Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hope does not disappoint (Part 2) - 2 Kings 4:8-37

Faith clings to and pursues God despite discouragement v18-28
Here is the balancing point to the first (yesterday). The Christian life isn't one unending stream of happiness. Sorrow also comes to God's people.

Happiness descended on that little house in Shunem. And then one day the boy, probably between 8-10, went out with his father to the fields and took ill. His father didn't think it too serious and sent a servant back with him to his mother. But it was serious and in a few short words we read that the mother nursed the young boy, until he died a few hours later.

Oh the pain she must have felt - to be given a gift by God, and for that gift to be taken away again.

Why does God give blessings only to take them away? Is he a mean God with no emotions, some sort of mechanical being who thinks, "I must strengthen their faith, so I'll give them something nice and then take it away and they'll learn to trust me more because of it."

Does God delight to make us glad only to cause us pain? What about the parents who learn with joy that they are expecting a child, only for that pregnancy to end with a miscarriage? What about a wife who learns that her cancer has gone and she and her family rejoice, and yet after several years of joy, the dark shadow of cancer returns and claims her life? Has he given a reward to this woman of Shunem in order to give her grief that she would not otherwise have experienced?

Why? I don't know that I can answer why. God's ways are not my ways - he is far above us, and there will be times when we are not able to understand what he does. His ways are deep, too deep for any man to fathom. And often we have to say as Elisha did in v27

"the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why."

But that doesn't mean we are left with nothing. This great woman shows us how to respond, because faith clings to God even when we don't understand.

Go straight to God v21, 22
Instead of burying her son immediately as would be the norm, she takes him to the prophet's room and lays him on his bed, almost saying, "This is your problem too." She is not for giving up on this. Then she tells her husband that she is setting off for Carmel 20 miles away to get the man of God. Her husband seems to have much less faith than she does. He doesn't see the point in going. He doesn't seem to have grasped the fact that God is personally interested in our lives and in our problems. For him God is someone only to be approached at set times and in set ways.

Not so with this woman. Her relationship with God is real. Her is a faith that does not disintegrate in the face of difficulties, no matter how severe. Her faith shows her how to respond when life falls apart.

Go straight to God. She doesn't delay. She doesn't even stop to tell Gehazi what the problem is. Does she lie to him in v26? The NIV translates her answer as "Everything is fine" - it's just the Hebrew word "Shalom" - their standard greeting, which means 'peace' or 'it is well'. She greets him, but she wants to get to Elisha, the man of God. When she gets there, her emotions break through and she forgets all respectability and throws herself at his feet and clings to them, and here again her faith is tried as heartless Gehazi is more concerned about etiquette.

Cling to God and to his promises v27-30
Her journey has been motivated by faith. And now that she comes to Elisha she reminds him that this child wasn't sought by her, it was given by God as a blessing. It was the reward God promises to those who look after God's people. And now the child is gone, and she returns to the one who had promised the child in the first place. God had promised her a child, and she knew that God does not mock us, and now that that child is taken from her, she refuses to believe that God promise would fail at this point.

She had no promise from God to say that dead children would be raised to life, but the child was the promise. And God was the giver. So she clings to the promise, and to the promise giver. She clings to God's representative, to Elisha. v30 "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you."

This is what we need to do is such times - we need not just to passively sit tight and wait for the storm to pass. We need to actively pursue God in faith. We need to cling to his promises. We need to plead his character to him. Whatever the difficulties, true faith keeps on believing.

We need to say, "Lord you promise grace… Lord you promise we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear… Lord you promise that your plans are not to harm us… Lord you promise that your grace is sufficient… Lord you promise peace… and I don't have any peace, any strength left."

On a wider scale: "Lord you promised to build your church…"

We need to know God's promises and plead God's promises. We need to know God's character and cling to his character: "Lord you are gracious and loving… Lord you are merciful and compassionate… Lord you are all-powerful."

Persist in pursuing God's promises v28, 30
Too often we give up. Too often we are satisfied with half an answer. There is a time to persist. The son was dead. Some Christians would have said to her at this point, "Well this is God's will, you just have to accept it." They would then shake her hand and say with Job, "The Lord gives, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21)

And that would have sounded very pious and very holy, and very wrong. In this situation would have been wrong. We know it was wrong because she receives her child back. It would have been fatalism - what has happened has happened and nothing can change it, you just have to learn to live with it.

Let's be clear: Job was right to accept the death of his children and this woman was right not to accept the death of her child.

There is a difference: The key issue here is that this child was promised by God. And where we have a promise from God we have no right to back off and be satisfied with anything less than complete fulfilment of that promise. And the strength of this woman's faith was that she grasped this.

And here is a great problem for Christians in Ireland we have been sucked in to a brand of Christian fatalism. We accept the situation that we live in, we shrug our shoulders, and we say, "Well times are hard, people aren't interested in the gospel. We would love it to be different, but we just have to hang in there."

