Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pentecost Eleven
1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Oh taste and see that Jehovah is good: Blessed is the man that taketh refuge in him.

The story is still fresh and we do not have all the facts, but a man has been charged with murder after shooting his wife in her hospital bed. The hospital has not revealed the reason she was in the hospital, but she was in critical condition. Emergency personnel had responded to a call at the home which involved advanced life support, including oxygen and a heart monitor. The man and the woman had been married for forty-five years. He is claiming it was a mercy killing. His lawyer has reported that the killing was done out of deep love.

We may never really know the motivation of his actions, or what was happening in his heart. This devotion is not meant to open discussion on the issues involving mercy killing or end of life questions. Iím not sure Iíd want to be shot in the head even if I was dying in a hotel room, but the questions Iím asking after reading todayís Old Testament lesson are not really about that particular incident but whether or not you would want to choose the way you die.

Now, weíve all seen the scene in a superhero movie. In the middle, when the villain seems to be winning and the superhero is under his control, the villain will often say, ďPick the way you will die!Ē Then he offers the superhero a number of terrible tortures meant to end the life of the superhero. Of course, the superhero always knows the weakness of every torture and can choose the easiest to escape. The villain never seems to know about those weaknesses, so he is unprepared for the superhero to win. The superhero does not die, but gets out, catches the villain and justice is served. In the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

Would you want to choose the way you die? The choice leads to escape in the superhero movie, but we all know that one day we will have to die. Would you want to choose between being shot in the head or dying naturally from the disease that had the woman in the hospital? Would you want to choose between being boiled in hot oil or dropped into a pit of slimy snakes? Would you want to choose between being hit by a bus or being shot during a robbery at a convenience store? Yes, this is a morbid question, but it is one that Elijah seems to be asking.

See, Elijah had just done a miraculous thing, or should I say that God did a miraculous thing through Elijah. The people of Israel, including King Ahab, were worshipping the Baals. Elijah called together the prophets and the people. He asked them how long they would worship both God and the Baals. We tend to worship every god just in case, but we canít. We have to choose between God and everything else.

Elijah suggested that they hold a competition between God and the Baals. They had four hundred and fifty prophets, but Elijah was alone. Surely so many prophets could make a miracle happen, right? When the prophets of Baal sacrificed a bull and called on their gods, there was no response. Elijah prepared the bull as usual, and placed it on an altar that the people repaired. Then he surrounded the altar with wood, but covered the wood with water. He covered the wood with more water. He made it impossible to burn. When Elijah prayed to God, fire fell upon the altar and not only set it ablaze, but it burned everything from the bull to the wood to the rocks and soil and every drop of water. With this, the people knew which God was real.

After the fire, Elijah commanded the people to capture the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and kill them. This particular act upset Jezebel, Ahabís wife. She threatened to kill Elijah just as he had killed her prophets. He was frightened and ran away. Despite the positive response from the people, Elijah knew that their hearts were fickle. They might believe that the LORD is God, but how long would it last, particularly if Jezebel succeeded? Despite the failure of the prophets of Baal, it would not be long before they people were turning away from God. Elijah thought he failed. He thought he was no better than all the other prophets of God. He just wanted to die.

Now, he didnít want to die at the hand of Jezebel. That would have been a horrible death. She surely would have found some way to make it a painful and tortuous experience. She wanted revenge for her prophets. She wanted him to suffer. Elijah knew that God would be merciful. He knew that death at the hand of God would be just and right. He could die in peace.

Elijah was afraid. He might have had very good reason to be afraid, but his fear affected his judgment. He ran away, wishing for God to end his life (take his life-breath) so that he would not die at the hand of Jezebel. He let his feelings take over and he stopped trusting in Godís protection and provision. He wanted to choose his death. He went to the desert to die. But God would not let him die. God fed him, and sent him on a journey that would remind him about Godís goodness. At the end of the journey, Elijah would be ready to face the rest of the work God had for him to do.

