II like reading the Bible, and I do a lot of it. But I don't like it when people ask me what my favorite story is. There are so many, it's hard to name just one. But if I'm forced to do it, I guess the account of Elijah and Elisha, in II Kings 1, would be a good contender. You may know it, about the fiery chariot. It's the basis for the song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," a nice song and understandable coming out of slavery - but not really what the story says.
My interest, however, is not fiery chariots. As fascinating as that is, there are two other things that grab my attention. First, I notice a characteristic displayed by Elisha throughout: He is an amazingly determined, focused man. It seems like nothing can sway him from his goal. And then there is the progression of places where the two traveled: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and then on across the Jordan River.
So, let's look at the attitude first.
Elijah and Elisha were the original "Odd Couple." Elijah was, of course, older, and mentor to Elisha. The two are dramatically different in appearance, in temperament, and in background. Elijah is fiery and confrontational, the archetype of an Old Testament prophet. He looks like a wild man.
Elisha is - usually - non-confrontational, not at all fiery, and sort of a low-key kind of guy. He's the son of a wealthy farmer, and if he had looks to match his money, he would have been a fine catch for any number of young women. However, like many of us, that was not the case, and he seems to have been somewhat "plain" in appearance. He was bald - somewhat unusual - and was ridiculed by kids on at least one occasion. But he's determined to the point of stubbornness. Through the portion in question, Elisha displays an amazing degree of a characteristic supremely important for success: determination. He was focused and would not be distracted from his goal. We'll see that as we proceed.
Then there is the route. First, they left Gilgal for Bethel. And Elijah told Elisha to stay put: He was going on alone. Here Elisha's "singlemindedness" shows up: Despite a direct instruction from Elijah to remain behind, Elisha refuses. And this is the Elijah who calls fire from heaven.
Historically, Gilgal is the place where Israel first camped after entering the Promised Land. It reminds me, considering my own life, of the first place for me after I came to faith in Jesus. I was in the Kingdom, in a place of newness and wonder. I was forgiven and set free. It was a good place to be, and anyone could be excused for wanting to spend the rest of his or her days there. I was content. I was in a good place, but I was not where God wanted me; I had not experienced God's purpose for me. Like Elisha, who was told to remain in Gilgal and did not, I needed to move on. Can't remain a spiritual baby forever.
Then they went from Gilgal to Bethel, another place with a respected history. Bethel was long a center where people encountered God and came to worship him. The very name - Bethel: House of God - came from one such encounter. It was a major site for worship in the early years of Israel, before the completion of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here again, Elisha was told to remain behind. Elijah was going on alone. And once again, Elisha had a different idea about it.
I have had many "Bethels" in my life, places where I encountered God. They were good places and left sweet memories. What could be wrong with wanting to remain in such a place? Few things are better than a time of worship that results in "touching the face of God." We might sympathize with Elisha if he remained there, as instructed. But he understood there was something better, and he wanted it. And there is something better for the rest of us, as well. So, on to Jericho.
Who needs to be told about this place? "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho." This was the first place in the Land where God fought for his people, bringing a great victory for Israel. Can we remember a time in life when God intervened on our behalf, giving us a perhaps smaller but no less meaningful personal Jericho? I've had a few of those, and they are very good times, indeed. They are times when we see manifestations of God's deep love for us.
But there's more. As good as it was to be in Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho, these were not where we find the best that God has for our lives. And so, our pair heads to the Jordan River, crossing over in typical spectacular Elijah fashion, leaving the familiar for...what? Elisha has some idea that Elijah was leaving, but a lot of unknown as well.
For some years, Elisha had lived a life of special status, serving Elijah and being mentored by him. His life was unique, and Elisha was one of a kind, like Elijah, his "Father." Had he continued on that path, he would have been considered exceptional in history, and many would envy him. He would have had a good life.
But he would have missed the best life.
God calls us to cross the Jordan. God calls us to leave behind the comfortable places that mean so much to us. God calls us to go out of "the Land" into the world, representing him, speaking, acting and living on his behalf. He calls us to make a difference in the world.
Jesus said..., "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained" (John 20:19-23).
Paul wrote, "Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
I don't want to settle for the good. It's only second best.