I have TERRIBLE vision. My vision is something ridiculous like 20/450 rather than anything close to 20/20 vision. I’ve been told that this means without contacts or eyeglasses, I can see something at 20 feet that the person with “correct eyesight” can see at 450 feet. A football field is 360 feet long – which means the average person could see an object more than a football field away, while I could only see it 20 feet in front of me.
If we weren’t as advanced as we are today in our technology of vision correction, I’m confident I would have 2 inch thick coke bottle glasses that were about as stylish as a potato sack.
The 3 years I was in seminary I studied both Greek and Hebrew, not to mention all the reading I did in general. One little dot in a Hebrew letter or one curl of a letter in Greek could change the entire meaning of a word, so it was imperative that I was able to see these tiny Greek and Hebrew characters no matter what it cost my ego.
So I broke down and I got reading glasses. Nothing fancy of course – nothing expensive. I didn’t need expensive reading glasses just yet. The $10.00 glasses from Walgreens that make me look even more like my mother would have to do.
But they helped. They helped when I was reading the Greek and Hebrew, not to mention all my other books, and surprisingly I could suddenly see the computer screen a lot better as well.
Vision most certainly has plenty to do with our ability to see clearly the things that are sitting in front of us, to be able to see the letters on a page, to be able to differentiate between colors and to be able to see things far away.
But vision is also so much more than that. Author Bob Logan, who’s written books about Church Growth and Church Planting, says that vision is “the capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs that inspires people to respond; that which is desirable, which could be, should be; that which is attainable.”
This “capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs that inspires people to respond,” is something that all church leaders struggle with on a daily basis. I don’t mean struggle in the sense that it’s always a bad thing, but church leaders, whether they be ordained ministers or lay leaders wrestle with and labor with the idea of vision each and every time they look to the future of the church.
What is a compelling picture that we can create that will keep current members happy and fulfilled spiritually, while also growing the church as we move out into the community? What is this picture of our church that is a desired state of affairs? What picture of our faith community is one that would inspire people to respond?
This is where we meet Elijah and Elisha in our story. We meet Elisha at a point and time when his vision as a leader is being tested. If he is to be the successor to Elijah, then his vision must be clear and unmistakable.
You see, we come to the point and time of Elijah’s ministry where he is ready to “pass the mantle” to Elisha. Elijah had been the prophet to the kingdom of Israel during two different kings. Both King Ahab and his son King Ahaziah had looked to Elijah for prophecy and guidance, but now it was time for Elisha to take the mantle, to take that role from Elijah.
But was Elisha ready? Was Elisha prepared enough, and was he capable enough to take the place of the prophet Elijah who had led the people of Israel during a very chaotic time.
There are two things to take into consideration when describing Elisha’s readiness and discerning whether or not he has the vision necessary for taking up the role of prophet after Elijah.
We have to remember how important Elijah is to the Hebrew people – even still today to Jewish customs. Elijah is the “legend” who “visits” every Passover seder, where we watch to see if the wine in elijah’s cup has diminished. Elijah also attends every circumcision where a special chair is set aside for him.
Elijah is also important for our understanding of this story, as Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures. Two of Elijah’s miracles performed were multiplying food and bringing the dead back to life, which many believe is the basis for the miracles that Jesus performed more than 800 years later.
So is Elisha ready to take up this mantle following the “legend” that is Elijah?
Simultaneously, we also have to take into consideration the state of chaos that the nation of Israel is in. The people of Israel were struggling with a divided kingdom, and with the kings that lead them throughout this time. Many of the kings had taken up worship of a different god, a god named Baal, but many continued to listen to Elijah and worship the one true God. This led to chaos and unrest within the kingdom of Israel, and a time when prophets, and a voice from God were most needed.
Long before Elijah and long before the people of Israel had been under the rule of their kings, they had been wandering in the desert yearning for the Promised Land after their exodus from the rule of pharaoh and from life as slaves in Egypt. After coming into what they knew to be the Promised Land they were ruled by judges, people raised up by God to deliver the Israelites from the other kingdoms and armies coming into the Promised Land. But the Israelites were not happy with the constant attack by foreign armies, so they demanded from God a king to lead them, a leader that was more powerful, one that could lead them in their defense.
