God never gives up on us
Rev. Dr. Gerard Booy1 Kings 19:1-18
When you compare Elijah as we see him in this story and the Elijah we got to know in the previous story, you would almost not think that we’re talking about the same person. The contrast is huge.
On Mount Carmel, Elijah bravely confronts Ahab as the one who brought trouble over Israel; he boldly challenges the people’s apathy, idolatry and indecision; he ridiculed the Baal prophets as they danced around the altar, chanting and slashing themselves with swords and spears to draw Baal’s attention; he rebuilt the altar of the Lord. And at the end of the story we saw that powerful scene where the power of the Lord came upon him and he ran in front of Ahab’s chariot. Elijah is confident and fearless, his faith is bold and unwavering, and he is strong in the power of the Lord.
But now, things are different. Elijah is running again, but this time he is running away. He runs for his life. He is not running in the power of the Lord. He goes south, as far away from Samaria as he can get, running all the way down to Beersheba and then one more day into the wilderness. He is discouraged and afraid. He finally sits down under a broom tree and prays that he might die.
This came on quickly. One moment he is doing big things for the Lord, he zealously fights the good fight, he is strong and full of faith, and the next he runs for his life. He is afraid. He’s lost hope. He has had enough. He wants to die.
Why this change in Elijah? The thing that seem to precipitate his fear is Jezebel’s death threat. On Mount Carmel, after the Lord’s fire consumed the sacrifice and altar, Elijah had the people grab the prophets of Baal and kill them. (Was that in keeping with the Law or was that perhaps a moment of mistaken and misplaced zeal?) Jezebel learned about that and was fuming. She wanted to take revenge. She threatens to take his life. And Elijah suddenly realizes that the fight is not over. Sin, idolatry, Baal worship have not been eradicated. He suddenly knows that he will continue to face resistance; that it is dangerous to be the Lord’s spokesperson and to do the Lord’s work; that his faith has and will provoke hostility, resentment and hatred. What an anti-climax. What did he achieve? What difference did his work and his words make? He is not any different from his prophetic ancestors.
The one day he is “ running in the path of the commandments”.”(to use a phrase from Psalm 119:32). He zealously serves the Lord. But then the bottom falls out. He feels empty, worthless, lonely, and afraid. We see all the typical symptoms of burn-out and depression displayed in his behaviour.
Elijah’s experience is not unique. People of faith have had similar experiences through the centuries. In the sixteenth century, a Carmelite monk, St. John of the Cross, coined the phrase Dark night of the soul to describe this experience of God’s absence and emptiness. It is familiar, all too familiar. Someone wrote about this, saying that if you haven’t experienced it yet, you will.
• You’ve worked hard for the Lord, and then you realize that nothing has changed. Sin and idolatry prevails. What difference does it make? So what! You are tired, you feel dejected, disappointed, you’ve had enough.
• You zealously serve the Lord and seek to be his witness, giving it all you have. But your efforts are met with resistance and negativity. People complain over minor things. You face opposition and feel rejected. The journey is too much. You want to get away, as far as you can, as quickly as you can.
• You bravely stood your ground, but you feel alone, rightly or wrongly feeling that you are the only one left. And even if there are others, they are hiding in caves.
Famous people have gone through this. The publication of Mother Theresa’s book, Come be my light, after her death, shocked the world. In it she wrote about her dark night of the soul. She describes her experience in words like these: “I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. What tortures of loneliness. I wonder how long my heart will suffer like this?” Her dark night of the soul lasted almost fifty years.
Martin Luther is another example. In 1527 he suffered a long and severe depression. His writings reflect his feelings at the time: He felt that God had turned his back on him and abandoned him to suffer the pains of hell. He felt alone in the universe. He questioned his faith, his mission, and the goodness of God. He prayed against a wall of indifferent silence.
Our experiences of this are not unique at all.
All these dark nights of the soul happened to people who have been walking in the light, who have been working hard for the Lord, who have been devoting their lives to the Lord. It often comes after a significant highlight.
For Mother Theresa, it happened shortly after she made a vow to withhold nothing from the Lord and she founded her order - the Missionaries of Charity. For Martin Luther it came after the intensely spiritual battle of the Reformation. For Elijah it came after Mount Carmel.
Why does this happen? Is it just a psychological phenomenon, depression that follows an intense time of concentration, hard work and success? Or does it have something to do with the laws of physics that determine that what goes up must come down? Or is there something more to it? I believe there is a deep spiritual reason for it. This is not merely a depression that can be cured with medication and therapy. These dark nights are spiritual. The people who write about their dark nights of the soul, almost always conclude that it was somehow redemptive. The temptation of Mount Carmel experiences are that faith starts to be about us, our accomplishments, and our zeal for the Lord. But in the dark night of the soul we are stripped of that. We are pushed back into the arms of God.
So what do we do, when we experience this? There is one thing that stands out in this story, Elijah prays. He prays even in this condition, in his despair, in his depression. There, in the wilderness where he finally sits down, he prays. It is not a nice prayer. It is not a prayer to be proud of. He prays that he might die. He tells God that he’s had enough. He resigns. He quits. He asks God to take his life so that Jezebel wouldn’t have to. He utters his feeling of utter worthlessness. It is not a nice prayer. But it is prayer. He talks to the Lord. And he is honest, he doesn’t hide anything. He has given up on the job. He doesn’t want to be a prophet anymore. He has lost his faith in the church. But he holds on to God.
There are times when our prayers are like that – awkward. There are times when we don’t know what to say to God; when we just groan in God’s presence; when we want to pray but all we get out is the name of the Lord, “Lord …. Lord… Father…” and nothing more. There are times when we try to pray and just can’t. And there are times when we spill our guts. The important thing is that we pray; that we talk to God.
Because here’s the thing. The journey is too much for us. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. The journey is too much for you. That is what the angel said the second time he speaks to Elijah. We can’t do this in our own strength, in our own faith, and with our own zeal. We need help. We need to be in the presence of the Lord. We need to be fed by the Lord.
Jesus once said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me … and you will find rest for your souls.”(Matthew 11:28-30). You know how a yoke works, don’t you? A yoke is laid over the shoulders of two animals. It binds them together and distributes the weight and the force with which they pull. It effectively makes the load lighter. Christ invites us to be yoked with him. Now that is not an equal yoke, is it?
In our dark nights, we often fear that God has or will abandon us; that God will forget about us; that God will reject us because of our sins and weakness. We learn an amazing thing in this story. God never gives up on his people. Elijah feels dejected. He is afraid. He gives up. But the Lord does not give up on him. Elijah is running away. But the Lord catches up with him where he sits down under the broom tree. And as soon as he falls asleep, convinced of his loneliness and overcome by his fear, the Lord sends his angel.
This is a beautiful scene. The wounded, dispirited prophet lays asleep under the tree. And the angel comes and touches him. That touch is personal; it is warm. God is reaching out to him. The angel touches him gently, the way a parent would touch a sleeping child to wake her up.
And the angel speaks, “Get up and eat.” Now, those words are caring, but they are also firm. The Lord is not going to let him sleep like this. The Lord is not going to leave him in this terrible place. “Get up and eat.” Elijah gets up, but only partially. Imagine how the freshly baked bread smelled there in the wilderness. He enjoys the bread and water. But then he lays down again. He’s not getting up yet.
But God doesn’t give up. Not after one try. The angel comes back a second time, “Get up and eat. For the journey is too much for you.” God has not given up on him.
This story reminds us so much of another story. When Abraham drove Hagar and her son Ismael away. They wandered in the desert of Beersheba until finally she laid him under a bush to die, while she went and sat nearby, crying. God also heard her cries and opened her eyes to see a well of water (Genesis 21). This is how God is.
Elijah prays to die, but God wakes him and feeds him. Now his journey takes on a new meaning. He still travels south, but he is not running away anymore. His journey becomes a pilgrimage to find God; to be in the presence of the Lord; to go to the mountain of the Lord. He travelled for forty days and forty nights to Horeb (the name used in Deuteronomy for Sinai). Horeb is a dry place as the name suggests, but it is the mountain of the Lord. This is where God once met his people; where God make covenant with them and gave them his Word (the Ten Commandments). This is where God forgave their sins after they worshipped their golden calf idol, and where God passes by Moses who is hiding in a cleft in the rock.
