Friday, July 20, 2007

Swing for the Fences (2 Kings 13:14-19)

Sorry about the delay. Probably another one next week, when I'm at Dayspring West church camp.

Telling the last kings of Israel apart from one another ain’t easy. Their names confuse by sounding alike and their records depress by being alike. Had the books First and Second Kings been written today, a simple cut-and-paste command would tell most of their stories.

This king, Jehoash or Joash in some translations, differs little. He follows the path of Jeroboam the usurper, who split the kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s reign and allowed idol worship to infiltrate his people. They still worship God – or at least, they still go through all the motions. But they worship a wide range of other gods also.

Joash visits the prophet Elisha, who will die soon. He weeps and I won’t suggest he fakes sorrow. But I also can’t see how his sorrow affects him beyond just the emotional level. I don’t see him show any real appreciation for who Elisha is and for the God Elisha has represented.

At Elisha’s direction, the king makes ready to fire an arrow out the window – Elisha may not have been the easiest neighbor to live around. Elisha lays hands on the king’s hands before he shoots, which signifies his blessing on what Joash will do. This encounter and these actions will mean something beyond just what they seem to be on the surface.

“The arrow of the Lord’s victory over Aram!” Elisha says. Joash now knows he will defeat Aram, a neighboring nation whose armies often raid Israel. “Strike the arrows on the ground,” Elisha continues.

Joash does so. He hits the ground three times and stops. Elisha grows angry and tells him he should have hit the ground five or six times, but because he hit just three times, he will only defeat Aram three times.

That’s sort of unfair. There’s no Kings of Israel for Dummies book that says, “When the prophet tells thee to smitest the ground with thine arrows, whackest thou the tar out of them, lest thee show thyself a major wuss in his sight.”

I doubt the actual number matters as much as Joash’s seeming willingness to do little more than the least he can get away with of what the prophet commands. He stops hitting the ground on his own, rather than waiting for Elisha to tell him to stop, even though he now knows the prophetic nature of this meeting.

Joash does what Elisha says the same way he and his people worship God. He goes through the motions and ignores the content.

Now, we know the rituals of our worship matter. The words we say, the prayers we make, the songs we sing and the creeds we confess all direct us as we worship God. But we say them and do them because of what they contain, and not just because we’ve always said and done them. Maybe they hold our praise of God or our thanksgiving, or maybe they show a symbol of what God has done for us.

If we just go through the motions and don’t invest ourselves in them, we drain them of their meaning and we drain worship of its ability to affect our lives. We drain our songs of their praise to God or we drain communion of its declaration that we serve a crucified and risen Savior.

Sure, we risk something if we really invest ourselves in our worship. We risk hearing God call us to change, or maybe even call us to his work way, way outside our comfort zones. We might even risk hearing God call us into ministry.

A quick sports analogy, although my preaching books always said to avoid them. Baseball players swing the bat differently depending on what kind of hits they want. Players who hit the ball often usually swing the bat more or less parallel to the ground. That gives it more of a chance to hit the ball when it zips through the strike zone.

But the power hitters, the ones who hit extra base hits and home runs, swing the bat so it rises though the strike zone. When the bat connects, it drives the ball upward as well as outward. They literally swing for the fences. But the chances of hitting the ball are less. So a manager doesn’t want every player to try to hit home runs, because swinging for the fences increases the risk of missing the ball and striking out.

In our faith lives, we can go through the motions and play safe. We can make sure we say the words right and do the rituals right and we’ll probably look like we’ve got everything covered, whether we really do or not.

Or we can risk something, and really reach out to God and for God. We can invest ourselves in our worship and truly listen for his word to us.

The good news is indeed a risky business. But subtract the risk, and we leave a paler, lesser version of what God has designed to change our lives.

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