Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sermon: June 23, 2013

Standing Before the God of the Ages
1 Kings 19.1-15
Rev. Andy Ferguson

            What is the deal God offers us in exchange for our faithfulness and Christian service? On Easter, we talk about the promise of Resurrection, but that comes later, after natural death. What deal does God offer us in the present imperfect?

A. For the past few weeks, we have been following a series that I call, “Superheroes of the Old Testament.” I love the O.T. stories; they have a lot to teach us about living faithfully. They are inspiring and often “over the top” in contrast to this modern world that majors in living calculated lives. The story of Elijah on Mt Horeb, standing before God is one of those great stories.
            We usually read this story and find our attention drawn to the great moment when Elijah went out to stand on the mountain before God. There the wind came and broke the rocks and mountains; the earthquake followed; third, the fire roared through. But, according to the scripture, God was not in any of those. Finally, there was the sound of sheer silence (a contradiction), but there is no time to worry about the contradiction. You see, God came to Elijah following that silence.
B. Because of our focus on the wind, earthquake and fire, we interpret this as a story about the way we encounter God. Many sermons have been preached on meeting God in the quiet places or even in God’s silences. They were good sermons, but I do not think that this story is trying to tell us how God might (OR might NOT) speak to us through any of these events. Actually, God spoke to Elijah in many ways throughout this story – including the “sound of sheer silence.”
C. I think, instead, that this great story is Elijah’s crisis over his sense of God’s call. As a prophet, he was called by God *to speak* in the name of God. He was called *to act* in the name of God. Now, all his service has led to threats against his life. Elijah had become a hunted man; no wonder it led to a crisis of call. Such a crisis of call is one that we might suffer, too.
            Elijah has just come from his amazing victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. You recall how he taunted the prophets of Baal to wake the god to receive their offering. When no fire came, Elijah branded them and their god Baal a “fraud.”  Then, he prayed that God would send down fire to accept the offering he had prepared before the people. Right on cue, the fire of God fell, burned up all the offering, the wood, the water and even the dust around the altar. The people standing in witness were understandably awestruck. They declared themselves followers of God, then, at Elijah’s direction, they chased down all the 450 prophets of Baal and killed them without exception or mercy.

            As our passage opens today, Queen Jezebel has just gotten word about what Elijah has done – especially about his order to kill all the prophets of her religion. She lays down one of the great threats of the Bible. Bruce Willis in all the many “Die Hard” movies cannot make threats as cool as she laid on Elijah: **“So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow”** (19.2). Elijah was terrified. Whatever pride he enjoyed from the Mt. Carmel thing evaporates, and he runs for his life.
            A. Mt. Carmel was in the Northern Kingdom, ruled by King Ahab. That kingdom had broken away from the Southern Kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem. So, to get away from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Elijah hightailed it south – out of the Northern Kingdom, all the way down to the southern border of the Southern Kingdom. Fearing for his life, he kept moving until he was as far from Jezebel as he could run. At this point in the story, the only thing we see is Elijah’s fear.
            B. After running for several days, Elijah, exhausted, lies down to rest in the desert wilderness under a broom tree. It is the first time he has dared to close his eyes since the queen’s threat sent him running. He rested under the broom tree and said to God, **“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”** In other words, I am as good as dead. Just get it over, please.” With that, he lay down to the release he could only find in sleep.
            Now, in one of the most touching passages in the Bible, an angel of God woke him with a warm cake of bread and a jar of water. It was not much, but it shows the tenderness of God for his frightened servant. After he ate, Elijah was still exhausted so he slept again. Then a second time, an angel came with food and drink: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” So, he did as the angel said.
            C. Now, at God’s direction Elijah gets up and walks to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Moses met God. You recall that Moses met God on Mt. Sinai once at the burning bush and again to receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments. One of the great moments of Moses’ encounters with God on Sinai took place when Moses asked to see God. He was having a crisis of faith of his own, and he asked to see God for reassurance. God would not allow Moses to see His face, so God put Moses in the cleft of the rock, covered him with His hand. Then, Moses was allowed to see God’s back as God passed that place. The tantalizing thought is that Elijah might have taken shelter in that same cleft in the rock when he arrived on the Mountain.
            D. As Elijah waits in that cave on the Mountain, word comes to him, “Go out and stand on the Mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” After he goes out to present himself before the Lord:
·       A wind, so strong it split the mountains and broke the rocks, passed by.
·       Then, an earthquake
·       Third, fire passed by him.
·       However, the Lord was not in any of these.
Then, after the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave – now presenting himself before the Lord.

