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Offense Intended

“Get Behind Me” by James Tissot

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And Jesus went on with His disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told Him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered Him, “You are the Christ.” And He strictly charged them to tell no one about Him.

And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

And He called to Him the crowd with His disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:27-38).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!    

The Passion of the Christ opened in American theaters on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. It was produced, co-written, and directed by Mel Gibson and stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus of Nazareth, Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. The film primarily covers the final 12 hours before Christ’s death. It begins with Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, continues with the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the brutal scourging at the pillar, and the crucifixion and death of Jesus and ends with a brief depiction of His resurrection. Rated R, the film was criticized by many as too violent, too graphic. The scourging and crucifixion scenes were considered too long and gory. It was certainly intense, inappropriate for children and too much for many adults to handle. It was just too offensive.

Many who watched The Passion of the Christ were upset at the brutality and violence. They were even more shocked when they realized that it was not simply Hollywood exaggeration, but a realistic portrayal of events according to the biblical texts. Many Christians admitted, it was the first time that they considered how much Christ suffered to atone for our sins. The world was offended that someone would even suggest that such a price was necessary to be paid for saving people from sin. “It can’t possibly cost that much!” “There must be a mistake!” “There must be some way around it.”

But this was not the first time that offense has been taken at God’s plan of salvation. Our Gospel reading is a textbook case.

During all the time spent around Caesarea Philippi at the northern end of the Jordan River valley, Jesus continues to instruct His disciples. Now it is time for a test. How well have they learned what He has sought to teach them?

Jesus’ first question is preliminary: “Who do people say that I am?” The answers vary. Some say He is John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. All these answers imply a resurrection from the dead and thus are not answers the Sadducees would give. They are answers given by those who are at least taking a serious look at Christ. For them He is more than just another teacher; He is clearly bringing a message from God Himself. Yet all these answers make  Jesus out to be a mere man and no more. They are inadequate and miss the big picture.

So, Jesus proceeds to the next question, the vital one: “But who do you say that I am?” Since they have lived with Jesus on an intimate basis, they indeed know He is a true man. He needs food; He needs rest. However, they have also heard Him claim the authority on earth to forgive sins. Over and against that, they also have seen how the people of His hometown and the religious leaders have rejected Him. The disciples remember what they themselves had asked when He stilled the violent storm on the Sea of Galilee: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41). Have they now come to a conviction as to whom He is? They have, and Peter speaks for them all: “You are the Christ.”

Mark keeps Peter’s response short. God’s people had been expecting the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, for centuries. Now He has arrived! I imagine Peter is bursting with excitement as he makes this good confession. Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior!

However, the people of Jesus’ day and for centuries before had added a political connotation to the office of Messiah. They expect His Kingdom to be an earthly one, even as the millennialists do today. Therefore, Jesus avoids using the title Christ for Himself until He accomplishes His mission. Even the disciples have not rid themselves of these erroneous ideas, as we see shall soon see. So, although Jesus joyfully accepts Peter’s answer as valid (see Matthew 16:17-19), He nevertheless warns the disciples not to tell anyone else He is the Christ.

The answer of the Twelve, as given by Peter, is the very one for which Christ hoped. It is also our answer. Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man—our Christ, our Savior, and our Redeemer.

But then, before Peter and the other disciples have a chance to enjoy this heady new insight, Jesus hits them with a heavy dose of reality. He begins to teach them He “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed” (Mark 8:31).

This is the first time, as recorded by Mark, that Jesus explicitly predicts His coming passion. Before this He has only spoken about it in a veiled way (Mark 2:19, 20). From now on, however, He speaks plainly and repeatedly about it (Mark 9:9-13, 31, 32; 10:32-34). He does so in order that His disciples might understand that His being the Christ, does not make Him an earthly king—a false hope that continues to linger in their hearts until His ascension. That’s why Jesus does not as a rule speak of Himself as the Christ but as the Son of Man.

Jesus begins teaching the disciples by saying that “the Son of Man must suffer.” He says “must” because that is what the Old Testament taught (see Genesis 3:15; Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 50:6; Isaiah 53). By saying “must,” Jesus informs His disciples that this is something that cannot be avoided if He is to fulfill His Father’s will that all people be saved.

