Monday, August 1, 2016

“There’s Death in the Pot!”

“There’s Death in the Pot!” II Kings 4:38-41
38 And Elisha returned to Gilgal, and there was a famine in the land. Now the sons of the prophets were sitting before him; and he said to his servant, “Put on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 39 So one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds, and came and sliced them into the pot of stew, though they did not know what they were. 40 Then they served it to the men to eat. Now it happened, as they were eating the stew, that they cried out and said, “Man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it.
41 So he said, “Then bring some flour.” And he put it into the pot, and said, “Serve it to the people, that they may eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot.
After reading this passage, I can’t help but ask, why is it in the Bible?  This is not just an exegetical exercise or routine question I ask for every passage, although that’s not a bad idea.  No this question just sort of leaps off the page when I read this story.  The next story mimics the feeding of the five thousand so you can see some quick parallels, but this one…it just doesn’t make sense.  What is it's significance? Why take the time to include such a seemingly insignificant soundbite? The answer lies, as it often does, in the context.
So without going too far, here’s the skinny on the context.  The ministry of the mighty prophet of God, Elijah, has ended and his disciple, Elisha is now the Man of God and bearer or three times the spirit of Elijah.  Elijah’s ministry is marked by declarations of God’s judgement on the idolatrous wickedness of Israel, and time after time he faces off with the authority of his day, Ahab and Jezebel.  Elisha comes after this and while he too rebukes the false leaders of his day, we see a slightly different theme in his ministry as he sets about to heal, provide for, and teach the faithful remnant of Israel and even a few Gentiles.  The parallels between Elijah and John the Baptist are more than clear in the Gospels, but I want to point out that as Elijah foreshadows John, so Elisha through his ministry gave a hint of the majesty of the Messiah who was to come.
When we turn to the story we are discussing tonight we find Elisha in Gilgal.  Gilgal was most likely located in southern Israel just north of Judah somewhere not too far from Bethel.  We don’t know too much about Gilgal, but its proximity or closeness to Bethel worth noting.  Bethel is a place of great significance throughout Israel’s history, particularly as a place of worship. Abraham called on God’s name twice at Bethel and Jacob set up an altar at Bethel after God came to him in a dream.  Jereboam, the first king of the Northern tribe of Israel, made Bethel noteworthy for another reason.  He set up one of his golden calves here and so led the people of Israel astray through idolatrous worship.  Jereboam well knew the danger of the Israelites traveling back to Jerusalem in Judah to worship God and so in order to preserve the health and unity of his new nation he decided, in his wisdom, to alter their worship of God.
All of that said, Elisha is not in Bethel with the false worshippers of Israel, he is nearby meeting the needs of the sons of the prophets.  Famine has come and God is judging his people for their idolatry and the wickedness that it has produced.  In this life God’s judgement on a people will fall on the faithful as well, but he has sent his prophet to care for their needs.  These prophets have had no easy time of it.  Their persecution has been severe now they must also suffer the same famine and pestilence and hardships of all sorts that their wicked culture has brought upon them.  But God has not forgotten them. 
Clearly they have very little left to provide for their own needs.  When Elisha tells his servant to set a pot to boil in order to make stew, they do not run out and fetch an animal like Esau or gather food from the farmer’s fields, no they have men who are desparate enough that they go searching in the wild for food.  Imagine for a moment, their condition.  Put yourself in their shoes.  You are starving.  Your belly aches with hunger and it has been far too long since you have had a square meal.  You’ve gathered all that you have and even scrounged from the brush any plant you can find and now you have a pot of stew, that the Man of God has called for to nourish your weary bodies and empty bellies.  Then you take a bite.
“Man of God, there’s death in the pot!” they cried.  This source of nourishment turns instantly into a source of poison! Life turns into death!  Why are they so anxious, what is the big deal?  Remember, you are them, you are starving.  The Man of God has given you food and it is going to kill you.  You can’t just dump it out and make another pot.  Most likely this is it for that time, you just gathered up everything you could find for the moment, it’s all in the pot and now the pot isn’t food, it is poison, it isn’t life it is death!
