Not long ago, I had a terribly important decision to make. It was one of those life changing decisions; one where the impacts would be far-reaching, whatever Dana and I decided. It was one of those moments where threads in life intersect and, to move forward, you must decide which thread to follow.
How did we make that decision? Prayerfully, first and foremost. With silence and listening for God, to be sure; another form of prayer. And then, through calling people whose opinions I respect, people who have had an important impact on my life, people who are farther down the road of life than I am and who have an uncommon wisdom to show for it.
In other words, I called mentors in my life.
And to a person, they all gave the same advice, without having consulted with each other. They all helped clarify the right decision. After speaking with all of them, the decision before Dana and I became far easier to make.
And since making the decision, we have felt validated that we chose rightly and wisely.
That’s the power of having mentors in life.
Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” (27:17) Here, in these phone calls to select individuals, was such a case.
We’ve all known people who have influenced us in our lives, for better or worse. Those who’ve had a positive influence we often call mentors. I’m sure we’ve also been mentors ourselves, a deep honor and privilege to walk alongside someone on their life’s journey, offering wisdom and guidance to build up that person.
Sometimes, that mentoring is so influential, it causes the mentee to take up your mantle; to move to walk in your shoes. Perhaps some of you have known this in turning over the family business to a relative or close friend, or in any other numerous ways in which someone who came behind you picked up your work, your life’s purpose, your mantle, and kept going. Or perhaps you are the one who picked up someone else’s work and kept going, having been mentored ahead of such a privilege.
That’s exactly what happens in our story this morning: Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle and keeps going.
As he walks with Elijah in our scripture this morning, he knows that he will soon inherit his work. And that’s a big job. Elijah’s work is speaking truth to power, especially when that power usually doesn’t want to hear the truth. That is an unpleasant and often dangerous task. Yet, he will try to keep Israel focused on worshipping God alone, something the people often resist. He knows this will be a tough job, but he walks down the road with his mentor until, in a flash, his mentor is taken to heaven without seeing death.
Let’s read that story together. It comes from 2 Kings 2:1-12.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.
Elisha rips his clothes, an old-school sign of mourning. He’s deeply sad that his mentor is gone. Even though he stood amazed at the way his mentor went, still, a major, important, deeply valued relationship is gone from his life. Elijah spent much time raising up Elisha to pick up his mantle, to take on the role when Elijah was gone. They walked together, they shared the journey of life together, Elijah telling Elisha all he needed to know.
At the start, in 1 Kings 19, Elisha seems like an overly eager child, wanting so bad to be like Elijah. But here, when we reach this moment in the scripture, Elijah’s mentoring has had its impact: Elisha is more mature and has proper understanding of the nature his role, formed and shaped by Elijah’s presence in his life.
As iron sharpens iron, so Elijah sharpened Elisha.
That’s what mentoring does.
Elijah’s constant presence with Elisha was key. Mentoring doesn’t happen from a distance, it doesn’t happen in short spurts; it happens over a long period of time with both people regularly present. Mentoring takes effort.
Think in your life of those who have mentored you. Think of the time they invested, the care and concern they showed for you personally. That could be a parent, a close relative like an uncle or aunt; it could be a professional in your field or the former owner of your business; it could be an old teacher or professor. It could be anyone who showed deep care and concern for your life and then chose to invest her or himself in you. What mentor comes to mind for you?
In my life, I could name many people who have had such an impact, sometimes for a season, sometimes over a longer term. One person especially comes to mind for me. She has been such a blessing and I am a much better person because of her presence in my life. Even though she’s moved away, and we might go for long periods without talking, the relationship is still there, and she is still ready to offer guidance.
In some ways, especially as a professional, I have picked up her mantle, taking it with me into how I engage my job, my colleagues, and the communities I serve.
As iron sharpens iron, so our mentors have sharpened us.
Presence is key. Time invested through presence leaves a lasting effect on the people we mentor and on ourselves when we are the mentee. Elisha knew that. Scripture doesn’t tell us, but Elijah certainly had a mentor who raised him up in the way he should go. And Elisha undoubtedly mentored someone to take up his mantle.
The succession matters because the work that Elijah did, that Elisha took on, was work being done before Elijah and was work carried on from Elisha; work that is certainly continuing to be carried out today, even though those serving in the ways of Elijah and Elisha have no idea they come from a long line of mentors raising up prophets to take on the mantle of speaking truth to power.
And that’s just the point. The work here is God’s work. Elijah knew that. Elisha knew that. They were simply continuing the prophetic work of speaking truth to power that God had established from of old and has continued into our present day. Mentoring is the responsibility of all who claim God, for if we are to pass on the work God has given us to do, we must raise up others who will come behind us, just as someone raised us up to take on the work we do or have done.
This is the model Jesus set. He invested his life in twelve men. He spent the vast majority of his earthly ministry time with them, teaching them, training them. Eleven of them succeeded him to carry his mantle into the world, founding the church. And the very first thing they did after he left them, rising up to heaven in ways reminiscent of Elijah in this story, was to select a replacement for Judas Iscariot. Then they mentored Matthias, that replacement, just as Jesus had mentored them.
