2 Kings 2:11-12 “As they were walking along and talking together, 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. Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.”
Nothing scares people more than death. It is the one thing that seems to be lurking behind every other fear. There are few places we invest so much expense and effort as we do in death prevention, from hiding air bags in every spare inch of our vehicles, to investing billions in medical research each year, to supporting vast armies, police forces, and fire departments to keep us safe. We do so in spite of the fact that death is inevitable. John Jeske observed that the death rate has remained almost constant since the world began: one per person.
“Ah,” you think to yourself, “but here we have an exception, because Elijah didn’t die.” And you are correct. Elijah was translated to heaven without tasting death. But whether God swept Elijah to heaven in a storm, or whether the prophet had keeled over in front of his friend, the effect was the same for Elisha, wasn’t it? He was separated from the spiritual father and friend he cared for so deeply. At least part of Elisha’s reaction was the same as those who mourned a death in the family: he tore his clothes.
We may fear death and the separation we suffer. That is all the more reason God’s work needs to continue in the face of death. Toward the end of the movie “Hook,” Captain Hook challenges Peter Pan to a duel to the death. Peter Pan replies, “Death would be a great adventure,” and Hook agrees, “Death would be the greatest adventure.”
I doubt whether Peter Pan or Captain Hook were thinking about the same thing that I am thinking, but I can agree that death is at least the start of the greatest adventure. That’s not just because there is a sense of mystery about what happens. Rather, the child of God knows that heaven is waiting for him on the other side. That’s where Elijah went: “…and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” That’s the promise of Jesus’ resurrection for each one of us after we die. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).
Isn’t that the ultimate meaning of our Lord’s work for us? He has been running the world’s largest and longest rescue operation: to get people off this spiritually sinking planet to safety in heaven. Each child of God who dies in faith is a success story. In their case, it’s “mission accomplished.” This one has finally reached safety, and now we can turn more efforts to reaching someone else.
In spite of our sadness at parting, in spite of our fears, we can be certain that God’s work carries on at death, because he has transformed it into the ladder to safety in heaven.