The Influence of the Prophet - 2 Kings 6:1-6
There is the story of the Dad who collected his little son from Sunday School one day and as he climbed into his car he asked him what he had been doing. It was great, he enthused. 'We head this amazing story about Moses and the Israelites. They were trapped with the Red Sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them. Really said his Dad, What happened next? Well said the boy, Moses sent some tanks back to face up to the Egyptians, radioed in support to some warships anchored in the Gulf. While all this was going on bombers attacked Pharaohs chariots, and helicopters airlifted the Hebrews to safety on the other shore. Come on laughed his Dad, That seems a bit far fetched to me. Are you sure you were listening properly? I know Dad, sighed the son, But if told you what really happened you would never believe it!
I guess we have to admit that at first sight some of the episodes recorded in the Bible do appear to be a little like that- just so way out that, to be frank, they are too hard to believe. It may not be that we have particular problems in believing that God could perform such miracles but that he would do such bizarre things. We simply scratch our heads and ask What is the point?
And I would be very surprised if that wasnt your reaction as we listened to our Bible readings this evening- the story of Elisha and the floating axe head on the one hand and Jesus and the fish with money in its mouth on the other. We can possibly see how a healing demonstrated Gods compassion. How the calming of a storm reveals Gods mastery over nature. But throwing a stick in a river in order to retrieve an amateur builders tool, why, that is something we might expect to find in Harry Potter rather than the Bible.
Well, hopefully those of you who have been coming along over the last few weeks, will have noticed that two important principles have been governing our approach to these amazing stories about Elisha in 2 Kings. The first is what the apostle Paul says in Romans 15:4 For everything that was written in the past (OT Scriptures) was written to teach us, so that through endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. So this story of the prophet and the floating axe head, says Paul, was written with you and me in mind. Do you believe that? The second principle comes from what Jesus said in John 5:39 when challenging the Jewish religious establishment because of their lack of belief in him. He said: You diligently study the Scriptures (OT again) because you think that by them you possess life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me. Well, that is true of this story too. As we have seen, Elisha is a living signpost pointing to Jesus - the new Elisha, one greater than Elisha. So in some refracted way, what we see here in the action of the prophet is something of the coming action of God in Jesus.
The story is divided into two parts : The influence of the prophet- vv 1-3 and The provision of prophet- vv 4-6.
First of all, the influence of the prophet,v1 The company of the prophets said to Elisha, 'Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to live.' And he said, 'Go.' Then one of them said, 'Won't you please come with your servants?' 'I will,' Elisha replied. And he went with them.
When you think about it, what we have just read is pretty astonishing and would make the church growth pundits sit on the edge of their seats. Just remember the context in which this story takes place. It is set against the backloth of national apostasy and religious decline. The majority in Israel have thrown in their lot with the pagan worship of Baal. Spiritually and morally it is the pits. And yet in spite of all of that, and maybe because of all of that, God has been steadily at work through his servant Elisha raising up more and more men for the ministry. You see, the theological college has been outgrown, it is too small and so the students go to the principal and suggest an extensive building programme. And he agrees. So off they go,with the proviso he comes with them.
Now you cannot deny the amazing influence that Elisha has been having if, at the end of the day, the ministry has been multiplied to such an extent that there isnt enough building space. Do you see what is possible when the man of God with the Word of God is in your midst? If there were such things as sociologists around at the time of Elisha and you were to have asked them what hope they thought there was for this nation which had sold out to greed and superstition, I guess they would have replied Not much.And if you take God out of the reckoning of course they would be right.
And as we look at our situation in Britain today what do we see and what would be our prognosis? It has to be admitted that it is not at all that encouraging. For a start there is an overall decline in the numbers attending church.In the Church of England alone over the eleven year period from 1984 (the year David Jenkins was consecrated Bishop of Durham) to 1995 there was a 12% decline.Only about 2% of the population are now in an Anglican Church on any given Sunday,with 10% in church overall. In Hull that figure is down to 3% overall attendance. The figures dont look good do they?
Also, now, as in the days of Elisha, there are folk in prominent positions within the religious establishment seeking to undermine the Truth it allegedly stands for and is surrounded by a society which is keen on helping them. So for the Good Friday mediation on BBC1 the person who has been asked to contribute is Richard Holloway, formerly Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is the Bishop who last year in an interview described Jesus as just an extraordinary man and not the Son of God.Who last Easter described the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who invaded the pulpit in Canterbury while George Carey was preaching as a classic figure of Christ. This is the Bishop who advocates what he calls godless morality. And as our society as a whole drifts further and further away from its Christian moorings the cry which goes up from many Christians is: How long O Lord?
