2 Kings 2:1-12 (The Transfiguration of Our Lord—Series B)
“In a Whirlwind”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
February 15, 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament lesson recorded in 2 Kings 2:
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 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. 3 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.” 4 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. 5 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.” 6 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. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.” 10 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.” 11 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. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Over the past thirteen years of ministry I have yet to preach on this Old Testament text. In my planning I said this year will be the year. It is a Bible story that many of us have known since we were first introduced to it in Sunday School. It is the amazing story of Elijah taken into heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. But as I was studying and preparing to preach on this text I had to ask myself, “Why?” Why in the world did I have to pick this text? I should have gone with something easy, some theme in the Gospel lesson that I have used before. Jesus, transfigured in glory as He was visited by Moses and Elijah. The disciples desire to stay on the mountaintop forever in the glory of Jesus. But no, I’m preaching on the Old Testament lesson. What in the world am I going to preach that would be of benefit to you, the people of God? Why, oh why, did I ever decide to preach on 2 Kings, chapter 2?
Nothing in the text was jumping out at me and screaming, “Preach me!” I got caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts, nothing of which was going to produce the type of sermon that would be worth listening to. But by then, it was too late, because I was getting pulled into the whirlwind, so to speak, the one in the text in verses 1 and 11: “The LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind;” “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.”
In the Old Testament we see several whirlwinds of significance. Job wants His day before the Lord, man to man, to content his case against God. “Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind.” (Job 38:1) Yahweh comes to Job, as Job had requested, in a mighty tornado-like storm, threatening Job with the destruction Job asked for. Yet, the Lord answered Job’s blustery and windy words out of this whirlwind, not with destruction, but with a loving and gracious response to Job’s many questions.
However, when Yahweh made Himself known in a whirlwind, there were not always such gracious results. Rather, there was judgment and destruction, as we heard last week in Isaiah 40:24, “Scarcely are [rulers] planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the whirlwind carries them off like stubble.” (Isa. 40:24) In declaring His judgment against the people of Jerusalem who had sinned against the covenant the Lord made with His people, God said through this same prophet, “And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by Yahweh of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.” (Isa. 29:6) Against the sins of the people God comes in the whirlwind of judgment and punishment.
God’s appearance in and use of the whirlwind is typically used as the symbol of God’s judgment. As tornado-like storms cause devastation, so the wrath of God’s judgment against sin causes the destruction and the punishment of the sinner. We see this in Jeremiah 23 and 30: “Behold, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.” (Jer 23:19; 30:23 ESV) The prophet Amos declares the word of the Lord, “So I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour her strongholds, with shouting on the day of battle, with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind.” (Amos 1:14 ESV)
For those of us who are used to declarations such as “God is love,” (1 John 4:16) the justice and judgment of God against sin places hard realities on us. We are not our own gods as Satan would have us believe. The Lord alone is God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, our relationship with the one, true God is fatally flawed by sin. We are fully accountable for our sins and are subject to God’s judgment of punishment “in the day of the whirlwind.” Certainly we do not like this accountability. We seek to “get out of” our sins by placing the blame everywhere else except upon ourselves. We do exactly what Adam and Eve did in Genesis 3. Adam blamed Eve (and, by extension, God who gave Eve to him) for his eating of the forbidden fruit. Eve in turned blamed Satan. Neither would take responsibility for their own sins. And what do we say? “It was bad parenting.” “The situation was out of my control.” “The devil made me do it!”
Each one of us is accountable for the inherited sin, the original sin, with which we were born and for the acts of sin that we have done or left undone. As the confession in the Office of Compline states in our hymnal (LSB 254), “I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault.” Therefore, each one of us is then subject to the whirlwind of God’s perfect justice in full measure. “When God’s love is violated by the sinful rebellion, betrayal, and disobedience of those He has loved, God’s wrath responds passionately.” (TLSB 1134) “Behold, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.”
Now take a look at the whirlwind in our text. It is not a whirling thunderstorm of God’s wrath and punishment. There are echoes of the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job. This whirlwind is not a display of God’s justice and judgment, but of the Lord’s mercy. Elijah did not see death. He was taken into heaven in a whirlwind kicked up by the chariots of fire and horses of fire. A symbol of God’s wrath (fire) and judgment (whirlwind) are for Elijah a picture of God’s grace. Elijah was saved from both physical and spiritual death and was taken into heaven. God acted with His mercy and grace to take Elijah directly to Himself, apart from sin’s punishment of death. This is not what we expect from God’s whirlwind. This is the undeserved love and mercy of the Lord in action. God takes Elijah to heaven. God acts in mercy. And He does the same for us.
One of the striking aspects of our text from 2 Kings 2 is the reality of heaven and the fact that it is God who takes us there—whether by heavenly chariot, fire, and whirlwind or by the more familiar vehicle of physical death. Unlike most mortals, Elijah did not experience that interruption in bodily existence called death. But because of Jesus Christ, death is nothing more than an interruption of bodily life and not eternal suffering, hell, and damnation. This is true because Jesus took the full weight of the wrath and judgment of God upon Himself. Jesus, God’s only Son, put Himself squarely in the path of the destructive whirlwind of God’s punishment against the sins of the world. On the cross, Christ alone suffered the physical death and the destruction of eternal death and hell that we sinners deserved. His death saved us from God’s punishment of death. Your sins are forgiven by grace alone through the shed blood of Jesus. Out of His mercy for you, Christ has opened heaven to all who believe in Him through faith as their Savior.
Not only that, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead on the third day guarantees our bodily resurrection on the Last Day. Like Elijah, we will be forever with the Lord in body and soul in the glories of eternity. Physical death for the believer in Jesus Christ is only a temporary separation of the soul and body. When Christ comes again in glory, our bodies that have slept in the grave will be raised to life again. So we read in 1 Corinthians 15, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”(1Cor. 15:50-54 ESV)
Our victory is in Jesus Christ. He died on the cross so that in the whirlwind of your sins you can hear God speak to you in Absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.” Christ rose from the dead so that there is no longer any need to fear death and the grace. Now you hear God say to you through His Gospel Word, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26 ESV)
Elijah, by God’s grace, was taken into heaven in a whirlwind. God spared Elijah from physical death. But God the Father did not spare His only Son, Jesus Christ, from physical or spiritual death. Jesus suffered both for us on the cross, paying the full the punishment for our sins as He endured the whirlwind of God’s wrath. Christ rose again in victory over death and the grave and ascended into heaven. He has prepared a place for us there, so that you and I might live in resurrected and glorified body and soul forever with the Lord and all His saints, including Elijah and Moses and the whole people of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.