Friday, 19 January 2007

The silence of God

1 Kings 19:1-18

There are many times when it seems that God goes silent on us, when it seems that God has abandoned us. There is silence when we pick up the bible and get absolutely nothing out of it, or we come to communion and it is a sheer ritual that we are going through, or we pray and it seems we are talking to a blank wall. There can be silence when we struggle with why our partner has cancer or our child has been born with cystic fibrosis or why we have destructive desires or impulses that we simply do not seem to be able to control. There can be silence when we ask God why we have flogged our guts out and nothing has happened. There can be silence when we ask, why am I so desperately alone?

In our reading today, Elijah encounters the silence of God.

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah has had a mountain top experience. God met with him on Mt Carmel in the most astonishing way. God came in the fire that fell on the sacrifice. The people had declared for the LORD. God certainly was not silent.

But in our reading today, 1 Kings 19, it is very different

Despite 1 Kings 18, nothing seems to have changed. The people, despite their declaration, are still worshiping false gods. Jezebel, the queen, still wants him dead.

And Elijah is crushed. He is crushed by exhaustion, discouragement, loneliness and his own sense of failure. He runs away. He goes into the wilderness. He gets rid of his servant. He sits down and he prays: “I’ve had enough Lord. Take my life”. Basically, Elijah is resigning – not just from the job, but from life.

And notice how very gracious God is to him

God provides for him: sleep, water and freshly baked bread. And God does not provide for him once, but twice. Once it seems to restore him; the second time to prepare him. Someone who is exhausted is not really going to be able to hear God very easily

God moves him on. In fact God takes him to Mount Horeb – the beginning of the Israelite nation as a nation. The place where God called Moses; the place where God gave his people the law and his word. God takes him back to the roots of his people (on the retreat ..)

God meets with him

But this meeting is very different to previous meetings.

In v9 God finds Elijah spending the night in a cave.

He asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah tells him: “I’ve been faithful and hard working. But it is pointless. Nothing has changed. The Israelites have rejected you. I’m the only one left, and they want to kill me”

So God tells Elijah to go out onto the mountain to meet with him: “Stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by”. But it seems that Elijah doesn’t go. He stays in his cave. He’s become a teenager
So because Elijah won’t come to God, God goes to Elijah.

There is a great and powerful wind, there is an earthquake, there is fire (I don’t know how – it might have been an earthquake and electrical storm).

But the bible tells us that God does not meet Elijah in the wind, earthquake or fire.

The writer says (vv11-12) “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.”

Instead, God meets with him in the ‘gentle whisper’; or in what the NRSV translates as ‘sheer silence’. And from what I have read I think this is a more accurate translation.

It is a theme that is taken up by many of the first Christian preachers and writers:

Yes, of course God meets us in the dramatic
· When God met Moses on Mount Horeb, there was wind, an earthquake and fire
· When the Holy Spirit came on the disciples, there was wind and fire.
· When Jesus returns we are told that there will be earthquakes and fire

And many of us will have met with God in the dramatic: in the miraculous, in the astonishing answer to prayer; in the way a bible passage has leapt out at us; in his guiding; in the overwhelming experience.

But on this occasion, God does not meet Elijah in the powerful or dramatic.

He meets him in the silence. He meets him in the cave.
Elijah becomes aware that just as God is not in the sound and the fury on this occasion, God is in the silence.

Perhaps I should emphasize that differently, God is – in the silence.

And when it seems to us that God has gone AWOL, we do need to hold on by faith, if not by experience, to the fact that God is with us, even in the silence.

Elijah crops up in the New Testament. Some people thought that John the Baptist was Elijah come back to life. John the Baptist makes it pretty clear that he is not. There are certainly many parallels. Both were pretty wild people. Both called people back to God. Both were on the hit list of queens. Jezebel wanted Elijah dead, and Herodias wanted John the Baptist dead. Both seem to encounter doubt. Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and John the Baptist when he is in prison. And both pointed forward to the same person: Jesus.

But Elijah crops up as a living person in the NT. When Jesus is transfigured, he is seen talking on a mountain with two people: Moses and Elijah. And they are talking together about the death of Jesus.

And in his death, Jesus encounters the silence of God. He cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me’. But unlike Elijah, Jesus encounters not the apparent silence of God, but the actual silence of God.

‘Not many people have done that’. In fact, Jesus is the only person on earth who has experienced that. To encounter the actual silence of God is quite literally about total separation from God; it is about hell. He is the only person, this side of death, who has done that.

And because Jesus has experienced the actual silence of God, no other person need ever experience it: this side or the other side of death. God has promised that he will never be absent from the person who seeks him. The good news is that Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. He is with us when it is all going so well, but he is also still with us in the silence, in the seeming absence.

This really is the Job experience. We have been screaming at God, protesting our innocence, demanding he meet with us, asking him why we have to go through what we go through. I do hope that you struggle and fight and wrestle with God – because that shows that knowing him really matters to you.

And I know that God makes himself known to us in His word, but this is slightly different: this is about God making Himself known to us in our experience.

That is the point at which Job shuts up.
It is also the point at which Elijah shuts up: “When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave”

And now, Elijah is ready again to say yes to his calling, to hear God’s word, to be given a new task and to obey.

And it is when we realise that God is with us even in our pit, despair, frustration, sense of powerlessness, our loneliness, failure; it is when we begin to be aware that God is with us even when he seems silent, that we too are released to move on, to serve again and to live again.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

The decision

1 Kings 18:20-39

This is a familiar passage and a great story. Elijah and the prophets of Baal

Elijah calls on the people to decide: are they going to follow the LORD or Baal?
The question they have to answer is who is going to be in the centre of their lives: as a nation and as individuals?

One of the interesting things about the passage is the use of the word 'dance', 'waver' (v21, 26): it is the same Hebrew word. The people waver or dance about which God they will serve. The prophets of Baal waver or dance round Baal. One day they serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The next, they serve Baal.

It is so human.

We are very frightened of commitment - because commitment restricts us. We are frightened of it at the level of relationships (it is the single major reason why so many couples live together without getting married); at work (this week Walter Smith walked out on his contract to manage Scotland to go back to Rangers. The man being interviewed said: 'Everybody else does it. Why shouldn't he?' That is what everyone does, but Psalm 15 says blessed are those who 'keep their oaths even when it hurts'). And we are frightened of commitment at the spiritual level: we are much happier with a smorgasbord of gods or spirituality, when we can pick from this one or that one.

And for the Israelites it seems to have been no different. They worship Baal when it is convenient to worship Baal and they worship the LORD when it is convenient to worship the LORD. And so when Elijah challenges them: 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him', they are silent.

But the time has come when they cannot sit on the fence any longer. They must make a decision.

And this is profoundly political. It is a battle for the heart of Israel. Who is going to be at its spiritual centre of Israel: Elijah, the prophet of the LORD, or the 450 prophets of Baal? And notice how Ahab, the king, stands on almost as a helpless observer.

Elijah is telling the people that they have to make a decision. Is the LORD going to be your God, or are you going to serve some other god? Choose. It is decision time.

But Elijah doesn't just simply ask people to make a decision. He gives them some pretty strong reasons for choosing the LORRD.

1. He demonstrates that god's that are no gods are powerless.

False gods cannot deliver the goods. They usually cannot even deliver what they claim they can deliver. Fire was meant to be one of Baal's specialities.

Elijah mocks Baal. V27: 'Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy or travelling. Maybe he is asleep and must be awakened'.

And if we turn something that is not God into a god, then it will not deliver. If we make a god out of our career or our children or our home or our family or another person or a hobby or interest or even our church, and if we live for that god, and think that it can deliver us fulfilment and uniqueness and freedom and significance and peace and happiness and eternal life, we are sadly mistaken.

I am not saying that those things are not important; and I am not saying that it is wrong to love our family or to serve our church or even to be ambitious (it really depends what we are ambitious for). What I am saying is that if we put those things in the centre of our lives: if we allow them to control how we think and behave - then we are going to be let down.

2. Through this incident Elijah shows that when we put false gods in the centre of our lives, they destroy us.

The problem is that if our self-made god does not come up with the goods - basically whatever it was that made us serve it in the first place - then we often think the problem is us. We worship the career because we think that it will get us the big house we’ve always wanted; but when it doesn’t come, we think that we are the problem. So we work harder and make bigger sacrifices. We never question whether our god is a true god.

And it really is true that if you or I do put money or ambition or status or career or politics or whatever at the centre of our lives it will eventually destroy us

Look at the prophets of Baal who end up cutting themselves.
Look at the person whose devotion to their career ends up destroying their relationships, or giving them a heart attack.
Look at the person whose love of money means they trample over others and end up isolated, broken and alone.
Look at the person who has been devoted to partying and who ends up pathetic, screwed up, sad and lost.
Look at the person who has lived for their partner or children and they find themselves trapped.
Look at the person who wants everything to be controlled and life will simply not play ball.

And even if our false gods do not destroy us in this life, they strip us of real life, and when it is our turn to die, they cannot handle it.

