The Death of the Prophet - 2 Kings 13:10-25

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 31st March 2002.

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A month before his death, the atheist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, penned these words: ‘With this third world war which might break out one day, with this wretched gathering which our planet now is, despair returns to tempt me. The idea that there is no purpose, only petty personal ends for which we fight! We make little revolutions, but there is no goal for mankind. We cannot think of such things. They tempt you incessantly, especially if you are old.. the world seems ugly, bad and without hope. There, that’s the cry of despair of an old man who will die in despair. But that’s exactly what I resist. I know I shall die in hope. But that hope needs a foundation.’

And that is what our world seems to be in short supply - hope which has a foundation. Several years ago, the social anthropologist, Margaret Mead, declared that profound aimlessness was the most striking feature of the younger generation. I wonder what would she say today? At the very least there is a distinct nervousness about the future. Arthur Koestler in his best selling book ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ sums up the feeling of many who have rejected the way of religion: ‘Nature has let us down, God seems to have left the receiver off the hook, and time is running out.’

Similar sentiments would have been around in northern Israel at the time of Elisha as his life and ministry were drawing to a close. A sense of despair and despondency filled the air like an all pervading smog. Just take a look at chapter 13 and v4ff ‘Then Jehoahaz sought the LORD's favour, and the LORD listened to him, for he saw how severely the king of Aram was oppressing Israel. The LORD provided a deliverer for Israel, and they escaped from the power of Aram. So the Israelites lived in their own homes as they had before. But they did not turn away from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, which he had caused Israel to commit; they continued in them. Also, the Asherah pole remained standing in Samaria. Nothing had been left of the army of Jehoahaz except fifty horsemen, ten chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers, for the king of Aram had destroyed the rest and made them like the dust at threshing time.’ So here was a nation on its knees, politically and spiritually. Politically it was constantly in fear of the Arameans - the Syrians. Its army had been reduced to something more akin to the home guard, with only enough chariots to form a guard of honour, not the deadly military machine it was once. But covering it all was the stench of idolatry- the ‘sins of the house of Jeroboam’- no longer the worship of Baal, but the golden calf. Still, this was combined with another fertility cult, that of Asherah and all the sordid practices which went with it. It was a society which was rotten to the core. And things were no better later when Jehoash became King- v11 ‘He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit; he continued in them.’ As they say, ‘Like father, like son.’ Whatever political, economic and social problems there were, (and they appeared terminal) the root problem was spiritual. It was a nation which had turned its back upon its God like an adulterer who had turned their back on the spouse of their youth, really believing that there would be no consequences. So the question this story poses is this: ‘Is it at all possible for a people to be revived?’ More than that, is there any hope that life can come out of death?’ And as we look out on our nation today, at many of our churches today, as well as the lives of countless millions being carried away by the currents of secularism which has no room for God - those are two questions which demand an answer - if we are to have hope which has a foundation.

So let’s see what this final episode has to teach us.

First of all, we discover that power is found in weakness- vv 14-19. ‘Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died. Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him. 'My father! My father!' he cried. 'The chariots and horsemen of Israel!'’

I am sure that some of you will have come across the newspaper advert which read: ‘Lost - one dog. Brown hair with several bald spots. Right leg broken due to car accident. Rear hip hurt. Right eye missing. Left ear bitten off in a fight. Answers to the name - Lucky.’ Well, that could well apply to the situation here. It was pitiful in the extreme. As we have seen the whole nation was weakened and vulnerable to enemy attack - they had no defence. At a moment's notice the Arameans could simply walk in and plunder the whole country and there was very little that the King could do about it - and he knew it. The country was sick and dying. But so was God’s man - Elisha. When the King saw him he was visibly shocked by what his appearance, the prophet was terminally ill. We are told that the King wept over him. But this was not simply the distress of a relative or a friend for a dying loved one. You see, Elisha was the point of contact, however tenuous, between the nation and God. As we have seen in previous weeks, the prophet could make all the difference between victory and defeat in time of war. That is why the King cries out ‘My father, my father - the chariots and horsemen of Israel.’ In fact this is the very phrase used by Elisha to describe Elijah when he was taken up into heaven in 2 Kings 2:12. In other words, the Man of God who brings the Word of God is the true protector and champion of Israel. It was Mary Queen of Scots who declared that she feared the prayers and preaching of the great Reformer John Knox more than all the armies of England. One of the themes we have seen time and time again running throughout this book, is that behind all the earthly realities of kings and armies, is the greater invisible reality of the King and his heavenly armies. As someone once said, with God on your side, one is a majority. And so there is more than a hint of self-interest here. Jehoash looked upon Elisha as the equivalent to some SDI-Star Wars defence initiative. Once Elisha was gone then what would happen? Who would protect them - what supernatural aid would be available? The future didn’t even bear thinking about- talk about apocalypse now!