What a picture of their nation!  Here they have sought nourishment in all the wrong places and turned their worship of God to idolatry and their food has turned to poison!  That which they thought would bring life, has brought death to them and their people because they did not seek the Lord.  Jereboam sought to bring unity and preserve his nation, but instead he has brought their ruin.
But the story does not end in despair.  The Sons of the Prophets know what they should do.  They cry out to Elisha saying, “Man of God”!  Here is the source of their life, their food, their support, the Man of God.  They have no other pot of food and they cry out to Elisha in their hunger for nourishment.  Elisha gives simple direction…”Add Flour.”  This is not a recipe for good stew.  These men were not idiots who forgot the poison gourd flour antidote.  The flour is just a vehicle for the Grace of God.  Did God through Elisha need the flour to cleanse the stew?  No, but our God knows our weakness and need to see him work.  So he gives them a visual representation of His cleansing work.  Add the flour and the stew is made whole, or wholesome.  There is now nothing harmful in the pot.
Think of who this story was originally written for.  II Kings is written for the Exiles of Israel in order to teach them why they are in Exile.  Why they are experiencing the judgement of God.  Each of these stories is full of potent application.  Your land is poisoned; your people are poisoned; that which you relied on for life is now full of death; but it can be cleansed; it can be restored; and that life comes from God Himself; He is the One from whom you must seek nourishment;  He is the one who will feed you; He is the one who can cleanse the pot.
Can you see how these lessons still apply today, and to us?  Here are some of the big ways I think it applies:
  1.  God will feed His people:  In many ways we live in a time of spiritual famine.  God’s judgement has started with His church and He has given us over to idolatry, worldly desires and lusts of the flesh.  We have poisoned ourselves and polluted that with which He intended to feed us. What do we do?  Cry out, “Oh God there is death in the pot!”  He will feed us.  And indeed we have seen His ministry to us in so many ways.  You can testify of the cleansing flour that he has poured on you through that sermon when you least expected it, or that devotional reading, or conversation with a friend or internet article.  This is how God feeds His Church.  In spite of the poison that we see throughout his Church He is using it to feed we who are the Sons of the Prophets of our day.
  2. Stepping back further, if this is a picture of the people of Israel and their unholy state in need of cleansing, then we can draw hope from this event even as the sons of prophets could have drawn if they could have seen it, that the same God who can cleanse the pot of stew can cleanse His people from their sin and return them to nourishing wholesomeness.  Isn’t the church of 21st century America desperate for this message?  Don’t we long to know that God can cleanse us and can make us whole again?  God can do it, and yes, God is doing it!  He is working in His church even now and though it can be painful to watch at times, it is a wonderful thing to see how he works.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel still had much to suffer at the hands of the nations around them, but through this process God was faithful to purify His people and not let them continue in their rebelliousness and sin. With trembling minds and hearts we must pray that he will do the same for us and not leave us in our polluted and poisonous state, but make us whole and wholesome yet again, for His glory.  Just remember what you are praying for as you pray for repentance and revival and be ready to serve him through the cleansing, no matter what type of flour He uses.
  3.  Lastly and on a more personal note…doesn't this passage give us some hope for our own feeble attempts to feed those around us?  If you are like me you may often wonder how the Lord could use you to spiritually nourish and feed those around you when you are so full of sin and evil desires.  How can I be useful to the Lord you may ask?  Remember, from this passage, that our usefulness, our ability to nourish, doesn’t come from us, it comes from God.  Apart from His grace we are poison to all around us, but by his cleansing work, His sanctifying grace, we become food to those famine starved brothers and sisters around us who need our work in their lives.  As we are cleansed, as He washes us over and over, we become that food upon which others are fed and nourished.  In our sin we bring nothing but death, but by His Spirit we bring life and that everlasting.

