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Monday, July 1, 2013

The decision

2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62

At the heart of Christian life is the decision, the decision to follow Jesus.  When you were confirmed in baptism you made promises to God, to yourself, to the church.  You promised to turn from evil, to embrace Christ, and to give yourself over to God for whatever God should will and wish for your life.

Baptism represents a crucial moment of decision.  A decision to accept God's call on your life, a decision to be crucified with Christ to all that maims and destroys, a decision to be raised with Christ to a higher mode of being all together, a life more alive.  But being baptised is no guarantee that the decision will hold.  It is God's pledge to you, and yours to God.  But, just like a marriage vow, the pledge of baptism is not worth the paper it's written on unless the parties to the vow choose, and re-choose, and re-choose again to be faithful to what they have promised.

The drama of choosing and re-choosing is evoked marvellously in the story we read just now about  Elijah and Elisha.  Here we find them going on their last journey together, a journey which ranges not just from Gilgal and Bethel, to Jericho and the Jordan, but also through the mythic story of God's dealings with the people of Israel.  When Elijah declares that he will leave Gilgal and journey to Bethel, Elisha knows that he is being presented with a fundamental vocational choice: to either take up the mantle of his master, or to lay it down in refusal.  You may recall that Bethel was the place where the patriarch Jacob wrestled with God during a dark night of decision.  The editors of 2 Kings invoke that connection because they want us to know that Elisha is approaching a struggle of equally epic proportions.  Like Jacob, God has called Elisha to serve him.  But that service is not an easy one.  The easier path will always be to run away from what God has ordained.  In the story we read, Elisha chooses to go with his master, which represents a first step on the journey to his destiny.

But having made the choice, the choosing is not over.  For having arrived at Bethel, Elijah then announces that he will be moving on to Jericho.  Again Elisha is confronted with the choice:  should I stay or should I go?  Should I stay here in the safety of my brother prophets, or should I follow this man into whatever strange paths God may have planned?  The allusion to Jericho as a destination gives us a little clue about the kind of plans God has in mind for Elisha.  He will follow after the way of Joshua, the man who crossed the Jordan to take possession of the land of Canaan for the Hebrew people.  His mission will be to close down the rule of might and establish the law of justice, to oppose the worship of idols and champion the worship of Yahweh.   Again, we read that Elisha chooses to follow his master.

But even then the choosing is not over!  When Elijah announces that he will move on toward the Jordan river, Elisha must choose once more.  Will he take on the mantle not only of Jacob and Joshua, but also of Moses, the one who confronted the power of Pharaoh and led the people to freedom through the Red Sea? Will he be the one who confronts the political powers of his own time with the message of God?  Will he be the courageous one, the man who holds the law of God to be higher than any other power, even that of the civil authorities?  Will he be the one who is willing to lay down even his own life for God's cause?

Well, the penultimate moment of decision arrives when, having crossed the Jordan River, Elijah is preparing to take his leave.  His life's work now completed, Elijah asks his best and brightest disciple whether there is anything that Elisha would ask of him.  Now.  I want us to pause for a moment at this point.  Because I really think that the full import of what Elisha says here is seldom understood by preachers.  And perhaps I am one of them.  But listen to what Elisha says:  "Master, I would have a double portion of your spirit".  Now most of us, I think, are inclined to hear those words as, in some sense heroic, the appropriate response of a pupil towards his dying master.  Many of us imagine, here, the heir apparent taking on the mantle of his mentor in some kind of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade kind of scene.  But what WAS this spirit of which they spoke?  And what were it's effects? 

The spirit that motivated and empowered Elijah was, of course, the Spirit of God.  In the parlance of the Hebrew Bible, this spirit was 'ruach', a mighty wind which came sweeping into a person's soul and carried them off to danger and torment for the sake of Yahweh.  I repeat, swept them off to danger and torment.  In asking Elijah for a double-portion of his spirit, Elisha effectively petitions God for a life like his master's, only more so:  a nomadic life where no place is really home; a political life confronting the powers that be; a life which often sinks into depression because the people are deaf to God's word.  Hear what I am saying!  The coming of God's Spirit makes a man a fool.  It makes him turn his face towards Jerusalem, where his enemies are waiting for him.  It makes him preach a gospel of peace and compassion which makes absolutely no sense in an economy where the way to security is to step on someone else's head.  It sets him apart for a life of financial insecurity and social ambiguity.  If you don't believe me, think of Martin Luther King, or Oscar Romero, or the martyrs of Timor.  Or, indeed, think of Jesus Christ.

'Well', I hear you ask, 'if that's what the life of a prophet is about, then why did Elisha take it upon himself?  And why should I take it upon myself?  I don't want to be a prophet!'  Well, the bad news is that if you've been baptised into Christ then you've received the very Spirit which Elijah received!  God has therefore called you to be his prophet in the world.  Ironically, the good news is exactly same. . .  that anyone who has been baptised into Christ has received the very Spirit which Elijah received.

Confused?  What I mean is this.  When the Spirit comes upon the church, she ordains us for a difficult mission, but she also imparts those intangibles which the apostle Paul calls 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and discipline'.  Not apart from the danger and difficulty, but in the very midst of them.  That's the mystery of the Christian God and the Christian way of life.  Our God is a crucified God, a God of love who lays down God’s life for our sake.  So, therefore, is any life given over to the way of that God in the world, the way of love.  Yet, at one and the same time, a life vulnerable to God's sufferings also opens onto the wide open spaces of contentment and peace which also belong to God.  Somehow the two go together.  Somehow, by living differently within this bleared, smeared world, we become signs and sacraments of a different kind of world: a world in which the weak are not exploited for profit; a world in which people are valued and cared for simply because they are people.  Therefore, despite the crap we cop, God also gives us what can only be called a 'mystical apprehension' of that other world, even as we live in the midst of this one.

So let us return to where we began: the decision.  The decision to follow Christ is one which needs to be made over and over again.  In the beginning we think we see the benefits of Christian life pretty clearly.  All looks pretty rosy, and so we dive in.  Just like when we first fall in love.  But when the tough times come, when our faith puts us in an awkward position—socially, commercially, politically—we experience the real cost of faith, and so many of us wonder whether we've made the right decision. 

If that's you this morning I can only address your uncertainty out of the experience of my own faith, and the testimony of faithful people down through the ages.  I testify that's its only when I was forced to re-choose the way of Jesus in the midst of a difficult time that I actually found out what love, joy and peace were all about.  It's only when I was at the brink of tossing my faith away that I gained a glimpse of that beatific vision which makes it all worthwhile.  So that now, when I pray that prayer of the church that we will recite at the end of our service – Wesley’s ‘Covenant Prayer’ - I often find myself weeping.  Not so much with the grief and the pain of a prophet, but with an inexplicable joy at the sheer gratuity of God's love.

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mount Waverley, in 2004.

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