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. 

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