Now, the Old Testament does not explicitly say who will cause Christ to suffer and die. It hints at it by saying it will be the “builders” who will reject the “cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). However, Jesus shows He knows the future and identifies those who will reject and condemn Him as “the elders and the chief priests and the scribes.” These are the men who constitute the 71 members of the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin. Jesus’ suffering and death will happen through the actions of these most respected and powerful religious and political leaders.

Jesus also adds a note of final victory. After three days He will rise again. This important detail gets missed by the disciples, so shocked and offended are they by the fact that He, their Lord and Master, will suffer and die. That’s why the resurrection will take them by surprise on Easter.

Perhaps the most shocking element in this account is Peter’s taking Jesus aside to rebuke Him, that is to try to persuade Him under no circumstances to suffer and die. It shows us that his and the other disciples’ understanding of the name Christ is corrupted by false expectations.

Hell may not have broken loose (yet), but Peter finds Himself in league with the Devil. “Get behind Me, Satan!” says Jesus to him in front of all the disciples. “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Jesus’ answer at first glance seems overly harsh. It isn’t though, because Peter, in speaking to Christ as he does, is really, though unknowingly, championing the cause of Satan. This was the same temptation Satan had set before Christ in the wilderness. It agrees completely with what we usually want for ourselves—power and glory without any suffering. But it does not agree with God’s plan of salvation. At this moment, Peter is in league with Satan!

As if this is not humiliating enough, Jesus proceeds to make an example of Peter to the crowd, too. He calls the crowd together with the disciples and makes sure everyone understands how mistaken Peter has been: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Following Jesus will not be comfortable. Indeed, it will require losing your life. Offense intended!

Losing your life, denying yourself, bearing your cross; this is no life of ease and smooth sailing, but often includes hardship and loss. It is the problem we, as Christians, constantly struggle to accept. Life in Christ is a life of sacrifice and suffering. Period. We wish it were not so. We wish it would be different, but Jesus is crystal clear. Following Him faithfully is a life of humble submission, not only to His rule as Lord, but also in a sinful world that rejected Him. Prepare for difficulty. Do not be surprised when you suffer for the sake of the faith.

Our discomfort with suffering leads us to all manner of unfaithfulness. It leads us to instruct God as to what He should really be doing, and to question Him when He does not obey us. It leads us to take matters into our own hands, to fudge on His commands, and to imitate the world’s deceitful and dishonest ways. It leads us to abuse power, serve ourselves, and plug our ears to the parts of Jesus’ message which do not conveniently fit with our programs.

That is what happens in our text. Peter’s inability to accept what Jesus says  about suffering prevents him from hearing what Jesus said about resurrection and life. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Death is coming, that is true, not only for Jesus but also for anyone who follows Him. But that will not be the end. Resurrection is also coming. Those who lose their lives for Christ’s sake will find it (Mark 8:35).

That is the promise I get to proclaim to you, and you get to hear on this Second Sunday in Lent. Resurrection is coming for you. Salvation is coming for you. It is coming for all who, in Christ, lose themselves. It is for all who give up their privilege, who sacrifice their preference, who surrender their position, who relinquish their power. Make no mistake, the life to which Jesus is calling His disciples is radically other than what our world preaches. If you are not a little offended, I am probably not proclaiming the fullness of Jesus’ commands. But if I do, and if you are offended, then you are ready to hear and believe and be transformed by the incredible promise of resurrection life in Christ.

Jesus denied Himself and took up His cross. He gave up His life to gain a world of sinners. He is not ashamed to call you brother. On the Last Day, He will come in the glory of His Father with His holy angels and take you home with Him for eternity. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Return to the Lord: Return to Prayer

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Holy Gospel                                                                                                        Matthew 26:36–46

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to His disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with Me.” 39 And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” 40 And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And He said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with Me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, He went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” 43 And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, My betrayer is at hand.”

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Practicing Repentance

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”

The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:9-15).

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!

With his typical stinginess with words, St. Mark describes the inaugural events in Jesus’ ministry. His rapid-fire approach draws attention from the details of the individual events themselves and focuses on the movement between them: Baptism, temptation, and the proclamation of repentance.

This is the movement of our life in Christ, too. It begins with our Baptism into Christ, which is followed immediately and continuously by temptation. We are not as resilient as Jesus, so the movement in the text takes a slightly different turn for us. Before we proclaim repentance to others, we need to repent ourselves.

