2 Kings 4:8-37
Elisha was a traveler. As God’s prophet he regularly had to wander Israel delivering messages on God’s behalf. His route often took him through the town of Shunem. One day, as he passed through the town, a woman came out from her house and insisted that he join her and her husband for a meal. Hungry, and grateful for the offer, Elisha accepted and ate with the Shunammite couple. It became a standing invitation. Every time the prophet passed through town, he would stop and enjoy the hospitality of these good people.
The Shunammite woman and her husband talked about Elisha a lot between his visits. They wondered about him, his work, his travels. “Who do you think he is, exactly?” her husband asked her. “And what caused you to invite him into our house in the first place?”
The woman replied, “I’m not exactly certain who he is, but I am certain that he is a holy one of God!” So, the couple built a little room out behind their house just for Elisha, and they told him he could stay there any time he liked. And so Elisha did.
One evening, when Elisha was staying in the room, he asked his servant Gehazi to go and talk to the Shunammite woman. “Ask her if there is anything we can do to repay her gracious hospitality.” So Gehazi crossed the yard and entered the Shunammite home. A little while later he came back.
“Well?” Elisha asked, “What can we do for her?”
Gehazi replied, “They are very contented people and have everything they need—except for one thing: they were never able to have kids. Even in their old age, that remains their deepest desire. She wondered if you might ask God for a child on their behalf.”
Elisha smiled. He told Gehazi to go and bring the Shunammite woman out to his hut and when she came Elisha said to her, “Before the year is out, you and your husband will have a son.”
And the woman replied, “Oh holy one of God, don’t kid with me!”
Elisha smiled again.
Sure enough, by the end of the year the Shunammite couple had a son. And they fell in love with him.
Years passed, and the Shunammite family was happy. One day the boy was out harvesting crops with his father and complained of a terrible headache. He collapsed, and his father had him carried back home to his mother. The Shunammite woman sat with her son a few hours, and then he died.
Filled with despair she carried her dead son out back, into the little room kept specially for Elisha. Then she saddled her horse to go find Elisha. But her husband tried to stop her.
“It’s not the sabbath day.” He said, “It’s not a holy day. Why are you going to see Elisha?” She looked at him blankly, bewildered by his incomprehension. “The holy one of God gave us a son, only to have him die. I want to know why.” And she rode off.
Meanwhile, Elisha sat praying atop Mt. Carmel. And as he sat, he looked out and saw someone riding toward him, up the mountain. As the rider got closer, he recognized her as the Shunammite woman. This was strange. He never saw her outside of Shunem. Something must be wrong. So Elisha sent Gehazi out to meet the Shunammite woman, but she blew past him as if she did not see him.
When she reached Elisha, she flung herself from her horse and pleaded with Elisha, “I asked for a child. You said you’d give me one. And I said don’t kid with me. Why, holy man of God, why then would you then take him away from me!?”
Elisha, suddenly stricken with grief and dread, turned to Gehazi and said, “Take my staff. Run. Do not stop for anything at all. Go to Shunem and lay the staff upon him.” So Gehazi ran, twenty miles all the way to Shunem.
As Gehazi ran, Elisha and the Shunammite woman began a slow walk back, giving the horse a rest. As they neared Shunem, Gehazi came walking toward them. When he got close he simply shook his head. It didn’t work. The Shunammite woman began to wail. So Elisha went into the room and closed the door behind him, leaving Gehazi and the Shunammite woman outside.
Elisha looked down at the dead boy lying where Elisha had rested so often. He sighed and prayed to God, “Lord, bring new life.” Then Elisha stretched himself over the child, aligning his body and his spirit with the boy, and letting his life flow into the child.
And the child awoke.
Elisha stood up slowly, opened the door, and led the boy out into the yard.
And then Elisha said to the Shunammite woman, “Here is your son.”
She wrapped the boy tightly in her arms and kissed him, thanking the holy one of God over and over again. And then she left.
Several hundred years later, another prophet was about to perform his very first public act. Jesus had just finished calling his first apostles and they had traveled to the town of Capernaum. They stayed in Capernaum for the Sabbath, and Jesus was invited by the town’s elders to teach and preach at the Synagogue. So Jesus did.
