Wednesday, June 18, 2014

You Are Not Alone

1 Kings 19:1-18

Have you ever heard of the phrase “mountaintop experience?” The idea is that there are some experiences that take us to the mountaintop. These are the best experiences of life, and when they are over, you just don’t want to go back to your everyday life. Church camp was often, for me, a mountaintop experience. I would go to camp every summer and by the end of camp, I was on fire! I was ready to win my entire school for Christ. There’s a problem with the mountaintop experience, however, and that is simply that we don’t live on the mountaintop. At some point, we have to come back down.

In scripture, one notable mountaintop experience was when Jesus went up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and he was joined there by Elijah and Moses! Peter, maybe even recognizing the amazing experience, suggested that they build shelters, one each for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. But Jesus rebuked him and Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, all came down from the mountain, where they encountered a man whose son was plagued by a demon, and the rest of the disciples couldn’t do anything about it.

Down from the mountain is a difficult place. You’ve been somewhere great, but now you’re back to the daily routine, and it’s difficult. In fact, now it has become even more difficult than it had been before. The Monday after an amazing Sunday is the hardest day for pastors. I have seen many polls about how many pastors want to quit, and while I don’t dispute their results, I wonder how many of those polls were taken on Monday?

Today’s scripture comes immediately on the heels of Elijah’s amazing victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In that contest, God was shown as the One True God. Elijah was vindicated. His prayers were answered. I didn’t read all of the chapter in 1 Kings 18, but at the end, all of the prophets of Baal were slaughtered, and so, as we pick up the scripture again, we see King Ahab and his evil wife, Jezebel, having a conversation.  (1 Kings 19:1-2)
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

What a lovely conversation. Now, I’ve gotten some “notes” after church services and some of them have been pretty unpleasant and even upsetting. I once got one that said, “I’ll never be back; my backside can’t handle sitting through another one of your sermons.” I’ve had other complaints, but so far, none of them have ever threatened to kill me. The worst thing about this is that Jezebel not only had the power to do it, but she also had the temperament.

So Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

We can look from our unattached, safe position and shake our heads at Elijah. Didn’t God just show Himself to be powerful and mighty? Hasn’t God consistently answered his prayers and provided for him and protected him? And didn’t God just send fire on his sacrifice? But the reality is, many of us have been there. Things have gone really well, but now we’re off the mountain, and all of the difficulties come pouring down. He takes off, even leaving his servant and going an additional day’s journey into the wilderness, where he’s depressed enough that he is ready to die. Before you get to bashing Elijah for his attitude, know that depression is real and its effects are numerous. Don’t tell someone who is depressed to “suck it up” because they likely can’t. Depression can be chemical, ongoing, or situational. Elijah’s seems to be situational. He has just won an amazing victory for God, yet instead of getting some positive attention, his very life is at stake. I wonder again what’s going through his heart. How discouraging this must be.

Though I don’t think most of us have received death threats for our work for Christ, I know I’m not the only one who has been discouraged. We’ve given our best for the church and suddenly we’re attacked. We’ve stretched out our necks to serve the least and the lost and to give them Jesus Christ, and suddenly we’re reminded that in the flock of God, sometimes the sheep have teeth. Or sometimes that our neighbors don’t approve. And life becomes much more confusing and hard.

So I love what happens next to Elijah. (1 Kings 19:5b-8) All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 

I love the forty day and forty nights of travel (those numbers should be familiar – it rained on Noah’s ark forty day and forty nights and Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted for forty days and nights. Even the number of years Moses led the Israelites in the wilderness was forty…), but these couple of verses are illuminating in several ways. First of all, in the pit of his despair, Elijah is not alone. Here he is, wishing he was dead, and “all at once” an angel touched him and encouraged him and pointed him along his way.

One direction I could have gone with this sermon and this passage in particular was in care for people with mental illness, as depression is definitely at work here. I don’t have the time to go into this fully, but I want to say two things. First, mental illness should never be a stigma in the church. We don’t say to someone who has diabetes “if you’d pray harder, you would be able to eat whatever you want,” and neither should we say to someone suffering with depression, “if you’d pray more, your depression will lift.” Likewise, notice what the angel did and didn’t say and do. The angel didn’t tell Elijah to “fake it ‘til you make it.” He didn’t tell him to plaster a smile on his face. What the angel did in fact do was this:

First the angel ministered simply by presence. The angel touched Elijah. When our friends are depressed, be there for them. Secondly the angel ministered by service. Elijah found food there. When you’re going through a tough time, sometimes the last thing you think about is making sure your physical needs are met. So the angel brought food. The angel didn’t even talk until the third step, when we find the angel encouraging Elijah to take care of himself and to continue his work. Sometimes those who are depressed just need someone to come alongside them to encourage them to go about their daily routine. Sometimes in the midst of depression, a person doesn’t have the energy to get up, but the best thing for them is often to get up and get out.

But aside from all of that, the destination was important. The angel directed Elijah to go to God’s mountain. Elijah just had a mountaintop experience and now he’s in the valley again, and the angel directs him to the only place where he can get what he needs… he has to go to where God is.