But what follows is a contrast between empty emotionalism on the one hand and faithful obedience on the other.

Just look at the empty emotionalism of the king-all this business of ‘my father’ you are the chariots and armies of Israel’. If he really did believe that, as God intended it to be believed, then they wouldn’t have been in the mess they were in. It was because God and his voice through the prophet had been abandoned, with Israel thinking it could go it alone, that they faced disaster. And here we are presented with one of the most sickening aspects of the religious mind - the belief that somehow God and religious institutions can be harnessed and domesticated for our own selfish ends. The king is not concerned with God’s glory - if he had been he would have repented and got rid of the golden calf worship long ago. He was simply concerned about his own puny empire and his own neck. That is why we have this emotional outburst, all this the wailing and the blubbing. And you know what? It is still the same for many of us toady.

We are coming up to the twentieth anniversary of the Falkands War and I have just finished reading a book which is written by the Captain of the frigate upon which my brother was serving at the time. The average age of his crew was 23. As a matter of fact he notes how as the ship sailed closer and closer to the islands, and so towards war, attendance at the chapel services began to get bigger and bigger. The prospect of death does focus the mind sharply on what really matters. Many of these men gave no thought to God before the conflict and very few gave much thought to him after. Isn’t there something tragic and demeaning when the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who daily showers his gifts of blessing upon us, is treated in this totemistic way? Like he is some sort divine insurance salesman? And yet we all have a tendency to do it - like this king. But the amazing thing is that God is so gracious, so patient, so wonderfully loving and kind that he is willing to meet us even on such terms. Look at v 15: ‘Elisha said, 'Get a bow and some arrows,' and he did so. 'Take the bow in your hands,' he said to the king of Israel. When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king's hands. 'Open the east window,' he said, and he opened it. 'Shoot!' Elisha said, and he shot. 'The LORD's arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!' Elisha declared. 'You will completely destroy the Arameans at Aphek.'

Here are two very weak men. Elisha physically, Jehoash morally and spiritually. Elisha can hardly lift his arms, Jehoash cannot lift his sights beyond the material and immediate. But in this act of prophetic symbolism, Elisha was to declare who the real protector and victor of Israel was. Did you see it in v 17 ‘ The LORD’s arrow of victory.’ The very God Jehoash had spurned, whose laws he had trampled upon-this is the God who will come to his aid. So everything looks fine doesn’t it? Hardly- v18. Then he said, 'Take the arrows,' and the king took them. Elisha told him, 'Strike the ground.' He struck it three times and stopped. The man of God was angry with him and said, 'You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times.'

You see, what God was looking for in the King was not empty emotionalism or a going through the motions, but faithful obedience - being fully committed and enthusiastic for God. Why Jehoash didn’t do as Elisha assumed he would or hoped he would, we don’t rightly know. Maybe he didn’t really believe it mattered, after all what possible difference could it make whether he beat the ground three times rather than six ? Who's counting? At the very least there is a half hearted timid response hardly fitting a leader of God’s people. He couldn’t be bothered. But whatever the reason, the consequences were serious - success against God’s enemies was going to be limited instead of total, as we see in v 25 - ‘Three times Jehoash defeated the King of Aram’. And I guess we must ask ourselves, to what extent is the spiritual ineffectiveness of the church in our land traceable to the lack of determination and commitment to God’s cause on behalf of his people? Quite a lot I would suspect. But it should not be. Not when you profess to worship this God.

