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.”