Elijah goes and hides in a cave, still feeling lonely and sorry for himself. “I am the only one left.”
That’s when God speaks again.
• “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God is not letting him off the hook. He has a way of speaking to us that puts things in perspective; that makes us look long and heard at ourselves. How did we get here? What happened to us? Where is our trust and faith? I recall a time, fairly recently when I too told God that I’ve had enough. I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. I’m getting out. But the Spirit of the Lord spoke to me through the Scriptures, through a text that I haven’t read in years, saying “Be strong and courageous and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20) “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
• “Go out and stand in the presence of the Lord.” Stop running. Stop hiding yourself. Be in the presence of the Lord.
• And “behold, the Lord is passing by.” Behold – what a wonderful word! I love the way the Lord passes by in this story. We want God to show up in impressive, powerful and unmistakeable ways. We want God to demonstrate his power and to shake the world, the way he did it in Moses’ time. And so, we get the big, impressive natural signs, the raw power of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. But the Lord is not in the wind. The Lord is not in the earthquake. The Lord is not in the fire. Most of the time, God does not reveal himself to us like that. The Lord comes in the gentle whisper (the still small voice) just like he came to Adam and Eve in the Garden. The Lord comes to us when we read the Bible, when we pray, when we worship, when we stand in his presence with the congregation or on our own. This was not a time for fire and brimstone. It was a time to “be still and know that I am God.”
When we encounter God, he always questions our lives. Once again the question came, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And then this: “Go back the way you came …” The Lord has not given up on Elijah, nor has he given up on his people Israel. The prophet’s calling is renewed. He is sent back. He receives a new mission, to anoint Hazael, king of Aram, Jehu, king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor.
Elijah has lost perspective. But the Lord renews his perspective. He gets to see that he is not alone. There are seven thousand others who have not worshipped Baal. And what’s more, the Lord reigns over the whole world (even over the Arameans by arranging for Hazael to be anointed king). The Lord is working in the history of his people (as indicated by the anointing of Jehu as king over Israel). And the Lord will continue to speak through his prophets (as we see in the call to anoint Elisha). “Even though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
God does not give up on his people. We do. We give up on God, on the mission, on the church, on life. But God doesn’t.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Gerard Booy1 Kings 18:1-46
This story is part of the larger story starting about the drought. At the beginning of chapter 17 Elijah the prophet appears on the scene and announces 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.”
The drought is the judgment of the Lord for the people’s unfaithfulness. But we have to develop a careful understanding of God’s judgment. God does not judge for the sake of taking out his anger on his people as he punishes them for their unfaithfulness and idolatry. God’s judgment is not raw anger. It is not God’s wrath. It is discipline for the sake of turning the people back to the Lord. We learn that from Elijah’s prayer, “that the people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”(v. 37)
The reason behind the judgment is the Baal worship in which the king and all the people indulged. Ahab followed his wife Jezebel in worshipping Baal. He sanctioned Baalism, and promoted it by building a temple for Baal in the capital Samaria. He practiced Baal worship himself and saw to it that sacrifices to Baal were brought on the altar in Samaria. It didn’t take much effort to promote Baal. Baal was after all worshipped as a fertility god, the god who controls the weather, who brings the rain that makes the crops grow, who blessed them with many lambs and kids and calves. Ahab was not the only one entrenched in Baal worship; the people were too.
Now, in ancient Israel, Baal worship did not necessarily replace the worshipping of Yahweh. With their worship of Baal, they sought to supplement their worship of Yahweh. Baal was seen as an additional god. They conveniently served two gods, Yahweh and Baal. We get a sense of this in the story. In verse 21 we read that Elijah calls the people together on Mount Carmel and challenges them to choose: “How long will you waver between two options? If the Lord (Yahweh) is God, follow him! If Baal is God, follow him!”
And what did they do? We read, “But the people said nothing.” They couldn’t choose; they didn’t want to choose. Why would you have only one god if you can have two? Monotheism was not attractive to them (and it certainly wasn’t well established). Serving Yahweh only did not make sense. It was too risky. They preferred to leave their options open. They were not prepared to give Baal up. There are just too many things in our lives that we are attached to, that we rely on. Life is too difficult. You need all the help and all the protection you can get.
Years later, Jesus presents us with the same choice. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also … No one can serve two masters …You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”(Matthew 6:19-24) But let us get back to the story. It is important to note where this episode starts. “After a long time, in the third year, the Word of the Lord came to Elijah … go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.”(v.1)
This is important. What is happening here? God speaks again. God interrupts the three years of silence that accompanied the drought and the absence of the prophet. God speaks and His word sets something in motion. We have here God’s decision to speak again, to send rain and to end the drought. We have God’s decision to be merciful to Ahab and the people. Nothing but God’s mercy prompted this decision. There is no indication that anything changed for the better; or that the king and people turned back to the Lord. There is no sign of repentance yet.
Ahab is still fuming. Why else do you think Obadiah is so afraid of the king? Ahab still blames Elijah for the drought. Elijah is seen as the troublemaker. Ahab shows no recognition that his idolatry is responsible for this. He has no insight in his own sinfulness. He shows no sign of repentance. Jezebel is killing off the prophets of the Lord while she wines and dines with the prophets of Baal and Asherah at her table (eight hundred and fifty of them). Ahab cares more about finding food for the army’s horses and mules than about the effect of the drought on his people. But the people are also entrenched in this. They are unwilling to choose between Baal and Yahweh. They are not ready to give up on Baal; not now that they are hungry for food; not now that they land is starving; not now that the rains are staying away. They might still need Baal.
Things have not improved. They are actually worse. These were dangerous times for the believers. There were a few. Obadiah was one. His name by the way means “Servant of Yahweh”. Obadiah was the head steward of the palace and a devout believer. He chose to serve the Lord and risked his life by hiding a hundred prophets in two caves and providing them with food. I don’t know how Obadiah did it. Imagine having his job; imagine the pressure he was under trying to serve the king well while he also served the Lord!
Things are worse, but the Lord is merciful. The Lord decides to give rain in the third year. The Lord sends Elijah to Ahab with a new word. God wants to give rain. The people have not turned back yet. They were still serving two gods. But the Lord has mercy. The Lord reveals himself and turns them back to him. The Lord restores their faith and forgives their sins. The Lord provides a substitute sacrifice for their sins.
The encounter is not easy. Ahab confronts Elijah, “Troublemaker!” And Elijah responds with, “I am not the troublemaker. You and your family have made trouble for Israel …” Then Elijah summons the king and the people as well as all the prophets of Baal and Asherah who were feasting at Jezebel’s table to Mount Carmel. There he puts before the people a choice: Yahweh or Baal. You can’t have both. You can follow only one. Choose.
Then he issues a challenge to the prophets of Baal. They are superior in numbers - 450 to 1. What are the odds? He let the people bring two bulls, but he gives the prophets of Baal all the advantage they could ask for. They could choose the best bull, he’ll take the leftover one. They could go first and take as long as they need to call on Baal and do their rituals. And here’s the wager: The God who answers with fire is God.
At this point the people should have known what would happen. How many times has God revealed himself in fire! The burning bush; Mount Sinai where the glory of the Lord rested on the mountain like a burning fire; the pillar of fire that led them by night through the wilderness!
Elijah challenges the Baal prophets. But something interesting happens. The people answer, “What you say is good.” There you have it. The people answer for the Baal prophets. Now we know for sure where their loyalty lies. I wonder how many times do we answer for the Baal prophets of our times? How many times do we speak for them, promoting their cause, rationalizing why we need them, defending their cause, celebrating their successes?
The Baal prophets do their thing. They take the bull, cut it in pieces and put it on the wood, confident that Baal will answer soon. Baal is the god who controls the weather, remember. How difficult will it be for Baal to answer their prayers and send a lightning bolt? They call from morning till noon.
Around noon they start to become anxious. It is taking longer than they thought. “Baal, answer us,” they shouted. But Baal doesn’t answer. There is no response; no one answered; no one is home. Their worship became more intense. Maybe we just need to do more. They dance (limp) around the altar. Elijah taunts them: “Surely he is god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and needs to be awakened.” They shout louder and slash themselves with swords and spears, mutilating themselves to get Baal’s attention. The things we’d do to get Baal’s attention! They continue to rant and rave until late in the afternoon, falling in an ecstatic trance. “But there was no response; no one answered, no one paid attention.” (v 29)
How foolish of us to worship these gods who have no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and no mouths to speak; these gods who pay no attention to us, yet require all our attention, all our devotion, all our time and money and energy, our hearts, and souls and minds.
