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The Big Ask

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 19, 2012.

2 Kings 2:1-12

Many years ago when I was in college I worked as a student social worker one summer in the Kentucky State Hospital located outside my hometown of Danville.  I saw and heard many things that blew my mind, including a very articulate schizophrenic who claimed to be Jesus.  In his own mind, this patient was convinced he was the Messiah, and nothing could persuade him differently.

Over the last 2000 years a variety of  people, including a few clergy, have in their pathology or grandiosity identified themselves as our Lord.  And for obvious reasons most people have ignored them. 

But when the real Jesus appeared 2000 years ago, he was consistently compared to another who had lived before him, a man who dazzled the world from his first word of prophecy till his whirlwind ascension into heaven.  That people in Jesus day would talk about the prophet Elijah and the Messiah Jesus in the same sentence was the supreme compliment for Elijah.  And in this case, the compliment was well deserved.

We know little to nothing about the background of Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God.”   He operated as a prophet for a quarter of a century during a dark era in the history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  The kings of Israel in those days qualmlessly disobeyed God, and the nation of Israel found itself in a steep decline.

According to 1 Kings 17 Elijah bursts on the scene when he notifies King Ahab that a severe drought is in Israel’s future.  As predicted the land becomes parched, and Elijah survives off food and water that God provides in the wilderness.  When Elijah’s water supply dries up, God directs him to a poor widow in a foreign land who lives with her son and is barely scraping by.  When Elijah asks the widow for food and water, she resists, responding that her food supply will soon run out.  Elijah assures her that his God will not let that happen.  In fact, if the widow will share her food and water with Elijah, her provisions will last forever.  The widow complies, and she never worries about food and water again.

But the widow’s son suddenly becomes ill and dies.  Of course, the widow is devastated, and inexplicably blames the prophet of Israel for her son’s death.  Without blinking Elijah takes the boy’s lifeless body to his room and lays it upon his bed.  Then he cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life came into him again, and he revived (1 Kings 17:21-22). 

And already we are stunned by this man.  He does not hesitate to ask God for anything.  He’s asks for drought, and the land becomes as dry as a bone.  He’s asks for food, and is rewarded with a cupboard that is never bare.  He even asks God to raise the dead to new life, and a boy miraculously revives.  Apparently, this is no ask too big for Elijah to make, and for God to approve.

And Elijah’s only just begun. 

In the third year of the drought, the Lord directs Elijah to return to King Ahab.  When Elijah appears before Ahab, the king rakes him over the coals for the trouble he has caused Israel.  But Elijah says it is Ahab who has brought drought and famine upon the land because of his worship of false gods like Baal and disobedience of the true God of Israel. 

To demonstrate who is the true God of Israel Elijah arranges a contest between himself and 850 pagan prophets at a place called Mt. Carmel.  Bulls are sacrificed and placed upon an altar of wood.  The prophets of Baal are invited to prove their gods exist by asking them to send fire down from heaven to ignite the sacrifice.  The prophets of Baal beg and plead with their gods to send fire, and even cut themselves with spears for hours, but to no avail. 

Then Elijah takes over and makes the contest more interesting.  He floods the altar with large jars of water not once, not twice, but three times.  Then he makes another gigantic ask when he prays, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let it be known this day that you are the God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding.  Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:36-37).  Did God ever answer!  Fire rains down from the sky and burns up everything on and around the altar, including the water! 

After ordering the death of the  prophets of Baal, Elijah predicts rain will come.  And soon it’s raining cats and dogs.  In fact, Ahab is forced to race back to the palace in his chariot lest he drown.   But in a superhuman burst of speed, Elijah sprints ahead of Ahab’s chariot and beats him home. 

By now, you’d think nothing could intimidate Elijah.  But the evil Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, announces her intention to kill Elijah, and in a fit of panic he runs into the wilderness to hide.  In fact, Elijah’s next prayer request is that God will end his life, one of the few requests of Elijah that God ignores. 

Eventually, through a profound period of solitude and silence, Elijah gets his bearings and his strength back.  Then at God’s direction, Elijah finds a young man named Elisha plowing a field, and he casts his mantle over him.  Elisha understands that Elijah has just appointed him as his successor, and requests permission to tell his parents goodbye.  Then Elisha disposes of all his possessions, makes a clean break with his past, and proceeds to follow Elijah wherever he goes.

Over the next few months Elijah has several more skirmishes with Ahab, and Ahab’s rebellion finally catches up with him when he is killed in battle.  Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, takes over the throne, but he is no better than his father, abandoning God  and embracing the gods of Baal.  When Ahaziah injures himself in a fall, he dispatches his messengers to inquire of Baal whether or not he would ever heal. At God’s direction, Elijah intercepts those messengers and instructs them to tell their disobedient king he will never recover but will die in his bed. 

When Ahaziah receives this grim news he sends a captain with fifty soldiers to take Elijah into custody and hopefully nullify Elijah’s prophecy.  But Elijah doesn’t flinch before the captain and his soldiers.  Instead he says to the captain “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty” (2 Kings 1:10).  And in short order those 51 men are burned to a crisp.

