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Sermon 2019-08-18 Ross Woodhouse

 

Trusting God in hard and painful times – 2 Kings 4 

Turn on the news, read the paper, look at your Stuff App, give attention for a few moments to the reality of what’s happening in our city, in our own families, and you’ll see the world is characterized by need and struggle. For many a sense of hopelessness and no way of navigating their way through it. I know this to be a fact.

Scripture, God’s word to us, helps us see, though living in a different time, pain and struggle is not new. The story I want to share with you this morning is a real story about real people. It is a story where a Father (a faithful prophet of God) has died and left his family – mum and two sons – in debt. And as a consequence of that debt, if it cannot be repaid, the sons will become slaves. What does she do? How is faith enacted in her circumstances? How did Elisha “minister” in this situation? How does God provide?

This passage and others[1] demonstrate that God is not dismissive of, nor aloof from us in hard and painful times – Scripture and history are full of such evidence. I am not deliberately wanting to paint a grim, unbalanced nor sensationalized picture of the state of things. However, we must face the realities, for others and for ourselves. And as Christ-followers, this is where we look to God.

God-perspective is essential. Which means what? Our depth of faith, trust and dependence on God and his word determine how we live through hard and painful times. When we know him, we know, his grace is sufficient for us.

In none of my message today do I want to be misunderstood as being dismissive or invalidating (or unsympathetic) of difficult times; quite the opposite actually. For all of us, I want to provide a biblical perspective on trusting God: I simply want to point you toward Christ and say he is worth trusting in. If you do not know Christ as your Lord and Saviour, ONLY through hope in him can any of us navigate our way through hard seasons.

In talking about pain and hard times, I want to say they are not comparable. There is no ranking whose situation is worse or better than the other. Who is to say the pain of losing a child is the same as never been able to have a child. The pain of losing a husband is the same as never finding that life-long companion or the pain of poverty is the same as been consumed by materialism and wealth.

Having all the answers to such complex things is not what we’re required to do, but neither is being stand-offish, ignorant and silent.  Empathy and grace are what we’re to extend, to others, which can be difficult. Why? We can never know the depths of what others are feeling and experiencing.

Curiously Elisha is as much a pastor as he is a prophet, and he shows us how to empathize with people and their needs. We’re not all pastors and prophets, but we’re all called to serve, love and care, meet needs, be ‘vessels’ for the providence of God and to administer his grace. We’re all called to that.

When sin entered the world, so did pain and hard times, this means for all of us they are inevitable. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (Lamentations 3:32,33)

However, Christ himself became man, incarnate, to suffer and die. And in the life and death of Jesus, pain and hard times find their ultimate purpose and explanation. Which is that such times of pain exist so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by his suffering to overcome our suffering (see Galatians 3:13; Philippians 2:7-8). Our salvation was purchased through his suffering.[2] That’s, good news!

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested (Hebrews 2:18). For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ (1 Corinthians 1:5).[3]

All this (above) gives important context for the rest of what I’ll share today.

You might say what has this to do with the miracle of God’s provision through Elisha of oil, surely the story’s about that? Yes, it is. But it is the means to an end, not the end itself. Miracles are the result of faith.  Faith puts trust in God.

Our trust is in God himself, not in his miracles, and in learning to trust God and have a depth of Christian faith we are able to navigate our way through hard and difficult times and help others in hard and painful times

Let’s read the first couple of verses that describe the situation, we’ll call this “The Pain”.

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.”  Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” “Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.”

 

THE PAIN (vv. 1-2)

The widow was desperate. Seemingly out of options. Her husband[4] had left an outstanding debt that was likely related to costs incurred while Obadiah protected other prophets from Ahab and Jezebel.[5] The widows request to Elisha is for help with the debt, given the work her husband – who “revered the LORD” – had done as a fellow prophet, and the creditor was on the way to collect the sons, to work, to settle the debt.

There was no Work & Income (or similar organisation) in ancient Israel. God had put laws and customs in place such as Jubilee, Sabbatical and strict regulation of lending practices[6] to ensure families were responsible to provide care during old age and/or poverty.

The idea was to keep Israelite’s out of debt bondage and within the care of the immediate whanau (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3–4; James 1:27). But you’ll note the story says nothing about these provisions. Silent also about any wider family circumstances.