Thus Lent. This forty-day season is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to responding to Jesus’ call to repent. This means the movement of our text, is also the movement of our life: Baptism, temptation, and the practice of repentance.

But what does that movement look like in your life?

Likely, for all of you, Baptism has already taken place. You have already been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. You are members of His body, participants in the resurrected life of Jesus Himself. Coming out of the water, you find yourselves in another kind of wilderness where the Devil still prowls.[i]

Practicing repentance involves more than acknowledging temporary feelings of guilt. It is more than a regular participation in a transaction to clean the slate. Our worship services begin with repentance and forgiveness, but the entire life of a follower of Jesus is a life of turning from sin and returning to the Lord.

Repentance is comprised of two things: contrition (sorrow over sin) and faith (trust in the promises of Christ). Our Lutheran Confessions say, “contrition is the true terror of conscience, which feels that God is angry with sin and grieves that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when sins are condemned by God’s Word.”[ii]

Scripture vividly describes these terrors:

For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (Psalm 38:4, 8)

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But You, O Lord—how long? (Psalm 6:2-3)

“In these terrors, conscience feels God’s wrath against sin… The conscience sees the corruption of sin and seriously grieves that it has sinned.”[iii]

As St. Paul discussed contrition, he distinguished between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” As anyone with a few traffic tickets can testify, most of us regret being caught in some violation of the law. We dislike going to court to pay a fine, or we find ourselves embarrassed as we face the police officer. Perhaps we fear possible future consequences (e.g., high car insurance rates). This fear of punishment is one sort of “worldly sorrow,” and we, have all experienced enough of it to recognize it instantly.[iv]

Another type of worldly sorrow involves what the Scriptures sometimes call condemnation—the feeling of despair that crashes in on us when we fear that we have used up our quota of God’s grace, and therefore, that He will refuse to forgive us for a particular offense. Probably all Christians struggle with the sense of condemnation from time to time.

But there’s another form of worldly sorrow that seems even more prevalent in our day—guilt. Secular prophets like Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that once the modern Western world finally threw off the constraints of religion, feelings of guilt would disappear. But that has not proven to be the case; if anything, guilt has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element of contemporary life as God has been kicked to the curb.

The old vocabulary is still used to describe virtue and vice, but we no longer have the religious framework to guide conversation and debate. Having departed from God’s Word, we have words and instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue, and decide what is objectively true.

You would think that would lead to a culture of easygoing relativism. With no common criteria by which to judge moral action we’d all become blandly nonjudgmental: “You do you and I’ll do me, and we’ll all be cool about it.” But that’s not what’s happened. Moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least who seem the most fervent moral crusaders. Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.[v]

Where does this guilt come from? You and I know it’s ultimately from the Law that is written on our hearts, our consciences. But without proper guidance of the Law, that guilt can get misplaced. Wilfred McClay suggests technology plays a part. It gives us a feeling of power, and power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt. You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we’re not doing enough. “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough.” [vi]

McClay describes a world in which people are still driven by a need to feel morally justified, and yet they have no clear framework or sets of rituals to guide their quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace, and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.

People seem to sense, if not fully understand, our brokenness. And that’s a good start, but if we only see it as something that has been done to us, we’re going to fail to benefit from that knowledge. Repentance will be replaced with a counterfeit named with victimhood. Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s all somebody else’s fault, those who are around me, those who came before me. The Law is a mirror that others must look into, a microscope that detects all the sins of our forefathers without acknowledging any of our own.

And so we enter into the 40 days of Lent. Forty days out in the wilderness, to be reminded that there is more to life than food, than glory, than power, as our Lord Jesus Himself showed us. But even more, to confess our sins, to say not only mea culpa (“my fault”), but mea maxima culpa (“by own grievous fault”). Unbelief is the core of all sin, but to say so is a ploy if we do it to minimize what it is we are doing, or not doing, in our lives.

For this, the Law is more than helpful.

