A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church, Sunday, 30 June 2013.
We are confronted by choices every day. What to wear? What to eat? Well, at least I’ve sorted lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches almost every working day for 50 years. That’s one decision I don’t have to worry about. Some choices are, of course, trivial. What does it really matter what we eat? But others are life changing.
Nelson Mandela chose to run off to Johannesburg rather than be forced into an arranged marriage. It was in Johannesburg that he met Walter Sisulu and studied law. Those choices were among many significant decisions Madiba made that have brought us to this point, where his health is not just of passing interest to a few family members, but of deep personal interest to the whole world.
Think for a moment about some of the life changing choices you have made? Whether they were entirely your choice, or forced on you, what were they?
Elijah and Elisha
Our 2 Kings reading, Elijah passing on his charge to Elisha, is a difficult one. I don’t know what to make of the magical elements of the story. Of course, we often just call them miracles and ignore them. But trying to understand what they meant and mean will have to be for another time.
There are parts of the story we don’t understand, and it’s okay to park them for a while and focus on those parts that we do understand, because there are some things that are very clear.
First, Elisha had a choice to follow Elijah. The temptation was to stay behind with the various groups of prophets they passed. It’s a lot easier to stay with what we know.
Then Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s power. That was not to make him twice as powerful as Elijah, but referred to the eldest son’s inheritance. Elisha wanted to fully inherit all that he could as the one who would continue Elijah’s work. He knew that he could not do what he was called to do in his own strength. It would have to come from the power that God had first given to Elijah.
You will receive the power if ….
But Elijah’s response was strange. He said to Elisha, “You will receive the power if you see me as I am being taken away from you; if you don’t see me you won’t receive it.”
Now, what did Elijah mean? We don’t know for sure, but there are I would suggest two things. The first is that, for Elisha to see Elijah taken up into heaven, he would have to stay with Elijah, watch him and learn from him every moment, right to the end. He could never be “off duty”, because that might be the moment that God would come for Elijah.
It reminds us of Jesus telling the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and calling his followers to be vigilant, because “you do not know the day or the hour.”
The second thing that Elijah was saying was that the power to continue God’s work was not Elijah’s to give. That’s perhaps why he began by saying, “It’s a difficult request to grant.” He was, in effect, saying, “It’s not my call. If God grants it to you, so be it. If he doesn’t, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
So he said, “Stay with me. If you are with me to the end, then who knows what God will do.”
To stay or to follow
So Elisha is free to choose. It’s a big choice. Do I leave the safety of the prophet groups where I know what’s happening, where the routines are familiar and I’m not usually out of my depth? Or do I follow this man into an unknown future; one that will require power beyond anything I can manage on my own?
Elisha made his choice.
But when Elijah was taken from him, what fears he must have experienced. Did I do the right thing? When he cried out in fear for Israel’s future, “My father, my father! Mighty defender of Israel! You are gone.” Was there not also some fear for himself? “My father, my mentor! You are gone! I’m on my own.”
Does God go with me?
Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantel that had fallen to ground and went back to the Jordan. And as he stood at the edge of the river, he must have felt like Moses at the edge of the Red sea. Elisha didn’t have Pharaoh’s army behind him, but he had just as much ahead of him; and the same question, “Is God here? Does God go with me?” What could be more clear than God parting the Jordan river for Elisha as he had for Elijah.
You and I don’t usually get that sort of sign (otherwise we’d all be queuing up at the edge of the Dorpspruit), but God does confirm our choices—sometimes in seemingly small things, a verse of scripture, the word of a friend.
We read in Luke 9, that Jesus “set his face to go towards Jerusalem”. Now his disciples had the same kind of choices that Elisha had. Our passage in Luke 9 marks a dramatic divide in Luke’s gospel. Prior to this, Jesus was in Galilee, healing, teaching and building up his disciples. Now, he sets his face towards his true purpose and marches towards the cross.—and the disciples must choose. But if they choose to follow Jesus it’s not simply following his footsteps, but also following his example.
The Samaritans want nothing to do with him. No one going to the festivals at the “heathen” temple down in Jerusalem was welcomed by Samaritans. They didn’t recognise the temple as legitimate. In Jesus’ case, it may have been something more; a sense of his determination that perhaps frightened them?
The disciples, however, still didn’t get it. “How dare they turn you away! Let’s burn them out. Let’s call down fire from heaven, like Elijah did on the false prophets of Baal.” Perhaps they hadn’t yet heard the story of Jesus’ birth; perhaps they didn’t know that being rejected by innkeepers was nothing new.