Let’s continue with 1 Kings 19:9- 11
There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

There’s the complaint. Plain and simple. When you’re talking to God, you can be brutally honest. God already knows what’s going on, and He knows how you feel, but He also knows what you need most.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 
When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
It’s important to know, especially after a mountaintop experience and the subsequent deep valley experience, that God is there. You’re not alone. Sometimes we expect the majestic. We want to see God in the wind and the earthquake and the fire, but God is there in the whisper. You’re not alone.

Sometimes you have to listen hard for that whisper, but as you listen, you will hear. In John 10:14, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” and in John 10:27-28 he goes on to say, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

Remember that you’re not alone and that there is no place you can go where God hasn’t been there first. But if you’re as busy as most of us are 24/7, you won’t hear God speaking at all. Honestly, it is hard to slow down, to quiet yourself. Even when you’re not in the midst of moving, it is hard. But it is absolutely essential. Do you build time into your life when you are quiet enough to hear a gentle whisper? I’ve never heard God speak in an audible voice, and I honestly can be skeptical when people say that God spoke to them, but I know God speaks. And if we are listening, He doesn’t have to use the Holy 2x4 method to get our attention.

When Elijah finally heard God, speaking in a gentle whisper, this is what he heard. (1 Kings 19:14-18) Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.  Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

God got pretty specific with Elijah here, and we will get to Elisha next week. But the final sentence is the one I want to focus on as I finish up. Elijah was afraid for his life and was feeling utterly alone in his work. Taking a stand for God can be hard. It can be alienating work. But God tells Elijah that he’s not alone. God has 7000 more in reserve.

I love that encouragement. You are not alone. Sometimes we get so caught up in the “what’s everyone else going to say if I…” and we think of every eye on us. But you aren’t alone. I remember a beautiful moment when, at the end of the service, Sharon heard God telling her to invite the church to the altar to pray. She had to have the courage or gumption or whatever it took to obey, and while we were up here praying, Joan asked for prayer and anointing on behalf of her sister. She never would have done that had Sharon not paved the way. So remember, in your obedience, you are probably not only making the difference you think you’re making, but you are probably doing much more than you ever imagined. So if you’re on the right path, even if you’re discouraged, keep up the good work. If you are discouraged, I want to pray for you today before you leave. And remember, you are never alone.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Was That Offensive

1 Kings 18:`-39

James 5:17-18:  Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

As we catch up with our normal guy Elijah, he has had quite the adventure in trusting and obeying God and accepting God’s provision. When God told him to leave the king’s court and go hide in the ravine and be fed by ravens and drink from the brook, Elijah went. When the brook ran dry, God sent him to a widow in Zaraphath, where God miraculously multiplied her meager flour and oil supply, feeding him, her and her family until God once again brought rain. To finish up that passage (and I apologize for not being able to get everything in – time is short), her son died, but God, through Elijah, brought him back to life!

So in the third year of the famine, God tells Elijah he’s going to send rain once more. So Elijah, led by God (and obedient!) goes to Ahab. He runs into Obadiah, a devout believer who is ironically Ahab’s palace administrator. After a little wrangling (Obadiah didn’t want Ahab to kill him for finding and consorting with Elijah), we return to the text: 1 Kings 18:16-21

So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”

Let me break in here – I love how Ahab calls Elijah the troubler of Israel. Have you noticed that whenever Christians speak up and tell the Truth in public, they are “troublemakers” – especially when the Truth goes against popular culture? And how funny is it that Ahab is the one calling someone “troublemaker” when it is he who is leading the people to worship false gods?

“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

There is something in our culture that wants to avoid confrontation. We close our ears and eyes to those who bother us. If someone we know bothers us, we recognize the merit in going to the person with whom we have a problem and settling the issue. People of other cultures will settle issues, but often much more indirectly and generally more slowly. But we can be a wishy-washy people; not wanting to offend anyone, we don’t say anything that might be construed as offensive. In fact, this week I was disgusted to see that our own United Methodist General Board of Church and Society joined atheist groups to sign a petition to block the possibility of adding President Franklin Roosevelt’s prayer to a World War II Memorial on the national mall in Washington DC. They wouldn’t want to offend someone who hates religion.

We don’t like to offend people, especially with our religion, so we often keep silent about it. The truth is, our religion is offensive. We state without reservation that everyone is stained by sin, and that we cannot save ourselves; only God can save us. We unequivocally state that we are right and other people are not – if other religions are right, then Jesus did not have to die on the cross to save us from our sin. If other religions are right, that by our own actions, we can achieve our goal, then we are wrong. In fact, the goal of different religions are different. Is the goal oneness with everything? Is the goal nothingness? Is the goal a sensual paradise? Is the goal a new heaven and a new earth, where God will live with the people and there will be no need for a sun? These can’t all be true! For all who want a completely inclusive religion, you have to know that Christianity makes some exclusive claims. We, along with Elijah, claim that our God is the only true God, that other gods are false gods.

