Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

I so very much wish I could claim today’s sermon title as my own, but I can’t.  I’m taking it from Lewis Grizzard’s 1989 book, which he entitled Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.1  And, in fact, Lewis Grizzard wasn’t feeling so well himself when he wrote this book.  He was having some serious heart valve problems that would lead to his death just a few years after this book came out.

In this collection of essays, Lewis Grizzard tells of the day in August, 1977, he and some buddies were relaxing at the beach when the report comes over the radio:  Elvis Presley is dead.  They can’t believe it.  Elvis Presley can’t be dead; how can Elvis be dead?  The King is only 42 years old.  But, there it was:  Elvis was dead.

For Lewis Grizzard, Elvis stood for everything good in his own coming of age and early manhood.  Elvis was greased-back duck-tailed hairdos; Elvis was the wild gyrating exuberant dance of life; Elvis was the exploding expanse of America that was the first wave of the Babyboomers.

The Babyboomer Generation started with the children born in 1946, which was the year Grizzard was born.  So, for Grizzard, growing up through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, those were his prime years of discovering the world and himself in the world.  Those were the prime Elvis years, when he was the King of rock n’ roll, and nothing could stop him or anybody else of that age.

Those also happened to be the great, seemingly unstoppable years in white American Protestantism, from 1946 on through the 1950s and into the early 1960s.  We Baptists had our own version of Elvis, didn’t we?  We had Billy Graham!

Oh my goodness, I remember as a child, when Billy Graham did a quick swing through Martinsville, where we lived at the time.  It wasn’t a revival crusade.  Billy Graham was just passing through the area.  It was more of a preacher news conference.  Some local pastors had organized it out on the parking lot of one of the car dealerships heading out of town over towards Collinsville.  It was like Elvis had shown up among us Baptists!  What a glorious day, when Billy Graham came through town.

It was a glorious couple of decades.  Eisenhower was President, the interstate highway system was getting built.  Levitt and Sons were putting up that tract housing that would turn into the modern suburb.  Willie Nelson didn’t have a pony-tail or an earring yet.  Elvis was king of rock n’ roll.

Then, November, 1963, it all started going sideways, didn’t it?  Oswald assassinated President Kennedy; four months later, in February, 1964, Ed Sullivan introduced the country to the Beatles; new President Johnson decided to up the ante in Vietnam; Elvis Presley began making really tacky movies and gaining weight.  And, finally, one fine August day in 1977, Lewis Grizzard and his buddies were at the beach and heard the news:  Elvis Presley is dead.  From Grizzard’s perspective, his life began a downward slide, until his own death in 1994, at the age of 47.

We’re going to come back to this chronology of events in the 1950s and early 1960s.  But, for the moment, I’d like us just to think about this notion, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”  For you grammarians, I know, Grizzard should have written, “I don’t feel so WELL myself”, but after all he was a Georgia Bulldog, so, we’ll let it slide for now.

‘Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.’  You ever resonate with that sentiment?  I’m pretty sure that old Abraham and Sarah resonated with that sentiment, frequently.  Genesis chapters 12 through chapters 25 are all about Abraham and Sarah struggling mightily with certain physical limitations, and I not talking about Abraham’s hearing or Sarah’s eyesight.

So, at this point in the sermon, let me suggest to our teenagers, you just may want to tune out for the next few minutes.  If you’ve got your earbuds with you, this might be a good time to stick them in your ears.

Because, to talk honestly about today’s Scripture lesson, I’ve got to talk about procreation among folks the age of your grandparents and maybe even your great grandparents, if you have those.  And, I’m just not sure your tender, young psyches are ready to consider this possibility.  I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out again.

Genesis chapters 12 through 25—the heart of the Book of Genesis—these chapters in a nutshell are all about Abram and Sarai and the journey they take up and down and back and forth across the land of Canaan, because God called them out to do that.  God’s call to Abram and Sarai, as we saw last Sunday, was based on this single promise from God found in Genesis 12, verses 1 and 2:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…[Canaan].  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…[to]…all the families of the earth.”

So, this whole journey is based on this one premise, that this couple, Abram and Sarai, who are presently childless, will procreate!  Their baby, in turn, will be the first of countless descendants, descendants numbering as many as the stars in the night sky, God tells Abram at one point.  That, basically, is Genesis chapters 12 through 25: two old people traipsing through the wilderness, often trying but without success, to make a baby.

Genesis 12 tells us that Abram was already 75 years old when he hears God make this promise.  Now, he must have been a very vigorous old man to hear that and think to himself, “Yeah, I can see how that would work…come on, Sarai, let’s go!”  Sarai, we will learn later, is 10 years younger than Abram, so she’s 65 years old, and she says, “Sure, why not? I’m only 65…let’s get ‘er done!”  And, off they go.

If AARP had been around back then, then Abram and Sarai surely would have made the front cover of AARP Magazine:  “Two Seniors with Get-Up-and-Go!”

Abram’s wife is 10 years younger than he is.  As I read that, I couldn’t help but think about those pharmaceutical ads on t.v.  You know the ones, where the couple inevitably end up sitting in his and hers bathtubs, out in the back yard, watching the sun set?

Is it just me, or does it always seem like the woman is about 10 years younger than the man?  Well, whatever, the pharmaceutical folks promise us older guys that there can be a bathtub awaiting us.

So, Abram and Sarai’s journey of faith, in practical terms, meant having lots of bathtub moments, trusting that at least one of these times, God would honor the promise of blessing them with an heir.  But, no doing.

Years go by.  Till finally, one night, Abram says to God, in Genesis chapter 17, verse 17, “You know, God, Sarai is half-way dead and I’m not feeling so good myself.”  And, Sarai, at one point says to herself, though I’m sure she was looking over her shoulder at God when she says it, “Good grief!  Abram’s got one foot in the grave and I don’t feel so good myself!”  That’s in Genesis chapter 18, verses 11 and 12.

When people, even people of profound faith, get to the point where it seems like everything around them is dying, and all hope is starting to circle the drain, they panic.  And, when people, even people of great faith, get panicky, well, then they start casting about for any and every remedy they can imagine.  That’s what Sarai and Abram do, isn’t it?  We read the first five verses of chapter 16.

But, already, in the chapter before, in chapter 15, verses 1 – 6, Abram had come to God and said, “God, what’s up?  No child yet, God.  How about this:  we take my man-slave, Eliezer—good boy, strong stock—how about I adopt Eliezer as my own son?”  God says, no, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.”

That’s when God takes Abram out under the stars and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them….So shall your descendants be.”  Then, says chapter 15, verse 6, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

But, then, comes chapter 16, and now it’s Sarai’s turn.  Sarai is so, so frustrated and so disheartened.  Finally, she decides:  “If it is to be, it’s up to me!”  She will convince Abram to employ what was an accepted practice for couples in their situation.  Sarai has an Egyptian maid named Hagar.  So, Sarai decides Abram must sire a son through her maid, Hagar, and then Sarah and Abram will claim the child as their own.

Now, remember, Abram had just had this great encounter with God;  in fact, that encounter will become pivotal in defining the early Christian faith, And Abram believed the Lord; and Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  But, Abram doesn’t protest.  Sarai wants this; it seems reasonable given everything else, so why not.  Abram takes Hagar as a second wife, and lo and behold, he impregnates Hagar.

Hagar, for her part, sees this as her chance to turn the table on Sarai.  According to verse 4, now that she, Hagar, is about to provide Abram a descendent, she thinks Abram might make her Wife #1, and move Sarai off to the side.  Verses 4 and 5 give us just a hint of the heartbreak and the hostility that now descends upon this Bedouin family.

Hagar bears Abram their son, Ishmael, and then thirteen more years go by with Sarai continuing unable to bear children.  Every day for thirteen years, Sarah’s got wife number 2, Hagar, and Hagar’s little boy, Ishmael, there tempting Abram to turn his affections away from Sarai.

It is said, that if you play a country song backwards, your wife will forgive you, your dog will come home, and you’ll get your old job back at the mill.  By chapter 21, how Sarai and Abram must have wished they could play their own country song backwards.  Because, finally, after thirteen years, chapter 21 describes how Sarai herself becomes pregnant.  Yes, 90-year old Sarai gives birth to Isaac, the child of the promise, to 100-year old Abram.

All the while, over in the shadows, sits the worst decision Sarai ever made:  Hagar, her maid, and Ishmael, whom Abram loves because Ishmael is his son.  Until, this day, when Isaac is born and then circumcised, and, then another three years go by, and Sarai weens Isaac.  “Enough!” says Sarai.  “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

It had seemed like such a good move, hadn’t it?  It had seemed in keeping with God’s promise even though God appeared to be letting everything slide to where, if somebody didn’t do something, all hope would be lost.  Abram and Sarai would be dead, and God’s promise would die out with them.

By the way, teenagers, it’s safe to re-engage with us now.  No more talk about old folks and their procreating antics.

Fast forward many thousands of years later to 1977.  All that Lewis Grizzard meant when he bemoaned the passing of the King of rock n’ roll.  The 1950s and all of American life that got made in the 1950s that cruised so easily over into the early ‘60s and then these United States started hitting some rough going through the later ‘60s and into the ‘70s and ‘80s and in 1989 Lewis Grizzard realizes, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”

Elvis is dead and the kind of white American Protestantism that came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s is not feeling so good either, here in the second decade of the 2000s.

When I came out of seminary in 1985, evangelical churches were just starting to catch on that something was changing in protestant church life.  By the time I became a senior pastor in 1990, the panic was starting to stir.  By the time I became a pastor across town, here in Charlottesville in 1995, desperation had taken hold.

Pressure started coming down hard on local pastors from every denominational and nondenominational source you can imagine, from the right and the left and right down the center, the experts warned us—“Your churches are dying, and you better find some way to birth new life or game over.”

They pretty much implied and some said it outright:  “Even if you have to abandon your old folks,” they said, “those dear old saints who traveled this journey of faith lo this many years—yes, we know they’re sweet, and they can bake a good casserole…but you better dump them and find yourselves a new spouse quick and make it work!”

Find for yourselves, in effect, a Hagar, a younger crowd with whom to make a new kind of church family.

What a bunch of panicky nonsense!  If God’s people can’t figure out how to live the Gospel together without jettisoning their old folks by the wayside, then we need to re-read the Gospel and the Book of Acts and all the rest of it, and figure it out.  But, that is the ecclesiastical wasteland of ideas that has dogged pastors for at least the past three decades.

Whomever you call as your next pastor, I want you to know:  she or he will come to you already knowing this tremendous pressure to do something! Do something, do something! Or there will not be a next generation of believers; there will be no heir to keep it alive.  It’ll all end up going down into the grave with us!

You will not need to tell your next Senior Minister that the mission of the Church has gotten harder.  You will not need to tell your Senior Minister that UBC is finding it harder like everyone else.  It certainly is no harder for us Christians in 2016 than it was when the first Christians held their first potluck supper in the year 30 or so.

You tell your next Senior Minister, “We’re an inter-generational church of old people and young people and somewhere-in-the-middle people, and we’re ready to do our part together, and we know that God will do God’s part, so come on!  Let’s see what God’s up to!”

There is not one thing you or I or anyone can do, to do what only God can do.  No more than that 100 year old man and that 90 year old woman could sire a child.  All they could do and all any of us can do, is to be convinced that God has called us to walk the journey with God, to keep on walking, walking, walking.

We have to learn the hard lessons of Scripture, along with the joyful lessons those ancient mothers and fathers of our faith seek to teach us.  Abram and Sarai themselves would tell us, “Avoid the foolishness such as what which our panic gave birth to; instead, keep to the journey of keeping faith with God, trusting in the promise to which God alone can give life.”

Now, despite the wishes of more than a few fans, Elvis really, really, has left the building, and he ain’t coming back no more.  But that’s o.k.  We can still listen to Elvis and reminisce.  I mean, when Elvis starts singing, “Kentucky Rain”, you’ve gotta get at least a little choked up.  But, I got to tell you, there’s a lot a great young musicians out there putting out some good tunes.

There’s a lot of hope and life and what we might called “pre-faithed” folks all around us.  We just need to figure out how to talk to them of the God who created them and who loves them and who welcomes them to delight in God as God delights in them.

We’ve got the perfect example in Jesus of Nazareth.  Go find your next Senior Minister who will help you figure that out…how to talk to people about Jesus, who will lead them to God.  Such a simple thing to do, with faith in God, who calls us out on that simple path of obedience.

 


1Lewis Grizzard, ­Elvis Is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, Atlanta:  Peachtree Publishing, Ltd., 1984.