She’s hurting and desperate and cries out to Elisha. Known obviously by her, to be someone who could help.

Things haven’t changed much between then and now, at least in one respect: God has – according to James 2:5 – “chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him.”

The poor and the weak are a particular focus of his – and therefore our – care. One of the things I love about such stories is that they show how God cares for the individuals. God himself “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing”[7]

Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” “Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.” Except, in this case, it would be the means God would use to reconcile her circumstances. One of the many diverse and creative ways God cares for his children.

In the same way faith, the size of a mustard seed can say to a mountain be thrown into the sea, faith believes that God can use a little “oil” to restore and reconcile.  Inasmuch we’re witnesses to a miracle provision of God here, the message isn’t that God provides a miracle every time and gets us out of every situation. As if to think, “If I just have enough faith and trust, God will grant me a miracle and this disease, debt or difficulty will go away.”

Thinking this way, we start to believe our continuing hard situation means I don’t have enough faith, which can be very destructive to our relationship with God. The message is: trust God regardless. 

When Billy Graham spoke at the memorial service for the victims of the Oklahoma bombing attended by National dignitaries including the President, he said that he had been asked by many of the bereaved families, “Why would God allow such a thing to happen?” He simply answered, “I don’t know.” The point is trusting God even when we don’t have all the answers.

What the widow was initially unable to see (nothing, but a little oil), in faith, Elisha saw possibilities. So much of this story is about having a God-perspective. Mean? Seeing things as God might see them with a godly attitude. Kingdom thinking. When Elisha asks the widow “What do you have in your house” He’s asking, “What do you have and see that can turn your circumstances around?”

What are your pain and hard circumstances where God might be asking you “what do you have in your house?” What you have in your house as a son or daughter of God is every available resource you need and the backing of heaven, according to His will. God owes us nothing. He has done everything for us in the person and work of Jesus!

I go on about such things including the depth and integrity of our Christian walk because I have seen Christians fall so easily, and retreat from God so quickly. God, is not just a good-times God, God is a for all times and in all things God. If there’s one essential aspect of our discipleship we must constantly grow in, it’s this: hard and painful times are opportunities to press into God.

“…for Christ’s sake, I delight…in hardships…in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12)

This story is a little like the Beverly Hillbillies. During the Great Depression, a guy named Yates ran a sheep ranch in West Texas. It wasn’t generating enough income to pay his mortgage so he ended up living on a government subsidy. These financial worries caused significant stress. The family lived, dressed, and ate in poverty. One day a seismograph crew turned up and asked if they could explore his land for oil. Well, Yates agreed and signed a lease contract. At 340 meters they struck a huge reserve of oil. The first well produced 80,000 barrels of oil a day with others generating more than twice that amount.

30 years after the discovery, one well still had the potential for 125,000 barrels a day. This vast sea of wealth had always belonged to Yates yet he spent years in painful poverty just because he didn’t realize what he already possessed. [8]

Do we know who we have and what we have in God? Do we realize the resources that God has provided or has at his disposal and are potentially at our disposal? What’s God’s response to, “I have nothing but a little oil”?

What God can do in you and for you exceeds what you can see. What do you have in your house?

Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.”

 

THE PREPARATION (vv. 3-4)

Reconciling the debt required preparation, and pastoral care from Elisha. Interestingly Elisha insisted the woman and her sons be the ones to collect the jars: hands-on involvement. The neighbours were involved with the family, collecting as many jars as they possibly could – “don’t ask for just a few”. Notice no specific number was given because Elisha wanted her to act in faith. This was a community effort, all participants in the miracle of God.

I’m reminded here of the early church (see Acts 2:42-47), a Spirit-filled Church where all needs were met. Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 12) “its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”.

Even though it may only affect a few, trusting God through hard and painful times, mobilises the whole church…that’s one thing.

However, letting others into our circumstances to help us in our time of need, is another.  These are not times for boxing on, on our own. These are not times for being prideful. We are among God’s people for a reason; to support one another. Not only is it a biblical principle to serve and love others, but we also must allow others to exercise their gifts in serving us.  We must be ready to serve others and ready to receive the serving of others.

