Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-8
Oh magnify Yahweh with me. Let us exalt his name together.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whether this is true or not, we have a tendency of imitating the world around us. People are often seen wearing clothes that imitate their favorite singers, actors or sports stars. They imitate their role models, buying the vehicles, homes and material goods they see the rich and famous collecting. Advertisers rely on our tendency toward imitation to sell their products. This is why they get famous people to do commercials. If you like the star, you’ll buy the products they use.
Unfortunately, social media has made imitation a game for many young people. They see a new “challenge” and they take it up. The latest appears to be the hot water challenge, where youth pour boiling water over their bodies. You don’t have to think hard to imagine the impact that game will have on their lives. Previous challenges were equally dangerous. It isn’t a new phenomenon, really. Kids have long been imitating the stunts they see in movies. These stunts don’t end well for those who are not trained daredevils. Even worse, modern day technology makes some stunts using computers rather than people. They are completely impossible for real people, but the clips make it look fun. If my favorite actor can do that, why can’t I?
The cost of imitating people can be expensive. Even if you are able to find manufacturers that produce decent knock-offs, the clothing can still cost more than too much money. Chasing after an image that is beyond your means can change your attitude and cause you to do things that go against your better judgment. A person who wants the hot new sports car will work long hours at a job they hate while overlooking their vocation as a spouse and parent, friend and neighbor. Some will do anything necessary to get what they want, even if it is illegal. They will lie, cheat and steal, perhaps even murder. If they don’t get their way, they become bitter and angry; turning their wrath on whomever is in their path. We don't even realize we are being imitators sometimes, but we are. We just have to recognize who it is we are imitating.
The Church keeps a list of people whose lives might be more worthy of imitating. There are feast days for saints and commemorations for others who have lived godly lives. On any given day of the year, you can read about the lives of men and women who sacrificed their lives in one way or another for the sake of God and God’s people. These Christians come from every time and place, and we learn from their stories attributes and virtues that are worthy to embrace.
Take, for instance, Florence Nightingale. Florence’s life is commemorated on August 13th; she is remembered for her work reforming health care and hospitals in England. She was born in Florence, Italy in 1820 to an English couple who traveled extensively. Though she was expected to marry well, she had a different goal in mind. She was just seventeen years old, in the gardens at her home in Hampshire when she heard the voice of God calling her to do His work. She didn’t understand it immediately, but she became interested in the issues of her day. She began to spend time with the sick. She was well educated, but her family refused to allow her to pursue nursing because it was considered beneath her station in the world. She became a nurse anyway. She was placed in good positions, including the job of overseeing the first female nurses in military hospitals in Turkey.
She had a positive impact on the military hospitals. After the Crimean War, she continued to work toward creating better health care standards in the British Army. The British people were grateful to her for all her work and established a fund that would enable her to continue. With that money, she built a training school for nurses, which raised the level of professionalism in that career field. Florence believed that poor health had something to do with cleanliness and she advocated the modern practice of regularly washing hands.
Most of us don’t even realize that we are imitating someone when we wash our hands after we have gone to the bathroom. We remember our mothers and fathers constantly reminding us to do so when we were young and now it is a habit. We don’t think about the fact that Florence Nightingale promoted this habit of good hygiene as she followed her calling from God.
Florence Nightingale had a positive impact on many aspects of the health care system. It was because of her faith that she was able to do these things. She recognized from the beginning that she received her gifts from God for a purpose, one she carried out despite the displeasure of her family. We honor Florence Nightingale for her work, and as we look at the scriptures for this week we can see a call to action. Despite his fear and sense of failure, Elijah ate and went to the mountain of God, being obedient to God’s command even though he wanted to die. David’s song is reminiscent of a time when he managed to escape the hands of his enemy by his shrewd actions. Paul talks of the life we are called to live, the life in which we imitate God.
The life of a prophet is not easy; Elijah’s life was no exception. He had to do hard things. He had to face evil and destroy it. He had to go against the rulers of the day, to speak God’s truth to a time when the people were following false gods and accepting false religion. The people of Israel, including King Ahab, were worshipping Baal. They tried to cover all their bases, so they worshipped both God and Baal. Elijah called together the prophets and the people. He asked them how long they would divide their loyalties. See, we can't worship both God and the false gods. We have to choose.