Abram’s Reunion Tour

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 14, 2016
Taken from Genesis 11:1-9; 12:1-4

tower of babel andreas zielenkiewicz

Somewhere, in some agent’s office, or in some old rock star’s mansion, somebody starts dreaming of their former glory, decades now long past them, and they say to themselves, “Wouldn’t it be great to get the band back together for just one more tour?”  So, they do.

They line up a string of venues, announce the dates, sell the tickets.  Fans who’ve long ago gone on to make lives of their own, raise their kids, work their jobs, maybe even by now, have retired from those jobs.  Those fans eat it up:  have you heard the news?  They got the band back together for one more tour.  Yay!  Rock and Roll!

Nobody, but nobody, fits into what they once wore when they first went to their first concerts with the band:  not the band members and most certainly not the fans.  But, in everybody’s minds and hearts, they are all suddenly young, fit, hip, vivacious, beautiful, handsome and ever so groovy.

The band comes to town, the fans flock from all over the region and even from further away.  They gather as one into that big arena and they are all transported to that far distant time and place that once was but has long ceased to be.  The band plays the old songs and the audience goes wild and sings along every well-rehearsed word.  That’s the magic of a reunion tour.

Karen and I got to see The Police in their reunion tour.  November 6, 2007.  It was like being back in your car with your collection of cassette tapes:  ‘Message in a Bottle’, ‘Synchronicity’, ‘Walking on the Moon’, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, and, of course, ‘Roxanne’.  And lots of others, sung by Sting, backed up by Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers.

Sting and Stewart Copeland were in pretty good form for old guys; Andy could have used a little time with a personal trainer.  But they sounded great, and we the fans sounded great, and it was all great.  And that is what a reunion tour is all about.

Abram, bless his old seventy-five-year-old soul, is about to go on a grand reunion tour, picking up where his own father, Terah, had left off.  The tour had started quite a few years earlier, when old Pop Terah suddenly decided to do a very odd thing most folks back then would never do.

Terah decided to pack up the family and leave their homeland of Ur of the Chaldeans.  He set out to make a very, very long journey northwestward over into Mesopotamia and then straight southward to dwell in the land of Canaan. But, they never made it to Canaan.

Terah made that long northwestward journey over as far as the land of Haran, in Mesopotamia, and then he stopped.  Maybe he liked the terrain, maybe he just plain ran out of steam after walking 600 miles, but there in Haran, Terah and his family re-potted themselves and stayed put.  Then Terah died, leaving his son, Abram, as chief of his Bedouin tribe.

That’s where Genesis chapter 11 ends.  It’s where a new chapter begins, literally, in the Book of Genesis, and, literally, also it’s where a new chapter opens in the wanderings and meanderings of humanity.  Abram, in chapter 12, verse 1, thinks he is starting off to find a new homeland in Canaan, where his own father had once intended to settle down.

Abram will tour on down through Canaan, briefly crossing over into Egypt, only to return into Canaan and retrace his steps, up and across and down again, traveling throughout that ancient land seeking the homeland God has promised to him and to his descendants.

Probably, Abram doesn’t really grasp the full extent of what his touring through Canaan, looking for a homeland, is really about.  God does try to explain it to him, though.

God tells Abram in chapter 12, verses 1 and 2, “I’ve got a great blessing in store for you:  Go … to the [new] land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”  Then skip to the end of verse 3, “… and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves or shall be blessed.”

God invites Abram to understand the really big scope of what God is doing with this dear earth.  Abram is heading up what will turn out to be a Grand, Universal, Reunion Tour.  God is assembling the band, the managers, the roadies, booking the venues and all the other bits and pieces I can pull out of that metaphor.

God’s long-view ambition is to reunite the many nations into a restored community.  God’s ambition and love for humanity is that they finally receive the blessing of life which God intended all along for all the children of Adam and Eve.

Notice what I just did there?  It’s important to notice what I just did there:  I said, “all the children of Adam and Eve.”  I just slipped us back over into the early stories of Genesis, chapters one through eleven.  Those are mythic stories, by which I certainly do not mean untrue stories.

Mythic stories, whatever connections they once had with facts rooted in one time and people, take on a far larger life of their own and on a far grander scope.  They become stories that capture universal truths common to human experience of reality.

That’s what the stories in Genesis one through eleven are about.  They are accounts rooted in Hebraic memory that now reach mythic status about universal human experience.

The final, mythic-sized story come in Genesis 11, verse 1, the story of the Tower of Babel, “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.”  That could also be translated as, “The whole earth had one language and one vocabulary,” which would make sense.  What did that one language and one vocabulary sound like?

How many of you have seen the Disney movie, ‘Finding Dory’? How many of you saw the Disney movie before it, ‘Finding Nemo’?  You recall in ‘Finding Nemo’ when the seagulls show up: a flock of seagulls show up, hoping to swallow up Marlin and Dory who are stranded up on the dock.  What do the seagulls all say:  “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!”

O.K., one language, one vocabulary:  that pretty much describes the folks building the Tower of Babel… “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  Mine! Mine!”  It was the language and vocabulary of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement.  “Come!” said the people of the land of Shinar, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)

Then, with a bit of humor, chapter 11, verse 5, tells us that this tower the people of Shinar thought was so immense and impressive was, in God’s sight, so tiny and nondescript that God actually has to come down out of heaven to get a good look at it.  And God said, “Hmmm.  This is not good.”  So, God does what?

God confuses their language, so that they may not understand another’s speech.  Which means, when everybody got up the next morning and went to work on the tower, things got screwy pretty quickly.  I imagine the Three Stooges writ large.  You recall whenever the Three Stooges tried to build something together or hang wallpaper or whatever?  Total chaos ensued.

I picture this next morning at the Tower worksite as a kind of Three Stooges flash mob.  Things got so frustrating that the story ends in Genesis 11 saying “… they left off building the city … [because] the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  Thus, the origins of all the nations and all the languages, as described in Genesis 11.

There, we cross over into Genesis 12.  Here, we enter into a different kind of story-telling.  We enter now into a time of recorded history of this single family, headed up first by Terah, and then by Abram.  That’s when God speaks up.

Whether God ever spoke to Abram’s father, Terah, to call Terah to go to Canaan, we don’t know.  We just know that’s where they were headed, when Terah decided he’d gone as far as he was going and then stopped, and then, died.  Leaving, Abram.

So, God speaks to Abram, basically saying, “Abram, it’s time to finish the trip to Canaan.  I will make you great.  You will flourish.  You will teach the nations of me, and the nations will once again share a common language and purpose, the language of worship of God and the purpose of knowing and serving the one true God.

Now, we need to realize, Abram was no hero at the time.  For example, Abram gets down into Canaan, and life turns out to be hard there in Canaan.  So, Abram packs up and keeps on going down into Egypt.  It’s just a little further down in verses 10 and following.

Well, they’re about to cross over the border into Egypt when Abram says to Sarai, his wife, “You know, honey, have I ever told you how beautiful you are?”  And Sarai says, “Oh, Abram, you’re so sweet!”  And Abram says, “No, really, you are really quite the looker.  But, we’ve got a problem.”

Abram continues, “When the Pharaoh gets a look at you, he’s likely to have me murdered so he can take you for himself.  So, this is what we’re going to do.  We’ll tell everyone that you’re my sister.”

“That way,” says Abram with wink, “Instead of murdering me, the Pharaoh will shower me with lots of gifts trying to gain my favor so I’ll give you to him to be his wife.  We can ride that wave for a long time.  We just gotta sell it!”

And that’s what they do.  You can read about how that all turns out later, but this suggests that Abram wasn’t at this point particularly the heroic trooper we might think he was.

But, God’s o.k. with that.  God doesn’t need Abram to be a hero; God simply needs Abram to be obedient and to extend God a little bit of trust.  Abram’s obedience and trust in God are going to get stretched quite a bit over the years ahead, but God’s willing to work with what Abram’s got–or doesn’t have, as will often seem to be the case in the years ahead.  His Bedouin life was going to have some very interesting twists and turns ahead.

There’s suppose to be an ancient Chinese curse that goes this way – I’m sure you’ve heard it, the ancient Chinese curse – “May you live in an interesting age”.  Whether it’s an ancient Chinese curse or not, the gist of the saying is true:  if you’ve ever gone through a so-called “interesting” phase in your life, you’re usually pretty happy when things settle back down into just plain old routine.

As with Abram and Sarai, we ourselves are living in an interesting time, with unexpected twists and turns.  As Christians, you and I are living in an interesting time.  As members of University Baptist Church, we are living in an interesting time.  While this time in the church family is an interesting one, it is not a curse or a burden.  It is a blessing, just as Abram and Sarai’s travels in following God’s call was a blessing.

You were quite ready for this church to move forward, but somehow things seem to go more sideways.  That means that you, like Abram and Saria, have found yourselves with a calling you did not anticipate nor necessarily ever want.  But here it is:  you are the members of this longstanding congregation during one of its rare interim transitions.  So, you should feel honored, if not particularly heroic in it all.

Now, some of you should be feeling doubly-honored today.  Because, some of you found your fellow members electing you to the Leadership Transition Team.  And some of you found your fellow members electing you to become the Senior Minister Search Committee.  It is a true opportunity to render a tremendous service for God’s continuing work in this body.

You yourselves, as members of this body, are now calling yourselves into a Church Conference this coming Wednesday evening to receive that Transition Team’s report.  You need to be here to receive and decide on that report.

You need to do that, first, to honor the tremendous work-hours and the quality work-hours they have invested to do what you asked them to do.  The second reason you need to be here on Wednesday night is because what comes out of that meeting will go into the hands of the Senior Minister Search Committee.  You will essentially be telling them, in your search, go find the next Senior Minister who is like this, this, and this, and not that, that, or that.

To put it the way God put it to Abram that day long ago that Genesis 12 tells, what is the new land is God showing you?  Abram really didn’t know the land that lay before him.  Abram had a general direction, you know, ‘we’re heading south down into Canaan.’  Abram knew there’d be a different kind of people to encounter there: the Canaanites.  But Abram had experience; he wasn’t new to Bedouin life; he was a Bedouin, after all; he was just going to go be a Bedouin somewhere else for a change.

The land that now lies ahead of you as a Baptist, Christian congregation is a new land.  You need to affirm these three truths—first, God is leading you.  That’s Affirmation Number One; it’s the biggie.  Do you trust, right now, today, that God is leading you as a congregation?  Yes?  Great, God is leading you.  Which leads to Affirmation Number Two.

Affirmation Number Two is almost as big as Affirmation Number One:  God is leading you …into a new land.  The new land into which God is leading you is not back there in the old homeland from whence came our patriarchs and our matriarchs.

You know all the old light bulb jokes?

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?  Just one, but first the light bulb’s gotta want to change.”
“How many divas does it take the change a light bulb?  Trick question:  the diva just holds the light bulb while the world revolves around her and unscrews the light bulb for her.”
“How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?  What?!  My granddaddy gave that light bulb to this church!”

The times, they do call for a different sort of light bulb.

If you can make those first two affirmations, then you’ll be ready for the third grand affirmation.  One, we trust God is leading us.  Two, God is leading us into a new land.  And, the third affirmation:  we believe God has a spot for us in that Great Reunion Tour which God started all those millennia ago.  You are of the Tour, to gather all the peoples together, to worship and serve the one true, God.

It’s a big, big story and long, long journey.  The story and the journey yet remain incomplete.  The Reunion Tour is not finished.  The destination still appears to yet to be a far country apart from where we stand today.  But, those whom God calls to share the story, to walk the journey, receive God’s blessing.  Through them, through us, God extends the blessing.

By faith, you and I are part of the story now.  God, each day, invites you and me to keep on the journey, just as God invited Abram to resume the journey with God.  There is blessing along this path of faith.

This journey, this Tour, is not just a metaphor.  It involves some actual, real time, often, hard work.  Like, finding yourself a member of a faith community, such as University Baptist Church, going through a transition.

Rich blessings lie within this journey, as well as the greater blessing that will come when God has done all God intends for us and for all the families of this earth.  We’re all in one way or another, are on the Tour.

Community of the Avant-Garde

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 7, 2016
Taken from Luke 12:32-40

 

The phrase ‘avant-garde’ is from the French.  Its literal meaning is “advance guard” or “vanguard”.  Originally a military term, ‘avant-garde’ came to be applied more generally.

We describe as ‘avant-garde’ a group of people who push against the boundaries of what larger society considers acceptable or the norm or the status quo.  Most often we apply the label ‘avant-garde’ to artists across a variety of media, especially in the visual arts.