Their choice drew a strong rebuke from Jesus, who had never been into coercion or revenge.
There were others who wanted to follow Jesus, but when they wanted to tie up loose ends, Jesus’ response to them seems unduly harsh. These weren’t trivial requests. They didn’t want to update their Facebook status or have a last lie down. As one commentator put it, they didn’t want to hold one more party, have one more night of debauchery, one more orgy before giving up their sinful ways. These were genuine needs—things to be done before they left town. But Jesus allowed no compromise: either you follow me, or you don’t. You can’t do both.
It’s not that Jesus was saying that these things, family friends, shelter, are not important, but that our commitment is first to him. Our relationship with the world, including our family and friends, must be seen in the context of our relationship with Jesus, not the other way round. Then we can ask the question, how does my relationship with Jesus affect my relationship with the world around me?
In Galatians 5, Paul takes the issue of choices further. Paul says we are free from slavery. Christ has set us free. But our freedom is not a finished product. We have a daily choice. We can choose Jesus today, or the devil. And we will continue to have that choice every day of our lives.
But the choices we are talking about here are not the big, bold, earth-shattering choices we spoke about earlier; they are the small day-to-day choices we make as we interact with members of our families, with our friends, with our colleagues.
You see, the big choices are about what we do, where we do it and who we do it with. But the day-to-day choices, made in our ordinary everyday conversations and interaction are about who we are, what we become and what we enable others to become.
My first marriage
I made some spectacularly poor choices in my first marriage, which ended up destroying that marriage and damaging the lives of my young family, and many others. But those damaging choices weren’t the big, earth-shattering ones. It wasn’t because I married the wrong girl; it wasn’t because I went to study at Rhodes, or because we moved to Bloemfontein.
There were some spectacular failures, believe me, but the real problem lay with the ordinary day-to-day choices. Choosing impatience instead of patience; choosing rightness over relationship, sarcasm over gentleness, rigid consistency in place of simply enjoying each other. Choices made in the ordinary everyday interactions of husband and wife, father and sons.
That’s where I failed. I learned the habits of impatience, of anger, of hurtful, harmful behaviour that Paul says results in destruction. There were no drunken orgies, but the jealousy, anger and ambition, which Paul describes, grew with every choice I made.
“But the fruit of the Spirit,” Paul tells us, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (or humility), and self-control.”
The fruit of the Spirit
The fruit of the Spirit isn’t a “fruit suit” like a Superman or Batman outfit. It’s not something we put on when we meet Jesus and we become this spiritual superhero. The fruit of the Spirit is something that grows in us day by day, step by step as we learn to choose Jesus each and every moment, as we learn to choose Jesus in each and every interaction, as we learn to choose Jesus in each and every conversation.
What would love look like in this interaction?
What if I chose joy instead of negativity right now?
What if I offered peace instead of fighting for my rights in this confrontation?
What if I listened with patience for moment, instead of rushing off to my important life?
What if I chose kindness, instead of trying to “teach a lesson.”
I remember a friend telling me the story of when she was a child, travelling in the family car on holiday, she lost a facecloth out of the window of the car.
“Stop! Stop!” she cried. But, like too many of us, her dad refused to stop for a mere facecloth. But, of course, it wouldn’t have been for a facecloth; it would have been for a child, and to build a relationship. What if we gave kindness a chance?
We practice harsh rebukes because they make us look strong and they stop people taking advantage of us. What if we practiced gentleness? Jesus didn’t seem to think that being understood was particularly important; and he didn’t seem to worry about people taking advantage of him.
What if we held ourselves back and refused to react to perceived threats to our pride and authority. What if we learned to prize self-control more than we prize self?
This isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally to us, because we’ve been trained so intensely in the way of the world: in self-preservation, in rightness rather than intimacy. Making these choices means stopping midstride, midsentence, and inviting the Spirit to help us choose our very next words, our facial expression, our actions—words and actions that will bring the Spirit of Jesus into this conversation, this relationship, this life.
“The Spirit gives us life;” Paul says. “He must also control our lives.” Let him worry about the outcomes and implications
We parents so often worry about our children leaning important lessons in life. But what are the really important lessons?
Never trust anyone?
Look after number one?
Or nurture the fruit of the Spirit in your life and in your relationships.
“For what our human nature wants is opposed to what the Spirit wants, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to what our human nature wants.”
What will you choose today?
- Elijah and the widow of Zarephath: A sermon (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)