|Fiery Chariot, Cooling Waters - Sermon at Scipioville, NY June 26, 2016|
I want to do two things today. First, I want to answer a question Christians have been asking for centuries, "Why do we still need the Old Testament and that Old Testament view of God?" And second, I want to take a new look at this road we are walking on with Jesus, and what we should expect along the way.
Do you ever wonder why we still bother with The Old Testament? After all, Paul tells us clearly in Galatians, "...Christ has set us free... do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Paul was speaking of the yoke of the Old Testament Law. And Jesus himself summed up the Law in one phrase, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Doesn't that mean all we have to do is be nice to others, and we're home free? And if that's true, why do we have to bother reading about all those Kings and Prophets, about Elijah and Elisha - and for that matter, Moses or David? Granted, Isaiah wrote some good lyrics for Handel's Messiah, but seriously, why do we spend so much time looking backward into that old Jewish book?
First, the Old Testament teaches us what's inside of each of us. Every emotion, sin, joy, pleasure, evil, cruelty, apostasy we do today isn't new; it is written down as real and done over and over by others. The Old Testament describes to us who and what we really are. It's a terrific description of humanity -- and of each of us in our natural state. As Paul reminds us and the Galatians; under the hood of our human engines is a strong tendency to fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, pride, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factionalism, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.
In the Old Testament, not very different from today, the people make resolutions to do better, they commit to self-improvement, they will follow God's Law. But, bang - try as they might, give them a generation or two, they're back in the same mess. The promise in the Old Testament isn't that working on your self-improvement will make everything okay. The message of the Old Testament is "wake up." Get smart about yourself. Try to acquire wisdom. Aim for temperance, obedience and moderation. Then, when you realize you just can't do it on your own, God will send the Messiah to take you the next step.
Now we are in New Testament times. John the Baptist fulfills Elijah's return. The Messiah has come. Jesus came to fulfill the Law. That means he came to both interpret what the Law really means, and show a better way to fulfill it. How can we begin to understand what Jesus came to fulfill, unless we first understand our aching needs. The Old Testament makes it plain for us; our human natures need healing - and we are not alone in our human weakness.
Good people do bad things. The Old Testament stories and parables and teaching set the stage for Jesus' call to set out and follow him on the road. The road is full of surprises. We are met by truths about ourselves we don't necessarily want to confront; tendencies to anger, pride, frustration, envy, irritation, short-temperedness that have to be purged away. Becoming aware of our own predisposition to sin, helps develop the humility to forgive and act with compassion to others. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to change it. We aren't perfect...or even always good. Nothing has changed. Or, has it?
Let's look this morning at what seem to be contradictory instructions in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In our Gospel today, Jesus is on the road, resolutely striding towards Jerusalem, and he calls out to a man, "Follow me." The man says, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." A perfectly reasonable request. But Jesus says, "Let the dead bury their own dead." Still on the road, Jesus calls another person who says, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family." Jesus answers, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." Jesus continues on the road to Jerusalem - without them. Clearly Jesus is saying to those two he called, "You should be ready by now to follow me on the road without looking back."
Let's contrast this with the story of Elijah and Elisha. We read the end of the story this morning. Elijah, the prophet and teacher, and Elisha, his student, are separated by fiery horses and chariot. Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind and disappears. Elijah later reappears in the New Testament with Moses and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. That dramatic whirlwind was Elijah and Elisha's goodbye, but the first meeting of these two prophets is equally important. Elijah had performed many miracles. It is nearing the end of his reign as the major prophet of Israel, and he is directed by God to anoint Elisha as his successor. In 1st Kings Elijah finds Elisha working in a long, staggered line of plowmen plowing a large field. They used oxen then; today we use Deere. There are twelve teams of oxen, and Elisha's team is the last in the line. Elijah goes up to Elisha and throws his mantle around him. Immediately, Elisha agrees to follow Elijah, but says, "Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and then I will come with you." Elijah answers, "Go back, what have I done to prevent you?" Elisha drives the team directly home, kills his oxen, cooks them over a fire made from the wood of the yoke and distributes the meat to the people. Talk about closure. Then Elisha gets up and follows Elijah on the road.