Elijah suggested that they hold a competition. There were four hundred and fifty prophets for the false gods and Elijah was the only one for the One true God. Surely so many prophets could make a miracle happen, right? The prophets of Baal made their sacrifice first, but when they called on their gods there was no response. Elijah prepared his bull, placed it on the altar, and surrounded the altar with wood, as expected. He then covered the wood with so much water that it would be impossible to burn. He called on God who sent a fire from heaven that not only roasted the bull, but burned everything from the wood to the rocks and soil and every drop of water. When the prophets of Baal sacrificed a bull and called on their gods, there was no response. It was obvious to the people which God was real.
It wasn’t so obvious to Jezebel, Ahab’s wife. Well, it probably was, but it didn’t matter to her. She was willing to follow false gods because it suited her. Those prophets served her needs and desires, while Elijah did not. To her, the one speaking the truth was wrong because he wasn’t willing to cater to her. She became extremely angry with Elijah because after the competition, Elijah ordered the people to kill the false prophets. This caused Jezebel to threaten Elijah. He ran away in fear.
Elijah was running from persecution. “Oh, woe is me,” was his attitude. Despite the positive response from the people, Elijah knew 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 the people were turning away from God again. Elijah thought he failed. He thought he was no better than all the other prophets of God. He just wanted to die. He had just proven that God is the One true God, but Jezebel had threatened to kill him. He felt like a failure, like nothing he had done as a prophet was worth anything. Elijah whined, “O Yahweh, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” He would much rather have God take him home than face continued failure. And he certainly did not want his enemy to succeed. How much better for him to perish alone in the wilderness than to be killed by an evil woman!
God refused Elijah’s request and pushed him to go further. His work was not done and though he thought he was a failure, God did not. God the work He has calling us to do and He can use even the most impossible circumstances to make it happen. Just when we think there is no hope, God grants us His grace and points us in the direction we are to go. He did not allow Elijah to go on without giving him the strength to continue. He fed Elijah, not once but twice, with enough food to sustain him through his journey. This was not the end of anything, it was just the beginning. God did not send Elijah immediately back into the battle. He gave Elijah the strength to go forward, a chance to reflect and then a life changing experience to encourage him in his purpose. After this experience, Elijah was no less in danger, but he was fortified for the task. Then Elijah heard the words we all dread. “Go back. There’s still work to be done.”
It is likely that today’s Psalm was David’s response to the story found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. 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.
David was a cunning man who from a bad situation, but David sees the experience much differently. In the verses of today’s psalm, David took no credit for the escape. He praised God for His saving answer to his prayers. David sang about what God did for him and what He will do for those who fear Him. When we call out to the Lord God, He will answer. He will deliver us from our fears and save us from our troubles. David’s encounter with the king of Gaul kept him out of Saul’s hands and then his quick thinking kept him out of danger in another enemy’s house.
David invites us to praise God with him. “Oh magnify Yahweh with me. Let us exalt his name together.” David then gives reason why the Lord should be praised: He hears the prayers of His people and He answers them. In this psalm David calls us to a life of praise and worship of God in all our circumstances. “They looked to him, and were radiant. Their faces shall never be covered with shame.” When we worship the Lord together we stand in His presence and His glory shines on us. We have no reason to be ashamed, particularly in the presence of our enemies, because God is with us. He hears our cries and answers.
The final verse in this passage uses language of food to call the people into this life of praise. “Oh taste and see that Yahweh is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” This brings us into the language that we are hearing in our Gospel texts for the next few weeks: Jesus is the bread of life. While we are not being called into a cannibalistic relationship with God, Jesus tells us He is the bread of life and that we are to eat the true bread from heaven.
Our faith does not stand on pretty and popular things. It stands on the truth of God which is hard for us to accept. The idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ is, quite frankly, not very pleasant to consider. The world does not want to experience God as He has revealed Himself; they would rather experience a god of their choosing. That’s why we so easily turn to the false gods and believe the false prophets. God did not give Elijah what he wanted; He fed Elijah and then sent Him on a journey. He sent Elijah to a place where He revealed Himself more fully and through that encounter Elijah had the strength to continue. He does the same for us in the Eucharist and gives us the strength to continue to do His work in the world. It is to this meal that we should run when we are feeling frightened and frustrated, when we think we have failed, when we simply want to die. It is through the body and blood of Christ that God helps us to be faithful to our calling. This is too hard for the world to accept. God assures us of His faithfulness, that He will do what He has promised He will do, and we can know this each time we eat of the bread and drink from the cup that is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this strength we can live as God wants us to live.
