Sunday, October 30, 2016

Passing on the Mantle - from Elijah to Elisha to John the Baptist to Jesus to us

From the Notice Sheet

Text of the Week:   When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”   Luke 15:5-6

Welcome to our services today and a special welcome to any who are worshipping with us for the first time. There’s not much point coming to church unless it connects with the real world we all of us live in. That’s the whole point of coming to church! Reading the Bible is at the heart of what we do precisely because it connects in a remarkable way with the real world. Take the prophets. They lived for the most part in very turbulent times when those in power got richer and the powerless often had what little they had taken from them. What they had to say amounted to an indictment of those who abused power and it pointed the way towards setting things right. It’s remarkable to see how many connections can be made between the world they knew and the world we know. More than that they had a remarkable sense of hope and promise even when it was hard to be optimistic. Their hope was rooted in the reality of the God who was with them through all of life.  That’s the hope we desperately need in our world today. It’s not just that there are connections to be made. As we go from this place today maybe we can take up the mantle of those prophetic voices and look out for things that need setting right in our homes, in our workplace, in our world at large. And we can draw on these age-old writers and thinkers to set about putting them right. And we too can draw on a very real sense of hope and promise in spite of all we see around us in the world. And if you don’t feel up to the task, take heart, none of those ancient prophets did either!

356 Dear Lord and Father
Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
Passing on the mantle

Taking it up!

It took some doing to stand his ground. All that was going on was pretty awful – the people suffered while those in power got more and more power only to abuse the very people they claimed to serve – Ahab was bad enough but Jezebel – her very name has become a byword for power, the abuse of power and all that is awful. It took some doing for him to stand his ground. He knew God stood for something so very different. But God sometimes didn’t seem to be there – for his king, for his people and for him.

And so at one point he fled. How he longed for something to clinch it, something to show how real, how powerful this God was. Yet he couldn’t find him not even in the awesome might and power of nature in the raw. Not in the earthquake.  Not in the wind.  Not in the fire. And then it was he sensed how real God was – in the still small voice of calm.

His travels took him far and wide – much further and much wider than many people wanted. His travels took him far beyond the boundaries of the nation he had come to serve. It was God who took him there. Hungry, nowhere to stay he found himself in the far off town of Zarephath. And of all people it was a woman he came to depend on. She had lost her husband … not that she had much to offer. Scarcely enough grain to make the tiniest of loaf for herself and her son.

But he knew God would provide. “Do not be afraid,” he said to her. She baked gave some to him and then took some for herself and for her son. And remarkably the jar of meal and the jug of oil did not run out … the first day, the second day … for many, many days.

But then tragedy struck.  The widow’s son became ill. Desperately ill. When he collapsed and died she turned on the stranger she had welcomed in – it’s your fault she said. “Give me your son,” he said, he carried him gently to an upper room where he laid him on his bed and prayed to God … he laid on him, three times, and then the boy coughed and breathed and lived. He took the child, brough him down from the upper room and said, “See, your son is alive”. And the widow knew this was a man of God and the word of the Lord he spoke was true.

And his name was Elijah.

And he did serve many. And he did stand his ground. And it cost him dear. And he knew he had to train someone up to take on the task he had when the time was ripe. It was a youngster who worked out in the fields, in charge of 12 pairs of oxen ploughing that seemed just right. The same kind of vision, the same kind of sensitivity, the same kind of sense of the presence of God. And so Elijah and Elisha became something of a team. With the death of the king and the death of the queen all looked to be so much more promising. Until the next king came to power. And he was as bad as they come.

The partnership was not to last for long. Elijah was getting older now. He knew his days were numbered.

He set off through the wilderness and said to Elisha. Stay here. Don’t come with me. But Elisha said, I will never leave you. The road took them down to the city of Jericho and Elijah said, don’t come with me. But Elisha said, I will never leave you. And they came down throught he desert to the river Jordan. And Elijah said, stay here, don’t come with me. But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as long as I live, I will never leave you.”

The two came down to the river – and Elijah took off his mantle, rolled it up and holding it in front of him he passed through the waters to the far side of the Jordan. And Elisha crossed with him.

“What is it you want of me?” the older man asked the younger. It’s your spirit I would love to have, he said.  Watch as I go forward, keep watch and do not fail to watch.

