In high school I learned to dislike goodbyes.
The first one came during my sophomore year. We had a youth director who grew the size of our group in an almost miraculous way; likewise, the size of my faith had grown in an almost miraculous way. When it was time for him to leave his post my friends and I were devastated. I clearly remember singing “Friends are Friends Forever” with great emotion at his last Sunday morning worship service. Later that night, after our final youth group meeting had wrapped up, we lingered around talking in the parking lot in an effort to delay the final “goodbye” as long as possible. But eventually we all had to go home to meet our curfews and face our over-exaggerated sense of teenage loss.
After my junior year in high school I learned that it’s actually possible to check out before the official goodbye comes. That same youth group of ours took a week-long backpacking trip called Wilderness Trail. We overcame torrential rainstorms, hiked tremendous peaks, created inside jokes, and grew in our faith in Christ. By the last day of our trip – as we finished the backpacking part and congratulated ourselves with hot showers and big meals – we were all on a mountaintop, literally and figuratively.
At one of our celebratory meals I found myself at a table for one, intentionally eating my meal away from my beloved new group of friends. At first, I was confused at my seating choice. Why am I being so moody? Why aren’t I savoring every chance to be together before we have to say that dreaded, “Goodbye”?
Slowly, a new self-awareness dawned: I am doing this on purpose. I am pulling away before the goodbye, so the goodbye is not so painful.
Have you ever had to go all the way to the end of a painful goodbye? It’s a long, exhausting train ride headed to a depressing destination. Sometimes there is a very real temptation to quietly slip off, hopefully unnoticed, before you reach the end of the line. Or to throw the throttle wide open and just get it over with, even if it means you come crashing into the end.
My senior year of high school felt like this, experiencing one thing after another for the last time: our last football game, our last pep rally, our last French club meeting. In the fall this made everything seem new and special. But by the spring I began to wonder, How many “lasts” can there be? I was ready for the last last. And I had a growing suspicion that after graduation I may not see many of my classmates again, ever – what would surely be a particularly painful parting of ways. Perhaps we should just graduate and get on with it before we make things even worse.
Now imagine what it would be like to be Elisha.
Elisha first met his mentor, Elijah, in Damascus. The powerful elder prophet was sent there to appoint one man king of Aram, and another man king of Israel, and one more man as his successor. The third man he finds behind a pair of oxen, plowing a field. That’s our Elisha; he makes a farewell meal for his family and becomes Elijah’s right hand man.
Elisha follows Elijah as the great prophet doles out punishment on King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, for murder and theft. Elisha is there when Elijah strikes down 100 men after King Ahaziah prays to other gods. We don’t get much detail about their relationship, but if Elisha has seen Elijah work these miracles I can only imagine the level of attachment he felt to his mentor. Whatever I felt for my youth director, or for my hiking friends, I’m guessing Elisha felt something much more.
Then the story of 2 Kings 2 begins with the knowledge of how it will end: “Just before God took Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind…”
In other words, they are on their way to a “goodbye” at the Jordan River.
They stop at Gilgal, where Elijah gives his understudy his first option to bow out. “Stay here,” Elijah says. “God has sent me on an errand to Bethel.” But Elisha doesn’t take the out; he keeps going.
They arrive in Bethel. The prophets there sense what is up. “God’s going to take your master!” they say. And Elijah gives Elisha another chance to avoid the goodbye: “Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to Jericho.”
Elisha doesn’t take the out. He keeps going.
They arrive in Jericho. Those prophets are also on the alert. “God is going to take your master!” Elijah tells his successor again: “Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to the Jordan.”
But Elisha keeps going, all the way to the end of the tracks.
Man, that is brave.
Was he ever tempted to stay put and avoid the “goodbye” at the end?
Some of you know that this story directly relates to my life right now; my mom has terminal brain cancer. The last year and a half has been a goodbye journey, knowing full well how it would end. I’ve made many trips to my home town in Florida so I could be with her. In some ways, it would be easier not to take these trips – not because I don’t love my mom, but because I do love her so much. It’s painful to see my strong, smart, independent mother decline in health. It might be emotionally easier, somehow, to just stay in North Carolina with the covers over my head and my hands over my ears, happily ignorant of how things are progressing – or regressing – in Florida.
