About 28 years ago a co-worker of mine at Hexcel Corporation came to see me after returning from a business trip. On the flight back, the gentleman sitting next to him struck up a conversation (that probably lasted the whole flight.) It eventually ended up being about Jesus. My co-worker told him “I know someone who believes just like you”. And so, he handed me the business card the gentleman had given him. I called the number and that was the beginning of a marvelous friendship with Charlie Olsen.
Since then Charlie has gone to be with the Lord. He was a brilliant man, a Risk Manager and Insurance Broker. (By the way, a story he told me about airplane pilots was the inspiration behind “The Designer” short story in the website.) He also introduced me to Jail Ministry. Early on, my job was to translate into Spanish what he preached in English. (We sometimes had up to 70 men in the Church service at Durango Jail in Phoenix – and at least 20 of them were usually Spanish-only speakers.) After that, I started preaching in some of the services and that has continued to this day.
I remind the men every so often that the sermons I preach, I preach because I need to listen to them myself. I’ll be posting some of those in this blog regularly. The title of this blog was the title of this last Sunday’s sermon.
Now that Thanksgiving is past, the Christmas season is rushing upon us. It is an emotionally charged time. Giving is a key word of the season. And for many of us it means joy; but for a lot of people who find themselves unable to give, it can mean stress and even despair.
Because sometimes it seems we’ve nothing left
2 Kings 4:1-7 (All Bible references are from the Darby Translation)
And a woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha saying, Thy servant my husband is dead, and thou knowest that thy servant feared Jehovah; and the creditor is come to take my two children to be bondmen.
And Elisha said to her, What shall I do for thee? Tell me, what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thy handmaid has not anything at all in the house but a pot of oil. And he said, Go, borrow for thyself vessels abroad from all thy neighbours, empty vessels; let it not be few; and go in, and shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and pour out into all those vessels, and set aside what is full.
And she went from him, and shut the door upon her and upon her sons: they brought [the vessels] to her, and she poured out. And it came to pass when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said to her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed.
And she came and told the man of God; and he said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou [and] thy sons on the rest.
We live in a fallen world. With that comes sickness and death. For this woman, losing her husband in that ancient society was a catastrophe. She obviously had no one to watch over her to protect her, and women as a rule did not make the living… men did. This woman was facing the world alone. Had this been before the time of Elisha and Elijah, she would have had no one to turn to. But now that she knows there is among them one who hears and speaks the Word of the LORD, she comes to him and pours out her distress.
I don’t know if you, as you read, ever stop to analyze what is going on and what is being said. Sometimes the best way to understand Scripture is to pretend we are there, picture ourselves in the scene and ask, what would I do? What could I do? So, I want to stop and ask, What was she expecting Elisha to do? He’s not rich, he has no property. He wanders from place to place preaching. There’s no telling if the present King of Israel even will listen to him, if he had any pull with the man. What was she expecting Elisha to do?
Well, of course the story doesn’t tell us, but my guess is: she had no idea. But the point is she was desperate, and in that desperation she was moved to ask. And that is the first lesson of today. Desperation is a good thing when it moves us to ask. You see, we don’t have to have “the plan”, we don’t have to know how to fix the problem; but we need to know, like she did, deep in her heart, that there is someone we can ask for help. (Matthew 7:8-11 For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you who, if his son shall ask of him a loaf of bread, will give him a stone; and if he ask a fish, will give him a serpent? If therefore *ye*, being wicked, know [how] to give good gifts to your children, how much rather shall your Father who is in the heavens give good things to them that ask of him?)
So then, after she asks, what does Elisha do, in verse 2? He asks her a question, What do you have? And notice her immediate answer is: Nothing. I have nothing. I wonder, how much are we like her? I wonder, when times get hard and we lose, it seems, everything, if that’s where we land: ‘I have nothing left…’ Which brings up the second lesson of today: If ever we say that, we should stop and listen because there will be a still, small voice in our ear saying, “Really? You have life, you have breath. Heck you have enough breath to whine that you have nothing left!”
