DOES HE OWE US ANYTHING? (Elisha – 3)

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.” [2 Kings 4:1 (NIV)]

roseate spoonbillWhen writing about Elisha, the widow, and the oil, I thought the first conversation between the prophet and distraught woman worth a deeper look. From their exchange, it is clear that the prophet either knew or knew of the widow’s husband. One of Elisha’s followers, the widow reminds the prophet of how much her husband revered and feared the Lord.

While Scripture doesn’t name her husband, other sources do. Both the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus and the Targum (an Aramaic paraphrase and explanation of the Hebrew Bible) identify him as the Obadiah mentioned in 1 Kings 18. Although he was in charge of Ahab’s palace, Obadiah remained faithful to Jehovah and hid 100 of God’s prophets in two caves during the time Jezebel was killing them. Both Josephus and Jewish tradition suggest that Obadiah sustained these men at his own expenses and, when his money was spent, the man borrowed money to continue to feed them. It was because of this debt, incurred in the Lord’s service, that the widow’s sons were to be taken as bondservants. Whether the woman was Obadiah’s widow or the widow of another faithful follower of Jehovah we really don’t know. Nevertheless, the widow appears to think that, because her husband faithfully served the Lord, Elisha should do something about his debt.

Does God owe us anything for our service? If we look at Luke 17, it would seem that Jesus is telling us that, even when we’ve done absolutely everything God commands, we should not expect an earthly reward. We are God’s unworthy servants and have only done our duty. He is our master and His job is not to make our lives easier; our job is to do His work and build His kingdom. Whatever the widow’s husband did for God, Elijah, or Elisha, he did as God’s servant; it was only what he should have done! Our good actions are never a favor for God. Righteousness, worship, generosity, forgiveness, sacrifice, and even suffering aren’t extraordinary; they are expected of us!

Fulfilling our duties and obligation to God is not a business transaction. God owes us nothing but we owe Him everything. We are to serve the Lord with gladness, out of love and gratitude. What He may or may not give us is from His grace; it is neither payment nor reward. While we’re on this side of the grass, we should never expect to profit or gain from serving Him. As God did with the widow, He may choose to fill our jars with oil but, never forget, He doesn’t owe us even one ounce of it!

Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NIV)]

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ELISHA, THE WIDOW, AND THE OIL (Elisha – 2)

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

cassiaDuring the days of Elijah and Elisha, there were several schools or companies of prophets in Israel. Probably some of the 7,000 Israelites who remained faithful to Jehovah, they were the prophets’ disciples, maybe something like an ancient version of the Knights of Columbus. Although they gathered for fellowship and study, had a spiritual calling, and were under the prophets’ guidance, they carried on their ordinary work and family lives.

One of these men died and left bills that his wife couldn’t pay. As payment for the man’s debts, a pitiless creditor threatened to take the widow’s sons as bond servants. Without her boys, the woman had no way to support herself and, with no resources, she was facing a hopeless situation. After the frantic woman told Elisha of her dilemma, the prophet asked how he could help her and what she had in her house. Since she’d probably sold or traded anything of value by that time, I wonder if she thought his question foolish; nothing of value remained. Taking stock, other than her two sons, her cupboards were bare, her purse empty, and all that remained was a flask of oil.

The prophet told her to get as many empty vessels as she could from her neighbors. “Don’t ask for just a few,” he warned. After bringing them into the house, she was to shut the door and then fill all the containers with the oil from her one flask. Although this may have seemed like an exercise in futility, the widow and her sons obediently gathered up all the pots and jars they could and then filled jar after jar with oil. Miraculously, the oil only stopped flowing when no more empty containers remained. The prophet told the widow to sell the oil to pay her debts and then live on the money that remained. This miracle did more than just pay her bills; it would maintain her family until her boys could start earning a living.

The quantity of oil that poured out was not limited by God; it was determined by the woman’s faith. God’s provision knows no limits; there was enough oil to fill just one flask or as many as 100,000 jars. When they’d filled the last jar and the oil finally stopped pouring, I imagine the widow regretted not finding yet another container. We have a God who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

As faith-filled believers, we know God can do the impossible. Yet, how much of our lives and resources do we commit to Him? If we bring Him just a little, that’s all He can bless. How many jars do we bring to God? What is the limit of our faith?

Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back [Luke 6:38 (NLT)]

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ANY BRIDGES TO BURN? (Elisha – 1)

Chicago RiverThen Peter said, “We’ve left everything to follow you.” Jesus said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Anyone who gave up his home, wife, brothers, parents, or children because of the kingdom of God will certainly receive many times as much in this life and will receive eternal life in the world to come.” [Luke 18:28-29 (GW)]

“Don’t burn your bridges!” we’re often told, but Elisha certainly did. When it became time for the prophet Elijah to find a successor, the Lord directed him to Elisha. Finding Elisha plowing his field, Elijah placed his cloak over the farmer’s shoulders, an indication that Elisha was to become the prophet’s apprentice and eventual replacement. Recognizing the enormity of this calling, the young man didn’t say, “Wait until I’m done plowing and can get my affairs in order. I’ll catch up to you when it’s convenient.” He didn’t question Elijah about the pay, fringe benefits or risks of being a prophet. The farmer stopped working and told the prophet that he needed to say good-bye to his family before leaving.

Elisha then prepared a celebratory departure feast by slaughtering his oxen and cooking them over a fire fueled by his plow. Is this a good career plan? Most of us would have asked a neighbor to feed the oxen and, rather than burning the plow, would have stored it in case the prophet gig didn’t work out. Elisha, however, was fully committed to answering God’s call.

