Friday, August 12, 2011

Hope and Challenge for Mission

A sermon based on 1 Kings 19:9-18
August 7, 2011

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the book of 1st Kings. 1st and 2nd Kings together tell a narrative story covering about 400 years, from the death of King David to the Babylonian exile. After King David died and there was some fighting between David’s sons, his son Solomon rose to power. King Solomon was known for his wisdom, his riches, building the temple, and his many wives. King Solomon was also responsible for building temples to other gods for his foreign wives, this led many people astray, angered God, and after Solomon’s death the kingdom split into two – Israel and Judah.

Elijah was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab in the kingdom of Israel, in about the 9th century BC. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who worshiped the god Baal. Jezebel was responsible for converting Ahab to worshiping Baal, and also for the deaths of many Jewish prophets. Elijah challenges 450 prophets of Baal to a competition to prove whose god is real by calling on their god to light the sacrifice on their altar. Elijah exposes Baal as a false god and then has the Baal prophets slaughtered.

At the beginning of 1st Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from Jezebel and Ahab. He was afraid, went into the wilderness, and asked God to let him die. An angel provided food and water and encouraged Elijah. This is where today’s reading begins.

Elijah goes to a mountain to encounter God. There Elijah experiences a great wind that breaks rocks, an earthquake, a fire, and then the sound of sheer silence. If you’re familiar with the story, then you know that God was present in the silence and not the three powerful forces of nature. But if you hadn't heard this story before, would you have been surprised about the way in which God manifested?

I was certainly surprised when I learned this story as a child. The Old Testament is filled with spectacular events and awesome demonstrations of God’s power.  There was the burning bush that wasn't consumed by the flames, all those terrible plagues, and the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. A great wind, an earthquake, or a fire would fit right in with those other images of God’s power. But this time God chose another way.

This time, the great wind, earthquake and fire were all distractions. God was present in the sound of sheer silence, or as some other translations say, a still small voice. When we are desperate we often cling to what is flashy and powerful, but Elijah did not make that mistake. Elijah recognized God’s presence in the silence.

A voice asked, “‘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.’”

Elijah may have recognized God’s presence, but that didn't stop him from being despairing and a bit self-righteous in his response. Nor can we blame him for his very human attitude – Elijah had accomplished wonders but was faced with so much opposition and probable death. Elijah was afraid, lonely, depressed, and tired. God answered with compassion – reassuring Elijah that he was not alone. There were many other followers left besides Elijah. God had a plan, and told Elijah who to appoint as the next King and also who to appoint as Elijah’s successor. This reminded Elijah that the mission wasn't dependent upon him but rather upon God. It is God’s work that Elijah was doing, and God would make sure that it continued after Elijah.

At one point or another in our lives, we experience similar emotions to what Elijah did – depression, fear, loneliness. The circumstances leading to those emotions are very different from person to person – I don’t know about you but I certainly haven’t been in a fight to the death with prophets of Baal. But I have felt overwhelmed by life at times, felt that I was alone or not up to doing what needed to be done. I’m sure many, if not all of you, have felt the same way at some point. This story of Elijah can serve as a message to us of hope and challenge. The hope is that God will prevail; and that things do not depend upon only us for we are not alone. The challenge is to resist distractions, as well as to resist the allure of corruption and despair that often permeates this world.

Elijah, and some other Israelites, stayed true to the worship of God even though the political leaders of their day turned to worshiping Baal. The government, which was supposed to serve God and the people, instead was only self-serving. This is a common failing of governments – after all, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The rulers of Israel turned away from God, and persecuted their own people who tried to stay true.

God did not abandon his people, but provided prophets to call them to repentance. God did not abandon Elijah, but had an angel provide food and water and reassured Elijah that God was in control.

God has not abandoned us today. I cannot tell you that things will turn out the way that we would prefer. God did not abandon Elijah, but the way things worked out was probably not the way that Elijah or many others would have wished. I’m sure that most of the faithful Israelites would have preferred for the rulers to repent and change their ways rather than the whole kingdom be destroyed. One of the difficult things about free will is having to deal with the consequences of our actions, as well as the consequences of other people’s actions.

When things get difficult, it is human nature to look for easy answers and when we don’t find any to end up overwhelmed and even despairing. God’s answer to Elijah is at once both simple and difficult. God tells Elijah what Elijah is to do, but God doesn't make it easy. Elijah will still have to face Ahab and Jezebel, and after them more corrupt rulers who come to power. God gives Elijah reassurance and strength to continue doing God’s work.

This life can at times, be filled with many wonders. But other times, sadness, confusion and pain. We need to listen to God very closely, to discern God’s will and to gain reassurance and strength. There are so many distractions that come in-between us and God – these include the flashy promises that this world distracts us with as well as the inner voice of despair. It can be challenging to resist those voices that distract us. Silence can be helpful in listening to God’s voice because silence dispels the voices of those around us and quiets our own as well. Like Elijah, we need to listen to what God has to say. We might not have the same mission as he did for we do live in a different world, but we all have God’s work to do each in our own way.

I cannot promise that things will always turn out the way that we wish – we know that it doesn’t just by turning on the news. I can however, offer reassurance that God is with us and is working through people in this world. Our challenge is to resist distractions and the powers of this world in order that we might be one of those people that God works through.

I’d like to close my sermon with a prayer. I searched for a prayer that would reflect what we have learned today from Elijah – resisting the negative forces in the world and striving to fulfill God’s mission for us. I will read for us a portion of “A Litany for the Mission of the Church” from The Book of Occasional Services (p246-248) (I read most of the prayer in church, but have posted the prayer in its entirety.)

A Litany for the Mission of the Church

Holy God, in whom all things in heaven and earth have their being,
Have mercy on us.

Jesus the Christ, through whom the world is reconciled to the Father,
Have mercy on us.

Holy Spirit, whose glory fills the world and searches the depths of God,
Have mercy on us.

Blessed Trinity, source of both unity and diversity,
Have mercy on us.

From blind hearts and petty spirits, that refuse to see the need of all humankind for your love,
Savior, deliver us.

From pride, self-sufficiency and the unwillingness to admit our own need of your compassion,
Savior, deliver us.

From discouragement in the face of pain and disappointment, and from lack of persistence and thoroughness,
Savior, deliver us.

From ignorance, apathy, and complacency that prevent us from spreading the Gospel,
Savior, deliver us.

O God, we pray for the gifts of ministry.
Inspire our minds with a vision of your kingdom in this time and place.
Hear us, O Christ.

Touch our eyes, that we may see your glory in all creation.
Hear us, O Christ.

Touch our ears, that we may hear from every mouth the hunger for hope and stories of refreshment.
Hear us, O Christ.

Touch our lips, that we may tell in every tongue and dialect the wonderful works of God.
Hear us, O Christ.

Touch our hearts, that we may discern the mission to which you call us.
Hear us, O Christ.

Touch our hands, that we may each accomplish the work you give us to do.
Hear us, O Christ.

Strengthen and encourage all who minister in your name in lonely, dangerous and unresponsive places.
Hear us, O Christ.

Open the hearts and hands of many to support your Church in this and every place.
Hear us, O Christ.