But having said that two other things need to be recognised if we are going to be effective as Gods people and not simply retreat into our own little ghetto. You see, what we have here in this passage is the building of a base for prophets from which to go out, not some monastic community into which they could retreat.So, the first thing to say is that by and large the followers of the one true God have always been in a minority. There has never really been a golden age of religion. If there ever has been a time of blessing, as for example during the Reformation, that is rare and exceptional-not the norm. And we need to recognise that so that we can have some realism injected into our thinking and so not become easily discouraged because the going is hard. What we see here in Israel in Elishas time is sadly the norm for sinners . And it has always been thus. So Keith Thomas who chartered in great detail the religious practices of the British over the period from 1600-1900 says this: that in the Elizabethan period a substantial proportion of the population regarded organised religion with an attutude which varied from cold indifference to frank hostility. In 1606 Nicholas Bound observed that people knew more about Robin Hood than they did about stories from the Bible. A man called Montesquieu reported from England in 1731 There is no religion in England..if religion is spoken of everyone laughs. Whats changed? So dont get disillusioned because times are hard or your CUs and the churches arent packed to the rafters.It was so in the days of Elisha.
But always God is at work, which is the second point,often quietly,almost unnoticed, but just as surely raising up men like these, through the likes of Elisha to ensure that his Word is not lost and the Gospel is got out. And so it is today. While it is true that practically every section of the Church of England has seen overall decline in the last ten years,there is one group which has seen the most astonishing growth,what are called mainline evangelicals, folk like us. So in the last ten years this section of the Church has grown by 300%. Not surprising really. Apart from these being the churches which in the main pray, are committed to evangelism and teaching the Bible, developing every member ministry, giving to Gospel work,then humbly one can seek the Lords blessing in that. To be perfectly frank, if I were a non-Christian, why should I bother to turn up to hear a man like Richard Holloway tell me that Jesus is no more God than you or I, I believe that anyway, so why put myself through the rigours of a boring church service when I can enjoy my athiesm in peace and comfort either at home or in the pub? However, amongst those who are seeking to be faithful, the likes of Elisha and his crowd, God is working.
But growth is not automatic as it wasnt automatic for Elisha. First, Elisha had been multiplying ministers. He did not believe in the one-man-band. It might be great for the ego Only I can do it and do it well but it is useless for the extension of the Kingdom. That is why he has a college of prophets gathered around him. And here we see a foreshadowing of the work of Jesus. When God incarnate walked this earth,he didnt try to go it alone either. He called around himself a group of 12 disciples - the word literally meaning learners or students. Then that was expanded to 70. He taught them, he modelled ministry for them and then he sent them out in the power of the Holy Spirit to do it themselves. Now could I ask whether you are making the most of the opportunity to serve God like this? He may be calling you to the ordained ministry like myself, or the mission field. He certainly is calling you to witness for him just where you are now, in the University, in school, in the factory. But are you being equipped? If you are a student what about enrolling in the leadership training course Dave Lynch is running? How about reading books on how to share your faith? What about talking through with one of the staff about what you think your gifts are so you can use them more effectively for the Lord? If we are to see our nation changed, as Elisha was to see his nation changed, ministries must be multiplied.
But the second thing of supreme importance was seen by the prophet in v 3 when he says to Elisha Please wont you come with your servants? Now, I have a lot of time for the insights of the church growth movement, but the danger is to be so taken with techniques and plans and strategies, that the one person who matters the most is forgotten-the Lord. As the psalmist writes If the Lord does not build the house,his servants labour in vain.Elisha is a Jesus type figure.He is central to everything.In fact in the orginal it literally says in v 1 the place where we dwell in your presence. It was unthinkable that they should move on without him, and yet it is sad to say that it is possible for a church or a Christian to think they can move on without Jesus.Of course it would never be voiced in that way but that is what it amounts to in practice.When the Christian or group of believers become so confident in their own abilities, the sure fire nature of their own planning, the beauty of their services, the impressiveness of their music or the cleverness of their preaching even - then the Lord Jesus can be left behind.We can be so busy thinking that we are working for him that we end up neglecting him. And when a Christian discovers extraordinary gifting or a church sees remarkable blessing- so that a new building is needed like this-they are only a whisker away from forsaking the one they are supposed to be serving. But not these people.They knew that whatever blessing they had received it was only because God was with them in this man.And so I say to you,as I say to myself, never be so busy doing the Lords work,that you neglect the Lord himself.Wouldnt it be terrible if at the end of it all, we come before him and say Lord, Lord ,we did this in your name, we did that And he turns around and says-but I never knew you, depart from me you workers of iniquity-Mtt 7:23.No, keep Jesus central.