The king sends another cohort of 51 soldiers, Elijah offers the identical prayer, and those 51 suffer the same fiery fate.  By now, it’s clear Elijah is pretty good at this “fire from heaven” thing, so the next captain with 50 men very wisely begs Elijah not to fry them on the spot, but to please, please, pretty please come and speak to the king.  So Elijah obliges, explains to the king why he will die, and right on cue, King Ahaziah passes away. 

Clearly, Elijah is a prophet of God not to be trifled with for one simple reason—when Elijah asks God for something, no matter how big or bold, God answers dramatically and definitively.      

Then, without any warning, it is time for Elijah to go.   But before Elijah leaves, God appears to direct him to take a victory lap around Israel.  For reasons never explained, Elijah asks Elisha to stay behind as he travels from Gilgal to Bethel, and from Bethel to Jericho, and from Jericho to the Jordan River.  And each time Elijah asks, Elisha refuses.  “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Elisha is the consummate disciple.  He will follow the footsteps of his Master wherever they go. 

As they journey to the Jordan River, other prophets eventually tag along because they’ve heard Elijah is about to depart this world.  Finally, Elijah and Elisha arrive at the Jordan River, and Elijah works a miracle one last time.  The prophets watch as Elijah removes his legendary mantle, rolls it up, and strikes the water.  And they cannot help but think of Moses who parted the waters of the Red Sea with the aid of his rod.  The waters part, and Elijah and Elisha walk across to the other side on dry land. Then, before Elijah takes his leave, he says to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”

We don’t know what prompts this gracious gesture.  But we know Elisha doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of Elijah’s offer.  After all, he’s watched Elijah boldly ask God for all manner of things time after time, and Elisha doesn’t feel the least bit presumptuous about going big in his request of Elijah. 

“Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 

Scholars are divided about how to interpret this request.  Many observe that Jewish law provided that the eldest son would inherit a double share of his father’s estate, so what Elisha is asking is that he be designated the chief heir of Elijah’s prophetic ministry.  In other words, Elisha hopes to be the head prophet of all Israel, as Elijah has been.

This is asking a lot.  But the request could also mean that Elisha is literally asking for a double share of the Spirit of God who has anointed and empowered Elijah for a quarter century of ministry.  This is an even bigger ask, a tall order of the first order.  “You are asking for a hard thing,” says Elijah.  Yes, he is.  

Elijah’s response tells us that what Elisha is asking for is not Elijah’s to give.  Only God can bequeath his Spirit.  Only God can anoint his servants.   Only God can double and triple the effect of our ministry.    

Suddenly, a chariot of fire and horses of fire descend from heaven and separate Elijah from Elisha, and Elijah ascends into heaven on a whirlwind.  Because Elisha is allowed to see Elijah’s ascension, he knows his bold request has been granted.  He knows he will be the chief prophet of Israel.  Even so, he grieves Elijah’s departure, and rips his clothes in grief. 

The ascension of Elijah into heaven is unprecedented.  Yes, the ever-faithful Enoch escapes death by walking into the wild blue yonder with God.  And when Moses dies, he is buried where no one can find him.  But no one is ushered into heaven like Elijah. He is one of a kind.             

Except for a brief mention in Malachi, Elijah is never mentioned again in the Old Testament…which is amazing when you think about it.  But then Jesus appears on the scene, and the next thing you know people think Elijah has returned in the body of a man who isn’t afraid to do anything for God, or ask anything of God.  In fact, when Jesus is transfigured on a mountain one day, his disciples spot him talking to Elijah and Moses, proving that both are alive and active in God’s Kingdom.  When Jesus’ time on earth comes to an end, he too ascends into heaven, only the second man in history to do so, after Elijah. 

To say that Elijah and Elisha are pretty decent prophets is like saying Jeremy Lin is a having a pretty decent year as an NBA basketball player!  The truth is we don’t have a category for Elijah and Elisha.  They are bigger than life, and we can’t get our minds around them.

And one of the biggest things about them is their asks of God.  Elijah asked God for everything under the sun, and Elisha asked to have whatever Elijah was having…times two! 

Please notice there was a method to their madness of what Christians call intercessory prayer.  Their prayer requests were consistently big and bold…but never selfish.  They didn’t ask God for personal fame and fortune.  No, all their asks had to do with advancing God’s agenda.  They were Spirit-driven men who admittedly had their flaws, yet at the end of the day there was nothing they wouldn’t attempt for God.  Because deep in their souls they believed nothing was too hard for God.

In this respect these two prophets remind me of an apostle of the New Testament church named Paul.  Paul was forever asking God for big, bold things for his ministry.  And this same Paul once wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).  Paul didn’t get everything he asked for – nobody does!  But he always prayed like anything was possible.

As I reflected on Elijah and Elisha and Paul this week, I realized I don’t always pray the way they did.  My asks are sporadic at best, more timid than I’d like to admit.  Why?  I’m still working on the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with  my faith, or lack thereof.

In the meantime I’ve asked God to transform my attitude and approach to prayer.  In fact, I’m asking God for a double share of Elijah’s faith.  I’m asking for a double share of God’s Spirit for myself and my family and my church family.  I’m asking for a double share of boldness and wisdom in these days  of discernment for our church. 

So, what big asks are you making of God…for his Kingdom’s sake?