Sunday, 30 June 2013

Who speaks for God?

2 Kings 2:1-14

Elijah is one of the greats in the bible.

God called him to be his representative in a dark world.

It was hard. He did not have an easy message to speak. It did not make him popular.

He challenged the people to stop wavering between following God and following Baal, a non-existent pagan god; to stop choosing between this god now and that god then.
He confronted the whole religious establishment of the time because they misrepresented God.
He even challenged King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He declared God's judgement on them because they had introduced pagan worship into the life of Isael.

King Ahab describes him as 'my enemy', and as 'the troubler of Israel'.

And God confirmed his words in the way that he answered Elijah's prayers: he caused a drought for 3 years; he brought down fire from heaven; he raised a widow's son from the dead; he made the waters part – just like Moses or Joshua.

Today we read how the mantle of Elijah literally falls on Elisha.

Let's see how it is worked out in the passage:

Elijah goes to Bethel (v2) and then to Jericho (v4) and then to the river Jordan (v7). He takes his cloak, strikes the water and the waters part (v8). Elijah does things like that. He crosses the Jordan, is separated from Elisha by the horses and chariots of fire and is taken away in a whirlwind (v11). As he ascends, his cloak falls to the ground (v13). Elisha picks up the cloak, and then does the journey in reverse. He goes back to the river Jordan, strikes the water and the waters part (v14). He returns to Jericho (v18) and then to Bethel (v23).

And the key verse for this chapter is verse 15, when the prophets meet Elisha by the river Jordan and say, 'The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha'.

We are being shown here that Elisha is the new Elijah: he is now the one who is called to represent God and to speak for God.

God has prepared him for this work

1. He knows that God has called him to this work.

God called him - through Elijah - to be a prophet (1 Kings 19:16).

A prophet is one who sees things as God sees them, who understands reality as God understands it, and who therefore can speak for God.

Do you notice that Elijah doesn't actually go up to heaven in the chariots of fire? The chariots of fire separate him from Elisha, and then he goes up to heaven in the whirlwind (v11).

But in v12, we are told three simple words, 'Elisha sees it'.
It is probable that if others had been there they would not have seen the chariots or horses of fire.

In 2 Kings 6:15-17, Elisha and his servant are in a city which is besieged. The servant despairs. And so Elisha prays and says, 'O Lord please open his eyes that he may see'. And God answers Elisha's prayer and the servant sees, 'and behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha'.

So God has called Elisha to do the work of a prophet, and God has given him eyes to see.

2. God prepares him for this work by calling him to be a servant, an apprentice, to Elijah.

In 2 Kings 3:11, Elisha is described 'as the one who washed Elijah's hands'.

Before he can exercise his ministry he needs to learn to be obedient.

It is very important that if you are going to be used by God for great things, that you have learnt not simply to do the work of a servant - but to have the heart of a servant.

And in being Elijah's servant he was trained by Elijah - not in the sense that Elijah sat down with him and taught him, but in the sense that he lived with Elijah. He saw Elijah in action. He saw what Elijah was like when he got up in the morning, when he was depressed, when he was stressed, when he was decisive. He saw Elijah's outer life and he was able to glimpse Elijah's inner life.

He learned by watching Elijah. We see that happening in our passage. When Elijah has gone, and Elisha comes to the water, we see the student who has learned from his teacher. He does exactly what he has seen Elijah do a few minutes earlier.

3. God prepares Elisha for this great work by giving him a deep hunger for the spirit of God.

Elisha knows that God is going to take Elijah.
The prophets in Bethel tell him it will happen (v3).
The prophets in Jericho tell him it will happen (v5).

And on three different occasions Elijah asks Elisha to stay behind. And on three separate occasions, Elisha refuses

He refuses, I think, because he loves him. He loves him as a son loves a father. When Elijah is taken, he cries, 'my father, my father' (v12). And he is going to stay by Elijah to the very end.
But he refuses, and this is more important, because Elisha knows that he needs the spirit of Elijah which is the presence of God.
So when Elijah asks him, 'What do you want?', he says, 'Give me a double portion of your spirit?' (He is not being greedy. It was the way of saying, 'make me your heir'. It was the heir who received the double portion at the feast to celebrate the inheritance).
Elisha knows he cannot do anything without the spirit of Elijah, without the God of Elijah. So when he comes to the water and strikes the water, he cries out, 'Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?'

And as the waters part, and he crosses the waters, so the prophets recognise that, 'The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha'.

Elisha is the one who now represents, speaks for, God

Who speaks for God today?

Popes, archbishops, bishops, church councils, vicars?

The message of the New Testament is that each person who is a follower of Jesus Christ can speak for God.