Rarely, though, do we hear the phrase applied to us as Christians, do we?  When have you ever heard anyone describe a Baptist church as ‘avant-garde’?

Yet, that is exactly the role Jesus envisioned for his followers as he walked among them.  They were the avant-garde of the Kingdom of God.  We today–yes, even us, University Baptist Church, as much as it may strain us to see it or to believe it—we are to be the Community of the Avant-Garde of Christ’s Kingdom.

You may be asking yourself, what in the world does that mean?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Let’s see if we can begin to find an answer.  Let’s begin by looking at an example of avant-garde, such as this painting on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning.

The painting is entitled ‘The Madonna of Port Lliad’.  The artist, Salvador Dali, painted it in 1950.  Now I know, strictly speaking, Dali was a Surrealist artist, but I think for our purposes this morning we can agree that Salvador Dali was also an Avant-Garde artist.

We’ll just make a few cursory observations of Dali’s depiction of the Madonna with Child.  Let’s start with the most obvious thing to note:  there’s painting of the Madonna with the Christ-Child on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning!  What in the world is a Roman Catholic icon doing on the cover of a Baptist worship bulletin?  It may prompt us to think about the long-standing hostility between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  It may stir up our own feelings about things Roman Catholic, feeling we’d rather not consider.

Let’s move in a little further.  There appears to be a sea shell at the bottom, center, of the painting.  And, look, there’s a big conch shell floating in the air there to the Madonna and Child’s left – our right.  But, especially, we see this much larger scalloped shell directly over head, at the top center of the painting.  What’s Dali got going on with these floating sea shells?

And what’s that hanging down from that big scalloped shell over top of everything?  It looks like an egg.  Indeed, it is an egg.  Well, that’s just plain weird, isn’t it?  Dali has sure got a messed vision of the Madonna and the Christ-Child, doesn’t he?

Until, you recall, that sea shells became a symbol of Christian pilgrimage.  The sea shell reminded Christians of when they would go on pilgrimage, leaving their homelands and crossing the sea to reach the Holy Land.  Ultimately, the sea shell came to stand for the pilgrimage every Christian is on, until we cross over that final sea to Heaven’s shore.  And, we recall that the egg became a Christian symbol of new life, especially the gift of Eternal life from above.  That’s why eggs are so important at Easter.

O.k., Dali, I’ll give you credit for the sea shells floating around in your painting, and I’ll give you credit for the egg suspended from above.  But, drilling right on down to the heart of your painting, what is going on in the middle of Madonna’s torso and in the middle of the Christ-child’s torso?  It looks like Dali painted big, empty spaces, taking away almost their entire torso’s.

Was Dali implying that there’s really nothing at the heart of the Madonna and Child?  Was Dali saying that, in reality, the Christian faith is just one big empty illusion?  If the greeters could have handed out magnifying glasses with the bulletins, you could take a much closer look at those big square holes Dali painted in the middle of the Madonna and the Christ-Child.  What you would see is that those openings are windows.  If you look through those window, you can see far off into the distant horizon that Dali painted.

You notice those little figures to each side that line the way off toward that horizon?  Those look like they might be angels, don’t they?  And you notice what they’re floating over?  They’re floating over a large body of water, like a sea.  Maybe, they’re lining the way across this sea that ends on Heaven’s shoreline off there beyond the horizon.

Looking through the windows the Dali painted at the heart of the Madonna and the Christ-child, you see this horizon that lies at the center of Dali’s painting.  Maybe Dali wanted us to consider if we meditate upon the life of Mary, if we meditate upon the life of Christ, we will find a window opening up in our own hearts, through which we might find our way to God.

There is a whole lot more going on here in this piece of art than first meets the eye.  At first glance, we see Dali’s painting, and we react: how weird it all is and odd and perhaps even so off-putting that we don’t want to even bother with it.

We could dismiss it out of hand as so much foolishness.  Or we start asking questions of it…what in the world is going on here?  What’s the artist seeing that I’m not seeing?  Why are these people and these objects depicted in this way that seem so unnatural, even bizarre to us?

That is the function of the avant-garde.  The avant-garde do not depict things as we commonly experience them.  They do not pretend to offer us a view of the world as we find comfort or pleasure in it.  The Avant-Garde push us to ask, how can they see life this way?  They’ve got to be crazy or mixed up or out of touch…it’s not normal, that’s for sure!

Swing back around to our Scripture, here in Luke chapter 12.  Chapter 12 is where Luke presents to us what we know better through Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount.  Except Luke puts a somewhat harder edge to Jesus’ teachings.  For example, this is where Luke inserts Jesus’ shocking words in verse 51, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In the verses previous to what is printed for us, Jesus lays out what the community of Christ is to be about.  Jesus catalogues and portrays all the things in which we seek safety, security, strength, protection.  Then, in verses 30-31, he says, “For all the nations of the world seek these very same things…all the people the world over seek these things; and your Father (in Heaven) knows that you need them, too.”

 But, you are not to be like the nations of this world!  You are not to be like the people among whom you live.  You belong to a new nation and to a new people.  “Instead,” Jesus continues in verse 31, “seek God’s kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus, here, bluntly confronts us:  what do we seek after?  What do we take hold of, that we think will give us life of safety and security and joy?  Jesus understands us.  Jesus knows us.  Jesus sought to warn us of the inevitable results of going after what every generation of every society has done.  You finally will be robbed of the very thing you hoped to gain.

We think we are taking hold of what will make our lives right and prosperous and secure.  But, Jesus knew that it was like reaching out to shake the hand of a strong man, whose grip is far greater than our own grip.  We reach out thinking we entering a partnership with a strong man who will give us what we need, who will protect us, who will make a way for us to be happy and at peace.

Only to discover, we have taken hold of a strong man who has no intention of letting us go, who gets a grip that begins to pinch and to frighten us, that makes us even more needy and desperate.

The kingdoms of this world are caught in that grip, says Jesus, and it’s a death-grip for sure.  It pulls this earth down into corruption and destruction and despair.  We wish we were free of its terror, free of its anxiety, free of all that wears and grinds us down, but we’re too afraid to let go even though we know it’s killing us and making us kill each other.

It was so in Jesus’ day, and it is so in our day.  Jesus said to his followers then, as Jesus says to us his followers today, in verses 32 and 33, “Fear not, little flock. Fear not!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Let go!  Let go!  Sell what you have, give it away, give it to the poor, let go of it for the sake of your own soul.”

 God takes hold of you, and God claims you. God who knows what you need, it is God’s delight to give you the eternal kingdom, as well as the things of this world.  You can let go and be released from that death grip of fear.  That’s what Jesus says.

 Jesus promises us even as Jesus warns us, in verse 34, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  And, there, he means, lies our destiny.  Will it ultimately be a destiny of destruction?  Or, will it be a destiny of Eternal life?

But, we react, “Lord, it’s just so…problematic to do that.  It’s problematic!”  Oh, yeah, you bet your britches it’s problematic.  I don’t know what the 1st century Aramaic equivalent was for the word “problematic”, but those early followers found out how problematic it was almost from the get-go.

Living out the Lord’s command was rife with mind-bending, soul-stretching problems and challenges.  It was going to become divisive, as Jesus plainly said here in this chapter 12, verses 49-53.

But, as the Book of Acts testifies of those early believers, over and over again, they faced the challenges, they sought the wisdom and the power which only Christ could provide them, and they went right on, in Jerusalem, into Judea, into Samaria, and right out through the entire world.

Can you imagine a community of people actually living the way Jesus commands, on this earth and in this nation, in this Commonwealth and in this city, on this particular corner in this city of Charlottesville?  Can you imagine you yourself, living this way, that Jesus calls on and even demands that we live?

We would not be of the norm, would we?  We would not be of the status quo, would we?  We would be an oddity, seemingly strange and weird by the standards of our place and time.  Onlookers would wonder, what in the world is that about?  What are they seeing that we don’t see?

They may ridicule us; they may dismiss us; but they may also begin to ask the questions that will lead them to the answers of salvation and of eternal life.  They would be changed, and all within their spheres of influence would change as well.  And, a little bit more of the Kingdom of God would show up on this earth.

That is what it would mean to be “The Community of the Avant-Garde of Christ.”  That is what it would mean for you to be an avant-garde of the Lord.

Regenerate

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 31, 2016
Taken from Colossians 3:1-14

butterfly emerging

What if I were to look out over this congregation and say, “my, oh my, what a bunch of Re-GEN-erates you are!”, I’m pretty sure there’d be a sudden tension in the air.  You might wonder, “What did that preacher just call me?  A bunch of what?”

I would have to say very clearly and succinctly and slowly, “RE-Gen-erates”.  And you still wouldn’t be certain that I hadn’t just insulted everybody in the room.  The word, “regenerate”, just sounds bad, doesn’t it?

It sounds too much like that other word that, indeed, is an insult: DE-gen-e-rate.”

Colossians 3:5-9 offers us a fairly inclusive list of what it takes to be a degenerate:  “fornication, impurity, lust, evil desire—I like the old King James Version word for ‘evil desire’, concupiscence—“fornication, impurity, lust, concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…put them all away:  anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk…Do not lie to one another….”  Yes, I do think that about covers what we would mean by the word, “DE-generate”.

You’ve to ask yourself, where were they finding these people?   That must have been one tough crowd they were inviting to come to church with them on Sunday!   At least, the Apostle Paul felt compelled to say, “quit doing all that stuff!  Quit being a bunch of DE-generates!”   Instead, what were they to be?  They were to become a bunch of RE-generates.

Verses 12-14, Paul describes the qualities of the Regenerate, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, (these qualities of life):  compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven you….And above all these put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

 Love, that binds everything together in perfect harmony.  If you are of a certain age, that last bit may call to mind the old Coca-Cola commercial?  1971. It was entitled, simply, “Hilltop”, but we know it better by the jingle title, “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)”.

I’d like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

(Chorus)
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That’s the real thing…

It’s a sweet picture, but that’s not what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote of a love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

That would be great, wouldn’t it, if all it took was to put a drink of something in everybody’s hands that would put a smile on their lips and a joy in their hearts and all sing the same happy song together.

A few years ago, Karen and I traveled up to New York City to celebrate Thanksgiving with our daughter, Emily.  We got there on Thanksgiving Eve.  Of course, the big deal on Thanksgiving Day in New York City is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That Thanksgiving Eve, we took the subway from Brooklyn over to Manhattan, over to the stop beneath the west side of Central Park.  That’s where the parade floats were being lined up and the big balloons were being inflated.

We come up the stairs to the street level, and it’s like popping up into the middle of a carnival.   Lights everywhere, people shuffling along, rubbernecking at all these wondrous sights of the beautiful, elaborate floats, taking selfies with the partially inflated Snoopy and Charlie Brown and Buzz Lightyear and all the rest.

There were food vendors and souvenir vendors, and there was music.  Golden oldies songs from across the decades were playing through loud speakers placed all along the street.   Emily, Karen, and I are packed in, cheek to jowl, with strangers from all over the globe.   When, suddenly, everyone stops.  And, we hear, coming over the loudspeakers, The Beatles, singing “I Saw Her Standing There”.

Like one big international troupe of folk singers, this whole crowd of strangers stand there, on a street along Central Park, in the cold, singing, “I Saw Her Standing There”.

We weren’t all singing in the same key, that’s for sure.   And we didn’t get all the words in just right.   But, it was clearly the same song we all were singing together, grinning at each other in the silliness of it and the delight of it.   And, then, the song was over, we dissolved back into our own little groups, and we continued shuffling along.

You see, that’s an analogy for what human morality is.   There is a common connection among all people.   There is a common, human morality.   As a civilized people, we indeed must seek out our common values to organize ourselves around those common values.

All the world over, we are trying our best to sing a kind of golden oldie song God has implanted within every person, when God created the human family with that Divine Image within us.

What vestiges of that ancient song we can help each other sing, we should sing.  However out of tune, with whatever lapses of lyrics, we as a larger society must help each other sing as clearly as possible out of shared humanity, our common core of morality.   But, it’s not enough.  It’s not enough.

It’s not enough because our morality is plagued by our own mortality.  The wasteful flaws of our own weaknesses deteriorate our best intent.  We struggle mightily to sustain what we can of human dignity.

We fight, over and over, to broaden the boundaries of whose humanity we will dignify, the fullness of whose humanity we will include.