Have we had problems with our parents? Of course, we have! But have we played a part in causing those problems? Does our own anger and rage reach to the violence of murder? Well, we know the angry one is liable to the charge. But then our own desires for pleasure and convenience, makes murder necessary as we see in the life of King David or the current abortion holocaust. Violence is justified if it furthers our own cause. We say we don’t steal, but we do demand justice, which means taking other people’s money. Gossip remains an indulgence, and still destroys other’s reputations and lives. Instead of speaking well of others and putting the best construction on their words and actions, we find our own righteousness in a cancel culture which aims to show the sins of others, so that we may feel good about ourselves. And yes, coveting. It’s in the air. Others are wealthy, and we’re not, so we want what they have.

Now is not the time to minimize the Law; it’s time to actually preach the Law in such a way that the Gospel might once more be sweet in our ears. And we must never minimize the Law in such a way as to say it is temporary, as if it is done away with, and not fulfilled, and we are left in our sin.[vii]

Worldly sorrow comes from Satan; it brings death. By way of contrast, Paul commends “godly sorrow.” This kind of sorrow for sin leads us to the next step in God’s process of repentance. Recognizing our sin and sorrowing over it, we confess it. The word for confess in Greek means literally “to speak together” or “to say the same thing.” When we confess our sins, we simply say what God says:

  • We have indeed done what His Law has forbidden.
  • Our action (thought, attitude) was wrong.
  • Our sin hurt God; it hurt us; it hurt other people.
  • We deserve God’s punishment.

When we honestly confess our sins to God in this way, we do not try to excuse ourselves. We do not try to shift the blame for our sin onto someone else’s shoulders. We do not trivialize what we have done, nor do we minimize the consequences we deserve. As the apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Standing before God stripped of all self-righteousness, we hear the beautiful words of our Father’s absolution: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Absolution is, for the Christian, a glorious emancipation proclamation. The Latin word from which we derive the word absolve literally means “to set free; to release.” Absolved from our sins, we find freedom from their guilt and from the punishment we have deserved. But also—and this is critically important—we receive in God’s absolution release from the power of our sins to enslave us.

That freedom comes, not as we try hard to amend our sinful lives, but as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We realize that in our own strength, we cannot obey God. And so, we ask Him to work these things in us.

Contrition. Confession. Absolution. Yielding to God’s Spirit. We repeat this process of repentance as often as we need it. We may, at times, find ourselves mired in a sin that we confessed only minutes before. In fact, we may find ourselves repeating the steps of the cycle a dozen times within a 10-minute period. But God will not become impatient or angry with us. He simply invites and encourages us to use the medicine He has prescribed. We can take it as often as we need it; we need not worry about overdosing.

Perhaps all this seems too simple. Admittedly, it is simple, so simple that we could easily let our pride prevent from using the process our Lord has given us to enable us to live more fruitful, less frustrating lives of discipleship. It is simple. But it works. It is the only thing that works. And Jesus yearns to help us use it.

And so He equips us for such a life. He baptizes us into His death and resurrection, bringing us forgiveness, life, and salvation, teaching us through His Word, feeding us with His body and blood to strengthen us in our faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Then He sends us out in the world, providing us with opportunities to practice repentance in our daily vocations.

As we sit, stalled in traffic; as we push a wobbly-wheeled grocery cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store; as we coach softball or chair a congregational meeting; as we play with our grandchildren or kick our shoes off and turn on the television set—as we do all these things, our Lord gives us opportunities to practice the principles He has taught us. We never work on these on our own. Our Teacher always stands beside us, reminding us of His Word and offering His encouragement and His help.[viii]

Sometimes we will succeed; other times we will fail, even fail spectacularly. In this life, we’ll never get it perfect. That’s when we repent. We confess our sins and failures, hear and trust in Christ’s forgiveness, resolve to do better with the help of God and continue practicing repentance over and over until the day the Lord calls us home.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Nafzger, Peter. https://www.1517/articles/gospel-mark-19-15-lent-1-series.b

[ii]  McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 160–161). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 162). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iv] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 57-58) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

[v] Brock, David. The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” The New York Times, March 31, 2017, Section A, Page 23.

[vi] McClay, Wilfred M. “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” Hedgehog Review.

[vii] Scaer, Peter. “Ash Wednesday, Sin, and Brokenness.” Facebook post, February 18, 2021.

[viii] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 59-60) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

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Return to the Lord: A Call to Return

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“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Preparing for Departure

“Elijah Carried Away into Heaven by a Chariot of Fire”
by James Tissot

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When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more (2 Kings 2:1-12).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“What is it like to die?” a little boy asked his mother. “Does it hurt?”