However they ended up relying on the king far more than they were relying on God, and this is where we meet the people of Israel, and their prophets Elijah and Elisha today. The more well known kings, Saul, David, Solomon have already come and gone, the kingdom of Israel has divided into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom, and the prophet Elijah has been leading the people of Israel by leading the kings, King Ahab and King Ahaziah.
I say all this to remind us of the power struggle that Israel has been under ever since they experienced the exodus from pharaoh. Ever since the Hebrew people followed Moses out of Egypt and across the Red Sea they have been struggling with power. Who has it? Who’s better at having it? Who can lead us because they have it? Who should lead us because they can get it? Who is looking to other gods who might have more power? Does God have enough power? How can we get more power?
The people of Israel continue to be obsessed with power. But what they fail to see when they are so obsessed with power is the ultimate power of God. And this is why Elijah’s job was so difficult, and why his shoes are so hard to fill. The people of Israel were so concerned with immanent power, with the temporary power of one king, or of one nation, that they often failed to see the transcendent and supreme power of God who wanted to lead them, who wanted them to receive the gifts that come with trusting in God’s transcendent power, God’s power that goes far beyond the limits of a political leader or a king.
The role of the prophet during this time was to get Israel to see beyond the illusion of this temporary power of a kingdom, and to see the ultimate reality of God’s power. And in order to do this the prophet had to have extraordinary vision.
The prophet had to have the capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs that inspired the Israelites to respond. The prophet desired so much for the people of Israel to trust in God, to put all their power struggles aside and to trust in the transcendent power of God. The prophets had to create a compelling picture of this, a compelling picture of what it looked like to trust in the omnipotent God.
So it’s no wonder that when we meet Elijah and Elisha in the story today, when the role is being passed from one to the other, that the test to see if Elisha is truly worthy of taking up Elijah’s mantle and continuing on with his ministry, it’s no wonder that this test has everything to do with vision. It’s a vision test.
Shortly before Elijah is taken into heaven, he asks Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha responds to Elijah asking for a double share of his spirit. Elijah’s response is odd, stating that if Elisha sees Elijah ascend, then this request will be granted, but that otherwise the request will not be granted. But Elijah’s response is not meant to be cryptic and mysterious, rather it is meant to say that it is not Elijah’s decision.
It is not Elijah’s decision how much of the spirit is poured out onto Elisha, rather it is God’s. And it is God’s power that with either grant Elisha this spirit or not. But not before a test. Elisha is tested.
If Elisha is able to see God take Elijah up into heaven, then Elisha will receive that spirit, God will grant that request to Elisha if Elisha has the vision to see this incident. It is a vision test. It is a vision test to see if Elisha can truly see the power of God.
Is Elisha able to see the power of God that takes Elijah into heaven? Is Elisha able to see beyond the notions of power here on earth, and able to see the transcendent power of a God who is powerful beyond measure? Is Elisha able to see past the power of human leaders, and able to look to the power of God? Because if so – if Elisha is able to see this – then Elisha is ready to lead God’s people.
Elijah is taken up into heaven by chariots of and a whirlwind of fire, and Elisha confirms that he has seen this when he shouts out “Father, Father! The chariots of Israel and its horseman!”
Elisha confirms that he is able to see this vision and has passed the test, he has passed the vision test and is ready to lead the people of Israel. Elisha’s confirmation, his passing of the test, indicates that he is able to see past the powers of earth, and that he is truly able to see the power of God. And this means that the Israelite people will be lead by a prophet who is able to see past the powers that they struggle with, they will be lead by a prophet who can see past the political powers, past the power of the kingdom, one who can see the almighty power of God,
Now what does that all have to do with us here at First Christian Church? What does this story about the Hebrew prophets have to say to us? We rarely read the Old Testament, so it’s a valid question, what does this story have to do with us, and our yearning to live more faithfully following the example of Jesus Christ?
