Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 19: 19-21 Pass It On

What is it we should look for in gospel workers? How do we spot the next generation of preachers and pastors? How do we ensure that the gospel doesn’t just stop with us, here, and doesn’t impact anyone else? These are the questions that always must be asked in every congregation, to make sure that leaders are being raised up.

Tonight, we see the aftermath of Elijah’s meeting with God at Mount Horeb (Sinai). It looked as if the whole covenant project was finished, the people were still being led by weak Ahab and wicked Jezebel. Elijah was the last public prophet left. Game over. In fact, it’s as if it’s only half time, and God sends Elijah to do some anointing.

Look back verse 15 - Hazael to be anointed king of Syria, Jehu to be king of Israel, and Elisha to be prophet in your place. God is in control, and will get rid of the devilish dynasty of Ahab. Elijah has his part to play, with three vials of oil. Game on.

So it might come as a surprise when we find out what Elijah does next. He never meets Jehu, he never calls with Hazael. His only appointment is with Elisha. That great philosopher of our time, Meatloaf, once sang that ‘two out of three aint bad’. Elijah only does one out of three.

We’re going to look at the call of Elisha tonight, in these three verses, but as we begin, I have to sound a note of caution. There will be things that we can apply today to the raising up of leaders in the church, but at the same time it’s helpful to remember that we’re dealing with an earlier period of time, in the period of the kings, and Elisha is being called to the office of prophet in Israel. So we need to think carefully about what we’re reading before leaping to apply it.

We’ll look at the call, and the obedience, so let’s look first at the call. From the previous passage we already know who is on Elijah’s hit list, but for Elisha, it seems it’s just a normal day on the family farm. He’s a wealthy farmer - ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen (that’s 24 beasts), and he’s walking with the twelfth pair. The land they’re farming is obviously big (to need so much horsepower - if you’ll excuse the mixing of metaphors), and it’s a prosperous farm. That’s like having a new John Deere tractor (retailing at about £60,000) for the ploughing.

Elisha is working away, when suddenly Elijah walks past and throws his cloak on him. This cloak was the prophetic fashion - all the prophets were wearing them this season (and every season!) - just think of the distinctive dress of John the Baptist, purposely in keeping with this dress code for prophets, but so unusual by the New Testament days that it merited a mention: ‘Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.’ (Matt 3:4)

It’s unexpected from Elisha’s perspective, and yet as we know, God has already set him apart, has already chosen him, already named him to Elijah. Elisha is God’s man, headhunted by Elijah, and called to be Elijah’s successor.

It’s not a job many people would be applying for - remember that to be the Lord’s prophet means standing up to the people and the king, declaring God’s word to God’s rebellious people. Remember as well that Elijah currently has a death threat hanging over him - from none other than Queen Jezebel. The opponents are all around, it’s a dangerous commission.

I think you can probably see the parallels with gospel workers in our generation. While Elisha is being called to a unique role in the history of Israel, gospel workers continue to speak for God in the midst of opposition and danger. It’s not easy - but there is encouragement from the command of God, having been chosen and called by God.

All Christians are called to follow Christ and speak of him - being a fulltime Christian is for every Christian. But some are specifically set apart for word ministry. Perhaps that could be you - even if you have never imagined it yourself. It seems that Elisha wasn’t expecting Elijah to drop by - yet the call came, clear and unmistakable.

We as a congregation should be looking at those whom God has brought into our church family, and asking - would x be good at leading a Bible study / doing one-to-one ministry / teaching? Things like Taste are great training grounds to experiment, and consider these things, while gaining encouragement. Pray for those taking opportunities, and particularly those considering ordination.

We’ve thought so far about God’s call on Elisha - but what about his response? Over in the New Testament, we’re told of three men’s reaction to Jesus’ call on their life. One pledges to follow Jesus, and Jesus reminds him there’s no comfort with him - the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. The second wants to go and bury his father (with no indication his father is dead), but Jesus shows urgency to proclaim the kingdom. The third gives a very similar response to Elisha’s words here, and he is rebuked: ‘Yet another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

It’s the image of trying to plough in a straight line, but looking backwards all the time. (Or if you’ve never ploughed - imagine you tried to drive home looking backwards the whole time...). Is it the same here with Elisha? Is he also trying to get out of it?

Let’s look again at what he says: ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Is Elisha also looking backwards? I don’t think so - rather than him always looking back and being hindered, it appears that this meeting with his family is the entry into service, saying goodbye and going to follow Elijah. He’s not dilly-dallying, trying to stall.

After all, his next actions are fairly clear. Those last pair of oxen he’s been ploughing with are sacrificed, with the yoke itself being used as the fuel for the fire. As one of the commentators says, ‘And people ate steak to celebrate it.’ You’ve heard of the saying ‘to burn your bridges’ - no way back, well this is surely it. The equivalent of the new tractor has been sacrificed (although oxen are tastier than boiled tractor), he’s no longer a farmer.

The people share in the feast, acknowledging that Elisha has left the family business, and he’s setting off on this new task of serving Elijah, following Elijah, helping Elijah, and one day, taking over from Elijah.

It’s decisive, total commitment, as he obeys the command of God in the call on his life. It’s like the man finding the treasure in the field, who in his joy, Jesus tells us, goes away and sells all that he has in order to get the treasure. It’s like Levi, the tax collector, who throws a party for his friends to introduce them to Jesus when Jesus tells him to follow him. It sounds great, doesn’t it - living with Elijah, learning from him, days of victory and joy.

Do you see what the last words of the chapter say? ‘Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.’ That’s all we’re told here - but later on, in 2 Kings 3 we’re told of a description of Elisha ‘Elisha... who poured water on the hands of Elijah.’ (2 Kings 3:11). Ministry isn’t all glamour and glitz - there’s the hidden things, often unseen, easily looked down on, but an essential part of the work.

Elisha responds with that great sacrifice, and goes to follow Elijah. The Lord Jesus willingly obeyed the command of the Father to offer up his great sacrifice of himself to bring our forgiveness, and the risen and reigning Lord Jesus continues to call us to follow him, sending out labourers into his harvest field. Rather than the cloak of the prophet, the Lord Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit, to help us follow, and to help us speak for him.

Perhaps you have been considering ordination or some ministry, but have been holding back. How will you respond? What is your next step? Speak to Johnny or myself. Perhaps if you’re a Fellowship Group leader or team leader at Explorers you have noticed someone in the group with a particular gift - are there ways you can encourage them to think about how to use it?

But just in case you’re sitting thinking, well, that’s not me, I’m not being called to anything grand - don’t stop listening! You see, each of us should be responding to Jesus in our Christian life. It can be so easy to mystify ‘the call’ and elevate it to so-called special people like missionaries and ministers and then think that it doesn’t apply to you.

Rather, the call to follow Jesus comes to all - and with that so many different applications in how you live, what you say, what you spend your money on, what you pray for, how you spend your free time, and so much more. In trying to dodge a big call, don’t miss those things in your life, those situations you might be able to take that a minister would never even encounter.

It might look different for all of us, but at the heart of it, the call comes to each one of us - to follow Jesus. How will you respond?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 20th February 2011.

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