Amen Lord, let it be so. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

My Dear Son: Death (Updated)


For man also does not know his time:
Like fish taken in a cruel net,
Like birds caught in a snare,
So the sons of men are snared in an evil time,
When it falls suddenly upon them
Ecclesiastes 9:12

My Dear Son,

I write this to you on the eve of your Grandpa’s death.  I feel compelled to explain some of what you are feeling or will feel whenever someone close to you dies as I experience it myself now.  Let me be clear on two points at least.  Number One, Death is a horrible and unnatural thing that should cause every part of you to recoil in grief and horror.  Number Two, through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, we have victory over death and need not fear its terrors but rather look on it as a doorway into our promised rest with our God.
               First then let us consider death itself.  As the writer of Ecclesiastes makes clear, we do not know our time, only that a time has been appointed when we will die.  This fact alone is no comfort to us, but you will find many will seek to cope with the reality of death by resting in its inevitability.  “We’re all dying from the day we’re born,” say some, and “Man knows not his time,” say others.  Certainly these statements and more like them are accurate, but they offer no comfort for those facing their own death or the death of a loved one.  Solomon himself is very matter of fact in his assessment of death’s timing: 
               “To everything there is a season,
               A time for every purpose under heaven:
                              A time to be born,
                                             And a time to die…”  Ecclesiastes 3:1,2
There is no comfort in this reality and he provides no comfort in the fact that death comes to all.  Indeed, he calls it a vanity and evil that good men and evil men alike will face death in the most unexpected time and place. 
               I can hear you ask, “Why am I so sad and angry and frustrated at grandpa dying?”  Part of the reason is because this is all very sudden and it is hard to realize that soon we will not have Grandpa around anymore and it is hard to imagine life without him.  Another part is that it hurts you to see grandpa in pain and suffering while he is dying.  However, I believe the biggest reason for this mix of emotions is that deep down all of us hate death and all that it represents.  Do you remember when death came into this world?  It was a punishment for Adam’s sin in the garden.  Before Adam sinned there was no death, there was only ongoing, never ending life in perfect communion with God.  God told Adam that if he rebelled against Him and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that he would surely die.  You see then that Death is rooted in our rebellion against God.  Death is only part of this world because of Adam’s sin and our rebellion against God.  It ought never to have been a part of our lives at all.
               So when you say to yourself when you think of Grandpa, “This isn’t right, something is wrong here,” it is just fine to feel that way.  Something about this isn’t right, something is terribly wrong.  Death is the wages of sin.  It part of God’s punishment for sin.  So every part of us should recoil from the horrible pain and separation that comes at times like this.  There is a reason we should grieve and mourn and cry until our eyes are red and our noses run.  Ever since the Garden of Eden when we thought we knew better than God how we should live we have been paying the price of sin as each and every one of us passes through the veil of death into the presence of God and it is a horrible journey to carry out.
               Many people in the World do not understand death and they also seek to minimize its significance.  They think of us like watches that all have different size batteries and none of us know how long our battery will last, but when it wears out we will simply recycle the watch and make another one.  That is how they look at us as humans, we are just part of the natural cycle of life and death and just as we came from nature we are not going back to nature.  In this way they try to escape what death really means as a punishment for sin.  They say there is no God, or if there is He is so weak that he doesn’t really control us or how we should live.  For people like this, death is just a natural process that is okay and it is necessary for us to return to nature in order to keep the cycle going.  I tell you again, death is only natural in a world twisted by sin.  Death is not just a chemical reaction, death is a moral statement that God makes for all of us to see, and we cannot escape that no matter how hard we try. 
               So why do I go on so much about how terrible death is?  I want you to know that all the emotions of grief and pain are okay to feel.  Don’t think you shouldn’t feel this way.  If you feel angry, talk about it—to me, to Mommy, to God; for we are all ready to hear and share with you what we are feeling too.  Did you know that God hates death as well?  Remember that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died (John 11:35), and God himself speaks through Ezekiel and says, “I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies.” (Ezekiel 18:32)  In the Ezekiel passage God is speaking of spiritual and physical death, which is a double grief to him, but I will come back to that later. 
Now you might say, “If God hates death so much, why doesn’t he take it away?”  That is a very good question and a hard one to answer because we aren’t God Himself and cannot see all the reasons He has, but He has shown us some of them.  First, as we have already seen, death is a necessary part of a world of sin.  Death is a punishment for sin, just like briars and thorns and pain and suffering of all types.  This punishment is not God’s fault, it is our fault as rebellious sinners.  God is just giving us what we deserve.  Second, God is perfectly righteous and holy and so while He can do anything that He chooses to do, He can only choose to do things that are righteous and holy.  Righteousness requires the curse that has covered the world since Adam sinned, and so God must execute His righteousness on the world.  God could execute his perfect holiness and righteousness even more thoroughly by simply killing all of us with no mercy, and that would be perfectly okay.  So the real question isn’t, “Why doesn’t God take away death?”  The real question is, “Why doesn’t God kill us all?”
Now I hope you can see exactly how terrible a thing death is, for only once you have grasped how bad death is can you really appreciate how glorious our hope in Jesus Christ must be.  By the time you are my age you will have heard Paul’s paraphrase of Hosea in I Corinthians so many times that it may not mean very much, but I want you to hear it again as you think of Grandpa:
               “ ‘O Death, where is your sting?
               O Hades, where is your victory?”
                              And Paul himself continues,
“The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 15:55-57

