2 Kings 7
November 22, 2015
I’m not going to quote any of the hateful and ridiculous anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric that has been going around this week. You all have heard it. And words like those do not deserve to be uttered in this sacred space—even for the sake of refuting them.
There’s a churchy phrase I’ve been thinking about as I contemplated this week’s sermon: “preaching to the choir.” It means telling people what they already know. Generally, preaching to the choir is considered a bad thing; it’s a waste of time to preach to people who are already convinced of your message.
Now, we don’t have a choir here at Peace Mennonite—well, we do really, it’s called the “congregation”–but maybe you’ve been part of a church where the choir sang every week. With the choir loft up front. All those people—mostly old—who came to church every Wednesday for Bible Study and choir practice and then every Sunday for worship. And they actually listened to the sermons because they were sitting in front of everyone and you’d know if they dozed off.
Preaching to the choir. Those folks who are at church week in and week out aren’t the ones who need to hear what the preacher has to say.
Except they are. Of course they are. Why would they show up every week if they didn’t need to hear the Good News?
I’ve been hesitant to say some of the things I most want to say, because I know you already know them. But I realized that just because you know something doesn’t mean you don’t need to hear it; don’t need to be reminded of the truth that you hold; don’t need to be assured that you are not, in fact, crazy for trying to actually follow the path of Jesus.
I know our primary reading this morning is about Elisha, but considering our current social context, I first want you to hear these words from 1 Peter.–No. I don’t just want you to hear these words. I want to preach these words, to you, the choir. I want to preach them so that you not only hear them, but you know them and you hold them and you carry them with you back out into the world. From 1 Peter 3:
Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.
That’s really what all the nasty, hateful comments are about, right? Fear. Fear of the other. Fear of forces beyond our control. Fear of death.
This is not a new phenomenon, basically good people acting in violent, hateful ways because of fear. The Bible is full of fearful people. (And angels running around scaring people half to death and then saying, “Do not be afraid.”)
Our Elisha story today is jam-packed with fear.
The people of Samaria—the capital city of the Northern Kingdom—are under siege. Their enemies, the Arameans, are encamped around the city, making sure that no one goes in or out of the city gates. Because of the siege, there is a severe famine within the city. It was so bad, donkey’s heads were bringing in a high price for food—even though donkeys were considered unclean animals. It was so bad that people were resorting to cannibalism. They were literally starving to death inside the besieged city of Samaria. Needless to say, they were fearful.
And King Joram—one in a long line of idolatrous kings of the Northern Kingdom—was fearful as well. The people were his responsibility, and they were dying before his eyes. He wore sackcloth under his robes, and in his fear and anger he vowed to have Elisha killed: “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha . . . remains on his shoulders today!”
Funny how fear often makes us throw basic cause and effect logic out the window. Yes, Elisha had predicted the famine, but he is not causing the famine. Killing Elisha will do nothing to feed the people of Samaria.
Just like harassing Muslims and turning away Syrian widows and orphans will do nothing to keep the United States safe from terrorist attacks. As senior demon Screwtape writes to his apprentice nephew Wormwood, “The more [your patient] fears, the more he will hate.” And when our fears are related to huge, complex forces over which we have no control, then the ensuing hatred is likely to be vague and illogical as well.
There was also fear on the part of the king’s officer who refused to believe Elisha’s prediction that the famine would end the next day. He’s afraid of getting his hopes up. Which, I would say, is a bit of a lesser kind of fear than fear of a particular person or group of people. Right? Fear of getting your hopes up—fear of disappointment—doesn’t generally lead to death.
Except in this story it does. Rosie and I quit reading before that part—because it’s pretty gruesome. But you remember how Elisha tells the officer that he will see the cheap food but will not have a chance to eat it? Well, turns out Elisha was right. He does indeed see the food, but the starving Israelites trample him to death at the gate before he has a chance to eat any of it.
So is fear of disappointment deadly? Well, usually not literally. But it sometimes, I guess. And it can certainly kill relationships, kill people’s spirits, kill people’s dreams.