The prophets of Baal have been going at it unsuccessfully for the whole day. If Elijah knew Presbyterian jokes, he might have said something like, “How many Baal prophets does it take to light one altar?”
The time of the evening sacrifice came and Elijah calls the people, “come here to me.” He calls them to worship as he repairs the altar of the Lord. The altar has obviously not been used. It is in ruins, but he calmly repairs it, taking twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. The altar represents the people; it represents their lives. And the text highlights that it is the altar of Yahweh.
After repairing the altar, Elijah digs a trench around it, he arranged the wood, cut the bull and placed the meat on the altar. The he asked them to bring four large jars of water and pour it over the altar. He sends for four jars of water a second time and a third time. Twelve jars of water are poured out on the altar. The altar, the wood, the meat, everything is soaking wet. The trench fills up with water. How on earth will this work? Who has the power to light such a wet altar? Who has the power to break through the people’s sins? Elijah wants everyone to be sure that the fire can only come from above. With the trench filled with water, no fire can sneak in from the side. It will be unmistakable an action of God.
No imagine the tension. This was an enormous waste of water in a time of severe drought. It feels like taking your last flour and oil to make bread for someone else. What if it doesn’t work? Then he’s just wasted a lot of good water.
There might be more to it than that. One Jewish commentator remarks that the people relied on Baal for water and rain. Pouring the water over the altar is another way of challenging Baal`s power.
At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah steps forward and prays. His prayer is short and simple. He doesn`t dance around the altar; he doesn`t shout loud; he doesn`t slash himself till the blood flows; he doesn`t go into a trance. He does nothing out of the ordinary to get Yahweh`s attention. He does nothing to twist God`s arm or to impress the Lord. One simple, short prayer is all it takes. And the Lord answers, right there, right then.
The fire of the Lord falls on the sacrifice and burns up the sacrifice, the wood, the altar, the soil, and the water in the trench. The fire of the Lord consumes the whole thing. The Lord reveals himself in fire again.
But the fire is also the judgment of the Lord. But here`s the thing: Peter Leithart writes in his commentary that the fire of the Lord falls on the altar, not on the people; that the Lord`s judgment falls on a substitute for Israel in order to save Israel.
The people see the fire of the Lord and fall down in worship. They cry out, “Yahweh is God! Yahweh is God!” They have turned back. They have chosen. Their sins are forgiven and God renews the covenant with the people and with Ahab. Ahab is told to go, eat and drink. The meal looks very similar to the covenant renewal meal that the elders ate at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses went up the mountain into the presence of the Lord to receive the Word of the Lord (Exodus 24:9-11).
Elijah continues to pray. He sits bent down with his face between his knees. He is praying and waiting. And when the time is full a small cloud, the size of a man’s hand appears over the ocean. Soon the skies grow black, a mighty wind rise, and a heavy rain starts to fall. The Blessing of the Lord has returned. The drought is broken. The Lord pours out his grace on the land. Leithart writes, “God’s judgment is always a prelude to blessing.” After the fire falls from heaven, the Lord sends rain.
The forgiveness is complete. The heavens open. The rain returns.
The story ends with the power of the Lord that comes on Elijah, so that Elijah runs ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel. What’s going on? There are two aspects to this. We see Elijah running ahead of the king. The prophet who speaks the Word of the Lord leads the way and the king follows. That’s the way it should be in Israel. But there is another aspect to this. It was the work of servants and heralds to run ahead of the king. Elijah, with the Word of the Lord and in the power of the Lord runs ahead of the king as his servant. Elijah is not an enemy of the king. Prophets are not enemies of the people. They speak the Word, often a word of judgment because they are servants of the people for God’s sake.
This is a story of grace; of God’s grace and mercy; of God’s decision to have mercy, to turn his people back to him. It is a story of God’s desire to be our God, our Saviour. It is a story of God’s resolve to turn us from the worship of other gods to him.
To quote Leithart again, Mount Carmel anticipates another mountain, just outside Jerusalem, where God’s judgment fell on a substitute sacrifice when Jesus was crucified to save sinners. At Carmel, in the third year, God sends mercy in the form of rain to renew the land; in Jerusalem, on the third day, he raised Jesus from the dead to renew the world. Judgment is followed by rain at Carmel; but in Christ, judgment is followed by life.”
To God be the glory.
Food for thought
Rev. Dr. Gerard Booy1 Kings 17
Ahab became king of Israel in the year 869 B.C. He lived and reigned in Samaria, the city built by his father Omri after he bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer. Ahab’s spanned a long time - twenty two years.
But here’s the thing. Ahab married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess from Sidon. Her father’s name is telling – Ethbaal. Jezebel, like her father, is stanch worshipper of Baal. Her worship of Baal rubs off on Ahab. Not only did he become a Baal worshipper himself, he built a temple for Baal in Samaria and set up an altar where people could bring sacrifices to Baal. He also erected Asherah poles in the capital. Idolatry abounded.
The book of Kings has this to say about Ahab:“ Ahab, son of Omri, did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him … He did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.” (1 Kings 16:30, 33)
Baal was a Canaanite fertility god, the most prominent god in the Canaanite pantheon. Baal was the one who defeated the powers of death in nature, who sent the rain to make the crops grow, and who blessed the herds with fertility. Baal was revered as the one who gives rain, crops, health, prosperity, and a good future. Baal was the god you turned to if you were looking for life. Asherah was the mother goddess in the Canaanite pantheon. A fertility god herself, she was often portrayed as standing next to El, Baal or even Yahweh as their fertile, female counterpart.
Now, serving Baal or Asherah did not replace Yahweh in worshippers' minds. They did not necessarily give up on the Lord altogether when they worshipped Baal or Asherah. Serving Baal and Asherah was more like having an extra god, or taking out additional insurance. It was more a matter of Yahweh plus … The world is a tough place; people need all the help they can get. I guess we could ask if that is such a bad thing. As long as we still worship the Lord also, does it really make that much of a difference? Well, yes, it keeps us from having an undivided, unconditional, unadulterated loyalty to the Lord. We cannot love the Lord our God with our whole mind, our whole soul, and our whole mind if we worship something else also. The first commandment makes it very clear, “You shall have no other gods before me.” So does the second commandment, “You shall not make an image of anything and bow down and worship it ….”
Baalism was rampant in the days of Elijah. But Baalism is not something of the past, it is well and alive among Christians and in Christian churches today. We may not have shrines where we bow before grotesque images of bulls, and we may not be dancing around sacred poles, but there are many ways in which we worship the fertility gods of our time. There are many things in which we put our trust also; many things on which we rely first, things that take the place of the Lord in our lives. Baal for us does not look like a bull or a calf; our Baal looks more like a good job with pension and benefits. We religiously pay homage to this god. But ask yourself this question: How often does that good job with pension and benefits get in the way, keeping you from following the call of the Lord? Our Baal might look a lot like a strategic plan with a vision and goals and action steps to get us where we want to go. Our Baal might be covered with dollar signs, looking a lot like a savings account or a term deposit that we’ve put away for a rainy day. It may look awfully similar to the traditions that we rely on for comfort and security in an uncertain world. Baal,, for us, might look like a church building. Or it may look like a lotto ticket. An idol can be anything that diminishes our trust in the Lord, anything that we stake our future on, anything that we serve with the kind of devotion that belongs to the Lord.
It is in this Baal-serving world that Elijah appears on the scene. His name is telling: Eli (my God) Yah (is Yahweh) – My God is Yahweh. What a name for a prophet to have!
Elijah confronts Ahab with Yahweh, the God of Israel who lives; His words and his being a living testimony of Yahweh, the Creator and Sustainer of the world, the Saviour of his people. There is sarcasm in Elijah’s speech, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve ….” Elijah from Gilead serves the Lord; Ahab doesn’t. The prophet’s word challenges Ahab’s reliance on Baal; his worship to this no-good god of fertility. “There will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Yahweh is the living God; Yahweh is the giver of rain and dew; Yahweh is the maker and sustainer of life; Yahweh is the giver of all good things. Baal isn’t. There is no life unless Yahweh gives life, no rain unless Yahweh says so. Yahweh controls the weather, Baal doesn’t. Yahweh lives, Baal doesn’t. “Let’s see if Baal can help you, if he can defeat the powers of death and make rain.”