You see my Son, sin is the sting of death and apart from Christ Jesus death is victorious over us.    Paul says the strength of sin is the Law because God’s Law shows that we all deserve to die because of our sin.  So when we see death it should remind us that we all deserve to die, not just physically but spiritually.  Only when we have this reality before our face can we see the truly marvelous escape that God has provided for us in Christ Jesus. In fact, God has not just provided a way of escape, He has provided us a way of victory over sin and all its evil effects including death.  Earlier in the chapter Paul describes death as the “Last Enemy.”  When Adam sinned he brought condemnation on all of us and we deserve that condemnation as we add our own sins to Adam’s, but even as Adam, a man, brought this judgment on all of us, so Jesus, also a man, brought deliverance from this judgment through his sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection, from the dead.  And so as He has gone before us in His resurrection and destroyed the punishment of death, so we may follow him and rejoice in our deliverance from death.
               As we face death we may have confidence in the Lord’s care for us and His provision in Christ for our deliverance.  Our calling in death is no different than any other time in our life, we must obey the Lord and trust in Him.  Death can be the greatest challenge to our faith and we ought not presume to know what it feels like to face it.  As humans we love to be in control and death is the greatest loss of control we will ever experience.  When we face death we see better than ever the truth that has dominated our whole lives…God is in control and we must trust Him to care for us…for in death we find the greatest loss of control ever.  Our minds and our bodies will slowly fall apart until we are left bare before the Lord and the world.  If we are not trusting wholly and completely in His care for us, this process will be more painful than you can imagine.  But in Christ we have all the hope that we need for He makes it clear that this stripping away of our control is just the process of entering into His glorious presence for all of time.  We need not be in control when we are in the arms of such a gracious and loving Savior.
               Some of the most encouraging words we can hear on this subject come from the Apostle Paul in Roman’s.  In the process of explaining the gospel Paul shows us the freedom we have from the Law when we believe in Jesus.  When we are under the Law we are under God’s wrath and as I have said, that is when we have much to fear in death as the final step of God’s judgment on us in this life and only the beginning of eternal judgment.  Listen as Paul encourages us through the gosepel:
And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8:10-11)
What a hope we have in our God in Heaven, or as Paul says, “Him who raised Jesus from the dead.”  Our body is dead because of sin, but because of the Spirit dwelling within us we have life and that life is everlasting.  The Spirit indwelling us is our guarantee of eternal life and He will give new life to these broken and fading bodies.  What peace, what comfort is this!  Christ, the first fruit of the New Covenant, has paved the way for our restoration and glorification through the work of His Spirit giving life to our death.  Think of that for just a moment.  Do you remember what a dead body looks like?  It is cold and hollow, and if you leave it for any time at all it will stink and rot.  Do you have that picture in your mind?  Now imagine that same body so cold and empty suddenly sitting up and leaping to its feet!  Those white cheeks and gray eyes are now a bright pink and blue!  This is the hope we have to look forward to.  Grandpa’s body is fading and weak now, but in Christ it will not stay that way.  Someday when Jesus returns it will burst out of the grave and be united with his spirit in the new earth!
               And what a glories hope we have in that new earth.  Paul goes on for the rest of the chapter to open up that hope we have.  For one thing the Creation will be delivered from its bondage when the sons of God are revealed.  Right now the Creation is groaning and laboring waiting for its redemption.  Look around you as you see the terrible storms and disease and fighting throughout the natural world.  Can you see this pain that is so great?  In the same way we are groaning as our bodies get older and feel pain and our work is harder every day and we see more and more misery and evil in the world.  We cannot wait for the redemption of our bodies (vs. 22,23).  Paul says that all this will be washed away.  After Jesus comes back we will have a new earth free of storms and disease and fighting on which to live We will also have new and glorious bodies free of pain and decay.
While we are on this earth we will still struggle and we often won’t know how we should feel in the face of these hard times.  Even Grandpa and Grandma probably don’t know exactly how they should feel and even how they should pray. Here is Paul’s comfort to us as we face these trials:
”Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (vs 26). 
Oh what a comfort it is to us in our weakness to know that the Spirit intercedes for us!  This is just a foretaste of the age to come, for when we are with him then we will be perfected and will stand with the people of God with one voice and one heart and one mind and praise His name without weakness without groaning without uncertainty.  Here Paul speaks to one of our greatest frustrations…we-don’t-know.  We don’t know!  God sees us in our ignorance and stoops low and by the power of His indwelling Spirit He, as it were, cups his ear with his hand in order to hear our stumbling, fumbling words so confused and conflicted.  Like a Father stooping low to hear his toddler son, so our God has made provision to not only hear our requests but to make them understood!  And so I say this is a foretaste of Eternity because then this picture will be complete and He will raise and lift us up, glorified and we will sit with Him and worship without ignorance and without confusion!  God will walk us through any trial, even death itself and then bring us into full and total fellowship with Him on the other side.
               So we come to the greatest of joys and delights we have to anticipate, our Lord Himself!  Paul continues by explaining that if we love God all things work for our good because our God is not a powerless God.  Our God is the one true God who has predestined all that will come to pass and He will bring about all His purposes for us and for the entire world.  We will be “…Conformed to the image of His Son…” by our God who has the power to do it!  As He has called His children to follow in the steps of His Son, so he also has the power to accomplish the same (vs. 28, 29).  He not only promises to bring us into the new Heavens and the New Earth when we trust in Him, but He has the power to bring us there!  There is nothing more powerful than God and when He determines to accomplish something, He will not fail.  Nothing, not even death can wrest us from His loving hands.  Even our sin and rebellion could not keep us from Him for He was willing to send even His own Son to die for us—and why?  Because He loves us!  Notice the emphasis: He loves US!  Greatest of joys and pleasures forevermore--our God loves us beyond any love we could ever imagine and has called us to meet with Him and gather in His house and fellowship around His table.  He has accomplished it, He has cleared the path to His door and guided us to it.  Now we have but to cross the threshold and enter into His glorious rest filled with joys and pleasures forever and ever and evermore.  Keep this before your face and Grandpa’s and anyone who is facing the reality of death.  Do not be afraid!  Christ is calling to you.  Come home!  Come home!  Your Father in Heaven calls you to step through the veil of time into eternity and sit and sup and rejoice at His royal feast forever.

