Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9b-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage.
It is easy to become exhausted when you feel the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It is also easy to run away when you think that what you are doing is not worth your time or energy. We think that we are the only ones who care. We think that we are the only ones willing to do anything. We think we are all alone. And that’s when we burn out. That is when we give up. That’s what happened to Elijah.
It’s funny that I began the devotion for this text three years ago with that same first paragraph. This story of Elijah is one that we all have identified with at some point in our lives. Of course, many would say that Elijah was just having a pity party, that his attitude was selfish and self-centered. The same might be true of our own moments of melancholy and hopelessness. Elijah repeatedly whines to God, “I have been very jealous for Jehovah, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword: and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” We just want to say, “Suck it up, Elijah, this is what God called you to do.” We want to say that, unless we are the ones who have been passionate for God and we see the world around us falling apart.
We wonder what we are doing wrong. We get frustrated because we know we can’t do it alone. We begin to wonder if we are hearing God’s voice correctly. “Is this really what God intends in His word and my calling? We see no way of making things better. We might as well just hide in a cave and let the world come to an end without us. It is easy to give up and give in. Why should we fight if it seems as though God isn’t fighting with us? If God were fighting, wouldn’t He be winning?
What we don’t know is what God has planned for the future. Sometimes the world has to come crashing down around us so that He can lift it up again. Sometimes we need to hit the bottom of the barrel before He can make pickles. We have that pity party because we just don’t want the worst to happen to us. Being drowned in vinegar doesn’t sound all that satisfying. We understand Elijah’s point of view; at least we have some perspective from our own life. We might not be upset because enemies are trying to kill us, but our own little corner of the world can fall apart in so many ways: relationships, work, health.. We do not understand how God can abandon us when we are so passionate about doing His work.
Quite frankly, when we are in the midst of one of our pity parties, we’d like to see God come in power and do something very dramatic. We’d like to see Him come in wind or earthquake or fire. As a matter of fact, there are those who claim that God has spoken through the wind of a hurricane or the ruin of an earthquake or the black ash of a fire. It happens all too often after a natural disaster as people try to come to terms to what has happened. “It is a sign from God” someone will say, suggesting that God is punishing those who are suffering.
Perhaps that’s what Elijah was hoping for in today’s Old Testament story. But he learned that God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. God speaks to us in a still small voice. He speaks to us in a whisper. Elijah immediately knew that it was God, and he wrapped his face in his cloak so as not to look upon God and went out to the voice.
God asks, “What are you doing here?” Elijah was obviously not where God intended him to be. God commands and commissions us to do His work, but He never controls us like we are puppets on a string. We have free will. We have the ability to say “No.” We can walk away. But when we do, God will come looking for us. “What are you doing here,” He’ll ask because He knows there’s a better place for us to be. When we want to hide in the cave and let the world fall apart without us, God will find us and send us back out to continue to do His work. The party isn’t over until God’s Will is done, and God knows the best way to accomplish it. That’s why He called you to do whatever it is that He has ordained for your life.
But it’s hard to hear that calling if we are too busy trying to call down wind and earthquakes and fire on our enemies. The trouble with this attitude is that we are trying to do it ourselves. We think we are all alone, forgetting that God is with us. And, Elijah learns, that there are many more like him who have not fallen away from God. We aren’t alone. We have God. And God knows those whom are also called to help us do His work in the world.
I like this story, but not all of it. I like the reminder that God speaks in a whisper. But the story goes on to tell about Elijah’s next task. He was sent to anoint two new kings and to share his power and authority with a new prophet, and they would deal with God’s unfaithful people. Hazael would kill some, Jehu would kill those who escaped and Elisha would finish off the remaining people who did not fall under Hazael and Jehu. It is hard to juxtapose such a horrific plan with the loving God we know from the New Testament. The purpose of this task is to destroy the house of Ahab, and while we might see this as a horrific act of war, God’s intent was to remove the people who were keeping His people from Him. It was Ahab and Jezebel who were leading God’s people down a dangerous and deadly road. Elijah was not the only one who was threatened; the whole nation would die. Sending forth three men with the military might and authority to destroy a whole people might seem extreme, but their sin had become too great.
Today we know God from the Messianic point of view, after Christ, and these Old Testament stories do not always make sense. And yet they are necessary to our complete understanding of God. It was necessary for God to turn His people back to Him. Just as He turned Elijah away from his pity party and set him again on the right path, God had to set His people on the right path. This story does not just show us God’s wrath, it reminds us of God’s grace in the midst of it. There would be seven thousand saved. Now, that number might not be a literal number, but instead is symbolic of the greatest number of those who were still bowing before the Lord. Seven is a number of divinity, and a thousand was often used to refer to ‘a really big number.’
Have you ever read about the horrific wars played out in Medieval Europe? When you read about these battles, it often sounds as if thousands, perhaps even millions are being killed. The fields were covered in blood! Bodies were everywhere! We imagine these battles from our perspective. We see hundreds of thousands on one field when the reality is much different. The Battle of Hastings, one of the most famous of the battles in England, took place in 1066 between William the Conqueror of Normandy and Harold Godwinson who was the leader of the Anglo-Saxons in England. Each army had fewer than ten thousand soldiers. Though record keeping was not very thorough, it is thought that about six thousand men died on that battlefield. We imagine that this great battle was between hundreds of thousands of soldiers and that a hundred thousand people died, but the reality is much smaller. We created a bomb that killed 200,000 people in a matter of minutes. It is no wonder we see any war as disgraceful.
What we have to remember is that God was restoring His people to Himself, and to do so meant cleansing the nation of those who had rejected Him. This was not an act of vengeance on His part. It was an act of grace. Which is worse: death or living forever apart from God?
