There is a time for living, and there is a time for dying -- and in our Old Testament reading this morning we have the story of dying, as the prophet Elijah knows the time for his death has come. And typical of this great man, he tries to make himself invisible even in death so that through him it will be God who shines through. Yet he is human, wanting to see his priest-friends for one last time -- so he and Elisha make the rounds of the religious centers -- Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan.
He tries not to make a scene, so he does not tell them that today will be his death day, but they know -- whispering to Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your Master? Elisha knows, and at every stop Elijah tries to send Elisha back, wanting just to disappear, ending as did Moses alone on the mountain top, dying in solitude into God. But Elisha refuses to leave his side. And for such loyalty, Elijah’s last words are a gift to Elisha: “Before I leave,” he asks, “what would you have me do for you? Elisha doesn’t have to think: “Give me a double share of your spirit.”
This story forces that very question on each of us. If we were to be promised anything in this whole world, for what would we ask? Money, a new cell phone, how about an air conditioner in our cell -- anything! None of this tempts Elisha. What he wants is to have some of Elijah’s spirit. What he is really asking is, “May I become like you!” St. Paul’s response is the Christian version -- “All I want,” he says, “is to have the spirit of Christ, so that it is not I but Christ who works within me.” Is this what we would choose if we were given such a choice?
But there is more to this story. When Elijah is taken into Heaven, Elisha immediately tears up his own garment, picks up Elijah’s mantle, and from that moment on, acts as Elijah would have acted. In a real sense each of us has picked up a mantle of some kind, and we are living it. It may be the mantle of having been scarred by a demanding parent, of a mantle of being controlled by family expectations, or the mantle of hungering for a love we never had -- resulting in our acting with self-aggrandizement, ambition, or a host of other crippling behaviors keeping us from putting on the mantle of becoming who God wants us to be. Jesus expressing this is terms of putting on his yoke, which is easy.
I have recently been drawn to Psalm 16 where the Psalmist says: “The Lord is my portion and cup,” “the lot God has marked out for me is my delight” -- a “goodly hermitage,” so that my path has been “through pleasant places.” To pick up the mantle of Christ is to promise to take whatever path Christ chooses for us, even through it may lead through dark valleys. And then when our journey ends, we will be able to say with thanksgiving, “It has been a good life all in all -- for our lot and our portion has been chosen by the good Shepherd who has walked with us every step of the way.”
Tragically, in contrast, are the host of persons who when their end comes, will slam down the cards of their life, muttering that they had been dealt a lousy hand, dying in bitterness over the portion and cup that has resulted from the mantle they have picked up.