Sacred Anxiety



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Scripture Reading:

2 Kings 2:1-12

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.  2Elijah said to Elisha, “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.  3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?”  And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

4Elijah said to him, “Elisha, 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.  5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?”  And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

6Then Elijah said to him, “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.  7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.  8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”  Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  10He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”  11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  12Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Mark 9:2-9

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


“Sacred Anxiety” 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9

The prophet Elijah came to the end of the road, only to find that the road had become a bridge into the numinous, a pathway into the holy otherness of God. Elijah was courageous and vulnerable, intense and mysterious, fierce and tender, and so unique was his personality that he influenced the religious imagination of his people for generations after his departure. In the story of Elijah’s ascension into heaven, which is told in such a matter of fact way that its plausibility seems accepted by the writer, we are given a glimpse into how a transition in leadership stirs things up in a community. Elijah’s story is a map of how the anxiety of change courses through the veins of a system.


The timing of this story of the transition in prophetic leadership is significant, for it happens against the backdrop of a historical transition between two kings, King Ahaziah and King Jehoram. Change is in the air, not only for the community of religious leaders, but also within the monarchy of Israel. Given that the departure of Elijah happens between the story of two kings, some biblical commentators (William Herzog) suggest it symbolizes an occurrence out of the realm of ordinary time. Elijah departs in a mysterious way; Elisha assumes the mantle of prophetic power, all of this occurs in a realm of the sacred in the immeasurable time of Kairos. Thus, the anxiety that surfaces in this passage might also be thought of as “sacred anxiety.”


Elijah’s prophetic successor is pretty much a shoe-in, but God still will make the final decision as to whether Elisha will take over the reigns of prophetic leadership. The story of this transition sounds almost like a slapstick comedy at the beginning, with Elijah wanting to go off alone for his ending, but the younger Elisha dogs his every step. “Why don’t you stay behind here,” suggests the senior prophet to the junior wanna-be. “No, no,” insists Elisha, “I’ll come along with you.” Three times Elijah tries to shake Elisha, but the younger man keeps insisting that he go along. I can almost picture Elisha hanging onto the leg of the prophet Elijah, like a young child hanging onto his mother’s leg as the mother tries to go off to work. Elisha’s persistence wins out, and together they go to the edge of the Jordan, where the elder prophet will part the water so that the two of them may cross into the wilderness.

When we assess the emotional tone of a passage of scripture we risk projecting our own feelings into the passage, but even that projection may be instructive as we seek to understand how God may be speaking to us. My best guess, or projection, is that the emotional tone of this passage about transition is one of intense anxiety. The simple definition of anxiety is that it is a response to a threat, the threat may be real or imagined. The body has its own primitive response to anxiety, with the heart pumping and the adrenaline rushing through the system. The basic responses to anxiety are the classic fight or flight. You either stay and fight the threat, or you run for the hills. Another response to anxiety is freeze, this is the animal that holds perfectly still so that it will not be seen by the predator, or the human who remains paralyzed by fear, remaining stuck in an anxious situation. Yet another response to anxiety is flock, this is the herding mechanism. In people it plays out as sticking close to the group, allowing the strong togetherness force to dictate decisions.

Often you can see these responses to anxiety play out in a religious community when the threat, or the anxiety, is around separation or the departure of a leader. When separation is imminent, like in a leader’s departure, you often see people act in predictable ways. Some fight by picking a fight or by being angry with the departing leader. Others engage in flight, that is to say they disappear from the scene until things stabilize a bit. Others flock, or get so caught up in “group think” that they can not clarify their own thinking. Others remain frozen, unable to accept the changes or to move forward into the next phase of the organization’s life. They cling to the departing leader, unable to let go. Elisha seems to be in the latter category, hanging onto Elijah for dear life, afraid to trust in his own capacity to pick up the prophetic mantle and carry on in his own way.

Elisha is not the only one who is feeling anxious about this leadership change. Along the way he and Elijah keep running into the “company of prophets,” which is to say the local guild of prophets, a group of people with mystical or prophetic experiences who cluster around a holy site or leader. These men anxiously say to Elisha: “You know, your master will be taken away from you today.” They mirror Elisha’s own anxiety. Elisha shoos them away with his own version of denial: “I know, but be quiet. Let’s not talk about it.”

Then comes the moment of truth, when Elisha asks his prophetic mentor for what he needs: the assurance that he will be Elijah’s successor. In asking for a double portion of his spirit, he is voicing the traditional request of the firstborn for the father’s legacy or inheritance. Elijah has done everything he can to prepare Elisha to be a prophetic leader, but in the end, Elijah has to leave it up to God and Elisha. If Elisha sees the departure with his own eyes, then it is a sign that he is able to carry on. Elisha claims his inheritance as he cries, “Father, father,” to the departing Elijah.

Elijah’s departure shakes everyone up. Long have they depended on his brilliance, on his leadership, on his mystical connection with God to provide direction to God’s people. The rest of the chapter tells the story of how the local prophetic guild is in denial about the loss of their leader. They don’t believe Elisha when he tells them that Elijah has been carried off into heaven, and so they go off to search for him for three days. As they search the area, they are bargaining with the loss: “maybe Elijah isn’t really gone and if I look hard enough I can find him and restore things to normal.” Elijah’s departure is experienced as a threat, and they long for things to be normal again. Naturally, they come back disappointed, finally having to admit that their leader is gone. Elisha can’t resist saying “I told you so,” which is also his not so subtle way of reminding them that he is now in charge.

In his book, Finding Serenity in an Age of Anxiety, Robert Gerzon suggests that there are three kinds of anxiety: normal, toxic, and sacred. Normal anxiety is the everyday anxiety we experience in our day-to-day living. It’s the kind of anxiety that evolution has built into our brain to keep us safe and alive. When we do not deal with that anxiety effectively, it can become toxic anxiety. Sacred anxiety occurs when normal anxiety is used to move us further into personal and spiritual growth. When we face the anxiety of our own transitions in life, do we find a way to embrace that anxiety, learn from it, and move forward into claiming our gifts and strengths for ministry? In a leadership transition do we fight, flight, freeze or flock, or do we face into the uncertainty and use it as a time to learn new things, develop new gifts, discover our own strengths, and move into another creative phase of our ministry?

Today’s gospel image of the transfiguration, a vision of Jesus consulting with Elijah and Moses, two other great leaders, gives us a glimpse into the long history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which has been full of anxious transitions. Moses led his people from slavery into freedom, Elijah provided prophetic leadership that helped his community of faith align themselves with God’s activity on the edge of the monarchy. And Jesus would lead his people into yet another phase of their life with God.

As the disciples witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, Peter, who was terrified, blurts out the suggestion that they build three booths and make this moment permanent. Peter was expressing his experience of sacred anxiety, that moment of uncertainty where they had to decide if they would move forward into life, down off of the mountaintop into the uncertainty that lay ahead of them. The disciples had to choose whether the anxiety of the moment would be come toxic, crippling their efforts to move into the future of their life with Jesus, or if it would be sacred, holy anxiety that would leading them into new life. We stand with the disciples, and with Elisha, always on the verge of something new. We stand at a transition in our own personal lives, and in the life of this community, anxious and uncertain, considering the invitation to move forward into an uncertain future, undergirded by God’s promise of life abundant and everlasting. AMEN.


  • Ben Maruca