The call of the prophet - 1 Kings 19:19-21
After September the 11th, it was said, the world would never be the same again. I think it is true to say that many people accept that view. Superficially of course, it would appear that there is a lot to be said in its favour. A few years ago the Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington wrote a major work of the future entitled, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. He argued that whereas for most of the 19th and 20th centuries conflicts were largely conducted between nation states, that is apparently no longer the case. The 21st century, he proposed would be dominated by the conflict of civilisations, and civilisations are defined by their culture and their religion. Islam by definition is an all embracing religion, it is not simply part of life it is life- a total world view. But we in the West face a problem, because for us religion is something private and relative, a matter of take your pick. Cut loose from any intellectual moorings this soon degenerates into irrational mysticism, concern for horoscopes, a dabbling in the occult and the like. And that is what we are seeing more and more in the West-did you notice all the ads for the tabloids at the beginning of the New Year? They were all about what the stars hold in store for you. But there is a price to pay for this religious pluralism, as Huntington reminds us, "Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together" and "Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart"
But at a deeper level nothing has really changed since September 11th. The concern for sensuality, money, self-interest is still going on as it always has. That is why the Bible is always a contemporary book, mankind does not change fundamentally by itself and neither does Gods method for dealing with us.
You see, in many ways our society is not unlike the society in which Gods prophets, Elijah and Elisha found themselves in the 9th century BC. This too was a society which was steadily unravelling. The great Kingdom established under King David and secured under his son Solomon, had split in two - the Northern Kingdom of Israel centred on Samaria and the southern Kingdom of Judea centred on Jerusalem. Elijah and Elisha where Gods men in the north. So what was their culture like? What challenges did they have to face as they sought to be faithful to the God who put them there? Well, first there was idolatry. People were sold on prosperity, they wanted food in their bellies and children to provide for them when they reached old age. It was the archetypal me-culture. And so to ensure this they worshipped the land god called baal. It was a fertility cult. You wanted a good harvest, a safe pregnancy, baal was the god you went to. Two things naturally flowed from this. First, materialism- it was the now which mattered to these people. No pie in the sky when you die, for them but steak on the plate while you wait. In short their god was their gut. They really did believe in wealth and living it up. They didnt have two gigantic towers in the middle of their city- Samaria -symbolising their commitment to mammon, but they had plenty of other fine building making the same statement non-the less- that baal was Lord. And secondly, it was an immoral society. Temple prostitution was all the rage, as was child sacrifice and homosexual practice. Neither was it safe to walk the streets at night, it was violent society too-and politically corrupt, as the story of Ahab and Jezebel conspiring to murder in order to secure for themselves Naboths vineyard, testifies only too well. People would lie and cheat swindle and connive to get just what they wanted. No old time religion for them. Do unto others as they would do unto you. More like do in others before they do you was their motto.
Does that ring any bells for you? The plain fact is there is a new baalism here in the West, although we don't call it that, but it is the same demonic spirit at work nonetheless. As we turn our back on the one true God and our great Christian heritage, we do not embrace nothing we are embraced by a very real something-the spirit of baal -the spirit of self satisfaction for which we are willing to sacrifice almost anything- including the lives of our children through reckless abortions, their well being by breaking up the family, their future by using up the worlds resources as if there were no tomorrow.
And so what is Gods answer? Well, it is in the raising up of the few- a few men and women who will bring Gods Word into Gods world and against all odds make a change that makes a difference. And this we see so clearly in the story of Elisha. Because what comes out over and over again is that against the backdrop of the most appalling spiritual and moral decline, God still remains a God of mercy and grace. John Bunyan puts it beautifully in his own testimony in Grace Abounding. - I turned to see Him, and saw Him pursuing me with a pardon in his hand, Is that your experience? It could be. So lets turn to the characteristics of this calling of Elisha in order to be both challenged and encouraged.
The first characteristic of being called by God as a servant is that it is in fact a privilege. Did you notice that Elisha hasn't done anything at all ,it is something which is done to him. It all begins in the mind of God, who earlier on in v16 says to his prophet Elijah who is someone dejected and feeling sorry for himself, acting as if he is the only person in the whole country who is standing up for God, "Look I have a successor for you. The work is going to continue. In fact he comes from a place not far from where you were brought up Elijah, Abel-meholah -go and get him". And so off Elijah goes on his 350 mile journey to get his young curate.
