1 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”
4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” 10 And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” 11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Being Elijah’s apprentice must have been a pretty wild ride. Casually walking up to the Jordan river, Elijah strikes the water with his rolled-up cloak, the water parts, and he walks across. There is no sense that he was surprised by this. I rather imagine him treading the Jordan’s bottom as if crossing the street to pick up a pack of chewing gum from the convenience store. Elisha was not new to his master, but did he do a double take at this point? After all, Joshua was the last person to have parted those waters according to Scripture. There are several other references to famous earlier events in this passage. The two prophets started out at Gilgal where the people of Israel had erected a monument of stones after they crossed the Jordan. They go to Bethel where Jacob had his dream of a ladder reaching to heaven. They go to Jericho where Joshua marched for seven days and God cast down the walls. The Holy Spirit wants you to have all these things in mind. God’s deliverance, his presence, his mighty power to save. The people had set up stones at Gilgal, Jacob had set up a stone at Bethel, but God had cast down the stone walls of Jericho.
The two men talk. What did Elijah and Elisha discuss on that road? We do not know. Suddenly, however, a chariot and horses of fire separate the two. A whirlwind comes and seizes Elijah, whisking him to heaven. The year I was born, my grandfather was taken up in a tornado in Iowa. He survived. Lived almost another 30 years. He attested that he remembered nothing of his brush with whirling death. One moment he realized his car was in the air heading for the ditch and the next thing he knew he was standing in a muddy field, leaning on a fence post, bruised from head to toe. Was Elijah set down on a mountain top some eight centuries later where he conversed with Jesus, this time as the disciple to his own master? Or was there an in-between time for Elijah, a moment to comb his hair after the whirlwind’s furor? From the description of him, I am not sure Elijah really cared about whether his hair was combed.
This reading and all the readings of Transfiguration challenge our settled assumptions about God and this life we live. The things we think are so sure are really vapors. The money, power, security, and other things which we think are solid are not. Even death, which we all confront and seems so implacable of a foe, is nothing before God. A holy man’s cloak striking the water can, by God, split those waters and hold them apart so the holy man can cross. Elijah crossed the Jordan, sure of what God could do. He crossed the centuries and stood with Jesus on a mountain top. He will stand with us on that great last day. He, Elisha, and we have seen the reminders all around him. God’s love and his power for us are sure. This world, our own death, Satan himself, cannot change that. The rest of these things will pass away. I will pass away. But God’s love for me and you will not.