There are words and expressions that come up again and again in the Bible. Like ‘Do not be afraid’, for instance, it comes up in one form or another - ‘fear not,’ ‘have no fear’ – 365 times. One for every day of the year, I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. The most common word is ‘Lord’, which isn’t too unexpected. But I don’t have to consult my Bible commentaries to find out that one of the things said in our reading from 2 Kings earlier just appears once. ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ The Good News translation that we read from has a real way of putting it, don’t you think? Right to the point. ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ Other translations put it a differently – the King James says, ‘Go up, thou bald head’, the Message Bible uses a modern word that puts another slant on it - ‘Out of our way, skinhead’. But whatever the translation, it’s not very nice, is it? Looking around – and I include myself in this - there’s a few people here who would take exception to someone saying something like that.
But it’s a bit of an odd story, 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 baldy? It’s not exactly the worst thing you could call someone. If you’re like me, maybe the first thing you thought when you heard it was, ‘That’s a big of an overreaction isn’t it?’ As always in scripture however, I think there’s a wee bit more going on that what we pick up on first hearing or reading the story.
To start 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, ‘Get out of here,’ or ‘Go up’, what they’re 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 the way, a bit of Scripture trivia for you, Elijah was one of only two people to go to heaven without dying, the other was Enoch in the book of Genesis. Just in case that comes up in a quiz sometime. Anyway, by telling Elisha to go up, get out of here, or get out of their way, what the boys were saying to him was they had no need for him and his God.
There wasn’t just a few of them, either. This was a gang. We’re told 42 of them were attacked by the bears, so that implies there was more than 42. Actually, to be honest though, I’ve got my doubts about the numbers involved here. These must have been pretty fast bears to maul 42 boys – either that or the boys were pretty slow. If you’d just seen 41 of your friends get mauled by a bear would you hang about to be the 42nd?
It reminds me of an old story, you’ve probably heard it before. 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 definitely outrun you.’
As I said, the boys were telling Elisha they had no need for him or his God. And, justifiably Elisha was bugged 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 I suppose 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 – but the important thing to remember, though, is that it was God who decided on their punishment, not Elisha. 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 frustrating 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 his part with the salt and the bowl, but it was God’s words he was quoting when he said, ‘I make this water pure.’ 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.
His frustration eventually boiled over. Now, 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 as we heard Anne read in our New Testament passage, sometimes we can detect more than a hint of frustration in what he says. “How unbelieving and wrong you people are! How long must I stay with you? How long do I have to 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. 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 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.’ They had the power, given by Jesus, given by God, to call on Him to perform 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 a wee boy digging in a sand box. And when he was digging he came across a huge 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 around it, big enough to get his hands into. He managed to loosen the stone, 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 and 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 cried. 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 used all your power,’ said dad. ‘I have’ said the boy, ‘I’ve got nothing else.’ ‘There’s something you haven’t done,’ said dad, ‘You didn’t call on me and ask for my help,’ and he 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 fail. But when we call on him for his help, when we remember the options we’ve been given, well, then things have a way of turning out right. We don’t have the power to expel demons, we don’t have the power to purify lakes, we don’t have the power to summon up bears when someone calls us ‘baldy.’ But with God’s help to call on, we’re empowered. The thing is, though, 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 them, enduring them, makes them bigger, not smaller.
But wait, how often have you heard it said that ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle?’ Maybe you believe it and say it yourself? I mentioned right at the start today there are words and expressions 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.’ But you might be surprised to hear that it doesn’t, I’ve heard it described as a spiritual urban legend. And I might surprise you when I say it’s not an expression I’m particularly fond of. ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle.’ It’s said with the best of intentions, I know, for encouragement, to let someone know that they can get through a tough time. But I think there are lots of things that are more than we can handle. Terminal illness, grief, rejection, loss. All these are more than we can take on, 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 loneliness and disappointment, frustration. I think we could be making ourselves into martyrs and sufferers. Because I don’t think God expects us to handle things, he expects us to hand them over - to him. Like Elisha did. Like Jesus expected his disciples to do. He doesn’t want us to rely on OUR strength, because we won’t shift the rock in the sandbox on our own, he wants us to rely on HIS.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘God keeps his promise, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your power to remain firm; At the time you are put to the test, HE will give you the strength to endure it, and so provide you with a way out.’ Our power and our strength come from HIS power, his strength. God won’t give us more than HE can handle.