The wisdom of the prophet - 2 Kings 6:8-23

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 17th March 2002.

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One of the films that is taking the cinemas by storm at the moment is Gosford Park. The film tells the story of a group of rich men and women who get together in a large country house in the thirties for a weekend of fun and relaxation. And one of the fascinating parts of the film is seeing how the guests and the servants working behind the scenes interact, not only with themselves but with one another. But about two thirds of the way through the film there is a murder, and we are led to believe that this is a classic murder mystery. The detective comes, he'll interview all the suspects, make his conclusions and then there will be a final showdown. But it's not like that. Yes there are the interviews, but, without spoiling the ending, there is no real resolution to the murder. Yes, you find out who did it, or so you think, but actually it becomes clear that the murder has no real bearing on the plot. No-one seems to care who did it. The values of right and wrong just seem to have no relevance at. So what who did it! Let's just eat, drink and be merry! The quest for the truth of the murder is really irrelevant.

Now, whilst this film may be saying 'truth doesn't matter' in subtle ways, yet we know that in our society it's much more blatant. Absolute truth claims are frowned upon and in some cases actively persecuted. The motto for our culture today is 'there is no absolute truth,' except, that is, the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth! And people will say to us, 'Oh, it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you're sincere!' You may have seen that car bumper sticker which says: 'There's no right or wrong, only fun or boring.' It's as if we are locked in a battle for the very heart of truth. So when we Christians make absolute truth claims like there is only one way to God, then we are in for a rough ride. And it's tempting to think in this sort of atmosphere: 'Well, maybe it doesn't really matter that much. Maybe I can just soften my views about God a little bit. After all they are a bit exclusive. Maybe I'll just believe what I want and allow my friends to believe what they want. It's not that important really.'

Well it's these sorts of pressures and much more that the people of God in Elisha's time were having to face. The truth about God, even among God's covenant people, was being ignored and compromised. People were in effect saying: 'All this talk of the one true God, it's a bit narrow minded isn't it? After all what's he ever done for us? Now what you need is to branch out. Worship someone like Baal. After all, there's a bit of everything with him. You can get good crops, long life and lots of children from him.' The battle for the truth about God was being waged. And at the heart of the battle was God's prophet Elisha. And that is what these early chapters in 2 Kings are about. They are about the battle for the truth about God in a hostile and pagan land, even though it had a godly heritage. And through his prophet God was persistently saying: 'There is no god called Baal. He is a figment of a sinful people's imagination. There is only one God and he is me.'

Now in our passage for today, 2 Kings 6 vv 8-23, we see once again that it is Yahweh, the God of Elisha, who is the true and living God. And the whole passage is about the difference between blindness and sight. Some characters can see the truth, but others cannot. The whole episode centres on Elisha. He is the only character named in the story, and as God's man, he acts on behalf of God. So through Elisha we can see God's character at work. And we'll find three convictions about God which help us to see that God is the only God. And in our modern world where truth claims are ridiculed, we need to be reminded time and again of God's exclusive qualities and that he is the only true God. So here are our three convictions from this passage:

1) Conviction 1: God is Sovereign over history (Vv 8-14)

2) Conviction 2: God is powerful to sustain his people (Vv 15-17)

3) Conviction 3: God shows mercy to outsiders (Vv 18-23)

1) Conviction 1: God is Sovereign over history (Vv 8-14)

So our first conviction that we discover from this passage is that God is sovereign over history, and that becomes clear from verses 6-14. And this was something both the king of Israel and the king of Aram came to find out. Now the fact in verse 8 that the Arameans are attacking Israel is a sign that God's judgement is upon Israel. If the king and his people failed to trust the living God, then they would fall prey to foreign invaders such as the Arameans who were from Syria. But even in this situation God is in control. Every time the king of Aram tried to do something, the king of Israel knew about it. For God was giving the information to his prophet Elisha who was then passing it on to the king. And without God's word to Elisha, the king of Israel would have been dead long ago. We're told that Elisha foiled the plans time and again. God was behind the scenes controlling events for his purposes. And that was something the Israelite king had to realise. His life was not his own. He was answerable to God. There was a King of kings, even if the king of Israel chose to ignore him.

But it was something the king of Aram had to find out too. The scene is almost comical as the war cabinet is brought together in Damascus and you can imagine the king going round each one and asking them in turn. 'Did you sell you secrets to the Israelites.' No doubt the Syrian tabloids were full of headlines like 'Ministers in cash for secrets shocker'. But it was no political game that was being played out. It was God working through his prophet. And one man had the understanding to see it. Verse 12: 'It is none of us my lord, the king, but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.' Suddenly the king of Aram knows that he is up against a bigger force than he has reckoned with before. He, like the king of Israel, needs to know that there is a King of kings working through the events of history to achieve his purposes. But it is equally clear that the king of Aram doesn't fully understand. Because he tries to take Elisha by force. Again there is a comical moment as a huge army sets off to Dothan to take one man alive. It's reminiscent of a James Bond movie as the chief baddie sits in his seat stroking his cat ordering Bond to be taken alive, and so an entire army is despatched to get him, and they still fail. And here an army sets off to fetch Elisha. But you just cannot do that with God's men. You cannot use the weapons of this world against God and his people. What does God say: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.' And besides even if you take out God's men, still you cannot defeat God himself. Why? Because he is the sovereign Lord of history. He works his ways even through an evil king's plans. And this was something both kings had to realize. Both kings' blindness to the spiritual reality had to be cured.