The scriptures give us plenty of examples of ways that seem harsh to make things right. A washerwoman pounds the clothes with rocks until they are clean. A goldsmith heats the metal to extreme temperatures to burn away the impurities. The vinedresser prunes the grape vines. This story doesn’t sit well with our sensibilities, but in it we see that God makes things right in the end. Seven thousand were saved from the sword. Seven thousand were still faithful. Elijah was not alone.
I think it is interesting that even though God spoke to Elijah, he didn’t stop his pity party. He went out along the road as God instructed, but look at how he met Elisha. “So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing, with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth: and Elijah passed over unto him, and cast his mantle upon him.” He didn’t stop. He didn’t tell Elisha to follow him. He just threw his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders and kept moving.
Elisha ran to him and told him that he would follow, but first he had to tie up some loose ends at home. Elijah answered, “Go back again; for what have I done to thee?” Even after he heard God’s voice and agreed by doing what God said, Elijah did not think that anyone really cared enough to do God’s work. “Yeah, whatever” Elijah said. Haven’t we all had the same attitude when we were in such a pity party?
But Elisha did follow. Unlike the stories we see in the New Testament, Elisha’s call story allows him to go home, to sacrifice his cattle and say good-bye to his family. He was allowed to break his past so that he could start anew. He was called from one life to another and was given the time to finish the business of his family.
God does not force us to our tasks, He calls us. Does He let go easily? No. We see that in Elijah’s story. He will ask why we are not where we should be. He will search us out to the very ends of the earth and remind us that He will be with us in His work. But He doesn’t force us to do anything. Paul writes, “For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another.” Elijah wanted to hide away in his cave and let the world fall apart without Him. But God had a plan and Elijah was part of that plan. He could stay in the cave and save himself. He could ignore this command to anoint the kings and prophet who would destroy so many. And perhaps he could justify ignoring it because it seemed like the loving thing to do.
But the reality is that allowing people to live in their sin does not show love. It is the selfish and self-centered choice. Love means helping God’s living according to His word, which is good and right and true. Paul writes, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” We are called to help our neighbors live so that they will inherit eternal life.
Imagine how Jesus’ followers must have felt at this point in His story. He was doing good work among them. For them, it was more than enough. After all, they were eating well, being healed, hearing good stories. They knew that a trip to Jerusalem was dangerous for Jesus. They certainly heard the threats against Jesus’ life and ministry. Why go to where they want to kill you? Jesus, unlike Elijah, knew that His purpose lie in the city. He would not turn left or right, but would head straight into the hands of his enemies. The plan was right. His death was vital. He couldn’t stay hidden among friends when God was sending Him to be slaughtered.
Isn’t it funny that the disciples wanted to bring hellfire down on the village that would not accept Jesus? There it is again, our desire to take matters into our own hands. But while there might have been good reason for Hazael and Jehu and Elisha to use the sword, at this point the wrath of God was destined to one body: Christ’s.
On that road Jesus met a man who wanted to follow Him. He said, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” The life following Christ is hard. The man may have been under the impression that Jesus was going to be king. Following Jesus would never lead to a palace. It will always lead to a cross.
In another story, Jesus called a man to follow but the man said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.” This may seem like a plausible reason to postpone following Jesus, but it is likely that the man’s father was not yet dead. In other words, the man was telling Jesus, “I’ll be glad to join you when my life circumstances change.” Unfortunately, we often put off following Jesus until a better time. Jesus answered, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” How often do we push aside the work of God’s kingdom to do the tasks of this world that do not change lives or glorify God?
A third man tells Jesus, “I’ll follow you Lord, but first…” In this case, the man just wants to say good-bye to his family. Isn’t that just what Elisha did? Yet, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Elisha went back, but he didn’t stay there. He broke all ties, getting rid of his cattle, saying farewell to the people in his town. He didn’t just say good-bye; he left his past forever. Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Are we willing to give up our pity parties and go where God is leading us, no matter what we will face on that path?
The works of the flesh as listed by Paul are part of the old life that we must leave behind. At times these are quite easy to recognize and yet sometimes we do not even realize we are sinning against God with our works. It is easy to see idolatry when the god we are worshipping is a stone figurine. It is not so easy when our idols are our philosophical points of view. We are just like those men on the road to Jerusalem with an easy excuse like “now is not the time,” or “let me take care of something first.”
The life God expects from us looks so much different. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.” The works of the flesh destroy. The works of the Spirit shine God’s light. That light is not always unicorns and fairy wands. It isn’t glitter and roses. It is hard work, and we might be called to do some things that we simply do not want to do. We might be called to face an enemy. But God’s light will shine when we do what is good and right and true to help them find their way toward God’s Kingdom.
Paul reminds us to stand firm in the Gospel so that we will not be burdened by our sinful flesh. That includes the self-centered and selfish pity parties we like to have when we feel like God is sending us into a mean and hurtful world. We seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it is our desires that keep us in bondage. James and John had the power to call down fire on the Samaritan village, and yet their desire to do so was keeping them in bondage to their anger and hatred.
Life in Christ does not give us the freedom to do what we want, but the new life we have in Him frees us from our desire to follow our flesh. In Christ we are freed from this world to serve others in love and mercy. The cost of discipleship is great. It means letting go of the past and putting God first. It means living in freedom from our flesh for the sake of others, loving as God loves us. David wrote in today’s psalm, “Their sorrows shall be multiplied that give gifts for another god.” While our gods might not require our blood, they do tempt us to set God aside while we pursue the desires of our flesh. David continued, “I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” We may face Jezebels and inhospitable Samaritans in this world, and we might be sent to do some hard work. But with God at our side we can be faithful.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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