Burning the Plow
1 Kings 19:19-21
March 8, 2006 | Ray Pritchard
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“It does not matter whether or not people understand us or think we are even sane as long as we are true to God. Obedience to him is the important thing.” Theodore Epp
Elijah was not the most balanced man in the Bible. If you made a list of adjectives that described him, balanced would probably not make the top fifty. It’s hard to call a rough-hewn mountain man balanced. What do you say about a man who …
Faced down a wicked king
Lived by a brook where he was fed by ravens
Lived with a widow
Raised a dead boy to life
Challenged the king again
Called for a public confrontation
Ridiculed other religions
Mocked the prophets of Baal
Called down fire from heaven
Slaughtered the prophets of Baal
Outran the king’s chariot
Ran from the queen
Prayed that he might die
Hiked 40 days across the desert
Hid in a cave
Heard God’s voice
Claimed to be the only righteous man left
What do you say about a man like that? Say what you want, but don’t call him balanced. When Dr. Ryrie wrote Balancing the Christian Life, he wasn’t thinking of Elijah.
Balance is in vogue today. We all want to be balanced so that all the areas of life are in harmony. When we choose leaders, we look for people with balanced temperaments, who can balance the demands of home and work, who react to a crisis with a balanced approach, who know how to balance competing demands and find a workable compromise.
Balance is good. Balance is cool. Balance is boring.
There aren’t a lot of “balanced” men in the Bible. Not Moses. He was a hothead who killed an Egyptian and then tried to cover it up. David? Not by a long shot. Jacob? Are you kidding? Daniel? Not after that episode with the handwriting on the wall. Paul wasn’t such an easy man to work with. Just ask Barnabas. And Peter? Yeah, right. He’s the man with the foot-shaped mouth. He was brave until a teenaged girl challenged him. Then the bold apostle crumbled.
Elijah was not balanced. He was headstrong, determined, impetuous, prone to emotional excess, and he was a deeply devoted follower of God.
He was God’s man. God’s prophet. God’s spokesman to an evil and unbelieving generation. Balance is good, but sometimes you need a man who seems about “a half bubble off-center.” Regular types need not apply. Elijah fit the bill perfectly.
Now God is about to give Elijah a protégé, an apprentice, a young man whom he can mentor. God knew that Elijah needed a friend who could walk with him and share his burdens. He needed someone who could continue the work after he was gone.
Enter Elisha. When first we meet him, he is plowing a field. But soon he will burn his plow, say farewell to his family, and give up his security to follow this wild mountain man wherever God leads him.
First there was Elijah.
Now there is Elisha.
Behind them both stands God.
Let us see what lessons we can glean from the calling of Elisha.
#1: God’s Call Forces Us to Make Difficult Choices.
“So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him” (v. 19).
It is not without significance that Elisha is plowing in the fields when Elijah threw his cloak around him. To us that simple act would have passed without meaning, but Elisha knew exactly what Elijah meant. A prophet’s cloak was a distinctive garment, such as John the Baptist’s cloak of camel’s hair (Matthew 3:4). Placing a prophetic cloak on Elisha was like a king giving his scepter to his son. It was a sign of divine calling.
And where does Elijah find his man? In the field with twelve yoke of oxen (the sign of a wealthy family), with Elisha himself driving the twelfth pair. It wasn’t as if he was looking for a new job. Elisha had his hands full running the family farm. Ask anyone who grew up on a farm and they will tell you the work never ends. To tend to the animals, to keep the fields in shape, to be ready to plant and harvest, to deal with the changing weather and the problems of your workers, to juggle a thousand details every day, to keep on top of everything and do it all the time, you have to get up early and stay up late. Lazy men need not apply for the job. If you are a farmer, you live your work all day every day. And I doubt that Elisha had any thought that before sundown he would slaughter his oxen and burn his plow. I’m sure that was nowhere on his radar screen when the day began.
But everything changed when Elijah showed up. No one had to tell Elisha who he was. Everyone knew his name and his face. People couldn’t stop talking about how he called down fire from heaven and defeated the prophets of Baal. The whole nation knew about this strange, enigmatic, rough-hewn mountain man from Gilead who seemed to fear no one. He also seemed to appear and disappear without warning. No one knew where he was or what he was doing, and then Bam!, there he was again. Suddenly he shows up at Elisha’s family farm, 300 miles from the cave on Mt. Horeb.
