Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Campfire Story Gone Wrong

2 Kings 2:13-14, 19-25
June 26, 2011
Series: “Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?”
William G. Carter

Here is what an early church leader wrote about the Bible: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). My sermons this summer will explore the extent to which this is true. Tucked within the corners of scripture are a number of sayings, teachings, and stories that raise the question of their own usefulness. Out of a deep love for the Bible, I want to wrestle them until they give their blessing. And the first of these stories goes this way:

Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over…

Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the LORD, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.

Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

A friend tells about her son going to church camp. He was anxious and a little bit on edge. You know how church camps can be: the mattresses might be lumpy, the food can be uneven, and they force you to drink juice extracted from bugs. They make you play awkward games with kids that you do not know. And then there are all the Bible activities: Bible studies, Bible lessons, the conversations beneath the oak tree about a parable and what it might mean.

This young lad was not sure about all of that. It was his first time at camp, and he had not been coming to camp for years like the others. But then late one night, under cover of his sleeping bag with his flashlight on, he decided to thumb through the Bible and see what he might find. He found this story and laughed out loud. Elisha, cursing the boys - what a crazy thing to find in the Bible! And perhaps it was a love for the obnoxious, even the ridiculous, he declared, "That passage is my favorite Bible story" (of the few Bible stories he knew). It got him through the rest of the week. It still makes him chuckle.

Unknown to him, others at church camp knew this story. I have it on good authority that camp counselors know it, too. There are sources I cannot disclose who have told me this story, of Elisha the prophet cursing out the forty-two boys, is a favorite - maybe the favorite - of camp counselors. You know how church camp can be: the kids are brash, they do not behave themselves, you ask them to quiet down and they throw burnt marshmallows at one another. A counselor who works with unruly kids may quietly declare this story from 2 Kings is one of their favorites.

It became one of my favorites too. I don't remember how or where. I do remember how I was impressed by its strangeness, by its weirdness. It has an inexplicable quality. On the surface of it, you might distill a morality lesson about the appropriateness of children insulting adults. But it is hard to believe it is either inspired or useful. The story makes us scratch our heads.

Maybe that's why I used this passage to torment the Jehovah's Witnesses who knocked on my door. When I was serving my first church, some smiling Jehovah's Witnesses appeared on my doorstep. They came every Thursday and my wife wanted nothing to do with them. "They scare me," she said, "so get them out of here." Being a bit more hospitable, I suggested we pour them a cup of coffee. I would invite them in for a chat and she would disappear. They would lay out their elaborate plan of scripture and how everything fits together. I would smile and ask why they deny the Trinity or why they mistranslate the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Then they shared their pre-conceived notions and brain-washed ideas.

I would ask a question and they would say, "Well, it's right here in scripture," and whip out Bibles from their holsters. Then I would reply, "I'm glad you brought up the Bible," and open mine. "In fact," I said, "There is a passage that I struggle to understand," and they would lean forward with a smile. Then I would read to them 2 Kings 2:23-25. Some kids make fun of Elisha the prophet. They call him “Baldy,” “Chrome-Dome,” “Skin Top,” “Mountain Peak,” and “Turtle Wax Project.” In retaliation, he turns to curse them, and two she-bears came out of the woods to tear up forty-two of those Cub Scouts. “So tell me,” I said, “does the punishment fit the crime?”

First time I did that, the conversation ended quickly. The Jehovah’s Witnesses departed back to headquarters for further instructions. The next week, they returned with a tall friend with dark eyes. He was there to set me straight, so I said, "OK, tell me why this story is in the Bible."

He said, "Well, who does Elisha represent?" That was easy; Elisha was a prophet. He was God's representative.

"That's what the story is about," he explained. "If you insult God's representative, bad things are going to happen to you." With that, he stood and took his leave. It did not occur to me to insult him.

Later on, I got thinking about that. I am a pastor and that makes me God's representative. Suppose somebody votes against my annual cost of living increase or tells me that my hairline is thinning. Could I call a couple of she-bears out of the woods to act as my enforcers? I've considered that but somehow I don't think it would work.

And frankly, I don't think that is the way God works. God doesn't take commands from us, for one thing. And it also seems out of character with the kind of God we meet in the rest of the Bible. We have a God who is generally quieter and infinitely more subtle - a God who is patient, kind, never insisting on his own way, the very picture of love.

Even so, I can imagine how this story has been used, especially around the campfire. I have a collection of stories based on the Hebrew Bible. It is a series of stories about stories, and one of them is about this story. It suggests that our Bible text was a bedtime story told to an unruly child. "Hush," says the mama. “Settle down or Elisha will visit you.” It was enough to frighten a child into nightmares.

Well, if that's the point of the story, it strikes me as kind of odd. What is it doing here in scripture?

It helps to know the wider context. Elisha has just said goodbye to his mentor Elijah. Elijah was caught up in the power of God, swept up to heaven on a chariot of fire with fiery horses. He was one of the few souls taken up to heaven without being buried. And before he departed, Elisha asked, "Can you give me a dose of the same Holy Spirit that lives in you? I am going to need a double dose of the Spirit." This is going to be hard thing to grant you, says his mentor, but stay close and it will be granted you. With that, Elijah is swept up into heaven.

So what does Elisha do? He picks up the prophet's scarf, the mantle from around his neck. And in the power of his mentor, in the power given him by God, he takes this thing and whacks the river. The Jordan River obeys and split open for him, just like the sea had once parted for the prophet Moses. Elisha walks through without getting his toes wet. He has the power.