His mother replied, “Remember when you were little, you liked to crawl into your big brother’s bed? And around midnight, your father would come and carry you in his big loving arms. In the morning you would wake up in your own room. That’s what death is—waking up in your own room—the room that Jesus has prepared for you in His Father’s house.”

What is it like to die? Does it hurt? What will your last moments be like, the last minutes or hours before you pass from this earth? I’m sure most of you have probably thought about these things a time or two. They’re natural questions.

As I visited with a man a few hours before he died, he asked: “So, is this what dying is like?” His voice was full of emotion yet controlled. I could tell that it was a major, complex experience for him. But he was not overly troubled or bothered. I had asked him, and he had replied, “No, I’m not worried or afraid.”

How do you answer a question like that? What do you say at such a time? I knew I couldn’t honestly answer that question. I’ve never died before. And I hadn’t heard it described the way this mother told her son. So I said the first words that came to my mind: “You probably have a better idea than I do.”

It might seem like a strange answer. But as I look back on it, I think it was probably the best response I could give. The man who was dying wasn’t really looking for an answer. He was looking for a chance to explain what was happening to him. And as he tried, his tone said, “I can hardly begin to tell you all that is happening at this moment.” Yet, there was a strange sort of peace about him, because he knew that by God’s grace for Christ’s sake, he would soon wake up in his own room in heaven.

What will your dying be like? And mine? It’s a big question for each of us to consider, isn’t it? Although we like to avoid it, we would do well to prepare for it as much as possible now if we can. For none of us of know the day or time in which our death will occur. Perhaps our text for today can help us to understand how to prepare for that moment just a little bit better.

Come with me, as we walk alongside Elijah and Elisha on the last two days before Elijah is taken from this earth in the whirlwind. We’ll walk from Gilgal, five or six miles west of the Jordan River, to Bethel, about twenty miles west. The next day we’ll go back east, from Bethel to Jericho, another twenty miles. Then we’ll go over another 5 or 6 miles to the Jordan River.

At each of the three places we’ll watch Elijah and Elisha meet with groups of prophets. We’ll hear them say their farewells to each other. After meeting at each of the three places, a few of the prophets will go on with Elijah and Elisha. When we arrive at the Jordan River, we’ll be among fifty-two prophets in all.

One of the major hurdles we all face when we think of death is loneliness. The dying person will miss those who have loved him or her, and those grieving will hate to say goodbye. The person watching his loved one die might wonder, “How will I be able to go on without him? He has been so much a part of my life.”

Aware that a big hole is going to be opened in his own life, Elisha is in a sort of state of denial. When the company of prophets at Bethel asks, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” Elisha answers, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” When the company of prophets at Jericho asks the same question, Elisha repeats his answer:  “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”  The impending loss of a loved one is difficult to sort out and accept.

Elisha will miss Elijah, his mentor and master, the elder statesman of the true faith in Israel. Elisha will miss Elijah’s spiritual strength and his commitment to proclaiming God’s Word. He’ll miss his leadership and guidance. And therefore, he wants to spend every moment possible with his master to learn how to carry on his important work as Elijah’s successor.

Then suddenly, as they were still walking along and talking together, Elijah is being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. What a display of power! A chariot of fire and horses of fire roared between them, as if on a freeway. It formed a median strip to separate them. Elisha saw all this and cried out, “My father, my father!” And then, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” It is as if he said, “What a dynamic force you have been in the Lord’s army, my spiritual father Elijah!”

Elijah had no military power—not one soldier with a sword was at his disposal, much less a chariot with charioteers. Yet the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him was so strong that he overcame a company of soldiers sent by King Ahaziah to bring him back to the palace by force. Elijah said to the captain, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” In minutes, the 51 men were toast. The same happened with the next group of fifty and their captain. Finally, the captain of the third fifty learned his lesson and conceded.

Elisha will miss the spiritual energy with which Elijah stood up to the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel, and King Ahab on Mt. Carmel. He remembers the contest between Elijah, with his few servants, against the 450 prophets of Baal. Elisha remembers how the prophets of Baal carried on from morning to noon, dancing around their altar, slashing themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed, all in the attempt to please Baal, the so-called source of their agricultural productivity. Elisha remembers how Elijah had taunted them to shout a little louder to get Baal’s attention. “Maybe he is deep in thought or sleeping or he’s gone to the bathroom. Maybe he really wasn’t a god after all!”

