Mistakes and what they teach us about God's grace. 3) Eleazer and the Elephant
The St. Andrew's Stars tell the story of Eleazer and the Elephant:
Hespeler, 28 February, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Mark 8:31-36, Philippians 3:4b-11, Psalm 49:5-15, (1 Maccabees 6:32-47)
ver a century and a half before Jesus was born, the land of Judea was invaded and occupied by the Greek speaking king of the Seleucid Empire. But the Jews did not like being ruled over by Greeks who were, they felt, destroying their culture and faith, so they rebelled. The Jewish revolt was led by one particular Jewish family, the most famous member of which was a general called Judas Maccabaeus.
The tales of the Maccabean Revolt are amazing, but they did not, unfortunately, make it into our Bibles. You can read the stories in the Books of the Maccabees which are found in a collection of books called the Apocrypha. These books are included in some of the Bibles of some Christian denominations and they are well worth reading even if we don’t quite consider them to be Scripture. It is in the First Book of the Maccabees that you will find the story of Eleazar and the elephant.
It happened like this: the Jews were in a great battle against the Greeks. The Greeks had come with far superior numbers of infantry and cavalry. Even more frightening, the Greeks had brought mighty war elephants from India with them. These elephants were terrifying to the Jews who had never fought them before. The elephants advanced on the Jews with great towers built upon their backs – towers were filled with spearmen. The beasts were surrounded by huge phalanxes of infantrymen. The Jews were terribly outnumbered and overawed by their enemy. They were fighting for their very lives.
In the midst of this battle Eleazar, a younger brother of Judas Maccabaeus, noticed that one of the elephants carried, on its back, a tower that was larger and more magnificent than all the others. He concluded that this must be the king’s elephant and so in a great feat of bravery, he grabbed his spear and single-handedly fought his way through the phalanx of men that surrounded that particular elephant. He killed, it is told, a thousand men or more, and finally arrived at the beast. He knew there was no point in attacking the armored sides of the elephant, so he threw himself underneath its belly. He stabbed upwards, slaughtering the animal with a single blow.
It was a mistake, of course – actually a number of mistakes on a number of levels. I could find nowhere in the histories whether Eleazer was correct in his conclusions. I don’t know whether it was the king’s elephant or not, but, even if it was, Eleazer had made a significant miscalculation. You see, killing the king’s elephant is not the same thing as killing the king. The elephant died but there is no record of the king being injured in any way in that particular battle.
The second mistake was that, though Eleazer did indeed perform a reckless deed of bravery, you might well question what it actually accomplished. The Jews were terribly outnumbered on that battlefield, they really had no hope, no matter how brave anyone was, and they soon had to retreat and leave the field in Greek hands.
But the third mistake was the biggest. It is a simple matter of gravity. If you kill an elephant while you are underneath that elephant, you are going to die too. And so it was that Eleazer, while accomplishing nothing at all, failed and, some might say, did so rather stupidly.
We have some very particular ideas about how things are supposed to go in this world. We worship success. And success means continuing to live and to grow and it means that things just keep getting better and better. We expect that things should continually get stronger and more prosperous and that anything else is failure. That is the model of renewal that the world offers us and it means that any form of death is to be considered a defeat and a failure. So many of us would not have any trouble recognizing Eleazer as a failure.
But is that the only way to think about renewal and success? Jesus certainly had a different model. He came to establish this thing that he called the kingdom of God. He started preaching and gathering followers and created quite a movement. I’m sure that his followers, like Simon Peter, were expecting that things would just take off and grow from there – success, success and more success.
And that is probably why Peter was so shocked one day when Jesus, out of the blue, just started to say, that he had to “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Peter was very nice about it and everything, but he felt that he really needed to straighten Jesus out. As soon as he got a chance, he pulled Jesus over for a little private conversation. “Jesus,” he said, “you can’t say things like that. You can’t talk about dying. You have to talk about winning, not losing.” But Jesus had a very different definition of success, a definition that included dying and (though Peter seems to have missed it when he said it) then rising from the dead. Jesus said, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” His meaning was clear: if Peter really understood “divine things,” he would have seen how necessary it was that Jesus should die. But, of course, succeeding by dying makes absolutely no sense according to the world’s way of seeing such things.
Many years ago, when I first began my ordained ministry, I was working in a church on the West Island of Montreal. It was a church that had been in decline for many years before I ever arrived. The reasons for decline were many but had a lot to do with the declining Anglophone population and an oversupply of protestant churches in an area that never grew as much as had been expected.