Our common morality is a beautiful thing.  But it is the beauty like that of a translucent chrysalis that takes shape, on the branches of our souls.  Our common morality is a structure in which the spiritual butterfly might form and emerge.  Yet, something stops that life within from forming.   A moral death takes hold.   There is left only the chrysalis, an amazing organic structure on its own, to be sure, yet empty of life.

Sadly, we in the church of Jesus Christ are too easily content only to hold up the beautiful but empty chrysalis of morality.  We fill it up, hoping there might emerge one day, a butterfly.  But, it is not enough.  If it were enough, there would have been no need for the Incarnation of God in humanity.   There was no need for just one more teacher to come among us, however excellent or insightful or wise that teacher’s lessons might be.

A few Sundays ago, we considered the time when the religious lawyer approached Jesus and asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asked him right back, “what do you think?  How do you read the Law?”  (Luke 10:25-37)

The lawyer was able to tell Jesus exactly what the Law said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The lawyer already knew what to do; he didn’t need Jesus to teach him that.

Jesus told the lawyer, “you’re exactly right…go do what you already know to do!”  But, the lawyer couldn’t.  He knew the teaching, but he didn’t have within himself what was needed.

What was required was for an infusion of Divine Life within this human fabric.  What was required was for a people to be called out of mortal darkness and into Eternal Light.   We, in the church, we carry within us not merely the words of an ancient song.   We carry within us the power of the Ancient Songwriter’s own Eternal Presence.  We, in other words, are called and empowered to be the Regenerate of God.  Why, then, do we in the church settle for being mere purveyors of morality?

Why do we settle into being houses organized to keep each other on the straight and narrow? That is not our calling.  We are called instead to be houses of celebration of the One who never did nor does he now walk a straight and narrow path.  Rather, our Lord travels broadly, our Lord goes fully among all the peoples of the world.

As verse 11 says, there is no longer to be “this people or that people”; there is no longer to be “this religion or that religion”; there is to be no longer “this lifestyle or that lifestyle”; there is to be no longer “this gender or that gender”.  There is instead to be but one, single humanity among whom and for whom, as verse 11 proclaims, “Christ is all, and in all.”  And that is all and more than enough!

But, we have not dared imagine it.   No more than we can look upon the chrysalis and imagine the butterfly that might grow there, we cannot imagine even among ourselves such a life where “Christ is all, and in all”.  Yet that is in fact the heart of our calling as a church of Jesus Christ.  To dare believe the Gospel and to live that Gospel and to be content with nothing less.

In all the ways we fail to turn ourselves over to the regenerating and converting, and enabling power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ, we settle for a mere Christianized morality.   Christianized morality is only a common morality dressed up in its Sunday best.

University Baptist Church, we are called to nothing less than to proclaim and to teach and to witness of the true Gospel which far too many congregations have abandoned.  Yes, they pay homage to the name of Jesus but they embrace for themselves a deadly legalism, or a polite moralism or a cautious rationalism.  They are cut off from the regenerative headwaters of Heaven that alone bear the Christ-life not sourced anywhere from this poor earth.

May we be that church, that receives that life from above.  May we dare be the church in Charlottesville that knows itself as the Divine Chrysalis from which emerges the most glorious life of Christ’s own.   May we be the place where all may come and know this truth, “Christ is all, Christ in all”.

 

Who, Not How

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 11: 1-13

Hands - 07-24-2126

Today I want to start with the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer. Did you catch that one in today’s reading? We talk a lot about the Lord’s Prayer, but there another prayer that comes right before it. It’s okay to look back, if you like—this is an open-book quiz. This prayer I’m talking about comes in Luke 11, the first verse, from the mouth of one of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

“Lord, teach us to pray.” That may not strike us at first as a prayer, but it’s actually a pretty good one, isn’t it? Have you ever prayed that? “I wish I could pray better.” Or, “I wish I could pray like____ (insert name here).” Or maybe a New Year’s Resolution: this year I’m going to pray more. I won’t ask for a show of hands for who’s done that one! I would guess that all of us at some point, maybe right now, have shared the desire of these disciples to be “better” at praying.

How amazing would it be to have a special prayer lesson from Jesus, of all people? This is a guy who clearly knows how to pray! So the disciples go up to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Teach us to pray.

I wonder if they thought Jesus would teach them a special trick. “All right, if you really want something, make sure you ask like this.” Surely Jesus would know the best technique. Or maybe they simply admired the depth and intensity of his spiritual life. He woke early in the mornings to go off and pray alone, and he prayed with large crowds of people; he would pray over meals with his disciples and pray intensely in a garden at night. Prayer for Jesus was everywhere, connecting him with God and enabling him to live in a clear, purposeful way. Teach us to pray like that, the disciples asked.

And he does. So today, we look at what Jesus teaches them about prayer.

Let me be clear that the goal of this sermon is not for me to teach you to pray. Jesus is the person for that job, not me, though I will look carefully at what he teaches. And I should also say upfront that there is a lot I don’t understand about prayer. Top of the list is that age-old question of why some prayers seem to get answered and others don’t. Why do some people who are sick get better and some not? Why are some of our most desperate prayers met with silence? There are paradoxes here that I don’t understand and don’t expect to ever figure out. I’m not going to try to answer those questions today. And I’m also not going to give you any special techniques for how to pray better. Here’s why: I don’t think Jesus cares about technique.

When it comes to prayer, method doesn’t really matter. What matters, what Jesus teaches us, is the relationship with God lying under that prayer. It’s a question of who, not how. Rather than a secret technique, Jesus teaches his disciples who God is and who they are in relation to God.

So let’s look at his answer, starting first with what he teaches about God.

From the opening words of the prayer, we are told to relate to God as our father, and then Jesus uses a couple of illustrations to make his point. “Which of you… if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” The absurdity of those questions is obvious. Parents don’t put their kids in harm’s way; you don’t let kids play with knives or jump off buildings or play with snakes and scorpions—at least I hope not! Good parents give children what they need to grow and thrive, not things that will hurt them. And that’s true even when the kids don’t like it.

There’s a funny blog online called “Reasons my kid is crying.” On that website, people upload pictures of their toddlers in full meltdown mode, with a caption explaining the various reasons why. I’ll read some of the captions, and I’ll let you imagine for yourself an image of the most miserable, dejected toddler you can imagine.

  • I wouldn’t let her drink the yummy blue juice that goes in the dishwasher.
  • Because he didn’t want to get in the bathtub. Then because he didn’t want to get out.
  • It took me more than 0 seconds to take his shirt off.
  • Someone else was walking on the sidewalk.
  • She wants to be in the corner of the room and in bed at the same time.
  • Asked for a waffle. Refused waffle. Asked why the waffle was taken away. Screams because she doesn’t have her waffle.
  • He wants the windows down in the car but not the wind in his face.
  • We asked him to stop hitting his big brother with a fly swatter.

They go on, but you get the idea. That’s part of parenting: little kids crying because they want something that’s not good for them, or not possible, or not even logically consistent. It’s funny to watch, because we see how they don’t quite understand how the world works yet.

Do you think God ever hears our prayers that way? Not that God is laughing at us, but that God sees our experiences and prayers with a broader understanding and perspective that we don’t have. And God is not mad about that, or disappointed, any more than a loving parent is mad at an infant for not understanding the intricacies of physics or economics. God as parent loves us despite our limitations.

We should acknowledge here that this metaphor has its downsides. Not everyone experiences parental love that is kind and generous, and no human parent is perfect. And it’s also worth saying that although we use the term Father, we are not saying that God is a man; we can see qualities of mothers and fathers when we encounter God.

But despite those caveats, the image of God as parent is a powerful one, and it reminds us of something important that we should remember when we pray: like any good parent, God already wants what is best for us. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying again: God already wants what is best for us.

Prayer is not about talking God into giving us what we want, or trying to prove that we are faithful enough to deserve good things. Prayer is not a kind of cosmic manipulation, where if we get the words just right, our wish comes true. So when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he doesn’t say, “Okay, guys, here’s the secret. Here’s what you have to say.” He reminds them to start by saying, Father. God already wants what is best for you; you don’t have to get the words just right to get your message through.

And Jesus probably could have stopped the prayer right there, with the profound dynamic of parental love encapsulated in that single word, “Father”. But he continues, and I think the petitions that follow teach us something about ourselves.

If God is father, who are we? Well, children, of course, but what does that mean? What does our half of the relationship look like?

When I was growing up, I remember a cartoon that was on the bulletin board at church—maybe you’ve seen it—which shows a panicked student sitting at his desk, looking terrified, with the caption, “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools.” They say that need is the great teacher of prayer. When we find ourselves in a tough spot, like an exam we didn’t study for, we naturally turn to prayer. Our needs bring us to our knees, and we turn to God for help.

When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches us to see that we are always in need. Take a look again at the words here, as Luke presents them, and see how plain and concrete this prayer is. This is not: “o thou everlasting and incomprehensible greatness, we do humbly beseech thee in thy lofty heights…” No. Jesus’s prayer is not flowery and ornate. It’s real. It’s for people who are hungry and need food. It’s for people who ache for God’s kingdom to come because they are suffering right now. It’s for people who have messed up and need to be forgiven. It’s for people who struggle with temptation. In other words, it’s for us. It’s for real people who are humble enough to admit they have real needs.

I wonder if that’s why it is hard to pray sometimes. We prefer to be in control, to be self-sufficient, to see ourselves almost as gods. But the truth is, we are always in need—of direction, of daily bread, of forgiveness, of protection. If you’re going to pray like this, it means taking on a posture of being dependent on God, and not sufficient by yourself. If you pray these words, it means you need God, and you are not God. You are a child.

Prayer allows us to see ourselves with the right perspective, the perspective of our relationship with God.

Jerusalem, Israel, is home to many holy sites and historic churches. One of those, atop the Mount of Olives, a short, steep walk away from the Temple Mount, is a church called the Pater Noster, which is Latin for… “our Father”. It is a site that came to be regarded as the place Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer. Architecturally, there are some 4th Century Byzantine ruins there, but the main attraction for most visitors is the courtyard containing 140 large, colorful ceramic plaques displaying the Lord’s Prayer, each one in a different language. You can watch tour groups search for and then flock around a particular plaque, depending on where they are from: Italian for this group, Swahili for this one, Arabic for another. There’s something magical about finding your own language, but also in seeing so many other translations of this same prayer.

Today, in churches all over the world—in Jerusalem, Beijing, Barcelona, Charlottesville—Christians will gather and recite these words, an amazing commonality that connects us all together. There will be different languages, different liturgies, different theologies, even slightly different wording. Catholics, for instance, do not include “For thine is the kingdom…”. Yet those differences don’t really matter, because this is not a magic formula we have to get just right to get God’s attention. The important thing is not even the words themselves, but the relationship that lies behind them. It is that relationship that is seen at the heart of the prayer Jesus teaches, that relationship with a God who is a parent who loves us and already wants what is best for us, not a distant authority figure to be appeased or manipulated. It is that relationship that we nurture when we pray.

So now, as we close, let us connect with God and unite with sisters and brothers around the world, as we pray once again the words that Jesus taught us, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:  for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

Choosing to Choose

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 17, 2016
Taken from Luke 10: 38-42

mary martha -by he huibing

Did you know that last Sunday afternoon, the files on my computer needed to be re-organized? Well, probably not. Actually, I didn’t either, until I should have been figuring out what to write for this sermon. All of a sudden, those files just absolutely must be categorized, sorted, and labeled. And then, the empty shoeboxes long gracing presence of the floor beside my bookcase, needed to move to their proper place in a closet down the hall. A news article caught my eye, with “Six tactics to keep your kids from becoming too materialistic” – seems worthwhile, how could I not check that out? 10 Exercises to Prevent Runner’s Knee? Well yeah, I don’t want that, better start reading!

Ahh, procrastination. We all have our favorite vices, and this has long been one of mine. If you ever come in my office and see my desk free of paper and my shelves nicely organized, either I’m really on top of things, or—more likely—there was something else that I should have been doing.

Not so with Martha. Oh, no. She is not to be deterred. Let’s get to work, she says. I’ve got things to do. No idle Facebook browsing for me, no barrage of online articles with click-bait titles, no meandering and re-organizing. Martha is efficient and productive, getting things done—the exact opposite of my procrastinating self. Martha is hard at work, and all the while, Mary sits in the other room doing nothing.

This is a familiar story for many of us, isn’t it? Mary and Martha have become type characters for us, representing two totally different ways of engaging the world. Mary and Martha. On the one hand, a life of contemplation, quiet, prayer; and on the other a life of action, busy-ness, work.

There is value in that comparison, to a point. I’ve heard lots of people over the years who’ve seen something of themselves in Martha, noting that the really should slow down and take a break. And that’s a valuable insight.