And that claim is offensive to many.
But Elijah didn’t back away from the challenge.

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

Lest you think that Elijah unfairly slanted this challenge in favor of the God of Heaven, know that Baal was said to be the god of weather. And they are in the midst of a three year drought – a condition that could have been remedied by a weather god.

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

I wonder what’s going through Elijah’s head. He is so confident and starts the trash talk going – I’ll bet it’s been boiling up under the surface for a long, long time and now he can finally let it out.

How does he have the confidence to know he is going to win this contest? Because he’d look really bad, taunting Baal’s prophets, if God didn’t do something. Elijah has the confidence because of what God has already done. God has provided for him miraculously in the past and has even raised the dead on Elijah’s prayers. But of course, because Elijah is a religious superman. No, the even Bible reminds us that Elijah was a normal guy, just like us.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time.  The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

Remember that this was during a time of devastating drought. It is no coincidence that he had the people pour twelve large jars full of water – one jar for each tribe of Israel. This water was a precious commodity, and Elijah sacrificed it as well.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Something important happens here. Elijah has such great confidence, and he is asking God for a miracle, but he recognizes the most important part: that the reason for the miracle isn’t to justify Elijah. It’s not about Elijah; it’s all about God. Elijah didn’t do this to gain a great following. Elijah didn’t do this to establish his own credentials. Elijah didn’t do this for bragging rights. He did this to glorify God. “Let it be known today that you are God in Israel.”

When we think about what we want God to do with Hope Church, there can be a trap that we can fall into that has to do with numbers. We can want more people in church because we remember how great it was to have a full church. We can think that more people = more and better programming. We can think of how much better ministry we can do with more people and more volunteers. We can think of the greater impact we will make in the community if we had more people involved. Although all of these are true to some extent or another, the fact is, we do what we do for one reason and one reason only: for God’s glory. We certainly don’t want growth just so I can compare with my pastor friends at Annual Conference about how many people we have. And we have the most ridiculous phrase we use: “how many you worshiping these days?” Um, I’m only worshiping One.

But the reason we do want growth is because we want to see a measure of how God is saving people from sin. How God is transforming lives. It’s never about me or us; it is all about God.

So Elijah prayed, and Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

Once again, God wins. Yahweh is glorified and proclaimed as the One True God!

As we consider what this normal man did, and how God prevailed in the contest between the prophets of God and Baal, it can be one of those Bible stories that is encouraging in a kind of “yeah, I know God is strongest” kind of way, but what can we take from this that has bearing on our lives today?

First remember that Elijah’s prayers were not powerful and effective because he was someone special. He was someone special because his prayers were powerful and effective. There are so many people who think that my prayers are more effective than theirs, simply because a bishop laid hands on me. No, the reason my prayers are effective is because of God! And you have the same access to God as I have; God doesn’t check ordination papers. God doesn’t check seminary degrees. The qualification given in the book of James is that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16b)

So if you want powerful and effective prayers, be in right relationship with God. If you want to be in right relationship with God, understand that it only comes through Jesus Christ. Jesus came to reconcile us to God, and he completed his mission. And God further gave us the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God, to live within us. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do great things, not on our own and not for our own credit, but for God and for God’s glory.

Another part of this story is, that as Christians, the goal for everything we do is for God’s glory. This means clergy, so-called professional Christians, and it means laity, the “people in the pews.” There are no Christian bystanders. There is no such thing as a Christian audience. We have a part to play to give God glory, whether that is in public, in front of people, or in private and behind the scenes. We each have a part to play. If you don’t know what your part is, ask the Holy Spirit to show you.

Finally, we can’t be so concerned with offending that we never share Jesus. Sure, we don’t want to be offensive. The message of the cross will be offensive to some, and we must never compromise that. We don’t have to be jerks about it, and I wouldn’t suggest taunting those who don’t believe, but the fact is, many of us could stand to be a little more open about our Christianity. If you are someone who is very quiet about your relationship with Christ, I would suggest you practice with a fellow Christian. Before you leave this place, tell someone something that God has done in your life. We can’t be so afraid to offend that we end up offending Jesus! Matthew 10:32-33 says: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Let us be the ones who Jesus acknowledges before God with a “well done, good and faithful servant,” not “apart from me, I never knew you.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Normal Guy... Fed by Ravens

Before I get to today’s scripture, I want to read another one.  I want to start with James 5:17-18:  Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

As I was preparing for the last five weeks I will be preaching here, I wanted to have a theme; I didn’t want to just preach five stand-alone sermons that don’t really have anything to do with one another. I wanted to find something that speaks to us today, no matter what we are doing. But I also didn’t want to go to my favorite, “pet passages” if you will. So I ended up with one of my favorite heroes of the Bible. Sometimes we can get caught up in the “hero” thoughts, thinking that this person or that person is so spiritual or so powerful or so whateverful that I could never do anything like this. This is the reason that I chose to read the passage from James before reading about Elijah. Elijah was a man just like us. So keep that in mind as I read from 1 Kings 17:1-6

Now, Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”

So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening and he drank from the brook.

