Where Is It? (sermon 8/9/15)

hearing

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “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.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. … He came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go…”   – 1 Kings 19:1-3a, 9-15a

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Today’s Old Testament text is a small part of a larger story that you need to know a little more about in order to be able to put into context, and hopefully understand a little better. This is a story of the prophet Elijah during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab had married Jezebel, who was the daughter of the King of Tyre, an adjacent kingdom to the north of ancient Israel, in part of what is modern-day Lebanon. This marriage undoubtedly helped Ahab with trade relations, political and military alliances, and so on. Jezebel worshipped Baal, the ancestral god of her people, and while Ahab kept focused primarily on the military, and statecraft, and the business of the kingdom, he let Jezebel handle the religious affairs of the household, and by extension, the countryside. Jezebel established temples to worship Baal, and supported hundreds of priests and prophets of her religion. And that’s when problems with Elijah, who had never been a big fan of Ahab anyway, came to a head.

There was a dispute over who would be the God that the people worshiped – Baal or YHWH. In order to decide the matter, Elijah proposed a competition, a showdown of sorts. The prophets of Baal would slaughter a bull and put it on an altar, and Elijah would do the same. Then, they’d each call on the name of their respective gods, and the one who actually sent fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be one to worship. The people all thought this sounded fair enough, so the competition was on.

The prophets of Baal – all 450 of them – went first, but despite praying and calling on Baal for pretty much an entire day, nothing happened. Now Elijah was a cheeky, sarcastic sort of prophet, and as the other prophets were praying and wailing to Baal, he started to taunt them – What’s wrong? Where is your God? Maybe he’s off praying somewhere and can’t hear you; maybe he fell asleep; maybe he took a long weekend to the beach.

Finally, it was Elijah’s turn, and he placed his sacrificed bull on the wood on the altar. And then, just for added theatrics – I told you he was a cheeky sort – he had them doused with gallons and gallons of water, twice even, until everything was completely saturated with water. And then, standing there in the mud from all of the water running off the pile, and water trickling between his toes, Elijah calls on the name of God to send fire, and BAM! Fire shoots down from heaven and the sacrifice bursts into flames. The people were all impressed, as I supposed they should have been, and they side with Elijah; and in the religious fervor of the moment, Elijah orders that they seize and kill all 450 of the prophets of Baal. Which brings us to where we pick up the story in today’s Lectionary text.

Well as you might expect, Elijah’s killing all of the prophets of Baal doesn’t sit very well with the Queen, , and she vows that if she ever gets her hands on Elijah, she’ll do to him what he’d done to the prophets of Baal. So Elijah flees for his life. Ultimately, he ends up in this cave on Mount Horeb, the same mountain where God spoke to Moses and handed down the Ten Commandments according to the book of Deuteronomy. There in the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah tells God how everyone has turned against him and away from God, and they’re all out to kill him, and that only he was left in all of Israel to stand up for God and defend God’s name – which seems a little odd, considering it was just a few verses earlier that there were apparently enough followers of God to seize and kill 450 prophets of Baal – but Elijah was on a roll at that point, and God seems to just let him go. And he undoubtedly reminds God of that event too, to show how devoted and faithful a servant he was.

After listening to Elijah’s answer, God seems to set up an object lesson for Elijah. God tells Elijah to go stand out on the mountain, because God was about to pass by. And then, there’s this tremendous show of force and power and fury – a mighty wind, and earthquake, a huge fire. It was a scene that made Elijah’s sacrifice showdown look tiny by comparison. But the story tells us that God wasn’t found in any of that. It was only after that show of force, that illustration that God was perfectly capable of taking care of himself against his enemies, without Elijah needing to supposedly defend the faith by killing a bunch of people and then playing the martyr card – it was only after that, when everything had died back down to absolute silence, that God offers Elijah a second chance to answer the question. So… What are you doing here, Elijah?

And in what seems to be a classic scriptural case of cluelessness, Elijah seems to miss the whole point of God’s demonstration and just offers God the exact same answer again. At that point, God tells him to just go, setting him off on his next adventure. At this point, you can almost hear God sigh. You can almost feel God’s shoulders droop. You can almost hear God say “Well… maybe we’ll work on this lesson with him another day.”

Even as great a servant of God as Elijah sometimes gets things wrong. Even Elijah can get wrapped up in delusions of grandeur, that he’s the sole defender of the faith, that he’s got to go to extreme, maybe even violent means, to save the faith and protect God’s name, all in the name of faithfully trying to hear the voice of God.

This story shows us that we don’t usually hear God’s voice in the big, mighty, loud things of the world. We don’t usually find it in the high drama or theatrics or sarcasm. Contrary to some televangelists, we don’t hear the voice or judgment of God in earthquakes or floods or hurricanes or mudslides. And we certainly don’t find it in acts of violence. Whether in Elijah’s time or our own, the voice of God is most present, most hearable, in the still, small moments. In the silence.

Where is it that you find the voice of God? Maybe in moments of silence, here, or in the chapel, or looking out at the lake at sunset. Maybe we hear God’s voice in a recurring dream that we can’t seem to shake, that comes to us over and over again in the middle of the night when the distractions of the day that tend to drown out the voice of God are largely set aside. Maybe we hear God’s voice through the surprisingly wise and observant words of a small child. Or maybe, as sometimes happens when we’re in times of real distress, we just hear the voice of God within us – not in actual words, but just resonating inside our very being, just as audible as my words are to you right now.

