SHUT THE DOOR (Elisha – 5)

And Elisha said, “Borrow as many empty jars as you can from your friends and neighbors. Then go into your house with your sons and shut the door behind you. Pour olive oil from your flask into the jars, setting each one aside when it is filled. [2 Kings 4:3-4 (NLT)]

naples doorwayHer neighbors probably thought she’d lost her mind when she sent her boys out to ask for empty containers. Shutting the door certainly kept out the creditors, naysayers, and doubters along with any talk of unbelief that could hinder the widow’s faith. That closed door shut out interruptions, distractions, anxieties, and whatever else that might have kept the widow from focusing on God. Because that shut door even kept out Elisha, there was no mistaking who was responsible for the flowing oil: God!

Not every miracle is meant to be as public and impressive as the parting of the Red Sea. With the door open, once others saw what was happening, they even may have brought their own jars to cash in on the widow’s seemingly unlimited supply of oil. The closed door meant that, rather than a public display of God’s power, this miracle was to be a private demonstration of God’s mercy and grace. There are many other private miracles throughout Scripture. When Elisha restored the Shunammite woman’s son to life, he did it behind closed doors. Elijah’s resurrection of the widow from Zarephath’s son also was done privately and only Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’s resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. Many miracles, like Jesus’s healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman or the Roman officer’s servant were done from a distance with no witnesses. While these instances of God’s miraculous provision and healing eventually became known far and wide (we still read of them today), at the time, they were a personal matter of one person’s faith and God’s amazing power.

Because it cut out other options, shutting the door showed the widow’s total trust in God. Leaving the door open would have implied that she wasn’t quite sure about Elisha’s promise. With an open door, once she saw the oil pouring, the woman could have sent her boys out for more jars; something tells me that the oil would have stopped flowing the moment she did. After the door was closed, the number of jars indicated her faith. Shutting the door meant she’d shut the door on other people and other options. Having opened her life to God, she was all in and committed to Him.

Do we truly trust God’s provision? When He calls us to do something, are we all in? Do we ignore the skeptics and pessimists? Do we focus on God or our fears? Do we give God credit for our blessings or do we tend to chalk them up to coincidence or good fortune. Do we trust in God even when what He tells us to do seems impractical or implausible? Do we put all of our faith in God or do we rely on ourselves and keep a backup plan handy? Peter certainly shut the door when (without a life-jacket) he stepped out of that boat onto the water!

I guess it comes right back to Monday’s message, “Any Bridges to Burn?” The widow trusted God enough to shut the door on her neighbors and any other options and Elisha trusted God enough to shut the door by burning his plow and cooking his oxen. Having faith is believing that God will do what He says He will. Do we have enough faith to shut the door?

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. [Hebrews 11:1 (NLT)]

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. [[Jeremiah 17:7 (NLT)]

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WHAT DO YOU HAVE? (Elisha – 4)

“What can I do to help you?” Elisha asked. “Tell me, what do you have in the house?”
“Nothing at all, except a flask of olive oil,” she replied. [2 Kings 4:2 (NLT)]

swamp lilyRemembering that Elisha burned both plow and oxen to become an itinerate prophet for the Lord, let’s rethink the way he may have said “What can I do to help you?” With no home or money and possessing only what he could carry, how does the widow expect him to help? In the very next sentence, however, Elisha tells her to take stock of what she already has. Although she expected Elisha to solve her problem, he showed her how to solve it herself (with God’s help, of course). As it turned out, with a little work on her part and God’s intervention, the little she had was more than enough; she didn’t just pay her debts, she had money left over.

When God asked Moses what he had in his hand, the man thought his staff was just a piece of wood. When presented to God, however, that staff became a snake, brought forth Egypt’s plagues, parted the Red Sea, and made water spring from a rock. When offered to Jesus, six empty stone jars were filled with vintage wine. When offered to God’s prophet, another poor widow’s resources of only a little flour and few drops of oil were enough to feed three people for three years! When surrounded by hungry crowds, Jesus asked His disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” After taking stock of their resources and being blessed by the Lord, they had enough to feed a multitude.