Have you ever been told to do something that you didn’t really want to do? How did you respond? How about if you knew that God wanted you to do whatever it was that you were supposed to do? There was this guy, I’ll call him Bob, who was complaining. He complained to everybody who would listen, and I was the target of his complaints. I never visited him or his wife. The truth was, his complaints hurt. They hurt because I had visited both of them. They had both had health issues and I had visited each of them in the hospital, in the nursing home, and at home. In fact, I had visited the two of them more than anyone else in the church. Yet he kept complaining.

I was completely ready to write him off. But I knew that God wanted me to visit him. So I swallowed my pride and went over, half expecting to get complained at. But as it turned out, the visit went very well. He was happy for the visit and I was glad to have the complaining behind me.

In today’s scripture, we read about Elijah, how the word of God came to him. The Bible doesn’t give us much of an introduction other than his name and where he came from. Interestingly, his name, Elijah, means “My God is Yahweh” and Tishbe (as a word) means “captivity.” We know Elijah as a powerful prophet of God who stood up to the king, even in the face of death.

But the most important thing about Elijah was not his power or his reputation. Elijah’s most important characteristic was his obedience. You see, God never spelled out the whole scenario to Elijah. God only gave him the next step. When we first meet Elijah in this chapter, by some means, he has gained audience with the king. He gets to be the one to tell King Ahab what’s what. A pretty important person with a pretty important calling. I can only imagine what went through his head; maybe Ahab would listen and repent. Maybe the nation would be healed and saved from its enemies.

As an itinerate Methodist pastor, I can maybe relate to Elijah here; just as he might be getting comfortable in a new role, God tells him the next step, and it’s not a good one. “You’re in the palace now, but I want you to leave and go hide east of the Jordan. Your parsonage will be a ravine, and don’t even ask what the kitchen looks like.

At this point, Elijah can’t possibly know what the future is going to hold, only that it looks hard. So he is at a crossroad. And he chooses obedience.

Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroad, where we know God is calling us to something, but maybe we find excuses not to do it. “It’s going to be hard,” we tell ourselves. Well, that might not be an excuse; it’s just a statement of reality. It will be hard. But nothing that is worthwhile is really all that easy. If you want to learn a skill, you have to work hard at it. If you want to be good at a sport, you have to work hard at it. If you want to raise good, godly children, it’s going to be hard work. And if you want to follow God’s commands, you can bet that it isn’t going to be easy. And God is frequently not going to give us the whole picture right at the beginning of the journey.

One difficult aspect of full obedience to God is that God doesn’t always do things the way we want God to do them. Elijah had an audience with the king. Then God tells him to flee, and the next thing we know, Elijah is hiding in a ravine. Does Elijah know what’s going to happen next? I doubt it. Yet he is obedient.

You might be thinking, “Yeah, Elijah can be obedient in this because he is one of the prophets. God speaks directly to him. He is one of those superior people…” But the Bible is clear that Elijah wasn’t anyone special. In fact, remember what James had to say about him: Elijah was a man just like us... James 5:17a

He was a man, just like us. And his obedience was simple. Not easy, but simple. I can’t imagine what it was like to wait in that ravine. But the reminder is clear: God’s timetable is not our timetable. Perhaps God brought Elijah there to save him from King Ahab’s wrath. Perhaps God brought him there to teach him patience. Most of us understand that patience is a good thing, even a Fruit of the Spirit, and we want to be patient, but God rarely just gives the gift of patience – usually God gives us the opportunity to practice being patient. We don’t like to wait; we want to be doing something productive. That’s just part of our culture.

As an aside, sub-Saharan Africa, which Zambia is a part of, is much more of a “being” culture than a “doing” culture, which means that concepts like “time” “productivity” have different meanings and values. Here, when we have a meeting that is supposed to start at 7:00, we arrive around 6:45 and chat for a while, and some of keep glancing at the clock, especially if everyone hasn’t arrived yet. At 7, the meeting is convened. But that’s not the way it is everywhere. In a “being” culture, if they said the meeting was to start at 7, it might mean that people will start heading for the meeting place at 7. And when they arrive, the meeting won’t start until everyone has sufficiently greeted one another. And by “greeted” I mean “have a full conversation about their family and everything else.” We get into the pattern of judging the gathering by how “productive” it was, but that’s just not the case everywhere.

I’m not sure what kind of culture Elijah was in, but one thing is for sure: he had a lot of “down” time. Non-productive time. And I wonder what he did with the time. Did he find a closer walk with God? We don’t have definitive evidence – the Bible doesn’t say this specifically – but I believe Elijah’s time in the ravine prepared him for what would come next. Elijah obviously had some kind of sway – otherwise how could he have gotten an audience with the king? He might have just stayed in his comfortable spot, enjoying his position and the extras that go along with it. But God had something else for him – something not very easy, not very fun, not very cushy, not at the king’s table, but hidden in a ravine, fed by ravens.