Just as Elijah went up in the whirlwind, so Jesus Christ went up when he ascended. Just as Elijah's cloak fell to the ground, so Jesus said that if he went to his Father in heaven, he would send his Spirit to come on all who believe in him.

And so as Christians

1. You need to know that you have been called to represent God, to speak for God

We have been called to be, in the words of Peter, 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light' (1 Peter 2:9).
When you became a Christian, God opened your eyes. You had been spiritually blind. You now can begin to spiritually see.

People will often say this: Now that I am a Christian, the bible comes alive for me; I see things in a completely different way.

We live in a world which is blind.

When we lived in St Petersburg we had the privilege of going regularly into the Hermitage and seeing some remarkable paintings. People came from all over the world to look at them. They were amazed at the shapes, the use of colour, the proportions and the beauty of the paintings. And they praised the painters: da Vinci, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Picasso.
And then they came out and walked along the bank of the frozen river Neva, and they looked at the little figures walking across the river on the ice paths, and at the sun reflecting off the ice. It was a haunting evocative picture.

But they were blind.

We stand amazed in front of human masterpieces, but we are blind to the divine masterpiece that is in front of our eyes every day of every year. Look at the smallest flower; look at the night sky, look at your neighbour. Each person here is far more amazing, far more incredible than any Turner, Renoir or Matisse.

As followers of Jesus, God has begun to open our eyes so that we can begin to glimpse this world with the eyes of God

- so that we see this world as his world
- so that we can see ourselves and others with the eyes of God: created and precious to him, beloved by him;
- so that we can see our sin with the eyes of God: not just as something that messes us up and messes other people up, but as an act of rebellion against God and as something that eternally separates us from God;
- so that we see Jesus Christ with the eyes of God: not simply as a Palestinian peasant who went around doing good and was unjustly crucified, but as his eternal Son who loved us and died for our sins;
- so that we can begin to see events and circumstances in the light of the promises of God.

We are called to be people who see 'chariots and horses of fire'. That same vision is given to the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 1, he sees the vision of one who rides a chariot of fire.

And having seen, we are called to speak, to declare reality as it really is.

Some people may see into the future.
Some people may see into the hearts of men and women.
That may be part of prophecy but it is not the heart of prophecy.

Prophets are people whose mind has been taught and shaped by the bible, who see reality with the eyes of God - and who then speak.

2. If we are to be representatives of God, then we need our Elijah’s

Elisha needed his Elijah

Can I suggest to those of you who are younger in the faith that you need to find an Elijah - not necessarily someone to serve, but someone to learn from. Find an Elijah who will commit to spending time with you, to read the bible together with you, to help you see reality from God's perspective, to pray for you. Seek out a genuine god-father or god-mother.

And can I suggest to those of you who are older in the faith that you should be seeking your Elisha. You’ve been round the block quite a few times. You’ve sat under a bible teaching ministry for many years. You should be someone who not only feeds on the word of God, but someone who feeds others with the word of God. Maybe you need to pray that you have the courage to go to someone and say, ‘Would you like to meet so that we can look together at the bible and pray together?’

3. If we are to be representatives of God then, like Elijah, we need to hunger after the Spirit of God, and hunger for more of God.

Elisha knew that he could do nothing, let alone part the water, without the Spirit of God.

Without God we are blind and empty and powerless

We cannot understand a bible passage in the right way without the Holy Spirit
We cannot change a single sinful habit in our life without the Holy Spirit
We cannot remain faithful in the face of ridicule or opposition or temptation or suffering without the Holy Spirit
We certainly cannot convert a single person without the Holy Spirit

Elijah knew that he could not promise Elisha the gift of the Spirit. It was not his to give. Only God can give His Spirit. All he can say is that if Elisha sees him being taken from him, then it will be as he requests.

But with Jesus it is different. Jesus has promised that because he goes to the Father he will give us his Spirit. He has promised that if we come to him and ask him, he will give us his Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to an astonishing task and an awesome privilege.

Walking hand in hand with each other, like Elijah and Elisha, and walking in the power of the Spirit, you are called to be a light of God in this dark world.

You are called to be a representative of the living God in this blind world.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

What happens when we don't get what we want?

1 Kings 21:1-21

I’m going to go quite deep today.

What happens when we don’t get what we want?

It could be that:

You love someone – but they don’t love you or they are out of bounds
 I like the story that is told of the man walking along the street with a friend when he sees the most stunning woman walking along the pavement on the other side of the road. He follows her with greedy eyes. His friend sighs, and says, ‘married with three children’. ‘What?’ said the man, ‘with a figure like that, she can’t be?’ ‘No you idiot’, said his friend, ‘you are!’

