No Turning Back (1 and 2 Kings)

I’ve told the story before of Hernan Cortez.  In 1519, that Spanish explorer sailed to Mexico.  He brought with him only about 600 men, and yet over the next two years his vastly outnumbered forces were able to defeat all the warriors of the Aztec empire.  The interesting thing was how he was able to accomplish that incredible feat, since two prior expeditions had failed. 

            His secret was this — Cortez knew from the moment he landed that he and his men faced a task that was dangerous and difficult.  He knew that his men would be tempted to abandon their quest and return to Spain.  And so, as soon as Cortez and his men came ashore and unloaded their provisions, he ordered their entire fleet of ships dismantled.  Some stories say that he had them burned, but historically it seems that he simply had them taken apart.

But from that point on, Cortez’s men knew that return to Spain was not an option.  There was no turning back.  Their only option was to move forward, and they could either conquer the land or die trying. 

I love that story because it’s very similar to a story we read in the Old Testament about a man who was called to follow God.

This morning, in our series through the Bible, we come to the books of I and II Kings.  Let’s watch this video from The Bible Project that will give us an overview of these two books and then I’ll be back to talk about the man who made a decision to follow God and made sure there was no turning back.

            VIDEO

            As you know, each week, we’ve been looking at a different book in the Bible and I’ve been preaching on a key theme from that book.  This week was a difficult decision, though.  There were so many things out of I and II Kings that I could chosen to preach about.  I considered preaching on the wisdom of Solomon, and talking about what it means for us to have wisdom. 

I considered preaching on something from the life of Elijah and was especially drawn to his contest on Mt. Carmel where he challenged Israel with the words, How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” (I Kings 18:21).

            But, in the end, I chose to preach about Elisha, because he was a man of incredible faith.  Now, the story of Elisha actually begins with Elijah.  A lot of people get those two men confused because their names are so similar.  But the truth is, they weren’t very similar at all.  They were very different from one another.

            Elijah is the one of the two that’s more familiar to us.  We know him as a mighty man of God.  He was that fearless prophet who stood face to face with King Ahab and told him that because of Israel’s sins, it would not rain for three and a half years.  He was that man of faith who prayed to God and raised the widow’s son from the dead.  He was that fearless defend­er of God’s truth who challenged 450 prophets of Baal to a fire-from-heaven contest on top of Mount Carmel and then chopped off their heads in a victo­ry celebration.

            But after that mighty victory, Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah and he fled into the wilderness because he afraid, he was depressed, and he was ready to call it quits.  And one of the things that God did to help Elijah work through his depression was to give him something to do – he told him to anoint a new king of Israel, anoint a new king of Judah, and anoint Elisha to take his place.

            And so, Elijah headed back to Israel to find Elisha, a young man who would succeed him as prophet in Israel.  But, as I said, these two men were very different from one another.  First of all, Elijah was somewhat of a hillbilly, living up in the mountains.  But Elisha came from a wealthy family. 

            We read in I Kings 19:1, “[Elijah] found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him.”  Chances are, there weren’t very many men in Israel who had more than one pair of oxen to do the plowing on their land.  Elisha’s family owned twelve teams of oxen. 

            And this was a good time to be plowing the fields.  Remember that it didn’t rain for three and a half years, but after Elijah’s victory on Mt. Carmel, it started raining again.  So, Elisha is out in the field and all twelve plows were in use.  Some of those plows were no doubt being led by servants, but one of those twelve teams was led by Elisha himself. 

            I’m sure that Elisha had his hands full running the family farm.  Ask anyone who grew up on a farm and they’ll tell you the work never ends.  To tend to the animals, to keep the fields in shape, to plant and harvest, to deal with the changing weather, to keep on top of everything, you have to get up early and stay up late.  If you are a farmer, you live your work all day every day.   Lazy men need not apply for the job.

            It is significant to me that when God called Elisha, he was out in the field working.  I think God follows the saying you may have heard, “If you need to find somebody to do something for you, find someone who’s busy.” 

Now we sometimes make the mistake of asking a person who isn’t doing anything because we figure they’ve got more time to do something for us, but there’s usually a reason they aren’t busy.  “If you need to find somebody to do something for you, find someone who’s busy.”

            And that’s what God does all throughout the scriptures.  He calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.  But what was Moses doing when God called him?  He was tending his sheep out in the desert.

            How about Gideon?  He was threshing the wheat floor and God came to him while he was working and called him to lead his people into battle.

            David – where was he? Remember Samuel came to anoint a new king, and they couldn’t even find David because he was out in the field. He was out looking after his sheep.

            We go to the New Testament and we find Peter and Andrew, and what were they doing? They were fishing.  They were mending their nets, and Jesus came to them and said: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men!”

            When Jesus called Matthew, he was sitting in his tax office in Matthew 9.

            I want you to notice this.  God calls people who are busy fulfilling the responsibilities before them.  And so, God called Elisha while he was out in the field behind a plow.  He was out in the field working, taking care of his responsibilities.

            You don’t need to go searching the world trying to find your purpose in life.  Simply fulfill the responsibilities that God has set before you, and he will make clear what it is he has called you to do.

            Let me tell you something else about what Elisha was doing that you may not have thought about before.  He was out in the field plowing behind the oxen day after day.  Have you ever thought how monotonous that routine must have been?  You plow up one row and down another row.  And all the while, you’re walking behind the oxen, which isn’t the most pleasant scenery.  You’re looking at the back of oxen all day long, day after day. 

            And I mention this because some of you probably feel like Elisha.  Not because you’re looking at the back of oxen, but because you’re doing the same thing day after day, and it gets really monotonous.  You’re going to the same job, working with the same people.  It’s the same scenery, the same boring routine day after day.

            Some of you have monotonous jobs, and you do the same thing at work day after day.  Some of you might be students and day after day, it’s the same routine – go to class, study, take tests.  Then what?  Go to class some more, study, take tests.  It’s monotonous!

            Those of you that are parents, what do you deal with day after day – dirty diapers, dirty laundry, dirty dishes — diapers, laundry, dishes, day after day after day.  It is easy to lose your passion when all you see is the same thing, day after day.

            And that’s where Elisha was.  But I want you to notice that he was being faithful to the task at hand.  And I believe with all my heart that God loves to reward those who are faithful in little things.  When you’re faithful with little, God can trust you with much.  And Elisha, even though it may not have been his favorite thing to do, he was faithful, and in the middle of his faithful monotonous routine, God called him to do something amazing.

            Picture the scene – Elisha’s out there in the fields with these twelve teams of oxen.  He’s doing his work, going up and down the field.  Then from one of the valleys off to the side, there comes this mountain man – this guy who looks like he hasn’t had a shower in weeks, long, scraggly beard, wearing animal skins.

            But nobody had to tell Elisha who this was.  Everybody knew his name and his face.  People couldn’t stop talking about how Elijah called down fire from heaven and defeated the prophets of Baal.  The whole nation knew about this strange mountain man from Gilead who didn’t seem to be afraid of anyone.  And here he is at Elisha’s family farm.

            Elijah was not a man of many words.  And so, without any fanfare or formalities, he walked across the field to Elisha.  “Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him.” (I Kings 19:19).  Elijah walked up, took off his cloak and put it on Elisha.  And then he started to walk away.

            Which seems to us like a strange thing to do, but to both Elijah and Elisha there was no doubt what that meant.  It was like an orchestra leader passing his baton to his successor, or a judge handing his gavel to his replacement.  It symbolized the transfer of power.

