This was another ‘evening’ sermon given to the “stentorian” crowd as I sometimes thought of them (I called them them that because the people who usually attended that service were often more ‘loud’ in voicing their opinions than many others!). Looking back at these sermons it’s interesting to note a couple of things.
Firstly, At this point in my spiritual life there were several disparate influences having an effect on how I thought about things. On the one hand, I was in the middle of my theological training with the Readers course which was encouraging me to think on deeper levels than I had been used to. At the same time I was attending a fairly lively pentecostal/evangelical church whilst also attending my own Anglican (fairly straight laced) church. This meant that I was trying to marry a rather traditional Anglican approach to worship with a more enthusiastic, jump up and down, hand waving sense of God’s presence in the room.
Secondly, I firmly believed (and still do) that the purpose of the sermon was to preach to the congregation in “the now.” That is to say, the preacher’s job is to deliver God’s message, as revealed through scripture, to the present circumstance of the congregation. Hence, you will often find references in my sermons to events or activities that were current in our church at the time. This, of course, is the advantage of the preacher attached to a particular church or congregation. He/she is aware (or should be) of the undercurrents and prevailing emotional feelings running through the church family and is thus in a position to discern God’s message for the current situation. This is why I always admire and respect those who have the unenviable task of preaching to unfamiliar congregations as a visitor – it’s very difficult to know what is going on in another church family. Having said that, I’ve listened to plenty of speakers who didn’t appear to have the foggiest idea of what was pertinent to the congregation and seemed to be off in a world of their own.
2 Kings 6:8-23; Luke 19:41-20:8
As I look around me tonight I can see that there are several people here who like myself have the need to wear spectacles. Speaking for myself, it’s because I’m short-sighted. In fact if I take off my glasses I can’t see further than six inches past the end of my nose, further than that and it’s all just a huge blur. Whether you wear or need to wear glasses, at some point you’ll have had the experience of going to the optician for an eye test. I remember as a young lad at the age of seven I was sent away as a boarder to prep school. Prior to going I hadn’t needed to wear glasses, but it wasn’t long after I arrived that it was discovered that my class work was deteriorating, the reason being that I couldn’t see the blackboard at the front of the class. During the holidays my mother took me to the optician – who happened to be our next door neighbour, so that was handy – and I had my first eye test. I don’t know if they still use them but I remember those weird looking spectacles that are put on your face that allow the optician to try different strengths of lens as he tests your eyes. I remember being quite amazed at the transformation from blurred vision before the optician put anything in to those odd specs, to clear sight after. Even now as an adult, though I take the wearing of spectacles for granted, the difference for me between having them on or not is quite amazing. Well, you may say, what’s that got to do with the readings we’ve had tonight? Well actually it’s about our own spiritual short-sightedness or blindness. Sometimes, and you may chuckle at this, I think of the prophets of the Old Testament as God’s opticians, because if you think about it, their purpose, as we read about them in scripture, is to enable people to see more clearly, either through their words of prophecy or through their miracles. If you were here last month when we looked at Isaiah, you may be able to recall that his job was to get the Israelites to see that they had to put their trust in God alone and not in foreign alliances as they faced the threat of attack. Whereas Isaiah was a man of words, Elisha, who we’re dealing with today, was more a man of action. When I say action I mean that the miracles he produced where quite visual. This is a man who had been chosen by the great prophet Elijah to succeed him, whom he had followed for many years. At the end of Elijah’s time on earth, Elisha had been present to see his mentor carried off to heaven in a chariot of fire. He even received Elijah’s cloak as a parting gift along with a double portion of his spirit. And his first miracle, I think you’ll agree, is pretty visual. He parted the waters of the river Jordan so that he could cross on dry land. And here we have a splendid example of Elisha’s ophthalmic skills. Having given Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, a hard time by foiling his plans for ambush on several occasions, Elisha suddenly finds himself as the target. But it’s not really Elisha who is our primary concern, it’s more his servant. If you remember, the story that we heard, told us how Ben-Hadad sent his spies, a kind of Syrian CIA, to find out where Elisha was. When he discovered his location he sent out a rather large force to capture the prophet and bring him back. Arriving at night the troops surrounded the town of Dothan where Elisha was staying and waited for the morning. You can imagine it can’t you, the poor manservant waking in the morning and heading out to the front door, all bleary eyed, to pick up the milk, and suddenly becoming aware of the sight of those soldiers in their chariots completely encircling the town. Has anybody seen the film Independence Day? There’s a scene in that similar to this situation when the fighter pilot hero steps out of his front door to get his morning paper and then slowly notices the people around him up and down the street, standing and staring in total amazement at something which he hasn’t yet noticed. Then he spots it and the camera pans back to reveal an enormous space ship hovering over the city. And the reaction from most people, after the initial shock has warn off, is one of panic. And it’s the same for Elisha’s servant. He ran back to his master exclaiming, “We’re doomed”. Kind of reminds me of Corporal Fraser in Dad’s Army, he was always saying that!