Elisha remembers how Elijah took up twelve stones (one for each tribe of Israel) and rebuilt the altar of the Lord. Elisha remembers how Elijah had dug a trench around the altar and doused the wood and bull of the sacrifice with water. Elisha remembers how God had shown His great power by sending down a heavenly fire. It burned up not only the sacrifice and wood, but also the stones, soil, and water. God and His prophet won the day.

Now, as Elijah is being lifted from this earth, the words overwhelm Elisha: “My father! How valiantly you fought against the enemies of God’s kingdom! In the face of great opposition, you held to the truth! What faith God entrusted to you, by His mercy! Will God entrust that kind of faith to me when I battle my own giants?” I think in the face of the death of a loved one or our own death, we all ask those same sorts of questions.

As he prepared for the Lord to take Elijah, loneliness was joined by fear in Elisha’s heart. And Elijah was tempted with that sense of loneliness as well. He was an independent man, not used to working in concert with others. Before they left Gilgal, Elijah said to his younger disciple, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” It was as if he said, “Don’t bother, Elisha, this is something I have to do alone. I can’t ask you to be with me in my final hours. Besides, you have things to do, people to minister to.”

But God gave Elisha special courage. “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you,” he replied. They had that same dialogue twice more, at Bethel and at Jericho. “You don’t have to come with me,” Elijah would say. And Elisha would respond, “I will not leave you.” God knew that both prophets needed each other as the critical moment of transition drew near.

When they get to the Jordan, Elijah rolls up his cloak and strikes the river. The waters part so the two prophets could walk across. Then Elijah knows God wants his friend to be with him in his last hour. “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elijah says.

“I thought you would never ask,” Elisha probably thought. “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit, my father.” “Let me have the firstborn’s portion, the double portion, of your inheritance from the Lord” is what Elisha means.

“You’ve asked me for a hard thing,” Elijah replies. Only God can grant that gift. But if God grants you to see me as I am taken from you, then you will know that God has granted your request. And so, it happened! Elisha saw and heard the brilliant display of rushing heavenly chariots with the drivers at the reins. God swooped the faithful man of God up and away, lifted by the wind.

Elisha picks up the cloak that Elijah drops to him. It signals Elisha’s succession to his mentor’s ministry. And when Elisha crosses the Jordan again, rejoining the fifty waiting prophets, they notice the difference right away. “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha,” they say.

But that spirit of prophetic authority was and always is secondary to the primary gift—God’s forgiveness of our sins. This gift Elisha and all Old Testament believers received as they anticipated in faith and hope the sacrifice that God’s Son would produce by His dying for our sins and His return to life again in resurrection power. God gives all His gifts by grace alone, and we receive them only through faith alone.

What will our dying be like? God has not chosen to reveal those details to us—including the exact time it will occur. Those things would only distract us from our mission here on earth now. But in the meanwhile, the God of the universe protects us moment to moment, while we “tilt at the windmills” of temptation and stress.

Paul described the reality of our struggle to the Ephesians: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Elijah met his Lord in the air, and so will we, when Christ comes for us. Paul relates the sequence of events when Christ returns: “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them—all the faithful, including Elijah, Elisha, and the rest—in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

After Elijah left to go to heaven, God granted him a most wonderful experience. At the Transfiguration, Elijah was allowed to appear with Moses, the father of his nation, and Jesus, the Savior of the world, to have a three-way conversation about Jesus’ upcoming departure from this world. What an uplifting, glorious experience, to be privileged to share with Jesus their experience of being released from this earth. What a foretaste of the finale Elijah and Moses were granted. Jesus will return for them also—someday. And also for each one of us.

Most of us will likely die in the normal way before the time of Christ’s return. We probably won’t go up to heaven in a whirlwind. We won’t necessarily be escorted with chariots of fire and fiery horses. But we will be taken safely into the loving arms of our heavenly Father. Our meeting with the Lord Jesus will be the same as those who are still alive when He returns for His own. We, and all believers will receive the perfect gift of endless grace to live with our Lord and Savior. “And so we will always be with the Lord.”

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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