But today I want us to take another look into this passage to see if there is more we might find there.

After all, Jesus doesn’t actually say, “Some of you are like Mary, faithfully devoted: good for you. Some of you are like Martha, too busy all the time: cut that out.” There’s more to it than that.

So let me start, first of all, by defending Martha’s willingness to work. It’s worth saying upfront that the moral of this story is not that “doing is bad.”

“Doing” is not bad. Reading this story by itself might give you that impression, but, fortunately, this story doesn’t come by itself. When this story is put in context, the picture gets a lot more interesting. Let’s zoom out a bit and see where we are.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and this story picks up right where we left off.

Two weeks ago we read the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers. Do you remember that story? These 72 have been devotedly following Jesus around, listening, learning, being attentive disciples (kind of like Mary…), and eventually Jesus says, okay, that’s enough; time to get to work. Go! Get out of here! He sends them two by two to all the towns in the area, telling them to stay in people’s houses, relying on their hospitality. Eat and drink with them, heal the sick, teach them. Go and get to work!

Then, last week, we continued in Luke 10 to the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Here, the hero of the story is not the religiously devout priest or pious Levite, but the foreigner who stops and gets his hands dirty to help someone in need. This is tangible, concrete love of neighbor, and Jesus ends with the unambiguous command, “Go and do likewise.”

The very next verse brings us into Martha’s house, where Martha is hard at work, getting her hands dirty to care for Jesus, the neighbor she has welcomed into her own home, preparing a meal for him. It’s tangible, concrete love of neighbor. Faith in action, just like he commanded. Right?

No… Where did she go wrong?

It can’t be the fact that she was busy doing things. Jesus has made it abundantly clear that he expects a great deal of doing from his disciples. I don’t think Martha is wrong for getting to work. Jesus doesn’t tell her to kick back and watch TV.

What does Jesus say is the problem? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”

Martha’s problem is: distraction.

[PAUSE.] Hmmm…. I was kind of hoping a fire truck would go by just now, or at least a cough or a sneeze.

We all know that distractions happen, including here at church. Earlier this week (when I was definitely not procrastinating!) I came across an article listing the “top 10 actual stories of preaching distractions,” a dramatic list of unplanned excitement during sermons. Here’s a taste: “A bat started flying low while I was preaching. Many people were screaming. Finally some of the men captured the critter. They actually had prayer over him and released him toward the Methodist church.” Here’s another: ““The pastor was ten minutes into his sermon when two police officers came in the service, pointed to a deacon to come out of the pew, handcuffed him and took him away. I thought the amazing thing was that the pastor kept preaching, but I was even more amazed that the deacon’s wife stayed for the entire service.” [from http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/top-ten-actual-stories-of-preaching-distractions/ ]

Distractions happen. They’re a part of life.

But what happens when distraction doesn’t just a momentarily interrupt our lives, but controls it?

What happens when we get so caught up in the trivial things, that we miss out when God turns up right beside us? Martha was so distracted by getting things ready for Jesus, she nearly missed the fact that Jesus was sitting in her living room!

Distraction takes our attention from what matters and puts our focus on things that don’t. Martha is distracted, so she’s not paying attention to what really matters.

I started this sermon by confessing my tendency for procrastination, noticing how different my aimless meanderings can be from a busy, productivity-machine like Martha. But if we realize that her problem is distraction, then maybe we’re not so different after all.

Martha’s brand of distraction is frantic activity, but distraction can also look like procrastination, or it can be financial worries, or family drama, or self-centered ambition, or chasing after the wrong goals. Distraction happens whenever we let something less important take the place of what really matters. It’s easy to get stuck there and live our lives focused on the wrong things.

So what are we supposed to do? What is it that this story teaches us? If Martha has gotten distracted, what is it that Mary did right?

I’m afraid Jesus says very little about Mary. There’s no “10 Easy Steps to being a good disciple.” What he does say about her is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary has chosen what is better.

My gut reaction to that is to think, “well, what did she choose?” What is it that’s better? Tell us more! But you know, I think the important thing here is not what she chose, but the fact that she chose. Mary has chosen what is better.

The antidote to distraction is choice: choosing for ourselves what matters, instead of doing whatever happens to come along. Instead of letting worries and distractions define your day-to-day life, choose to focus on what matters. Choose to choose for yourself. And then you can decide what to do.

Martha didn’t do that. She didn’t decide to ignore Jesus, but she also didn’t decide to pay attention. And so, autopilot kicked in and she got too busy to even think about where she should be.

So please don’t hear me wrong. The point of this sermon, and the point of the story of Mary and Martha, is not to tell you that you’re doing too much and that you should slow down. That may be true, but that’s for you to decide. Here’s the thing, though: you should decide. If you see that you’re doing things you don’t need to be, than decide to be done with those. That’s part of what this story teaches. But, just as important, if you want to serve God by all the things you’re doing, then by all means, choose to do that. Make the choice and enter your work with a deliberate intention to serve God and your neighbors through your actions. That is also a faithful choice.

To bring this back to UBC, I am so grateful for all the people here who do choose to love God and neighbor by their doing. During this past week, people in this congregation have taken meals to friends who were sick, decorated the stage for VBS, greeted people in the parking lot for a funeral service, prepared for and cleaned up after the reception, and written who knows how many emails about every aspect of church life. There are many faithful ways to serve God, and I don’t think the story of Mary and Martha means that doing such things is bad.

But it does suggest we should choose do those things deliberately, or we risk missing the point. Like Martha, we can get so busy serving God that we forget the amazing reality that God is right here with us, right now, in our houses, at our work.

Of course, life will happen. We’ll get preoccupied with our to-do lists, we’ll find ourselves too addicted to our smartphones and newsfeeds, things will happen that knock us off balance and in so many other ways we will come to realize that our lives are moving along on autopilot. And when that happens, I hope we’ll come back again to the story of Mary and Martha.

For the bulletin artwork today, there were many paintings to choose from, since so many artists have depicted the scene in Martha’s house. I’m sure you’ve also imagined it in your own mind. Most of these paintings have an angry, bitter Martha glaring over at a serene, saintly Mary. I didn’t pick one of those, because while that is a scene in the story, I don’t think the story ends there, with distracted Martha, but a few frames later when Martha has been invited to choose to join her sister before Christ. One sits quietly, and one stands with her hands full, but both are invited to choose the most important thing.

It took Martha (like most of us) a little while to get there. But even when she was distracted or preoccupied, Jesus interrupted her busy-ness and called out her name. Not with judgmental scolding, “Martha, Martha, Martha,” but with a calm, steady invitation: “Martha, Martha.” You don’t have to do that; you get to choose. And so do we.

So, choose. Look past the distractions, and take the reins of your life. Listen for the one calmly speaking your name to you, calling you into the fullness of your life, and choose to follow.

To Inherit Eternal Life: A Muslim’s Mercy

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 10, 2016
Taken from Luke 10:25-37

The Good Samaritan - van Gogh

There is difference between knowledge and wisdom.  A handy way to remember difference goes like this:  Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.  I’ve thought about that distinction over the last few days each time I looked over today’s sermon title.  I’ve wondered about knowledge and wisdom.

On the knowledge side, I know that for many of us contemporary American Christians, that a Muslim is in fact the modern-day equivalent of what a Samaritan was for a 1st-century Palestinian Jew.  So, my sermon title today, “To Inherit Eternal Life:  A Muslim’s Mercy” – that is informed by knowledge.  I’m just not so sure it’s also informed by wisdom by actually putting it in the bulletin.

To speak of a Muslim’s mercy as though that might have anything remotely to do with a Christian’s hope of inheriting eternal life, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?  At the very least, it’s a gratuitous provocation upon the sensibilities of us Christians.

As might be true for us today so it was true then, on this day when Jesus just puts it out there, as Luke records for us.  Jesus doesn’t prepare this poor lawyer for what he’s about to spring on him.  Jesus doesn’t qualify the word “Samaritan” with the word “good” because, frankly, for these Jews there gathered around Jesus and for generations of Jews who’d come before them, there was no such thing as a “Good Samaritan”.

If that is so, why does Jesus tell this particular parable in this way?  Was it wise thing for him to do so?  For us, today, of course, Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan is enshrined as Scripture, so we can’t change it.

But it wasn’t so on that day.  Jesus could have told his parable a dozen other ways…but why this way?  Is Jesus just pulling this out of thin air, a gratuitous provocation for those listening to this argument?

Jesus, of course, is an excellent storyteller, but Mr. Luke can spin out a pretty good tale himself.  You see, Luke is not simply stringing together a bunch of little stories to flesh out a life about Jesus.  Luke is weaving together little stories in order to tell us his readers one Great Story.

The Great Story is the Kingdom of God has come near to you in Jesus of Nazareth.  The little stories Luke records for us build on one another, one leading to the next, unfolding before us the Great Story of God’s Kingdom now among us.  And, that’s what Luke has done here.

Jesus wasn’t just pulling this story out of thin air, and Luke wants to prepare us for it.  Luke gets his readers ready for what Jesus is about to tell here in chapter 10 by telling us a little nugget one chapter back, in chapter 9.  Jot down this reference to read later:  Luke 9, verses 51-56.

Getting us ready for chapter 10, Luke tells us near the end of chapter 9, that Jesus is up in Galilee, and he realizes now is the time for him to head south to Jerusalem.  The most direct route is for him and his followers to go through Samaria to reach Judah and then on to Jerusalem.

So, that’s what they do.  They head south, approaching Samaria.  Perhaps it gets toward the end of the day; they need water and food and shelter for the night.  So Jesus sends messengers on ahead to the next village to prepare for his arrival.  Remember we talked about that last Sunday.

It’s a village of Samaritans, of course.  The messengers show up at the village and make inquiry.  But, Luke tells us in chapter 9, verse 53, that when the Samaritans realize this is a band of Jews headed toward Jerusalem to celebrate a festival, they rebuff them…”Get outta here!  We don’t serve your kind around here!”  That’s what they told them.

So the messengers return to where Jesus and the others are waiting and report this to Jesus.  Luke tells us it makes James and John so angry they say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?”

 Now, where have we heard that recently?  They’re taking a page right out of Elijah’s playbook, aren’t they?  That’s how Elijah dealt with people like this; you unleash holy fire to reign down on them.

Think about that a moment.  There is a village out there in front of them.  It’s full of Samaritan men, women, children, babies.  All settling down for the night, and James and John want to call in a drone strike from heaven!  They’re not being metaphorical!  They are actually asking for Jesus’ permission to have divine fire drop down out of the sky onto this unsuspecting village and incinerate them!

We don’t need scholars to tell us what Samaritans thought about Jews and what Jews thought about Samaritans.  Luke does a pretty good job of letting us know that right here in these few verses in chapter 9.  The followers of Jesus despised Samaritans and the Samaritans despised them, with a racial hatred and a religious hatred fueled at least for the past 500 years, if not longer.

Why does Luke tell us that ugly incident here, now, near the end of chapter 9?  Luke is telling us, his readers, you just hold that little episode in your minds for at least one chapter longer.  Jesus rebuked James and John for what they asked, but you better believe this incident stuck in their craw.

Especially so because now Jesus and the disciples have to cut way over to the East, all the way over into the Jordan River valley, where they catch another road south that follows the Jordan River all the way down to the city of Jericho, where now they can catch the road from Jericho back through the treacherous, dangerous mountains, to reach Jerusalem.1

So by this little bit of foreshadowing, we now know that these traveling Jews found themselves on the road and in need, but they were rebuffed and treated rudely by Samaritans.  Now, these same traveling Jews find themselves walking the dangerous road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho.

So, no, Jesus wasn’t just pulling this parable out of thin air, was he?  He was being quite intentional in how he constructed this little story.

We may find the sermon title, “To Inherit Eternal Life:  A Muslim’s Mercy”, is wee bit provocative.  Imagine how much Jesus’ parable, “To Inherit Eternal Life:  A Samaritan’s Mercy”, provoked everybody there that day.  We’ll appreciate that Jesus wasn’t just speaking to this lawyer, was he?  He was aiming it at James and John and the other disciples, too.