Maybe you have chosen your way based on comfort. You like where you are. You may not be all that effective for the kingdom, but it’s comfortable. But maybe God has something uncomfortable for you to do, something that will make a great impact for the kingdom, or even something that will prepare you to make a great impact for the kingdom.

And there is a huge problem with comfort. What is comfortable now might not be comfortable forever. Think of sitting in the most comfortable easy chair. You sit down and it envelops you, and you feel like you could sit there forever. Let’s make it even better – it’s so nice that you have a big screen TV and a refrigerator right next to you. You don’t even have to get out of the chair for anything. You even have a bedpan. So you get to sit and sit and sit. It’s the most comfortable seat ever. But if you sit there for too long, you will start to get bedsores. If you sit there even longer, your legs will atrophy. Eventually you could die. Just from sitting in a comfortable chair.

There is a difference in being comfortable and content, as Paul writes about in Philippians 4 (where he says he has learned the secret of being content in all circumstances). The secret is relying on God for everything! When you’re in the easy chair, you don’t need God for anything; you have everything you need right at your fingertips. I believe this is one of the biggest problems faced by American Christians right now; we are way too self-sufficient. We don’t need anyone else, and we don’t need God.

When we get into this situation, it is extremely difficult to trust in God for provision. But we’re in this situation more often than we would like to realize. If you find yourself in the situation of being so comfortable that you aren’t trusting in God to provide for you, that you don’t need to trust God for your daily bread, one easy remedy is to increase your giving. Give more to the church. Give to missionaries (if you don’t know any, I can give you some suggestions). Give to the Imagine No Malaria campaign. Sponsor a child. Pay for a scholarship. Pay for a Cub Scout to go to day camp.  Donate to help our mission team on their trip.

And don’t donate what’s left in your wallet.  Donate before you go out to eat. Donate before you buy yourself something nice. Pray over your money. Because God has so much for you if you decide to stop being so self-reliant.

I also wonder if God brought Elijah to the ravine to give him rest or, as some of us understand, to make him rest. I know I am guilty of going, going, going and then having no energy. There are times when God uses the situations we are in, or even gives us the situations we are in, to make us rest. To take the time our bodies and our spirits need. Did you notice that Elijah wasn’t told to go to the ravine Man Against Wild style? There’s nothing there about conquering the elements. It’s about allowing God to take care of him. We are so focused on doing all of the things that we do that sometimes we just need to stop. To rest. To enjoy Sabbath. Actually enjoy it.

The coolest thing about this passage about Elijah is simply that Elijah heard God’s word and obeyed. We don’t read about him arguing or bargaining with God. He doesn’t run away from God, like Jonah did. He doesn’t lay out a fleece like Gideon did. He simply obeys. While James says Elijah was a man just like us, I think what sets him apart is his obedience. While many of us either don’t listen to God or wait until God uses the Holy 2x4 to get our attention. Elijah heard God’s Word and obeyed. Where in your life could you stop and obey today?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Call

Exodus 3:1-6

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Isaiah 6:1-8

Jeremiah 1:4-10

I read you four call stories from the Bible: Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. They are amazing stories. Moses already had an awesome start to life, being saved from death by his mother putting him in a basket in the reeds in the Nile, and he was saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter, of all people. But here he is, years later, toiling away in Midian, tending sheep, when God speaks to him through a burning bush.

Then there is Samuel, whose mother prayed fervently for a child, and when her child was born, she brought him into the sanctuary of the Lord to be raised there. Though the word of the Lord was rare in those times and people just weren’t having visions, God spoke to the boy Samuel in an audible voice.

Isaiah had an awesome vision in which God spoke to him, asking, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah answered, “Here I am, send me.”

And as for Jeremiah, we simply read that “the word of the Lord came to [him].” I’m not exactly sure what this means – if God spoke in an audible voice or if it was in a dream or an oracle or a vision or what, but what I do know is that God’s word came to him. I love this part: God knew Jeremiah before he was born and had already appointed him to be a prophet. Jeremiah started to protest, like Moses did before him, but of course God already knew that and had a response.

And so God touched Jeremiah’s mouth and put his words in Jeremiah. Such amazing call stories of unlikely people. Moses was born a Hebrew slave and additionally he had a stuttering problem. Samuel wasn’t even supposed to be born, as his mother was barren. Isaiah, well, he might have been who got picked. And Jeremiah was just a boy. But God called them each, along with countless others, to speak his word. In missionary training, every day before lunch, we shared what we called “God moments.” We were limited to five minutes and we were supposed to tell of a time when we encountered God in a real way. It evolved into sharing call stories, how God called us into ministry and mission (and the five minute limit went out the window). But the cool thing about it was that each of us had a unique story of how God had called us to ministry and mission, whether it was a single anecdote or the whole story.

But one issue I have is that often we get caught in a trap. We get caught in a trap that says that only clergy or missionaries should tell their call stories. Actually, we go even deeper in the trap, to suggest that lay people might not even have call stories. But the Gospels are full of Jesus saying outrageous things like, “Come, follow me.”