Immediately after that, he runs into a team of prophets. They have a little chat, and the company of prophets declares, "He has the spirit of Elijah. He has the power!" They want to go looking for Elijah, to see if he ever landed in another valley after being swept into the sky. Elisha knows that is fruitless and tells them so.

Right after that, some city people find him to say, "We have a good city, but the water supply is bad. It makes people sick. It makes the women miscarry their babies." So Elisha goes to the spring, sprinkles some salt into the spring and the water becomes strangely purified, even to this day. It becomes tasty and sparkling. Elisha has the power.

Then our story is told. After such displays of power and authority, after such a transfer of Spirit from one generation to the next, some wayward kids dare to make fun of the prophet Elisha.

I believe the storyteller puts the tale here to demonstrate the power and authority of the prophet. Here is a man who by the sound of his voice can beckon the forces of nature to defend him and his reputation, and implicitly, God's reputation. But it still does trouble me. Taken by itself, this story might lead us to believe false things about God. It could lead you to believe that God is destructive and so are his messengers. And I don't happen to believe that.

I do think God has a time frame for everything and everyone. That every human institution is not only planted but plucked up. Remember, for instance, the message and call of another prophet, the prophet Jeremiah. He was called as a young person. God said, "I appoint you over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to build up and plant (Jer. 1:10)." The appropriate word comes for the appropriate season. Is this the season of plucking up or planting?

You know, that's a healthy question to ask, because we live with this American illusion that things are always going to increase, that things will always get larger, that institutions once established will always be in place. And that is not true. "All people are grass; the grass withers, the flower fades; only the word of our God will stand forever." (Isaiah 40:6). It's only God who sticks around.

So perhaps the story is not about the destructiveness of a God who tosses yesterday's grass into the fire, or tosses the children to the wild beasts. No, there's something else here. I think what is going on is the same reminder of what the kids out by campfires in the camps readily understand: that there is a God out there in the hills, and that God is unmanageable, unpredictable. Sometimes, even fierce.

I can recall my own experiences from camp. Not church camp for me, but Boy Scout camp. We had paddled a canoe toward the middle of Cayuga Lake, and suddenly a storm blew in from nowhere. The dark thunderhead stood three miles high and lightning flashed all around us. Our lives were suddenly at risk. No matter how much praying we did, no matter how much we trusted the Jesus who walked on the water and told the storm to shut up, there was no sign this would improve our situation. God is wild; God has established a huge world with interlocking systems, many of them indifferent to us.

There is a fierceness to God, as evidenced by living in God's world. Anybody who spends any time outdoors also knows this. How many times this past week have you been caught in a thunderstorm, wild and unpredictable?

Belden Lane has done a good bit of backpacking. Lane is a retired professor in the Midwest. He has spent time in outdoor camps and far-off monasteries, but he finds himself drawn to wild landscapes. He tells about getting lost in a box canyon at Ghost Ranch, our Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. As he stumbled around, trying to find his way, the truth smacks him in the face: he could stay lost, even die, and nobody would even notice. It was an overwhelming emotion, almost pushed him to his knees. He found himself fearing God, in the best sense.

He said to himself, "Self, you don't run the world. There is Someone much bigger and wilder than me. I wouldn't know this if I sat inside the cubicle and played it safe. If I remained inside the air-conditioned church and pursued a life of Christian comfort, I would miss out on a great truth about God. God is awe-some."

He's right about that, you know. Some churches will even put cushions on the pews to make life more comfortable. We must let ourselves be lulled into complacency. God is wild, unmanageable, and the most faithful witnesses of God are the ones who point to this divine power, this astounding grace, this fierce mercy.

Even so, it's not the only kind of story in our Bible, is it! In fact, there are rebuttals on every other page. Remember that other story today from the Gospel of Luke? Jesus was getting ready to visit a Samaritan village, but the people there wanted nothing to do with him. James and John became indignant; don't they get it? The people are refusing Jesus! James and John turn to him and say, "Lord, how about if we call up to heaven and command fire to come down and blast these people away?" That's the kind of thing the prophets did. Elisha's predecessor Elijah did it. And Jesus looked at them and said, "Shut up! I did not come to destroy human lives but to save them.[1] We are going somewhere else."

Here is a healthy reminder that, for all of God's power, we also experience a good measure of God's restraint. If God was only in the business of blasting away those who give the temporary insult, none of us would be left. So God restrains God’s self, and refrains from punishment. Indeed so much of scripture reminds us that there is more to God's story than merely retaliating on some schoolboys. God is a God of justice, mercy, and steadfast love. God is a shepherd with a great big staff to poke wolves in the nose and chase them away. God is the One who guards our lives and keeps us forever.

So I think about this today, a story first told around the campfires of faith. Whether it's the parent who tells the child to wise up, or the child who reads this and laughs, "Can you believe this is in the Bible?" I think about this, because, quite frankly, those who teach the Christian faith are under obligation to tell the whole story. Not just the favorite part or the crazy part or the wild part, but the whole story. We need the holy story of a God who is fierce, who creates the blue marble of Earth out of nothing and then blows Holy Wind upon it to keep it completely alive. God has that kind of power. If we spend all our time indoors we will rarely see it.

But there's more to God than sheer power. This wild, unmanageable God loves us so much that he did not spare his own little boy. Tell that part of the story too.

[1] This is a variant text for Luke 9:56.

(c) William G. Carter

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