Elijah’s name is symbolic of the kind of relationship that the Lord requires of his people – exclusive, undivided, whole-hearted faith and love. And his life is symbolic of the ways in which the Lord is alive among us, feeding us, blessing us, directing us, keeping us safe, and giving us life. My God is Yahweh! And Yahweh lives!
As soon as Elijah delivered the word of the Lord to the king, the Lord speaks to the prophet. Every turn in this story is guided by a command, a word of the Lord. The Lord told him to go to the Wadi-Kerith, and the Lord told him to go to Zarephath in Sidon. Elijah doesn’t just speak the word of the Lord, he is guided personally, step by step, by that same word. He lives not just by bread but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Many years later, Jesus is hungry after forty days in the wilderness, and he is tempted to turn the stones into bread. “Help yourself, use your power, be your own provider, be relevant to your own needs. You better do something because God is not looking after you.” These were his words: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
The word of the Lord directs him to a place east of the Jordan, the Wadi-Kerith, a remote place, a wilderness place. You almost wonder, is this the king of place where God is present? Can God provide for us in such a place? But the Lord promises that he could drink from the brook and that the ravens will bring him food to eat. Ravens! Really! Ravens, unclean, scavenger birds bringing food for the prophet? Would you trust a raven to bring you bread and meat? Would you eat what a raven brings you? Would you trust a God who says something outrageous like this to you?
But Elijah goes. He does what the Lord says. He obeys. He lives by God’s word. He puts his trust in the Lord. And what do you know- the ravens brought him bread and meat, every day, morning and evening. The Lord is the giver of all good things, even there in the wilderness, in that very unlikely place and those highly unusual circumstances. The Lord provides.
Elijah is a prophet. He is God’s spokesman. With Elijah out of town, what happens in Samaria? Well, the word of the Lord dries up as well. There is a drought, not only of rain, but also of the life-giving word of the Lord; a famine of bread, by also of the word. People have nothing to live by. Except for the prophet who lives by the word and are fed by God’s ravens.
Eventually the brook dries up. But the Lord is right there, speaking to the prophet. God’s word directs Elijah to “go at once to Zarephath in Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” Zarephath in Sidon! Really! This is Phoenicia, the home of Jezebel and her father Ethbaal. This is the heartland of Baal worship. Is this where the Lord is sending his prophet with a promise to supply for him? Yes, that is exactly where Elijah is sent. He has to go and stay there, and be a living witness that Yahweh lives, that Yahweh provides food, that Yahweh has power over death, and that Yahweh gives life.
“Where a widow will supply you with food.” A widow! Really! Widows were the most vulnerable people themselves. Even in good times, widows needed looking after. How will a widow supply him with food during the drought?
But Elijah goes. That’s the kind of faith that God is looking for. He finds the widow. We never learn her name in this story. We only know her by her vulnerable condition – widow. She is collecting sticks with which she is going to make a fire to cook one last meal for herself and her son. She only has enough flour and oil for this one meal. Then she will have nothing left. Is she the one who will provide for the prophet? She has almost nothing herself. She has so little, barely enough to stay alive. She reminds me of another widow in Jesus’ time who came to the temple and put her last penny in the temple treasury. She is severely impoverished. And she acknowledges that. “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug… to make a meal for myself and my son that we might eat – and die.” She has lots to be afraid of. Life has been hard for this woman. And life was running out.
Elijah speaks to her. “Don’t be afraid.” How much do we need to hear those words! We can be so concerned that we won’t have enough; so worried that there will not be enough for the future; so anxious about budgets and savings and numbers; so fearful of the future. Those worries keep us from trusting the Lord, from serving the Lord whole-heartedly, and from showing hospitality to others. Those worries make us turn to the Baals for help. “Don’t be afraid." These are gospel words.
And then this: “Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel says, ‘The jar of flour will not run be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’” She is facing the ultimate challenge of faith. Will she take the Lord at his word? Will she use her last flour and oil to serve someone else, rather than keeping it for herself and her son? Jesus frequently said that those who want to keep their lives to themselves will lose it, but those who lose their lives for him and for the kingdom will find it. This is how we should be living. This is how the church should be doing its business.
Let us look at the promise once more. ‘The jar of flour will not run be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’” When God asks us to give what we have, when God calls (no, commands, because that’s the word in the text) us to serve others first, to serve them with everything we have, he does not leave us with just what we have. God provides. Not necessarily a warehouse full of flour and oil at once, but a steady supply; enough for each day, every day of our lives. It is like the manna in the wilderness – there every morning, fresh, and enough for the day, but not for storing up because then it goes bad. It is like the bread Jesus taught us to pray for.
One of the reasons why people turn to Baal is that they don’t trust that the Lord will provide enough. They don’t trust the Lord with their lives. They are looking for more life, a better life. They are looking for something that can help them overcome the powers of death that is at work in the world. Can we trust the Lord with our lives and the lives of our children? Will he keep us safe and give us life? Can he protect us from death? Does he have the power to give us life? Will he forgive our sins and bless us?
The third episode speaks to these questions. Our lives are safe in God’s hands. After some time the widow’s son dies. What good is God? She does what we all do. She blames it on the prophet. It is his fault. Because he stays with her, God knows about her, and now God is punishing her for her sins. She sees her sins as an obstacle to God.
Elijah says, “Give me your son.” He carries him up his room where he prays. Does he ever pray! He wrestles with God. It presents a test for his faith as well. “Why God?” He accuses God. “Have you brought tragedy on this widow ...” And he pleads with God, repeatedly. “O Lord my God, let the boy’s life return to him!”
Now we learn something else about the Lord. Not only does he control the weather, not only does he command ravens to feed his prophet, not only does he provide food for his prophet and this poor widow and her son. The Lord answers prayers. God returns the boy’s life to him. And Elijah takes him back to his mother – alive!
Yahweh is not just the giver of rain and bread; Yahweh is the Lord of life, even in Zarephath, the hometown of Baal. We can trust him. We can serve him with our whole heart, our whole soul, and our whole mind. We can lose our lives for his sake. We can live by his word. Not only did he bring this anonymous boy back to life, he brought back his own Son to life, so that all who believe in him may live.
“Don’t be afraid.”
What Happened To The Fire?
Rev. Dr. Gerard BooyActs 2:1-21
The gospel is good news. It is the good news that God reconciled the world with himself through Christ; that God holds out salvation to people living in darkness, people living in a world that is falling apart. The gospel says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
But what good is good news if it is not shared? It is meant to be shared. We know God as the God who talks. God’s words create worlds. God’s words give life. He continues to communicate to the people he created, revealing himself, guiding them, teaching them, instructing them according to his will, comforting them, and calling forth their response. God invites us into a conversation with him. We are made for prayer. And God calls us to be his witnesses to other people.
Years after the first Pentecost sermon of Peter, Paul quotes the same verse from Joel 2 when he writes to the Romans. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13). And then he adds this: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”(Romans 10:14-15)
Here we have the gospel logic: Faith comes through hearing, which means someone must be speaking the gospel.
And that is the genius of Pentecost. It is fifty days after Easter and ten days after the ascension of Jesus. The followers of Jesus are gathered in Jerusalem. They have experienced much. They have lots to tell about their Lord.
But they are not ready to go into the world; not if they are armed only with the story of their experiences; not if they are driven only by their enthusiasm; not if they are equipped only with their new theological understanding. You see, it is not our experience, our enthusiasm or our knowledge that qualifies us to be witness. It is not our qualifications, our study of a text or our careful preparations of a message that qualifies us to be preachers of the good news. Jesus who commissioned them on Easter Sunday when he breathed on them, told them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the gift that the Father will give them, the Holy Spirit. Our readiness and power to witness comes from the Holy Spirit who fills us and reminds us of Christ. It comes from the Spirit who gives us tongues of fire and translates our words into messages that others can understand. The Holy Spirit is essential to the proclaiming and receiving of the gospel. Without the Spirit, their news would have made headlines for a day or two before it became old news. Without the empowering witness of the Holy Spirit, the temptation to turn the gospel into a message about us is just too great.