Who does Jesus call to follow him? In Mark 10:14, he says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  Jesus is calling children. Now, we think of children as treasures from God, valuable and beloved and important, but in Roman times, children had no status whatsoever. In fact, a child was not considered a human until his father decided he wanted to adopt him into the family – if not, the child was left out and if someone else came and took that child and raised him or her, that was fine, but otherwise the baby would die of exposure. Incidentally, it was the Church who stood up against this behavior and it was Christians who adopted many of these babies, saving them from death. Because we recognize that Jesus is calling children, blessing them. There are many reasons why United Methodists baptize babies, and one reason is because Jesus personally calls children to himself, saying, “it’s not because of who you are or what you have done; it’s because of who I am and what I have done.”

We have a lot to learn from children. In fact, Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:15-16)

(story of Chris at Church of the Village)

Right after the story in Mark where Jesus called the children to him, Jesus called a rich man to follow him – we often refer to him as the “rich young ruler.” The man asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and after he told Jesus that he had kept the commandments since he was a child, Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

I believe Jesus calls all kinds of people to follow him. Helpless children, rich adults, and every kind of person in between.

It’s not about clergy or laity, and I would go so far as to say that I believe we have constructed a false dichotomy between the two. We sometimes go so far as to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that only clergy can do certain things –our United Methodist rules say that only clergy can perform baptisms and bless the Communion elements, and since I’ve sworn to uphold United Methodist doctrine, I adhere to this, but there are other things that were never just the clergy’s job in the first place. Evangelism, for one. It makes me sad when someone tells me that they wish I would go talk to their friend who I have never met, because they think that I have some kind of magic power that can change their heart and mind on a first conversation. Usually what happens is this: “Oh, you’re a pastor? I used to go to church, but I don’t anymore because…” or “Oh, you’re a pastor? Here are the problems with the modern church.” All they see me as is a professional Christian.

Meanwhile, you’re the one who has an authentic relationship with them, who has been with them for years. One of the saddest things I ever heard was someone suggesting that I should be in the crowd at their grandchild’s sports games so I could reach their friends, the other grandparents and parents for Christ. Meanwhile, the person who made the suggestion is at all the games but never speaks up about any type of relationship with Jesus.

Oh, and the truth is, I like to go to sports games, and I always find myself chatting with the other fans and building relationships and friendships. Even with the other team’s fans.

In 2 Peter 2:9-10, the Bible has some strong words for the laity. Listen to how Peter describes the “normal person in the pew.”

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

A chosen people. Chosen on purpose. Remember back to the school yard, when kids were being picked for teams? You are Christ’s first pick. Not an afterthought. Not a package deal, like, “I get Tommy, and you can have the last two.” No, you are the first pick, God’s special possession.

And you are a royal priesthood. What does this mean? A priest is the one that mediates between God and human. The biggest problem I have with the Roman Catholic Church is the practical role of priests. 2 Peter tells us that every believer is a priest, and because we are priests, we all have the role to mediating between God and humanity. Our role, our job, our calling is to bring God to people. But how we go about it is going to look different for each of us. The one thing that is non-negotiable, however, is that we do it.

We are each called. Whether your call came early or late, whether through God’s audible voice or a dream or a friend or a prayer time. We are called. So what do we do with our call? I don’t believe most calls are into full time vocational ministry. Most are calls to full time lifestyle ministry. Being a Christian at school. At work. In the home. Boldly telling others about Jesus. Sharing your faith wherever you are. Strengthening the believers. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm/Passion Sunday

This service was quite different from our usual service. There wasn't a sermon, exactly, but the following is what happened during the service. We had actors who portrayed some of the characters, and the children's choir and adult choir were the crowds in Jerusalem. The children's choir also joined Jesus as the disciples for the "Last Supper" and had Communion with him.

This morning we celebrate a little differently than we usually do. On the calendar, Palm Sunday is listed as Palm/Passion Sunday. We celebrate Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode victoriously into Jerusalem, but the cries of “Hosanna” are quickly drowned out by the cries from the crowd: crucify him!

A hallmark of Judaism was a required pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After Jesus walked on this earth, Christians, too, made the journey to Jerusalem to walk where Jesus walked. Over time, churches outside Jerusalem began to commemorate Jesus’ final days with their own prayer walks, mirroring the “stations” that were observed in Jerusalem. The purpose of these “stations” was to help Christians make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer, meditating on what Jesus went through on our behalf.

As we recreate some of the key events of the last week before Jesus’ crucifixion, remember that the point of all of this is to help us better understand what Jesus did for us. The whole reason for Jesus’ coming to earth was to save us from our sins and to reconcile us to God. Not just for heaven, but for earth, as well.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of watching a Christmas play or an Easter play and seeing it simply as a historical recreation, or worse, as just a play. Today as we walk with Jesus through some of the major events in the last week before his crucifixion, we have intentionally created elements to remind you of the scene. We have also intentionally left some elements of our current culture. For example, there are historical actors in costume, reminding us that this was a historical event which happened in a specific place and time to real people.