As the story continues in today's reading, it is time for Elijah's departure. Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water. The Jordan parts and the two prophets walk to the other side of the Jordan on dry ground. Elijah asks Elisha, "What shall I do for you before I am taken from you?" Elisha asks for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. Elijah answers, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” A chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more."
My God-daughter Rebecca just returned from two years of medical missionary service in a third world country. She's an MD, an internist. She served in a hospital in the west-central part of Nepal. Becca is also a deeply committed Christian. Last week she had the family and some close friends over to show some pix, as you might expect, but more important, to share some things she learned as well as experienced during her two years in Nepal - which included living through the massive earthquake that destroyed so much and killed so many.
This was the first chance I'd had to see her since she was back, and I immediately noticed a change. Rebecca had a acquired a new gravitas, a solidity. She was the same beautiful person who left, but she moved and spoke more slowly; and she used fewer "God-words" like "justification and sanctification." During her time in Nepal, she wrote a blog, an online diary of reflections. In addition to writing about new friends, the natural beauty of the mountains and the chance to serve, as time went on she couldn't help but reflect on her frustration with conditions, her irritation and occasional fear at always being the only white woman with blonde hair in a world of shades of brown faces. She wrote of her bursts of anger at how little she and the others were able to really accomplish in a region of enormous need. Yes, she loved the people and the joy and resignation many Nepali felt; but her help was barely a drop in the bucket of need. And, after all, wasn't she on a mission to convert these heathen Hindus and Buddhists to Christ? The country was 1% Christian when she came, and 1% Christian when she left.
But, her story was different from the stories we often hear from missionaries. She realized a difference was being made; an enormous change was taking place. But, she slowly became aware the mission had been to herself. She was being changed. She slowly realized that despite her energetic and skilled work, God was showing her how little she herself could do, and the power of what God can do. She also began to see a new and ugly picture of herself - her short-temperedness, anger, fear, frustration, her envy at what other hospitals had and her unrealistic prideful expectations for what she and the medical mission could actually accomplish. As she reflected, she started to see that God was working on her. Chipping away her rough edges. It hurt. She began to see. First, God shows us our sins; then burns them away. It was painful, but a new deeper joy began.
Back to our prophet friends. What's the meaning of the holy fire as the fiery horse and chariot appeared surrounding Elijah, separating him from Elisha. What is this fire? Isaiah, in his vision being in the courts of God cried out, "Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips from among a people of unclean lips." Isaiah was cleansed of sin by a Seraph angel touching his lips with a burning coal from the censer of God. The Temple sacrifice bearing the people's sins was consumed by the fire of the holy holocaust. The fire as Elijah is carried away from the earth represents a burning away not only of our old sins, but a burning away of our old sinful self. Once we step out on the road with Jesus, our old self begins to be burned away. We don't have to be on a foreign mission. Our road is here. Our old self, described so completely in the Old Testament begins to go, but not peacefully. It is burned away by the loving wisdom of God.
Elisha takes up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen, and strikes the Jordan with this mantle. The water parts and Elisha, as did Joshua and God's people hundreds of years earlier, passes from the wilderness into the promised land. Elisha, wearing the mantle of Elijah, can now enter the land a second time, made new by Baptism of fire and water. Elisha's re-entry is a baptism, a re-birth. But wait, didn't Elisha first go home before he followed on the road? Yes, but he left off plowing the old field to make a final closure to his old life. Elisha irreversibly set out on the new road by burning his old bridges along with his plow and oxen.
Jesus criticizes his would-be followers for wanting to return home and cling to the old world; not follow his call today. They and we should know better. Jesus wants to free us from slavery to our old Self with its passions and excesses. Following Christ frees us from those animal impulses which created the need for Old Testament Law. We are under new management. Jesus is calling, "Follow me."
If we follow Jesus on the road, we'll see some ugly things about ourselves; our anger, our shame, our short-temperedness, our envy, our fear of the future. Jesus' promise is not a promise of immediate comfort. It is a call to fearless confrontation with our old self, and a willingness to let God burn it away. God's healing, sanctifying fire can be painful, but the cooling waters of baptism give immediate relief. Listen to the call. Set out on the road in faith. It's an exciting journey, and be sure that God will complete that which He has begun.