It seems to have happened this way. Without a word Elijah strides up to Elisha, takes off his cloak and puts it on Elisha. And then he begins to walk away. Elisha knew what it meant. Elijah was offering him a job. Now the young man has a choice to make. He could stay with the oxen or he could follow the prophet’s call. The life of a farmer was hard but for Elisha it was also safe. He could stay with the oxen and keep plowing furrows, one after another, or he could walk away from all of it, into an unknown future which, if you consider the recent events on Mt. Carmel, might get him into some hot water.
I’m not surprised that Elisha responded as he did. John Eldredge (author of Wild at Heart) says that God has placed inside every man a desire to find an adventure to live. That’s why men love fast cars, football, and movies like Braveheart and The Dirty Dozen. It’s also why we don’t watch Sleepless in Seattle unless there’s a woman involved. Men were born for adventure, we were hard-wired by God to take risks, we were made to glance at our cards, look around the table, take a deep breath and say, “All in.” I’m not saying women don’t do that because they do, but it’s different because men and women are different. Elisha chose the hard path of risk instead of playing it safe. It’s not like Elijah gave him a job description with fancy perks. Years ago I remember seeing a sign advertising for young people to join the California Conservation Corps. The sign read “Long Hours, Hard Work, Low Pay.” That’s pretty much the JD for a prophet. Elisha knew that going in, and he didn’t hesitate.
#2: God’s Call Leads to Painful Separation.
“Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. ‘Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,” he said, ‘and then I will come with you.’ ‘Go back,’ Elijah replied. ‘What have I done to you?'” (v. 20)
We learn several useful things from Elisha’s response. First, it is an immediate response. He leaves his oxen and runs after Elijah. Why did he run? Because Elijah wasn’t staying around to discuss the matter. He placed his cloak on Elisha and then started walking away. Elisha ran because if he didn’t, Elijah would soon have disappeared. Second, it is a humble response. While he accepts the call, he asks Elijah for permission to say farewell to his parents. Third, it is a human response. He does not wish to suddenly disappear and leave his parents to wonder where he went and why. Elisha appears to have been a family man in the best sense of that word. Though God’s call will now lead him into a new arena of activity, that departure is not to be accomplished without taking time to say farewell. The purpose here is very clear. Elisha is not going back to ask his parents for permission. He is old enough to respond on his own. But because he is a faithful son, he will not leave them in the lurch. Some may recall the case of the would-be disciple who upon being called by Christ, asked for permission to go back and bury his father (Luke 9:59). But in that case, the man meant, “Let me go home and stay with my father until his dies. When he is gone, then I will follow you.” But such a reason is little more than an excuse cloaked in filial piety. The man never wanted to follow Jesus. Taking care of his father was just a pious excuse. Elisha is not like that at all. He wishes to say farewell to his family (as he should), and then he will gladly follow Elijah.
Here we come face to face with the high cost of following Jesus. Not long ago I met a couple whose son serves Christ in a distant land. He is so far away from America that it took nine separate plane flights to reach a certain remote town in the jungle on the other side of the world. Once they got to that remote town, they had to take overland transportation to reach their son and his wife. They have gone to the literal “ends of the earth” to bring the gospel to a tribe that knows nothing about Jesus. They have devoted themselves to learning the language, reducing it to writing, translating the New Testament, and someday learning to preach the Good News in that language. They are doing this for the sake of 500 tribal people somewhere in the jungle on the far side of the earth. As we talked with the parents, we could sense the solemn joy mixed with sorrow at having their son and his wife so very far away, living in the most primitive conditions.
But this has always been part of the high cost of the Great Commission. Following Jesus always leads to a cross where our dreams are crucified. If you follow him, you may end up in Tampa or Sacramento or Boston or Singapore. Who knows? You might end up in a ranch house in suburbia or a crowded apartment in Beijing. You might even get married and head for the jungle. But there is a cross, always a cross, for the followers of Jesus. If we take the words of our Lord seriously, our sons and daughters may end up doing things that shock us and even anger us. Jesus said as much in Luke 14:26. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus does not mean that following him will cause us to hate our parents. Far from it. Falling Jesus ought to strengthen our love for our family. But it does mean that following Jesus has a price tag attached to it that we dare not disregard. Faithfulness to Christ may lead us to do things that those closest to us will not understand or support. They may think that we hate them when all we are doing is following Christ.
The parents I mentioned miss their son and daughter-in-law terribly and rarely get to see them. But they offered their son to the Lord when he born, and they have never gone back on that commitment. So there is sorrow and joy and solemn pride in their voices when they speak of him. And as I read the email updates he and his wife send back from the jungle, I sense joy and determination and even exhilaration as he and his young bride day after day live with tribal people who never bathe because of their fear of evil spirits. They long for the day when they can speak the Good News in words “their tribe” can understand. That day is still several years away but it comes closer all the time. If you ask them is the sacrifice worth it, they would say they haven’t sacrificed anything. They are only following God’s call.