Elisha, you see, is sought, he doesn't do the seeking. In fact at this point in the story he is not even aware of it. He is simply getting on with his work on the farm as he has been doing for the last umpteen years. But God, you see, has set his mark on him, to be a partner for Elijah, and then to become someone who will surpass Elijah would you believe? You know, one of the easiest and saddest experiences for a Christian worker is to lose that sense of privilege in being set aside for Gods work. It need not be long before that sense of wonder at being saved, of being able to offer yourself for Gods service in whatever capacity, evaporates into familiarity and then degenerates into contempt. There is something special isn't there being chosen to do something by someone we admire. Maybe we felt this at school or at work. But to be chosen by God to do something which even the arch angel Gabrielle is not allowed to do- share the life giving Gospel, is the most wonderful thing in the world isn't it? Elisha would have said so.
But if Elisha was privileged he was also prepared. It was vital to find a man in this spiritually apostate country who was spiritually alive and in tune with God, who would have nothing to do with the corrupting values of baal. Well here he was, young Elisha son of Shephat. At least his parents were committed believers. How do we know that ? Well because of the name they gave to their son, Elisha, which means God is salvation. Now in a society where names mean more than they do now, except to tell you which TV programmes were popular at the time -if you are a Kyle or Jason I can guess fairly accurately when you were born- here the names are brimful with significance-spiritual significance. It tells us just who his parents were trusting in-God. It also tells us how in the providence of God just what he was going to do through this young man-he was going to save people and turn them back to him and all that is wholesome and good in life. Thats what the name means, it reflects perfectly his character and mission.
And being sovereign over every twist and turn of our lives from the moment were conceived, through to the type of parents we have and the culture in which we are raised, God uses everything to shape us into the people he wants us to be. Now, Elisha had a farming background which was going to be wonderfully used.
First of all, it was hard work. It wasnt easy farming in Israel, you had to keep at it day after day, putting up with all sorts of conditions, droughts, floods, the searing heat of the day and the freezing cold of night. The hours were long, the rewards were not always immediate. And God would use that . Elisha would have to be making some long journeys by foot-he had to be physically strong.. He would be in for the long haul, it wasnt a matter of performing one or two miracles and wham bam-there you have it-revival and reformation. There would be long periods when the harvest would be slight- spiritually he would have to be patient .There would be times when the response would be almost overwhelming and he would have to be ready for that. Gospel work is hard work, it is tiring work-the apostle Paul in writing to Timothy says it is like being- a hard working farmer. Like Elisha.
Secondly ,it was varied work. There was ploughing, sowing, weeding, reaping, stocking, selling
Very much like Gospel work in fact- the work of Gods servant. Sometimes he will be speaking to a lonely widow in a broken down shack, the next moment he will be challenging a King in his palace. Sometimes it is simply speaking Gods word-sowing and waiting. At other times it will involve reaping, but always tending and caring for Gods people. While prayer and proclamation lie at the heart of the work, how that is worked out will differ and so you have to be a jack of all trade-flexible.
Thirdly, it was team work. They were ploughing with 12 yoke of oxen and Elisha was with the 12th. So here was someone used to working alongside others, being part of a team and so ideal to be a partner with Elijah. He wasnt going to go it alone ,in fact as we see later in the story there is a special school of prophets. He was a team player then.
Now let me pause at this point and ask are these the sort of things we can expect today from Christians- some of you? Those of you who are parents are you raising your children so that they will take God seriously and do so because they see you taking it seriously-like Elishas parents? Those of you who are in your teens, twenties and thirties-what is it that characterises you? Is it hard work-able to put in the hard yards or do you give up when the going gets tough? What skills has God given you? Are you willing for them to be used by him? How much of a team player are you? Do you put yourself in situations where you have to work alongside others for the sake of the Gospel? Or will you only do something if it is easy ,pleasurable and you can call the shots? Let me read to you something : 25 -30 years ago OM caught the rising tide of the 60s.It confronted the established church by saying what many young Christian people were longing for. There was a call to revolution and commitment at exactly the time that student political activists were talking the same language. The world was there to be taken... Thats largely gone. The focus is on satisfying self rather than changing the world and serving anybody else. All decisions revolve around what is best for oneself. Self-denial doesn't make sense anymore. .the appeal of a number of Christian youth training movements has shifted to what you will get out of the experience rather than all these folk lost to whom you will bring the gospel-its more selfish, more narcissistic, but it is where the generation is at. Do You see what has happened and what needs to be reversed? It is that even within the church we are being held captive by the spirit of baal and not the spirit of Elisha. And if you are a young person here tonight especially, I would want to challenge you-to mean serious business with God, play hard, work hard and do it for him. You only have one life to live. Dont waste it-use it, and use it for Christ. We desperately need more Elishas today if our baal culture is going to be overturned. Now, are you willing to be one?