This is the sort of love in action that shows the world we are his disciples (John 13). This is the sort of unity where God commands a blessing (Psalm 133) – a Spirit-filled church! Imagine the widow not asking for Elisha’s help. She was only able to have her needs met by God because she allowed Elisha and her community into her situation. When we willingly surrender our time, talents and treasures, no matter how limited they may seem to us, that, potentially activates God’s miracle intervention and blessing.

Imagine the neighbours not helping the widow with jars? Do we all identify with these statements? “I can’t focus on anyone else’s stuff right now; I’ve got so many things of my own going on. I’ve barely got time for myself, let alone for anyone else. I’m completely overwhelmed, I just need to take care of myself first.”

Yes, we may well be facing our own crises, and there certainly are seasons for self-care, but this can also be the most healing and powerful time for us to serve others. Let’s be wary of being blinded by our own crises (as real as it is) that we fail to see the potential of the “empty jars”.

This story shows that God can use all sorts of people and resources at his disposal for his purposes for his glory[9]. But like the widow, we often get so caught up in what we don’t have[10] that we overlook the possibilities of what he’s already given us. We can all be part of his miraculous.

She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.” But he replied, “There is not a jar left.” Then the oil stopped flowing.  She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.”

 

THE PROVISION (vv. 5-7)

Crisis averted. The widow had asked Elisha for help. With the help of her community jars were collected and the miracle is completed. In the story, the oil continued to flow, as long as there were empty jars. No more empty jars, no more oil. But the right amount of jars was made available –there was not a jar left – to be filled with oil, to meet the need, to pay the debt, and then there was excess; enough for the mother and sons to live on.

God showcased his power of providence through the prophet to the family. The lesson: that he can be trusted. The purpose: that he might be glorified.

 

CONCLUSION

The scripture is not about oil and jars or even specific people, it is about God. It is about trusting God in the crises. In the story, the jars, the community and oil in abundance, were the means God used.

Hard and painful times are inevitable, for every one of us. We can expect them and need to be prepared. What has been or what will our default be at such times? Faith and trust?

The natural response is to resent, complain, blame others (including God) seek the sympathy of others and withdraw from God and fellowship with other Christians.[11]

The Spirit-filled response is to “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-3).

Painful times are an opportunity to receive the blessing God has promised when we respond maturely. Further on James says: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)

(Job 1:20-22) At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Corrie ten Boom lived through the hellish life of Nazi concentration camps—a place where hope was lost for most people. She survived to tell her story of unfaltering faith and tight-fisted hope in God. She saw the face of evil up close and personal. She saw some of the most inhumane acts man can do to man. And when she came out of it all, she said this: “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest.”

Why is it we experience such hard and painful times? So that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by his suffering to overcome our suffering[12]

Revelation 5:9-12. ‘And they[13] sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were slain, and with your blood, you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” And Christ is worshipped… “In a loud voice, they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!”

The perfect, holy, sinless son of God, Jesus, suffered death on the cross, so that in our hard times and suffering – yet we are sinners – we experience his grace. Blood-bought grace. Sin-overcoming grace. Trusting God in hard times grace.  Grace which is sufficient for every one of us, no matter the hard situation we are in or will face. That’s a miracle!

What God can do exceeds what we can see.  

What do you have in your house?

 

[1] A son for the childless couple (8-37) and food in the time of famine (38-44).

[2] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-suffering-of-christ-and-the-sovereignty-of-god

[3] We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15a)

[4] Possibly Obadiah from 1 Kings 18

[5] Konkel, 412

[6] see Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:25-55; Deut. 23:19–20; Ps. 15:5; Ezek. 18:8

[7] Deut. 10:18; cf. Ex. 22:22; Deut. 14:29; Ps. 68:5; Isa. 1:17, 23; Jer. 22:3; Ezek. 22:7; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5)

[8] https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/do-you-have-oil-john-gaston-sermon-on-faith-238946?page=2&wc=800

[9] That he might be glorified is why we go through difficult times

[10] Only a “little oil”

[11] The irony is hard times are the very times we need each other.

[12] see Gal. 3:13; Phil. 2:7-8 Eph. 1:4-6.

[13] Elders and the creatures of Johns vision