            And Elisha knew exactly what it meant.  It meant Elijah was offering him a job.  So, now the young man had a decision to make.  He could either stay at home with the oxen or he could follow this prophet to who knows where.  The life of a farmer was hard and it was monotonous, but at least it was safe.  Elisha could stay with the oxen and keep plowing the fields, or he could walk away from all of it, into an unknown future which, if you consider the recent events on Mt. Carmel, might get him into some serious trouble.

            And it’s not like Elijah gave him a job description with a bunch of fancy perks.  I heard about a group called the California Conservation Corps.  It’s an environmental group where young men between the ages of 18 and 25 can commit one year of their lives to work outdoors and respond to emergencies like wildfires and earthquakes.  Their slogan is this — “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!” 

            And that was pretty much the job description for a prophet in Israel.  Elisha, how would you like to be a prophet?  All I can promise you is “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!”  But Elisha was ready to accept that challenge.  It didn’t take very long for him to make up his mind and chase after Elijah.

            In verse 20, “And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.'” (I Kings 19:20). 

            Notice that Elisha’s response was an immediate response. Elisha immediately left his oxen and ran after Elijah.  He didn’t want Elijah to disappear because this opportunity would have vanished with him.

            Then, he asked Elijah for permission to say farewell to his parents.  It’s important to notice that this wasn’t just an excuse for delay, like it was for the man who came to Jesus in Luke chapter 9.  He said to Jesus, “Lord, I will follow you, but first let me go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” (Luke 9:61).

            In that situation, it appears that the man never really wanted to follow Jesus.  Going back to say goodbye to his family was just an excuse. But Elisha’s situation was not like that at all.  He wants to say goodbye to his family (as he should).  It was a matter of respect.  He doesn’t want to suddenly disappear and leave his parents wondering where he went and why.  But, as soon he does that, he’s ready to follow Elijah.

            Now, I don’t how Elisha’s family responded to his decision.  Perhaps they understood and gave him their full support and blessing.  Or maybe they rebuked him and tried to talk him out of doing something so stupid.  He could get killed following that man around the country!   I don’t know what their reaction was, but I do know that it didn’t really matter, because Elisha was committed to following the Lord.

            I have no doubt that Elisha would miss his family, and they would miss him. But we need to understand that following Jesus may mean leaving some things.  Like Peter and Andrew.  It says: ‘They left their nets and followed Christ’.  And Matthew – what was he doing?  He was sitting in the tax office counting the money, and it says that he left the table, he left the tax office and followed Jesus.

            In Matthew 19:27 Peter made the statement that the apostles had left everything.  He said, See, we have left all and followed You.” Peter wasn’t boasting, he was merely speaking the truth.  He had left everything for Jesus – his family, his job, his home.  There was nothing to go back to.

            And like the apostles, Elisha was ready to give up everything.  In fact, what happens next proves it. 

            Verse 21, “So Elisha turned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate.  Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.” (I Kings 19:21)

            I want you to grasp the significance of what Elisha does here.  He slaughtered his yoke of oxen and cooked the meat, using the wood from the plow to make the fire.  Then he served it in a farewell feast for his family and friends.  This is what is known as burning your bridges behind you.

            Like Cortez who got rid of his ships, Elisha burned his plow and his oxen, and there was no turning back.  From that point on, he followed Elijah and committed his life to serving God.  After this moment, there was nothing left that could possibly tempt Elisha to turn back from the task he had set his mind to. 

            Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were Elisha, I think I would have been tempted to tell my parents, “Elijah has chosen me, and I’m gonna follow him, but I don’t know whether this is going to work out or not.  So, keep a spare bedroom available for me, just in case.”  But he didn’t do that.  In one very bold action, Elisha gave up his family, his friends, his farm, his whole future.  It was a tremendous act of sacrifice for someone so young. 

            You can’t read about what Elisha did without thinking about the words of Jesus – “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62).  From this point on, Elisha will never look back.