As Jesus preached, the people were amazed by his sermon, but not nearly as amazed as when a man stood up in the Synagogue and began shouting at Jesus. This man, the people knew, was filled with some demon that made him shout and curse and fight. The man stood up and began the same kind of babble he always spewed. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth!?” he snarled.
But then he continued, “I know what you’re doing! You’ve come to destroy us. You are the holy one of God and you’ve come to destroy us!”
Jesus stopped preaching to listen to the man, and then said sternly, “Shut up and leave that man alone!” The man screamed and convulsed and suddenly became still. The demon had left.
The synagogue began to buzz with mutterings. People were whispering:
“Who is this man?”
“Where does he get such power?”
“This authority, how did he come by it?”
But most just stared in amazement at this supposed holy one of God whom even the demons obeyed.
I’ve just shared with you two Bible stories, one about a Shunammite boy and the other about a demon-possessed man. And you might be wondering, what, if anything, do these two stories have to do with each other? They seem quite different, but they are joined together by a common phrase, a title really, “the holy one of God.”
That title only shows up two places in the Bible. In the Old Testament book of Second Kings, a Shunammite woman calls Elisha a holy one of God; and in the first chapter of Mark, a demon-possessed man calls Jesus the holy one of God. Now maybe this is coincidence, but I don’t think so. This is not a common title for Jesus. It only shows up here in this passage, which makes me think it is intentional. Through this demon’s outburst, Mark is drawing a parallel between Elisha and Jesus.
So what do Elisha and Jesus have in common? They both worked to bring life out of death.
In that little Shunammite hut, Elisha faced the grief and pain of death as an innocent child lay dead on his bed. But Elisha reached out and brought life where once there had been death, hope where there had once been despair.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus faced off with the same forces. Jesus came into a hallowed Synagogue on a holy Sabbath day and encountered, of all things, an unholy demon. This is a bewildering twist, and far from what one would expect in a holy sanctuary. And yet no one else in the Synagogue seems to think this demon-possessed man is out of place, and no one has done anything for him. He simply goes on being possessed. Jesus, seeing that this man’s life has been ruined by this possession, casts the demon out; and in doing so, brings new life to the man.
I find it interesting that Jesus’ very first public act of ministry is to cast out a demon. I think Mark placed this scene at the beginning of the gospel on purpose. He wants us to see that all of Jesus’ ministry can be summed up in this one exorcism. Through his teaching, healing, and death on the cross, Jesus has come to cast out of the world all the forces of death that possess and destroy.
This is what the holy one of God does. He enters into death and brings new life. Elisha resurrects the boy; Jesus casts out the demon. In both instances, new life is given to those who have tasted death. That is what the holy man of God is all about, because that is what God is all about.
Last Sunday we read the story where Jesus calls his first apostles. That story began with a short sermon by Jesus. He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Last week we talked about the fulfillment of time, the kingdom of God, and repentance.
Now, today, we come to the good news.
But first the bad news: we are all like that Shunammite boy; we are all like that demon-possessed man. Each and every one of us is dead in sin. Sin has taken hold of us and killed us. Like the Shunammite boy our heads pounds with all the evil that surrounds us and consumes us. Like the man in the synagogue, we are possessed by the evil forces that seek to destroy us: addiction, abuse, greed, pride, poverty, unfaithfulness, violence, sickness, brokenness, hatred, bigotry, injustice, and despair.
But the good news is that where death is, God is. In the midst of death God stands ready and waiting to bring new life. Thousands of years ago a holy one of God brought new life to a little boy. Years after that another holy one of God brought life to a possessed man. Now, today, that same holy one of God is bringing new life to you. Jesus has come to you, he has stretched himself upon you, as he stretched himself upon that cross, and his life has flowed into yours.
God is making you new, just as God is making all things new. The forces of evil were right when they said to Jesus, “You have come to destroy us!” The age of death is passing away. The age of life has come.
And the holy one of God is leading it in.