But we also will have participants in modern clothing, reminding us that although these events happened in the past, they still are relevant to us today. We are just like the crowds who celebrate Jesus on Palm Sunday, yet whose sin nails Him to the cross on Good Friday. So remember that we all have a part to play in this Passion Play.

We start at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

Triumphal Entry: Mark 11:1-11
[Jesus comes in while choir and Heaven's Angels sing]

As we continue toward the cross, Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover in the Upper Room. As they celebrated, Jesus instituted Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. We, too, celebrate Communion with Jesus; he is present with us in this celebration every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup.

Last Supper: Mark 14:17-26
[Communion: Children at front with Jesus, served by pastor, congregation in pews, served by ushers]

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Song: In The Garden (314)

The Garden: Mark 14:32-42: Jesus praying in the Garden, then led off by a soldier.

And so it was, that the only truly innocent person was arrested, betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples. He was beaten and questioned, and though they had no basis by which to convict him, he was sentenced to death on a cross. Meanwhile, even Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Good Friday: Mark 15: Jesus is crucified. 

And very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. (Mark 15:1)

Pilate questioned him, but Jesus made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:5). The custom was that at this time, the people could have a prisoner released, and so Pilate asked if they wanted him to release Jesus. The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. (Mark 15:11). When asked what he should do with Jesus, the crowd shouted: Crucify him! (Mark 15:13)

The soldiers led Jesus into the palace. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. (Mark 15:17) They mocked him, beat him, and spit on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

READ Mark 15:25-30
READ Mark 15:33-46
[Jesus taken off the cross and carried out.]

Song: Were You There

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Can You See

Luke 18:35-43

One of the worst feelings in the world is when you can’t find something – you know you just had it, but now you can’t find it. What’s worse is when it is right in front of you and you still can’t find it. About 20 years ago, there was a fad – 3D hidden pictures. The idea was if you looked hard enough at the right angle, then you would see a hidden picture. Honestly, I could almost never see the picture and I always wondered if there really was one.

The idea that someone else could see what I couldn’t always drove me nuts. But it’s a mainstay in Jesus’ ministry; sometimes it seems like the least likely were the ones who saw things the most clearly. In the passage immediately before the one I read today, (Luke 18:31-34) Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the Prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.

The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

Here they are, having walked with Jesus for three years. They have been out on amazing mission trips, where they healed the sick, drove out demons and taught about God’s kingdom. But when Jesus explains (for the third time, I must add) everything that is going to happen to him, his disciples don’t understand any of it. Scripture tells us that they did not know what he was talking about.

Kind of like those 3D posters, sometimes something can be in plain sight and we don’t see it. I used to arrogantly look down on the disciples – how could they not see? – but more recently, I’ve become glad that they didn’t; it makes being me a lot easier to bear.

So immediately after a story of how the disciples didn’t see or understand what Jesus plainly told them, Luke presents a picture of someone who does see. A blind man, ironically.

A few weeks ago, I focused on Jesus, who set his face to go to Jerusalem. I told you that all of Luke’s narrative from Luke 9:51 on is pointing to what Jesus is going to do in Jerusalem. This passage is no different. As I mentioned a moment ago, Jesus tells his disciples plainly what is going to happen. Luke mentions this for various reasons – one is to demonstrate their blindness, contrasting with the blind man who is going to approach Jesus in the next passage. Another reason is to further carry the reader on toward the completion of Jesus’ mission, reminding us as well, that Jesus is still heading for Jerusalem. Indeed, as we continue reading, notice that this story isn’t stationary. We have Jesus approaching Jericho. The blind man is sitting by the roadside, hearing the crowd going by. The crowd tells the man that “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

We are reminded by the motion of this text that Jesus is on a mission. He isn’t just passing through. He is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. Even the location mentioned has significance – not only was Jericho a significant town in the history of God’s people, but the city of Jericho represented much more; “Jericho is part of the symbolism that speaks of the transition of the tribes from wilderness refugees to possessors of a land of their own as an inheritance from God.” (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Bill T. Arnold and H.G.M. Williamson, eds.). So even the setting points to the movement. Jericho is Jericho, but it’s not just Jericho. It’s more like when you’re heading back home to Ohio, crossing the Ohio River isn’t just a river crossing; it’s a reminder that you’re this much closer to home. Likewise, Jericho, as a location, is a reminder of Jesus’ steadfast resolve to go to Jerusalem.

But on the way, the spotlight turns to this blind man. A little background on this guy; some of us are aware of social classes, but the social classes of our culture aren’t anything like those of the Ancient Near East. This blind man would have been a part of the lowest of the low, a class known as “the expendables.” Lower than a tax collector. Lower than a prostitute or a thief. He was of no use to society and the only way he was able to live was the fact that Jews taught that giving alms was one of the pillars of their faith.

Yet here he was, beside the road, calling out to Jesus.  He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Why is it important that a blind man, an expendable, is crying out to Jesus? It is important because of Luke’s purpose in writing this gospel. Luke set out to write a historical account of Jesus’ life and to show the theological significance of the history. So early on, Jesus reads the Scripture in his synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

Luke wants his readers to understand that when Jesus said this, he meant it. And even though Jerusalem has become Jesus’ focus, his mission is still the same. He is anointed to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. This is exactly what he’s doing! When Jesus said that the scripture is fulfilled, he is saying that he is the one they have been waiting for.