So lets look at the provision of the prophet v4: They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. 'Oh, my lord,' he cried out, 'it was borrowed!' The man of God asked, 'Where did it fall?' When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. 'Lift it out,' he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.
Now what is the point of all that? Well, losing an axe head for someone like me would be no big deal.Even if I knew how to use one, I would simply nip down to B and Q and get another. That was not the situation here.You didnt have a hardware shop just down the road.What is more, iron was very expensive,that is why it is specified it as an iron axe head. There was plenty of bronze,not so much iron.The loss of the axe was going to cost this student dearly-hence the cry It was borrowed. Think of it like this: You lose someones cell phone.You have to replace it-bang goes your student grant for the next month.You crash someone elses car and it wasnt insured-bang goes your grant for the next two years!That was the case here for this prophet in college. These are hard times the people are living through.And have you noticed that it is often when Gods work seems to be going well, you are involved in serving him,it is exciting,the building project is on the way-that is when you have the unexpected set back and you are knocked sideways. That is when there is the car crash,the big bill for the leaky roof,the failed exam,the unhelpful criticism-and you just feel that you cant go on-so the work simply stops. Has that happened to you?
But what takes place next points us to a reassuring truth,that in the midst of all the set backs and hard knocks, God still remains the one who provides. That in fact is the main point of the episode of Jesus and the payment of the temple tax taken from the mouth of the fish,it demonstrates that God provides for his people in the way that a father provides for his children,and is therefore is in the same category of miracles as the feeding of the five thousand or the turning of water into wine. So it is here. Elisha,whose name means,.God saves -literally saves the day.The distinction we make beween sacred and secular is not one the Bible makes-everything is of concern to God and comes under his Lordship.The prophet chopping down trees for the building is just as much serving God in that as when he is declaring Gods Word to Gods people.So by Elisha performing this miracle,throwing in a stick with the result that the axe head miraculously floats to the top speaks volumes about Gods care over every twist and turn of our lives.He truly is Jehovah Jirah-the Lord who provides.Sometimes the provision is as dramatic as this-you have heard of situations where Christians have been in need financially and out of the blue an envelope drops on the door with just the right amount-that has happened to us.But sometimes Gods provision may come in a different form,not quite as we had hoped- sometimes God provides us with patience as we have to wait in need, he provides the support and friendship of another Christian which would not have come about had there not been a crisis in our life. But he does provide.
However, there is one important point. Did you notice that the prophet had to do something himself ?v7: Elisha said Lift it out -then the man reached out his hand and took it. The prophet was not passive- adopting a let go and let God mentality. Sure, he recognised his need and went to the man of God to seek an answer to that need.Sure, Elisha did only what Gods specially anointed could do-the miracle.But the prophet himself had to reach out and get the axe head.Believing that God answers prayer,that he is sovereign over all things does not mean that we become passive fatalists- Oh if God want me to have such and such, it will happen anyway.That is not Christianity.That is paganism.There is this tension between Gods sovereignty-he doing only that he can do, and human responsibility-us doing our part-reaching out to get the axe head.If we want to see people saved and become Christians,then not only have we to pray for it, we have to get up and get out and explain the Christian message which saves them.If we want to see Project Newland completed, we have to dig into our pockets and give.Yes with a great dependence upon God, yes, with persistent prayer to the God who provides, but at some point we have to obey the command - Lift- it -out.
Gods man offering Gods provision.And do you know the wonderful thing is that the same offer is being made today,by Gods man-Jesus.An offer to provide for our deepest needs-to clear away our moral debt which we can never repay. For the new Elisha -Jesus speaks these words: Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Now that is an offer you simply cant refuse.
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