It's one of the strangest stories in the entire Bible, and that is saying something. You heard it from the first reading this morning: a guy is taken up into heaven on horse-drawn chariots of fire. Now it's supposed to give you some background on who this Elijah is who's included in the Gospel passage along with the more familiar characters Moses, Jesus, and Peter; but nevertheless through all the strange and outlandish imagery leading up to Elijah's fiery entrance into heaven, there are actually many connections in the story to mere normal us.
After this past week here at St. John's, we are now approaching twenty funerals in the last just over three years: some we, and their families, knew were coming. Some came completely out of nowhere: no preparation mentally or spiritually whatsoever for loved ones. But this story this morning tells us something we humans don't often realize until it happens: no matter how much you prepare yourself for any person's death, no matter how many years or months or weeks you're given advanced notice by medical professionals that someone you adore will no longer be alive, there will always, always be pain. There will always be anguish, no matter what.
Elisha, who learns so much from Elijah: how to tenderly care for people less fortunate, how to see God constantly active in the world, how to be passionately dedicated in your work and yet how to carry yourself with utter humility, and how to love this God and God's children with all your heart; Elisha is told time and time again that this man who made a monumental impact on his life was going to leave him behind for the rest of his time on earth. Elisha even tells other people that he knows it's going to happen, and there's nothing he can do to stop it. And yet, when Elijah is literally taken from his side: his mentor, his second-father, his dearest friend; Elisha breaks down uncontrollably. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could prepare him for that pain and anguish when the moment he expected all along finally hit.
Our pull-yourself-up culture says he should have stayed strong. He had who knows how long to prepare for it. He should have taken his emotions out in a room all by himself. He should have kept that sadness in check and go on about his business following Elijah's lead and do the very job his mentor had done for years on end. But all of us fellow humans know it is nowhere near that easy. Nothing can prepare you for the death of someone you hold so dearly. Tears are going to flow. Your heart is going to feel a pressure you never realized possible. Your mind is going to churn at hundreds of miles an hour wondering if you did enough for that person you cared for so deeply.
But the truth is I don't think God expects strength and resilience from us in those moments. I think God expects the tears and the sorrow and the pain. After all that is the natural result after years of a relationship built on authentic love. For God that outcome was also death, a death that Jesus told His disciples would happen: it had to happen for all of humanity; and when it finally did, they absolutely lost it. Nothing could prepare them for that death of the man they adored so incredibly much.
Now this Wednesday night, that we call Ash Wednesday, is often viewed as a start to the preparation of sorts: to somehow mentally and spiritually prepare ourselves for the reality that Jesus died for us. But the truth is it already happened. Jesus already died. There's no preparation necessary. Jesus already took care of us and all of God's children.
But what makes Ash Wednesday night rather special, and yet troubling for many of us, are those ashes that are rubbed into your forehead, as you hear the words, "Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." It's not an overly cheerful service. It's a reminder that we are not created by God to live forever. However, that same night we taste and see, yet again, Jesus' boundless love, what He did for us on the cross. Because of that we get to go home, into a room by ourselves, and wash the ashes, wash the death, wash the mortality off our forehead, and look in the mirror and see a face wiped clean, see the face of the child God had in mind when the Son went up the hill with a cross on His back.
There is most certainly a time for sadness and tears and anguish, a natural outcome of losing someone we love. And God determined the time when the divine love came to life on the cross for all of us, but obviously the story didn't stop there. Ash Wednesday is only the beginning. Funerals are only a starting point for the next chapter to be authored by God, and at that time the tears and the sadness and the anguish will be overpowered by uncontrollable joy and victory, because soon enough we will hear what has already been done by God through Jesus Christ: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! And for that Greatest News of all time, we give thanks to God indeed. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Guest pastors will lead us in worship during St. John's pastoral vacancy
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon