Sermon for June 19th

First Reading       1 Kings 19:1-15a

Second Reading Galatians 3:23-29

Gospel Reading Luke 8:26-39

Sermon: “Confronting Our Demons”

Welcome to the summer season, which officially starts in just a couple of days. It also marks a change in the way the lectionary selects our Old Testament scripture passages. During most of the year they are selected so that they have something to do with the gospel lesson, but in what is referred to as “ordinary times” they follow a semi-continuous pattern of their own, so that we can get a feel for the flow of the narrative.You may remember that last summer, we read through passages in 1st and 2nd Samuel and a bit into 1st kings. We concentrated on some notable characters with lessons to teach us – saints and sinners alike, folks like Samuel, Saul, Goliath, David, Nathan and Solomon. we even visited with Ester, Job and Ruth.

Now this summer, we are continuing our journey into kings, but now we are going to concentrate on the words and deeds of the Prophets. Folks like Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah. They had some wondrous experiences with the power of God, but also had to deliver some stern warnings to the people and their leaders as well. They were passionate men and women caught up in the spirit of God in a way they could not refuse, yet they often suffered greatly as we read this morning. Their words have the godly quality of being true for all time – not only for the specific circumstances in which they were given, but also pointing forward to future fulfillments, future problems and greater grace to come, right on up to our very day. We find that in many ways, they are writing to us as well. We should give careful attention to the words of God that they speak, the compelling metaphors that they use and sometimes even act out.

Our prophet this morning is considered one of the greatest of all: Elijah! He came from the town of Tishbe in Gilead and God commissioned him in a time of great spiritual crisis in the Northern kingdom of Israel, brought about by the reign of King Ahab and his infamous Sidonian wife, Jezebel. Even today, her very name is used as an insult. Israel had left true worship of God from its very founding, hybridizing it with worship of Canaanite deities. None of their Kings had been faithful, but Ahab and Jezebel had pushed the country into full fledged worship of Baal. 1 Kings 16:29-33 NLT tells it this way: [29] Ahab son of Omri began to rule over Israel in the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign in Judah. He reigned in Samaria twenty-two years. [30] But Ahab son of Omri did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, even more than any of the kings before him. [31] And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal. [32] First Ahab built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. [33] Then he set up an Asherah pole. He did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him.

To set the stage for the utter state of despair we find Elijah in this morning, we need to look back and recall what has going on that brought him to this state. The story begins with God sending him to confront Ahab saying: “As surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives— the God I serve— there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!”

He was then told by God (1 Kings 17:3-4 NLT) “Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook, near where it enters the Jordan River. Drink from the brook and eat what the ravens bring you, for I have commanded them to bring you food.” Remarkable! Ravines are scavengers, not known for being generous! Eventually the brook dried up and Elijah was sent to the gentile widow at Zarephath who was near starvation with her son. You recall that they lived for 3 years from a box of meal and a flask of oil that miraculously never completely emptied. There was always just enough! He even restored the window’s son back to life after he became ill and died. Finally, Elijah is sent to confront the unrepentant Ahab again and the famous challenge is set up with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.

Of course, God is shown to be the one true God when Elijah’s water soaked sacrifices and altar are consumed with fire from heaven, while the sacrifices to Baal just sadly sat there. Well, the prophets of Baal are all slain, Elijah prays for rain and the drought is spectacularly broken with abundant rain. You would think the story should have a happy ending, but it does not, as you heard in the reading today. Ahab is about ready to admit defeat, but Jezebel certainly is not! She swears murderous vengeance against Elijah and he flees all the way down to the southern tip of Judah at Beersheba where he prays that God should just let him die.

But God is looking after him still and in the morning he finds hot fresh bread and a jug of water provided by an Angel. He rests and eats and sets out on a 40 day, 250 mile journey through the Sinai wilderness to Mt Sinai – where Moses had met with God so many years before. That 40day period, of course recalls the time that Moses was with God on the Mountain and the time that Jesus would spend being tempted in the wilderness. Both of those times were transformative. But when Elijah gets there and God asks him why he has come, we hear the same story of utter despair: (1 Kings 19:10 NLT) “I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” Elijah assumes all is lost and that divine judgement is the only alternative. He does not plead for his people as Moses had done, he has given up.