It is the age old problem of human beings: we want control. We want to decide what is right and true and good. We want to follow our desires. As Paul writes, we want to use our brain power, but our brains are not always faithful. Paul calls them futile or vain. We are, surely, self-centered. If we were able to choose the way we would die, would we not try to choose the way that would be quick and easy and without pain? Like the superhero, we would probably try to find the way that has an escape. Or like Elijah, weíd seek Godís hand rather than that of our enemy.

We may want to be in control, but we arenít very good at controlling things. You might be strong enough to avoid chocolate, but I have to admit that it is a weakness for me. Others have trouble controlling their need for coffee. Yet others canít stop playing video games. Yet others desperately need to be loved or need the approval of their friends.

We all have something that we know we should avoid but we think we can keep it under control. We click that button or eat that potato chip certain that this time we can stop before we go overboard. But as soon as we open the door, we find ourselves lost in the very things we vow to avoid. In the end, weíve probably not hurt anyone by wasting our time or eating a few too many chips, but we have succumbed to temptation and next time it will be harder to resist.

Thatís what happened with Godís people throughout history with the false gods of their neighbors. It doesnít seem harmful to allow someone to believe in a different god. I know many people who find comfort in the worship practices of different religions. There are those who do not believe in some aspects of Christian faith but love others. They like certain things about other faiths and choose to include them in their faith life. They pick and choose what they like and find comfort and peace in their choices. Their faith turns out a bit eclectic, but who are they hurting?

The trouble is this: you canít worship God and the Baals, or whatever name you have attached to your gods. You canít reject the hard parts of Christianity and still be a follower of Christ. You may have faith. You may be a good person. But like those Israelites who wanted the best of both worlds, you arenít being faithful to God.

There are parts of the Christian faith that are hard. In the series of passages that we are studying these weeks of Pentecost, Jesus claims to be the bread of life or the bread that gives life. He does not give them this word without also establishing His credentials with His miraculous signs and wonders, yet, they murmured against Him. They were not really even bothered by His claim to be the bread of life. They had trouble with the fact that He said He came down from heaven. They knew Him. They knew His mother and father. He was born just like everyone else. How could He claim to have come down from heaven? Their stories tell of beings that came from heaven, but they werenít born, they just appeared. If the Messiah was to be some Ďother worldlyí being, then Jesus canít be it. Heís the boy next door and to claim otherwise is blasphemy.

Then Jesus gave them the most shocking revelation of all. ďEat my flesh and you will live forever.Ē Weíll have to wait until next week to see their reaction, but we can already see where Jesus is going with this. They say hindsight is twenty-twenty vision and we live on this side of the cross. We know that Jesus offered His body for our sake and that in partaking of Him weíll have eternal life. We also know that Jesus has given us a remembrance of that reality in the Eucharist. Each time we gather around the table we eat the body of Christ and drink His blood. This is a very hard part of Christianity. The world thinks we are cannibals. They call the practice disgusting.

We Christians have many different understandings for what this means. Some believe that the bread and wine become actual flesh and blood. Others believe that it is simply symbolic. The Lutheran understanding is that Christ is in, with and under the elements substantially so that we are both partaking of the bread and wine as well as the body and blood. They elements arenít changed, but Christ becomes a part of them. It is no wonder the world doesnít understand, and why we try to talk our way around our faith. It is strange and confusing.

And it is no wonder that the people were shocked when Jesus said that He is the bread they should eat. They wanted God to fit their understanding and they wanted the Messiah to be their earthly king. We can try to come up with some understanding of God on our own, or follow the teachings of some great leader, but we canít see God unless He reveals Himself to us. We see Him in Jesus; we see God through the words that Jesus spoke, the miracles He did and the gifts He gave. Jesus knew it was not enough for us to have just the words to experience Him, so He gave us ways in which we could hold, touch, see, smell and taste the living bread from heaven. Today's Gospel ends in the promise of the Eucharist, the means of grace by which we can partake of the living bread from heaven.