Years and years ago we used to sing a song called “There is joy in serving Jesus.” That one line came to my mind as I thought about my friends and their son and daughter-in-law deep in the jungle. Following Christ always leads to painful separation from the things of the world and sometimes even from our own flesh and blood, but there is joy in recompense that outweighs the cost.
Elisha would miss his family, and they would miss him. Nothing would ever be the same again. Never again would Elisha stand behind oxen while they plowed the field. To paraphrase Jesus, now Elisha would be plowing for men.
#3: God’s Call Requires Decisive Action.
“So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant” (v. 21).
You can’t sit on the fence forever. Elisha had a few seconds to make a life-changing decision. Once he signed on to be Elijah’s apprentice, he had to burn his bridges so that when things got tough, he wouldn’t be tempted to go back to his old life.
That’s why he slaughtered his oxen.
That’s why he burned his plow.
And he didn’t do it in secret either. He threw himself a going-away party and invited everyone he knew. He cooked the meat from the oxen and then gave it to the people. It was his way of saying, “The old life is gone forever. A new day has come for me.” Just as I typed those words, I thought of Billy Sunday, the famous baseball player turned evangelist. His story has a special place in my heart because for almost a decade, I played the part of Billy Sunday and reenacted his life at his gravesite in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. It was part of the annual “Tale of Tombstones” sponsored by the local historical society. I told the story of Billy Sunday’s colorful life and his conversion in 1886 at the Pacific Garden Mission. As Billy himself told the story, he was standing outside a saloon with some of his teammates on the Chicago White Stockings (today called the Chicago Cubs) when a “gospel wagon” from the mission came down the street. Gripped with conviction of sin, he turned to his friends and said, “Boys, I’ve come to the end of the line. I’m through with the old life and I’m heading in a new direction.” That marked the turning point of his life. A few nights later after hearing Harry Monroe preach at the mission, he gave his heart to Christ. For the rest of his life, including his amazing evangelistic career in which he preached in person to 100 million people, he never tired of referring to the day he made a decision to follow Jesus.
When God calls, you have to make a decision. The burning of the plow takes on deep significance in light of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:62, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
It’s not wrong to plow a field, but if your plowing keeps you from Jesus, you’d better burn the plow.
Anything good can become a hindrance if it keeps you from following the Lord.
Elisha was saying, “I’m following God’s call and no matter what happens, I’m not going back. The old life is over forever. A new day has come for me.”
The Hard is What Makes It Good
Not long ago I watched (for the fifth or sixth time) A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. Near the end of the film, the team coached by Tom Hanks is about play in the Girls’ Baseball World Series during World War II. Geena Davis, the star catcher, has decided to go home because her husband has returned from the war. Hanks confronts her by reminding her of how much she loves the game. “I don’t love it,” she says, “Not like you.” “Oh yes you do,” Hanks replies. “It’s in your blood.” “I can’t do it,” she says. “It’s too hard.” At that moment Tom Hanks turns slightly, grabs his face, grimaces, and then says, “You’re right. It is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it good.” With that he joins the rest of the team on the bus while Geena Davis leaves with her husband. Later she returns in time for the seventh and deciding game of the series.
“It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it good.”
That’s not just true about baseball. That’s the truth about the Christian life.
It is hard.
It’s supposed to be hard.
The hard is what makes it good.
If it were easy, anyone could do it. But not everyone can. That’s why many are called but few are chosen. Not everyone can walk the Christ Road.
The hard is what makes it good.
If you name is Elisha and a mountain man throws his cloak on your back, you’d better follow him. But before you go, make sure you burn the plow so you can’t go back when the going gets rough.
And it will get rough. It always does.
There will be hard days, bad days, sad days, discouraging days, confusing days, angry days, frustrating days, boring days, upsetting days, discombobulating days, and then there will be some really bad days.
The hard is what makes it good.
Martin Luther had something to say about this:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.
His Kingdom is forever.
Stop your complaining. Stop your bellyaching. Stop your moaning. Stop dreaming of happier times and an easier road.
The hard is what makes it good.
And the good is better than you’ve ever dreamed. It’s out of this world.
Pick up your cross and follow him. It’s not easy but it’s not supposed to be easy.
Pick it up anyway. Follow him. Go where he leads. It’s the one decision you’ll never regret. Amen.