What has God given you? The widow didn’t think she had enough but, in God’s hands, it became more than enough. If a small flask of oil can turn into gallons, think of what God can do with our resources (whether money, time, possessions, skills, experience, influence, or talent) if only we offer them to Him. Consider what God did with twelve Jewish men, ordinary people just like us, when they offered themselves to the Lord! When we take a step of faith and willingly offer what little we have to God, He will use it, sometimes in supernatural ways, but always in wonderful ones.

Elisha asked the widow, “What do you have?” God asks us the same question.

Trust God for great things; with your five loaves and two fishes, he will show you a way to feed thousands. [Horace Bushnell]

When I fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread, how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up afterward?” “Twelve,” they said. “And when I fed the 4,000 with seven loaves, how many large baskets of leftovers did you pick up?” “Seven,” they said. [Mark 8:19-20 (NLT)]

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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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THE PRODIGAL FATHER (Part 2 – Luke 15:11-32)

Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]

When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.

The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?

Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.

From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!

When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:8-9 (NLT)]

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NITROGLYCERIN

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

crown vetchMy father had heart disease and often suffered from a burning chest pain called angina. When that occurred, he would stop what he was doing and place a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue. Medical nitroglycerin acts as a vasodilator by dilating or expanding the blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump blood through those vessels.

When I was a girl and my dad took one of his nitro tablets, I didn’t know how they worked. Having seen enough Saturday matinees to know that liquid nitroglycerin is so unstable that the slightest jolt can cause it to explode, I couldn’t understand how my father could safely carry it around in his pocket, let alone put it in his mouth. After all, Sylvester the Cat exploded when Tweety Bird put it in his medicine and I’m sure Wile E. Coyote tried to use it on the Roadrunner! Whether in its liquid form or stabilized with clay in dynamite, nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive there is. How could something capable of blasting a hole in the side of a mountain keep my father’s heart from exploding in a heart attack?

I suppose trials are a little like nitroglycerin—they can destroy or help us. The end result depends on what we make of them and how we use them. We live in an imperfect fallen world and, like it or not, every one of us will face ordeals and troubles. Some we bring on ourselves as consequences of our own sin. But, as happened with Job, many of life’s trials seem as random as a tornado and descend upon us without rhyme or reason. Without God, those trials can demolish our lives as easily as nitroglycerin can demolish a building. With God, however, like medicinal nitroglycerin, trials can help our heart for Him.

God’s purpose isn’t to give us easy comfortable lives; He wants us to grow into the image of his son, Jesus Christ (which is what sanctification is all about). Everything in our lives, both good and bad, is designed to help us reach that goal. Unfortunately, when all is going smoothly, we tend to forget about God, just as easily as my father forgot about his diseased heart when relaxing in his recliner. But, just as the pain from stress or strenuous exercise made him turn to his nitro, trials force us to turn to God.

I lose the parallel between trials and nitroglycerin here because, while those tiny nitro pills alleviated the pain in my father’s chest, they didn’t cure his heart disease. They were merely a temporary fix and he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 56. Trials, however, do more than ease the symptoms of what’s wrong with us; they can actually shape and fix us. Disappointment, despair, and disaster, unlike heart disease, don’t have to kill us. Faith is a muscle and, just like the heart, it grows stronger when it is exercised. Somewhat like a cardiac surgeon, God fixes our hearts with trials.

Whether our trials are as destructive as liquid nitroglycerin or as therapeutic as nitroglycerin pills depends upon our reaction to them. We can become bitter or we can consider them a blessing. We can rebel or choose to trust God and accept His grace to deal with our difficulty and pain. Fortunately, rather than a cardiologist, we have the Holy Spirit who will give us all of the comfort, strength and wisdom we need to endure our trials. Because of Him, we can emerge from our trials with mended hearts and a stronger, purer and more mature faith.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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