1 Kings 19:5-16, 19-21    Galatians 5:1, 13-25    Luke 9:51-62

Did you spot any connection between these three readings? I certainly didn’t when I first looked at them. At least, I could see that that the first one mentioned twelve yoke of oxen and some ploughing equipment, the second spoke of the yoke of slavery and in the third there is mention of putting a hand to the plough. So I thought the connection must be an agricultural one! 

Of course there’s a much deeper significance in these three passages from scripture and we need to look closer to tease out the meanings and the lessons we can learn from them.

The Old Testament passage, although short, is actually quite significant. Elijah is one of the most important figures in the Old Testament, towering above everybody except Moses. Even the New Testament recognises Elijah as the predominant figure. He is mentioned by name no less than 29 times in the New Testament. Those of you who come to the Passover meals we hold here will probably have picked up on the Jewish tradition of setting out an extra cup of wine or an extra chair for Elijah to enter and drink.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist was asked by a delegation of Priests if he was Elijah. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is; the Apostles' answer includes Elijah. Elijah himself actually makes an appearance in the New Testament during the Transfiguration where he represents the prophets.

In today’s reading we hear that Elijah - this great man - was instructed by God to anoint three people, not least Elisha as prophet in his place. Anointing in those days would have included a ceremony in which olive oil was poured on the head of a person to show he was now a "chosen one"; not dissimilar to what we do in our baptisms when we pour holy water over the person’s head. It is certainly very similar to how we anoint people in church these days - as any who have taken advantage of the healing ministry we hold here from time to time will know.

However, Elijah didn't anoint Elisha in this way; he placed his mantle on him. The prophet’s mantle was like a cloak, or a coat of protection, made of skin and covered with hair, probably of goat’s skin with the hair turned outward. It was the distinctive clothing of the prophet. The mantle was the physical means by which the prophetic power was transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Placing the mantle or coat on Elisha showed that Elijah wanted Elisha to follow him and become a prophet.

God, in a sense, places His mantle on each of us at our baptism. We are chosen by Him and He helps to protects us and nurture us.

In the Galatians reading we see two forces conflicting within us; the Spirit and the flesh. We go through life in conflict don’t we, even after baptism? We are chosen and called by God, yet we struggle with sin, even though in baptism we have received the Spirit! The Spirit is infinitely strong but what do we do in life? We often try to rely on our own wisdom and, as a result, end up making the wrong choices. 

Our only real way to freedom from sin is through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been called and empowered by the Holy Spirit in our baptism. We must rely on it to bury the “old" life, just as Elisha did when chosen and called. Remember, he destroyed his "old" livelihood: he slaughtered the oxen and used the ploughing equipment to boil the meat and had a party with his friends. Elisha destroyed his "old" means of making a living. He quite effectively burnt his bridges: he couldn’t go back.

So we come to the Gospel reading. Here there’s another strong link back to Elijah. When the disciples ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven, this is a direct reference to one of Elijah’s miracles where he did just that.

There are a couple of other key things in that passage from Luke. We hear that Jesus "resolutely set out for Jerusalem " - resolutely: looking ahead, firmly fixed on what lay in front of him. Yet he was about to destroy His own life for our sins; God’s ultimate love for us. Jesus was resolute in his mission, determined in his journey but perhaps this passage, more than anything else, reinforces that need for a break; a break from the old life to the new life in Christ. That requires dedication and commitment; we cannot - or at least we should not - pick and choose ideas and follow Him selectively.

If you put your hand to the plough and look back you can easily get off track, much like trying to drive a car forward while looking behind. It is possible to go very off track indeed and wreck lives - including your own - in the process.

Jesus is saying here “focus on me, so that nothing else distracts you”. 

Elisha didn’t put his hand to the plough and look back. He made a break. He destroyed the plough and the oxen. Then and only then was he ready to move forward. That’s what Paul is saying in his letter to the Galatians: although I can be made aware of my sins through the Law, it is the Spirit - that spirit poured over us at baptism - which leads to new life and freedom from sin. It is not freedom to do whatever we want; it is freedom to do what was impossible before.

So, if we haven’t already done so, let us burn our bridges; let us turn from our sins and nail them to the cross. Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and not look back. Then we really will have true freedom.  

Let us also remember the lines we sang this morning from Psalm 16:  

I have set the Lord always before me. You have made known to me the path of life. You will fill me with joy in your presence.  

If you would like a handy proverb to take away, which I think sums up everything we’ve been considering this morning, there it is in the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 3.5):

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and he will make your paths straight.  

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire July 2016

This sermon was originally delivered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire on 27 June, 2010