Good morning, Friends! I hope you all have had a great week!
Today is Hallowe’en. It doesn’t often fall on a Sunday. I don’t know if you already know about the history of Hallowe’en.
Years ago, the church identified really special people and called them saints. Saints were people who had lived specially holy lives here on earth, and now they were up in Heaven.
People thought that God was too busy running the world, and Jesus was too busy saving the world, to look after ordinary people all the time. So each person chose a saint to be their personal helper.
Most people got named after saints. And every saint was assigned a special day on the calendar each year. October 4, for example, was St. Francis’ day, and October 11 was Saint Luke, who wrote one of the gospels.
Every saint had a special day, and on your saint’s special day, you took the day off and went to church. Any time you were in trouble, you prayed to your saint and asked for help, cause God and Jesus were too important and too busy to be bothered to go asking them for things all the time. That’s what people believed.
Anyway, there got to be so many saints, that only the most important ones got a special day all to themselves on the calendar. The less important saints had to double up on another day. And people who were good, but not designated as official saints, well, they didn’t have any day to themselves at all.
This is all back hundreds of years ago, but the idea stuck around for a long time.
Somebody came up with the idea that all the miscellaneous assorted saints, should be honored on the first of November. They called that All Saints Day. That way, everybody got some credit.
To say that you honored someone, in old-fashioned English, was to hallow or make holy. So, All Saints Day was called All Hallows Day – a day for all the saints to be hallowed or honored.
People got to believing that on All Saints Day, the saints were all specially close to us, that they came down from Heaven and were near to us on earth.
Well, human nature and human imagination being what they are, somebody else came up with the superstition that once a year, the spirits of people who were in Hell and in Purgatory could also get out and roam around the earth.
(There’s nothing in the Bible about any of this. But back then, ordinary people didn’t get to read the Bible, because printing hadn’t been invented, and most people couldn’t read anyway. It was all superstition, and had nothing to do with the Bible.)
The day people believed this happened was on the day before All Saints Day. It came to be known as the eve of All Hallows Day, or Hallowe’en.
That’s where it all comes from, and now you can explain it to anyone who wants to know.
This morning, I want to continue with the series we’ve been doing together, learning some more about famous and interesting people in the Old Testament. Some of them you know about. Today’s story is one you probably don’t.
It comes from the second book of Kings in the Old Testament, and it’s a story about one of the prophets, named Elisha. Elisha was the heir or successor of an even more famous prophet named Elijah.
To give you some idea of how much reverence people had for Elijah, for Jews, Elijah ranks just after Moses in importance. Elisha was his successor – he inherited the mantle of Elijah. Literally, he wore Elijah’s coat.
Anyway, this story takes place at a time when things were pretty mixed up in Israel. The country was deeply divided, and the neighboring countries seized the opportunity to come raiding and invading across the borders. The king of Israel was almost paralyzed by fear, and that means that all the king’s army was close to useless.
Now the king of Aram [the neighboring country] was at war with Israel. After conferring with his officers, the king of Aram said, “I will set up my camp in such and such a place.”
The man of God [Elisha] sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.” So the king of Israel checked on the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that the king was on his guard in such places.
This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Tell me! Which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?”
“None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.”
“Go, find out where Elisha is,” the king of Aram ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” Then the king of Aram sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.
When the servant of Elisha, the man of God, got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.
“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.
Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to the city of Samaria.
After they entered the city, Elisha said, “Lord, open the eyes of these men so they can see again.” Then the Lord opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.
When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”
“Don’t kill them,” Elisha answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.”
So the king of Israel prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.2 Kings 6:8-22
Now, that’s an interesting Bible story! It’s interesting, partly because of all the things that didn’t happen. God didn’t smash the enemy army, or drown them, like Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. God didn’t send a great warrior, like Samson or David, to lead the charge and wipe them out.
Instead, God simply opened some eyes, and closed some other eyes. God did it all, God ended the war, without shedding a single drop of blood.
First, God helped the army of Israel escape from danger, time after time, by letting them know where the other army was. God helped detour them round the other army, till the other army was all frustrated and tired out.
“How do they keep doing that?” the king of the other country demanded. ‘How come they keep getting away, every time? Are spies or traitors selling us out to them?”
His officers said, “No. But there’s a man of God, a prophet, who hears what you’re saying, even in your own bedroom.”
So the enemy king sent an army to capture Elisha. Next morning, Elisha’s servant gets up, and sees this huge army, waiting outside. “Oh, no! What’ll we do?” yelled the servant.
“Don’t do anything,” Elisha said. “You just go take another look, and tell me what you see.”
So, God didn’t do anything to the enemy army at that point. Instead, God opened the eyes of Elisha’s own servant. Elisha’s servant saw what Elisha already knew – that there was another army, the Lord’s army, an army of angels, armed and ready, with horses and chariots of fire.
If you wanted to bring it forward to today, it was kind of like that Johnny Cash song, where he saw Ghost Riders in the Sky.
Elisha knew that the Lord’s army was there, all along. That’s because with his prophet’s eyes, with the eyes of his heart, he saw that the Lord had an army there, all along. “Don’t be afraid,” Elisha said. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
This idea is not something that Elisha invented. This is actually something which many of the great leader’s of God’s people were gifted to see.
It was an important part of what they believed, that God wasn’t just alone. God had an army of angels, ready at all times, waiting to help us.
