Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s a story about a famous preacher who was a bit of a fraud. His sermons were great and memorable, but no one ever realized that they were actually written by his staff assistant. Finally the assistant’s lack of public recognition got the best of him. One day as the renowned preacher was speaking before a crowd of thousands, he came to the bottom of the second page, to read the entreating phrase, “And this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk, which is…” only to turn to the third page and see nothing but the dreaded words, “You’re on your own now.” No doubt, that is what Elisha felt the day Elijah departed to heaven. It was certainly how Elijah felt as wandered alone for 40 days to Mount Horeb.
I am never sure whether it’s harder to be the one leaving, or the one to be left behind. The one leaving is heading into the unknown; the one left behind is returning to the known, but without that one person who makes the known make sense. Maybe it’s a goodbye of a parent to a child. Maybe it’s a goodbye of two lovers, or two friends. Or maybe, as in the story of Elijah and Elisha, it is in the story of the teacher and the student. They are all holy relationships that give meaning, direction, purpose and joy. And when they end, we simply wonder, how we can ever move forward again.
My friends, the story of Elijah and Elisha, teaches us that even God’s most confident prophets need holy friends to nurture and support them in their work- and that includes you and me, as God’s minor prophets. We simply cannot be God’s faithful servants on our own.
L. Gregory Jones, a senior fellow at Duke University suggests that “holy friends” are different than mere acquaintances and colleagues. While friends celebrate our mutual joys and interests, “holy friends” challenge and encourage us to live the life that God intended for us. He states that, “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love,” which may make them seem like spoil sports, but also “affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream of.” Ultimately, holy friends are the one who make all the difference in our lives.
The prophet Elijah may not have recognized his need for a “holy friend.’ In the painful moment after his triumphant victory over the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, when he was cast down into a spiritual and emotional precipice, he fled to the wilderness to be alone. Elijah left his former servant behind, so that he could go out alone into the desert and die. Over and over, he cried out to God, “I alone am left.” That is how people who have no holy friends in their life to bolster them feel. They feel empty, rejected and abandoned.
What a pity it would have been had the prophet died there. It would have been a tragic departure for Elijah. He would have died there sensing himself to be a failure, but God would take the covenant of his loving kindness from Elijah. Instead, God instructed Elijah to get back on the road to Damascus; get back into the real world and anoint new kings, and to do what he had been called to do. And on the way to Damascus, God’s instructed him, “Do yourself a favor. Make a holy friend, anoint your successor, Elisha, the son of Shapat as a prophet to take your place.”
So the prophet Elijah set out from there, and found the young Elisha out plowing the field on his parents’ farm. The prophet Elijah saw Elisha and literally threw his prophet’s mantle over him. As far as we know, the two were strangers to each other, yet God had glimpsed something in this youth that no one had seen before. Elisha had the courage to accept the prophet’s call. For nearly a decade, these two were bound together in holy friendship. It was long enough for the Elijah to become Elisha’s spiritual father and for Elisha to understand and take on the heavy mantle of the prophet.
Oddly, the young Elisha is not mentioned in scripture through the next years of Elijah’s work, but certainly his presence was known in the prophet’s deeds. The prophet Elijah could not have managed the challenges that were set before him; the battles against the kings and foreign armies, the tension of immorality and infidelity towards the God of Israel. Surely, the holy friendship was nurturing both Elijah and Elisha, but just as importantly, Elisha’s holy friendship kept Elijah focused on his divine call. You see, we all need holy friends for those occasions in life when we encounter life’s spiritual opponents. And they do come. A disease that has gone undetected too long, a child wrestling with substance abuse and depression, a spouse who has lost their commitment to their wedding vows, and the list of spiritual struggles goes on and on. As the story of the prophets reminds us, even God’s most confident holy ones, seem to have the devil’s target upon their chest. Holy friends make these battles bearable.
With that said cultivating these holy friendships is hard work and there must be safe places where we can move from “acquaintance” or “colleague” to “holy friend.” That is why I believe that God has given us a community of faith, as imperfect as it may be. It is where you have every right to expect that God will provide you with “holy friends” who will nurture you.
Now don’t be surprised if it takes time to find the “holy friends.” Not all spiritual relationships are the same. Someone else’s religious language may not speak to you. Someone else may seem too zealous or close minded, rather like the chairman of the evangelism committee whose team motto was, “Fight like you’re the third monkey trying to get on Noah’s ark.” And others still may seem a little too apologetic and wishy-washy. They are so afraid to offend anyone, that they pray, “To whom it may concern.” Holy friends are rare, but always a gift.
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on a grand farewell tour of Israel near Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” The prophet Elijah knew that is was his time was near, and he was convinced that he was to do this on his own. But Elisha would not leave him. Years earlier, when Elijah needed a holy friend most, he left his former servant on the roadside, as he fled to the wilderness, but Elisha refused to leave his master at Bethel. Elijah tried again to shake his student, telling him that the trip to Bethel was only a short stop which would lead him to Jericho, a much longer trip down the mountains toward the Dead Sea.
At each of these hallowed spots Elisha was told by various prophetic groups, “Do you know that today the Lord, will take your master away from you?” It was a taunting phrase, “You’re going to be on your own now.” It was a warning that Elijah would soon be gone, and what would Elisha do then. It is the same for all of God’s minor prophets like you and me. What will you do when leadership is thrust upon you? Will you be ready? And each time, Elisha answered the bystanders, “Yes, I know. Be silent- and give me a break. I know my day is coming – and I know that I am no Elijah.” Yes, I am never sure whether it’s harder to be the one leaving or for the one to be left behind.
Coming to the Jordan River, Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the river. When the two had crossed over alone, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken away from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” It was a personal plea. Elisha was saying, Let me have the assurance that I will be like you. It’s the assurance that we would all like from those who have been our mentors. Let me have the assurance that I will not fail. I need twice as much as you have.
I rather suspect that Elijah’s fiery chariot ride to heaven was God’s sign of assurance to the young Elisha that all would be well. It was the experience of the “still, small voice” that Elijah experienced when he needed God’s assurance on Mount Horeb. After all Elijah’s dramatic departure in the fiery chariot could have been be a major spectacle admired by thousands, but instead we read that only one person was present to see Elijah’s brilliant ascent, and that was Elisha. Fifty prophets standing on the other side of the Jordan River, no doubt saw the whirlwind, but only Elisha saw the fiery chariot that carried his master Elijah away. It was that last image of the prophet that gave young Elisha the courage and strength to take up the mantle of Elijah, and trust that he could move forward and now part of the water of the River Jordan as his master had done. The gifts of holy friends are often personal, private and often unspeakable. But they keep us going.
You and I actually need holy friends every day. We need them to offer an honest perspective on our lives and to keep building up our hope. When our sons Vitali and Alexei were young, and they were fast asleep, I would stare at them in their beds knowing that I was a perfect father. Of course, that’s not how it felt during the day. But when I allowed myself the time to be with holy friends in Bible study, and in prayer I knew that I could begin again the next day. It was through their words that God was gently prodding me to return to them in the waking hours of life that they needed me. It was there in their valleys of life that I could make a difference. Even now as am growing older, and so are they, I know that they do not need me on the mountain tops of life, they need me in the deep valleys.
My friends, to whom are you a “holy friend?’ We simply can’t make it on our own. We all need holy friends and companions- especially God’s faithful servants – and even his most confident prophets. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.