And if this woman was in this congregation, she would stand up and rebuke us all. Because she knows that when God gives a promise, it is an insult to God to settle for anything less than seeing that promise fulfilled.

And she says to us, "You have settled for half a blessing because you aren't willing to pursue God. I rode 40 miles, I wore my heart on my sleeve, I pleaded, I prayed, and God honoured his promise."

Would she be right? Have you settled for half a blessing?

Think of the promises of God. Think of what God has promised to the believer, peace, contentment, fullness of joy, you will be my witnesses. Think of what God has promised the church - those who sow will see fruit for their labours, I will build my church. Think of what God has promised with regard to our children - I will be a God to you and to your children. Have you pursued God for these promises? Or have you settled for a comfortable half-way house?

We wonder why our Christian life is dull and lifeless, it is like a marriage that has lost all its joy. It may be because we have settled for half blessings.

There is a time to accept what God has given us, be it the death of a loved one, sickness, financial loss. When we have no specific promise from God, we must accept what God gives. But when we have a specific word from God that indicates otherwise, we are to pursue persistently the promise of God. Jesus teaches this in the parable of the persistent widow and the parable of the friend at midnight.

He's telling us that there will be times when we are to bombard the throne-room of Heaven with our prayers and we are not to give up. He is telling us that there will be times when we will need to battle to claim what God has promised.

This persistent faith is what he longs to find in his people. Not a half hearted fatalism.

Luke 18:8 "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

We learn here that there is no telling how far God will test our faith. But what will you do when that day comes? Will you crack, or give in, or keep on believing, and pursue God in faith?

We close with an encouragement to keep on believing.

Such hope does not disappoint v29-37
Am I just getting your hopes up, holding out the promise of reward for those who persist in their faith?

Surely the point of this passage is that precisely this:
Whatever limits God tests your faith to, if you keep trusting in him, you will not be disappointed.

The woman lies broken-hearted but believing at Elisha's feet. Elisha sends Gehazi to run to the boy and to place the symbol of the prophets authority on the boy in the hope that that might work. Gehazi goes. And as Elisha and the woman make their way towards Shunem, after a number of hours they se the figure of Gehazi returning. His report brings no joy.

Here the Shunemite's faith must have been stretched to breaking point - all seemed lost. And we learn that while we wait for God to answer our prayers, we may have to bear further disappointment.

But she keeps on believing. And we see Elisha enter the room. He closes the door. And he starts to pray because he knows that he doesn't have the power to do anything. He knows that the power must come from outside himself.

And he lies down on the corpse - a gesture that speaks of the intensity of his prayers. A gesture in which he says that if he could give his own life for that of the boy he would. And he gets up and he prays. And he paces because he's agitated, and he prays more, and he lies down on the corpse again. And we see the sort of persistence that God looks for in prayer - here is a prolonged agony of prayer. He doesn't care that to touch a corpse makes him ritually unclean.

Here we see a shadow in scripture of our Saviour. Elisha's willingness to become unclean, to give his own life so that another may live. For Jesus to rescue us from death he had to become unclean, he had to touch death, he had to bear our sins in his body. He did what Elisha could not, he gave his life so that we may live.

And Elisha prays on and on, with great intensity. And then from the bed there comes a sneeze, followed by another one, and another and another. And Elisha looks and the boy opens his eyes.

And we learn that when we have a promise from God, we are to pray until we get an answer.

And Elisha calls for Gehazi who calls the mother. And what a joyful reunion there is. And the mother learns that those who put their trust in the lord are never put to shame. She learns that hope in God's promises does not disappoint.

And in 800 BC God gives us a sneak preview that not even death will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. We learn that death cannot hold the believer. We learn that God is serious when he says he will raise the dead. Oh how it gives us hope to believe the wildly improbable promise of our Saviour

John 14: 2 In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

She learns that God's power is good and that God's goodness is powerful.

She learns that God is a God who delights to amaze his people with his good gifts; who sometimes baffles us with the mysterious sorrow he brings, but who always delights those who persist in trusting him through all their trials.

And friends, we have a more certain hope and assurance than she had. We stand on this side of Calvary. And we see not a man of God interceding for us, stretched out for us. We see God himself, God the Man interceding for us.

And we have the word of the prophets made more certain in Christ. Elisha prays and asks for life from God for the child. Jesus passed through Nain, a town just over the hill from Shunem, and he stopped a funeral procession, went up to the coffin, and said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!"

Here is the power of Jesus who made the promises. Where Elisha can only pray, Jesus had only to speak. What a Saviour! He will never disappoint us. He will never let us down. Hope in him will never disappoint.

Stuart Olyott quotes this poem:

Doubt sees the obstacles
Faith sees the way
Doubt sees the darkest night
Faith sees the day
Doubt dreads to take a step
Faith soars on high
Doubt questions, "Who believes?"
Faith answers, "I"

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