Don't Look Back
I don't know about you but I find God a right royal pain in the neck sometimes. To be honest He really doesn't have much of a grasp on real life.
He might be God but it's clear to me that He doesn't understand about the important things in life.
This passage in 1 Kings is clear evidence of His unreasonableness. In fact if God and us were married, His behaviour would be reasonable grounds for divorce. He demands so much from poor Elisha, or maybe it's not really God who's making unreasonable demands but His over eager prophet Elijah taking things into His own hands.
That's the problem with the church isn't it. Leaders getting a bit over eager and making really unreasonable demands on unsuspecting good hearted Christians. All church leaders want seems to be more and more of your time and more and more of your money. Right?
The more reasonable way to be a Christian would be a moderate mixture of part offering of ourselves to serving God, and partly just getting on with a normal life. After all, what good are we if we're so focussed on God that we miss out on living in the real world like 'normal' people?
In other words ... we should be allowed to just have our cake and eat it. To keep the best and normal parts of everyday life, as well as having the best bits of following Jesus.
There's school, work, studies, money, family, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, marriage, children, pensions, bills, ambition, success, planning, travelling, entertainment, leisure, eating, drinking, socialising, sport, fitness, DIY, gardening, car maintenance, ...the list goes on. We all have so many responsibilities in the world that any sensible God and indeed Church leader will first of all recognise this and then when they've taken all this on board modify their expectations of us in what they ask and expect of us as we take part in the life of the church.
Er .... massively wrong sadly.
Half baked christians offering half hearted service and half time commitments experience far less than half the relationship with God.
We've got this tiny and particularly odd passage in 1 Kings 19 which appears at first glance as utterly irrelevant. However, I'd suggest that this is an incredibly powerful passage which ought to change utterly how you think about your relationship with God.
Elijah is the last prophet standing. He's the only god fearing, god-honest, mouthpiece for God in a world full of evil kings and individuals intent on turning their backs on the true and living God in favour of gods of their own making or who fulfil the desires of their hearts in other ways.
Elijah is God's servant. Prophets don't get much money, they don't get many friends and they don't get to choose what goes down. They do as they're told ... told by God. What God says goes ... no matter how unreasonable, how unpleasant, how difficult or how deadly. God says jump and they jump. It's not glamourous or fun ... but it does generate quite a lot of fear and respect. Elijah is the last one still committed to God, or still alive!
God tells him to appoint a new king and a new prophet to succeed him. Now here's the thing. If you were the mouthpiece of God, the ONLY mouthpiece of God, with the fear and respect that generates among the people around you, if you had the attention of kings, the power to appoint kings and bring kings down, if you had an audience with God on a holy mountain and the power of the living God coursed through you in days before the Holy Spirit was available to all ... would you share that with another? I think not!
I think, if you're anything like me, then you'd keep that to yourself. God would say "Go and appoint a successor" and you'd say "Yes, of course .... oh, hang on a minute ... that means I'm about to lose my position, my power, my pride! ... No way!"
Elijah is God's servant ... with a servant heart. God says jump, he says "how high?". Go says "Go!" and he goes, God says "Stop!" and he stops. He knows nothing except the voice of God and a life of total joyful obedience. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away ... blessed be the name of the Lord!
I wonder how many of us would be this willing to just let go of such a position? In contrast, how many of us seek positions of authority or what we like to call 'service' in the church because of the power, the status, the pride which we gain. ok, there might be little money, there might be little entertainment, but there is no mistaking the fact that serving in the church can be a quick trip down to power hungry junction and prideful avenue.
Christian service needs to be about one thing and one thing only ... serving God no matter what, and no matter why!
Poor Elisha is about to find this out ... the hard way.
God has told Elijah who to appoint ... the poor guy doesn't even get to choose himself. He just has to hand over this mantle of power to whoever God says ... no matter who, no matter why. So Elijah goes and he finds his unsuspecting successor in a field with his neighbours, his family perhaps, his friends ... his community who are reliant on each other, working as one to produce a communal harvest. 12 pairs of cattle being driven by 12 farmers. The field must have been pretty large, capable of producing a large crop for the whole village perhaps. Elisha was driving the last set of cattle, pulling the last plough, creating the last furrow. Elisha was part of something, something important, something necessary, something which would entail the survival of his friends, his family, his neighbours ... himself. He was a provider, ... he was important and his job was equally so.
