English service - September 20, 2020
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
I Kings 19:19-21
Living in God’s Peace When You Are Worried
Hello again, everyone joining us in person and online. The last two times we have been together, we have heard the word of God through the story of the prophet Elijah. As we saw him running for his life across a desert, we thought about “Living in God’s Strength When You Are Tired.” Then when Elijah encountered the Lord and heard His voice in a “gentle whisper” (II Kings 19:12b) on Mt. Sinai, we received the message, “Living in God’s Family When You Are Isolated.” Today, let’s continue with the prophet as he begins the work God has now given him a fresh call to do. This episode teaches us about “Living in God’s Peace When You Are Worried.”
Although this story is short, only three verses, the wording is not the easiest to follow and needs some explanation. With that in mind, I’d like again to simply go through it verse by verse, noting a few key things along the way. Some will match neatly with this message’s title, and others will not. But let’s open our hearts to hear all that the Lord will say to us today through this well-known, old story.
To begin, it may be helpful to see where the events of this larger story are taking place. Let’s review them by looking at this map. In I Kings 18, Elijah is on Mt. Carmel and wins a great contest against the prophets of Baal. From there, he runs ahead of King Ahab’s chariot about 24 kilometers to Israel’s capital, Jezreel. That’s where Queen Jezebel threatens his life and he begins fleeing. He goes through Beer-sheba in the south, then all the way across the Sinai Peninsula to Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. There he encounters a mighty wind, earthquake, and fire, then the voice of God, telling him to go back and finish the work he has been given to do. Part of that is going to Aram, or Syria, to set up a certain man as king. His mission also includes selecting a person to be king of Israel. The last thing God sends him to do is choose Elisha to take his (Elijah’s) place as prophet of Israel.
Elijah does the third task first, going to Elisha’s home in Abel Meholah (today’s story). As it turns out, the first two tasks are completed later through Elisha, so we could say Elijah is “killing three birds with one stone.” Verse 19b tells us, “Elisha was plowing in a field. He was driving the last of 12 pairs of oxen.” Some people have commented that this means Elisha was from a wealthy family. That could be, as at least they have enough land to need 24 oxen to plough it. But, he is doing the work with the others, not just having his servants doing it, as some rich people no doubt would. Elisha is no stranger to hard, physical work. He has probably spent a good number of hours looking at an ox’s behind (“the north end of a southbound ox,” as they say) while plowing. And the text does not say that “servants” are laboring with Elisha. It only calls them “the people” in v. 21. Also, it’s not clear that all these animals belong to Elisha’s family. In some cultures in the Middle East, it has been common for the farmers in a community to work in large teams to do certain jobs that are difficult for one family to do. It’s kind of like the communities I heard about growing up in the U.S., where farmers would gather for a “barn-raising.” They all helped someone put up a rough building where they would keep animals, feed, and so on. They could expect that, when it was time for them to do something similar, the community would be there to help them with that project.
The number 12, the number of teams of oxen, may give us another hint about Elisha’s situation as Elijah comes to him. In the Bible, 12 appears again and again, for example as the number of sons of Jacob, from whom come the 12 tribes that make up the nation of Israel. Jesus has a ministry team of 12 disciples. When He multiplies bread and fish to feed thousands of people, 12 baskets are left over—enough for everyone, and more. In general, when 12 appears in the Bible, it is thought of as a showing perfection, or completion. It symbolizes God's power and authority, as well as serving as a perfect foundation of government. It can also symbolize the nation of Israel as a whole.
In the last chapter (I Kings 18:31-32a) in his big contest with the prophets of the god Baal, Elijah takes 12 stones, one for each tribe of Israel, and builds an altar. On it, he offers a sacrifice that God accepts, sending down a great fire and winning the contest.
Now, telling us that Elisha has 12 teams of oxen, the writer may be describing the life of the man being chosen to be prophet as complete, settled, well-situated in the community—a good life, not one that someone would give up without a powerful reason. This reminds us that there is a price to pay for every person who makes the choice to live the life of faith in God. The cost may be higher or the choice more dramatic for some, but there are things for each of us that the Lord calls us to leave behind when He invites us to follow Him.