We find the disciples “all together in one place.” What are they doing? They are doing what Jesus told them to do. They are waiting and praying. It is not an empty waiting. While they wait, they prepare themselves for their ministry as witnesses of Christ by choosing Matthias to be a witness with them. And they pray. This waiting and praying creates in them an openness for the work of God.
Then, suddenly, the Spirit came, sovereign and free, with the sound of a violent wind that shakes and fills the whole house, and in tongues of fire that separate and come to rest on each of them. God is present as the life giving wind, or breath, or Spirit, and as the self-revealing holy fire. And all of them, every one of them received the gift of the Spirit. They are all filled with the Spirit. They are inspired and they start to speak.
Pentecost is a communication event. Speaking and hearing accompany the giving of the Spirit; tongues of fire and open ears. The work of the Spirit is to communicate. The Spirit is revealed to us as the Spirit of Truth who makes God and Christ known to us; who convicts the world; who reminds us of the words of Christ; who witnesses to our spirit that we are children of God; who intercedes for us with sighs that cannot be spoken. The Spirit gives witness to the Father and the Son. And the Spirit turns believers into witnesses. The disciples are formed into a community of witnesses. They become God’s news agency. The tongues of fire that rest on them become tongues of speech in their mouths.
Who are we talking about? Who are equipped to be the witnesses? Luke uses two collective pronouns to make sure that we get it: “all” of them and “each” of them. It is important to note both.
• “All of them”: The whole group of disciples, the whole church of Christ, the whole community of believers are filled with the Spirit and become witnesses. Evangelism is not just the work of a few passionate people, or of a handful of gifted individuals; it is not just the world of the original 11 disciples plus Matthias; it is not just the responsibility of the missions committee, the session, and the pastors of this church. “All of them” were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak of the glory of the Lord. At that point a hundred and twenty people were gathered there. All of them, young and old, sons and daughter, men and women are filled with the Spirit and speak God’s word.
The quote from Joel supports that. The prophet already proclaimed that in the last days God will pour out his Spirit on all people and that they will prophecy. The emphasis is on people becoming prophets. Both sides are emphasized. They speak the word as prophets. And they receive the word like prophets did. God reveals himself to them and they speak. This is the meaning of the visions and dreams that both the young men and old men will see. Visions and dreams were the ways in which God communicated with the prophets in Old Testament times. In other words, God will speak to them and they will pass on what they have received from the Lord.
• And “each of them.” God works with and through the whole church. But God also works personally with and through each one. We are called by name. We receive the Spirit personally. Each of us hears the word of the Lord. And each one of us is equipped to be a witness.
Pentecost reminds us that witnessing is a natural part of the gospel. The church is a community of witnesses. And every Christian is a witness. This is our purpose. This is our reason for being. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this is something that we have to recover in this church. We need to recover this sense of intentionality. We need to recover a sense of how urgent this is. We have moved away from this kind of thinking about ourselves. We see ourselves mostly as hearers of the gospel and not as witnesses. Many of us don’t find it easy to talk about Christ, about God, or about faith. We find the idea of evangelism scary and intimidating. It is not that we’re not good at talking. We like talking. When you come into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, you’ll find anything but silence. As soon as we walk out of that door we start to talk. Go downstairs for coffee and you’ll hear a buzz of people speaking, everyone speaking at once. Talking is not our problem. Even the quieter ones among us can talk a good talk given the right circumstances and the right topic. And then comes the gospel, and we’re all tongue-tied. We’re uncertain. We feel insecure. We don’t know where to begin. We don’t know what to say. We don’t know how to express our faith. We keep quiet. I wonder what that says about us.
Pentecost reminds us that witnessing is a first thing for the church. It is not just one of many things that the church does. It is not one option for ministry among many options. It is not the hobby of a few fanatics. It is the first thing. It is priority for us. It is our reason for being. And we need to take it much more seriously. We’ve got to look at our programs and groups (all of them) and ask how they enable us to be witnesses of the gospel. First things are the things that matter most. And as Stephen Covey put it in his book Seven Habits …, “the things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”
Pentecost reminds us that God has his sights set on the whole world, on every nation, and on every person. The prophets spoke of a time when Jerusalem would become the gathering place for the nations; a time when the nations will say, “let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … He will teach us his ways.” (Isaiah 2:3 ea.) On Pentecost day, we see the fulfillment of that prophecy. Many people are gathered in Jerusalem for the feast, diaspora Jews from all over the world. Fifteen different regions are mentioned. And all of them hear the message of Christ proclaimed in their own language. Many come to faith and they take the message back to the regions from which they came. God has his sights set on the whole world so that “everyone who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Pentecost reminds us that the power to witness comes from the Spirit, and not from ourselves. Nor is it given to us by others. We are taught to rely more on the power of Spirit and less on ourselves. We are called to pray so that the Holy Spirit fill us. We are challenged to let go of our fears, our concerns and our agendas; to be good listeners and to be faithful pray-ers so that the Spirit can form us into a community of witnesses who are prepared and ready to speak.
That does not mean it will always be easy. That does not mean we shall always have success. Even here, the disciples’ witnessing are met with a mixed reaction. Some are amazed and want to learn more. Others mock them and make fun of them. “They have had too much wine.” I wish they would say that about us! So, if the Holy Spirit is given to each one who is in Christ, and if the Holy Spirit empowers believers to be God’s witnesses, why are we so tongue-tied? Why do we find it so difficult to speak? Why do we have so many fears? Why are we so easily intimidated? Why are there so few visions and dreams these days? What happened to the fire?
Missional Ministry: The church guided by the Holy Spirit
Rev. Dr. Gerard BooyActs 16:6-15
This story takes place during Paul’s second missionary, sometime between 49 – 52 A.D. Another seven years have passed since the story of Cornelius which we read last week. We’re seven years further down the road of the early church’s missional growth.
During his first missionary journey, Paul travelled through the regions of Pamphylia and Into Pisidia in the Roman Province Galatia, where he visited places like Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, establishing churches as he went. Now, he is visiting the believers in those places again. He comes over land, bringing Silas with him and picking up the young Timothy along the way. After visiting the churches in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they continued their journey through the region of Phrygia.
But something interesting happens during this journey. I imagine that Paul had a plan. He had his personal ministry goals. There were places that he wanted to visit and things he wanted to say to the people there. He probably had his itinerary worked out in advance.
At first, he thought that he would travel west through the province of Asia and preach the good news in that area. There were lots of towns in that province, places with names like Colossae, Ephesus, Thyatira, Laodicea, Smyrna … But this did not happen. The Holy Spirit got in his way. We read that “the Holy Spirit kept him from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” That’s strange, don’t you think! Why would the Spirit keep him from preaching? Change of plans. Having been kept by the Spirit from preaching in the towns of Asia, they altered their course and decided to travel through Phrygia. But eventually they reached the border of Mysia where they had to make another decision. From here they determined to travel northeast into the regions of Bythinia and Pontus along the Black Sea. It made sense. They were almost there already. But again the Holy Spirit got in their way. We read that “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” This is weird. For the second time in a row, the Spirit closes a door for ministry.
They were left with not much of a choice. They travelled west, down to the coast at Troas.
Through these strange set of circumstances we get a sense of the ongoing involvement of the Holy Spirit in the sending of the church. Paul and his companions are not free agents – they are not consultants for the Spirit who works where and when and how they want. The Holy Spirit guides the church and believers’ lives. The Holy Spirit calls and sends, opens some doors and closes others, allows ministry and keeps us from ministry. Many of us have had personal experiences of the Spirit closing and opening doors. I was trying to think of an illustration and at first thought that the Spirit in these stories is a little like a flag person at a road work site, directing traffic to stop and go. But that is too linear and simple. The Spirit in this regard is more like air traffic control at a busy airport.