We are talking about the need for balance. It is a big in-phrase. When I put 'work life balance' into google, I got 78,200,000 results

We need to live balanced lives, and anything that becomes a god for us will over-balance us, unless it is actually in the centre. I can only live a balanced life if I know what is at the centre.

And Elijah's challenge, and the claim of Christianity is that I can only begin to live a balanced life if I am prepared to put the true God, the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the centre.

3. Elijah demonstrates that the God of Israel is the God who produces the goods

We need to be careful about how we interpret this.

Elijah demonstrated God's power, and the people responded.

But Jesus refused to demonstrate God's power in order to make people believe: in Matthew 12 he was asked to perform a sign. He says, 'A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it ..'

And for us, this is a norm. We should not expect God to do great acts of power in order to make people believe.

At the heart of the Old Testament is an external law. It is about a religion from outside: you obeyed the laws of Israel because you were an Israelite or a servant of Israel, and if you didn't you faced legal sanction. That is why the 450 prophets of Baal have to be put to the death.

But the New Testament is about obedience to the law that God puts in our heart. It is not about the imposition of laws from outside. The only authentic sanction that the church has is to cut someone off from fellowship.

The New Testament, covenant of God, requires us to make a personal free decision to receive Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

I am not saying that God does not continue to do great acts of power. In Acts 8:6 we are told that "When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said". What I am saying is that God, in New Testament times, does not bring people into his kingdom by outward compulsion, but by inward compulsion.

However, the God of the New Testament still produces the goods. When a person comes to him, when a person puts him in the centre, it does not mean that life will go well, or that they will be spared from doubt or tragedy. But God does promise that he will always be with us; that he can work good in every situation; that his Holy Spirit will comfort us and guide us; that we are part of his people with a new identity and a new destiny; that death is not the end.

And in Matthew 12 Jesus doesn't actually say, 'None will be given it'. He says, 'None will be given it .. except the sign of the prophet Jonah'. And he goes on to explain that it will be his death and resurrection that will be the sign: the great working of God that will prove that he is who he claims to be.

So Elijah demonstrates
1. False gods are powerless
2. False gods destroy us
3. The Living God produces the goods

And he calls on the people to decide.
He brings them to the point of crisis
Who will you follow?

And for us, this passage is a call to decision.

Who will we put in the centre of our lives?

The living God or our false gods?
gods of shopping or drink or sex to give us comfort or power.
the god of adventure holiday to give me excitement
god of spirituality to give me peace
gods of astrology or the opinion page or the website to give me guidance.
gods of achievement to give me success
gods of business to give me money
gods of conformity or celebrity to give me status

On one occasion Jesus tells his followers that he has to suffer and die. Peter says to Jesus: 'No Lord, that will not happen to you'. And Jesus says to Peter: 'Get behind me Satan. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but human concerns'.

Peter is tempting Jesus to worship the god of self: to give in to his fear, not to do what God is calling him to do. But Jesus says, "No. The one who is at my centre is my God and Father. And I will be obedient to him, even if it means I suffer and die".

And for us, we have to choose. We can follow the example of Peter, and seek 'merely human concerns'; or we can put the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who gives life to the dead, at the centre of our lives.

Evangelists love to get people to make decisions. The writer to the Hebrews implores his listeners, 'Today is the day of salvation'. And decisions are important. Because when we make that decision to put Jesus Christ in the centre of our lives, we give ourselves a reference point by which we can measure ourselves. So if we waver and find that, having said that we would serve him, we discover that we are still serving other gods, we can turn again to him and receive his forgiveness and strength.

So the message and the challenge of today's reading is simple: Who or what is at the centre of your life? Because this is the time to put Jesus Christ there, to put his word there, to put his love and his mercy and his forgiveness, and his power. Today is the day to stop messing around with God, to repent of the pride and arrogance that presume to choose which god you will serve when and how, and let him - the living God - be your God.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Open to God

1 Kings 17

Sometimes people are wounded and it closes them up. At other times, it opens them up.

Today we are looking at a wounded person who is one of the heroes of the faith.
She is mentioned by Jesus.
And yet, what is surprising is that she was not a Jew; she did not live in Israel; and we do not even know her name.

She is known as the widow of Zarephath.
She had lost her husband, she was living in a time of drought and famine, and she had a child to look after.

And yet, despite what she was going through,
1. She receives a stranger, a foreigner in her land
2. She receives the word of God

Elijah, who is one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, is sent by God to her.
He asks her for a drink: 'Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink'. In a land of drought, where water was more precious than gold, that was a big request. But she gives him a drink.

