A Sermon on 2 Kings 6:1-7
What issue has occupied your thinking this morning and will regain your attention after the service? Why are you bored or distracted in this service and expect me to make matters worse? No one hears a sermon, including this one, without being in some pastoral context or life situation. In what circumstances does this sermon find you?
You might be tempted to think that this narrative about the floating ax head has little to do with where you are now. In fact, this story may initially seem rather silly to you. What could a story involving a floating ax head possibly say to technologically advanced churchgoers in Taipei? What nonsense, right? The floating ax head, though, is not the silliest part of this passage.
Consider with me what happens before the miracle. The school of the prophets (or the local seminary) has a new professor—Dr. Elisha. Now Dr. Elisha is a prominent scholar and a big drawing card for the seminary. Because everybody wants to study with Dr. Elisha, attendance has skyrocketed, and the admissions office of the seminary is flooded with more applications than it can handle. The lecture hall doesn’t have enough seats, and the dormitory doesn’t have enough beds. Dr. Elisha has put this school on the map.
Feeling cramped in their increasingly inadequate space, the students ask their esteemed professor if he might not suspend class for a while so that they can upgrade the facilities by putting up a new building. Dr. Elisha readily agrees, and the administration presumably grants its approval too. Dr. Elisha even accepts the students’ invitation to join them in the construction project. The students and their professor go out to the wooded section of the seminary property and begin to fell trees for the necessary lumber. While one student chops away at a tree trunk, the ax head begins to loosen and eventually flies off the handle. As Murphy’s Law would have it, the seminarian is chopping next to a river. The ax head drops into the river and sinks irretrievably to the bottom.
Now we come to the silly part. The text tells us that the seminarian ran to Dr. Elisha and whined, “Oh, my lord, it was borrowed!” How silly and immature on his part, right? Let me ask you a question. If you were this seminarian, what would you do? Wouldn’t you go to the nearest hardware store and buy a new ax? Now I realize that seminarians don’t typically have a surplus of cash, but how much does a new ax cost? Twenty-five or thirty U.S. dollars? A thousand National Taiwan dollars? Surely this seminarian could scrape a thousand dollars together and buy a new ax to return to the rightful owner. There’s no reason for him to cry to his professor. What a silly story!
Or is it? At this time in Israel’s history, what would a new ax cost? My professor, Raymond Dillard, has written that losing a borrowed ax head in ninth century Israel would be like wrecking somebody’s car today and not having any insurance to cover the damages. Now our text isn’t such a silly story, is it? This seminarian will have to drop out of school and get a job. He’ll have to use his tuition money and future earnings to buy a new ax for the owner. It will take years for him to get out of debt. Meanwhile, his classmates will finish their programs at the seminary and find ministerial opportunities throughout Israel. Everybody will be talking about the all the good things happening down at the seminary since the addition of Dr. Elisha to the faculty. As for this unnamed seminarian, he will be forgotten. He will never return to complete his course of study in preparation for “full-time Christian service.”
Our passage is not such a silly story after all. It is a serious story. This seminarian thought that the covenant God of Israel wanted him to go into the ministry. He made whatever preparation was needed to move to the seminary, pay the tuition, and study under a fine faculty. Now, because of a fluke accident, he has to withdraw from school in order to pay off the exorbitant debt that he has unexpectedly and accidentally incurred. One cannot help but ask about God’s involvement in all of this. Is this how God treats his devoted servants who go to such great lengths to minister in his name? Does he allow them to fall so deeply into debt that not only their ministerial aspirations but also their financial well-being is put on hold indefinitely, even forever?
This story fits well within its context in the books of Kings. Kings is addressed to a people living in exile in Babylon after 586 b.c. The burning question on their minds could be worded in several ways: “Where is God?” “Why has he let the exile happen to us?” “Did he renege on his promises, or was he not able to keep them?” “Should we serve another god who can take care of us?” Although Kings documents the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah as a whole and so justifies the exile, these books also include stories about faithful individuals who experienced the effects of living in a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. For godly Israelites who were part of a nation under judgment, the story of this seminarian would be one with which they could identify. It surely seemed to them as if God had forgotten about them and abandoned them to the Babylonians.
Perhaps you, too, can identify with this seminarian and the exiles. Have you ever been in a financial crunch and wondered where God was? Perhaps you have taken your aging car to your mechanic for inspection. He later telephones to tell you that the car will not pass inspection without new brakes, new tires, and a new exhaust system. Your bank account does not have the balance to cover the cost. Or maybe you need a new washing machine or braces for your daughter’s teeth or tuition for your son’s college education, and the money is not there. Or maybe you are part of a Christian organization that always seems to operate on a shoestring budget. There’s never enough money to do what needs to be done—let alone expand the ministry. Have you ever wondered where God is and why he doesn’t seem to meet the needs that he promised to supply? Now you’re in the shoes of this seminarian, and his story is far from silly. It is personal.
Or maybe money isn’t an issue that causes you to question God’s goodness. Maybe you’re watching a loved one suffer from a degenerative sickness that robs this beautiful person of his or her vitality and potential. Or quite possibly you’re the one with the physical ailment, and you can’t help but wonder how God’s purposes are advanced through the frailty and mortality of his saints. Is this how God treats his dear servants?
Or maybe something besides failing health disturbs you. Could it be that you have labored in some capacity within the church and received grief for it? Have you pastored a church in which the members in whole or in part have turned against you unfairly and mistreated your family? Perhaps you assumed responsibility for a Sunday School class, the Vacation Bible School program, or something of the like, and others showed no appreciation for your effort and sacrifice. Instead, they gossiped or complained about you and resisted your proposals. You can get beat up badly in a church and so have doubts about God’s care for his people.