Twelve men, mentored by one man. That’s the model Jesus left us. And the world was changed and continues to be changed.
It’s the same model we see here between Elijah and Elisha. And the world was and continues to be changed.
Mentoring matters. Mentoring is the example for how to change the world.
Except what about social media influencers? People whose YouTube, instagram, and Twitter profiles have millions of followers?
We might roll our eyes at these so called influencers, but don’t we want to have the largest possible impact on the people in our sphere of influence? Don’t we want that sphere to extend as far and wide as possible?
Consider how we talk about politicians. The more famous they are, regardless of why they’re famous, the more influential we think they are.
In the media, we talk about what channels or newspapers or outfits are having the largest influence, how those outfits shape the people who read and watch their reporting.
In town, we show respect and deference to those individuals who wield influence across our community. The people who can make things happen or stop things from happening, the people whose yes or no can have significant consequences; these are the people we celebrate.
Not all of us aspire to that kind of influence but we respect it, we honor it, we hold it up on high. Especially the lone person who can wield significant influence. The person who, seemingly all by him or herself, can stand in front of people and/or TV cameras, and cause people to pay attention, to change their mind or, at least, to react. These are the significant people. These are the people who matter.
And certainly they seem to shape people, negatively or positively. As iron sharpens iron, so these big shots sharpen us? As iron sharpens iron, so people with millions of twitter followers sharpen us? As iron sharpens iron, so influencers sharpen the world?
Consider this against the way Jesus handled his ministry.
Yes, crowds followed him around, lots of people heard him speak, telling parables and the like. The reason there was the miracle of the feeding of five thousand on the banks of a lake is because that crowd had followed him around the lake and gotten hungry from all the walking!
But the gospels don’t present a man who was hungry for the attention of crowds. They don’t demonstrate a savior who was eager to increase his crowd size so that his influence might spread. Jesus wasn’t trying to be an influencer like social media icons, politicians, or media personalities.
Which is odd because Jesus’s influence during his earthly ministry could have spread far beyond what it did. The world back then was just as large as it is today. Palestine, the region in which Jesus lived and moved and had his being, was just as small as it is today. In fact, geographically, Jesus covered less ground than the modern state of Israel. The Roman Empire knew very little of Jesus. I’m not even sure the emperor knew when he was crucified; Jesus was of little consequence outside of Jerusalem and ancient Palestine.
Not to mention all the tribes in Africa who knew nothing of Jesus. The Northern European bands of nomads and warriors living on the fringes of Roman society heard only silence out of Palestine. The people of the desert, the Hindus in India, the Buddhists in Tibet, the Chinese empire, the Mayans on this continent; none of them knew anything about Jesus.
Which is crazy because Jesus could have used his influence to spread his name and his message far and wide. Trade routes across the Eurasian and African continents existed that could have spread Jesus, his teachings, and his ways, to millions of people. And in fact, that’s how the church spread decades later. At the start of his ministry, he had the crowd size, he had the fame, that could have maximized his influence to spread his gospel message.
But Jesus didn’t try to be an influencer. He wasn’t interested in quantity of relationships. He wanted quality. Rather than cultivate a huge following, he mentored twelve men, two women, and perhaps a few others.
Jesus knew: quality of relationships matters over quantity of relationships. Mentoring, both in being mentored and in mentoring others, is essential to our life as Christians.
Jesus knew: as iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.
And that’s the example for us.
We, like Jesus and his disciples, like Elijah and Elisha, are to focus our efforts and attention not on amassing a huge following, not on knowing the most people or building the most connections, but on building quality relationships.
We are to be mentored, no matter our age, and we are to mentor others, no matter our age.
Quality of relationship matters more than quantity of relationship. Influence over a few people who will carry on your mantle matter more than shallow influence over many people.
Because as iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.
Who are the mentors in your life? Even if they’re now gone from this world, consider the legacy they left you. What mantle did they give you to carry? How did they positively shape your life? How are you better because of their presence in your life?
And then, after considering this, who are the people you need to mentor? How are you investing in some quality relationships right now? Or are you seeking quantity of relationships, trying to extend your influence further?
That is the challenge today: consider who mentored you and whom you are mentoring. Make sure that you have at least one person in whom you are investing your life. God uses those relationships to pass mantles, to pass legacies, so that God’s work might continue in this world.
And here’s one additional challenge, a very tangible one. If your mentors are still among us, write them a card this week and tell them how much you appreciate them. We all know from experience that one of the best things is to receive such a card in the mail.
And then, write your mentees cards and tell them how proud you are of them. Spend time this week making that investment through cards.
God has called upon us to mentor so that we might positively influence the world. Remembering that Jesus, and then twelve men, created a movement that changed the world, we remember that quality of relationship matters more than quantity of relationship. Because it’s God’s work we are charged with. Mentor others. Be mentored.
As iron sharpens iron, so we sharpen each other.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.