“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home; swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home”: that’s the refrain from one of the best-known American hymns, sourced from the African American community; a song made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. You know the song: “I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down, coming for to carry me home; but still my soul feels heavenly bound, coming for to carry me home.”
What this well-known song has in common with our second reading this morning is that both have their roots with the same biblical story: the account from the Second Book of Kings of the prophet Elijah ascending into heaven. It’s a transition time: the mantle of Elijah is about to be handed on to Elisha, his understudy. Elijah’s ministry had been marked by confrontation with King Ahab and his successors. “Ahab… did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all those who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30), it says in the history of the Kings. In the struggle between the prophet and the ruling house, the integrity of Israel’s relationship with God was at stake.
It’s Elijah who calls for a drought on the land, in order to show God’s power. It’s Elijah who meets God on Mount Horeb, going through earthquake, wind, and fire, only to encounter God finally in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). It’s God who calls Elijah to anoint a new king for Israel, a replacement for Ahab, and to anoint Elisha as his own successor.
The day of transition comes, and Elisha follows Elijah, first to Bethel, then to Jericho, and finally across the Jordan river. He’s decided to stick with the old man until the end, and in return he asks to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. “You have asked a hard thing,” said Elijah, “yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you…” (2 Kings 2:10).
Then, “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). Like the hymn says, “I looked across Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home; I saw a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.” As Elisha says, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kings 2:12).
“Then we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds… to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever” (1 Thess. 4:17). St. Paul in our reading draws on the story of Elijah and Elisha to flesh out his own conviction about Christian destiny. Paul wants to keep hope alive among the members of the Church, so that they will not despair. Hope is faith oriented to the future. He writes to them “so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). When Jesus returns in glory, St. Paul writes, it will be like the coming of the chariots and horsemen of fire.
St. Paul’s hope was rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The kingdom initiated by his rising from the dead will come to its fulness in his coming again. The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says in our Gospel, is like the bridesmaids waiting for the groom, patiently prepared for what is still not present but yet to come. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13).
In the meantime there is Elijah, the first to go up in the whirlwind. Here our confirmands, and the rest of us, might find our model: in the faithful upholder of God’s covenant with the People; the thorn in the side of the king and his political agenda; the one who listened for God to speak in the sound of sheer silence. We too might choose a thorny path; we too might listen closely for God to speak. In doing so, we will be following Elijah’s path, through Bethel and Jericho and across the Jordan.
The hope St. Paul calls for strikes a new note, for even Elijah came close to despair; anxious enough to flee to Mount Horeb for fear of his life (1 Kings 19:3). King Ahab was as fearsome an opponent as any we might imagine. Yet Paul calls for hope, even in the face of death.
These are challenging times for Christians and everybody else, for all sorts of reasons; we only have to glance at our news feeds to see. We might be tempted like Elijah to head for the hills. But the ground of our hope is sure, through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We, like Elisha, following after the old man, can see the chariots and horsemen of Israel, “coming for to carry us home.”