Their Spirit Rests on Us
II Kings 2:1-15
May 28, 2017
One of the most beloved children’s stories of the last 60s years is E.B. White’s classic book Charlotte’s Web. Almost all of us have read the book or seen one of the two movie versions and thus virtually everyone here today has some sense of how this beautiful little tale unfolds.
Charlotte’s Web, as you will recall, is the story of a pig named Wilbur who lives at Mr. Zukerman’s farm. Wilbur is bound for the slaughter until a barn spider named Charlotte comes to his rescue. With the assistance of a rat who also lives on the farm named Templeton, Charlotte begins to spin words into her web over Wilbur’s head. The words in Charlotte’s web such as “Radiant”, “Terrific” and “Some Pig” convince everyone that Wilbur is special.
The story, ultimately, culminates at the County Fair. Because of Charlotte’s work and words in her web, Wilbur becomes so beloved that his life is forever saved. After all, he is too famous to be put to death.
At this very same time, the story takes an unexpected turn. While Wilbur’s life has been saved, Charlotte the spider begins to help Wilbur understand that her life is coming to an end. She is tired, out of energy and will not return from the fair to the farm with Wilbur and the other animals As she shares this news, Wilbur the pig is inconsolable. He is who he is because of Charlotte. He would not be alive without her. How can life go on, he wonders, without Charlotte there? (“Charlotte’s Web”, Wikipedia)
Charlotte’s Web in a very moving and heartfelt way thus becomes an early story for children in which we learn at least two important lessons about life. First, through Charlotte, we are reminded that all of us ultimately die. Life doesn’t go on forever even for the best of us. That was the case for Charlotte the spider and despite his new found fame and momentary new lease on life it would ultimately be the case for Wilbur too. At the same time, Charlotte’s Web becomes an early instructor of the truth that the death of important people in our lives is particularly challenging because we wonder, we wonder, how will we live without them? How can we go on without their presence?
This is the same question that II Kings wrestles with as the torch is passed from one major prophet of Israel to the next. For, it is in II Kings 2, that Elijah’s life on earth comes to an end and his mantle is passed to his successor whose name is Elisha. Now, lest one of you challenge me on my interpretation of scripture, it is important to point out that technically Elijah does not die. What II Kings literally says is that Elijah is taken from earth at the arrival of a fiery chariot that in a mysterious way lifts him from Elisha’s presence and into the heavens.
Yet, we must also admit that this is the end of Elijah’s time as a normal human being. His life as we know it on this good earth comes to an end at this point and it is an overwhelming thought for Elisha. Up until now, Elisha has been the great prophet’s apprentice. He has learned important things, he has done great work but every step of the way he has been buoyed by the consolation of knowing that Elijah was there with him to guide him.
Thus, his grief is twofold. On the one hand, he grieves the ending of Elijah’s life on this earth. On the other hand, he grieves for himself because he just doesn’t know how he is going to live now without such a critical person in his life.
This is our struggle too, is it not? Our grief is often along this same twofold track as well. We grieve the end of life for those that we love. We grieve their suffering, we grieve the loss of a life that they love, we grieve the ending of their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Yet, at the same time, our grief is intensified for we also grieve for ourselves. We wonder, how we are going to live without them.
Having said this, we must acknowledge that there is a beautiful and hopeful part of the Elijah and Elisha story too. As Elijah prepares for his life to end, Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit to rest on him. Elijah is honest with Elisha and tells him that such a request may or may not be granted. Yet, immediately after Elijah departs, Elisha is able, in a miraculous way to part the water of the Jordan River on his own and what that act shows is that the spirit of Elijah and the spirit of God remain with him. Elijah is no longer there in person, but his spirit remains at work in Elisha. And, beyond that, God’s spirit rests on him as well.
The Hebrew word here conveys this same idea too. Elisha asks for Elijah’s ruah, which in the Hebrew language is to say his spirit to rest on him. Yet, embedded in this is the reality that this same word, ruah, is the word for God’s spirit too.
And so it is with us. Yes, we wonder, how will we live without these important people in our lives once they are gone. How can we go on without them? These are our real, honest and soul searching questions.
Yet God’s hope is found in knowing that even when the most important people in our lives have physically left us, their spirit remains. Through God’s blessing of memories, we remember their lessons, we hear their voice and long ago encounters with them come back to our minds at critical points – their spirit continues to rest on us just as Elijah’s did on Elisha.
But greater still, God’s spirit rests on us too. God is with us to guide us, to comfort us, to fill the void left in our lives and to hold our hand. We may be alone in the sense that these special people are not longer physically with us. But, we are not alone in that their spirit and God’s spirit remain. In turn, in an unexpected way we do go on, life does continue and we are not alone to the degree that we anticipated.
Back in 2003, ABC News did a piece about soldiers serving in the US Military in Kuwait. The story was about what these young men and women carried with them into battle. No, the focus was not on their supplies such as food, water or weapons. Instead, the story focused on what else they chose to carry along with them that reminded them of those they had left behind and that brought them hope and piece. One soldier interview carried a teddy bear given to him by his wife on Valentines. Another, carried her engagement ring. She didn’t want to wear it for fear of scratching it but it helped to have it near by in her possession along with a picture of her fiancee. Two soldiers interviewed carried scripture. One had a collection of the Psalms and the other a full Bible issued to him. He had never read the Bible before, but he admitted that today was different and the Bible’s words had taken on a completely new perspective. (What The Soldiers Carried for Good Luck, Ted Koppel, ABC News, March 19, 2003)
The objects conveyed memories and reminders of God and of others. Through scripture and sacred items, they were made aware that the presence of God and the spirit of the special people in their lives went with them into the battles ahead.
And so they do with us. Thanks be to God, so they do with us. Amen.