So, Jesus and the disciples are on that same road over from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Along the way this lawyer encounters them, realizes this is a Galilean rabbi he’s heard about, and decides to test Jesus’ credentials:  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, that is a crucial question, is it not?  If you believe there is God, and if you believe there is an eternal life with God that you might have, and if you believe that that life with God would be far richer and satisfying far beyond imagining, you and I should be asking that question for ourselves:  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, if someone asked us that question, “Friend, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, we would naturally quote a Scripture from the New Testament.  There’s lot to choose from, so we’d want to pick one that gets right to the point, such as Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

That’s pretty much what the lawyer wants to hear out of Jesus.  He wants to hear Jesus quote back to him the correct Scriptural response.  Because that’s this lawyer’s profession.  It is his vocation to make sure all is being done according to Scripture.

It’s his job is to draw up contracts, to counsel clients, to settle lawsuits, to argue zoning requirements, to assess weights and balances…anything you can imagine…his job is to ensure all is done in a way consistent with Hebraic Holy Law.2

I have a lawyer friend who once served in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office down in Bedford County.  She said one day a man came in needing some legal advice.  He had traded away one of his hunting dogs to another man in the county for a shotgun he’d admired that this man owned.  Straight trade, hand shake, nothing complicated.

Except, the hunting dog kept leaving its new owner to come back home to its original owner.  This kept on happening, over and over, until finally the man wanted his shotgun back.  The dog’s former owner didn’t think he had any control over the dog since it wasn’t his dog anymore.  So, his question to my assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney friend:  was he obligated to hand the shotgun back over to its original owner?  This may have actually been the case that caused my friend to go find somewhere else to practice law.

That’s the kind of question this lawyer interrogating Jesus lived for!  He could have sorted through all of the Book of Leviticus, and all the precedents of similar cases down through the generations, faster than you and I could Google it to tell that man exactly whether he needed to return the shotgun. Out would come the answer, all squared up with Jewish law.

Jesus throws the question right back to him:  “What is written in the law? How do you read (what you shall do to inherit eternal life)?”

You can probably quote this without peeking down at your bulletin:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

 “Boom!  You nailed it!” says Jesus, “So go do that, and you’ll be fine.”

Realizing that a peasant rabbi from Galilee with no training whatsoever had just turned the table on him, the lawyer won’t let it go.  He says in verse 29, “Oh, yeah?  And who is my neighbor?”  And thus begins Jesus’ little parable about the traveling Jew walking the road that connects Jerusalem and Jericho.

A gang of robbers assault him, rob him of everything including his clothing.  They leave him stripped naked under the brutal sun, dying and easy prey for the animals.

Along come other travelers, also Jews.  Who among them will recognize that this man, lying in the ditch near death, is their neighbor whom the Law obligates them to help?  You see, that’s the lawyer’s assumption of where Jesus is going with this little story.  What does the Law say about the man lying there in the ditch?  Even under these circumstances, is he my neighbor?

Well, watch, says Jesus…along comes a priest also headed to Jericho.  The priest knows good and well that this man is his neighbor under the law, but he cares more about his own safety, so the priest keeps right on going.  “Hah!” maybe the lawyer thinks to himself, “that’s about what you could expect from a priest.”

Then, there comes along a Levite, also heading to Jericho.  The Levite does the same as the priest…he looks over in the ditch to see his fellow Jew whom the Levite knows good and well he should help.  But not today, not on this lonely stretch of road.  The Levite keeps on trucking.  “Well,” perhaps the lawyer thinks to himself, “that’s a little disappointing.  I would have expected better from a Levite.  But, I bet I know who’s coming next down the road.”

Maybe he’s thinking, “I’m a lawyer, so I bet Jesus is going to bring a model lawyer along down the road, who will do exactly the right thing even under these risky circumstances, because the model lawyer knows that regardless of the situation, if you love God, then you’ll love your neighbor and help him out.”  Jesus is going to tell him to go do the right thing that he already knows to do, this time by way of this story of the Good Lawyer.

Our lawyer is all set for one of his fellow lawyers to come down the road to Jericho, when Jesus drops this on him, “But a Muslim…I mean, a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and went to him and bound up his wounds…”  And, you know how the rest of the parable goes.

There is so much in this little story Jesus told, that Luke tells to us.  Most of all, it was a story that shocked the lawyer, and it shocked Jesus’ disciples.  Because the hero of the story, as in so many of Luke’s stories about Jesus, is not the righteous and the orthodox, it is the outcast, the one hated and despised.  This story is much like the one of that unnamed prostitute Luke described for us a few weeks ago, that we, for the time being, called Roxanne.

The Greater Story, the Story of the Kingdom of God Come Near in Jesus, is meant to provoke us.  Whatever we may say we believe and know of God in Jesus, if we have not love like that of that forgiven prostitute, if we have not the mercy that a Samaritan shows to his enemy, then we have to ask ourselves, has the Kingdom of God truly come to abide within me?

Never do we purchase our entry into the Kingdom of God, by anything that we ourselves do.  It is by way of this truth:  “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.”

 But, to know the Kingdom of God now come into our lives, will put us at odds with the ways of the kingdoms of this earth.  Unexpected love, unexpected mercy, is what we have received from God, and it is what God expects us to offer to all who yet do not know the Great, Great Story of Jesus.

 


1 Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979) p. 294 n. 7.

2see for example, Dr. Allan Ross’s series, “The Religious World of Jesus:  the Scribes”, at https://bible.org/seriespage/7-scribes

Two by two: Out of the Ark, Into the Harvest

Luke describes for us how Jesus sent out seventy or seventy-two of his followers to go in advance of him.  They were to prepare folks in the villages to receive Jesus’ visit and to hear Jesus’ core message, that the kingdom of God was at hand.  That was Jesus’ message:  the kingdom of God is at hand.

As Luke recorded earlier in chapter 4, when Jesus left the wilderness of temptation to begin his public ministry, Jesus’ first teaching was in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth.

There in the synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah the prophet, the word of God which Jesus then claimed for himself and his ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  (Luke 4:16-21)

Those words of Isaiah, Jesus said, anticipated what his ministry would be.  Those words of Isaiah, for Jesus, summed up the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Several Sundays ago, we considered Luke chapter 7.  Luke tells of how John the Baptist sent two of his own disciples to question Jesus:  “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus’ told them this:  look at what Jesus was doing, and then John could draw his own conclusion, as Jesus lists for them the works and words of his ministry up to that point.  In essence, Jesus lists how he was fulfilling what he had earlier quoted from Isaiah.  (Luke 7:18-23)

Jesus was asking John the Baptist, “What does the kingdom of God come near mean to you?”  What did it mean for them, and what does it mean for us, to say that kingdom of God is at hand?

Long before these seventy, or seventy-two, knew anything at about the cross and the resurrection, long before there was any place in their imaginations for the Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden of Easter morning, their grasp of the Gospel was only this: the Kingdom of God now come near to them in Jesus, and the words and works that Jesus performed.

What is the Kingdom of God now come near and now at hand mean for you and me and for University Baptist Church?

Is it what Jesus described of himself to his fellow worshipers that first Sabbath in the synagogue at Nazareth?  Is it what Jesus enumerated for the disciples of John the Baptist to tell to their teacher?   Is the Kingdom of God at hand on Earth

about “preaching good news to the poor”?
about “proclaiming release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind”?
about “setting at liberty those who are oppressed”?

Is the fact and the reality of the kingdom of God at hand and near us about “proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord?” for those who cannot imagine that the Lord God would accept even them?

Because if the Kingdom of God is about that, as Jesus himself professed, then why are we not, in the name of our Lord, also professing that same message and also doing those same works?

Interestingly enough, the key to our answer may be how we hear these few little words in verse 1:  the Lord “. . . sent them two by two ahead . . .” “Two by two.” Now, where have we heard those words before in Scripture?  It’s the command God gave to Noah, all the way back over at the start of our Bible, in Genesis chapters 6 and 7:

“Make yourself an ark of gopher wood . . . And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two . . . they went into the ark with Noah two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life.” (Genesis 6:14, 19; 7:15)  Two by two, they entered the Ark to escape God’s judgment about to come over all the earth.

Early on in Christianity, and on down through the centuries, Christians have viewed the Church as a kind of Noah’s Ark.  The Church is God’s Ark into which God is gathering all those whom God intends to save from God’s coming judgement and destruction on all life left outside God’s Ark.

We call this space where we gather for worship on Sunday mornings the Sanctuary.  Downstairs is the Fellowship Hall, and upstairs is the Sanctuary.  That architectural truism is built into most any Baptist church building.  But, historically, Christians have called this space the Nave.

As one scholar describes it, “The word ‘nave’ comes from the Latin word ‘navis,’ meaning ship (a collection of ships is a ‘navy’). The church nave symbolizes a ship with its vaulted ceiling looking like an inverted keel.”  In other words, we’re sitting in the cargo hold of an upside-down ship.  We are the Lord’s Ark, into which the Lord gathers us “two by two”.1

Well, that’s o.k.  We need a sanctuary, don’t we?  We need a refuge.  We need at least one sacred space in our lives that we know is consecrated to worshiping God.  Yes, we can worship God anytime and anyplace, but this place on our spiritual maps is uniquely devoted to the worship of God now revealed through Jesus of Nazareth.  This nave, this ship, this Ark, of refuge – that is a good understanding of church.

But, what’s not o.k. is how the Church as Ark often gets turned more into Church as Floating Fortress, a place into which God has separated us and isolated us.  In this version of the Ark is the Spirit of God within; without is Satan.  Within this Ark are the Redeemed of the Lord, without are those under God’s condemnation.

A.W. Tozer was in highly influential pastor, preacher, author, who ministered mainly in the first half of the twentieth century.  You may have read his book, The Pursuit of God, published in 1948.  It’s a book that I read as a young man that helped form my earlier faith.

Tozer preached this in one sermon, “The church is depicted as an ark on the flood waters. As the ark of Noah floated on the waters and contained all who would be salvaged, so the church of Jesus Christ is an ark on the flood waters and contains all who will be salvaged.”

“Remember that!” Tozer emphasized, before continuing in his sermon, “All in the ark are saved, and all outside the ark perish. All around us is a perishing world, and we float on top of it in a little ark called the church. All that are not in the church–the ark–will perish.”2

What picture does Tozer’s words form in your mind?  What attitude does that description call forth in your heart?  Are we in the Church of Jesus Christ really an Ark that floats atop a perishing world, an Arc into God has gathered you and me, two by two, until God has cleansed away the filth, dispensed with the evil, established a new heaven and a new earth onto which God’s Ark will then deposit us safe and saved?

Yet, Luke records for us a very different gathering up of Jesus’ followers into pairs, two by two.  These seventy, or seventy-two, depending on your translation, unnamed followers whom Jesus called, not to sit two by two at ease around him, but whom he sent out, two by two, as workers in a field where “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

These seventy, or seventy-two, whom Jesus called up, two by two, not as innocent lambs gathered in and with the door securely behind them, as on Noah’s Ark.  These Jesus sent out to go into their region “as lambs in the midst of wolves”.

In other words, Jesus parked the Ark!  Jesus unsealed the door and threw it open!  The passengers are told to disembark and to go ashore!  Two by two Jesus marches them out, to go out into a field of work, out to pass through a place of risk, to prepare people with a message of peace.

That word, “peace”, these followers knew through the good Hebrew word, “shalom”.  They took the message of God’s “shalom” where the broken of humanity are mended and restored, the empty filled up and made content, the anguished befriended and comforted, and the lost brought home and reunited.

Yes, there is much yet to be said of methodology.  The verses that follow are very much about methodology.  There is every generation’s obligation to learn the language and to know the culture and to form a meaningful message of the kingdom of God and to go.

But, before all that will ever happen, there must be a change of hearing and a change of heart.  How do you hear the words, “two by two”?  “Two by two, safely gathered in and sheltering in place, until God wipes away all that threatens and dismays us?”

Or, do we hear “two by two” sent out by the Lord of Peace in whom and through whom the Kingdom of God has come near, a great Kingdom gathering for all who will, receive that Peace in their lives?

Shall University Baptist Church gather ourselves in, seal up the doors of our building, ride high above what waves rock around us, until God delivers us safely across to Heaven’s shore?

Or will University Baptist Church be a refuge, be a sanctuary wherein we do come for spiritual rest and reviving before going back out into the field outside our church doors, a field ripe with people in need of the healing presence of Christ, the peace of Christ answering the peace which they seek?

 

 


1 Daniel B. Clendenhin, “Under God’s Rainbow:  The Church as Noah’s Ark,” for Revised Common Lectionary, May 24, 2014, http://journeywithjesus.net

2 Text sermons: A.W. Tozer: The Ark Analogy, http://SermonIndex.net.

When Elijah Finally Heard Silence

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 25, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 19:1-13

St Elijah and the Hearth Bread

 

This past Wednesday I traveled over to Waynesboro for a meeting.  That gave me a chance on the way back to do something I find fun to do. Before coming back over the mountain, I like to fill up my gas tank at one of the gas stations there where Rosser Avenue intersects with I-64.

