Choosing the butter

A sermon on 2 Kings 2:1-18

One of my favourite French atheist philosophers is a man of about my own age called Michel Onfray.  When he was 28, Onfray nearly died of a heart attack brought on, in part, by his love for classic French cuisine.  As he recovered, his doctor spoke those words we all dread – especially those of us who are too old, too grey, too plump and too sluggish: “Change your diet, or risk your life.”

In response, Onfray said, “I prefer to die eating butter rather than to economise my existence with margarine.”[1]

I’m with him on the food.  But those words capture more than Onfray’s culinary preferences: for him, secular philosophy is butter for the mind, and Christian theology is mere margarine.  And so we part company.

But I want to apply his statement to the story of Elijah and Elisha.  The purpose of the editor of 1-2 Kings is to encourage and challenge his post-exilic audience, the decimated people of God, to affirm God’s continued love and faithfulness in a radically changed environment.

Here in 2 Kings 2, the editor emphasises:

  • the imperative of personal as well as national loyalty to God
  • the demand for courageous and dependable spiritual leadership
  • the reality of another order of existence beyond our material world

As we encounter them, Elijah’s extraordinary life is drawing to a close, and Elisha’s fifty years of prophetic leadership is just beginning.  God is in the business of choosing unlikely candidates for key ministry roles.  Just look around you this morning!  Think about it:

  • Abraham, an establishment Ur-pagan, fathers the people of God
  • Moses, a stuttering murdering shepherd, emancipates the nation
  • Gideon, a terrified wheat-thresher, becomes the nation’s chief justice

And on it goes: Hannah, David, Amos, Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and many other women and men in biblical and church history.

Now Elisha, son of Shaphat, another nondescript farmer, enters biblical history.  He’s ploughing a field with the village oxen, and Elijah, prophet extraordinaire and white-hot hero, turns up looking for a successor.

We select our spiritual leaders in all sorts of ways:

  • sometimes it helps if you’re the son of the senior pastor
  • or the one with all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of Moses, Jesus and Paul
  • or the guy with the most impressive referees (or facial piercings)
  • or the person with the best business plan for church growth
  • or the candidate who hits the magic quorum at a members’ meeting
  • or it just “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28)

Elijah simply waits for the oxen to pass, and throws his cloak around Elisha, who says goodbye to his family, destroys his plough, slaughters his oxen, and celebrates his ordination with a feast (1 Kg 19:19-21).  No bivocational ministry for Elisha!

Here’s what is important.  Elisha is ready.  He obeys God.  He respects authority.  He risks everything.  He chooses butter.

2 Kings chapter 2 opens with an astonishing disclosure: “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…” (v 1).  Elijah takes his protégé on what will be his last tour of duty, or circuit, visiting the people of God at Bethel, Jericho, Gilgal.

Elisha shadows his mentor, and Elijah tests the strength of his commitment three times (vv 2, 4, 6).  Elisha is thinking: Am I the one?  Is this for me?  And three times he chooses the butter.  These three moments of decision are separated by interventions from “the company of the prophets” (vv 3, 5).

They are potential rivals.  The cloak might have fallen on one of them.  They are enthusiasts and nerds.  They have googled their way through life.  They know Elijah’s impending fate, and they want Elisha to know that they know what God knows.  Shades of Donald Rumsfeld perhaps?

Their function in the story is to serve as witnesses to Elisha’s succession.  Is he the one?  Is this for him?  Has he chosen butter?  But they distract him, and exacerbate him.  “Yes, I know – so be quiet!” he says.

Then comes Elijah’s last miracle (v 8), and as they cross the dry bed of the Jordan – into Moab, where Moses died – Elijah asks his last question (v 9), and Elisha’s answer indicates his desire to answer Elijah’s call.  Elisha is not seeking twice the power of his mentor.  He is seeking confirmation that the right choice has been made.  So Elijah sets a condition (v 10).

Then, in mid-sentence, a chariot of fire, horses of fire, a whirlwind, and Elijah is gone, his cloak falling empty from an empty sky.  Elisha picks it up and returns to the east bank of the Jordan River.

Now for the test that matters.  The other prophets are on the west bank.  Elisha takes the cloak and strikes the water.  He seems to waver for a moment, and says, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” (v 14).  But the waters part, and he crosses over to the other side.

Fast forward half a century, and Elisha has lived through the high and low points of the reigns of five kings of Judah.  He surveys his own extraordinary life: a life of teaching, challenging, modelling, miracles, advocacy, fidelity.  Everyone can see that, in the realm of the spirit, Elisha has chosen butter rather than economise his existence with margarine.  They can also see that God has chosen butter in choosing him.

That is not to suggest that the pursuit of a so-called secular vocation indicates poor choices, or lack of courage, or is less worthy than a career in so-called spiritual ministry. But faced with the opportunity, and the necessary gifts and abilities, to serve God in a front-line spiritual capacity, and choosing something else is like Michel Onfray choosing margarine instead of butter.

And the consequences for yourself and others can be devastating.

Elisha was probably quite capable of ploughing a straight furrow, and tending sheep, and pruning grapevines.  But he was better employed, and contributed more to the spiritual capital of the people of God, by following in Elijah’s footsteps.

I faced a similar choice.  When I was 22, I found myself on a Commonwealth scholarship, enrolled in a doctoral degree, working as a research assistant and teaching at a University.  Life was good.

But God had better plans.  Through a series of steps, it became clear that my studies were more about pride and status than about serving God.  I was challenged by the experience of Moses, captured in Hebrews 11:26f, that there was something better.  I chose the butter, and went to College, and became a pastor, a chaplain and an ethicist.

Who knows what the future holds for us?  Choose butter, not margarine!  Respect the advice of others, but don’t be limited by their vision.  Don’t be limited by their experience.  Take the road less travelled.  Walk with leaders like Elijah.  Expect the unexpected.  Let God surprise you with his goodness and mercy and grace.

When it comes to the decisions that will shape your life, your ministry, and your legacy: choose to eat butter rather than economising your existence with margarine!

Sermon 582 copyright © 2006 Rod Benson. All rights reserved.  Preached at Morling College Chapel, Sydney, Australia, on 29 May 2007. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985).

[1] Amanda Hooton, “The voice of reason,” The Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine, 12 May 2007.

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