Here are some practical guidelines for things you can do to minister to Grandpa and Grandma in their time of grief:
      1.     Pray.  During this time of extreme pain the Holy Spirit is the greatest comfort for Grandma and  Grandpa.  Pray first and foremost that God’s will would be done and that he would receive glory no matter what happens.  Pray second for healing and strength for Grandpa as we know that the Lord can heal if He chooses.  Pray third for comfort and contentment for Grandpa and Grandma.  Our model in this type of prayer is our own Lord Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  You remember that as He prayed He asked God the Father to spare him from the cross, but He submitted Himself to God’s will that He would be content with whatever the Lord would bring about (Matt. 26:39).  So it is not wrong to ask for God to take away our trials and spare us from them (the psalmist does this on many different occasions), but even as we ask we must be content with where God has placed us and Grandma and Grandpa.

      2.      Listen and weep.  Don’t be too quick to offer your advice or even your words of encouragement.  Someone who is grieving needs space to talk through their issues without hearing your attempts to make them feel better.  It is best to help them work through their thoughts by asking them what they are feeling or thinking and letting them share.  Enter into what they are feeling and open yourself up to crying with them.  Don’t feel the need to keep it all under control, feel free to open yourself up to their pain and share in it yourself.  This is how we show our love for one another.  We are all part of the same body and just like when part of your body hurts your whole body feels it, so it is when someone who is part of our Church body hurts we should feel it too.  And so we should “Weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15b)
      3.      Point them to God.  When you do have opportunity to speak be careful what you say and start first by pointing them to the promises of God.  Think of Psalm 30, and especially vs. 5b, “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.”  This psalm offers encouragement for someone who is wrestling with God, as in vs. 9, “What profit is there in my blood, When I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth?”  See how the Psalmist is challenging God in a humble way?  He asks questions like:  “How can the dirt praise you God?”  In other words, preserve my life so I can still praise you!  Now of course throughout this Psalm his emphasis is on God’s goodness and His provision.  Look also at Psalm 147 and especially vs. 1-4:
“Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God;
For it is pleasant, and praise is beautiful. 
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
He gathers together the outcasts of Israel. 
He heals the brokenhearted
And binds up their wounds.  
He counts the number of the stars;
He calls them all by name.”

You see that even in the midst of his pain the Psalmist is praising God, because the same Lord who calls the stars by name will also bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted.  The Creator of the universe cares about the smallest hurt and the deepest pain of each of His children.  Point them to this truth and continue to point them to Him and His purposes.  We don’t always know why God does things as He does them, but we always know that His purposes are perfect and He loves and cares for us.  Job didn’t ever get an explanation for why God allowed Satan to persecute Him, and yet Job was faithful to trust and depend on God no matter what.  So we should always be ready to encourage those who suffer to look to God and remember His loving care and never, never, never lose heart, but always trust in Him and His promised love for us.

My son, I hope that these words will offer you encouragement during this time and the many times in the future when someone you love will pass away.  I hope you will even remind me of these words when it is my time to die, and that you will read them back to me and encourage me with them.

With much love,