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Monday, September 21, 2020

"Some Blessings Bring Tears" (2 Kings 8:7-15)

Sunday, September 20, 2020

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            Serving as God’s prophet, did Elisha have the worst job one could ask for?  No one was closer to God in that day than Elisha.  He knew the will of God.  He saw with the vision of God.  Isn’t this what any person of faith would want?  Wouldn’t this be greater than any earthy pleasure or human achievement?

            In truth, any Israelite who heard the reading of the scrolls of Moses in worship knew the will of God.  Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Does anyone doubt what was required to maintain holiness?  Recite the 10 commandments.  Read Leviticus.  Worship God faithfully.  Conduct your business ethically.  When threats come, rely on God.  Treat your neighbors with kindness.  Practice hospitality. 

In Luke 16, Jesus tells a parable that ends with a rich man suffering in Hell for his failure to care for the poor man at his gate while he was alive.  The rich man begs “Father Abraham” to warn his brothers to care for the poor so they won’t suffer his fate.  He is told, however, they already have the law and the prophets (16:31).  They already have the information they need to live rightly, in God’s good graces. 

We do too.  We don’t need secret messages from God.  In the Bible, we have the revealed story of God’s truth for humankind.  We simply need to read it and live by it.  In Elisha’s day, they knew the teachings of Moses.  We know the teaching of Jesus.  Do we live by the word, or do we live as if the word is optional?    

In addition to the knowledge of God, Elisha had the vision of God.  God showed him that Israel, the chosen people, had disregarded God’s ways for generations.  Elisha could see that the people had ignored God’s the truth.  Worse still, Elisha could see that God was going to do something about this willful rebellion.  He saw what was coming.  

At this point, we turn back to Elisha’ predecessor and mentor Elijah.  Fleeing persecution, he was holed up in a cave when God came to him.  First a great wind came by, crushing rocks.  God was not in the wind.  Then, an earthquake rumbled and a supernatural fire blazed.  God was not in the earthquake or the fire.  Finally, a piercing silence penetrated Elijah’s soul.  He met God in the silence.

There, God told Elijah to anoint Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and then Elisha as his own successor.  This is God’s judgment of Israel for her sin of turning away from God and rejecting him as Lord.  God tells Elijah, “Whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill” (1 Kings 19:17).

Elijah passed his mantel to Elisha, but he never anointed the new Aramean king, nor did he anoint Jehu.  These tasks fell to Elisha. 

In 2 Kings 8, Elisha travels to Aram, modern day Syria, because the Aramean king, Ben-hadad is sick.  Ben-hadad knows no Aramean prophet has divine insight like Elisha.  Only he can provide answers.  So, the king sends his man, Hazael, to inquire.  Will the king recover from this illness?

Hazael carries out his assignment, delivering a gift to Elisha, speaking with fawning reverence.  “You son King Ben-hadad has sent me” he says.  Your son.  The hyper-respect, the gifts, the bowing and scraping; it’s all a show and Elisha plays his part.  Tell your master, “You shall certainly recover,” he says (2 Kings 8:10).

Then Elisha stares at Hazael.  The emissary fixes his gaze upon the prophet.  They stare at each other.  Suddenly Elisha bursts into tears.  The narrator of this story coyly withholds any insight into Hazael’s inner thought world.  He appears to be a flat character, but, in real life, no one is flat.  In real life, everyone has deep inner brooding, whether or not it is ever spoken.  “Why does my Lord weep?” Hazael asks. 

Indeed.  Elisha has stared down an entire Aramean fighting force without a hint of fear.  Why are his tears falling now?  He knows what is coming is from God, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

My sons and I have been binge-watching a show called Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D..  This is the same “Marvel Universe” that has given us Iron Man, Captain America, and the Black Panther.  S.H.E.I.L.D. is the secretive organization that works behind the scenes supporting the heroes and sometimes carrying out their own missions. 

In one season of the show, the heroes are whisked 100 years into earth’s future.  Much of the planet has been destroyed.  What’s left is being controlled by an alien race that has enslaved humanity.  S.H.E.I.L.D. has been brought to the future to rescue humanity from their alien overlords and the crumbling planet. 

The rub comes when the agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. learn that all the catastrophes they’re trying to fix in the future they caused in the past.  When they finally make it back to their own present day, they are determined not make the decisions and do the things that bring about the horrors they witnessed.  Yet, they seem powerless to alter fate.  Step by step, the calamities come upon them and there seems to be no way of changing things. 