Then just as I’m about to top over Afton Mountain, I reset my gas mileage calculator to zero and I shift my car into neutral and I coast down Afton Mountain. I am very easily entertained.  I will admit that.  What entertains me about this is watching my gas mileage calculator calculate my gas mileage as I coast down Afton Mountain on my way back to Charlottesville.

So, I’ve reset my gas mileage calculator to zero, I’m in neutral, I’m coasting down Afton Mountain.  I’m watching the calculator with one eye, my speedometer with one eye, and the road with my other eye.  Occasionally I’m having to apply the brakes to stay at the speed limit.

The first calculation that pops up is 33. 6 miles per gallon, but I smile in anticipation because I know where this will end up…33.6…33.7….34.0…on and on the readout of my mileage calculator climbs.  Forty-two miles per gallon!  Eh…that’s nothing, as I continue coasting down Afton Mountain.

I hit 50 miles per gallon, then 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 miles per gallon, and I’m laughing because I’m only half way down Afton Mountain.  Finally, the calculator tops out at 99.9 miles per gallon that I’m getting in my little Ford Focus, and I’m still not off the mountain.

My calculator won’t go any higher, so who knows how much my actual gas mileage is when I finally come down off the Mountain?  A hundred  and ten miles per gallon?  A hundred and fifteen miles per gallon?  What an amazing car I’m driving!  This is absolutely thrilling me!  This is so excellent an experience!

Until I start coasting on towards Crozet.  The calculator holds at 99.9 miles per gallon for a few miles, but then, inevitably, the gravity that gave me that fabulous mileage coming down the mountain now starts to taking it back…90 miles per gallon…89.9 miles per gallon…well, I won’t count it out for you.  Let’s just say reality can be a bitter cup from which to drink.

What happened to all my wonderful miles per gallon?  Was my calculator malfunctioning?  No. My calculator was working perfectly.  Was I dreaming or hallucinating?  Nope, to the best of my knowledge, I was stone-cold sober and clear-eyed.

My readout was factually correct; in full truthfulness I can tell you that my little Ford Focus gets better than 99.9 miles to the gallon.  At least, when I’m coasting from the top of Afton Mountain, most of the way down to exit 107.

So, let’s see if that has anything whatsoever to do with Elijah’s experience here in 1 Kings, chapter 19. If not, then I’m about lay an egg, but I think it might help us.

Last week, we saw Elijah have this great victory up high on Mount Carmel.  He put the 450 prophets of Baal to shame.  Baal was nowhere to be found, but Yahweh God showed up with a tremendous display of fire reigning down from the sky above.  Elijah’s riding high…he is getting 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon, and he’s still up on the mountain top coming down to the valley below.

Elijah commands this fired-up frenzied mob of religious folk to seize the prophets of Baal; commands they drag these 450 men of false faith, to go down with Elijah into the valley, where Elijah oversees the execution of those 450 men.  He’s still clocking in at 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in his soul.

Then, the reality of Elijah’s world starts encroaching.  The gravity of what Elijah has done starts dragging at him.  The off-the-chart calculation of Elijah’s enthusiasm begins to spiral down, as the reality of Elijah’s pyrrhic victory collides with the reality of Jezebel’s burning vengeance.

Chapter 19, verse 2, “…Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and worse, if I do not make your life as the life of one my dead prophets by this time tomorrow.’”  And, suddenly, not only is Elijah getting really bad mileage, but Elijah discovers that his soul is just about on empty and the little warning is blinking at him, announcing his grand road trip is about to run out of gas.

Have you ever gotten the equivalent of 99.9 spiritual miles per gallon in your soul?  Have you ever experienced what it was like to know the presence of God and the power of God and the overwhelming reality of God in and around and beyond everything in your soul?

Nothing was wrong with you.  Everything was working the way it should with you.  You weren’t dreaming or hallucinating.  You knew correctly; perhaps you even testified truthfully, you experienced the Living God.  For a time, in your travels with God, you were getting better than 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in your soul.  But, then, the gravity of this world took hold of you…the reality of Spirit of God within you gaveth, but now other realities draineth…and, so, now, you’re not so sure any more about that whole God thing.

Don’t let it fluster you too much.  It happens to us all.  It happened even to Elijah.  The question is, what do we do with that experience of exhilaration?  What do we do with that knowledge that at some point, for some brief part of the journey, we knew the simple and pure joy of God within us.  That is, until those who serve the gods of this world threaten to overwhelm us and to defeat us?  All those “Ahabs and Jezebels” and their minions, those prophets of Baal we thought we’d dispatched never to come ‘round again but who, now, seem to rise and haunt like ghosts from the grave?

Well, Elijah just decided he didn’t want anything else to do with any of it!  Curse them all!  And, curse me for caring so much!  Elijah takes off, heading south.  Recall your Bible-land geography.  If you have your Bible, it’s o.k. to look back into the maps.

This sacred Promised Land which God gave to the Israelites lay within the ancient boundaries of Canaan.  The twelve tribes had scattered up and down Canaan.  Eventually, King David unified the tribes into the nation of Israel.  King David’s successor, Solomon, manages to keep the twelve tribes united.  But, after King Solomon’s death, the people became divided once again, splitting the Promised Land into two competing entities, Israel in the northern half and Judah in the southern.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, so Ezekiel heads south out of Israel, down into Judah to escape Jezebel.  Elijah safely crosses the border into Judah, he doesn’t stop there.  Elijah keeps right on going, traveling further south down through Judah, until he comes to the southern border town of Beersheba.  Elijah is now at the southern-most point of The Promised Land.  He is well beyond Jezebel’s assassins.   But, does Elijah stop there even?  No.

In verses 3 and 4, Elijah leaves Beersheba.  He crosses over Judah’s southern border and goes a day’s journey even further south.  Do you realize what Elijah has just done there in verse 4?  Not only has Elijah fled from Ahab and Jezebel way up north, Elijah has left behind the Promised Land entirely.  He’s gone into a desert no-man’s land.1

That’s how angry and frightened and depleted Elijah had become.  He left the people of God behind him entirely.  He’s even left the Promised Land of God behind him.  Curse them all!  And, curse me for caring so much!  That’s what Elijah is telling God.  “I’m finished!” Elijah tells God in verse 4.  “My life means nothing!  I am worth no more than the ashen bones of my ancestors, so just finish me off here and now!”  Elijah falls asleep, hoping never to wake up again.  What a terrible and dark place to be in one’s own head and in one’s own soul.

If you’ve ever been there in your own head and soul, it’s really, really hard to take care of yourself until you’re better.  It’s also really, really hard to let someone else take care of you.  But, if you ever do find yourself reaching that desperate place of wishing your own death, please let someone take care of you for a bit.

If there’s no one around, and you’ve got a phone handy, you make yourself pick it up and dial 911.  Or, get yourself to an emergency room or a walk-in clinic.  Don’t even debate it with yourself.  Taking care of yourself is not up for debate.  God takes care of Elijah, even though Elijah doesn’t want taking care of.

Think about all the other ways God could have responded to Elijah.  In places, the Old Testament presents God to us in a pretty rough ways:  pestilence and floods and fires and general acts of divine mayhem.  So, maybe we’d expect God to be pretty rough on Elijah, too.

You remember that Geico commercial from several years ago where the serious spokesman asks, “Can Geico really save you 15% on your car insurance?”  He pauses and then asks, rhetorically, “Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist?”

Then, it shows a client on the therapist’s couch, pouring his heart out to this former drill sergeant-turned-therapist.  The therapist proceeds to ridicule the client, which makes the client cry; he offers the client a tissue and when the client reaches for the box, the therapist slings the box at the client in disgust.

Maybe we’d expect that kind of ‘quit your sniveling’ reaction from God to Elijah, but no.  God takes care of Elijah.  God sends an angelic messenger who prepares some hot baked bread and some cold water for Elijah.  You know, sometimes what you need are your carbs replenished and rehydration.  Elijah eats and drinks and falls back to sleep.  Sleep…sometimes you need more sleep and rest, too.

A second day, God sends the messenger to wake up Elijah and make him eat.  Don’t overdo the sleep…don’t let sleep turn into an escape from taking care of yourself…you’ve got to eat and drink to replenish what your body needs.

The third thing God does for Elijah is God takes this journey with Elijah.  God transforms Elijah’s flight from life into a journey to rejuvenate his life.  God helps Elijah to rediscover purpose and calling for his life.

God takes Elijah back, way back, in time and place to where it all started:  Mount Horeb, better known to us as Mount Sinai.2  Mount Horeb, where Moses met God on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights.  Where Moses hid in the cleft of the rock, shielding himself as God passed.

Mount Horeb, where God through made covenant with this mass of rescued slaves and began to transform them into God’s people.  As many centuries ago for Moses, so now for Elijah.

In verse 11, God calls Elijah to come out from the cave where he is hiding.  God is about to pass by.  But, as we read in verse 13, apparently Elijah had said no way I’m staying put in my cave.

But God acts anyway, in all the ways that have up to point super-fueled Elijah’s faith.  God sends a terrific, destructive wind that sheers plates of rock off the mountain face, sending them flying, shattering down the mountainside.  But, Elijah somehow understood, this terrible wind was not the true revelation of God with him, so he stays put.

Then God sends an earthquake; it’s as though God has snatched Mount Horeb by the throat, shaking it as though the destroy this sacred mountain itself.  But, still Elijah hides himself in the cave, knowing that God had not yet passed by.

Finally, the fire rained down around the cave where Elijah hides.  It’s the divine fire of God that Elijah himself had once called down on that other mountain top called Carmel.  But, now, Elijah realizes, fire does not show God for who God really is; so still, he hides in the cave.

God was not in the wind, not in earthquake, not in the fire…what torrent will next sweep down around Elijah.  There comes…what?  What was that, which Elijah thought he heard, after the fire?  Was it anything at all?  Was there someone out there, outside of the cave, speaking, calling out to Elijah?

The phrase there at the end of verse 13 gets translated in various ways.  It can be translated as “a sound, a fine silence” that Elijah hears.  It can also be translated as “a voice, a small whisper”.  In the silence itself, he hears God speak, “Elijah…what are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah once loved the thrill of that 99.9 miles per gallon kind of experience with God, but now God is reorienting Elijah in his grasp of God.  Scholar John Gray interprets the meaning of this encounter to be this:  God is admonishing Elijah not to expect God to be revealed in a way that thrills Elijah and that destroys the opposition.  It is not in “the supernatural and spectacular in-breaking of Yahweh” into events with the “storm, earthquake, and fire”.

Instead, Dr. Gray continues in his scholarly way, God comes to Elijah with “an intelligible revelation to find God’s direction in the ordinary course of daily life…to communicate [God’s direction] regularly and constructively.” 4   Wow, doesn’t that sound… boring.

No, not really.  There’s nothing boring about God in any way, shape or form that God chooses to reveal the Divine Presence to us.

I grant you, whirlwind, earthquake and fire are exciting and satisfying and will get you revved up.  Yes!  when it’s whirling and quaking and scorching someone else, especially when it’s happening to folks we wish God would remove from this earth.

But, it’s not God.  It’s not redemptive, and God is finally revealed to us as the God Who Redeems.  God does not shatter nor wrench nor scorch the land, nor does God do that to people.  We do that.  God, instead, redeems people as well as redeems lands.

When God wanted to prepare for coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God chose another like Elijah to prepare the way.  When Jesus, in the course of his ministry, needed God to validate him, God sent Elijah, along with Moses, to meet Jesus up on that Mount we call Transfiguration.  But, neither an Elijah nor a Moses is our Lord and Savior.

On that day we call “Palm Sunday”, Jesus’ followers expected a triumphal king to march through Jerusalem’s gates, to march up the Temple steps and to call down all forms of destruction on God’s enemies.  God instead gave them the king who surrendered his life to death on a cross not only to redeem his followers but to redeem his enemies, as well.

When the followers of Jesus most expected their own destruction, God gave them resurrection instead.  They learned, no person and no people, no servant of God, and no congregation that serves that same God, no, not one will God abandoned nor cause to fail.  Any of us may come coasting down off a mountain-top of victory one day, only to find ourselves wandering in the desert of despair.  But, in that silence, we will find God who whispered out to Elijah, still speaks our names.

The God who finally showed up in Jesus, still keeps showing up.  We too, let us keep showing up, witnessing of God who redeems all people, in all the lands of the earth.  That is our purpose in God’s service.  It’s purpose enough for any of us.