Sometimes people do not want to experience God or do what He calls them to do. Elijah had just done a most incredible thing. Through Him God revealed His power and defeated the prophets of Baal. Jezebel threatened revenge and Elijah was tired of it all. He ran away and asked God to let him die. But God did not give Elijah what he wanted; He fed Elijah and then sent Him on a journey. He was about to reveal Himself more fully to Elijah the prophet, so that he would have the strength to continue Godís work in this world. He also reveals Himself to us in the Eucharist and gives us the strength to continue to do His work in the world.

We see things as we wish to see them. In todayís Gospel lesson, they saw Jesus as the carpenterís son, not as the Son of God. They were offended by His presumption of heavenly birth. It didnít fit into their understanding of the world or of faith. How often do we approach faith from the same perspective? We want it to fit into our understanding of the world and we reject the ways God has revealed Himself to us. But Paul reminds us to not give place to the devil. See, the devil wants us to put God in our own little boxes so that we lose touch with the reality of His power. We rely on our strength, which is weakness, and we ignore God because we often think Heís weak. After all, what god would choose to die? But our God did die; Jesus willingly went to the cross and sacrificed His own life for our sake. The world might think that is weakness, but Godís weaknesses are greater than any human strength.

Paul writes, ďBe ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell.Ē We are called to become more than just a copy, but to be part of the kingdom of God that has extended over time and space. God is in, with and under each of us, just as He is in, with and under the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Just as the bread and wine are more than symbols, we are more than reflections. Our relationship with God is not some disconnected affiliation, but we become part of the very body of Christ through faith.

Paul encourages us to share the bread of heaven by living as God would have us live, free from falsehood and anger, gaining good things in a right way and speaking encouraging words. We are to rid ourselves of negative feelings that grow into unhealthy action. We are to let go of the control, to trust in God and follow only Him. Paul writes, ďLet all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and railing, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you.Ē

We fail. We see God as we want to see Him, not as He is. But Jesus tells us, ďI am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: yea and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.Ē We might want to have the control, to be able to decide things which are not ours to decide. We might want to relieve the pain of a loved one or find the escape hatch. But life with Christ is about faith; it is about believing in the One God sent. We will fail because we only see the world through our own eyes and experiences and biases. But as see God as He reveals Himself to us, we recognize that our salvation and the blessings of journeying on the path God has chosen for us. It is there weíll find true life and peace.

The introduction to todayís psalm describes it as ďOf David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.Ē Scholars suggest that this refers to the story found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. In this story, David was being pursued by Saul, so he ran to the king of Gath. When the king realized that this was David, the one who was ten times greater than Saul, he became concerned about his own safety and that of his nation. He knew that David was extremely popular among the Israelites. David saw that he was in a dangerous situation so he pretended to be insane. The king of Gath was annoyed that his servants would bring him a madman and he sent David away.

Now, it might seem as though David is making a choice to do what he thinks is best in a difficult situation, but in the Psalm David gives all glory and honor to God. In many ways David is just like us, too. He failed at times, sinned against God and man. But David kept His eyes on His God.

I donít know what I would do if I were in the same situation as the man in Ohio, though I doubt I would take a gun into the hospital and kill my loved one, no matter how much I felt her pain. And I donít know how I would answer the question if someone ever asked how I wanted to die. I donít have an answer. I do hope that if I am ever in a life and death situation that I can keep my eyes on God, trust in Him to save me whether the answer is life in this world or my time to enter into the next. I hope I will never try to take control of the things that only God can faithfully accomplish.

By faith we are made part of a Kingdom that is not limited to this world, but it is a kingdom that demands our faithfulness. Will we put God first, sacrificing the old ways for the new? Will we trust that even when the things of God seem so complicated, that God is forever faithful? And will we reject the ways the world tries to make our faith more palatable? Will you partake of the Living Bread from Heaven and join me in the meal that feeds so much more than our bellies? Taste and see. Though it seems so strange, Jesus has invited us to receive His flesh and blood so that we will be a part of His body; it is there we truly find refuge. Taste and see that the LORD is good.

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