Elijah went forward and Elisha waited and he watched and what he saw was the most remarkable vision of a chariot of fire taking Elijah up into heaven to the safety, and the peace and the presence of God.

He looked to the ground. And there on the ground he saw the mantle, the cloak Elijah had always worn.

He took up the mantle … passed through the waters once more and he walked into the future. He followed in Elijah’s footsteps.

Passing it on!

He stood his ground. Though it cost him dear. War was the order of the day. Times were difficult – and Elisha found himself helping a widow who needed oil each day and oil was always there. Not too much, not too little, just the right amount. And on his travels he could not go it alone. He knew he needed someone

On his travels it was a Shunammite woman who helped him and gave him somewhere to live. When she gave birth to a son so unexpectedly there was much joy. Joy turned to despair when the son died. And Elisha it was the Shunammite woman turned to … when Elisha came into the house he saw the child lying dead on the bed. As Elijah had done before. He lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth – and as he lay over him the flesh of the child became warm and the spark of life came back to him. And he lived. And there was great joy.

His travels took him far and wide … far beyond the bounds of his own country … and of all people the one he found himself helping was a high-up commander in the enemy army of the Syrian people. Naaman by name who suffered from leprosy. But Elisha it was who tended to him and brought him healing. A story for another time.
Elijah passed on the mantle to Elisha. Elisha took up the mantle and passed it on too … and the remarkable thing is that for generations people were around to take up the mantle and follow in the footsteps of Elijah and Elisha.

For as long as there were kings in the kingdom there were prophets who stood their ground, had an authority that made its mark as they were mighty in deed and in word.

But the kingdoms fell. First the north. And then the south. And when the people returned, there were prophets a while.

But there seemed to be no one around to take up the mantle.

Years passed. Decades passed. Centuries passed. And things were pretty bad in the big wide world. Empires had come and gone. But this Romoan empire was pretty awesome in its power.

The time was ripe. It was time for someone to take his stand. Word spread. Someone had taken up the mantle. He looked just like Elijah and Elisha. He dressed the same way.

He had a powerful message. What’s needed is a whole new way of thinking. The kingdom’s coming, God’s kingdom it’s upon you, God’s kingdom, God’s rule … that’s what counts.

His name was John, John the Baptist they called him.

But the authorities were out to get him. His days were numbered. And then someone came. Down into the waters of the Jordan. And up out of the waters of the Jordan. And the Spirit of God was upon him. This was the one John had been waiting for and he knew it.

Not long after he was captured.

And then it was Jesus took up the mantle – and took the message on.

What’s needed is a whole new way of thinking. The kingdom’s coming, God’s kingdom it’s upon you, God’s kingdom, God’s rule … that’s what counts.

What would this rule of God be like? It was in his own home town of Nazareth, in that place where people gathered together each week to read from the scriptures that he made it plain.

It was to one of the greatest of all the prophets who took up the mantle from Elijah and from Elisha, Isaiah that he read …

Reading: Luke 4:16-22

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the words of grace  that came from his mouth.

But then they began to wonder. Wasn’t this Joseph’s son?

Their wondering turned to rage when Jesus drove his point home with a story from Elijah and a story from Elisha – and they didn’t like what they were reminded of.

Luke 4:24-28

he truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’

God’s kingdom is jnot just for our poor, but for everyone, no matter where they are or where they are from. Not just for our captives, not just for our blind. But for everyone, no matter where they are or where they are from.

And at that their amazement turned to rage. And they sought to do to Jesus what the people had done to so many of the prophets before – they sought to put him to death.

Hy-Spirit Song

Activities for all over 3

Taking up the mantle …
Unworthy Inadequate Useful

I love that idea of passing on the mantle.

Elijah knew he couldn’t keep going for ever.

He found a youngster to come alongside him and learn from him.

And when the time came for Elijah’s passing he passed on the mantle.

There’s so much in that story. I love the way Elijah wants to face his passing alone, but Elisha determines to go with him. To journey with him right the way through.

There’s something curious about the world of rugby.

The English sing the story of Elijah and Elisha at every rugby match.