At the beginning of this story, the Aramean army has the upper hand—they are the ones causing fear. But in an instant the Arameans are seized with fear when they hear the sound of a mighty army. They assume that the Israelite king has paid neighboring armies to fight them—and they run for their lives. We know they are scared, because they don’t even hesitate to pack food or their valuables; they just run, leaving a trail of discarded clothing and equipment in their wake.
The general fear that something bad might happen sometime is not pleasant—that Elisha might cause more trouble for Israel, that terrorists might attack our town. But that fear is nothing like the terror of an immediate threat.
I was quite uneasy on Friday when I first heard and then saw three military planes flying over Lawrence. Andrea commented that they were practicing for Saturday’s football game flyover (which is, for my party-pooping mentality, a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, but not an immanent threat to my life). Andrea also mentioned that “many [people] are not so lucky when they hear our planes overhead.” According to a recent article in the Guardian1, 459 non-combatants have been killed by US-led airstrikes on ISIS targets. In those target regions, you can bet when people hear the sound of a warplane, they don’t go look out the window like I did on Friday.
I heard an interview this week with a basketball player who refused to travel with his team to Paris in the wake of the attacks. He explained that he felt fortunate to be in a position to choose safety. He grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood where any loud pop sent people running for cover. Just like the Arameans ran for their lives when they heard an army approaching. The army wasn’t really there, but they didn’t know that.
This kind of sudden, all-encompassing fear short-circuits our rational thought process altogether.
“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated,” says the writer of 1 Peter. These are easier words to write than to live. Fear runs rampant in this story, driving the actions of most of the characters—the king, the officer, the Israelites, the Arameans. Even when king Joram is told that the Arameans are gone and food is available, he is afraid it is a trick. So much fear.
But there are a few characters here who do not act out of fear. The first, of course, is Elisha. He never seems to have any fear, even when he explains to the elders that the king has “sent someone to take off my head.” His fearlessness is rooted in his role as prophet, his heroic status, his deep connection to God.
Elisha is beyond me, because I am not a heroic figure; I’m not a fiery prophet; I cannot claim to never experience fear. So honestly I’m more interested in the other fear-defying characters—not Elisha who never has fear, but the four lepers who overcome their fear in order to live their lives.
I realize that the fearlessness of the lepers is not as theological as Elisha’s fearlessness. They do not walk into the Aramean camp because of their faith in Divine protection or a sense of prophetic compulsion. Their motives are purely rational. There they are, starving to death outside the city walls and they assess their situation.
If we stay out here, we will die for sure.
If we force our way inside the city walls, we will die for sure.
If we go to the Aramean camp and surrender, we might die. Or we might not.
And so, because they truly have nothing to lose, they go to the Aramean camp . . . and find it deserted. Even after reading notes and sermons and commentaries this week, I’m still not sure about their motivation for telling the king about the deserted camp. Is it because they realize that it is morally wrong to keep this good news to themselves? Or because they fear they will get in trouble for withholding information if and when the king finds out?
Whatever the reason, the four lepers saved the lives of an entire city (except for the poor, trampled officer). They saved lives because they were able to overcome their fear—to step back from the overwhelming tragedy of their situation and consider whether or not there might be a better way, something they could do besides sit there and die.
“Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated.”
Sometimes your fearlessness will come from a deep and holy place; you will know that you are walking with God–who will provide for you and protect you no matter how great the threats. That is true, and sometimes you will know it.
Sometimes your fearlessness will come from desperation. You will be able to do the thing that is brave and good and right because it’s all you can figure to do; it’s the only option you see that does not lead to death.
Whatever fearlessness comes to you, grab ahold of it. Follow the fearlessness instead of the fear.
Your Muslim friends and neighbors are not plotting terrorist attacks. The long-suffering Syrian refugees are not coming to the US to blow up our buildings. Migrants from Mexico will not take all “our” jobs. Gay and lesbian Christians and the people who love them and the pastors who marry them will not bring about the downfall of the church.
And even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
Do not fear what they fear. Do not be intimidated.