“Do you have any inspirational quotes about dead people… specifically zombies?” I hollered over to my colleague and fellow minister across the hall.
Because here I am on October 22, 2009 with Halloween right around the corner (hurray!) writing a sermon on a topic my Beresheth team suggested I do called Scary Stories of the Bible, where in worship we use texts commonly left out of the lectionary and quite frankly, out of church.
I know I’d never studied this story.
But while researching the Lazarus story in the New Testament where Jesus waits four days and then brings poor, dead Lazarus back to life, one of the commentaries I was reading emphasized the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.
Resuscitation: being brought back to life, Resurrection: being given new life.
Cool. I thought. What other resuscitation texts are in the Bible? So I did a little research and found two more. One of which we just read. And in case you blinked and missed it, let me reread it for you…
"So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet."
Maybe if I retell the story in my own words it will sound better: A man dies. His body is on the way to the cemetery and suddenly some bullies or a gang or some outlaws show up and in a panic the mourners throw the corpse into the nearest grave where it happens to land on Elisha’s bones and magically comes back to life. The man got up and crawled out of the grave, alive.
That is NOT better.
So I did some research.
Turns out that occasionally funeral rituals included a pilgrimage to the grave of someone important or inspirational. Thus the proximity to Elisha’s grave. Additionally, miraculous things happening at someone’s gravesite is actually common in hagiography, or in the study of saints. Yep, the Catholic church would call Elisha a Saint. I guess all the prophets were. And this story definitely shows up in Elisha’s hagiology.
But who was Elisha?
Elisha was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom during the reigns of Kings Ahaziah, Johoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, and Jehoash. The Nothern Kingdom was called Israel which was sometimes at peace and sometimes at war with it’s fellow God-fearers in the Southern Kingdom, called Judah. These two kingdoms came about when after King Saul, King David, and King Solomon there was a civil war of sorts and of course, the country split into two kingdoms, the northern and southern, Israel and Judah. And so the time of Kings Saul, David and Solomon is called the United Kingdom and the time of Kind Jeroboam, Rehoboam and the 38 others who ruled either Israel or Judah is called the time of the Divided Kingdom.
Elisha is one of the prophets during this time of the divided kingdom who was led to power through his mentor, the famous EliJah. Elijah was a great prophet who did many wondrous miracles like calling fire out of the sky which promptly burned up a completely drenched pile of firewood. Elijah spoke God’s truth of compassion and honest worship against the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He’s also the prophet who didn’t die, yep, another spooky story worthy of a campfire and a bunch of scared little kids, but rather was taken up by a great whirlwind into the sky, never to be seen again.
Elisha is his appointed successor and true to Elijah’s memory, Elisha too performs great miracles and speaks out against unrighteous kings. Thus, “Elijah lives on in the ministry of Elisha; Elisha is Elijah one more time, larger than life.” Indeed, such is the power of God in Elijah and Elisha’s memory that when a corpse even touches the bones of the deceased Elisha, the corpse comes back to life.
And now here we are, sitting in worship, wondering how in the world the story of some Zombie has any effect on our life or our faith.
And it’s not like the writer of 2 Kings gives us any help on the matter. He simply tells the story about as matter of factly as can be. I mean, I would have given it a little more substance, a little more pizzazz. I would have described what it felt like landing on the bones in the grave. I would have described the dead man receiving air into his lungs again, his dried blood suddenly warming up and coursing through his veins again. I would have described his shriek of surprise and the look on his friends faces as they began screaming and running away when he came waddling out of the tomb trying to untangle himself from the mummy rags.
But I also just got done watching Zombieland last week.
Obviously, the writer of 2 Kings didn’t. The facts are there, they’re stated and the story is over. (And when he man comes back to life he probably returns to eating hummus and hallah, not brains and humans.)
And scholars say this is intentional: “it is important to note that the narrator does not linger on the ‘miraculous’ but presents each occasion in almost matter-of-fact terms…The reader is thereby pushed away from focusing on the spectacular in itself and asked to discern the theological and religious import of what is being stated.”
So what’s being stated? What’s the point of Zombieland, I mean, verses 20-22? What theological wisdom can be gained from this scary story of the Bible?
Quite frankly, it’s that God is powerful. And God doesn’t just act in religious settings. God acts in every area of Israel’s life.
Did you know while all the prophets of the Old Testament warned the Kings and people that God did not like the way they were treating their neighbors and enemies, while they warned that justice would flow like a mighty fountain and that it would flow against God’s people. While all this was happening, despite the King’s or the people’s unrighteousness, God continued to work on Israel’s behalf. Indeed in chapters 13-14 of 2 Kings, “god acts on behalf of the faithless Israel… God’s compassion and promises continue to shape Israel’s life in the midst of its evil ways.”
In other words, “the most fundamental witness of [the Elijah and Elisha] stories is that Israel’s God makes true life possible in every sphere.” Even in politics. Even in relationships. Even in schools. Even in churches and synagogues. Even in war… Even in the graveyard.
And I guess that is good news.
Because we all have our fair share of faithlessness. We all experience times when we abandon faith for societies’ whims. We all choose coping mechanisms over prayer and perseverance. We all choose to be selfish rather than compassionate. We all choose to judge when we should offer grace. We all choose death when we should be choosing life. And God is faithful to us despite us. There’s always hope for new life… even if you’re dead as a doornail. And while maybe God isn’t going to resuscitate you after you’ve passed on, plenty of us feel dead enough inside that we could use a breathe of fresh air, of God’s air, of God’s spirit, waking us up inside.
And that may be the scariest part yet, letting go of ourselves enough to let God’s life take over. This is America and we like to be the best, look the best, know the most and accomplish the most whether that’s our success in academia, success in the business world, doing the most at church or downing the most at our favorite bar. To let go of our need to be in control and instead live by faith, to let go of our cynicism and live by hope, to let go of our fear and live with intellectual and emotional integrity… that is to receive life. Life that is waiting for us no matter what we do and who we are.
Life is always available if we’d just be willing to take it. I just hope we don’t get so far gone that we have to fall into a dead man’s grave to wake up to that.