That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle lesson. The world gives us every reason to imitate people, but Paul gives us a better way. “Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children.” We might want to imitate the popular star or the sports hero, but following after the ways of an imperfect human being is likely to lead us down a path which would be better to avoid. Human beings are imperfect and even the best fall under the pressure of being a role model. Eventually we see that imperfection are disappointed.
Jesus was not accepted by everyone who heard Him speak. The people in today’s Gospel lesson were very familiar with Jesus; they knew Mary and Joseph. They knew Jesus when He was just a baby. They knew all the embarrassing stories that parents love to tell about their children. They knew about the day Jesus first walked and talked. They knew about the day Jesus got lost. They had seen Him grow up. They knew Him just as we know our neighbor’s children.
While we have high hopes for our kids, it is hard to imagine them really growing up to be famous, rich or powerful. I think my children are brilliant, but will they ever become household names? What about the people you knew in school? Did the class clown become a famous comedian? What about the shy girl in the corner? What has become of her? Is there anyone from your past who has exceeded your expectations? I might say things just like those in the crowd around Jesus. “Isn’t that so and so’s son? I thought he was following his father’s career path.”
Jesus was making claims well above His station in life, anybody’s station in life. He was really going over the top with His claims in this text. “I have come down from heaven” is not what we would expect to hear from the youngster we bounced on our knee when He was just a baby. They knew from whence Jesus came; He was born of Mary and Joseph the normal way. Beings that come down from heaven aren’t born, they just show up. In the Old Testament appearances of angels or “sons of God,” the beings were never babies. They just appeared. So, who is this Jesus claiming to have “come down from heaven?”
It was radical that Jesus was referring to Himself as the bread of life and telling the crowd that they would have to eat this bread to have life. They might have believed Him if Jesus had just appeared out of nowhere, but this Jesus was the boy next door, the son of Joseph and Mary. They could not accept the words He was speaking because they knew Him too well. They could not believe He was the bread of life because they knew from whence He had come. How can a mere man born of human parents be the source of true life?
Jesus says, “No man can come to me...” It is easier to hear Paul tells us that we should speak rightly and let go of our grumbling against one another than to hear Jesus say that we can’t come to God. We like to believe that our good works will bring God to us. We think that if we are good enough we deserve heaven. The crowds around Jesus at this time were righteous folk. They knew the law and they were obedient. They were more than willing to receive the blessings Jesus had to offer but they began to question the words He spoke. The words Jesus was speaking were blasphemy. He said He came down from heaven. He was either mad or He was claiming to be God.
God does not disappoint. He does not always live up to our expectations, but as we follow His example we realize that our expectations from a worldly perspective do not line up to the truth that is God. So, God calls us to live differently. Paul gives us a number of suggestions. Don’t lie, but speak the truth. Be angry, but beware that the anger does not cause you to sin. Don’t steal, but work honestly. Don’t speak evil, but speak love.
Paul writes, “Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” God is grieved when we do not live according to the life He has called us to live. Rather than imitating the world, living in bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice we are called to live in kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness. We are called to forgive as we have been forgiven. This is the imitation that will make God happy. Yet, this is not a passage about works. It is a passage about our response to the work of Christ. “Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance.”
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. Paul shows the difference, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” In this way God perpetuates the bread of heaven, as He reveals Himself through our lives so that others might know Him and be saved.
Obedience to these commands will not gain us access to the kingdom; the Jews tried it that way and they never saw God. This passage is about living the life that God has called us to live. We are to be imitators of God and to walk in love. This is eternal life in this world, living in the presence of God daily. We are called to become more than just a copy; God gives us a piece of His kingdom. Our relationship with God is not some disconnected affiliation; we are joined together by the living bread of heaven.
We are as close to heaven as we will ever be in this life as we receive the Lord’s Supper. As we kneel together, we are also kneeling with all Christians throughout time and space. It is there we are in the presence of God, receiving His gift of life as one body. It is there we set aside our bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, railing and malice, receiving the forgiveness of Christ that we might be strengthened to give forgiveness to others.
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. Join me at the Table; taste and see that the LORD is good. Together we will magnify our God and exalt His name!
A WORD FOR TODAY
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