The Provision of The Prophet - 2 Kings 4:38-44
I didnt go to religion to make me happy, wrote C. S. Lewis, I knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you really feel comfortable, I certainly dont recommend Christianity.
The problem of course, is that that is the very thing the church tries to do-make Christianity comfortable in order to make it acceptable. It was the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who once lamented that Whereas Christ turned water into wine, the church has managed to do something even more remarkable, it has turned wine into water. You cant help but be struck by the radical uncompromising teaching of Jesus as you read, say, the Sermon on the Mount. How he had no truck with religious hypocrisy and would prick the moral pomposity of anyone who dare to look down their noses at the less fortunate. And when the early church eventually exploded onto the world scene, it was so totally different from anything else that it was dubbed the Third Way- it was so vigorous, animated and challenging, it really did take the world by surprise.
But the original sin soon crept in-the sin of wanting to be in control, to domesticate God, trying to make Aslan into a tame lion- that compromises stated to occur which over time began to take the very heart out of the Christian faith. And as always it starts by adding things which are seen to supplement the truth-taking so- called insights from other religions perhaps, or just going with the flow of a world which is sold on pleasure and comfort- until eventually such ideas supplant the truth with a lie.
And that was happening, as we have been seeing, during the days of Elisha in Northern Israel in the 9th century BC. The rigorous, no-nonsense all- embracing faith of Yahweh - the LORD, was gradually being taken over by the sensuous, we- want- it- all -now, religion of Baal. And this change didnt happen over night, it was gradual, like a creeping wild vine slowly wrapping its tendrils around a green shoot, squeezing out its life as people became sloppy in their thinking and too this worldly in their values. And the frightening thing is: the same could be true of us if we are not careful. And that in part is why these stories in 1 and 2 Kings were written, as warnings to Gods people in every age not to go off the boil but to keep faithful and watchful. And what we have tonight are two episodes which acts as foils for each other by way of contrast in order to teach the same lesson, one negatively and one positively-the lesson being this: God is looking for commitment without compromise. The dangers of compromising the faith is brought out in the first story ,and the blessings of committed faith are highlighted by our second story.
So lets take a look at a dangerous poison vv 38-41 .
The episode itself is pretty straightforward, although appearing to be a little strange. Elisha is back in Gilgal at a time when there is a terrible famine- and from our TV screens we in the West now know what that looks like-think Ethiopia or Somalia, that is the scene you need to have in your mind. But Gods work has to continue, perhaps more so than ever in getting his message out so that the nation can repent and be restored to the God who is their true provider, and then maybe the famine will be eased. And so the prophets are called together for a meeting. But since it is not only an army which marches on its stomach, but a ministry team too-you ask Dave, Elsa, Roger and co, Elisha gets his servant to put together a stew. One of the prophets, full of good intentions, wants to help out and so he gathers together a few herbs from the surrounding fields and that is when he sees something which he thinks will make the stew into a Nigella Lawson special- he spots a wild vine which appeared to be edible (thats the point) having a large fruit or gourd-probably the size of an orange So back he goes, does his culinary bit, chops up the pieces and puts then in the stew without anyone having a clue as to what they were and not even bothering to check. But hunger does that for you doesnt it? - discernment goes out of the window and you will eat anything.
However, what seemed to be a great find and just the extra something the stew needed, proved to be the exact opposite-it was toxic- v40 as they began to eat it, they cried out, 'O man of God, there is death in the pot!' And they could not eat it. The whole thing had been ruined and their lives had been put at risk. Now what? Well, as usual God through his appointed man- Elisha comes to the rescue-by adding some flour- the basic ingredient of bread which, as we shall see particularly in the next story, symbolised the wholesome personal provision of God, with the result that it was miraculously made it edible again.
So what is the point of all that? Well, as we know these stories are brimful with significance, speaking of Israels relationship with God-what it should be and what it shouldnt be. For a start, there is a famine in the land. That was no accident. Through Moses God had warned the Jews as they were about to enter the promised land that if they kept his laws there would be blessing, but if they turned their back on him and went after foreign gods, - idols, there would be a price to pay. And one sanction that God would impose in order to bring the people to their knees and so their senses is recorded in Dt 28:23 The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder. That is what was happening here. Why? Well, because the people thought that the god they should worship to ensure good crops was the fertility god- baal. The LORD had to disabuse them of that thought, hence the famine.