The number 12 may signal that, as Elisha has learned to lead by guiding the teams of oxen, God is choosing him to direct the nation of Israel to follow the Lord in faith. That sounds like the way He chose Moses and David, after less-than-glorious careers as shepherds, to shepherd His people as their spiritual and political leaders. It reminds us of Jesus’ calling fisherman to join His group of disciples and learn to “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19b). No matter what your background is, God has a way to use it for good and important things, when He calls you to follow Him in faithful service.
The story continues, “Elijah went up to him. He threw his coat around him” (v. 19b). Some translations say Elijah passes by Elisha or something similar here. And the rest of the story makes it clear that Elijah is not here to stay. In v. 20, “Then Elisha left his oxen. He ran after Elijah.” Verse 21 continues, “Then he started to follow Elijah.” Elijah looks ready to move on, not stay and try to convince or pressure Elisha to come with him. His job is to deliver God’s message: “I choose you.” It’s Elisha’s responsibility to answer the call.
This sounds like the way God works in other Bible stories. When Jesus walks out on the water in a storm toward His disciples in a storm (Mark 6:48-49), it says, “When he was about to pass by them, they saw him walking on the lake.” When two disciples meet the just-resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaeus (Luke 24:28-29), “Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they tried hard to keep him from leaving.” That’s an interesting way to get people to follow you.
God calls people, but He does not force us. And He gives us the opportunity and ability to follow Him, but He does not keep His hand extended forever. We need to respond. If we do not, He moves on. Maybe He will give us another call at another time, or maybe He will make other plans. After all, He is free, too, just as He makes us free. God’s role is to call. But we have a role, too, and it is to respond by stepping out in faith and following when He calls. How is God calling you?
Back to the text, throwing his coat (or “robe,” “cloak,” “mantle,” 外套 [gaitou]) in some translations) around Elisha is the prophet’s symbolic way of passing on to him the job of prophet. This overcoat is probably made of animal skins. Elisha does not keep it. We read more about it when Elijah is being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire (II Kings 2:1-14). Before he disappears, he drops the coat, Elisha receives it, and it becomes a powerful symbol of the presence of God that remains after Elijah is gone. You may read or hear in English phrases like pass the mantle of leadership or accept, receive, pick up, carry, or assume the mantle of leadership. They come from today’s Bible story. For example, two club members may have a conversation like the following.
A: I don’t know what we’re going to do next year without Takuro here to lead us.
B: Oh, I’m not worried. I think Hiroko will pick up the mantle of leadership and do just fine.
As I understand God’s word, it teaches that a key part of the mission of church leaders is to train and equip younger generations of people to lead, then actively, willingly, and supportively pass on the mantle of leadership to them. As our members age, the future of our church will depend on how well we follow as God leads us in that work. That’s a big part of being entrusted with the gospel. We need to keep telling it actively and consistently, expecting God will use it to lead new believers into His church, and finding faithful young leaders God is preparing, whom we can trust to handle the gospel with respect, care, and skill.
Elisha responds to Elijah’s call by leaving his oxen, then making the request, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by. . . . Then I'll come with you.” Elijah says yes. Yet he does seem to qualify his response with an important question. “Go back. What have I done to you?” Do you see what he means? I did not when I read that the first time (or the second, third, etc.). Some translations do more interpreting than others and present it as:
“Go; but return, because of what I did to you.” (The Complete Jewish Bible)
“Go! I'm not holding you back!” (The Common English Bible)
“All right, go back. I'm not stopping you!” (The Good News Translation)
We don’t know the intonation Elijah uses in his question, but by saying, “What have I done to you” (stressing I), he may be saying, “God is the One who is calling you. This is between you and Him in the end. You can easily say no to me, but if you won’t follow when God calls you, you have a problem bigger than I can solve for you. Don’t let anything keep you away from following the good plans that God has for your life.” Elijah’s answer may also mean, “The call of God does not require you to turn against your family or neglect them. They will be important to you—and you important to them—after you begin your ministry, as they have been up to now. But this will be a big change for the whole group. So I understand you need to spend some time with them now. When you’re ready, we’ll go.”
So Elisha left him and went back. He got his two oxen and killed them. He burned the plow to cook the meat. He gave it to the people, and they ate it. Then he started to follow Elijah.
