2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:57-62
A friend of mine once told me about an ex-girlfriend of his, who had been unemployed and living in subsidized housing with her young son when they first met. While the two of them were dating, she had made the difficult decision to go back to university to get a degree. She stuck with it for the four years it took, did the work and was offered a job. Life should have been rosy – but that’s not the way it worked out. Within the year, she was again unemployed, still in social housing, and happy to be back with the other Moms in her building, sharing cooking chores, stretching their welfare cheques, and spending their days at home with their children. The dream she had wanted turned out to be too hard to maintain, and the cost too great. My friend was pretty disparaging about her choices, but I can sympathize. After all, many parents would rather be with their children than go to work at a job that might just barely pay someone else to look after them. My friend – probably because he had supported his ex through her education and even subsidized it from time to time – considered her a bit of a backslider. He’d probably want to quote that passage about putting one’s hand to the plough and not turning back.
The temptation to turn back to what is known and familiar is a common theme in Scripture – part of that great arc of story that starts in Genesis and ends in Revelation. Do you know the story of Lot’s wife back in Genesis? She and her husband and their family were warned to flee from the town of Sodom which was about to be condemned for its wickedness. The messenger of God warned them not to look back at what they had known – but Lot’s wife couldn’t resist – and turned into a pillar of salt. How’s that for an object lesson? Or maybe you remember the children of Israel complaining in the desert? “Let’s go back to Egypt. We may have been slaves there, but at least we had enough to eat!”
We hear this pull to go back in that strange pseudo-Greek chorus of prophets and the words of Elijah telling Elisha to turn back; we hear it in the warning of Paul not to return to old ways of being after being born of the Spirit; we hear it in Jesus’ words to those who wish to follow him.
There’s a certain stubbornness that’s required to follow the path of God. Folk will tell you to give up and warn you that something strange and unfamiliar may be ahead. You’ll feel the temptation to fall back into old patterns and behaviours. You’ll even sometimes feel obligated to turn away because of other demands on your life and energy. But like poor bewildered Elisha, sometimes we just have to keep going, in order to find ourselves where we need to be, at the time we need to be there.
I don’t know why Elijah keeps telling Elisha to turn back. Maybe Elijah thinks the end of his life should be a private moment, between God and him. Maybe he’s not actually all that fond of his successor – after all, God had picked Elisha, not him, and he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to him up to this point. Maybe he thinks Elisha belongs with the company of prophets, not with him. Or maybe it’s all a test of faithfulness, or a need for assurance that Elisha is really up to taking on the task God has given him. Remember how after his resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved him? If was hard for Peter to hear, but in his response is confirmation of Peter’s commitment to the difficult work of apostleship that lies ahead of him. Perhaps that’s what’s going on here.
Whatever the case, Elisha doggedly keeps on going, and in the end, is given the opportunity to witness Elijah’s miraculous departure from the earth. He inherits the Spirit which has inhabited Elijah and given him the power and strength to do the mighty works of God in the face of huge opposition. Determination can have its rewards! After all, what if he’d stayed behind? I’m sure God would have figured something out, but there would have been a missed opportunity there for sure.
The Galatians passage was one that came up a couple of weeks ago in our adult study group, and I really liked what the writer, Brian McLaren had to say about it. He talked about the importance of “walking” the faith – every day, putting one foot in front of the other on the path of Jesus. Christian faith is not passive; it’s active! Jesus says, “Follow!” and that’s what we do. And as Brian points out, why wouldn’t you? The people Jesus was speaking to were people who found it impossible to follow the laws set down by Moses on Sinai and expanded by the teachers of Israel. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t do it all. Being told that the spirit of Love is more important than the works of the Law – that would be incredibly liberating! So too, for the people in Galatia. They had received the Holy Spirit – the Spirit that brings with it fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generousity, faithfulness, and self-control. Why would you want to go back to quarrelling and jealousy, immorality and drunkenness, greed and envy, quarrelling and anger and resentments? No-one in their right mind would want to go back there, right?
Well, probably not – and yet, there we go, sliding back down the hill to the way we used to be. It’s familiar, it’s easy, it’s what we know – so there we go again. This is why I’m a bit skeptical of theology that focuses overly much on being “born-again” or experiencing “conversion” once or only once. My mother used to say to people who asked her if she’d been “saved”: “I have been saved; I am being saved; I will be saved.” What she’s talking about is what John Wesley called “sanctification”. He would say that God redeems us and sets us right once, but after that it’s a constant daily practice of invoking the Holy Spirit and leaning on Jesus in order to keep us faithful. Christian freedom, the apostle Paul says, is not so that we can do whatever we want because we’ve been forgiven and it won’t be held against us. (Or as one preacher says online: “God did not set you free to be a jerk!” (Scott Hoezee). Christian freedom is the freedom to live a transformed life, unburdened by old patterns and allegiances. What Christ was, we too can be, when we give ourselves over to the Spirit. We can love as he loved; we can have the peace he knew; we can forgive as he forgave.
Astonishing, isn’t it? That’s the good news we forget so often. Christianity is not about moral rules; it is about divine freedom. And every time we want to turn around, like Lot’s wife in the Hebrew Scriptures, and look back at the old town – even as it burns – we have the opportunity to turn our lives over to God one more time – and God will not say, “Is it you again? Did you mess up again?” God will say, “Great! Let’s do this thing together!”
You’ll remember I said that living the life of faith takes a certain amount of stubbornness? It does – stubbornness on our part, resisting all the temptations to turn back – but also the stubborn, persistent, unconditional love of God. Let me tell you – take the most stubborn person you know, and put them up against God, and God will out-stubborn them a million times over. After all, God has had a lot of practice.
Whether you think of God as a being, or a force, or even as Love itself, the whole story of Scripture, and in fact, the whole story of Creation, is one of new life coming out of what can seem like total chaos or even total destruction. If we accept the Big Bang Theory as our cosmological story, we can see how out of a powerful, unimaginable explosion, life came to be. If we embrace the stories of the Bible as our theological story, we see the same. Out of all the disasters and destruction faced by the people throughout the centuries, came Jesus, whose life and death were transformed into the beginning of life for all.
So friends, the message for all of us is: Don’t turn back! Instead, as Paul invites us: “Walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) Every time you need to – first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you sit down to eat, as you drive to work or enter the place where you will spend your day – take a moment to invoke the Holy Spirit. “Spirit, keep me in step with you today, in this moment, in this place.” May the fruit of life in the Spirit be yours, friends. Amen.