Where is it that you’ve heard God speaking in your life? Wherever it may have been, one good thing that we can get out of this Old Testament story is that if God’s asked something of us, and we didn’t quite get the point, or if we didn’t really come up with the answer God wanted us to, God will keep speaking to us. Just as was apparently the case with Elijah, God will keep loving us and working with us on getting the right answer, maybe on another day.

Thanks be to God.

What Is It? (sermon 8/2/15)

Manna Snow

What is it? Is it manna? Actually, I think it’s a light dusting of snow, but the idea is the important thing.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not…. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’  – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

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So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. – John 6:24-35

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Today’s gospel text picks up right where we left off last week – it’s right after the story of Jesus Feeding the Multitude. Here, Jesus and the disciples have gone back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds have followed him here, too, and are asking for a sign to prove that they should believe in him. I guess we can hope that this request was coming from some new people in the crowd, and not the same people who’d just seen the sign, the miracle of Jesus feeding all those people, because if it were coming from the same people, they must have been pretty stupid or had very short attention spans. And as they asked for a sign, they make reference to the Exodus story of God providing manna, bread from heaven, for the Israelites to eat as they wandered through the Wilderness. We heard that story here this morning, too, and even though it’s a little hard to follow after it gets translated into English, the Israelites called the bread “manna,” because that’s the Hebrew phrase for “What is it?”, and that’s exactly what they asked when they first saw it lying all over the ground.

Some people look at this story and say the point is to not be a complainer like the Israelites. That they weren’t justified and they were upsetting God with their whining. The message drawn out of this story is sometimes that when things aren’t going our way, we should just stop complaining; we should just be patient and trust God, and if we’re having problems, it must just be part of God’s grand plan. Frankly, this story has been abused in countless sermons that criticized people standing up and fighting against all sorts of injustice, inequity, and discrimination.

You certainly read in other parts of the Exodus story that the Israelites’ complaining angered God. But if you read this particular story carefully, you don’t see that response from God at all. The people’s complaint was apparently legitimate, and God heard their complaints and provided food for them. Excellent. That’s a much more hopeful message, and it should give us courage to speak out against problems like that, and that God will hear and honor our prayers.

But that leads us to another problem as bad as the first – the idea that because God loves us, God will always provide for our needs. Not for luxuries, of course, but at least all of the basics that we really need to get by. You hear that message in this Exodus story, and in countless other places in the Old and New Testaments, even in Jesus’ words – ask anything in my name, and I’ll do it for you.

And that’s a big problem, because we all know that this is just not true. According to the UN, more than 18,000 children starve to death in the world every single day. In that same single day, another 2,000 children under the age of five dies from plain old, run of the mill diarrhea, for want of a few pennies’ worth of over the counter medicine. Millions of people die each year for want of the basic essentials of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, or basic medical treatment. How are we supposed to square these realities with this idea that we should be assured that God will provide for us? Are we supposed to believe that maybe some people are important to God, while others aren’t?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a good answer to that question. I can’t square these two things. I don’t know why God seems to provide for some, in abundance, even excess, while seemingly ignoring the pain and suffering of others. And I wrestle with preaching, or offering pastoral counsel about the idea of God providing for us when it seems pretty clear that sometimes God doesn’t, at lest not in any meaningful, immediate way, often for the very basics of life, and I don’t know why.

But I do know this: even while it doesn’t seem like God provides for every need, God does provide for much need. All the time. All around us. And when God does provide, it often comes in a way that we don’t immediately recognize or expect. It comes in a way that initially makes us ask “What is it?” Maybe it comes in the form of a “yes” or “no” in our lives, when all conventional wisdom and our expectations were the opposite. Maybe it comes as some surprisingly wise or perceptive observation made by the person you’d least expect it from. Maybe it comes in the form of some new and different thing, or situation, that you’d never have asked for and frankly, wouldn’t have ever thought you’d want, but through it, you found some new strength, new direction, new hope, new opportunity, to be Christ to yourself and to the people around you. But at first, you ask, “What is it?”

In my own experience, I’ve come to see that God is providing so much for us all the time. It covers the ground around us. Through Christ, we have the ability to see it for what it is, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can discern what God’s intention are in providing these things to us.

I heard a story in a seminar yesterday about a little church congregation with declining numbers in a declining section of a city, that was struggling with understanding what they should be doing as a church, what their role was supposed to be in the kingdom of God. There was a park right across the street from the building, but it was run down and the playground equipment was all broken, so no children ever came to play there. The city just let the park go, saying they didn’t have the money to keep it up. The little church had some memorial funds that had been given for the use of children’s ministries, but it had been years since there had been even one child who attended the church. So they took it upon themselves to use those funds and their own volunteer labor to repair the city park and make it usable for the neighborhood children, and before you knew it, there were dozens of kids playing there at any point during the day. So then the little church thought it would be a good idea to throw monthly parties for the kids, and host a picnic for them, and the kids and their parents loved it. And then a few retired schoolteachers thought it would be a good idea to offer the kids after-school tutoring and help with their homework, and the kids loved it. And before long, some of those kids, and some of their parents, started coming in for worship, and when they did, they were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the family from day one. And then some other people came, too, because they’d heard about the amazing way this struggling little church had become truly missional, and the great good they were doing in the neighborhood.

Everything they needed to do it had already been given to them by God. It was right there, all of it, right there in front of them. They just needed to see it in a new light, to put the pieces together in a different way than they were accustomed to. They just allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts, and to see how they could use what God had provided them with.

So today, as we’re sitting here on the lawn, I ask you – what is it that God has provided us with, put right in front of us to use, for us and for others? What is it that God has provided us with as a congregation? And what is it that God has provided you with in your own life? What is it that God calling you, calling us, to do with what we’ve been provided? What is it?

Thanks be to God.