11th Sunday after Pentecost
II Kings 6:1-23
There is a calm in Elisha, a confident, peaceful calm in Elisha that is very different from his mentor, Elijah. Elijah was all drama! Mt. Carmel. Israel gathered to watch. Goading the priests of Baal. Calling down fire from heaven on his sacrifice. Drama! Lots of drama!
Then at Mt. Horeb/Sinai, Elijah plunges to the depths of woe. He’s ready to die! “Take my life, O Lord, I am no better than my fathers.” More drama! From the heights of glory to the depths of agony, when Elijah was up, he was really, really up! When he was down, he was unbearable. What a ride! No wonder it all ended with that flaming chariot. Drama!
Not so much with Elisha. He’s more like one of Clint Eastwood’s characters in his westerns, or the old “Dirty Harry” movies. Elisha never loses his cool. He never sweats. Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Except Elisha, like Harry, doesn’t seem to have any limitations. When he acts, it’s with that disciplined look which says, “Go ahead, make my day.” So what is Elisha’s secret?
One big reason for the difference between Elijah and Elisha is that the two of them are different men, with different personalities. Elijah is of a more volatile personality, while Elisha is more even-keeled. It’s like in the New Testament, Barnabas is the Elisha to Paul’s Elijah, or Andrew to his own brother Simon Peter. Very different men, with very different personalities, even while they all bear the same calling of service to God.
It is a great disservice toward the wonder of individuality within the Christian faith and life when being Christian gets squeezed into a cookie-cutter paradigm by forces both inside and outside the Church. As if to be Christian is to become a kind of Stepford character, where everyone has to speak with an American evangelical-ish vocabulary, genuflect with every touchdown or homerun or soccer goal, plaster John 3:16 on every public space, or slap a fish on the back of your car.
Why, the sheer fact that satirists and stand-up comedians have a wealth of immediately recognizable material when it comes to portraying Christians shows how thoroughly we have turned ourselves into a caricature.
In truth, the life of Christian faith is so much more varied and profound from person to person to person than anything portrayed on popular television or by the stereotypes among the oh-so-hip-and-trendy mega-church crowd. We can see this rich variety simply from the people of faith in the Bible…like Elijah and Elisha!
And if we begin to see, then perhaps we can understand. The secret which could unite such disparate personalities as Elijah and Elisha in the singularity of their prophet’s call was not a sameness in how they talk or dress or act, a uniformity in their faith. No! Elisha’s secret, as was true for Elijah, as is true today, is found in the singularity of what the singular God is doing…for us.
The mid-20th c. German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose single-minded devotion was not of his own creation, but the gift of Him who had taken hold of the man, namely, Jesus the Christ; Bonhoeffer wrote presciently about the Church’s affliction today:
God hates visionary dreaming, he wrote bluntly. It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself…. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Bonhoeffer points out, God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ…. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. [Bonhoeffer, Life Together]
One Body. One Christ. One Lord. Not our doing. His! For Elijah, St. Paul, St. Peter, Martin Luther and others like them, faith would show up in such volatile ways. For the likes of Elisha, Barnabas, Andrew, or the soft-spoken martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, their focus is the same—one God, one faith—and yet in them, this faith is revealed in such even-handed ways and calming lives.
And in Jesus, we see it all! There is the Jesus who is so peaceable that He “will not cry aloud in the streets or snuff out a smoldering wick.” There’s the Jesus who is so volatile that He drives the thieves from His temple with a whip, read the Pharisees the riot act, and split the darkening Friday sky with His loud cries! In Jesus the whole compass of human personality is at home, and reveals the whole gamut of what God has given in Christ.
And there is a lot of Jesus in Elisha’s story, as here in chapter 6—with echoes of the wedding at Cana in Galilee, where a wine shortage has Mary pestering her Son with the problem, and Jesus rather dismissive of her efforts…and yet by it St. John teaches us how Jesus reveals so much abundance about life in the kingdom!
So here in this chapter, v1, a routine building project, a careless carpenter, v5, and a borrowed, valuable axe head falls into the river. V6, Then the man of God [Elisha] said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it.
A waste of a miracle? Hardly an event worth noting in the Bible! And yet this is what faith looks like. There’s no speech about the glory of God, only an act of kindness for a neighbor in need.
And then the episode of blindness in the rest of the chapter. It is a passage worthy of St. John’s literary artistry, where blindness and sight seamlessly become metaphors for unbelief and faith.
In vv8-10, it’s the Syrians again. Elisha has a sense, an intuition, an awareness beyond what is natural concerning the deeds of the Syrian king. V10, the king of Israel is pleased to have this insider information. V11, the king of Syria thinks he has a spy! “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel.”
V12, the powerful cannot see, but the servants do. “It’s Elisha,” they say. So the king sets out to capture Elisha. This time, unlike Elijah’s dramatic capture, where fire falls from heaven on the would-be captors, with Elisha, it ends in a humorous grace!
V13, Elisha is at Dothan. The Syrian forces arrive at night, v14, and surround the city. It looks bad for Elisha! V15, When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”
The servant sees, and what he sees fills him with fear! But he does not see all that he could see…all that Elisha sees…which would cast out the fear. V16, [Elisha] said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Elisha’s calm is not about Elisha! It rests on God. Elisha’s confidence is in God, not in his own faith! Even when one’s eyes say otherwise, such faith knows, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Not because one’s own faith is so great, but the Lord God, in whom one believes, He is great. This gives Elisha a different sight; a calm, clearer eye, than his servant.
Well, then there is this humorous turn of events. V19, the Syrians are struck blind by God. Elisha tells them, “Follow me, I’ll get you to where you need to go!” And they follow…right into the center of Israel’s capitol city, Samaria. Then the captured soldiers suddenly regain their sight.
And what do they see? Imminent death? If the king of Israel had his way, yes. V21, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” But Elisha sees what the king does not; that God has given these men into their hands. So he commands the king to feed his prisoners, treat them well, and then let them go. And that was the end of Syrian raids on Israel.
In the darkest days of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer wrote, “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc [with us]… With the best intentions and a naïve lack of realism, [we] think that with a little zeal we can bend back into position the framework that has got out of joint….like a bull who rushes at the red cloak instead of the person holding it…. Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his own reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue [or the trappings of a cultural or counter-cultural Christianity], but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who makes his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.” Bonhoeffer asks, sadly, “Where are these responsible people?”
These, too, are trying times. But they are no more so than they were for Herr Bonhoeffer…or for Elisha. It’s not attitude that’s gonna save us—neither a hip-trendy attitude nor a chip-on-our-shoulder, defiant attitude; neither a passive nor an aggressive attitude—it is not the strength or weakness of our attitude or our faith, that will save us. Elisha knew. Bonhoeffer, too. It’s God; God in Christ, who saves us.
And God does not need geniuses or clever tacticians…but plain, honest, straightfoward men and women who hear His voice, and who, in hearing, do whatever faith finds at hand to do. Like Elisha, it could be as grand as capturing an army and then setting them free…or as routine as rescuing an axe head lost in a river. After all, even God does not despise humanity. He became man for man’s sake. And blessed are the eyes which see what that means!