Parish Church - Scotland
Parish Church - Scotland
The Rock in the Sandbox
2 Kings 2: 19-25
Luke 9: 37-45
There are words and phrases that come up again and again in the Bible. The most common word is 'Lord', you probably won't be surprised by that. You might be surprised to hear that 'Do not be afraid', comes up in one form or another (like 'fear not,' 'have no fear') 365 times. One for every day of the year, I'll let you decide whether that's just a coincidence or not. What you surely won't be surprised to hear, though, is that one of the phrases from our Old Testament passage just appears the once. 'Go away, you baldhead!' Other translations put it slightly differently, but you get the idea - the King James says, 'Go up, thou bald head', the Good News translation says 'Get out of here, baldy!' And the the Message Bible says, 'Out of our way, skinhead'. But whatever the translation, well, it's not the nicest of things to say. And it's a pretty strange thing to hear in the Bible.
The whole story is a bit strange though, isn't it? Elisha calling down on a curse on some boys, which ends up with them getting torn to bits by bears, just because they called him bald? Let's be honest, I know some people are very sensitive about their lack of hair - I am, a wee bit, myself, but although it's not nice, it's not the worst thing you could say to someone. If you're like me, maybe the first thing you thought when you read it was, 'That's a bit of an overreaction.' As always in scripture however, there's a wee bit more going on that what we pick up on first hearing or reading the story.
To begin with, we hear them described as boys, but the Hebrew word for boys covers anything from 12-year-olds to teenagers, even young men in their twenties. So the chances are they weren't just silly wee boys, they were young men who should have known better. And when they say, 'Go away,' or 'Go up', what they're actually saying to Elisha is that he can go the same way as his mentor and teacher, Elijah who, not long before, had been taken by God up to heaven on a fiery chariot. By telling Elisha to go up, go away, or get out of their way, what the boys were saying to him was they had no need for him, or his God.
There weren't just a few of them, either. This was a gang, a big gang - and we don't know how big. We're told 42 of the boys were attacked by a couple of bears, so that means there was more than 42. Although, to be honest I've got my doubts about the numbers involved here. There were only two bears, so they must have moving really fast to maul 42 boys - either that or the boys were really slow. Because let's face it, if you'd just seen 41 of your friends get attacked by bears would you hang about to be the 42nd?
It reminds me of an old story. Two men are walking in the forest and see a bear coming towards them. The first man kneels and checks his shoelaces, ties them tight. The second man says to him, 'Do you think we can outrun it?' 'I don't know about the bear,' says the man, 'But I'm going to make sure I can outrun you.'
Anyway, as I said, the boys were telling Elisha they had no need for him or his God. And, justifiably Elisha was more than a little but annoyed by this - and by the 'baldy' comment, of course. He was angry maybe, frustrated definitely. Whether he meant for them to be attacked by bears, well, we've no way of knowing. What Elisha did was put the matter into God's hands - he cursed them in the name of the Lord, remember - but the important thing to know is that it was God who decided on their punishment, not Elisha. And maybe God didn't mean it to go that far either; he might have sent the bears, he might not, and what the bears did next, well, that's what bears do.
The thing is, this whole situation was all the more annoying for Elisha as he'd only just come from Jericho, where he'd purified the lake there, made it healthy again for the people to drink from. Well, God had - Elisha played a part with the salt and the bowl, but it was God's words he was quoting when he said, 'I make this water wholesome.' The people had a lot to thank Elisha for, he was their prophet, he was their conduit to God, but certain groups among them still didn't take him seriously. They didn't appreciate the power of his God, or the power that God had given to Elisha.
And Elisha's frustration eventually boiled over. Now, turning to our New Testament reading, frustration isn't usually an emotion that you'd ascribe to Jesus. We have this image of an endlessly patient, gentle man and that's true, of course he was. But sometimes we can detect more than a hint of frustration, of irritation, in what he says. "You stubborn, faithless people. How long must I be with you and put up with you?" He's not speaking to the people here; he's not speaking to the man who brings his poor child to him; he's speaking to the disciples. And he's not asking questions of them, either - he knows how long he'll be around, he knows how long he'll be with them. He knows he'll be betrayed. No, what he's saying to his disciples is, well, that he's a bit fed up with them. More than a bit. Because they keep leaving the hard work to him, when he'd given them all the power they needed to handle situations like the boy with the spirit, the demon. In the same chapter from Luke, right at the start we're told Jesus 'called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.' So they had the power, given by Jesus, given by God, to call on Him to perform their own miracles. They didn't use it. Maybe they just weren't confident enough, maybe they'd forgotten the options they'd been given for situations like this.
There was once a wee boy digging in a sand box. When he was digging away he came across a great big rock in the middle of the sand. He didn't want rocks in his sandbox so he tried to get it out. He dug around it and managed to make gaps, big enough gaps to get his hands into. He managed to loosen the stone a bit, so he pushed it and he shoved it with his hands, he got down and pushed and shoved it with his feet. He'd get the rock to move, but then it would just roll back into the hole. He got frustrated with it, so frustrated that eventually he just sat down beside the sandbox and he burst out into tears. His dad had been watching from a window and he came out and said to his boy, what's going on here? 'I'm trying to get this rock out of the sand', said the boy, 'I've used my hands, my feet and every time I've moved it, it just keeps rolling back.' 'Have you done everything you can,' asked dad. 'I have' said the boy, 'I've tried everything.' 'There's something you didn't try,' said his dad, 'You didn't call on me and ask for my help.' And his dad, who was bigger and stronger after all, bent down and lifted the rock out of the sandbox.
Is that like us with God, our Father? We rely on our own power and we get frustrated, we get annoyed, we fail. But when we call on Him for His help, when we remember we've got that option, well, then things have a way of turning out right. We don't have the power to expel demons or cure diseases - neither did the disciples, not really, but they had the power to call on God to do it. We don't have the power to purify lakes or summon up bears when someone calls us baldy - neither did Elisha, but he had the power to call on God. With God's help to call on, we're empowered. But the thing is, we've got to give our problems to Him, for Him to be able, or ready, to help. Carrying around our problems hoping for a solution isn't the answer, thinking we've got the strength to bear them. Just putting up with our problems, enduring them, makes them bigger, not smaller.
We all have problems, of course, although it's often said that 'God won't give you more than you can handle.' Maybe you believe that and say it yourself? I said earlier there are words and phrases that come up again and again in the Bible. And this sounds like something that comes from the Bible, doesn't it? 'God won't give you more than you can handle.' You might be surprised to hear that it doesn't, I've heard it described as a spiritual urban legend. 'God won't give you more than you can handle.' That's not from the Bible. I know it's said with the best of intentions, for encouragement, to let someone know that they can get through a tough time. But there are lots of things that are more than we can handle. Illness, grief, rejection, loss, a virus that's changed the way we live our lives almost beyond all recognition. All these are more than we can deal with, on our own. If we go around thinking 'God won't give me more than I can handle' I think we could be setting ourselves up for failure and frustration. Because I don't think God expects us just to handle things, he expects us just to hand them over - to Him. Like Elisha did. Like Jesus expected his disciples to do.
He doesn't just want us to call on our strength, because we won't shift the rock in the sandbox on our own, He just wants us to call on His. Because our power and our strength come from His power, His strength, and God won't give us more than HE can handle.