And this is key lesson for us to learn too. What sort of God do you believe in? A God who is taken by surprise by the events of the world? A God who is at loss as to how to bring the Western world back to its Christian heritage, who is forever scratching his head worrying about whether the church will survive? Well that's not the God of the Bible! Listen to Isaiah talking about God: 'Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scalesBefore him all the nations are as nothing.' Is that the God you believe in? A God so powerful that nothing can stand in his way, no-one can thwart his plans? That was what the early church believed about God. When they were faced with persecuting and oppressive authorities, what did they pray? They prayed to the Sovereign Lord and then quoted Psalm 2: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his anointed one.' The scene looks bleak doesn't it? But the psalm goes on: 'The One enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.' What gave this persecuted church confidence in the face of their persecutors? It was that God was in control. He would work things out. Now that didn't necessarily mean freedom from difficulty. But there was the cast iron guarantee that even in a world of chaos where men and women actively rebel against their creator, yet God is still at work bringing his plans to fulfilment. Do you believe that? As you look at the world in all it's mess and chaos, do you still believe God is working his purposes out, despite man's best efforts to thwart them. Well if you don't believe it, look at the church in China by way of example. After years of communist rule, which could never snuff out the light of the gospel, however hard they tried, now millions have come to know Christ. All along, God was building his church and fulfilling his plans. Baal is not a patch on Yahweh, and no other 21st century idol comes close to our God. Do you worry about the state of the church in Hull, in Britain? Well remember who is in control. It is the living God. Things may look bleak, but God is working his purposes out, even though evil men's plans. Take to heart this first conviction this evening in a culture where truth is derided. Hear the truth: God is the sovereign King over history. He is working his plans out, and nothing can thwart them. God is sovereign over history.

2) Conviction 2: God is powerful to sustain his people (Vv 15-17)

But if God is working out his purposes on the world stage, then how about in our lives? Well that brings us to our second conviction and that is that God is powerful to sustain his people which we see in verses 15-17. Let's go back to our story. We found in verse 14 that the Arameans had surrounded Dothan where Elisha was living at the time. The soldiers had been given the task of bringing Elisha back to the king of Aram. And when the servant of Elisha gets up to make his master a cup of tea and a bowl of cornflakes, he pulls back the curtains and what does he see but hundreds of soldiers surrounding the town. As far as his eye can see, there was the army of the Arameans. And his natural reaction is to be afraid. You can imagine him running upstairs and shaking his master awake and saying: 'Master we're doomed, doomed I tell you! Oh, my lord, what shall we do?' Not even James Bond could get out of this one. They are surrounded. There's nothing they can do. Humanly speaking, it is bleak situation isn't it? But that's the servant's problem, you see. He's looking at the problem from a human perspective.

But Elisha has another perspective on the situation. See what he says in verse 16: 'Don't be afraid. Those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.' The servant hadn't seen that though, because it needed spiritual discernment and understanding to see it. And that's why Elisha prays that the servant would be able to see. He's not literally blind, but he is blind to the spiritual reality, and it takes a divine miracle for a human being to see things from God's perspective. And wonderfully for the servant that is what happens. Verse 17: 'Elisha prayed: 'O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.' Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.' It is an extraordinary scene isn't it? The servant must have been amazed. His eyes had been opened to the wonderful spiritual reality of what it was to know God and see his power at work. It was not he who was surrounded but the Arameans. There would be no fear in the servant's heart now.

And this lesson is another conviction that you and I need to take to heart in this 21st century where the truth about God is sidelined. Often we reduce God to a pocket sized deity, similar to a good luck charm students take with them into exams. But the God of the Bible smashes all other gods out of the water. The truth is that there is only one God and the God of Elisha, the God who has revealed himself through his Son Jesus, is the one. And we as Christians have the wonderful promise that those who are with us are greater than those with them. Listen to some verses from the New Testament. Romans 8 v 31: 'What then shall we say in response to all this? If God is for us, who can be against us?' Or John in his first letter speaking of the forces against Jesus and his people says in 4 v 4: 'You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.' Now when I read verses like this, I'm not expecting to see fiery chariots burning down Desmond Avenue, but I am reminded that because I am in Christ, then I have the assurance that 'those who are with us are greater than those with them.' We need not fear as Christians. God is fully trustworthy and powerful.