Wow! That’s a dramatic way to answer the call! Maybe Elisha is just overjoyed at the chance to serve our loving Lord and feels he has to express his thanks and praise this way. Maybe he senses that he is beginning a difficult journey and will someday need this very firm and public commitment to look back on if he is going to continue his life of service well. He may be taking inspiration from another person he’s heard of, too. Back in the days of King David, a man named Araunah received a special visit and a request (see II Samuel 24:18-25). The king appeared and asked him to sell his place of business so that it could be used as an altar, to worship God. Araunah gave an amazingly generous and faithful response. He said (v. 22), “Let my lord the king take whatever he wishes and offer it up. Here are oxen for the burnt offering, and here are threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood.” In the end, David insisted on paying for it, but Araunah’s spirit of willing, enthusiastic obedience left an example for Elisha and people of faith for thousands of years since to follow in our lives.
Elisha does not wait to think it all through carefully. He does not take more time to weigh the plusses and minuses of a life as a prophet versus that of one in agriculture. A secure income and his retirement plan are not his central concerns. Waiting for his family members to come to full agreement before he commits is not his response. He probably knows that Queen Jezebel and her supporters will likely make trouble for people like him if he works as a prophet of the Bible’s God. But that does not keep him from stepping out on faith. Someone has said that there is egg-level commitment. The hen “commits” something personal and valuable to our breakfast. But then there’s ham-level commitment. What the pig “commits” is on a whole different level. Elisha’s commitment is more of a ham-level commitment, isn’t it. He’s not holding anything back. When we are ready to respond in simple faith, without placing restrictions or qualifications on our commitment, we are ready for God to use us for the most effective service in His name. Lord, give us the simplicity of spirit and the courage to follow where you lead.
We’ve seen a lot in these three little verses now, but there may still be some key questions in your mind. What has happened to Elijah after his crisis in the desert? Not long ago, he was asking God to let him die, slipping down into burnout or a mental breakdown or something terrible. How is he feeling now? This whole section of his life story began when the queen threatened to kill him. We have seen God help him battle through fatigue and isolation. But how about his worry? When we read this story and others about him that follow, we see him returning to effective work, giving God’s word as he receives it and even challenging the king with it when necessary. What has he learned that seems to be helping him overcome his fears and the worry that has grown out of them?
The story doesn’t say. It is remarkably silent, telling us practically nothing. We don’t see God giving great therapy techniques or new wonder drugs or words of inspiration that will give Elijah a new attitude going forward.
But we do see one key thing the prophet does: he obeys. He follows the plan that the voice of God has laid out for him. And as he does, he finds the courage and opportunity and ability to go forward moment by moment and day by day. Soon both King Ahab and Queen Jezebel are dead, and Elijah moves on to other challenges.
We never find out if the deep, dark mood he was in disappears forever, or if he has to deal with it again from time to time. I suppose he has to learn to live with it. But maybe that is beside the point. He knows God is with him, he has a job to do, and as he trusts the Lord to guide and empower him, he is able to play the role he is meant to play.
We don’t know if Elijah really feels like doing the work he does in calling Elisha. But it’s very possible that he comes to feel better about it after he begins actually doing it. If he had stayed out in the desert, up on the mountain, waiting for the feeling of wanting to go back and continue his work to come to him, he might have stayed there until he died. For us, too, putting our feelings in control of our actions is often a mistake. It’s often more helpful realistically to focus on just doing the next right thing. When we do, the feelings often will follow naturally, in their own time.
Some people get their peace from the situation they are in—few problems, good support from people around them, etc. Other people take their peace into the situation they are in, whether it’s good or bad. They carry their peace around with them. That’s the kind of people God wants us to be.
Elijah shows us that having to face great troubles does not mean living with peace is impossible. Our situations and circumstances do not control the condition of our hearts in the end. It is possible to live with real peace, even in the face of many difficulties. With God’s help, Elijah does this. Christ does it even more. And He teaches us as His followers to do the same.
Let’s ask Him to help us do that now, OK?
Father in Heaven, we are facing a lot of different troubles in our world and personal lives today. But you call your people to live in peace. So teach us to live each day with our eyes set on you, not on our circumstances and especially not on our problems. What is the next right thing you want us to do? Is it calling someone we know who needs a friend and having a conversation? Is it getting more rest and eating healthy? Is it making the habit of spending time with you daily in prayer? Is it using the increased time alone that many of us have now to dream new dreams or begin a new work or grow in parts of our character which still need forming? In whatever way your Spirit speaks to us now, help us listen, see how to obey, and follow you in active, sincere faith today and every day. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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