Elijah and his Stratolaunch
Elijah and his Stratolaunch
February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12
“The Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:1). Yes, a whirlwind. That was the best flying technology in the ancient world.
Today, we have other ways to leave the earth. Just this week, Elon Musk sent a rocket called the Falcon Heavy into space, carrying one of his Tesla sports cars. Several dozen private companies are now creating rockets and other launch vehicles. Since my father spent his entire career at NASA, you know that I love this stuff.
My personal favorite is a brand-new airplane that can carry rockets and satellites into space. She has a wingspan longer than a football field, making it the largest in the world, and stands 50 feet tall. She weighs 500,000 pounds and is powered by six huge jet engines.
Her name: Stratolaunch.
This colossal aircraft is the brainchild of billionaire Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. Allen wants to carry payloads, satellites and humans into space in ways that are more economical and flexible than ground-based rockets. Stratolaunch is scheduled to take flight for the first time in 2019.
No whirlwind will be required.
Stratolaunch will make a connection between earth and the heavens, taking rockets into space and then safely returning to earth. Something similar happened when Elijah was airlifted into heaven in a whirlwind. Instead of dying, he went directly to heaven and later returned to earth in the Transfiguration. On the day of Transfiguration, which we are celebrating today, Elijah appeared alongside Moses and had a conversation with Jesus. This showed the disciples that Jesus was the continuation of what God had started with the Old Testament law and the prophets (Mark 9:2-9).
Elijah is such an important biblical character for both Jews and Christians. Even today, Jews expect Elijah to return to earth ahead of the coming of the Messiah. A place is set for him when they gather for their annual Passover meal. Elijah is not designed to do his prophetic work and then blast off on a one-way trip to heaven. Instead, he is meant to safely return to earth in order to continue the work that God has called him to do.
So, let’s not talk about the prophet and his whirlwind, which was a one-way trip. Better to discuss Elijah and his Stratolaunch. That’s a trip from ground to sky and safely back again.
The prophet Elijah is a living link between earth and heaven, between our world and God’s world. He helps us to remain connected to God, and proves that heaven is not just “the afterlife,” but is a place that has an ongoing impact on the choices we make in this life.
I think it is important for us to join Elijah on his Stratolaunch. When we do this, we keep our eyes on both heaven and earth. We give thanks for the gift of salvation, of course, but we also put our heart, mind and strength into doing God’s work in the world. We put effort into changing the world as it is into the world as it should be, remembering that Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
That’s our mission as Christians: To focus on both earth and heaven. “On earth,” says Jesus, “as it is in heaven.” With God’s help, we will do whatever we can to get the ways of the world in line with the values of heaven.
I believe that we begin this process by carrying forward the work of the biblical prophets. Today’s number two prophet, named Elisha, certainly had this desire when he asked his master Elijah, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 King 2:9). Knowing that Elijah was about to depart, Elisha wanted the spirit of his master to fill him, so that he could continue his work in the world.
So what was the work of the prophets? In a word, justice. Isaiah challenges us to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). Jeremiah criticizes those who “do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,” and “do not defend the rights of the needy” (5:28).
With a similar voice, Hosea calls us to “hold fast to love and justice” (12:6). Amos says that we should “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24). According to Micah, the Lord requires nothing more of us than to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
Seek justice. Judge with justice. Hold fast to justice. Do justice. Here in Fairfax and across our country, Christians are challenged to “inherit a double share” of the spirit of these justice-minded biblical prophets. When we do, we take action to make sure that all of our neighbors are treated fairly, and that the weak and the poor get the help they need. We also reach out to our elected leaders and pressure them to take actions that will benefit everyone, not just the wealthy and the well-connected. Elijah himself became famous for helping a poor widow and her son, two people who were not only needy but were foreigners — residents of Zarephath (1 Kings 17).
Do you remember what happened when Jesus preached on this story in his hometown of Nazareth? His neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff. They didn’t like him talking about God and a bunch of foreigners. But he wasn’t being political — he was preaching the Bible (Luke 4:24-30).
When we inherit a double share of Elijah’s spirit, we enter new territory. We join God’s prophets in seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, helping the needy, and defending the rights of the poor. This puts us on board Elijah’s Stratolaunch, a vehicle which connects the needs of the world with the values of heaven.
As Christians we are always challenged to strike the right balance between earth and heaven. Unfortunately, some of our traditions neglect the earthly ministry of Jesus, and focus mainly on his death and resurrection. Have you ever noticed that one of our greatest statements of faith, the Apostles’ Creed, says nothing about the ministry of Jesus? It begins with the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” There’s nothing wrong with any of that. These words are foundations of our faith.
But what comes next? “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Wait a second, hold on. What’s missing here? The entire life of Jesus is jumped over, from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Where is the teaching, preaching, healing and miracles of Jesus Christ?
Leaders of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), tried to fill this gap when they wrote a brief statement of faith in the 1980s. The section on Jesus begins with the affirmation that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. But then it goes on to say, “Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”
The point is this: What Jesus did is every bit as important as who Jesus is. His preaching, teaching and healing changed the world, as did his “eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.” When we believe in Jesus, we don’t only believe that he is fully human and fully God. We also believe that his ministry brought the world a little closer to heaven, and that it gives us an example of how we are supposed to act in the world.
Both Elijah and Jesus are riding the Stratolaunch — a vehicle that goes to space and back, keeping the proper balance between heaven and earth. And we, today, are invited to join them on this amazing ride.
But how do we do this? A good example comes from Dawson, Minnesota, where a Lutheran pastor recently reached out to her Muslim doctor — she asked him if he would be willing to give a talk about Islam to the community. She had been horrified by some of the things that people were saying about Islam in her Lutheran prayer group.
At first the doctor had reservations. He was the town’s first Muslim resident, and he rarely talked about his religion. But he wondered how the people of Dawson would learn about Islam if he did not share his faith. So, with the pastor’s help, he spoke to 400 people at the high school auditorium.
According to The Washington Post (July 1, 2017), he addressed their concerns right away. “Do I look like a terrorist?” he asked, smiling. Then he talked for an hour about what 99 percent of Muslims believe — none of which has anything to do with terrorism. Then he ended with a slideshow of family photos, including one of his cat. People applauded, and some submitted questions to be answered later.
The Lutheran pastor was following Jesus when she invited her doctor to speak. Like Jesus, she was willing to reach out to someone who was considered an outcast, and build a relationship with him. Her actions helped the doctor to educate his community about Islam, and build a bridge with the people of the town. We do the same when we attend fast-breaking dinners at the Turkish mosque in Fairfax, when we work together to feed the homeless, and when we participate in interfaith friendship walks. Just this past week, I was pleased to see that even evangelical Christians were gathering with Jews and Muslims to promote religious tolerance.
Moving from ground to sky and back again. That’s what happens when we join Elijah and Jesus on the Stratolaunch. So let’s take the ride, and help to move our world a little closer to heaven. Amen.
Amos, Jonathan. “Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully,” BBC News, February 7, 2018, www.bbc.com.
“Brief Statement of Faith,” Presbyterian Mission, www.presbyterianmission.org.
“Colossal rocket-launching plane rolls toward testing,” Phys.org, June 1, 2017, https://phys.org.
McCrummen, Stephanie. “Love Thy Neighbor?” The Washington Post, July 1, 2017, www.washingtonpost.com.