            Now, it’s important for you to understand this — it’s not wrong to plow your field.  In fact, if that’s the task that God has set before you, that’s exactly what you need to be doing.  But if your plowing is keeping you from following Jesus, you’d better burn the plow.  Elisha was saying, “I’m going to follow God’s call and no matter what happens, I’m not going back.  The old life is over forever.  I’ve got a new purpose in life.”

            In closing, let me share with you two principles we learn from Elisha, and then the lesson will be yours.

(1)  You don’t have to understand fully before you obey immediately.

            Elisha had absolutely no idea what lay ahead for him.  All he knew was that that God had called him, and he was ready to obey.  In fact, I believe that Elisha was in a state of perpetual readiness.  So, when God’s call came, he didn’t have to sit down and write out a list of pros and cons.  He said, “God, I’m ready to follow you and I’m all in.”

            I believe that, as Christians, we need to be in a posture of constant spiritual readiness.  We need to wake up every day and pray, “God, whatever you send my way this day, I’m ready to do it.  Whatever opportunities you make available, I’m ready to take advantage of them.”

            Think about Abraham.  Hebrews 11:8 tells us, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Abraham said, in essence, if I do what God says to do and head off in this direction, I have absolutely no idea where things will end up.  But I’m going to go because I trust God.

            We don’t have to understand fully before we obey immediately.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, but in the scriptures, God rarely gives details when he calls people.  God is often vague about the details.  In fact, I think God’s attitude is, “You can’t handle the details.  Just follow me, I’ll take care of the rest.”

            If you recognize that God is calling you to follow him, or to serve him in some specific way, realize that you don’t have to understand fully before you obey immediately.

(2)  Those God uses the most are those who hold onto the least.

            Elisha made a bonfire and cooked steak for his buddies.  That was a ridiculous thing to do.  Killing the oxen we can understand because of the whole sacrifice thing, but burning the plows?    But for Elisha, there was no plan B.  There was only, “Obey God.”   And when it came down to it, there was nothing Elisha felt compelled to hold onto.

            But there may be some of you here this morning who can’t fully commit to following God because there’s something or someone that you’re holding onto, and you’re not willing to let it go.

            If there anything keeping you from serving God, you need to burn that plow.   Many of us are like children with their security blankets.  There are things we hold onto because we feel secure as long as we’ve got them.

            But, to follow God you might have to step away from your security.  Think again about Abraham.  When we first learn about Abraham, we find him living in the city of Ur in the land of the Chaldeans. 

            But God gave Abraham a direct command in Genesis 12:1. “Leave your land, your relatives, and your father’s home. Go to the land that I will show you.” (NET)   Abram, leave this city, leave your family.  And do what?  Go to the land I will show you.   Leave and go.   Leave and go.

            Now, this may seem obvious to you, but I want to go ahead and say it.  In order for you to go somewhere else, you have to leave where you are.  To go somewhere else, you have to leave what’s known, what’s comfortable, what’s predictable and what’s easy.  In order to follow God, you might have to step away from your security.”

            God says to Abram, “Go to this place you’ve never been.  In fact, I’m not even going to tell you where it is.”  And I would imagine that Abram is thinking, “Wait a minute, I grew up here, I’ve got all my friends here, I like it here.  My house is almost paid for here.  You know, if I ever have kids, I like the schools here.  I’ve got my best friend here; we’ve been friends since we were 12 years old.  I get my hair cut down the street.”  And there were all these things that were comfortable to him and yet God is calling him to go to a place he knew nothing about.

            Those God uses the most are those who hold onto the least.

            And so I wonder, are you willing this morning, like Elisha, to give up everything to follow Christ?  I can’t tell you where that path will travel.  I can’t promise you that the journey will always be a pleasant one.  You may have to leave behind some things or some people that make you feel secure.

            It’s hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more.  Much, much more.  And so I wonder, is there anybody here this morning who’s up for the challenge?

            In just a moment, we’re going to sing a song that describes the attitude of Elisha.  And I hope that, as you sing along, you’re able to sing words that are true – “I Surrender All”.

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