Swing low, sweet chariot coming for to take me home …

While the Welsh sing echoes of the same story … when I tread the verge of Jordan bid my anxious fears subside, death of death and hell’s destruction land me safe on Canaan’s side.

OK, it’s not quite the same story – but it’s using this image of the river as that passing from death to life.

What I like about this story is the way Elisha stays with Elijah. I will go with you “As the Lord lives, and as you yoursaelf live, I will not leave you.”

When someone is approaching their death – we can travel so far with them – and it is so good to make that journey with them. But there comes a point at which they must travel further and we must stay behind.

Sometimes there’s that feeling of ‘taking up the mantle’.

The mantle is passed on through the prophets. It’s taken up by John the Baptist. It’s taken up by Jesus. It’s interesting that Jesus then draws people together so they can take up the mantle from him. Jesus wants his followers not to be passive just journeying … but to be active – making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he had commanded.

Some may have a special calling to be prophets – but all have a task to take up the mantle in some way and make that voice of Jesus heard in today’s world.

In taking up the mantle from Jesus we have things to learn from the prophets who went before.

What the prophets thought, what they did, what they made of the world of their day in some ways is tied to that time … but in other ways it is timeless and speaks to every generation.

What the prophets thought, what they did, what they made of the world and what they said is recorded in the Bible in the book of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and then in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and in the Book of the Twelve.

Let’s take two of the great Prophets.

First is Isaiah – lives in the 8th Century BC, based in Jerusalem at a turbulent time when the once proud nation of Israel has divided into two kingdoms - Isaiah knows all that’s happening in the Northern Kingdom but he is based in the southern kingdom. Those in power seem forever to be getting things wrong. What he has to say is recorded in Isaiah 1-39 – and you can read up the story of the Kings who were in power during his lifetime in II Kings.

Next is Jeremiah – lives in the 7th century BC, again is based in Jerusalem. By his time the Northern Kingdom is no more. All that’s left is the small southern kingdom. And things look pretty bleak as a major world power threatens to do its worst. Jeremiah’s writings are found in the book of Jeremiah and you can read the tragic story of the Kings who were in power during his lifetime in II Kings.

One thing leaps off the page at me when I read up the story of the Prophets against the backdrop of what’s happening at the time. And that is that it’s a world I recognize. It’s a world where those in power too often get it wrong. It’s a world where world-powers are a threat to peace and stability. It’s the world of the kind of headlines we are only too accustomed to.

And into that world these two people are charged with speaking something of God’s word – it’s as if their challenge is to bring the God dimension into the everyday world of their time.

I have a feeling that’s what Jesus is calling us to do who follow in his footsteps. It is to try to figure out what God’s way is for the world – what God is saying in it all.

If our task as followers of Jesus is to put the God dimension into the world – is to say what God has to say about the world. How do you feel about that task.

And the first point I want to make is that it’s scary. And we cannot do it. We’re not up to it.

That’s exactly as Isaiah and Jeremiah felt.

They were not up to it.

So, Isaiah, tell us about that occasion when you had a vision of God and sensed how real God was

Isaiah              In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 

That must have been quite some experience. In your mind’s eye you were in that most holy of holy places in the temple and what did you see in that vision?

Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

It must be hard to put it into words. But in that moment you really felt how real God was. So how did you feel? What did it feel like being in the presence of God. What came into your mind? Did you say anything?

 And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Let’s bring Jeremiah in. Tell us, Jeremiah. Your experience was a little different. You were quite a young man when you felt as if you had a real call from God.

Jeremiah:                   Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ 

What did that feel like? Were you excited? Or did it fill you with fear and trepidation? Were you up for the task? Or were you conscious of your own inadequacies?

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’

Let’s just pause there a moment – isn’t that fascinating. Here are two of the great figures of the Bible story and they simply sense their own inadequacies. They are not up for the task. Isaiah is not worthy. Jeremiah is just too young and not up for the job.

Do you feel inadequate? Do you feel unworthy? You are in good company!

So, Isaiah, tell us how did you deal with that sense of unworthiness. Let me put that another way, how did God deal with this incredible sense of unworthiness you had?