Gideon, who we read about a few weeks ago, said the same thing. “You’ve got too many men here,” God told Gideon. “Send home anyone who’s afraid.” So two thirds of Gideon’s army went home.
“You’ve still got too many men,” God said. “Let’s send home all but three hundred. With just three hundred men, you can win the battle! God can win with a few, just as well as with many!”
Same thing with the story of David and Goliath, that we read earlier this fall. Goliath was a giant. He was like a human tank. The whole army was terrified of him. But David wasn’t afraid. He knew that all it needed was just one rock, in the right spot, and Goliath was dead as could be.
Elisha didn’t need a big army to defeat the enemy. Elisha knew that God already had an army. The people of Israel had a special name for God that they used sometimes. They called God, Yahweh t’savaot, which means, “The Lord of the heavenly army” or “The Lord of hosts.”
Jesus had the same understanding in his heart. When Jesus was arrested, in deadly peril, one of his disciples tried to fight back. Jesus said, “Put away your sword! Don’t you know that I could call on my heavenly Father, and that He would at once put 12,000 angels at my disposal?” (Matthew 26:52-53)
I actually love the second part of today’s story even better. First God opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant, so that he could see God’s invisible army all around him.
But then, the army picked up and started moving towards Elisha, and he said, “Lord, strike their army with blindness.”
You can imagine what chaos that would have created. There is nothing so helpless as an army that can’t see. They can do nothing any more. They stumble and fall. If they try to do anything, they’ll only hurt themselves.
But, just notice the contrast going on here. Elisha’s own servant is terrified and doesn’t believe. So God opens the servant’s eyes. Then the army starts to make its move. And God closes the enemy’s eyes. One side can see. The other side suddenly can’t see.
And then, instead of killing them, Elisha leads the enemy army right into the middle of the king of Israel’s own capital city.
The king of Israel has them blind, helpless and surrounded, totally at his mercy. “Should I kill them all?” the king of Israel asks. He’s just waiting to do it!
“No,” Elisha says. “Give them food and water, and send them home.” So they did. And you know what? By doing this, Elisha not only won the battle. He stopped the war.
I wondered this week if this story about Elisha was in the back of Paul’s mind, when he wrote:
“Don’t repay anyone evil for evil. Don’t take revenge, but let God take care of everything. No,” Paul said, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink. In you do this, you’ll heap burning coals on your enemy’s head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
I still keep thinking about this story of Elisha. Because I think that today, we are still terrified so much of the time. We may not be afraid of invaders, but we’re afraid of people who from from other countries, who want to come here and live with us.
We terrified of invisible viruses – we’ve all been living in fear for almost two years now. We’ve all been so scared, for so long. We’re afraid of misfortune of all kinds. We’re afraid of all kinds of things.
And while we certainly need to be awake and on guard, we don’t need to be terrified. “Those who are with us are greater and more numerous than those who are against us,” the Bible says.
“The Lord can win with few, just as well as with many. Open your eyes and see the army of the Lord, the invisible army, the army of the Lord of hosts. It’s all around you! Don’t be blind. Open your eyes!”
This is such an interesting story. I don’t know how literally we ought to take it. I don’t want us to go back to a time of fear and superstition. I don’t want us to be terrified about wicked spirits or ghosts.
But I do believe that there’s more going on than what we’re usually aware of. I think that if we open our eyes, that God is doing amazing things, all the time, all around us.
I’ve got one more story I want to tell you today. I’m not sure if you’ll think it’s relevant, or not, but it came to me this week.
Years ago, the house where my wife grew up, had an enormous tree out front. It’s a bronze beech – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, the leaves are a sort of dark greenish-purple.
This was more than just a tree, it was a personality. Two people couldn’t put their arms around it. It was higher than the house, at least four stories tall, and the spread of the branches covered the whole yard.
One year, in the fall, about this time, there was a migration of monarch butterflies. They fly from all over the country, and they migrate for the winter to Mexico. We must have been on their migration route that year.
I don’t know if the butterflies specially liked the smell of that tree, or the taste of its leaves, but they were totally attracted to it. Every leaf on this gigantic tree, had at least a dozen butterflies clinging to it. I’ve never seen anything like it, in my entire life.
They weren’t landing on any of the other trees in the neighborhood – just this one. I mean, this tree was at least as big as the giant oak that used to stand here in the cemetery at Springfield. And on every single leaf, there were at least a dozen butterflies.
And all the butterflies were moving. Not a lot. They were gently fluttering their wings, to catch the sun or to keep their balance. It looked as if this entire gigantic tree was shimmering, with what must have been at least a million butterflies.
They knew something that I didn’t. They were there for some reason I didn’t know about. But I could open my eyes, and see them. It was a special, holy moment. The next day, they moved on.
And I always wonder, if there are more things going on in the world, that are sort of like that.
Is God doing actual miracles, that I’m not noticing? Is God doing amazing things, and I just don’t have my eyes open?
Are ordinary people sharing love and kindness, in a million different ways, that helps to counter and fight back against all the evil and wrong in the world?
Does God have unseen angels, invisible helpers, and secret saints, who help to do God’s will, and help to bring peace on earth?
“Those who are with us are greater than those who are against us. God can with a few, just as well as with many.” Open your eyes, and see the angels of God.” They’re all around you.