Often we’re so filled with fear that we spend most of our time running away from something that in reality God will not let harm us. We fear all sorts of things, cancer, car accidents, poverty and death. And it’s our fear that leaves us open to exploitation by the devil. Someone once wrote that fear is meditating on the devil’s lies, whilst faith is meditating on the promises and power of God. So often it’s the greatness of our fears that show us the feebleness of our faith.
In contrast to the servant’s panic, Elisha is quite calm about the situation. He simply says to the man, “Don’t be afraid.” There’s a book that I can highly recommend written by a guy called Greg Haslam entitled “Elisha, a sign and a wonder.” In it he writes that being around Elisha must have been something like a regular visit to the beauty parlour – you always came away with a faith lift!
Like the servant in the story we do indeed have our own fears. Perhaps, at the moment, we have a not irrational fear for this churches financial concerns. What with the relaunching of the Building Fund and the need to raise a considerable amount for the final phase of the restoration to the church building; as well as the parish share which we also need to find the money for from somewhere, we might well be feeling a sense of panic. But God, I believe, is saying the same thing as Elisha did, “Don’t be afraid.” What we need to do is to stop panicking and to start trusting, and this applies to any situation really.
We know that fear opens the door to those very things that we’re afraid of. We’re easily intimidated by threats and frightening appearances. If you’ve ever seen pictures of things like bed mites or spiders magnified under a microscope they look pretty horrific. But actually when you see these creatures in their proper proportions, they’re still fairly iffy but we see how foolish our fears really are. In fact all we need to do is to stamp on them. Luke 10:19 is a particularly good verse to remember next time you see an arachnid running across your floor. It goes, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.” But seriously, we need to remember that although our enemies and the objects of our fears may look powerful, they are subject to the Creator, to God. So let’s not panic.
Elisha said to his servant, “We have more on our side than they have on theirs.” He then did his ophthalmic bit by praying, “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” The servant looked up and saw the hillside covered with horses and chariots of fire. Spiritually he was blind, or certainly short-sighted, and Elisha helped him to see properly. I think that too often we get distracted by our earthly troubles and lose sight of our ultimate goal which is Heaven. A well known writer of commentary on the Bible, Matthew Henry, wrote that, “The clearer sight we have of the sovereignty and power of Heaven, the less we shall fear the troubles of earth.” As Christians we know, or at least we should do, that God desires that we live our lives by faith, a total surrender of our will and a casting of ourselves on his mercy. Sadly, all to often we’re spiritually ineffective because like Elisha’s servant we walk by sight, not by faith. Walking by sight means that we don’t act on the truth as revealed in the Scriptures; rather we seek an outward sign to follow, such as Gideon’s fleece. Of course if we want to be ineffective Christians walking by sight will cause us to follow God only when we feel he is leading. At night, when we’re alone, filled with doubt and fear for the future, we should not reflect on God’s faithfulness in the past. We should not cast our eyes on the Word and realise how much our Father in Heaven cares for us. Instead we should lean on our own understanding. We should judge God only by what we can see happening around us. Let’s not put any of our hope in things that we can’t see, such as heaven, and we’ll live gloriously ineffective Christian lives. There’s a story about a little boy called Billy, who one day was caught being naughty by his mother. She asked him, “How do you expect to get into heaven?” Billy thought for a moment and then said, “Well, I’ll just run in and out and keep slamming the door until they say, ‘For heaven’s sake, either come in or stay out.’ Then I’ll go in.”
In our Gospel passage Luke tells us how Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Why? Because he lamented lost opportunity. The Jerusalemites did not know what was needed for peace. Part of the Hebrew understanding of peace is its emphasis on peace with God, right relationship between the creature and the Creator, as a necessary ingredient in true peace. This is what the people of Jerusalem had failed to realise, and now it was too late. The God that I believe in is a God of challenges. Often we think we’re facing difficulties, but actually we need to see God’s hand in them, pushing the problem at us in order to stimulate and challenge us. What he’s doing is asking us to rethink and to reshape our relationships. What we think may break us actually ends by building us up. The connection or link that I’ve zeroed in on between these two passages is the failure of both parties – that’s Elisha’s servant and the Jerusalemites – to see God’s presence around and amongst them. The NRSV calls it the time of visitation from God. What was true for them can also be true for us, as individuals or otherwise. We need to be careful that we don’t miss Jesus, or miss the time of visitation. Otherwise like the Jerusalemites, we’ll have to live with the consequences. What we should be doing is praying like Elisha did, “O Lord, open our eyes and let us see.”
Let’s pray for a moment.
We have answered your call and have said that we will follow you, and now we are afraid that we have involved ourselves in a life that is too much for us. Help us to a firmer resolution, to follow our Lord so closely that life and our fears shall not crowd him from our sight. Lighten our minds that we may see only those things that please you and may be blinded to all other things. And as we keep him in view put strength in our feet and joy in our hearts.
In your name we ask it.