Or how about one of my former students? He graduated from seminary on Saturday and then his wife went into labor with their first child on Sunday evening. The child died in the birth canal on Monday morning. After all that this seminarian and his wife had done to prepare for ministry, how could God let their unborn child die less than two days after he graduated? Is that how God treats people?
Our text, then, is far from silly. It speaks to all who feel abandoned by God and are going through a frowning providence. The prophet Isaiah may have said that God’s ways are higher than ours, but we all can identify with this Job-like seminarian. God’s ways sometimes go beyond not making sense and seem instead to be senselessly cruel.
So the seminarian, as it turns out, understandably approached his professor about a lost ax head. Elisha, though, was more than a professor. Verse 6 calls him the man of God. In other words, Elisha was a prophet. What he said and did, God said and did.
As God’s representative, Elisha asked the seminarian where the ax head had fallen into the river. When the seminarian showed him, Elisha threw a stick into the water. This prophetic act caused the ax head to rise from the bottom of the river and float on the surface. In that moment, Elisha redeemed the seminarian from his great debt. Our passage, then, is about redemption. Despite momentary appearances, God never stopped caring about this student. He remained active in history through his prophet to rescue this devoted servant from debt.
In the Bible miracles are not freak, irrational coincidences. Miracles deliberately set something that was wrong right, and they point to the future when God will finish restoring his fallen creation. Because this floating ax head did not make everything right in God’s world (only what was wrong at the time in the seminarian’s world), it anticipated more redemptive acts of God in the future. Follow the historical trajectory or chain of events into the New Testament. The Gospels, of course, refer to John the Baptist as the new Elijah, and you will recall that Elijah anointed Elisha. If John the Baptist is the new Elijah, then Jesus, whom John baptized, is the new Elisha. Moreover, Jesus saw Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. Elisha, of course, had seen Elijah go into heaven in a fiery chariot. Jesus repeats most of the miracles of Elisha and finishes the task of restoring a fallen world. So, you see, what God did for the seminarian was not insignificant. It was part of his redemption of the world—a world that is not yet the way it is supposed to be. God’s redemption of the seminarian from his debt anticipated further acts of redemption by one greater than Elisha.
Now what about you and me? We incurred a debt that far exceeds this seminarian’s. The seminarian could drop out of school and in time earn enough money to repay his debt. He might never finish his education, but his children and grandchildren would not be strapped by their ancestor’s obligation. Not so with us, for we could never repay our debt—the debt of sin. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The penalty for that sin, according to Romans 6:23, is death, i.e., eternal separation from God’s favorable presence. As those who have inherited a sinful nature from Adam, we have no hope of getting out of debt. Eternity is too long to reach the end of the payments.
The good news of the Gospel, though, is that God has come in the person of Jesus Christ to restore his fallen world and redeem us from our debt. If God’s prophet, Elisha, made an iron ax head float, God’s incarnate Son, Jesus, walked on water. Moreover, Jesus did something else just as spectacular. If we have gone into debt because of our violations of God’s law, Jesus kept the law perfectly. He did what we are not able to do and so demonstrated from his sinless life that he is the Righteous One. More than keeping the law in our place, however, Jesus also laid down his righteous life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Here is the glorious transaction that occurs in the Gospel: God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us who put our trust in Jesus, and he imputes our unrighteousness to Jesus who paid the penalty of death in our place. It is this glorious truth that we remembered on Good Friday.
But Good Friday wouldn’t be good without Easter Sunday. If Jesus remained in the grave, then sin’s curse maintains its grip on each one of us. The proof of God’s satisfaction with Jesus’ work of redemption is what we celebrate today. As God through Elisha raised the ax head from the bottom of the river to redeem the seminarian from his debt, so he raised Jesus from the grave to signify that we are redeemed from our debt. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s assurance to you that he, a holy and just God, will not count your sins against you. He is no longer angry at you, intending to punish your disobedience. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, you see that God has never stopped caring about you. He has found a way in Jesus to satisfy his justice and yet show grace to you and me whose sins offend him. You and I have assurance that no one can bring a charge against us and separate us from the love of God.
Now, then, let’s return to what weighs heavily on your mind this day and tempts you to doubt God’s good intentions for you. If God raised an ax head to rescue a nameless seminarian from debt and if he raised his Son from the dead for your redemption from sin’s eternal penalty, he has not performed mighty deeds on behalf of his people to forget about you now or, perhaps worse, to torment you. I can’t fully explain why God does what he does in my life, let alone yours. From my point of view, all of the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of my life are not yet in place, and so I can be as perplexed as anyone regarding God’s will for my family and me. As we see in Job’s life, God can utterly turn a person’s world upside down and offer no explanation. Job never found out about the deal with the devil. God is God, and he can do as he pleases with no accountability to us.
Ah, but today is Easter Sunday. On this day God raised his Son from the dead and thereby assured all who trust in Jesus that God, as mysterious as his ways can be, is up to good in our lives. God, who perfected the human nature of Jesus by his sufferings and then raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand, is also using the events of our lives to fashion us into the likeness of his Son. When he is finished, he will take us to glory to be with himself.
Until that sanctifying process is complete, how can you evidence your faith in the God who redeems by raising ax heads and Saviors? What will obedient faith look like for you in the matter or problem to which you will return after this service? However God’s Word would have you tailor repentance to this challenge to faith, do not yield to the temptation to doubt God’s good purpose for you in this situation. Remember the floating ax head and the empty tomb. These are your confirmation that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. He will never forsake you. On the basis of what he has already done for this seminarian and for you, he will surely redeem the labor of your hands done for his glory. That is what Jesus’ resurrection means for you.