This front line involvement of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the church, is the reason why prayer is so important, and also why prayer is as dangerous as we saw last time. In prayer, we communicate with the Spirit, we are open to the Spirit to stir us and wake us from our sleep, and steer us in new directions. This is also why the Scriptures are so important. Because the Holy Spirit works through the Scriptures to reveal God’s will to our lives. The Scriptures is the lens through which God is revealed to us; it is also the lens through which God makes us see ourselves, our world and his calling on our lives. The Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, creates a hunger and thirst for righteousness, an unease with inward-focused church life, a new awareness of God’s love for people, and everything else that is necessary for missional ministry. The involvement of the Holy Spirit is also the reason why community discernment is important. Together, we discern where God is sending us and what involvement in God’s mission means within our context.
Healthy churches pay attention to what the Spirit says, and to how the Spirit directs the church through prayer, Scripture, and community discernment. There is a whole lot more to ministry than to do the things that we like doing; to repeat the things we are comfortable doing; to stick with the things that we got used to doing over the years; to just doing the things that we are relatively good at. Missional ministry means that we follow the guidance of Spirit.
Twice in this passage, Paul and his companions hear the Spirit saying, “No.” And then the Spirit says, “Yes”. That “yes” opens a whole new world for the gospel.
Why does it work this way? I would put it down to divine wisdom. We are not given the reasons, but we can speculate a little. It might be a case of God’s timing being different than ours. What may not be right at this point in time, might very well be right at another time, and vice versa. The Spirit’s “no” to preaching the word in Asia, was probably just a “not yet”. They were prevented from preaching in Asia at this time. Eventually, Paul would minister to the people in Asia. He had a great ministry there. Think of his ministry in Ephesus at the end of the second journey and in the third journey when he stayed there for two years, the longest time that he has ministered in any one specific place, building them up in the Lord. But now the Spirit says, “No, not yet.” Why? We don’t know for sure. It might have been that ministering in Asia would have been a distraction that would have kept him from reaching Macedonia and other places with the gospel. It might be that the people of Asia were not ready yet to receive the gospel while others in Philippi were ready. We are not given the reasons. It often works that way in our lives too, doesn’t it? But we don’t always have to know the reasons. God knows.
It might be that God had a different master plan than Paul. God, in God’s wisdom, had other people prepared for ministering to the people in Bythinia and Pontus. We read that Paul and his companions were not even allowed to enter there. This was not the place where God needed their ministry. Others would minister there. Paul, Timothy and Silas were needed elsewhere, across the water in Macedonia.
The development of this journey is all about the gospel. Proclaiming and receiving the gospel is front and centre in the story. Paul must have had a strong sense of that. When doors are closed, he does not quit. He carries on until God reveals his plan and opens the right door.
How did the Holy Spirit keep them from preaching in Asia? How did they know that the Holy Spirit does not allow them to enter into Bythinia and Pontus? The Bible doesn’t say. Did they receive a vision or heard a voice from heaven? Was it a Scripture they read? Did people close the door on them? Did they receive strong opposition to their work? Did things not work out? Were there visa applications denied? Did they have a conviction, an awareness, a sense that something was not right? Or was it a combination of these? We don’t know, just that it happened.
But as these doors are closed, a new door opens. This time we know how they knew. Verse 9: "during the night, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging them, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'.” And in verse 10 we read that they all concluded that this is God calling them to preach the gospel to the people in Macedonia. A vision, and community discernment of God’s call.
For Paul, Timothy and Silas, the open door leads them to preach in Macedonia. God opens the door to Europe. I wonder which doors God is opening for us…
I also wonder how we will respond when God opens new doors for the gospel… Will we be slow to enter through, being overly cautious, hesitant and skeptical? Or will we respond in faith and obedience? We have a wonderful example of people responding in obedient faith in this story. We read (verse 10) that they "got ready at once to leave for Macedonia." And we see them put out to sea from Troas to Samothrace and the next day to Neapolis. There is an urgency to this. They don’t waste any time. There is no second guessing their decision; no looking back wondering what might have been if they went to Asia first; no complaining that they have to get in a boat again and cross the sea; no objection that Macedonia is such a strange new place. They obeyed and went in faith. They grabbed the opportunity and walked (sailed) through the door. Will we do that or will we miss the boat?
This leads them to Philippi in Macedonia. Philippi was not on their radar at first. But their ministry to the people in Philippi was greatly blessed. The Philippians became a source of great joy to Paul. The love they had for one another were remarkable. He later remarked that they were the only church to support him financially and physically. God calls them to Philippi. It is a place for mission, for participating in God’s life at work in people’s lives even though they never would have thought of going there on their own. So what does missional ministry look like? Paul’s ministry in Philippi gives us a picture. I would describe it with the words of the Macedonian man, “Come over and help us.”
Missional ministry is humble. It is about helping others. It is about meeting people where they are. Too often we see Christians and churches convinced of God’s call taking charge of the gospel and of people’s lives. We are not put in charge of the gospel. And we are certainly not put in charge of people’s lives. We are called to “come and help us.” Both words are important for describing missional ministry. Come. Help.
These two words describe a ministry that is personal. Missional ministry is always personal; it is never impersonal. Paul’s ministry in Philippi is as personal as it gets. When they arrive in Philippi, the story slows down. They decided to stay for a while.
But where does the ministry start? Where do we start out in missional ministry? It starts where the people are. That’s it. On the Sabbath, we find Paul and his companions looking for a place of prayer at the river. That’s where they know they will find people. Paul’s habit when he visited a new place was to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. That’s where he knew he would find people and opportunities to have conversations about Christ. Philippi did not have a synagogue, probably because there were not many Jews in town. You needed at least ten Jewish men to establish a synagogue. In towns where they did not have a synagogue, the Jews would meet on the Sabbath often outside the city at a river where they had their places of worship. This is where Paul goes. A place of prayer becomes the first place for evangelism in Europe!
And there he finds some women. He sat down and starts a friendly conversation. They listen. One of them is Lydia. She is not a Jew, but she is a worshipper of Yahweh. She’s career woman who sells purple cloth that is sought after by the rich. And she is from Thyatira, a town in the province of Asia. Now isn’t that interesting. As she listens, we read that the Lord opens her heart. This was not Paul’s doing. The Lord opened her heart. The Holy Spirit works through the conversation. This is why they had to go on this detour. She responds in faith. She and her whole household is baptized.
The first convert on European soil is a woman. Another boundary is crossed. She comes to faith, is baptized and she shows hospitality to Paul and his companions.
Obedience to God’s call, conversations with people where they are – that’s how the gospel works. It all starts with the guidance of the Spirit, closing doors and opening a new one; with the Spirit giving visions and dreams, and opening people’s hearts to receive the word. It works through the disciples and apostles who pay attention to what the Spirit is saying and doing, and who are willing to go and meet people in friendly conversation where they are. And it continues through the faith, baptism, and hospitality of new Christians like Lydia.
Who can improve on this?
To God be the glory.
Missional Ministry: A new era for the church
Rev. Dr. Gerard BooyActs 11:1-18
At the Theology Café we are reading through the book The Jesus Way. Monday’s reading finished with this sentence: “Following Jesus does not get us where we want to go. It gets us where Jesus goes, where we meet him in resurrection surprise …” (p.242)
Peter has been following Jesus. Following Jesus took him on a visit to the believers in Lydda and Joppa, and there it gets him into the house of Simon the Tanner. He was still staying with Simon the Tanner when he saw the vision and the three men came knocking on the door. Now, it takes him to Caesarea and into the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion.
This is not necessarily what Peter had planned to do or where he thought ministry would take him. He probably thought that his ministry would be to visit the churches and strengthen the believers, preaching the Good News to Jewish people and ministering to them. But here he was, in Cornelius’ house, ministering to Cornelius and his family and friends. Cornelius is described as a god-fearing man, believing in Yahweh, but he was uncircumcised. Peter and other Jews would consider them Gentiles. These people were not Jews. And they were not Christians yet. These are probably not the people that Peter imagined himself preaching to. These are probably not the people that he would associate with on his own account. As a Jewish Christian, he might have preferred to just leave them alone. But, “following Jesus does not get us where we want to go. It gets us where Jesus goes…”
And “there we meet him in resurrection surprise …” God has been setting this up. The Holy Spirit is at work here. God sent the angel to Cornelius four days earlier. The next day, God gave Peter the vision of the blanket with animals and reptiles at the time when the messengers from Cornelius came looking for him. God is at work in this strange set of circumstances.
