What Are You Doing With Elijah’s Cloak?
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
30th June 2013 (8am service)
Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25
1For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
The Works of the Flesh
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The Fruit of the Spirit
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Luke 9: 51 – 62
A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
Would-Be Followers of Jesus
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Gosh, I love the Scriptures! But as we only have room to read two of the set readings for the day, I’m going to tell you about the third one.
It’s a short, action-packed story from 2 Kings, featuring the great prophet Elijah and his understudy Elisha. God is about to scoop Elijah up to heaven and he’s trying to get rid of Elisha who is hanging on to him, not because Elisha is looking for a free ride into God’s presence, as it turns out, but because he wants a special blessing from Elijah before he goes.
Elijah can’t shake Elisha off and says to him that he may have the blessing if he sees him when he is taken up to heaven. They come to the Jordan river and Elijah takes off his cloak and wallops the river which parts for them and they walk through on dry land. Suddenly a chariot and horses of fire come between them and Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elisha is that committed to keeping his eyes on Elijah (because he wants that blessing badly) that he’s not distracted by the horses and chariot of fire, but keeps his eyes on his master and sees him swept up to heaven in the whirlwind.
Elisha picks up the cloak Elijah had dropped, walks up to the Jordan river, gives it a good thump with the rolled up cloak and says, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” The water in the river parts and he crosses over to the astonishment of a group of gathered prophets who realise what has happened.
Someone once told the story of a person who tried the same thing: rolled up a cloak and hit the water of a river, crying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” A voice came back from heaven saying, “Where are the Elijahs?”
We can probably associate with that. Not many of us would have had the commitment to fix our eyes on the prophet with the spectacular arrival of a fiery chariot to distract us. But Elisha does and he goes on to do great things.
Commitment. We’re brought up with stories of commitment. From the stories of great saints to great people in secular life the one thing common to all heroes is commitment, almost an uncanny ability to keep the eye on the main prize and not be distracted.
But commitment can be a great burden. Once you’ve displayed it you’ve got to keep going.
And Jesus clearly expects commitment. We’re all probably aware of the Parable of the Talents, a story Jesus told which makes it clear in those well-known words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” that Jesus rewards faithfulness more than ability. Just before this story in Matthew 24 Jesus speaks about enduring persecution as his follower and concludes with this: “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”
In our Gospel reading we find three people who find reasons to drop the commitment ball. Jesus is pretty harsh with them, telling one man whom he has told to follow him (but who first wants to bury his dead father) to “Let the dead bury their own dead”.
How can we maintain these standards?
· By effort? Bound to fail.
· By fear of punishment? Hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work now.
· By desperately wanting to do so? Getting warm, but not quite right; though this seems to have been Elisha’s method.
There has to be a way that is sustainable. If there were not, Jesus would not expect it. God doesn’t ask the impossible of us.
But sometimes people do what appears to be the impossible. On 13 June the New Zealand Army released footage of a fire-fight in Afghanistan where two soldiers were killed. These soldiers had given their lives for their fellow men, one of them in rescuing his wounded commanding officer. Why on earth would anyone show such commitment? Not simply out of duty, I can assure you.
The answer lies in relationship. The mutual respect and devotion that some soldiers evidence grows out of the relationships they develop as a result of having a strong sense of working together for a good they believe in. In doing so they form bonds that most nearly resemble the bonds members of a family feel for one another. Commitment grows out of relationship.
Our commitment to God grows out of relationship too. There are three ways we can relate to God, all of which are touched upon by Paul in our reading of his letter to the Galatians.
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other … We can ignore God by following our own whims – what Paul calls “the flesh”. Licentiousness (the acknowledgement of no authority other than our own selfish desire) feeds off our old nature. You could call this the absence of relationship, or the denial of relationship with God. That we do all too often. You are not committed to someone you ignore.
18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Paul in his letter calls the Galatians foolish for placing themselves under the control of the law.Legalism (feeling obliged to obey someone) comes out of the fear of punishment and does not result in loving relationship. We feel obliged to obey God when our love for God grows cold. All we are left with is stark morality. You are not particularly committed to someone you feel forced to obey.
1For freedom Christ has set us free, says Paul
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
16 Live by the Spirit,
The Holy Spirit’s primary task is to facilitate a loving relationship with God. In revealing the true nature of God (and God is love)
· we experience freedom from selfishness, sin and condemnation
· we experience freedom from a sense of obligation
· we experience love: a love for God and the love we share with one another – and we do this by living by the Spirit. Grace (the free and undeserved forgiveness and love of God) causes us in turn to respond in love to God.
1 John 4: 19 says “We love because he first loved us.” You are committed to someone with whom you have a loving relationship.
The kind of commitment Jesus expects of the three men in our gospel reading can only be sustained when we love him, and that means spending time with him in prayer, in the word and in fellowship with others who love him. Those are the very basic foundation stones of the faith. They are the way we spend time with God and grow our relationship with him. Don’t be surprised if your relationship slips from loving relationship to a sense of obligation if you ignore these. When we do we revert to legalism
A continued ignoring of our relationship with God will result in our slipping from a sense of obligation to indifference which leads to licentiousness – what Paul calls living by the flesh, where we simply do what we want with no sense of God in the equation.
Jesus makes it clear to the first man who says he will follow him that is not easy. Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ It’s not all beer and skittles, Mate. It takes commitment – “How are you going to ensure that?” is the implied question.
The second man wants to bury his father before following Jesus. ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ is Jesus’ response. It takes commitment – “Have you got what it takes?” is the implied question.
The third man wants to say goodbye to his family (he‘s beginning to realise that there is major commitment involved). ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ says Jesus. It takes commitment – “Can you give yourself to it wholeheartedly?” is the implied question.
“Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” The voice comes back saying, “Where are the Elijahs?”
· Are the Elijahs those who occasionally pay homage to God but who in essence design their lives around fulfilling their own needs? No.
· Are the Elijahs those with strong wills who follow God out of a sense of obligation? No.
· Are the Elijahs those who come to a realisation that there is nothing intrinsically good or lasting in their own efforts and who lovingly respond to Christ’s death and resurrection by spending time with the God of love? Yes, because it is they who grow in relationship with God and it is this relationship that transforms them, however gradually, into men and women of the Kingdom of God.
License will lead you away from God – pretty smartly
Legalism will make you miserable
Grace will set you free and you’ll be sustained as is any person who is in love.
Each of us has a cloak like Elijahs that floats down and lands in front of us. It’s the grace of God in Jesus. What you do with him will affect the course of your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren.
Let us pray:
Loving God, forgive us where we have ignored you. Forgive us too where we have turned you into a demanding authoritarian figure by ignoring our relationship with you. Thank you that you are more than willing to embrace us and that as we clothe ourselves with the cloak of your love in gratitude, resolving to spend time with you, we know the overwhelming joy of freedom, and of loving fellowship with you and your kingdom family.