But obviously I can’t do that. Even if it’s going to hurt, I want to be there until the end.
So did Elisha.
The Jordan River is their final destination. The tracks stop here.
Elijah rolls up his cloak like a makeshift staff and uses it to part the waters. He walks out on dry land like Joshua and Moses before him. He offers to do anything for Elisha before he is taken. Elisha’s request is for a “double portion” of what Elijah got – which sounds like being greedy, but this was a normal inheritance for an eldest son (see Deuteronomy 21:17). Elijah says, “Keep watching, stick with me, and you’ll get it.”
As they’re walking and talking, a chariot and horses of fire comes down and picks Elijah up. They carry him away, and Elisha is left behind with his grief. He takes Elijah’s cloak and beats the river with it, crying out to God. Sure enough, the waters part – it looks like Elisha got what he asked for, a double portion of what his master had.
Newly-equipped for ministry, Elisha sets out. He crosses the Jordan River on the dry land he just created. He travels to Jericho. And then to Bethel.
Do those places ring a bell?
They should, because that’s exactly where Elijah and Elisha just came from. This is not a coincidence; this narrative is written in a chiastic structure. That’s a literary form where the events balance each other; A happens, then B happens, then C happens… and then the central, unique event… and then something like C happens, and then something like B, and then something like A. It creates a balance to the story, and highlights the central event. In this case, it looks like this:
A. Elijah and Elisha leave for Gilgal
B. Elijah and Elisha at Bethel
C. Elijah and Elisha at Jericho
D. Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan
E. Elijah ascends
D’. Elisha crosses the Jordan
C’. Elisha at Jericho
B’. Elisha at Bethel
A. Elisha returns to Samaria
I know this is nerdy, English-major stuff, but it reminds us of something important about not just Elisha’s story, but about every story God is involved in: it continues beyond the “goodbye.”
So Elisha bravely goes on this goodbye journey, all the way through to the end of the tracks at the Jordan River… but the writers of our Old Testament didn’t see this story as ending when Elijah is taken off to heaven. They saw the completeness – the end of the chiastic structure – happening after Elisha keeps going.
The goodbye is not the end.
Next week begins the season of Lent. At Andrews UMC we will follow Jesus’ journey to the cross, from his baptism in this same Jordan River to his crucifixion in Jerusalem. In short, we will follow Jesus on his goodbye journey. He knew from the start where he was going. Three times in the gospel of Mark he tells his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over to death. Like Elijah and Elisha headed to Jericho, the purpose of the trip was a goodbye.
And for three days, it looked like the tracks ended with death.
But it did not; the goodbye is not the end.
This is part of the Good News we’ve received as followers of Christ. As I see my mom through the end of her journey, I can go bravely forward knowing that Christ has given her eternal life. The “goodbye” of death is not the end.
And I feel the truth of this when I think back to high school. My graduation was a difficult goodbye, but it was not the end. On the very Sunday I preached this sermon one of my best friends from high school was in town visiting to hear it.
It was tough to say goodbye to my backpacking buddies at Wilderness Trail, but that was not the end. I ended up going on to work there for 15 years, and I’m planning a trip with my church youth group again this year.
Even the departure of our youth director was not the end. My youth group floundered for a little while, but we survived and learned from the experience, and my home church continues to have a strong youth ministry.
There’s no way to avoid goodbyes in this life. Some of them are catastrophic, devastating. They can feel like the end of the tracks. But when we live as part of God’s great story, there is always a future for us beyond what might seem like the final goodbye… death included.
If you are facing a goodbye in the near future, hear the good news: The goodbye is not the end.
If you have been through a goodbye that’s left you feeling broken and confused, hear the good news: The goodbye is not the end.
When we follow Christ, there is always someplace to go.
There is always more to the story.
Credit to http://www.pulpitfiction.us for the reminder that his is written in chiastic structure, and the emphasis on goodbye. Thanks, guys!