But what we see here is that even in a situation which from a human point of view is one of weakness and hopelessness, God demonstrates his strength, he will defeat his enemies. And we know that is so because of the cross. On that local rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, where the supreme sign of weakness and rejection was displayed, through the one who not only couldn't lift his arms, but move his arms because they were nailed down to a piece of wood - that is where God through his appointed Prophet, Priest and King defeated the enemies of his people decisively - the enemies of sin, death and the devil. All that drags us down, which removes hope and makes a mockery of life is smashed there on that cross. And do yopu know what? The same pattern is to be repeated in the lives of his people .It is not through clever strategies, victory marches, or influencing the high and mighty that his kingdom is to be advanced in this world - it is through the apparently weak and helpless - the prayer meetings, the personal contacts, work amongst the children and disenfranchised in society - that is the way the loving reign of the one true God makes progress and it can never be stopped - even by death.

Which brings us to the final part of our story -the truth that there is life from death - v20 ‘Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. Hazael king of Aram oppressed Israel throughout the reign of Jehoahaz. But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To this day he has been unwilling to destroy them or banish them from his presence.’

Now this is not some odd ending tagged on to somehow underscore and odd life. This, like everything else in the book, is heavily symbolic. It is the Moabites now, not the Syrians who are the enemies. They invade the land while there is a funeral. Panic stricken, the funeral directors decide to ditch the body in Elisha’s tomb and scarper. The corpse abandoned by men is not abandoned by God. It is a situation of defeat but brought into a situation of transformation. It is death, but from it comes life.

That is a perfect picture of what God is able to do with his people. He will not abandon them, though they would have no cause for complaint if he did. As we read, it is because of his covenant love, he sticks by them, turns defeat into victory, death into life- even through a dead man like Elisha.

And here is the conclusive answer to our questions - can God restore a nation? Can God give life to the dead? Can we have hope which is certain? The answer is a resounding yes!

And today of all days we have cause to thank God for that truth. Because of the one greater than Elsiha who also died and was laid in a tomb, but who burst the bonds of death and is alive for ever more, we can have the most wonderful hope that a people can be revived and a person can be resurrected.

Why do you think we use the term ‘revival’ to describe a most extraordinary work of God’s Spirit-the Spirit of Jesus? Here you have a church all but dead. It appears to have no future. Its leadership is rotten, lost its way, like Jehoash. But nonetheless there are a few, not many, but a few who recognise their need, who cry out to God to act ,who get on with the business of plugging away with the Gospel and in his own time and in his own way he does work and often through the most unlikely people in the most unlikely places - like through children in a school for example. Let me tell you something. On October 1973 in a Junior school at Borio in Borneo two boys began to pray together. Gradually the whole school was drawn in until the headmaster himself, opposed to the work of the Gospel at first, was brought to repentance and faith. Why shouldn’t that happen here? It is the same God. But it began with the dedication of those two young boys. That is what we need to see for the resurrecting power of Christ to be displayed in our time.

I began with a quote from an eminent thinker- who desperately wanted hope but could not find it. Let me close with the words of another great scholar who did have such hope-Professor Sir Norman Anderson. Professor Anderson was a distinguished lawyer, he was also a Christian, and made a special study of the evidence for the resurrection. His faith and that of his wife, Pat was sorely tested as they lived to see three of their adult children die. Their son Hugh, was a brilliant student at Cambridge when he died of cancer at the age of 21. A few days later he gave the Thought for Today on radio 4. After explaining why he was convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead, he said, ‘On this I am prepared to stake my life. In this faith my son died, after saying ‘I’m drawing near my Lord.’ I am convinced that he was not mistaken.’ Hope must have a foundation, you see. If you are a believer here tonight that foundation is given to you and it will not be taken from you. If you are not yet a Christian believer, tonight would be a brilliant time to change all of that. God remains the same, his promises do not change and remain certain even in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. And what he does is to invite you and me - to take him at his word, and to know him, in all his love and kindness.

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