Elijah is told to go and shelter himself in a cave on the mountain side, similarly to what God had done with Moses when he too had asked to see him. But it is different this time, instead of proclaiming the names and eternal characteristics of God as he had done with Moses, all nature seems to rage outside as we read:(1 Kings 19:11-13 NLT) [11] … And as Elijah stood there, the LORD passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. [12] And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. [13] When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”

Elijah expected wrath and experienced it while sheltered, but that was not how God was ultimately revealed to him. It is worth noting that after all that, God asks the same question again, I assume to see if Elijah had been paying attention? But no, he gives the same response verbatim. So God does something interesting for Elijah; God doesn’t explain or rebuke him. Instead God lays out next steps and a future for him. Despair is dealt with by tasks to be done and a future to prepare for. Listen to the full reply (1 Kings 19:15-18 NLT) [15] Then the LORD told him, “Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. [16] Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet. [17] Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha! [18] Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!”

Oh yes, there would be consequences for Ahab, Jezebel and all of Israel; their dynasty would eventually come to a brutal end. Still, God would continue to work on Ahab, he never gave up on him. And through it all, God preserved the faithful – there were still 7,000 who would not serve Baal! God also told Elijah to commission Elisha and train him to become his successor. God was not done by any means and so neither was Elijah. Fear had blinded Elijah. Fear and it’s child despair robbed him of the prophetic vision that had previously sustained him through years of difficulty. Fear of the unknown and of change can do the same to us. It can rob us of the ability to trust God to see us through to the next step. God never promises us a perfect future this side of heaven. God never promised that things will never have to change. Sometimes they must in order for God’s will to be done. God does promise that His Spirit will give us strength for the journey and that we are never the last frail remnant that we might suppose. We do not like change, but it is the nature of things. We must never let the fear of it paralyze us from moving into God’s future.

Do you recall in the gospel lesson about how the town folks reacted when Jesus healed that poor tortured man over on the far side of the Sea of Galilee? Those folks had at first tried to control that poor possessed man and chain him up, but ultimately had to banish him instead. When he is healed and freed by Jesus, they find him sane, clothed and sitting at Jesus’ feet as a disciple. You might hope that they would have rejoiced that their problem was now an asset and welcomed Jesus as a miracle worker and friend. But just as with Elijah’s victory, a happy ending is not how this story goes either. Instead they are frightened of Jesus, probably angry over the loss of their pigs, distrustful of the healed man, and so they ask Jesus and his disciples to get out of their town. They would rather have had their demons than Jesus’ future. Now that may sound harsh, but it seems to be the case. No wonder the man begged to go with Jesus! But he too was given a future and a job to do – he was to be a witness to God’s grace and an Apostle of Jesus Christ right there amongst the fear and resentment.

Why do I emphasize the points this morning? Because I think we especially need to hear them for ourselves. I have heard several of you look around in fear that this congregation is dwindling, wondering how long I will continue to fill this pulpit, profoundly sad that things might need to change. Well folks, I don’t have all the answers to your questions, and I am certainly not going to tell you that there is nothing to be concerned about either. The facts on the ground are difficult. We are not even close to meeting the budget, the pool of new folks eligible for leadership roles is empty, none of us are getting any younger and the next generation or two are not here to take up the reins.

But not everything is gloomy either, through the ministry of this church, hundreds are fed, whether in their homes or from the food bank, several families have not gone further down the slippery slope to homelessness, the children of the community have had a time of safety and fun while hearing a clear and compelling telling of the gospel at VBS, school teachers are supported and many other wonderful outreaches occur. The members of this congregation are wonderfully faithful in looking out for each other and helping out. This fine facility not only houses our fellowship, but AA and many other activities for the community as it is needed. We can proud of our ministry together.

Now then, there are several paths available to us. We can take our cue from Elijah and throw a pity party. We can do like the Gaderenes and prefer that nothing change, resenting anything that might force us to change, even if it might turn out to be a substantial blessing. Or….or we might just ignore our lesser instincts that want to howl and curse, to storm, shake and burn – and instead sit with God in silence and listen for that still small voice in the silence of our Spirit filled souls and see where God would have us to go next and do in God’s name. I do not have that answer, nor is it ultimately my responsibility, but I do have a profound feeling that change is required and that God is faithful through it all.