reminds us that Jesus’ requirements for following him were even greater than Elijah required. Don’t say goodbye. Don’t even think about breaking down your plow, burning it and feasting one last time. To be fit for the kingdom of God, you’ve got to go now. This is what these disciples have signed up for. They’ve followed him through death and resurrection, and as they meet up on the mountain, they know things were going to change. Perhaps the doubt the author refers to in Matthew 28:17 isn’t a denial of the risen Christ they have witnessed, but a doubt of their own fortitude to carry on.
This is what Elisha is dealing with. Can I do it? Are you with me God? Elisha doesn’t have to wait long to receive his answer. The chariots of fire descent, the hot wind burns his face. He tries to make out what it happening through the dust screaming, “Father! Father!” He mourns as he tears his clothes as a sign of his grief.
And when he notices Elijah’s mantle had fallen from the chariot of fire, he picks it up, and with wonder asks the most important question of this text, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” and as he dips the mantle into the river, the waters part and goes on his way with full assurance. The answer to the question is simple: the God of Elijah is with Elisha. The Lord is with Elisha as God had been with Moses as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, as God was with the priests when they carried the Ark of the Covenant into the middle of the Jordan, and as God had been with his Master Elijah. Elisha carried the presence of God with him to go fulfill not his master’s calling but his own.Elisha receives such a great measure of assurance. But how much greater is the word of assurance Jesus gives his disciples on the top of the mountain before his own ascension? “You don’t need to worry. All authority has been given to me. Go. Make disciples. To the ends of the Earth! Teach people what I’ve commanded you. Have them pass through baptismal waters. Do it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Don’t forget this: I am with you always, until the bitter end” (my paraphrase). Our assurance is Jesus. We’ve passed through the baptismal waters and His mantle falls on us each time we gather to share in His body and blood. We’ve received more than a double portion of His Spirit. Even when we don’t feel sure, when things are dark, when death is near, the Spirit of God goes with us.