And then Elijah asks her for some food. 'Sir', she says, 'I don't have any bread. I am about to prepare for my child and myself what is quite literally going to be our last supper'. And then Elijah asks her to do something quite remarkable: to share her last supper with him, and to trust the God of Israel (notice, this is not in Israel, and she is not an Israelite - she is being asked to trust what to her is a foreign God) to provide for her (v14).

And amazingly she does it.
She receives Elijah
And she receives the word that God spoke through Elijah.

We don't know her motives. Maybe she thought, 'I've got nothing to lose'. Maybe she thought, 'He might be able to do something'. But as an act of faith, she gives everything that she has (which is nothing) for a word that promises her life.

And Jesus in the New Testament commends her. In Luke 4 he chides the people of Nazareth. He reminds them that God had to send Elijah to a foreigner, to a non-Jew, to the widow of Zarephath because she was willing to receive him, whereas his own people were not.

I do not know what you are going through. Maybe you are wounded. Maybe for you this is a time of drought. For many in our world this really is a time of literal drought. For us in the West this is a time of spiritual drought (not least because we care so little about people suffering literal drought and famine). Maybe you have run out of resources.

The challenge for us at the beginning of this year is the challenge to be like this woman.
to be open to others
to be open to the word of God.

There really is a connection. It is very easy to close up, particularly when we hurt. We surround ourselves with familiar people, familiar places, familiar patterns, familiar ways of doing things - because we think that it is safe. We close ourselves to others, and to the needs of others. The other and their need is always perceived as a threat to our well-being. Foreign migrants or asylum seekers are nearly always perceived as a threat - even despite all the evidence that their net benefit to our society is positive. And it is OK to mention the needs of the people of Darfur or of Tanzania, so long as it does not get too personal, and we can choose to turn off the television when what we see might actually threaten our lifestyle.

And when we close up to others, we close up to God. John writes, "How can you say that you love God when you do not love your brother or sister?" And we settle for old patterns and habits and routines in prayer, in our relationship with God - because it is safe. We settle for familiar ways of thinking and behaving and giving and acting

And we need to allow God to open us up. And there are times when God will have to shatter us, in order to break us open. And there are times when he will use our wounds to open us up, to move us on.

He does it because he loves us. He has a project, which is to make us nothing less than like Jesus Christ in his divinity. Paul writes, "I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead" (Philippians 3:10)

And for us, the challenge is to open up - to open up to others: to invite them into our lives and - literally - our homes; and to open up to the word of God.

The widow of Zarephath had to wait for a prophet to come along before she could hear God's word. We don't. We can open the bible. We can spend time with God, seeking him. I would encourage people to come on the retreat: it is about making time to do with business with God.

Alison tells of when she was a child, playing monopoly with the family of a school friend. And the dad, when it was his turn and he wanted to do a deal, used to ask each of the other players in turn, "Can I do business with you?" That is what this is about: God is asking, "Can I do business with you?"

For the widow of Zarephath, it was a call to give everything and to open her home to Elijah. For you it may be a call to hospitality, or to significantly increased giving, or a new commitment, or to publicly declaring your faith, or to put aside time daily to pray and read the bible, or to move, or to actually getting involved in our Tanzania project, or to give up something that we are clinging to because it gives us identity, or to take on a new job or role or act of service.

Three final things:

1. Because the widow of Zarephath received Elijah and took him at his word, what she thought was going to be her last supper became the first supper of her new life. God provided for her in an astonishing way. And when we do trust God, he does provide for us - he provides what we need

2. Not everything goes smoothly. Even though Elijah is living in her house, the worst possible thing happens. Her son gets sick and dies. And even though God was going to raise her son from the dead, she didn't know that. I think only the parents of a child who is dying will know the sort of pain that she must have gone through. But again, when we trust God, it does not mean that life will go smoothly, that we will not experience desperate tragedy. Indeed sometimes it seems to me that God calls people to know him, in order to prepare them to go through what they will have to face in the future.

3. Through the death and resurrection of her son, she encounters God directly. You see up to this point she has been living by faith in Elijah's God. She has had nothing to lose, so she might as well trust him. Now she says, "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth" (v24)

God's purpose for us is that we will come to share that assurance. It is when the certainty of our hope reinforces our faith. For some it will be through a remarkable miracle, as it was for this woman. For some it will be an act of God's mercy, when he touches us directly. For some, it will be a growing conviction. For some, it may never come this side of heaven, and we will always struggle between faith and doubt.

God's purpose and intention is that we will know his assurance. It will happen, but he will do it in his time and in his way.

And, in the meantime, we are called to be like this widow:
to receive others
to receive the word of God and obey it