And I don’t want to make light of it because life is hard… but in the middle of despair sometimes we blind ourselves. You see, that is our choice. That was her choice. Tragedy hit; and she could either drop in the middle of her house in a heap of despair or she could run out with her last bit of strength to look for Elisha, even if she didn’t know what he would do.
Don’t let despair get you to the place where you think you have nothing left. Because if everything else is taken away from me, I still have breath to call on my Father.
I think the still, small voice said: Really? And she remembered the oil left in a jar. And so, Elisha takes that little thing she had left – that which was so little that she called it nothing – and turns it around into plenty.
I think there are several other sermons in that story… about borrowing the empty jars from the neighbors: to them they were empty but to God they were vessels waiting to be filled… about closing the door to the world and hiding in the secret place, you and God alone, and letting Him meet you there… but I’ll let you come up with those sermons yourself. Today this is the beginning of the lesson:
When the world beats us down to the point we think we have nothing left, God asks, what do you have left? And He is more than able to take anything we have left, anything, no matter how puny it is, and turn it into a brand-new life. (Blessed are the poor and destitute for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.) When I no longer rely on the world to sustain me, then God comes through.
Even when everything seems perfect
Let’s continue with Chapter 4. Now verses 8-17: And it came to pass on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a wealthy woman; and she constrained him to eat bread. And so it was, [that] as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread. And she said to her husband, Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually. Let us make, I pray thee, a small upper chamber with walls, and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a seat, and a lampstand; and it shall be when he cometh to us, he shall turn in thither.
And it came to pass on a day, that he came thither, and he turned into the upper chamber, and lay there. And he said to Gehazi his servant, Call this Shunammite. And he called her, and she stood before him. And he said to him, Say now to her, Behold, thou hast been careful for us with all this care; what is to be done for thee? wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host? And she said, I dwell among mine own people.
And he said, What then is to be done for her? And Gehazi said, Verily, she has no son, and her husband is old. And he said, Call her; and he called her; and she stood in the doorway. And he said, At this appointed time, when thy term is come, thou shalt embrace a son. And she said, No, my lord, man of God, do not lie to thy handmaid. And the woman conceived, and bore a son at that appointed time in the next year as Elisha had said to her.
Let’s stop here for a moment. Here we have a woman in the opposite situation to the prophet’s widow. She is a wealthy woman. She has property and she has a husband. She has everything; certainly, much more than the prophet’s wife. And yet, shielded as she is from the hardships of life, she is not wrapped up in herself. She is sensitive to a still, small voice that says: ‘this is a man of God’. She is in need of nothing, so she doesn’t think she needs to ask him for anything; but she is moved nevertheless by that voice to act. She decides to bless him, and make a room addition for the prophet in her house so he has a place to rest and eat as he goes about serving this living God.
This is then our next lesson, because just as all of us know that life is hard, we also know that sometimes good times come. And, more often than not, in those good times, who do we think about? Us. Really. Isn’t that true? More often than not, when we are not beaten down by life, we get blinders on and just think: How can I keep enjoying this? Not many of us think of others. Maybe because we are thinking, ‘hey, I worked hard for all I have, I deserve to enjoy it…’ or maybe because it never crosses our mind to wonder how the rest of the world is doing. Yet I guarantee you that that still, small voice has been speaking all along and presenting opportunities time and again for us to act for the good of others. We just don’t hear it.
And so, the response to her generosity is again a question But to her it is asked the other way around: What don’t you have? I love how she answers because it says so much about her heart. “I dwell among mine own people.” Notice she doesn’t say I am rich, I have land, I have all I need. No, instead what she really appreciates about her life is this one simple thing: I am home. Now this is a lot in those days. Because if you read the Old Testament you know kingdoms fought wars against kingdoms all the time. And Shunem had been the scene of battles in the past. The Philistines camped there to fight against King Saul. If you get caught in the middle of a war you can get deported, taken as a slave. In other words, I believe this woman knew that life is hard, that she could lose all she had, and so she treasured the mercies of God: that she had a home, her home where she had grown up.