Here’s the issue: throughout Luke’s gospel, we see people who have physical sight but are spiritually blind. They can see, but they can’t see! But in a surprising reversal, here is a physically blind man whose spiritual eyes are very clearly open. While Jesus’ very disciples are struggling with the things Jesus is telling them, this blind man somehow recognizes Jesus as the promised “Son of David” – the Messiah.

Just as an aside, in some ways, our culture doesn’t seem to be all that different from theirs. Notice the reaction to the blind man – those who were leading the way in the crowd rebuked him. He wasn’t supposed to be bothering Jesus. He was expendable, after all. You have to understand that they would have expected him to ask for alms. Which could have been what his cry for mercy was all about.  After all, with his status, he had to rely on alms to live. So I don’t think their rebuke was so much about him or his cry for mercy, but I believe it was more about his recognition of Jesus as the Son of David, which is more than recognizing Jesus’ lineage. It was about recognizing that Jesus was the Messiah. The crowd didn’t necessarily want to hear this or to know this truth.  Which is like the crowd in our culture. If you want to be rebuked, if you want to be unpopular, then be sure to tell the truth. Especially if the truth involves calling sin what it is.

The sad thing here is that those who are rebuking the blind man are not, in this case, the scribes and Pharisees or Sadducees. They are the leaders among those following Jesus. Maybe even Jesus’ own disciples. And it seems like the worst rebukes we receive come not from non-Christians, but from our fellow believers. If you preach the truth, you’ll get complaints. In fact, I’ve had people leave the church because I called sin “sin.”

I love the response of the blind man. He humbly closed his mouth and went back to begging. NO! Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And because Jesus is who he is, Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

I believe this man first came to Jesus for money. He heard the crowds, found out who it was on the road, and this would be a great time to get some money. And I know people who all they want from God or from the church is money. They are satisfied with getting their regular handout. But when that runs out, they come back, needing another. I don’t mean to discount the good aspects of giving to charity or helping others, especially when they are in terrible need. Like when there is a house fire, the person whose house burned needs relief now.

But many times, including this one, there is something underlying the need. The blind man needed money. There is no question about it. But when Jesus questioned him, the real need surfaced. I need to see.

Ironic, because this blind man had already demonstrated that his spiritual sight was far superior to that of everyone around him.

Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”

I think it’s important that Jesus grants his request and answers his prayer. He asked for sight, and Jesus gives him sight. But it’s also important to note what Jesus says. He says, “Your faith has healed you.” This isn’t to say if you just have enough faith, you will have your wish, I mean prayer, granted. It’s not magic. There’s not a special formula that if you say it right or ask it right or if the right person asks, then you’ll get your request granted. There are times when God answers prayers “yes” and there are times when he answers prayers “no” and there are times when he simply says, “wait.”

The big question is why did Jesus heal this blind beggar? Why did Jesus heal this blind beggar while our loved one suffered and died? Why did Jesus heal this expendable and he lets countless others die? We have all known a situation where we have prayed with our whole hearts and the results haven’t been what we asked for. On my first day at the New Knoxville UMC, my predecessor knocked on my door. He wanted to show me where the local hospital was and to introduce me to a member of the congregation. She was a young mother, pregnant with her second child, and suffering with yet-undiagnosed back pain. Within weeks, the doctors found the cause: stage 4 breast cancer. Though we prayed and fasted, Beth died, leaving her husband and daughter and a tiny premature baby boy. Why does God heal one and not the other?

I will give you the short answer to that one. I don’t know.

Sometimes God chooses to heal. In the case of Lazarus, God even chose to raise him from the dead. Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, this is what he said: [When he heard this, Jesus said,] “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that the Son of Man may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)

So too, with the blind man. Jesus healed this blind man on purpose. The blind man didn’t just happen to be there in this transitional place. It wasn’t coincidence. His healing was intentional. It was a reminder of who Jesus is, as the fulfillment of the passage Jesus read in Isaiah, as well as a signpost along Jesus’ route to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ healing of this man served to glorify God.

Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

The final moment of this scene is beautiful. The blind man is healed! He immediately received his sight. He once was blind, but now he can see. He praised God, as did everyone else. It is a beautiful scene. But it’s not an easy one. Now everything is different for this formerly blind man. Notice that he didn’t sit back down in his begging spot; he followed Jesus. He can never go back to what he was.

One of the problems in life is that many of us have decided to follow Jesus, but we’ve never left our begging spot. We still want to be the same old person we were before we met Him. We have the same ways of thinking, the same sinful old ways of dealing with others, the same selfish ways of dealing with our money, and we just cover it with a thin veneer of Christianity. But this formerly blind man went all-in and followed Jesus, praising God. And that’s what Jesus calls us to do as well. It is time to leave the begging spot and follow Jesus with everything we are!