We long to have children, but it is not possible
We long to be cured, but there is no cure
We long to be wealthy or famous
We desperately want a new job or promotion at work
We want to move – but it is just not happening
We want something, but it is out of our reach

It is hard for us today because we live in a world which tells us that everything is possible.

The X-factor tells us that we can become celebrities.
Advertisements tell us that our sex lives can be fantastic and we can have whoever we want.
The lottery tells us we can become mega-rich. ‘It could be you’.
Even in our Christian circles we promote Christian celebrities and tell people that they can become spiritual super-heroes.

The motto is, ‘Think big and you will become big.’

That may be true in the virtual world, where we can be who we want, do what we want and have what we want. We can be a model, a super hero, and it does not matter if we die.

But there comes a moment when we realise that reality is not like that.

And the danger is that when we do not get what we want, if the want is big, we end up doing things or living in a way that ultimately destroys us.
James, who was the brother of Jesus, wrote “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)

We see that happening in our bible reading today

King Ahab wants a vegetable garden.

Next to his palace was a vineyard. Ahab thought, ‘That vineyard would make a great vegetable garden’. So he goes to the owner and asks if he could buy the vineyard: ‘I’ll give you a good price’, he said, ‘or a better vineyard. Name your price.’

But the owner, a man called Naboth, did not wish to sell. He is a man of integrity. He believed that the land he held was not his to sell. It had been given to his family by God many years earlier, and he held it in trust.

The story could and should have ended there. Ahab had wanted something; he had made an offer; the offer was refused.

But it doesn’t.

No doubt it was made worse because Naboth, a commoner, had refused him.  It was humiliating. 'How dare he tell me that God doesn’t allow it? Who does he think really matters here: an invisible god or a very visible and powerful king?'

And instead of letting it go, his desire to possess that vegetable garden began to possess him.

In the story of Ahab, we see how a frustrated desire can bring death in two ways.

1. It paralyses our lives.

We end up tearing ourselves into pieces.

That is what happened to Ahab. He doesn’t let it go and it gets bigger and bigger. It eats him up. He withdraws, he refuses to eat and he sulks.

We react in different ways when we don’t get what we want:
Some of us are Violet Elizabeth Botts. When she doesn’t get her way, she screams and screams and screams until she makes herself sick.
Some of us are Veruca Salts. When she doesn’t get her way, she has a tantrum.

When I don’t get my own way, I have a pity party and I sulk. I sulk because I want those around me to know and appreciate how much I am suffering, because I don’t have what I want. And if my life is miserable, then their life should also be miserable.

But a frustrated desire can bring death in another way:

2. It can lead us to do what is wrong, to destroy others and ultimately ourselves.

We see that so clearly here. One sin leads to another to another.

Jezebel is Ms 2013. She has been taught to stand up for herself, to believe in herself and to get what she wants. She would be great on the Apprentice

She tells Ahab to stop being such a wimp: ‘Is this how the king behaves?’

And then Jezebel swings into action. Her assumption is that kings and queens should get what they want. And it doesn’t matter how she gets it. She breaks, I calculate, at least 4 commandments. She misuses the name of God (she calls a religious fast), she bears false witness (she arranges for people to tell lies about Naboth), she murders and she steals.
I’m sure she justified herself. Most of us usually do. She is not doing it for herself. She is doing it for Ahab. And even if the technicalities are slightly stretched, Naboth deserves to die because he has refused the wishes of the king.

The warning light should go on when our desire for something or someone begins to take us to places where we know we should not go. It is when we draw a red line in the sand, cross it, and then draw another red line in the sand – a bit further on. And if, because of what you desire or want, you begin to conspire or tell lies, deceive or betray someone, or simply become secretive – please take another look at the thing that you want.

Perhaps we say, ‘But I would never go to the lengths that Jezebel went. I would not steal, let alone murder’.
Well hold on a moment. If, for instance, you want something or someone that somebody else has, then in your heart, for the sake of what you want, you are wishing them dead. They stand in the way to your getting what you want.

The 10th commandment states, ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbour’s house, his field (or vineyard), or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s’.

Why? Because – even though we may not have the guts, ability or the drive of a Jezebel – we have the heart of a Jezebel. If we desire what another person has, we wish them dead.

That is ultimately destructive.
It leads to the destruction of Naboth and, we are told later, his family.
It also finally leads to the destruction of Ahab and his family. God says to Ahab, ‘I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel’ (1 Kings 21:21).
And in 2 Kings 9, what God says will happen, does happen. Ahab dies in battle and the dogs lick up his blood from the chariot; his male heirs are all killed, and Jezebel is thrown from a top window, and the dogs eat her body.

It is tragic. Something so small, so inconsequential – a king desiring a vegetable garden – leads, step by step, to something so destructive

How do we handle it when we do not get what we want?

