A Sermon by Rev. David Moffat
Elijah, the great prophet, has ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, leaving Elisha, his servant as prophet in his place. These two miracles (found in 2 Kings 2:19-25) immediately after that dramatic exit. In these stories we find two very different attitudes and approaches to the Word which Elisha (as God’s messenger) represents. I want to deal with the second instance first.
On his way to Mount Carmel, Elisha runs into a group of youths – quite a large group too. Seemingly unprovoked, they begin to taunt him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” (2 Kings 2:23) To us, this seems to be a typical bit of youthful arrogance and disrespect – but does it deserve a mauling!? And what does it mean?
The key is in the word, “baldness”. You may recall the story of Samson, who was known for his great strength (Judges chapters 13-16). Samson was finally captured and humiliated by the Philistines when he let it slip that his strength lay in his hair. Once shaved (Judges 16:19), he could be defeated as any other man. Even without considering this story, we can see that baldness suggests old age and an accompanying loss of strength. So these youths taunt God’s messenger as powerless. It is typical of those whose first reaction to the Word is to dismiss it as powerless, useless and irrelevant. The suggestion is that it is “pie in the sky”, “head in the clouds” stuff, having no real connection to my real life concerns. Nice stories perhaps, but that’s as far as it goes.
Here is an attitude that you really can’t talk to. It does not listen to reasoned argument, and is only interested in confirming its own ideas on any given subject. The “mauling” by the two female bears represents this rationalising, which is effective only in bringing about the spiritual death of all those who succumb to such an intellectual position.
It is the first of the two encounters which I’m particularly interested in here – because these are people with an entirely different attitude, whose lives can be changed by the power of the Word.
When Elisha is greeted by the people of Jerico, what they have to say seems quite odd: “Please notice, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the ground barren.” (2 Kings 2:19) To my way of thinking it is contradictory to describe a place as both “pleasant” and “barren” at the same time. But Elisha’s solution is equally strange – to take a new vessel filled with salt and scatter it on the city’s water source. Australia is no stranger to water and soil salinity. Even in Biblical times, they understood the devastating effects of excess salt on the landscape. There is a story in the book of Judges (9:45), in which a captured city , razed to the ground, is also “sown with salt” to complete its destruction. To the people of Jerico, Elisha’s “healing” may well have appeared like distressing madness.
We need to consider the use of salt here. Salt adds flavour, but it also stimulates thirst. Too much salt is not good, but not enough is just as bad. Swedenborg writes that salt represents truth’s desire [to be joined to] good (Arcana Caelestia. paragraphs 9207.5 & 9325.9). This is what the people of Jerico lack. Jesus’ teachings confirm that it is not good to lack this thirst: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its taste, how shall it be seasoned? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” (Matthew 5:13)
Just like salt, we can have too much thirst, but we can have too little, and the people of Jerico have lost their thirst for life. How does this happen? Probably quite slowly. We coast along, enjoying a life which is “good-enough” but never really satisfying or challenging, until we settle into this rut which doesn’t seem too offensive or painful, but doesn’t really sit right with us either – we sense a “barrenness”, a pointlessness to life, which we just can’t put our finger on.
One of the main reasons for this is that we often try to satisfy our deepest longings with things that were never intended to be all that fulfilling – we substitute what appears “good” and “pleasant” for true, spiritual goodness. in his book, I don’t want to talk about it, Terrance Real talks about the tendency we have to “medicate” feelings of depression. That is, sensing feelings of despair, someone may fall into drug or alcohol addiction – gaining a temporary high or sense of well-being as a substitute for true happiness. And of course, each successive high requires ever greater quantities of chemical stimulant.
Real also talks about other ways of reaching this artificial sense of happiness. He mentions workaholism as one which is particularly difficult to challenge because it is valued and encouraged in modern Western society. But he also says that anything can be turned into an addiction, when it assumes an inflated position of importance in our lives, or becomes and inappropriate source for our sense of well being and wholeness. Worldly success cannot do provide true satisfaction. Wealth cannot do it. Even the search for happiness itself cannot make us happy.
Here’s another example. Do you ever feel embarrassed? Reflect upon one such experience for a moment. What caused that embarrassment? Were you doing anything actually wrong? And what stimulated your embarrassment? Was it that God was watching or that other people were watching? When we are caught doing something we should not be, embarrassment is a useful tool – it pulls us up short and asks us to reassess our values and priorities. But embarrassment can also stop us doing this which we really ought to do. If I take myself as an example, I might get embarrassed about talking to someone about the Lord or spiritual matters. What is happening? I am placing my sense of value and happiness in another person’s hands, looking at myself through another person’s eyes. This is something I should not really do – it is not fair on myself or the others to whom I look. They cannot fulfil this desire in me. This is one way in which we mistakenly look to others to fulfil the desires only God can truly satisfy.
The reality of our lives is that we are created with deep spiritual desires and yearnings – for connection with God, for connection with others, for a life of useful purpose. When we seek to satisfy these appetites with lower, natural pleasures, we deaden our ability to truly experience a thirst for life. ‘This is as good as it gets,’ we reason. When we live like this for long enough, we learn to deaden our thirst for such satisfaction, believing it can never be filled.
Elisha’s miracle shows us what the Church should be doing. I have a colleague who routinely describes his ministry as ‘rubbing salt into the wound.’ It is only in rediscovering the disease that healing can be sought.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
My children have been blessed with a thirst for music. They can sit at our piano, and work through John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course with no need for me to cajole or coerce them. It is because of that thirst that they will develop the love and skill of music.
When we talks about ‘teaching’, we do well to remember that our primary task in not the dissemination of knowledge, but the awakening of thirst for knowledge and its application. The good things which remain with us from our earliest experiences of church are “states of affection for goodness and truth” (Arcana Caelestia 1906). If all we do is spend our time reciting volumes of knowledge, there is a great danger that we merely overfill people – with the wrong things! The result? They will forget or ignore what we say, escape at the first opportunity and never bother to find out more.
So, consider: do you hunger and thirst? And, what is the real satisfaction you seek? Here are Jesus’ words:
…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of living water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14)
I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)
Let us pray for the rediscovery of our deepest longings and then turn to the Lord for the true satisfaction he brings.
Here are some other passages you might like to consider.
… all miracles hold within them the kinds of things that happen within the Lord’s kingdom, that is, within the Church. … ‘Elisha’ represents the Lord in respect of the Word. ‘Water’ means truths of faith, and therefore ‘bad water’, means truths devoid of good, while ‘barren land’ means the Church’s good which as a consequence is not alive. ‘A new dish’ or new vessel means factual knowledge and cognitions of goodness and truth. ‘Salt’ means truth’s desire for good. ‘The source of water’ means the human natural which receives the cognitions or knowledge of truth and good and is improved by truth’s desire for good. From all this we can see the miracle’s meaning, namely the improvement of the Church and its life by the Lord’s Word and by truth’s desire for good there. The improvement is brought about when the human natural receives truths from the Word as a result of such a desire. (Arcana Caelestia 9325.9 & 10)
“And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:13)
‘Salt in every offering’ was a sign that truth’s desire for good and good’s desire for truth should be present in all worship. (Arcana Caelestia 9207.5)