Isaiah:             Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 

That must have been a remarkable moment – the moment when you realised that God is forgiving, a God of grace, a God who actually reaches out to people who are not worthy.  So what happened next:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 

Jeremiah, how did you cope with this sense that you were not ready, you were too young, you were simply inadequate? Put that another way – did you feel God would look for someone better qualified? Or did you sense something else about this  God who was calling …

Jeremiah                    But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’ 

Isaiah had a very tough message to share with the people of his day. Jeremiah an even tougher message to share with the people of his day. There are tough things to say from God.

So, if you feel unworthy, if you feel inadequate … think of the way God renews and the way God empowers. We can only follow Christ as we accept the forgiveness he gives is for us in our hearts and we can only do as he wants us to as we have a strength from beyond ourselves, the strength of the Holy Spirit.

MTS 10: I the Lord of sea and sky

Setting things right

When you read the prophets you can, with gross over-simplification, see that all the way through their message has to do with two things. First they offer a critique of what’s wrong with the world and how you should put it right. They measure what goes on in the world by what they sense God wants for the world. God’s way for the world is basically summed up in the Ten Commandments. The summary of those commandments is summed up brilliantly in a very Jewish way by Jesus – love God and love your neighbour.

Prophets speak out strongly as an indictment of what’s wrong. Often they speak in terms of judgment. What they do is analyse what’s happening in their world as it is shaped by those in power and they basically say: if you can on doing this … that will happen. And it will be pretty grim. If you take seriously the way God maps out then things will hang together much more effectively.

There are three prophets who are roughly contemporary with Isaiah from the 8th Century – their analysis of what’s wrong is much the same as Isaiah’s. And their recipe to set things right is much the same too. Amos and Hosea are based in the North and Micah in the South.

Let’s invite Amos to join Isaiah.

Isaiah had his vision in the year that king Uzziah died. You had already been speaking out for God before that hadn’t you? Weren’t you among some of the farming community in the north …

Amos              … the shepherds of Tekoa … in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam, son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

That was a pretty turbulent time, wasn’t it. If I recall from my reading there was a lot of complacency. When it came to thinking of God people just wanted to have really great times of worship … and they didn’t want to get involved in shaping what society should be like. There was some wonderful times of worship, weren’t there? They were great singers. But what did you feel that God was saying to the people? Did he have anything to say about their worship, about their priorities? What did you think God was saying – put it in God’s words …

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

The prophets work out what that would mean in their day … and we need to in ours. We need to say what’s wrong and how we could put it right. These are the principles of justice. When Jesus took up the mantle from John the Baptist he was stepping into the shoes of this great line of prophets.

There is a challenge to our complacency – at every turn it is our task to try to work out what that means in our society. We can take that analysis, see the way Jesus took it forward .. and speak out.

There’s critique and analysis, scathing indictment of what’s wrong – a pattern for what is right – and that is the message of the prophets.

Hymn: The kingdom of God is justice and joy

Hope and Promise

But there is something else – promise and hope too.

There were three contemporaries of Jeremiah in those even more troubled times. Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah.

Favourite among the three for me is Habakkuk.

He was in Jerusalem as the Babylonian world power was approaching, as the siege engines were being put in place. Jeremiah was there too. Jeremiah had a great hope for the future. He bought a field – as if to say – there’s going to be a future in spite of everything.

Habakkuk stood with the watchmen on the towers of the city and saw the advancing armies – and what he saw was pretty terrifying. He, like all the others sensed God with him. And then he expressed some wonderful words.
These are words to hold on to when we feel on the point of being overwhelmed by the awful things happening in our world. Hold on to the hope. Hold on to the promise.

Habakkuk                  Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 

Three things to remember

However unworthy you feel, however inadequate , God is with you to forgive, to renew, to restore – look to Jesus and know it’s true.

God’s word offers a critique of what’s wrong in our world and the way to set things right – our responsibility is to work through what that takes – and we do that as followers of Jesus, the Jesus who brought to fulfilment that message of the prophets

There’s always hope – a firm hope that hope expressed so powerfully by Habakkuk is a hope we share that is rooted in Jesus and the presence of Jesus with us come what may.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

333 The kingdom of God is justice and joy

OBG 39 For I’m building + Come, let’s follow the way of the Lord

Prayers of Concern

581 Glory be to God

Words of Blessing

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If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light