Peter is still very much under the impression of the vision when he tells the story of Jesus to those who are gathered at Cornelius’. While he is speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon them. They started speaking in tongues and praising God. It is Pentecost all over. This time in Caesarea where Gentiles, not Jews, are receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. God is doing something new. God is moving into a new neighbourhood. God is mixing with new people. And God is calling his church to reach out and embrace them.
A new era is dawning for the church. This is exciting, but it is unfamiliar terrain. We’re into uncharted waters. The church in Peter’s time has not been here before. They haven’t done ministry in this way and among these people before. I think we might call it a paradigm shift. Once they do this, once they’ve gone there, the church will never be the same again. And we should be glad, because we are what they would have called “Gentiles”. This story shows the church learning what it means to join God’s mission in this world. The church is learning to go where Jesus goes. We learn what it means to be directed by God’s love for the world, and not by things like comfort, familiarity, traditions, affinity to people etc.
I believe God is doing something new in our time. More and more people are becoming uncomfortable with inward-looking, self-serving modes of ministry. More people have a desire to live authentic Christian lives and to stop playing church. There is a hunger in the church to do something meaningful in Jesus’ name. Our eyes are being opened to see the spiritual needs of people, and to recognize injustice in our own culture. There is a growing sense that we are called to get out of the building and into the world, our neighbourhoods, our schools, the marketplace. I believe this is God’s work, waking us up to become more missional, in other words to join God in his mission to the world.
When we follow Jesus, we follow him into the world, into the changing landscape of our culture. That will require huge changes in the way we think about what it means to be the church of Christ. But the heart of the gospel is change. Ministry has always been about transformation, repentance, renewal, forgiveness, new life, and spiritual formation. Change is at the core of Christian ministry.
An amazing new thing has happened. But not everyone is on-board. Not everyone is too happy with the change. The other apostles and the church in Jerusalem are skeptical about this. They are critical of Peter and what he did. Like us, they struggled to understand this new thing that God is doing. They had a hard time understanding why Peter would go to Cornelius’ house and eat with them. They struggle with the change because Peter’s actions contradict the way they have always read the Bible and understood their ministry. They are critical of Peter and his free spirit. He always takes off and does these kinds of things; he always behaves in impulsive ways like this.
This happens in churches. The important thing is that the story showes us a way of working through our struggles to understand and agree. We can learn a lot from them. What do they do? They talk it through with one another.
Peter is called on the carpet. They speak their minds: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” There words are direct, but also open-ended, inviting Peter to respond. They were critical of him, make no mistake. But they were not merely criticizing. Luke uses a Greek word (diacrinō) which means that they were carefully evaluating the situation. Diacrinō means that you gather the information, you look at the evidence, you listen to the story, and on the basis of everything you find, you carefully make your judgment. They called Peter on the carpet and carefully evaluated this new situation.
And Peter explains everything carefully. He does not defend his actions. He does not criticize them for being so inflexible and judgmental. He tells the story, and takes great care to tell the whole story. And as he tells the story he highlights the work of God in it.
And they listened. We can tell from their response. There are no interruptions. After Peter had finished telling the story, three things happened. There was a great silence. They were deep under the impression of the Holy Spirit’s work and presence. They were in awe of the Lord’s work. Then they broke out in praise. Praising means that they are accepting it. They are embracing it. They rejoice in the God and God’s new work. And finally they make a new statement of faith. “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” It is not the most eloquent statement of faith, but it is new and it reflects their new understanding of God’s mission. They can arrive at this because they went through this process of listening to one another. They were willing to learn from the wisdom of one another. This is how the Holy Spirit works in the church.
What is involved? What are the changes that God’s new work calls for?
First is an openness to the work of the Spirit, a willingness to listen to the Spirit and to obey, in other words to go where the Spirit leads us.
Along with that is the willingness to think new about the ways in which we do ministry, and the places where we do ministry. It is interesting that Peter at Cornelius’ house is doing what he has been doing all along. He does the same things: praying, proclaiming the word, telling the story of Jesus, meeting people where they are, baptizing new believers … These are the basic things that ministry consists of. But in a new place, among new people, in a different context, the ways in which we do these things might have to change. And the venues might change.
A third change that God’s new work calls for is a change in the way we think about people. We tend to have a static view of people. And according to that we tend, just like the early Christians, to have clear ideas of who is in and who’s out; neat categories that help us to define our territory: circumcised and uncircumcised, Jews and Gentiles, clean and impure, men and women, gay and straight, Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious, spiritually mature and spiritual-but-not religious, liberal and conservative, youth and seniors … Joining the mission of God, calls us to expand our thinking about people; to see others as people whom God is concerned about, whom God is sending us to, who we should have fellowship with, reach out to, welcome into our midst ... The early church had to shed its Jewish skin. They had to grow out of it in order to grow into the mission of God to bring salvation to all people. It took them years to do that. I wonder what it is that we have to grow out of in order to grow into God’s mission in the world?
God’s new work might also call for changes in the way we read the Bible. We’ll have to learn to read the Bible through the lens of mission rather than through the lens of an established, traditional, institutional church. Peter responds to the vision of the blanket full of animals and reptiles with these words: “By no means, Lord. Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered into my mouth.” Now where would he get an idea like that from? From the Bible of course; from the purity laws in the Old Testament. These laws were given by the Lord with a good reason. For centuries, these laws have guided the believers to live holy and pure lives, completely dedicated to God. For centuries, these laws have protected their lives, and helped them to keep their identity in a hostile world. Daniel and his friends are a good example of people who observed the food laws and kept their identity and faith in God. But Christ have come, and Christ sends the Spirit. We have to read these laws through a new lens now. New times require fresh new readings of the Scriptures. In our time, we are especially called to read the Scriptures through the lens of God’s mission to bring salvation to all people, and to save all people through Christ whose blood purifies us from all unrighteousness. Am I undermining the authority of Scripture when I call for new readings and understandings? Not at all. I’m calling for faithful listening to what the Spirit says to the churches through the Word.
Where do we start? Missional ministry starts in prayer. Where was Cornelius when the angel appeared to him and told him to send for Peter? In his house praying his afternoon prayers (10:30). Where was Peter when he received the vision and the messengers came to his house? Up on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house, praying his noontime prayers. Prayer is the place to be. Prayer is the thing to do for people who are following Jesus. Prayer is where things happen; where the Holy Spirit gets hold of us and plants a new vision in our hearts; where the Holy Spirit breaks through the barriers that we set up around ourselves and our ministries. Prayer is dangerous. If you want to have a comfortable, predictable, safe life, don’t pray. Because when we do, we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit gives new visions; the Spirit might call us to be evangelists; the Spirit might create excitement for mission; the Spirit plants the love of God deep in our hearts; the Spirit gives us compassion for a lost and suffering world; the Spirit might make us uncomfortable and dissatisfied with religion and hungry for authentic spirituality; the Spirit might call us to step out of our comfort zones in faith. Prayer is dangerous. But prayer is where missional ministry starts.
With what do we go? We go armed only with the Word of God; the same word that we are called to listen to with new ears. The only thing we have as we go out following Jesus, is the good news about Jesus Christ. The text emphasize the word as that which we have to work with. Verse 1: “they heard that the gentiles also had received the word of God.” Verse 14: The angel tells Cornelius to send for Peter because “he will bring you a message through which you will be saved.” Verse 15: Peter tells the gospel, “As I began to speak …” Missional ministry is closely tied to the Word – sharing, discussion, telling, proclaiming, applying, studying it together. We’re not called to go into the world with a bag of tricks, with creative events and new programs. We’re called to take the word of God into the world where people live.
Peter’s last comment is important: “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us … who was I to think I could oppose God?” For Peter it boiled down to this: not going, not obeying, not embracing God’s mission, not reaching out to these new people, not eating with them, not baptizing them, would be to oppose God. God is doing a new thing. Are we following or are we opposing God?
Remember, “Following Jesus does not get us where we want to go. It gets us where Jesus goes, where we meet him in resurrection surprise …”
Missional Church: Ministry in the name of Jesus
Rev. Dr. Gerard BooyActs 9:31-43
What did you think when we read the stories about Aeneas and Tabitha? How do they make you feel? Do they seem strange? Do you feel uncomfortable with the notion that Tabitha was raised from the dead through Peter’s ministry? Did you wonder how it is possible? How did this work? Did you find yourself trying to explain it and figure it out? Or did you find yourself trying to explain it away?