1. Remember that there is judgement: everyone is accountable.

That might sound quite negative – but when we are dealing with our desires, and especially with those desires which ‘lead us into temptation’ – it can be quite helpful to remind ourselves that there is a judgement.

We are all accountable before God. We will all have to stand in judgement before him.

Ahab was, humanly speaking, one of the greatest kings of Israel. He completed major building projects. His reign was long and his influence reached far and wide.

The problem with power and success is that it tempts us to think that we are untouchable. We think that laws are for the little folk, and do not apply to people like me.

That is why, I suspect, there are so many cases of corruption involving political leaders. It is not that their heart is any different to ours. It is just that, because other people always turn to them, they have come to think that they are different.

But God sees everything.

At the moment the media is all in a state because it has been revealed that spies might be intercepting our phone calls, accessing our facebook site (lucky them!) and reading our emails. I have to say that I am astonished that anybody thought anything differently.

Nothing is absolutely secret.

And even if the authorities don’t see what we do, God does see what we do. He sees every website we click on, every email we write, every thought we think. Jesus warns us that what we whisper in the bedroom will be proclaimed from the rooftops.

So if we are tempted to step over the line to get what we want, stop and think. There is a big red traffic light! You may be able to get away with it here, but you won’t be able to get away with it in the final judgement.

2. We can ask God to give us the gift of contentment with what we have and who we are.

In 1 Timothy 6:6-8, Paul writes, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain ... But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content’.

And he writes in Philippians – when he is in prison – that he has ‘learned in whatever situation I am to be content’ (Philippians 4:11).

The gift of contentment is very precious.

It begins with the recognition that God has made me to be the person he made me, that he put me where he put me and that he has given me what he has given me. And because he loves me, who I am, where I am and what I have is OK!

If Ahab had only been able to see that, he would not have needed to allow his desire for Naboth’s plot of land to grip him.

You wanted to have children, but were never able to have them: don’t live your life full of regrets, but give thanks to God for what he did give you – and for the fact that you are worth everything to him.

You love that person who is unobtainable: thank God for them, but ask him to give you the grace to move on, to realise it is just hormones in you (that is easier said than done), and to thank him that – even if you never meet someone who is obtainable - you are not a lesser person but you are beloved by him.

Yes, we need to develop the gifts that he has given us and we need to grow to become the people he made us to be - but we don’t need to be striving to become some fantasy that we are not. He made you to be you, and he loves you as you.

3. We need to learn to direct our desires, especially if they are for things we cannot have, toward the right thing.

James writes, ‘What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions’ (James 4:1-3)

Desire is not wrong. God made us to love and to want.
What is so often wrong is what we desire.

We need to examine ourselves and ask: ‘What is it that I am really seeking?’

What was it that Ahab really wanted when he wanted that vegetable garden so badly that he turned a blind eye to what Jezebel was doing?

Maybe – in the desire for a vegetable garden - we are looking to satisfy our longing to be doing something creative or useful, or to be independent, or to be able to get out of the house, or to .. I don’t know. I’m not into the psychology of gardening. If I have a choice between digging and ASDA, ASDA wins every day!

Let me put it this way. At our deepest level, we desire significance and value, meaning and fulfilment; we desire beauty, power, love and eternity. Those are good things to desire. But if we think that those desires will be satisfied if we get rich, or become a celebrity, or have a sexually exciting partner, or gain promotion, or live in a bigger house (with a vegetable garden!) – then we have got it very wrong indeed.

It was the conviction of the women and men who did renounce the things of this world, to live in monastic communities or on the very edge of things as hermits, that as we get to know God, so we will find that our deepest desires are satisfied in him -  and so we will be set increasingly free from the desire for those other things.

One of the ways to handle it when we don’t get what we want is to come to God and to ask him for that wisdom which enables me to see what it is that I really want. Why do I want that person, that Aston Martin, that house and that vegetable garden?  And then we can bring those deeper desires to God.

The story would have been so different if Ahab had turned to God and prayed, ‘ My Father who loves me, I so much wanted that vineyard. Help me to see why I wanted it so much – and would you please satisfy that deeper desire in me.’

James continues in chapter 4, ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you’. (James 4:6-8)

What happens when we don’t get what we want? 
I do hope that some of what I have taught is helpful, but it is a huge subject and there is so much more that could have been said.

But it is also critical. We see how many Christians shipwreck their faith because they don’t get what they want, and it either eats them up or it leads them to destroy others.

And I am stressing this because the statistical certainty is that there are people like Ahab here. We know who we are, and we know what it is that we want, and we know that we can’t have it.  And we really need to deal with it. We need to let it go. Because if we don’t it will destroy other people and it will ultimately destroy us.