Privileged, prepared, but also sensitive, that is the characteristic of this servant. If you are going to be used of the Lord then you need to be sensitive, not brash, not cocky, not self-confident. And that is what we see here. You can imagine the scene. Elisha is ploughing away with his teams in he field when over the brow of the hill he sees this strange looking figure coming towards him and without even stopping or offering a word of explanation, he throws his cloak over Elishas shoulders and keeps going on, that is why Elisha has to chase after him. But the wonderful thing is, Elisha is sensitive enough to know what it means, what God was saying to him. Two things. First, Elisha was going to be Elijahs successor, he was one day going to be Gods spokesman. Secondly ,this symbolic act told him that God was going to provide for him. You see it there in Ruth 3, where she says to Boaz Spread your cloak over me for you are my kinsman redeemer-i.e. he was to take care of her. In Ezekiel 16:8 God says the same to Israel: I spread my garment over you, and covered your weakness.' God calls, and it is God who provides. Now is one of the reasons why you are sometimes hesitant in offering to do something for the Lords service, is the fear that you wont come up with the goods, that you will fail and let everyone down, including God? It is good that you feel like that actually, but it shouldnt stop you, because it is God who lovingly provides for you. To be perfectly frank with you ,if I thought that being an effective Vicar was all down to me, I would resign on the spot. I can only go on with the quiet assurance that since God called me, he will equip me and he is as good as his word .If I am his slave, his servant, then, he is my Master and that is a position of security because in the ancient world the Master had to provide for the slave .We think of slavery as drudgery, but it wasnt necessarily so , we can also think of it as responsibility-the master clothing, feeding, housing those he had called to serve him. And what better master to have than the God of the universe? He isnt like baal who sucks you dry and tosses you to one side as is happening in the lives of so many today-he really does care.
Next the servant of God is compassionate. More is required than cold obedience, you need a warm loving heart. Do you see how torn he was between love for God and love for his parents? He says in v 20 Please let me say goodbye to my parents then I will come with you, And Elijah replied Go back, what have I done to you? It is not quite clear what Elijah means by that, but he doesn't stop him. He could be saying, Yes by all means go back, what have I done to prevent you? Or By all means go back, but don't forget what I have done for you that is Go back but dont stay there, you have a job to do as signified by my placing my cloak upon you. This doesnt mean that Elisha was putting his parents before God ,as we shall see, but he did love them and wanted to honour them ,who after all were instrumental in bringing him up in the faith of his fathers. Sometimes, you know, young Christians mistakenly apply Jesus teaching that he who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me as a license to ride rough shod over their parents ,dismissing them, especially if they are not Christians, as not understanding so who cares what they think? Well, they do have feelings, they have given so much for you and so one should show patience and compassion. Because one thing is for sure, if one does not show compassion to ones own family, you are most unlikely to show compassion for Gods family and end up being harsh and censorious in ministry.
The final characteristic of the servant is that of self-surrender,v21. He took the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them there and then and said goodbye to his parents. There was to be no turning back. There were plenty of other people who could plough in Abel-meholah, but only one who could assist the prophet. And that might be something that the Lord is saying to someone here tonight. There are plenty of other people who could be doing what you are doing, but you know that God has given you a special gift to do a work only you can do. Sure the surrender will be costly, Elisha would have inherited that farm. It would be courageous, identifying with someone like Elijah who was a wanted man. But it has to be complete, breaking up the plough and using it for firewood and the oxen as a sacrifice and a shared meal. And that is what we need more and more of today, men and women who will show such self-surrender to their God.
But finally, in Elisha we have more than a model for ministry we have a pattern for Christ. Right at the end of the Old Testament in Malachi the promise is made that God would send his prophet Elijah before his own coming to his people. The NT counterpart to Elijah is John the Baptist. He was the one who paved the way for Jesus ministry, who said He must increase and I must decrease. So here in Elisha, the one who was to increase after Elijah we have a prefiguring of Jesus, in fact as we shall see some of the things he does are remarkably similar to what Jesus did. But Jesus, of course is the servant par excellence: privileged as the anointed Son of God, prepared, spending some 25 years or so in his fathers carpenter shop, not working ploughs but making them, sensitive- always about his Heavenly fathers business, compassionate, seeing people as sheep without a shepherd, and self-surrendering, even to the point of offering his own body as a sacrifice for sins on a cross. All that Elisha - God who saves- hoped to be and achieved in part, Jesus was fully and finally. And he is the one who calls each one of us to stop, turn and follow him. And the day you decide to do that will mark the day when your world will never be the same again .
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