______________________________

1Both DeVries and Gray note the significance of Elijah’s further travel south beyond Beersheba; Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 237; and John Gray, I & II Kings:  A Commentary (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1970) p. 407.

2For Moses’ experiences on Mount Horeb (Sinai) see, for example, in Exodus chps. 19-20, chp. 33:17-23; and chp. 34:1-10.

3Gary T. Dalton, “Exposition of I Kings 19:9-18”, December 6, 1982, written for partial completion of requirements for class, “Introduction to Old Testament,” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY; Fall Semester, 1982; Dr. Page Kelley, professor.

4op. cit., p. 410.

When Fire Reigned

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 19, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 18:20-21, 25-40

The medium is the message!

“The medium is the message” is the well-known statement Marshall McLuhan introduced in 1964.That is, McLuhan observed, the media which are the containers and conveyers of our messages, becomes part of the messages themselves.

If I tell you that on two different occasions I went to two different restaurants but ordered the same thing to drink at both restaurants, what could you tell me about each restaurant?  Well, maybe that I have a favorite beverage that I like to have wherever I go.

What if I told you, yes, I do have a favorite beverage when I eat out:  it’s unsweetened iced-tea served with a slice of lemon.  Again, you would know that much about me, but you still would not be able to tell me anything about the two restaurants.

But, what if I told that at one of these two restaurants, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a goblet of fine crystal-glass with the lemon-slice nicely slipped onto the rim of the glass?  Then, what if I told you that at the second restaurant, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a mason jar, along with a little bowl containing several slices of lemon for our mutual convenience?

The only additional information I have given to you is about the container in which the server brought me my iced-tea and lemon-slice.  I haven’t said a word about the locations of the two restaurants or the names of the restaurants or the quality of the iced-tea they each served me.  The only thing I have told you is the container in which each restaurant serves iced-tea to its patrons.

But, with that single bit of additional information—a fine crystal goblet or a mason jar–you now could tell me with a great deal of accuracy all kinds of things about each of those restaurants.

You could tell me about what likely was on the menu of each restaurant; you could describe to me the décor of each restaurant; you could even describe for me how my fellow patrons and I were likely dressed as we ate in each restaurant.

And you could supply me with all that information based simply on this single bit of seemly inconsequential data:  what container does each restaurant use to convey to its customer the contents of iced-tea with a lemon-slice.  Marshall McCluhan seems to have been right on the money back in 1964:  the medium and the message are inseparable.

So, I ask you:  what may we conclude?…what message do we perceive?… when the prophets of two gods gather on a mountain-top, lay out their sacrifices, and, then, in the terms laid out by Elijah in our case, in verse 24, “‘…you call on your god and I will call on the name of [mine]; and the God who answers by fire, by golly, he is God.’”  When the medium of revelation is trial by fire, what message may we gather of the god who then rains down that fire?

I was an architecture student my first year at Virginia Tech.  Your first year of architecture, you are constantly building little models.  The professors lay out concepts of structure or beauty or any kind of abstract idea, and then they tell the students to go translate that idea into a three-dimensional object.

One Tuesday, the professor gave us his lecture; he laid out this abstract concept; now, he tells us, go build a model to illustrate how you understand the concept I presented to you.  It’s due on Thursday.

Thursday comes around.  We’re all ready, with our little models sitting up on our bench-tops.  But, instead of coming around to each of our work stations to view our models, the professor tells us to meet in the presentation room…that’s just a fancy name for a big empty classroom.

He gathers us into a big circle and calls on us each in our turn to lay our models there on the floor in the middle of the circle.  The professor then carefully walks around each model, circling it like a hawk circles a field mouse, finally, crouching down over the model, staring at it, and then looking up at the student:  “Please, this, explain,” he asks the student.

As I watch this inquisition unfolding, to my horror I realize that my classmates have positioned their models on nice pieces of poster-board, so their models aren’t just sitting all exposed on the floor.  That was not in the professor’s instructions.  Everyone else just seemed to know this is how you do it, except me.

My model is fairly small and will fit nicely on a piece of notebook paper.  So, I rip out a page from my spiral-bound notebook.  You know how a page rips out of a spiral-bound notebook, with all the little perforations down the edge and usually some little bits of paper tear out and stick to the perforations.  Eh!  At least now I’ve got something to set my model on.

My turn comes.  The professor invites me to present my offering.  I carefully lay down my sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper and then carefully position my model dead-center on the paper.  Then, I scurry back and watch as the hawk begins circling its prey.

The professor circles, stoops, rubs his chin and studies what I’ve laid before him.  “This is very interesting,” he says.  “Ah!” I think with relief…the professor thinks my model is interesting.

But, now, he’s poking my model around with his finger, shifting it first to one side of the notebook paper and then to other side, as if he’s unsure where it best fits on the paper.

Finally, he looks up at me.  “This, I understand,” he says to me, pointing to my model.  “But, this?  This, I don’t understand,” he says, circling with his finger the paper.  “What is the meaning of this part of your project?” (finger circling the paper), “to this part of your project?” (finger poking the model, pushing it around again.)  I was at a loss to answer his question…what was the relationship, what was the meaning, of the sheet of notebook paper to my model?

The medium of presentation–my ripped-out piece of notebook paper–and my carefully crafted model—my message to my professor of how I understood him—these were now joined as a whole in his eyes.  “Please, this, explain.”  The lesson he was teaching us at my great discomfort was, the medium becomes intertwined with the message.

The explanation for the god called “Baal”, really, is quite simple.  We all know the answer, right?  There is no such actual being named Baal. Elijah knows that, but Elijah’s not going to let these four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal off the hook so easily.  “Please, this, explain!” Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal in verse 27.

“Cry aloud, shout it out from the mountain-top!  For surely he is a god, isn’t he?  Well, maybe your god is lost in thought.  Or, maybe it’s this…maybe Baal has momentarily left the room to tend to some urgent business.”

The Hebrew scribes just loved this part of Elijah’s taunt, because the expression Elijah uses can be translated, “tending to urgent business” as in “going to the bathroom.”2 “Maybe your god had to go see a man about a horse…I’m sure he’ll back any moment now.”  “Or, perhaps,” Elijah continues in verse 27, “he’s gone off on a journey, or maybe Baal’s just fallen asleep and you’ve got to shout even louder to wake him up!”

Which, no doubt to Elijah’s delight, is exactly what the prophets of Baal do!  They double-down on their pleas to Baal!  In verses 28 and 29, “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them….on they raved.”

Then, suddenly it seems, they all stop and grow still and listen…”But,” verse 29 concludes, “there was no voice…no one answered…no one showed up.”

Elijah says, “Move aside, boys, and let me show you how a real prophet of the one, true God gets it done!”

Elijah selects twelves large stones which he stacks together.  The twelves stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel.  He digs a huge trench around these twelve stones that now become the altar.  He stacks the wood on the altar.  He slaughters the sacrificial bull, cuts it up, and lays it out over the wood and the stones.

Then, in Elijah’s bow to showmanship and his general in-your-face attitude, Elijah commands that four huge jars of water be poured over everything…the bull, the wood, the stones…do it a second time, he commands, as the crowd watches in awe.  Do it a third time, Elijah commands, the crowd now left breathless at Elijah’s performance.  Water drains down and fills the trench around the altar.

All is ready, now.  Elijah doesn’t do anything else…he doesn’t dance around the altar or shout or scream or slash himself.  All he does is offer this prayer, essentially, “God, don’t let me down after all this grand build-up.”  Verses 36 and 37, Elijah prays, “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel…that I am thy servant…answer me, O Lord, answer me….”

And, my, but how God answers that short, simple prayer of Elijah’s.  Verse 38, “Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”

Up until then, the people of Israel were gathered there in the big middle, undecided whether to line up over here behind the prophets of Baal, or to line up over there behind lone Elijah and Yahweh.  That’s the picture Elijah had given back over in verse 21, when he’d told the people, “For God’s sake!  How long will you go on limping between two different opinions?  Make up your minds:  if it’s Yahweh, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him.”

Well, sisters and brothers…you see that divine fire fall from heaven and vaporize everything it touches…that’ll help you make up your mind in hurry!  They don’t walk; they run over to line up behind Elijah and Yahweh in verse 39, shouting as they run, “Yahweh, he is God!  Yahweh, he is God!”

But, remember this:  Marshall McLuhan may have written it down for us in 1964, but it’s always been true:  the medium is the message.  When divine fire rains down from heaven above, what message do you perceive about the God who reigns by fire?

Elijah prayed God to answer with fire.  God, as God is shown to do from time to time with God’s prophets and God’s people, God accommodates Elijah’s request and answers with fire.  And, in that medium of revelation by fire, Elijah thinks he finds permission to do what he orders be done, in verse 40:  “Round up the prophets of Baal; don’t let a single one get away.”

The people mob around those 450 prophets of Baal, long knives appear.  Elijah leads this frenzied mob down off the mountain, and there 450 throats are slashed, and their blood fills up the barren bed of the drought-starved brook of Kishon.

Which, nowhere, is in God’s instruction to Elijah.  Read through 1 Kings, chapter 17 and chapter 18.  The only message God gives Elijah to give to King Ahab is this:  “As Yahweh, God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (1 Kgs. 17:1) Then, God orders Elijah to go into hiding for a few years.  The drought takes hold and strangles the land and the people of Israel.  Move ahead one chapter.

Chapter 18, verse 1, “…the word of Yahweh came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.’”  So, Elijah comes out of hiding and shows himself to Ahab.  Skip over to chapter 18, verse 41, “And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing rain’.”  And, very soon, the rain does rush in and pours down over the land of Israel.  That was God’s mandate to Elijah.

God, I believe, meant to be revealed as the one true and living God through the medium of life-refreshing, life-sustaining rain, because that’s what the prophets of Baal claimed for their god, that Baal provided the rain.  God, I believe, meant simply to say to the people of the covenant, “You want to live under Baal’s care?  O.K., try it for a while.  I’ll check back in with you in three years or so.”

It is not at all my place to question why in the world God would accommodate Elijah in this trial by fire.  That’s not my call to make.  But, neither do I believe it was Elijah’s call to command the people round up those 450 prophets of Baal and execute them.

I cannot fathom why God accommodates any of us whom God has called out to be children of the covenant.  I cannot fathom why God accommodate us while we limp about, seemingly undecided on whether we really want to serve the living God, or whether we want to want to serve those who beckon us to come after lesser gods, or maybe, if we can have both at the same time.  God says, “no, my children, you can’t serve both God and something that’s not God.”

The ultimate accommodation God made is when God finally came to us, flesh and bone.  Mind, heart, strength, and soul, Jesus was, like any other human mortal borne of woman, borne of the flesh.  Yet, Jesus who by perfect faith loved God perfectly—mind, heart, strength, and soul—discovered in his young life’s journey, his true self:  that he was the Son of God as well as the Son of mortals.

You recall, I’m sure, the sermon from two Sunday’s ago.  John the Baptist thought Jesus might just be old Elijah returned to earth, to baptize with Holy Spirit and once again to rain down Holy Fire.  When Jesus turned out not to be so much the firebrand John had hoped for, John got worried, wanted to know if he’d make a mistake. (Luke 7:18-35).

You see, John the Baptist knew this Elijah account.  He knew this part about the divine fire falling.  John the Baptist thought that was the enduring message of God:  fire reigned then!  Fire reigns now!  Let the fire fall where it may!”

“Surprise!” says Jesus to John the Baptist:  turns out, you are Elijah come to prepare God’s people, not me; I am the Savior who comes, bringing a different kind of fire…the fire which purifies and transforms the inner being of whomever welcomes me and welcomes the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, this community of love, wherein “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.”  (Luke 7:22)

Or, would you prefer I slit a few throats, Cousin John?  That I rain down fire to incinerate our enemies, cleanse us of our infidels, expunge the followers of other gods amongst us?

What kind of fire reigns in your heart?  The only flame from above that I read about in my New Testament is the flame of God’s Spirit raining down on that day of Pentecost…we looked at that together too several Sundays ago.  When young and old, male and female, spoke the word of life to all people, people surprised that the Gospel was meant for them, too.

Does God’s fire reign now in the heart of University Baptist Church?  If not, then may we lift up that same prayer of Elijah’s, not that fire fall that incinerates rock, but that this Holy Spirit Pentecost fire might now fall and reign over us, person by person, until this congregation burns brightly for our Lord and his Gospel.


1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_medium_is_the_message

2Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 229.

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