Sunday 30 June 2019
The Task Ahead
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25
By Tony Whatmough
Team Rector of the Headingley Team Ministry
Context: a Parish Eucharist of adults, some of whom are students, about 65 people
Aim: to examine calling as a changing journey in which God asks differing things of us
When I was a kid, one of my favourite programs on the television, was Wagon Train. If you are of a certain age, you may remember it! Indeed, it didn’t only find favour with me, but with great stars of the day, including Bette Davis, and Ronald Reagan, just to name two.
The format of the programme was straightforward. ‘Go west, young man, and seek your fortune’ would probably sum it up. The Wagon Train would make its way with a group of people seeking a better life, and would encounter various adventures on the way. Some people would be seeking to escape from their past, others would be looking for a better life, and others perhaps, just looking for adventure.
And adventure they would find, as they encountered attacks from cowboys and Indians, ruffians of various kinds, and people from their own pasts who did not want them to escape justice. As they moved along, some people would drop out of the Wagon Train because they came across settlements that seemed to suit them, or became attracted to other people on the journey, or the law caught up with them, or they just got fed up with being continually on the road. To the stalwarts of the Wagon Train, they often seem to have opted out, giving up the adventure of the journey for a more boring settled life.
The reality is of course, in real life, that you just can’t simply go on for ever. At some time, you need to hand over the reins to someone else.
This is what is happening to Elijah in our Old Testament reading today. Of all the prophets, Elijah had led an exciting life!
In the time of King Ahab, Elijah defended the worship of the Hebrew God over that of the Canaanite deity Baal. He challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. He raised the dead, miraculously fed the hungry, and most importantly, suffered doubts about his own ministry, until God appeared to him as a ‘still small voice.’ But the time came for Elijah to hand the baton on, and let others go on ahead of him, rather like the members of the Wagon Train.
And so, we hear today that Elijah appointed his successors: he was to anoint Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and crucially, anoint Elisha as prophet in his own place.
I have an inkling of what Elijah might have been feeling about all this! In some 18 months’ time, I myself will be retiring after some 30 years in ministry. And I confess I have very mixed feelings about it! There are of course some things that I shan’t miss at all, but there will be others that I will miss very much: pastoral care of people, baptisms, weddings and yes, even funerals, presiding at worship, helping potential ordinands discover their calling and of course, preaching and teaching the faith.
I’m assured by friends and colleagues who have already retired that I won’t find time hanging heavy on my hands in a time of clergy shortage, but to a great extent, that is beside the point. I doubt that I will be received into the heavens in a chariot of fire, as Elijah was, but I’m sure there will be a ministry for me. Because of course, all are called by virtue of our baptism to a ministry. And the task for us all is to uncover what it is that God is calling us to do for the sake of the kingdom.
The words of John Henry Newman are appropriate here for Elijah and also for me:
‘God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.’
Perhaps also Paul’s words to the Galatians stand as a warning to me: do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Just because I will have retired, I still have a ministry to witness to the love of God. I will have to open myself to God, ‘and be guided by the Spirit.’
But to go back to Elijah, he was entrusted by God to ensure his succession. And this is an important point in any organisation, not least the church. Whenever you are given a task to do, whatever it is, begin to look round for your successor. Christians are not only enjoined to follow the faith themselves, but also to hand it on to others, as Elijah did.
My childhood memories fail me here, because I can’t remember how the Wagon Train series ended! Did they finally find their promised land? I hope not, because in this life, we are always on our journey. Here we have no abiding city, because we seek that city which is above.
And that is always our calling, whether or not we are near the beginning of our journey of faith, or like Elijah, handing on the calling to others.
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