Sunday, 25 September 2011

Take up the mantle - pass it on!

I’ve stuck my neck out and signed us up … in the hopes that others will join me! To run alongside the Literature Festival in this 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible the churches are joining together for a week long Festival of the Book which will include a reading of the King James Bible. I have signed up for an hour and a quarter on Tuesday afternoon from 2-15 to 3-30 on Tuesday, 11th October.

Of all the books I have been reading for this anniversary year one of the most fun is Begat – the King James Bible and the English Language. David Crystal, a linguist, read through the King James Bible and noted phrases that have come down into the English language. There were 257.. He then looked up the half dozen earlier printed translations of the Bible and identified how many of those phrases were unique to the King James Bible – just 18. The indexes list them all, with all the comparative readings – if you like Ben Schott’s kind of Almanack you will be in your element dipping into this book. In the bulk of the book he then discusses these phrases – with the help of Google. He is interested not so much in the phrases that are used exclusively by Christians as the phrases that have become embedded in the English language …As he sums up … The idioms are to be found in all contexts in which language can be used – from ABC television to zoology, taking in basketball, comic strips, dentistry, engineering, pornography and social networking. The people implicated cover all walks of life: Shakespeare and Sinatra, Byron and Beckham, Osama and Obama. The sources range from the News of the World to Newsweek, from Henry IV to the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I have spotted one idiom that slipped through David Crystal’s net … it is in 2 Kings 2:14 Of Elisha it is said …

And he took the mantle of Elijah

I googled it and it wasn’t long before I found reference to

23 Nov 2005 – Erkki Tuomioja took the mantle as the most experienced EU foreign minister - Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland:

How mumsnet took on the mantle of nanny state – headline in January 2011.

But the one that took the biscuit was from Unreality TV …

Britain’s Got Talent 2011: Louis Walsh was baffled as he took the mantle from The Hoff

The kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel seem to go from bad to worse as Ahaziah dies another of Ahab’s sons, Jehoram, becomes king of Israel and the verdict of the prophetic historians is pretty grim – he reigned for twelve years. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord … though fair play he wasn’t quite as bad as his dad!

It had been just after that visionary experience of the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice of calm that Elijah found Elisha, son of Shaphat, a farmer who was out in the fields ploughing. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah and asked first that he should go and say farewll to his mother and father and then he would follow Elijah. One last meal over, he set out and followed Elijah.

At the death of Ahaziah we find the aged Elijah walking with the younger Elisha from Jericho down towards the Jordan river. Elijah takes his mantle, rolls it up strikes the waters of the river and they part. And the two pass through. When they had crossed Elijah is talking about Elisha continuing his work, when he is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind.

Then it is that Elisha …

… took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;
14And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the LORD God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.
15And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.

Elisha then begins his work – and what is striking about the way the story is told by these prophetic historians is that it is an echo of the work of Elijah. In 2 Kings 4 Elisha helps a widow by giving her oil that doesn’t ceasse to flow until she can pay off all her debts and look after her family. No sooner is she set up than her son dies and Elisha it is who raises the Shunnamite woman’s son.

Once again people are going hungry … and Elisha meets their needs, first purifying a pot of stew and then feeding one hundred men with a tiny amount of grain. He set it before them, they ate, and had some left.

Then it is that Elisha pushes the boundaries and does the unthinkable when he encounters Naaman the commander of the enemy Syrian army and heals him of leprosy.

Elisha as did Elijah, confronts the powers that be – challenging those in power to return to God, declaring the Word of God.

Elijah passes on the mantle to Elisha and the beginnings of a line of prophets is established.

When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair with a belt around his waist it is almost as if he is wearing the mantle of Elijah. He regularly takes people down beyond Jericho to the river Jordan where he baptises them. Some say that involved walking through the river and coming back again.

Jesus comes to John at that point in the Jordan to be baptised. I am not worthy, John says, it’s you I should be serving – but Jesus deliberately humbles himself to receive the baptism of John.

It is almost a re-enactiment of the point at which Elisha takes up the mantle from Elijah. Jesus takes up the mantle from John. John disappears from the scene.

And what do we find Jesus doing – he has a message which is nothing else than the Word of God, he brings healing to people who hurt. He raises a widow’s son at Nain. We catch a glimpse of him commanding the elements. He tells a story of farmer sowing seeds, just like Elisha at the plough. Jesus feeds a crowd not of 100 but first 5000 and then 4000 and they all are satisfied and there is some left over.

In our scientific age when we read those stories we ask how did he do that? What actually happened. Those weren’t the questions that interested Jesus and his contemporaries. They were asking why he was doing those particular things … and they could tell what was going on …

There are echoes here of Elijah and Elisha. No wonder people take him for another John the Baptist, another Elijah or one of the prophets.

And yet at the same time Jesus does not hesitate to bring something new – he says a marked ‘no’ to some of the things that Elijah and Elisha did. Elijah thought nothing of destroying the Prophets of Baal with fire, Elisha thought nothing of destroying youngsters who taunted him as baldy!

Jesus’ disciples recognise so much of Elijah and Elisha in Jesus that when a village refuses to welcome Jesus they know exactly what an Elijah or an Elisha would do – ‘Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consumer them? But he turned and rebuked them and said, You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

Jesus has taken on the mantle … but is also something so very new and different – opening up a new dimension on God.

The most telling moment of all is when he begins his ministry. In his home town of Nazareth he goes to the Synagogue reads words which shape all that he is going to do …

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

When he said,
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

That delight, however, turned to rage – and it turned to rage when Jesus gave two illustrations. Who are the ones we should be helping? As far as the people in the Syngaogue were concerned it was our poor, our captives, our blind, our oppressed.

But Jesus had different ideas. He had come for everyone’s poor, everyone’s blind, everyone’s oppressed.

He pressed his point home by quoting two stories – one from Elijah – there were lots of widows in Israel, but it was an outsider, the widow of Zarephath that Elijah helped.

There were lots of leprosy sufferers in Israel – but it was Naaman, the enemy Syrian army commander that Elisha healed.

That’s what those people could not stomach it was when they heard this that they were filled with rage.

Jesus had come to take on the mantle from Elijah, from Elisha, from all the prophets, from John the Baptist … to bring God’s word to all people, to bring transformation into their lives, to bring healing where there was hurt.

And just like Elijah and just like Elisha he drew disciples to follow him. They took on the mantle from Jesus … and those disciples got other disciples to follow him … and they took up the mantle.

And we too have followed Jesus.

We are to take up the mantle.

We have a message of Good news to share with all people, to share healing where people hurt, to respond to people’s hunger by providing for their need.

That’s exactly what we are doing in our Harvest collection – supporting Highbury’s mission through the work of our children’s worker … but not stopping with the people we know. Our message is for all. Food to share through County Community Projects.

And this chimes exactly with the ethos of Send a Cow. Supporting individual farmers the principle at the heart of Send a Cow is to Pass it On … whatever someone receives, they are to pass on to someone else …

Receive the mantle … and pass it on!

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