Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
The words of Jesus seem harsh. The words from the Old Testament are just as hard too. Maybe not the kind of Gospel lesson you would like to hear right before you sit down to brunch with your family, and your Church family! In both, a leader calls a follower, and the follower hesitates. The picture here is about turning the corner in life and making a clean break.
Elijah from the book of Kings was a big deal kind of prophet, a person that spoke on God’s behalf. He was from the time when the people of God were split apart, when the kings were selfish, and they ignored God’s pleas for spiritual purity and caring for those in need.
Just before our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today, Elijah was on the run. Elijah had just enraged the king and queen, by proving how powerful God was, and showing these leaders to be corrupt. Elijah was on the run for 40 days and nights because of this, and found himself in a cave on the very same mountain, where tradition tells us that Moses received the 10 commandments. Here in this cave God finds Elijah, and God says, in so many words, “Hey Elijah, what’re you doing?”
And Elijah says, “I’m the only person left on the planet that still believes in you, God. I’m finished.” And God says to Elijah, “Don’t lose heart. Not only am I God, but you are my prophet, and you will do amazing things.”
God speaks directly to Elijah. That’s not something that happens in Scripture very often, actually. Only to Abraham and Moses, really, and then Jesus. So Elijah is given the gift of an amazing encounter with God that started with wind and earthquakes and fire, and then this encounter with God ends in a still small voice, in the sound of sheer silence, one translation from the Hebrew says.
Our lesson from the Old Testament is what God said to Elijah. God said, “Go and anoint a new leader for the neighboring kingdom of Aram.” God means I have authority over all nations. “Go and anoint a new king over Judah.” God means I will help my people too. And God says to Elijah, “Go and anoint a successor for yourself because there will be no end to those on earth who believe in me,” God says, “And who will do my will and fight for justice and peace.”
Elijah, has gotten the commission of a lifetime! And down the mountain he runs, under the trees and over the rocks, and into the field of Elisha. And there Elisha is plowing with 12 oxen. That means he’s got the tractors at full tilt—he is smack dab in the middle of working, in the middle of life… And Elijah is running by and throws his clothing over Elisha as he runs.
This is a big symbol. Elijah wore an animal skin like John the Baptist. And he throws it over Elisha’s shoulders while he was on his tractor going about his daily work. Elisha knows this means that Elijah has given him all authority, all responsibility, and all power too.
So Elisha comes running after Elijah, and what does he say, now that the authority to appoint kings and rulers, and to speak for God on this earth has been put over Elisha’s shoulders? Elisha says, “Wait, wait!”
Elijah is insulted and shocked. He says if that’s how it’s going to be, then forget it. This can’t wait. Some things are more important. Elisha only wants to kiss his mom and dad goodbye. That hits very hard to hear that seemingly wholesome wish rejected. Because what is more important than family? But I guess it’s true that family can sometimes hold us back from doing the right thing.
And Jesus, of course, always makes things more intense. Because Jesus is not Elijah. Jesus, we know, is God’s own Son—God’s own self that has taken on flesh. But just as Elijah in his ministry in the Old Testament amidst the kings and queens of Judah and Israel was on the run, was in hiding, was always on the road, so, too, was Jesus. Nowhere to lay his head, Luke writes today, no home.
Just so, Luke says Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, but we all know what happened to Jesus there. Jesus was rejected as roughly as you could ever fear to be rejected—betrayed by friends, crucified by the authorities. And the Gospel lesson from Luke also mentions Jesus and his disciples rejected by the Samaritans. Maybe I should to clarify this confusing thing about who the Samaritans were.
Long before Jesus’ time, and long before Elijah too, the 12 tribes of Israel split up. Under King David they were united. But all the kings and their power is shown in Scripture to be very flawed. Indeed, the story that Elijah is a part of is as critical of kings as the others. Each king gets worse and worse. King David had his famous flaws. And Solomon, David’s son, made big mistakes, and after Solomon the kingdom split because of a rebellion.
And Solomon’s son became king of only Judah, and the other 11 tribes, known as Israel, had a different king. And Israel made their capital a town called Samaria. So, Samaritans are deeply related to Judeans, people from Judah, But they went their separate ways religiously and culturally, and the enmity between them was deep.
Jesus was rejected in Samaria, of course, as a Judean. And yet, Jesus tells his disciples to forgive them today in Luke. And Jesus was rejected even in Jerusalem, too, the capital of Judah. He didn’t belong anywhere. Just like Elijah, Jesus and all the prophets of God are often on the run, and hardly make friends with those in authority positions.
But despite this, or maybe because of it, people saw Jesus’ great power, his great mercy and love, and they wanted to follow him. But, Jesus, like Elijah, tells us to follow must be a complete commitment. Elijah doesn’t even let Elisha kiss his parents. And one follower of Jesus says the same as Elijah, “Let me say goodbye.” Another says, “Let me bury my father,” which means: “Let me wait until my father has passed on, so that I won’t upset him or bring shame on him for following you.”
To not say goodbye to one’s parents, like Elisha wanted too, would, I’m sure, be very disgraceful and cruel to them. Certainly, it would break the 4th Commandment of Moses, to honor and respect our mother and father. So, what is going on? Does following Elijah, Jesus and God cause us to sin? No, to follow Jesus, to follow God, means a great change will take place. When Elisha follows Elijah he not only stops plowing, but he kills the oxen he was using to work and has the workers eat them! It’s a symbolic image of one life ending and another beginning.
And the very heart of this change is in our lesson from Paul, in his letter to the Galatians. He writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another.” Jesus and Elijah and Paul are saying that to follow God is to be free forever from the word, “obligation.” The idea of “duty” here is gone.
To be baptized into Christ is actually to be completely set free, set free from some things we think we still want! We want to keep obligation and duty. It keeps us accountable. It makes us feel we are good and reliable. It makes us feel like good people. Well, when we follow the proverbial Elijah and the actual Jesus, we enter a reality where you can’t earn God, can’t earn eternity, can’t earn forgiveness, cannot, yourself, do anything to bring God closer. What you can do is serve and love one another, out of freedom, not obligation. That is what following Jesus is.
Love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest, these aren’t requirements—they are the signs of freedom. To say goodbye to mom and dad out of obligation, is as pointless as disrespecting them and treating them badly out of selfishness. All those other ugly things Paul listed in his letter, they are all just forms of cruelty and selfishness, forms of the “obligation” mentality gone wrong.
And to talk about this kind of freedom we find in our faith, in Jesus, this can be a powerfully counter-cultural thing. This is what that tiny little word “grace” means. You don’t start this process of forgiveness.And you’re not going to finish it either—It’s only a gift. It doesn’t matter how many social causes you support. You are accepted, you are loved, you are forgiven, whether—to put it this way—you are from Samaria, the enemy city, or you are from Jerusalem, the home town.
It’s a clean break with the old way. Now, you are freed to sit and eat with Jesus, and to sit and eat with your family and your Church family. Now you are free to be patient, free to be kind, generous and trusting.