9th Feb, 2003

The Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany

Preached by the Rev. Ian Elliott Davies

There’s something wonderfully arcane and enigmatic about the character Elisha that we have heard about in our first lesson today. Elisha the son of Shaphat was a ninth century prophet whose name means, in Hebrew, “God is salvation.” Stories of his life and prophetic ministry as successor to Elijah take most of us back to our days in Sunday School. Stories about the healing of the proud Syrian General Naaman, humbled by a Jewish slave girl’s advice to seek out the prophet Elisha who then tells him to bathe in the River Jordan.

An iron axe head borrowed from friends, that flies off its handle and gets lost in the murky depths of the lake, then, thanks to Elisha, is found floating on the surface of the water. Miraculous meals of poisonous vegetables made safe and feeding a hundred warriors. One of my least favourite, children poking fun at the prophet because of his baldness, “baldy, baldy,” was never an insult one might use after hearing how Elisha called bears out of the forest to eat the children who had made fun of him. That always terrified many a Sunday School class and may be an explanation as to why such vast amounts of money are spent on hair-loss treatments in the US.

That wonderful story of Elisha’s young servant fearing for their safety when he spots the entire Syrian army surrounding them. Elisha prays “Lord open his eyes and let him see… The Lord opened the boy’s eyes and he saw the hills covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” For I tell you, those who are with us are more in number than those who are against us.

Then tucked away among all of these there’s a sort of comedic interlude: the story of the four lepers, or men with diseased skin, waiting outside the walls of the besieged capital of Israel, the city of Samaria. In Rabbinic tradition these four characters are depicted as humorous individuals who can only communicate with others and with each other by shouting at the tops of their voices, possibly reflecting the strict rules that forbade their close contact with the general population. It may be lost on our refined late twenty first century ears, but it had the rabbis falling around with fits of laughter. CS Lewis once observed that the devil shudders when he hears the laughter of God’s people and trembles at the mirth of the saints.

Anyway, deciding that their lives were lost the lepers set out to see if they might join the Syrian invaders. They had leprosy, they were sitting at the gates of a besieged and doomed city, either way their lives were lost they reckoned; so why not try and curry favour with the enemy? Again in Jewish tradition there is humour and irony. The four lepers arrive at the front door of the camp of tents, the Syrian Army hears the four lepers shouting, possibly arguing as to who is going to be the spokesperson, who will say what, how they might get away with their lives.

“I’m going to talk to the Syrian General, not you…” “I don’t think we should tell them we’re from Samaria, do you?” But the Syrians, miraculously, don’t hear four lepers, what they hear is a mighty army: a reflection perhaps of the incident with Elisha’s young servant lad. The Syrians think it is the Kings of the Hittites or the Kings of the Egyptians come to rescue the Israelites, and the Syrian baddies flee as fast as their little legs can carry them out of the back door of the camp. So fast that they actually forget to take their horses and mules with them, which surely would have provided a quicker means of escape than their own feet.

But on entering the enemy camp the lepers find, to their astonishment that the enemy had fled in panic leaving their tents, food, silver, gold and precious possessions behind. They couldn’t believe their good fortune and begin feeding themselves and hoarding the booty. Until their consciences pricked them. It is not right for us to take all these possessions for our own, we should share them with the besieged people of Samaria.

But, of course, having been seen heading off in the direction of the enemy camp the people of the City were reluctant to believe that the tale of the deserted Syrians was genuine.

Mmm, maybe they’re here as part of a clever plot to entice us out of the city and allow the Syrians to slaughter us. The people of Samaria were unable to believe that the siege had ended, indeed salvation, as Elisha had promised them was right there under their noses, but they still could not see it.

As I’ve been writing my sermon this week I have been thinking about how similar we are to the people of Samaria. How, when we are told by God that salvation and grace is ours and is there for the asking, we are so reluctant to believe. We can come up with all kinds of excuses, it’s too frightening. The enemies that are there just outside the city walls are just waiting to pounce. We’d be playing right into their hands if even one of us went outside, that’s just what they want… catch us unawares, then bang that’s it, we’re all captured. We do lack a certain amount of confidence in God’s promises sometimes. And I suspect that some of that is linked to an inability to appreciate an appropriate sense of humour, about others, about ourselves and about that part of human nature that we can get utterly out of proportion if it is not Christ-centred, worship and liturgy.

I went to see Martin Shaw’s play “Rose” at the National Theatre in London not very long ago. Olympia Dukakis played the part in this one-woman show of a feisty good-humoured Ukrainian Jewess whose family is murdered by the Nazis. Her life is punctuated by three deaths of young children. Two shot by the Germans and one child shot by her own son in Palestine. At one stage she is trying to escape Warsaw during the pogroms. Her American lover Sonny chases after her train as it is leaving to take her back to her Ukrainian village, and almost certain death.

“Jump, Rose, Jump! The train was leaving the platform. The train to nowhere. America Sonny cried. I leaned out of the train. I couldn’t believe I had a future. America, America! My mind closed down. I shut my eyes. What did it matter? I jumped. He caught me and then dropped me and we rolled over on the platform and then we were surrounded by soldiers with guns and they were shouting at us and I watched the train disappear into the mist, into Europe, into what years later my kind would call The Old Country.”

(p 22) Rose was frozen by fear. She had been so tortured and hurt over the years that she couldn’t even see her salvation when he yelled at her.

The Church, that means you and me, are called to witness that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. If we don’t proclaim it and live it, the good news of God’s love, then how will anyone hear about grace and salvation? It is not right that we keep this treasure to ourselves.

God does not detract from our humanity when he calls us to witness, but stretches us, revels in the risk of placing in our hands the gift of his love and his grace. That is what can transform a world. A God who is shockingly, scandalously open to all. The poor, the sick, children, women, the homeless, the wealthy, outcasts of all sorts, enemies, persecutors, it is not limiting, but universal and all-embracing.

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