And that is where the significance of the prophets action in adding the fruit of a wild vine to the pot and so poisoning it comes in. Notice it is a wild vine. Now in the Bible, the image of a vine is used to symbolise Gods people as we see in Jeremiah 2 for example where God says I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. By the time of Jesus it had become a national symbol like the Thistle of Scotland or the Shamrock of Ireland. But here, the prophet, who should have known better (some prophet who cant foresee the effect of a poisonous plant!)- takes a wild vine and adds it to the food and so poisoning the whole lot. His gut overruled his brain.
1And when you think about it, that is a perfect picture of what was happening in Israel at the time. Instead of keeping Israel pure and true in its love for the one living God-the LORD-Yahweh, and so being a choice vine , a wild vine was being added-grafted on -that of baalism. Peoples greed took over-it was a religion which looked so attractive-like this plant and its gourd, the obvious answer to peoples problems, so why not just accommodate a little-after all we all worship the same God Yahweh is a word which means Lord and so does the word baal- so whats the problem with a bit of interfaith ecumenical relations? But we see the result symbolised here- it is poisonous. However well intentioned, however, attractive- to start messing with Gods true revealed religion by adding to it bits from other religions and philosophies is to court disaster. For a start morality was effected. Not only did it result in more sexual promiscuity, the setting up of brothels and the like, but also to a greedy culture which despised justice, took bribes, cheated the poor and the underprivileged. Soon the whole of society became sick as the poison of baalism began to course through its veins. And unless God did something to act, then the people would be lost for ever.
You see, this prophet did not deliberately set out to poison his colleagues. His intentions were no doubt good. He was just being foolish- thats all- thoughtless, careless-but his actions were potentially disastrous.
Now here is a warning for us in the church today and its leaders. Let me read to you an editorial from a scroll which archeologists have found containing the state-sponsored theological journal of ancient Samaria at the time of Elisha. It is entitled Baal and Yahweh- An invitation to dialogue: Baal and Yahweh represent remarkably similar insights into the religious truth for which we are all seeking. Both faiths, of course, believe in a supreme God, Indeed recent studies in the evolutionary theory of religion indicate that both may derive from common Semitic origins. It is true that Baal worship involves the use of images which traditional Yahwism forbids. But it should be remembered that these images are not crude primitive idols, but symbolic representations designed only to aid devotion. There are some differences too in the area of ethics, particularly those related to sexuality. But these have been much exaggerated by prudish and fundamentalist reactionaries. Scholars have shown that these ethical variations are associated with sociological and cultural factors and form no insuperable barrier to meaningful dialogue. Indeed more liberally minded members of modern society are realising that the informality and sensuality of Baal- worship is a much needed corrective to the over- emphasis on austerity and holiness in the cult of Yahweh. It is time for Sidon and Israel to forget old animosities. A new Age of international cooperation and spirituality is about to dawn.
Now of course, that is a spoof-but you can see how the seduction works, how it could have worked then in the time of Elisha and how it works now. So however much one wants to co- operate with all people of good will, the impression should not be given that Islam and Christianity are really both being peaceful religions and at heart there is very little difference between them. It is profoundly disturbing to read a leading evangelical minister saying of the New Age movement, that unless we understand and embrace some of the vital truths, Gods truths, he says, which it has at its core of beliefs and lifestyles, we shall be ineffective in sharing our discovery of their unknown God. That is like saying that the Jews should have embraced the vital truths of baalism. Just the other week I was at a clergy conference and every single person in my group was quite insistent that the way God spoke to them was through their imagination- that is exactly was the prophets of baal would have said, it was intuitive, subjective, as are most pagan religions whereas Christianity teaches that God addresses our minds through his Word, and everything, including our imagination, has to be brought into line with that, not the other way around. And so the addition to the Christian faith goes on- the acceptance of alternative marriages and lifestyles including lesbian and gay ones, views of God in which he has no more idea of what is going to happen in the future than we do- The Openness of God theology. But with each addition, you see, there is a little more poisoning.