This makes me ponder what plans God has for me and, more important, what things might be keeping me from saying “Yes” to Him. Most of us don’t have oxen and plows to burn, but we probably have other things we’re not willing to relinquish in order to follow Jesus. How attached are we to our life styles, possessions and status? Do we have habits, unhealthy relationships, dependencies or negative thoughts like fear, guilt, bitterness, or intolerance we’re unwilling to surrender? What might be holding us back from answering God’s call?

God did remarkable things with Elisha once he followed Elijah. In fact, Elisha performed twice as many miracles as the elder prophet. Like the U.S. Army, God wants us to be all that we can be and invites us to do great things with our lives. We are hindered, however, until, like Elisha, we set fire to our oxen and plows. What bridges do we need to burn?

I demolish my bridges behind me – then there is no choice but forward. [Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and winner of Nobel Peace Prize)]

After that, Jesus left. He saw a tax collector named Levi [Matthew] sitting in a tax office. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. [Luke 5:27-28 (GW)]

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DINGS AND DENTS

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! [John 20:19-20 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtail - butterflyWe’re selling our northern home and, as I packed up assorted family heirlooms, I came across the little sterling silver salt and pepper shakers we used for so many years. I held one in my hand a bit longer than the others; it had distinct teeth marks on it. For reasons that are unknown, my eldest child tried to bite through it. In spite of its obvious imperfection (or, perhaps because of it), the shaker is still beautiful. I’d wondered which child should get these silver pieces but, after remembering their history, I lovingly wrapped them up and placed them in my son’s box. I only hope his family will find the impressions of his baby teeth as beautiful as do I.

As I sorted through other family silver, I came to the sterling candle holders that were a wedding gift to my parents some 82 years ago. Like the salt and pepper set, they show their age with a few dents and scratches. My parent’s marriage, like the candle holders, wasn’t perfect but it endured through every circumstance. I decided to keep the candle sticks with our things as a reminder both to forgive and appreciate the beauty in imperfection.

I thought of Jesus’s scars as I packed up the dented silver. Our resurrected Lord carried the scars from his wounds. Yet, since He could pass through a locked door, He easily could have removed those wounds in his hands and side. Jesus’s scars let the disciples know who He was and our scars are an essential part of our identity, as well.

Like Jesus, we all bear scars, both inside and out. Like my silver, we have dings and dents and are a little (or a whole lot) tarnished. Just as the imperfections on my old silver tell a story, so do our scars. The scar from a C-section tells of blessings received while the scar from a hysterectomy tells of the loss of possibilities. The scars from a burn tell the story of injury and pain while the scars from open heart surgery tell of getting a new lease on life. Some scars, like those left from a divorce, a loved one’s death, or addiction, are invisible but tell their own tale, as well. Scars, dings and dents are simply evidence of things that didn’t defeat us; they are our beautiful trophies of survival and healing. Death did not conquer Jesus and, though God’s grace, life’s challenges cannot conquer us.

My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. [Steve Goodier]

From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus. [Galatians 6:17 (NLT)]

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IN ALL THINGS

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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DO YOU HAVE HIS SHOES?

Never walk away from someone who deserves help; your hand is God’s hand for that person. Don’t tell your neighbor “Maybe some other time” or “Try me tomorrow” when the money’s right there in your pocket. [Proverbs 3:27-28 (MSG)]

deer - young buckYesterday, I wrote about finding the 1967 church program from the day my in-laws joined their church. The mimeographed bulletin insert for that day included a story about a little boy, barefoot and dressed in rags, who was walking home from church. A neighbor fellow asked where he’d been and, when the boy said he’d been at church, the man asked what he’d learned there. The boy joyfully replied, “Jesus loves me!” The fellow responded disdainfully, “If Jesus loves you so much, why didn’t he tell somebody to give you some decent clothes and a pair of shoes?” The boy confidently answered, “Jesus did tell someone, but I think they forgot!”

This story reminded me of one I heard recently about a well-known pastor. The gentleman was invited to speak at a Christian women’s conference at a large wealthy church. Before the program began, the event’s chairwoman read a letter from a Venezuelan missionary expressing an urgent need for $4,000. She then asked the visiting pastor to open the conference with a prayer that God would provide the resources to meet the mission’s needs. The man surprised everyone by denying her request. Explaining that he believed God had already provided the money, he added that he was going to place all the cash he had in his pocket on a table and invited the women to do the same thing.

Confused, the chairwoman finally said she saw his point; of course, they all need to give sacrificially. “No!” he said, adding that he was trying to teach them that God had already provided for the mission. Putting the $15 from his pocket on the table, he looked at the chairwoman expectantly. Reluctantly, she opened her purse and added her cash to his. One by one, the other women opened their purses and brought their money to the table. When it all was counted, more than $4,000 had been collected. The pastor explained: “Now, here’s the lesson. God always supplies for our needs and he supplied for this missionary, too. The only problem was that we were keeping it for ourselves. Now let’s pray and thank God for His provision.”

When we become members of the Church, we become the mouth, hands, and feet of Jesus and should be doing the things that Jesus would do if He were here physically on the earth. As members of His body, do we honor our commitment to be the conduit of God’s blessings to His children? Could we be holding the answer to someone’s prayers right in our hands? Could we have forgotten to give a little boy his clothes and shoes? Or weren’t we listening when Jesus spoke to us?

“I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:35-10 (MSG)]

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