These Hebrew prophets, although they are not spoken of very often, have a lot to teach us about vision. We have a vision. We all have a vision for ourselves, for our own faith life, for the spiritual life of our family, and we all have a vision for the church, for what that desired state of affairs is here at FCC. But that vision can always use some inspiration, it can always use some guidance.
So Elisha’s test, Elisha’s vision test before he is able to become the next prophet leading the people of Israel, is a test to see if Elisha can truly see the power of God. Elisha is tested to see if he can look past the powers of the earth, the political powers, the powers of the kings, the powers of the armies, and to see if he can look past all these things to truly see the power of God.
It is similarly a test for us, for our leaders and for us as a community of faith. Are we able to see past the things that prevent us from truly seeing the power of God?
What things do we need to look past? What things are we supposed to look past in our trusting of God, in our faithfulness that God is powerful beyond all measure? What things do we need to look past in order to see the vision of God?
Maybe it’s finances? Maybe we’re supposed to look past the hold that money has over so many of us. We’re constantly talking about money, whether we’re making it, or saving it, spending it, or giving it away, there’s a certain amount of power that money holds over us, and it can prevent us from seeing the power of God. Are we supposed to look past the power of money in our lives trusting that God will provide our every need?
Maybe it’s in our family? Maybe we’re supposed to look past the dis-function of our families, past the frustrations of spouses or children, past the non-traditional set-up of our families, past divorces or separations, past arguments or stresses of this family. If we look past these things, are we truly able to see the family in the Body of Christ?
Maybe it’s the political realm? Maybe we’re supposed to look past the political powers, knowing that even if we disagree with certain leaders, even if we disagree with a mayor, or a governor, or a senator, that we can look past the authority that they exercise knowing that God us ultimately in control?
Or maybe it’s right here in our church? There are things that go on in every church that can cause irritation or dissention. There are stresses in every church that burden the spirit, the weekly offering, worship attendance, the budget and the board. Elisha’s story encourages us to look past these things, to look past these things so that we can see the Spirit of God moving within our congregation.
I want to share with you a poem, Money Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller. I’ll only share a few lines from this poem, but I also want to share with you some of the pieces of art to which she is referring, some of the impressionist paintings of Monet.
Monet Refuses the Operation
Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Monet’s painting requires us to look past a lot. It requires us to look past the individual brush strokes and the individual dots or blots in order to see the work of art that Monet has painted. It requires us to not be so focused on the small individual things, but rather to focus on the bigger picture, the more complete vision of his art.
As does God’s work of art. There are many things in this world that we are required to look past in order to see the true vision of God’s creation – but it is there.
We may be required to look past hunger and poverty, past natural disasters and politics, past disagreements and hatred, but we have the vision to do so. We have the vision to see past these things, because we were given this vision in Jesus Christ.
This doesn’t mean we are supposed to ignore hunger and poverty, natural disasters and politics, past disagreements or hatred. Any psychologist or counselor will tell you that is not healthy. But it does mean that we are to look past them when we are creating a vision for our future.
When we focus on the vision of our future, of our own personal faith vision, or when we focus on the vision of this community of faith we may have to look past some things.
We may have to look past arguments with spouses or with children, but we see the vision of love that God has for our relationships. We may have to look past the power of money in our lives, but we are able to see that God has provided us with everything we need. We may have to look past a wavering budget, or dwindling numbers of volunteers, but we are still able to keep in our sight our vision of this community of faith.
God gives us the vision of love that was created in Jesus Christ. God gives us the vision of justice and righteousness that he expects from his followers. God gives us the vision. God gives us a vision each and every time we come to God in prayer, in concern, in worship, in rejoicing – God gives us a vision of the way our church and our world ought to be – and it compels us to act.
May we the same vision as Elisha – able to see beyond the many distractions of this world – to see the true nature and power of God – and to act because of God’s vision.
Rev. Laura Ann Phillips
First Christian Church of Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
June 27, 2010