Chariot of Fire
by Ted Schroder
While on sabbatical in England I studied the poems of R.S. Thomas, a Welsh minister. One of them caught my imagination and inspired me to preach a sermon on its subject for All Saints’. It is entitled, “The Cry of Elisha After Elijah”, reflecting the famous incident recorded in 2 Kings 2 when the company of the prophets tell Elisha that the Lord was going to take his master away from him that day. Elisha hushes them, and tells them not to speak of it – just like we do when a loved one tells us that he is dying. We don’t want to talk about it or deal with it because it is so painful. Elijah reassures Elisha “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” This is the promise that in life and death we are still one with the Lord: nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:39). Our loved ones do not leave us, they are still present to us if they are in Christ.
While Elijah repeats his assurance that he will not leave Elisha, he also paradoxically asks him, “What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” He knows he is going to die and leave Elisha physically, but he will not leave him spiritually. In fact Elisha asks for a double portion of his spirit – his continuing presence in his life. Here we have an awareness of the communion of saints, the ongoing relationship of time and eternity, earth and heaven, that is present in the Spirit of God.
The moment of departure arrives when they are walking and talking together. Unexpectedly, suddenly, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” What a dramatic way to describe that passing of a great prophet from this world to the next. It gives me chill-bumps to read about it. Here is R.S. Thomas’s poem about it.
The chariot of Israel came,
And the bold, beautiful knights,
To free from his close prison
The friend who was my delight;
Cold is my cry over the vast deep shaken,
Bereft was I, for he was taken.
Through the straight places of Baca
We went with equal will,
Not knowing who would emerge
First from that gloomy vale;
Cold is my cry; our bond was broken,
Bereft was I, for he was taken.
Where, then, came they to rest,
Those steeds, and that car of fire?
My understanding is darkened,
It is no gain to enquire;
Better to wait the long night’s ending,
Till the light comes, far truths transcending.
I yield, since no wisdom lies
In seeking to go his way;
A man without knowledge am I
Of the quality of his joy;
Yet living souls, a prodigious number,
Bright-faced as dawn, invest God’s chamber.
The friends that we loved well,
Though they vanished far from our sight,
In a new country were found
Beyond this vale of night;
O blest are they, without pain or fretting
In the sun’s light that knows no setting.
This affirmation of the communion of saints is at the heart of the teaching of Jesus. It is rejected today by secular humanists who believe that their understanding of science has caused intelligent people to dispense with any belief in life beyond this one. Adam Gopnik, writing about Charles Darwin in The New Yorker, maintains that Darwin, after the death of his favorite daughter Annie at age ten, abandoned his Christian faith and became, essentially, a stoic. “He believed that the contemplation of the immensity of time, and the repertory of feelings, was all that was left to us. There was no inherent meaning in Annie’s dying at ten, except the recognition that mortality was the rule of existence; serenity could be found only in the contemplation of the vast indifference of the universe.” (The New Yorker, October 23, 2006, Rewriting Nature, p.58)
What would Jesus say? He replied to this argument in his debate with the Sadducees, who also denied the resurrection. What is the ground for the hope of a life beyond death? Jesus takes them back to another Old Testament incident – when Moses encountered the burning bush. God said to him, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Sir John Polkinghorne, a former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and an Anglican minister draws this important conclusion from these words. “God is not someone who cares for a person today and then cannot be bothered about that person tomorrow…if the patriarchs mattered to God once – they must matter to God for ever. Jesus says, ‘He is the God not of the dead but the living.’ Jesus’ argument is powerful and convincing. We have no simply natural expectation of a destiny beyond death. As far as science, or any other purely human form of knowledge can tell us, death is the end. But death is not the ultimate end, because only God is ultimate. Our hope of heaven rests solely, but absolutely adequately, on the merciful faithfulness of God. If we matter to God today – and we certainly do – then we shall matter to God for ever.” (Living With Hope, p.43)
When we encounter skepticism regarding resurrection to eternal life we must remember the words of Jesus: “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Or as The Message puts it, “You’re way off base, and here’s why: One, you don’t know your Bible; two, you don’t know how God works.” (Mark 12:24)
One day we will experience the ride of our lives when we get on board our chariot of fire. “Swing low, sweet chariot. Comin’ for to carry me home.”
November 5, 2006
Amelia Plantation Chapel, Amelia Island, Florida
Page - PeopleOfFaith.com - Visitor
2006 People of Faith