III. [Crisis of Call]
            As I said earlier this morning, this is not so much a story about the ways God speaks to us as it is a story about Elijah’s crisis of call. He had been called by God to prophesy. And prophesy he had done.
·       At the Lord’s command, he had spoken out against King Ahab’s acceptance of foreign gods in Israel.
·       At the Lord’s command, he had promised drought across the land.
·       At the Lord’s command, he had challenged the prophets of Baal to the showdown on Carmel.
·       At the Lord’s command and through the Lord’s tender care, he had traveled to Mt. Horeb/Sinai to present himself before the Lord.
A. But, with Jezebel’s threat, all sense of confidence evaporated. Elijah could not see anything except his failure and her power. As a poet translated Jezebel’s threat: “You may be Elijah, but I – I am Jezebel, Queen.” Elijah’s response is understandable:
·       “I’m as good as dead; just take me now.”
·       I’m a failure; this has been a waste of my life.
·       Everything I have lived for has amounted to nothing; God, just get it over with.

B. [APPLIC:] I think there are times when we have felt the same – times when the confidence that we have been doing the very thing [God called us to do] has come to nothing.
·       I am not talking about the sadness that we call depression; that condition has many triggers and causes. Some are situational, like Elijah’s crisis, but others can be physical. The human brain is a complex part of our bodies; it is not fully understood. Depression may need specialized care.
·       Instead, I am talking about the faith crisis that comes from following God’s call only to find ourselves in disaster.
·       Shouldn’t following God faithfully bring us success?
·       Shouldn’t speaking God’s message lead people to understand and embrace what we preach?
·       Shouldn’t doing the right thing all our lives yield good results?
·       Shouldn’t there be a simple connection between doing what we believe God wants us to do and the way we are treated in this world?
            In a seminar for preachers that Will Willimon led with Stanley Hauerwas, one pastor said, in a plaintive voice, “The bishop sent me to a little town in South Carolina. I preached one Sunday on the challenge of racial justice. After only two months, my people were so angry that the bishop had to move me.
            At the next church, I was determined for things to go better. Didn’t preach about race. But we had an incident in town, and I felt forced to speak. “The board met that week and voted unanimously for us to be moved. My wife was insulted at the supermarket. My children were beaten up on the school ground.”
            Willimon says that his pastoral heart went out to this dear, suffering brother. But Hauerwas replied, “And your point is what? We work for the living God! Did somebody tell you it would be easy?”

Well, that young pastor could have been Elijah. That young pastor might have been any of us, trying to make sense of the dead ends where we find ourselves. We have listened for God’s voice! We have wanted to follow in the pathway of God! So, why doesn’t it work any better than it does?
            C. [ANS:] Elijah assumed that his faithfulness would provide some measure of protection from the world. When that assumption proved false, his faith and his sense of call were crushed. Hauerwas’ reply seems unfeeling, unsympathetic, “And your point is what?” God’s reply on the mountain was no kinder: no words of comfort, no reassurance. God’s reply was only new marching orders: “Go, return on your way north to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive I have work for you to do.” No words of kindness; no sympathy; no rest. Get busy; there is plenty yet to do.
            What God offers us is a life of eternal purpose. What God offers us is the call to spend our lives in the company of Christ. The call of God for us might be:
·       A lifetime of Christian service in a set apart ministry.
·       God’s call might be to a particular season or project.
The message of Elijah’s crisis story is that God is calling us to be difference-makers in this world. Consider the likelihood that God still calls prophets and servants and ordinary believers to do extraordinary deeds. Consider the likelihood that God is still looking for an Elijah for this time, and the Prophet for this time might be you.

CONCL: The familiar Wesley Covenant Prayer goes this way:
Lord, make me what you will.
            I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what thou wilt,
            rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing,
            put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
            exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
            Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
            you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
            let it be ratified in heaven.

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