So what is the answer? A turning to the man of God- v40 who adds flour which is basic to the staple diet for life -bread - and all the associations that has in Scripture of God feeding and caring for his people personally, which miraculously negates the effect of the toxins. And that was what God had called these true prophets to do with Israel, to counter the false and attractive teaching of baal with the staple diet of Gods Word. And that is always Gods appointment means of countering error and spiritual drift, to preach up the truth, however unpopular and passit may seem. Jesus did it, the apostles did it, Timothy was told to do it 2 Tim 3:13, Paul speaking of false teachers describes them as evil men and impostors who will go from bad to worse and then adds: But as for you continue in what you have learned... preach the Word. So our task is to let the light of Gods Word shine in all its fulness even though others with all the good will in the world will be urging us to move on and to add something more, a new insight, a new method, a new experience. Let me say this: and especially to those of you who are a little younger- one of the greatest temptations you and I will ever face is to believe that what God has given us here in the Bible isnt enough. That it is dull, out of date and irrelevant. It is not easy to resist the force of the argument that we live in an age of the image, not the Word and so we too must be image orientated- in how we present the faith, or how we worship. But that was exactly what was being said at the time of Elisha- it too was the age of the image- baalism not the Word- Yahwism. Like this wild vines fruit it will look so attractive and maybe you will be feeling so spiritually hungry you will be tempted to go for it. Dont be fooled. It is poison. The call is to stick with loving and serving God in the way God has revealed it-here in this book. And unlike these other fads this has stood the test of time. It was believing and practising this book that led the Wesleys to lead a revival, and Wilberforce to cope with vilification as he sought to set the slaves free. It was by sticking to this book that God has singularly used and blessed men like Billy Graham. It is by adding the flour of Gods word to a contaminated church that lives will be changed and true worship will be inspired. Now tonight, will you resolve with me in your own heart-to stick with this and by Gods Spirit to be true to it come what may? Lets follow the example of Elisha.
But finally and more briefly, we see the results of such faithfulness in a divine provision- 42-44.
Now here is a remarkable story which both looks back and looks forward for its true significance. A man comes from Baal Shalishah, which as the name suggests is one of the top centres of the baal cult. Yes he is a minority believer, a follower of the God of Elisha, that is why he brings him the loaves. Elisha tells him to give it to the people to eat. Somewhat flumuksed,the servant knows enough about logistics to work out that twenty loaves is not going to go far amongst a hundred people. Elisha gives the command to do it for, he exclaims, this is what the LORD says They will eat and have some left over So he did and they had plenty left over, according to the word of the LORD. Do you see, this is a Word centred religion not an image centred faith?
Now, this little incident looks back to another critical time in the history of Israel, the Exodus when they were being brought out of Egypt as we read in Exodus 16. This too was a time when Gods people were grumbling and thinking about their stomachs, If only we had died by the Lords hand in Egypt they said , There we had sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. A selective memory if ever there was one. So God in his kindness provided a special bread from heaven, called manna and they had all they wanted. Well, it is the same God who is ready to provide for his people now. He did it through Moses back then and now he is going to do it through Elisha in the present. In both cases it is a matter of believing the promise of Gods Word. Stick to the Bible-have we got the message yet? He is faithful, he does love us, he will provide what we need and often over and beyond what we could ever dare to expect.
But this story also looks forward to the time when one greater than Elisha would come and feed five thousand with just five loaves and two fishes and again there was plenty left over. But then Jesus went even further, he talked about himself as being the bread of life so that if anyone eats of this bread he will live for ever (John 6:48;51).
My friends, the fact is there is a famine in our land. A spiritual famine, a deep hunger which cant be satisfied by New Age or a New Mysticism in the church. Some years ago the journalist Bernard Levin, who isnt a Christian, wrote these words: Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family ,and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times, noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it ,however many motor cars and television sets they stuff with it, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it.... it aches. Isnt that true?
Now the good news-the gospel- which this story points us to is this: it is now possible to get back in touch with the one for whom you were made by feeding on the bread of life- Jesus. That is by putting your trust in him alone, saying yes Lord in an age were there are gods and idols galore and trying to lure me away and poison my mind and soul, I believe that you are the one who came to die to save me and is alive to nurture me as I feed on your truth applied by your Spirit. Sure, there will be hard times, as in the days of Elisha, but do you know? -God hasnt changed, his purposes for our lives havent changed so why not feed on him?
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