And maybe that’s the secret to having what Solomon calls in the proverbs a good eye, namely a generous eye: to know that what I have, I have by the mercy of God, not by my strength. A good eye appreciates the things that really matter: home, family… and that kind of eye is not easily blinded by the deceitfulness of riches; that kind of eye sees the needs of others and acts.
Chapter 4: 18-30. And the child grew, and it came to pass one day, that he went out to his father to the reapers. And he said to his father, My head, my head! And he said to the servant, Carry him to his mother. And he carried him, and brought him to his mother; and he sat on her knees till noon, and died.
And she went up, and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and shut [the door] upon him, and went out. And she called to her husband, and said, Send me, I pray thee, one of the young men, and one of the asses, and I will run to the man of God, and come again. And he said, Why wilt thou go to him to-day? It is neither new moon nor sabbath. And she said, [It is] well.
Then she saddled the ass, and said to her servant, Drive and go forward; slack not the riding for me, except I bid thee. And she went and came to the man of God, to mount Carmel. And it came to pass when the man of God saw her afar off, that he said to Gehazi his servant, Behold, there is the Shunammite: run now, I pray thee, to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she said, It is well.
And she came to the man of God to the mountain, and caught him by the feet; and Gehazi drew near to thrust her away; but the man of God said, Let her alone, for her soul is troubled within her, and Jehovah has hidden it from me, and has not told me. And she said, Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me? And he said to Gehazi, Gird up thy loins, and take my staff in thy hand, and go thy way. If thou meet any man, salute him not, and if any salute thee, answer him not again; and lay my staff upon the face of the lad. And the mother of the lad said, As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee! And he rose up and followed her.
This is the next lesson: When you know that you know you need Him, go, run, cling to Him and don’t let go because in His presence alone is Hope.
The rest of the story verses 31-37: And Gehazi passed on before them, and laid the staff upon the face of the lad; but there was neither voice, nor sign of attention. And he returned to meet him, and told him saying, The lad is not awaked. And when Elisha came into the house, behold, the child was dead, [and] laid upon his bed. And he went in and shut the door upon them both, and prayed to Jehovah. And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands, and bent over him; and the flesh of the child grew warm. And he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and bent over him. And the lad sneezed seven times, and the lad opened his eyes.
And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. And he called her; and she came to him. And he said, Take up thy son. And she came and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground; and she took up her son, and went out.
God can do all things. And the good news is: He loves us. And so, my message today is this simple: What do you have, right now? Whatever it is, it’s more than enough in God’s hands.
Even when everything I’ve tried has failed
In the gospel of Mark, chapter 9, there was a man with a son who was possessed by a demon, and the demon kept trying to kill the man’s son. So the man came looking for help but the nine other disciples couldn’t do anything. Just then Jesus comes down from the mountain with Peter, James, and John (this is right after the Transfiguration) and the man, desperate goes to Jesus and says ‘your disciples couldn’t do a thing’.
And Jesus’ answer is to tell him and the crowd, ‘you are the problem, you don’t believe’. And then he asks point blank, how long has this been going on? And the father is forced to admit that it has been going on for a long time, and in that pause between questions, you know he hears the unasked question: so what have you done about it?
Have you ever had to face that question? Because a lot of the things that go wrong in our lives are our fault. Yes this is a fallen world, but because of people like me and you! We mess up and we don’t know how to fix the problem; and instead of admitting it and looking for help we keep on going pretending it’ll get better someday. Well, probably not in this world. But one day desperation sets in and we can make the choice. This father did.
He begs Jesus: Mark 9: 22b-24 “but if thou couldst [do] anything, be moved with pity on us, and help us. And Jesus said to him, “If thou couldst! Believe: all things are possible to him that believes.” And immediately the father of the young child crying out said [with tears], “I believe, help mine unbelief.” And if you’ve read this passage, Jesus cast that demon out and restored the son.
The good news is this: This whole sermon also applies to Faith. How much faith do you have today? right now? Whatever it is, no matter how little it seems, in God’s hands, it is enough. It doesn’t take tons of faith to follow Jesus. All it takes is whatever you have, right now, if you will place it in His hands. He will do the rest.