These stories indeed sound too good to be true. It might have been easier for us to accept them if it were Jesus raising Tabitha from the dead and healing Aeneas. But here we have Peter doing what Jesus did; healing the paralytic and raising the dead in the name of Jesus. Our modern mindset is to try and explain the events. We want to figure them out. How did this happen? Was she really dead? Why did these things happen in the early church and not now? We get hung up with questions that the Bible is not concerned about.
Why does Luke tell us these stories? Luke tells the stories to show us how the Holy Spirit is at work in the post-Easter church; how the life-giving ministry of Jesus continues in and through the ministry of the church. He describes these events to sanction the mission of the church.
The early church is a church in mission. They are engaged in God’s mission to the whole world. These healings happened thirteen years after the Damascus Road experience where the risen Christ appeared to Paul on the road. The church is growing and spreading. The prophetic agenda of Acts 1:8 is being fulfilled. There are churches already throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria. If we’ve read Acts from the beginning, we would have visited churches in the cities: Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), Samaria (Acts 8) and Damascus (Acts 9). Now we visit churches in the countryside. With Peter we go down to the coastal region of Joppa.
There are disciples in Lydda and Joppa, communities of believers, men and women who follow Christ. It is important that Tabitha is called a disciple. The word disciple was usually reserved for men only. But the early church crossed these cultural boundaries. In the church, women are also called disciples, Tabitha being one of them. Joppa is an interesting place. Joppa is the place where the prophet Jonah boarded the ship to Tarshish in an attempt to flee from God’s call to mission. He refused to entertain, let alone engage God’s call to bring the gospel to Nineveh. But now, Joppa becomes the place where Peter and the early church embrace God’s call to move into new territory with the gospel.
Luke first gives us a picture of the church (verse 31). We see three characteristics of the church in that time. The church grew in numbers. They were living in the fear of the Lord. And they were strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit. And then he tells us two stories about the church, its people, its ministry, and its impact on the community around them. This church is a dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit.
These two stories are important for today’s church, at a time when the church is losing its impact in the world; at a time when churches are facing serious decline, and many are dying; at a time where the church has become much more an institution rather than a movement of the Holy Spirit. We experience something very different from what churches experienced in the early years. We are not growing in numbers. The church in general is shrinking. We are at best keeping our numbers stable while the population continues to increase. The church in our time is facing huge challenges: the cultural landscape around us is changing rapidly; we are facing systemic challenges within the church; we are dealing with challenges concerning the way in which we read the Bible, the way in which we understand the church’s mission or purpose, and the ways in which are used to do church. One of the biggest challenges facing the church is what it means to be a missional church, a church that participates in God’s mission in the world.
We can learn a lot from Peter’s mission to the visit the believers in Lydda and Joppa about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Let me share six things that I have learned from these stories.
1. Missional ministry resembles the ministry of Jesus. The two stories we read this morning have parallels in the gospels; stories like the healing of the paralytic, for instance, or the time when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5), or the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7). Peter’s work looks very similar to Jesus’ work. He does what Jesus did; reaching out to people in need, bringing healing, and raising the dead to life. He does it in the way Jesus did it. At any point in either of these stories, we could replace the name Peter with Jesus and the story would be familiar and accurate – a true gospel story. What he does, what he says, and the way he does his work, resembles Jesus. This makes me wonder about us. Are we recognizable as a Jesus community? Is our ministry clearly recognizable as a Jesus ministry?
2. Missional ministry brings Jesus into the situation. Our work is to participate in the ministry of Jesus. When Peter speaks to Aeneas (verse 34), he says, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you …” Peter speaks the words, but he is only the pastor. It is Christ who heals; Christ who is present where his church does its work. We see the same thing when Peter enters the room where they have placed Tabitha’s body. He kneels and prays before he speaks. Christ is brought into the situation through prayer, through the spoken words of the apostle, and through his intentional reference to Christ. There is another indication in the text that points to this, namely the reaction of the people to the healings. Jesus Christ is at work and they got it. There is no praise of Peter or the disciples. People turn to the Lord, they believe in the Lord. Missional ministry is remarkably bold, but it never draws attention to itself. They were not marketing First church Lydda and what an exciting place it is, or Knox church Joppa where the dead is raised to life. Missional ministry is not about the church. It is not about the pastor. It is about Christ at work in people’s lives; his life-giving power bringing people to life and giving healing. Peter isn`t the healer. Jesus is. We participate in his ministry though prayer, and through Christ-centered work and service; works of ministry that point clearly to his presence.
3. Missional ministry is a ministry that finds people. In verse 33 we read that Peter found Aeneas. Find is an important gospel word. In the Gospels we frequently read how Jesus finds people and how they in turn find others and bring them to Jesus (John chapter one for instance). Peter finds Aeneas and brings the word to bear in his life. That is our calling, to find others, speak the word that heals to them, and helping them to make the connection between their lives and Christ. But how do we find people? Where do we find people? We have a hard time with this, don’t we? What makes it difficult for us to find people? One of our biggest problems is that we are not in the world enough. We can’t find people if the church, as an organization, takes up all our time and energy; if we spend most of our free time at church; and if we only or mostly mix with other church people. To find people implies that we have to be where people are; where they live, work, play, and go to school. That’s where we have to be a Christian presence. We should get anxious if the church does too much; if church activities fill our calendars; if church takes up all our evenings and weekends. Because that means we have not enough room to be Christians in the world where we’ll find people through friendship, service, play and work. Some of us spend a lot of time here, and that makes for a nice, active church. But that might actually be bad for the gospel. Think about that.
4. Missional ministry is ministry that touches people’s lives in practical ways. I love the way that Tabitha is described. She is a disciple and she always does good, helping the poor. She was loved for that. The other widows are standing around with the clothes that Tabitha has made for them. Missional ministry is practical, people oriented service.
5. The goal of missional ministry is that people would turn to the Lord. The early church grew in numbers. Luke makes a great deal out of that. Numbers count. Numbers are important because it tells a story. In this case that the church was taking god’s mission seriously, that people came to faith through their ministry and turned to the Lord. The stories describe how the news spread. People saw Aeneas and the healing that he received and they turned to the Lord. People heard about Tabitha and many believed in Christ. They did not hear and see what a nice, warm, friendly and supportive community First church Lydda was, or how dynamic the programs at Knox Joppa were. This is not about the church. It is about Christ at work in people’s lives and in his church. They saw and heard Christ proclaimed. And they turned. They believed. Something is wrong when a church is not making new converts. Something is seriously wrong when a church has very few baptisms of people who have come out of the darkness to Christ. It shows that we are not doing what we are called to do; that we are not engaging God’s mission to reconcile the world with God; that we are keeping ourselves busy with many things rather than the one thing that is required of us; that we have become too much of an institution and too little of a movement of the Spirit.
6. Missional ministry requires that the church be willing to change; to join in God’s mission; to be thoroughly evangelical; and move into new terrain. There is a little part of the story, just one line in verse 43 that reminds us of that. “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.” This is huge! And here’s the thing. As a tanner, Simon would have been considered ceremonially unclean. His work with dead animals and their skins would make him impure in the eyes of Jews and Jewish Christians. For a Jewish Christian like Peter, this would have presented a major problem. Simon is a Jew (judged by his name), but even having close contact with Simon would have been out of the question, let alone staying in his house. Peter, in this story, is crossing a boundary that existed for many years. This represents change. He transcends the ways of his church culture; the existing ways of thinking about people; old biases about certain people; old habits, rules and laws. What Peter does is radically new. This creates a new paradigm for the church. This is uncharted waters. They have not been this way before. But missional ministry require an openness to change from us. At this point, the early church was still mainly a Jewish church, but as they move into new terrain, they find new people who are not Jews, not Christians yet, not churched, not circumcised, not pure according to their standards, sinners, and others who are spiritual but not religious. This is just a first step. The Lord is preparing them for a new time ahead. Next up will be the story of Cornelius, and the vision with the blanket full of animals and reptiles that Peter is called to eat. The Lord is reaching out to the world. There will be a shift in mission to include the Gentiles too.
I believe God is preparing us to move into a new time, in new ways, and among new people. Are we willing to change and join the Lord in mission?