But often that is easier said than done. What about for someone who is going through a difficult time at work? What about someone struggling with a difficult relationship, what about the person whose family member has a serious illness? What then? How does this conviction that God is powerful to sustain his people help us then? Well many Christians down the ages have taken great comfort from this truth in even more difficult situations than we are facing. For example, one of the biggest names in the early Christian church was a man called Chrysostom. He was a great preacher who stood up for Christ and his gospel. One time he was brought before the Roman Emperor and threatened with exile unless he stopped being a Christian. To this threat, Chrysostom replied: 'You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father's house.' 'Then I will kill you,' replied the Emperor. 'You cannot,' replied Chrysostom, 'since my life is hidden with Christ in God.' 'Then I will take away your treasures.' 'You cannot for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.' 'Then I will drive you away from every person in the world, and you shall have no friend left.' 'No, you cannot. For I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you. For there is nothing you can do to harm me.' Chrysostom's conviction was that God was powerful to sustain his people. He knew that 'those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.' Philip Melancthon, the friend of the great Reformer Martin Luther, was another. On his death bed, the last words he spoke were from Romans 8 v 31, the verse I quoted earlier: 'What then shall we say in response to all this? If God is for us, who can be against us?' And John Bunyan, exactly a century after Melancthon's death, was sitting at his desk in a fit of deep depression, worrying about the future, wondering whether he could continue, when he came across that same verse. He said, in words of great understatement: 'That was a help to me.'

Such a conviction that 'those who are with us are greater than those who are with them' has spurred on many countless Christians down the ages. It's not that God has kept them from facing very difficult situations; rather in the troubles, they have been assured of God's surrounding arms of protection, and the assurance that 'those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.' Do you believe that? If we do then we can have absolute confidence that God will never leave us or forsake us, even in the toughest times. That's what the servant discovered that day. And God had to open his eyes to the spiritual reality. Pray that God would do the same for you, that he would help you to grasp more and more that 'those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.' Pray he'd help you to grasp that God is far, far more powerful than we can ever understand. That's the second conviction that we can take away from this passage: God is powerful to sustain his people.

3) Conviction 3: God shows mercy to outsiders (Vv 18-23)

But finally there is a third conviction that we can see in this passage and it is that God shows mercy to outsiders. And this comes out in the final section of the passage, verses 18-23. And again there is another form of blindness that is seen here. This time it is literal. Elisha prays that God would blind the soldiers and literally they are dazzled, a temporary blindness which gives Elisha enough time to lead them directly into the king of Israel's city. And when their blindness is taken away, there they are in Samaria! You can imagine their shock. Well if they were shocked then see how the king of Israel reacts in verse 21. You can imagine him almost hopping from one foot to the other saying: 'Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?' But Elisha, God's man, says no. Instead he'll do something extraordinary- he'll lay on a feast for them and send them back to Aram. Now at the very least, captured soldiers could expect rough treatment. They would probably have been sold as slaves, or even executed as spies or prisoners of war. And to cap it all they were non Jews, outsiders from the covenant. They were regarded as religious outcasts. But to be treated like visiting kings- well, it was completely unexpected. But that's what God is like as he acts through his man. He is completely unexpected in his dealings with these men. They deserved punishment, but they get the opposite. And they are sent back to Aram well fed and free. And the upshot of it all is a temporary reprieve for Israel. God really is at work in the situation.

But not only is this a nice ending to a story, but it also highlights God's mercy to outsiders. It is a wonderful foretaste of the end of time when people of every tribe and nation will sit down together at the wedding feast of the Lamb to eat God's great feast. God's wonderful plan is to bring to himself a people from all over the world. And that's what God is like. He is a God who shows mercy to the rebels, grace to the undeserving, friendship to his enemies. What right do we have to come before God? None at all. We are outsiders, cut off from him by our own evil actions. And yet God in his mercy sent his own son Jesus Christ to die in our place so that we too could be friends with him again. And even today that offer of mercy still stands. And if it's our conviction that God shows mercy to outsiders, then we will do all we can to allow more and more people to hear this wonderful message, to know the God that Elisha served and to give people the chance to eat God's feast at the end of time. If that's your conviction, then keep on at the business of telling others. It's not just an alternative way of understanding life, another truth in the supermarket of religious ideas. It is the truth. There is no other way. Only this God can save and does save. Only this God shows mercy to outsiders like you and me. And that's our final conviction- God shows mercy to outsiders.

So what hope is there in the battle for the truth about God? Much in every way. For God is still God, whether people acknowledge him or not. And we Christians must be in the thick of the battle standing up for this God and his ways. So tonight take to heart these three convictions about the great God of the Bible and resolve to stand for him this week at home, at work, in college wherever. For God is Sovereign over history; God is powerful to sustain his people; and God shows mercy to outsiders.

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