That’s what makes Elisha weep.  He tells Hazael that King Ben-hadad will recover, but’s not true.  What’s actually true is Ben-hadad is going to die and Hazael will assume the throne.  Elisha says to him, “I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip open their pregnant women.”

Second Kings 8:12 paints such a horrible picture, I almost didn’t read it.  I could have chosen to skip it, offering a sanitized summary.  Elisha couldn’t skip it.  He couldn’t unsee it.  Not only did he have to watch, but he also had to speak.  As a prophet, he didn’t the option of keeping it to himself.  Elisha knew that these horrors were God’s judgment.

That doesn’t absolve Hazael.  He went back to King Ben-hadad and reported that the monarch would recover.  Then, with the king relaxed, his fears relieved, his guard down, Hazael, his loyal aide smothered the king with bed sheet.  Once Ben-Hadad was dead, Hazael took the throne. 

God had been planning this since before Elisha had even ascended to his role as the leading prophet of Israel.  It’s not that God is obsessed with violence and lacks mercy.  God forgave his people countless times.  Read the book of Judges.  God so often takes the descendants of Abraham back after they have turned away from his call to holiness, it become a plot device. In seminary, we learned the “Judges Cycle”: sin-fall-cry-rescue. God makes the world, creation; humanity rejects God and catastrophe follows, uncreation; and, in despair, humanity cries and God starts over with us, re-creation.  If Israel would not respond to holy leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Deborah, and if Israel would not heed the leadership of true prophets like Isaiah, Elijah, and Elisha, and then God would work through evil people like Hazael. 

God did not cause Hazael to be evil.  The man made his own choices.  But God can work through any human being to accomplish his divine purposes.  Elisha was blessed to be God’s prophet, but some blessings bring tears too.  He saw everything, even the things no one would want to see. 

In 2020, we’ve seen a lot of things we would have never wanted to see in our lifetimes.  In fact, many of us 50, 60, 70 years old have never seen a year like this year.  Is God punishing humanity?  Physics, chemistry, and microbiology can explain the origins of the virus.  We don’t need a supernatural explanation.  Epidemiology, environmental science, and sociology, can explain why the virus has affected some communities worse than others.  We don’t need to speculate about what God is doing through the pandemic.  We do, though, need to listen to God. 

The devastating effects of the virus and wildfires and hurricanes and polarized politics all serve as indictments on humanity.  We’ve know vulnerable, disadvantaged populations are at greater risk in each calamity that hits.  What if healthy people, young people, and rich people dedicated themselves to making sure everyone’s rent is paid, everyone gets health care, and no one is abandoned?  What if the most able in society spent less time griping about having to wear masks and more time looking for ways to help vulnerable people?  If that happened, if we went out of our way to help each other, the story of 2020 would be entirely different.  The virus, fires, and storms haven’t ravaged us; each reveals our selfishness.  Self-centeredness wrecks human life and prevents human flourishing. 

Elisha wept at Hazael’s ascendency, but that Aramean’s reign of terror was directly tied to Israel’s rejection of God.  God let the people face the world without His help since they had chosen to reject Him as Lord.  Elisha was the messenger.

We’re suffering because God allows us to live with the consequences of our own choices.  2020 will make us weep, but it wasn’t fated.  It wasn’t inevitable.  We could be hit by all these threats and more, but if we took care of each other and revered the sovereignty of God instead of looking out for our own self-interests, our experience of the world would be a lot different.  

Now, the virus rages on as does the complaining about our nation’s response to it.  The election day is 48 days away.  The advertising, the politicking, and the deception from those who would lead us is nauseating.  Is our land fated to walk the path of destruction?  As the people of God’s church, do we, like Elisha, have no choice but to watch as the world around us burns?   

Throughout the days of Elijah and Elisha, and the great prophets that followed, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest, God warned his people of their sins.  But those prophets also promised hope.  Embedded in the damning messages they shared are words of hope.

We live after the era of the prophets.  We live in the age of the crucified, resurrected Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Even death doesn’t win.  Elisha’s pain at watching Hazael rise and Israel fall is a warning that God will allow humans to suffer the outcomes of their own selfishness and sin.  The cross is a promise that if we die to ourselves, repent, and turn to God in faith, he will give us a new day.  Even as the world around us seems to crumble, we keep our eyes on God, walk in his light, and help those suffering around us find their way to his salvation. 

Yes, we can weep and sometimes we need to, but not forever.  We have good news to share, hope to spread, and the suffering world needs to hear the truth we have to give. So, let’s get to our work of telling God’s story. 


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