When I arrived at the church, we started looking intently at our situation. And before long we came to the conclusion that, unless this church changed in some pretty radical ways, it would not survive long-term. So we set to work trying to find the radical change that would work for us. And we came up with some bold plans. We worked hard to turn those plans into reality, but, one by one, they all kind of fell apart, mostly because of things that were beyond our control.
The Session and the congregation had decided that if we weren’t able to make one of our plans for radical change work, our other option was to shut down as a congregation and to do it in the best way possible – to do it before we ran out of the energy and enthusiasm that would be necessary for people to go somewhere else and continue to contribute to building up the kingdom of God in this world.
Now, a congregation, in our Presbyterian system can’t do that. It can’t just shut down. What it has to do is ask the Presbytery to dissolve the congregation. So I found myself in the interesting position of having to go to the Presbytery of Montreal and, on behalf of the congregation and session, ask them to shut us down. And it was at that point that I was accused of being a bad Christian.
I was told, in front of all my fellow ministers, that the church is supposed to always be successful and victorious. In particular, it is always supposed to be getting bigger and stronger no matter what the circumstances are. To give into institutional death, therefore (to shut down a congregation) was the epitome of unfaithfulness. I was a bad Christian for even allowing my congregation to think of such a thing. Now that I think of it, it was the very same kind of rebuke that Simon Peter made to Jesus.
The primary path to renewal and new life that God offers us in the Bible is not continual success without having to give up anything. The primary path to renewal that God offers us is resurrection and you can’t get to resurrection without going through death. I saw that firsthand in my first congregation. That congregation did shut down and it was just as painful and difficult as you might imagine it to be. But that painful death also led to a wonderful new beginning – a resurrection. The majority of the members of that church chose, of their own free will, to go and join together with the people of another Presbyterian congregation about ten minutes away. And that congregation went from just surviving to become one of the most exciting and dynamic ministries on the West Island. It was a marvelous new birth for everyone – the kind of resurrection that God specializes in.
And I’ve seen that same pattern in a number of other situations in the church over the years. I knew a church in Windsor that, for years, struggled to survive. They were right downtown, on the very edge of the university campus, and yet they had consistently failed to attract any students or people from their community into the church. They were too busy just surviving to have any kind of significant ministry.
And eventually, the people of that congregation came to a decision. They actually had some significant financial assets but what they didn’t have left was any real life. So the people of that congregation let it die. They walked away from the congregation and from the assets that they had. It was a death and it was very hard. But they did a brave thing. They gave their considerable assets to the Presbytery and they asked the Presbytery to build a new ministry to serve the people that they were unable to. And that is what the Presbytery did. They took the assets and created an entirely new ministry called the University Community Church that has since gone on to have some very meaningful ministry to the students and faculty on that campus. It was a marvelous new birth, but it was only possible after a painful death had occurred. That is how God often works.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the main way in which God wants to do his work in the church today is by means of death and resurrection. Now, I do not mean by that all of our congregations nor that this congregation needs to shut down. There are cases, no doubt where that will happen, but I don’t mean that it will happen everywhere.
But what I do think it means is this: that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It means that if we cling to life to the point where all we are doing is channeling energy into survival, then we will die for sure. I’ve seen that happen in many, many churches.
And it also means that, for many churches to find the power of God that they need, they will have to die – they will have to die to something. They will have to be willing to give up something that has been precious and meaningful to them in order to embrace the resurrection that God is offering them. God specializes in offering his people resurrection, the only problem is that you have to pass through death, in some sense, first. Apart from that it’s wonderful.
Think of it this way: no matter what, Eleazer, brother of Judas Maccabaeus, would be dead by now. He understood that too – that he would die someday. And it seems to me that he decided that, if he was going to die anyway, he might as well die doing something that mattered to him – taking down the king’s elephant. He didn’t fear such a death as it was for the sake of his people.
And we can learn so much from Eleazer’s so-called mistake. We have all the more reason to be willing to die to the things that God asks us to die to in the pursuit of the kingdom, for we have the promise of resurrection – the promise of a God who gives new life and new possibilities to those who have learned (because Jesus taught them) not to be afraid of death and not to value survival over significance.
Now, what exactly, do we in this congregation need to die to in order to experience the resurrection that God wants to give us? I’m not sure I can answer that question right now. I have a few suspicions for there are no doubt some things that we have here that we value more than meaningful ministry. But better than for me give my thoughts is for all of us to earnestly seek God in prayer asking him, what do I need to die to in order to experience resurrection – what do we need to die to in order that there be new life. Let’s take some time in silent prayer on that very question.