Friday, August 1, 2014

Elisha's stick: The transformer of natures


He had been attempting to fell the tree. It was going to be a beam in their new building. He had swung the axe back to prepare for the next blow when he felt it lighten unexpectedly. His head spun over his shoulder just in time to see the axe head splash into the depths of the river. Gone.

"What am I going to do?", he wondered. It was a borrowed axe. Borrowed because he lacked the funds to buy his own — or a replacement! He cried out again and struck the tree with the now-headless handle. He stopped and sighed. "Yeah, some prophet I am," he muttered to himself.

He knew Elisha was working nearby so he ran to him, crying out his name. Elisha paused in his own work to listen. After the situation was explained, Elisha simply asked: "Where did it fall in?"

The man lead him to his half-felled tree and pointed. He watched as Elisha took his own axe, sheared a branch from the tree, and threw it into the water where he had indicated. The axe head bobbed to the surface! He watched as it began to spin and float downstream.

He felt Elisha prod him gently in the ribs with the butt of an axe handle. "Go lift it out", Elisha told him before returning work.

Elisha's life is relayed to us in episodes or vignettes rather than a longer, continuous narrative. In this particular passage, the prophets are undertaking a building program. Elisha is enlisted to join a work party on the banks of the Jordan hewing beams for the new structure. When the loss of a borrowed axe head causes quite a bit of commotion for one of the young prophets, Elisha calmly retrieves it for him from the bottom of the river.

Neither the brevity of the story nor Elisha's casual manner should take away from the miracle of what transpired. A deep and fundamental transformation was accomplished: iron was made to float. This is, of course, un-natural. The nature of a metal axe head is such that it should sink to the bottom of the river as a valuable item irrecoverably lost. Yet, by joining the axe head in the water, Elisha's stick imparts it's wooden nature to the iron. The axe head is transformed. It floats. It is recovered and restored.

A similar transformation happens in the life of a believer. We are being pulled down by a force that we are powerless to counteract. Left unaided, we will be something of value that will be irrecoverably lost. Yet, by joining us in our sin and our death, Jesus too can effect a great transformation. We receive His nature and His standing before a holy God, and we no longer need to fear the inevitable outcome of our fallen natures. We are raised up and lifted out.

(2 Kings 6:1-7; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Samson: The sacrificial deliverer

He felt the servant take his hand and then grab him just above the elbow. He began to be lead... somewhere. No doubt the plan was to take him back to prison. Though he could barely make himself heard over the crowd noise, he managed to get the servant's attention. "Not yet. Take me to the central pillars. I need to lean against them."

The servant had not needed much convincing. Samson was out of breath from the humiliating performance he had just completed. He was also shaking, partly from exhaustion, but mostly from fury. The crowd shouting taunts had once only spoken his name in whispers. He had been powerful. He had been a fearsome enemy. Now he was reduced to a helpless, blind performer who had to be lead around by the hand. Now he was the entertainment. "Just wait for my final act," he thought to himself.

He could not say for certain, but based on the noise and the heat, he guessed there were a few thousand people at this temple celebration. He stretched out his arms and placed his hands flat on the pillars, fingers pointed upward. He shifted his feet slowly, bending his knees to widen his stance.

Then he hung his head. "O Sovereign Lord," he prayed --something wet hit his chest, eliciting a few cheers from the crowd-- "Remember me. Strengthen me once more. Let me take revenge for my two eyes."

He filled his lungs with air for the final time. Then he pushed with all his might and shouted: "Let me die with the Philistines!"

Samson's ministry was one of death and destruction. The book of Judges concludes his story by stating that he killed more in his death than he did during his life. Although his life had begun under auspicious circumstances --divine announcement, miraculous conception-- Samson never really lived up the promise of those early days. So it is that we see him at the end, humiliated in the presence of his enemies. His final words are a call to God for vengeance. His final act is to sacrifice himself to bring about the death of his enemies.

Samson serves as powerful counterpoint to the Lord Jesus. Jesus' birth was also divine in conception and foretold with angelic proclamation. Yet where Samson's life is characterized by unfulfilled potential, the Son performed all that the Father gave him to do.

It is, however, at the moment of their deaths when the starkest contrasts appear. Certainly there are still similarities: as they die, both men are surrounded by their enemies; they are being taunted and humiliated. But Samson's final thoughts are of death and of vengeance, whereas Christ's final moments are concerned with others. "Father, forgive them," He cried. Samson gave his life so that his enemies might die. Jesus sacrificed Himself so that His enemies might live.

(Judges 16:23-31)