The cattle were expensive, the yoke they were tied to had perhaps been used for generations, smoothed through regular annual use to fit the cattle comfortable and well, allowing them to pull the plough efficiently and without causing them damage. The yoke, the plough, the cattle - all vital resources to a simple community who relied on a good harvest to survive, and on healthy cattle to produce the fertile field - and skilled farmers to drive them well and look after them properly. This is who Elisha was, and this was the equipment he owned and operated. He had power, he had position, he had responsibility, he had skill, he had it all.
And then Elijah comes along!
Like Jesus calling his disciples so Elijah calls Elisha. The ploughs have carefully made the furrows and this Elisha is keeping in line with the others, ploughing beautifully parallel lines in the heavy soil, proud of the beautiful pattern being left behind him and the 11 others he's working in unison with - enjoying the sunshine, the birds, the fresh air, the teamwork ... and from the side of the field a madman is running across all their hard work. Footprints trampling on the furrows, tilled soil being flattened and hard work being destroyed - the rest of the team perhaps shouting angrily at this idiot vandallising their harvest and removing his cloak. The cloak of the prophet of God, Elijah ... the shouts turning silent the angry looks now becoming worried ... this is the man who caused it not to rain for 3 and a half years - this is the man who preaches trouble and trouble comes, who preaches life and life comes, who preaches death and ... well, their thoughts certainly weren't on the ploughing anymore they were focussed entirely on this man running across their field and now their whole world was on pause, their hopes of a good harvest suddenly insignificant. With a relief they see him focussed on the man at the back of the pack, Elisha and with a bizarre twist they see Elijah swinging his cloak in a wide arc and throwing it around Elisha's shoulders. This must be something good - no death today perhaps ... but what does it mean?
All or nothing
For Elisha it means a total change of life. Utter, complete, and uncompromising unreasonable. Everything is about to be lost. All hopes, dreams, riches, skills, status, responsibilities, relationships - it's all about to go up in smoke ... literally.
Elisha knows what the cloak around his shoulders means - the smell, the feel, the weight - the smell of years of ministry absorbed into the fibres of this cloak, the fit of the cloak used to Elijah's shoulders now fitting onto differently shaped bone structure and musculature, the weight of the responsibility and the power which is represents all bearing down upon the unfamiliar frame of Elisha - the passing on of ministry from one to another.
This is the cloak not just of Elijah's authority to speak the words of God, but the cloak which Elijah hid his face in when God passed by - the very thing which stood between the Lord Almighty and a frail human being from being consumed by His fearsome holiness.
What have I done?
There is a strange response of Elisha's request to kiss his mum and dad goodbye. Elijah apears immediately consumed with regret. He cries out "what have I done?!" in horror at what has just happened perhaps. And why not. Elijah more than any other knows not just the spiritual enormity of what Elisha is being called to but also the personal cost and the emotional heartache which goes hand in hand with serving the Lord in a broken world. Elisha wants to say goodbye to his family, a reasonable and healthy desire ... but he can't! He must follow immediately and wholeheartedly or not at all. Elijah has already thrown the mantle on him, the cloak has been Elisha's annointing, he is now the Lord's and not his own. Elijah knows how much this will cost him, physically, financially, socially and emotionally.
Elijah's unfinished business
In the beginning of 1 Kings 19 we see Elijah meeting with God on the mountain and God telling him to go and annoint a new king for Syria, a new king for Israel and a new prophet to succeed him. Elijah only does one of these things ... the annointing of Elisha. It is Elisha who then later annoints the two new kings. Was God's word wrong then? Did God tell Elijah to do something he knew he wouldn't do? That would be wierd. ...Or perhaps God views our ministries in a larger context. God doesn't see us as individuals but as community. Perhaps our self-centred ideas about ourselves and our power trips and self seeking aren't part of God's view of who we are and the ministries we perform. Just maybe, when we serve God we do so as part of a larger body of people and what we do is only part of a larger whole. Perhaps in God's eyes the things I begin someone else can finish off ... if I'm willing to let the ministry be God's and not mine ... if I'm willing to see that actually it is God who raises up and appoints and annoints kings and prophets and not me myself. Perhaps then it is more of a case of doing as much as I can obediently.
In your service of the Lord will you be willing to let go as you are to take up? Will you be willing to step forward whenever he calls as much as you'd be willing to step back when he calls someone else? Will you give your heart and soul to a ministry which ultimately isn't actually yours, but the whole community's ... or rather ... the Lord's?