Tag Archives: Identity

Elijah at Mount Carmel – November 8, 2015 (NL Week 9)

Sunday’s Reading:
1 Kings 18:20-39

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

After two weeks of reading about the rise and fall of kings and the political realities of life in ancient Israel, this week’s text from First Kings brings us back to the central question that faces everyone who lives in relationship with God, especially when life is really difficult: Whom will you serve? In a perfect world, Elijah wouldn’t have needed to be the person pressing that point with his people. The king, chosen and anointed by God to bring justice and righteousness and peace to the people, should have made the answer to that question perfectly clear. Human history teaches us, however, that power can (and often does) corrupt even the most well-meaning leaders and distract them from their duties. Things were no different in Israel than they have been in any other nation. As a result, from the beginning of the monarchy there had been prophets – messengers of the divine – to remind both the king and the people of their commitments to God and to one another, to observe what was happening among the people and their leaders, and to call the whole community back to loyalty and love for the God of their ancestors. Saul had Samuel. David had Nathan. Now Ahab, who according to the author of First Kings was one of the worst kings ever to rule over Israel, had been given Elijah to be the thorn in his side, opposing his policies and pointing out his betrayal and unfaithfulness at every turn.

As today’s reading begins, the people of the ten northern tribes of Israel were in the middle of their fourth consecutive year of drought conditions, a state of affairs that made Ba’al, one of the gods of the surrounding nations, look mighty attractive as an alternative to the God that they had sworn to serve. After all, Ba’al was known far and wide among Israel’s rivals as the “Storm God”, the one who was believed to bring rain and fertility and abundant growth to the earth. Given the circumstances, perhaps it’s no wonder that Elijah found himself alone as he faced off against four hundred and fifty prophets who represented Ba’al in a battle to determine whose god was more powerful – with the proceedings taking place under the watchful eye of thousands of Israelites who were just looking for a reason to seek greener pastures in service to another god.

It is into this situation that Elijah stepped – one man against a multitude – and set terms for a showdown that by all appearances favored the prophets of Ba’al: choosing the bull, the preferred sacrificial animal for Ba’al; giving the other prophets the first pick of bulls and altars and wood to conduct their sacrifice; conceding to them the first shot at making it happen so there was no chance that they could claim their god was offended; not to mention the sheer number of people calling upon Ba’al relative to Elijah. As if all that wasn’t unbelievable enough, Elijah proceeded to spend a good portion of the day taunting his opponents for the silence of their master. Here’s that section of the story in an updated translation: About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” (1 Kings 18:27, New Living Translation)

Once Elijah took his turn, it became obvious who had come out on top of the showdown. The God of Israel sent flames to consume water-logged wood, a soaked bull carcass, and even the excess water that ran off the altar It was an overwhelming victory for Elijah, and the people quickly exclaimed that they recognized once again the power of their ancestral God and would devote themselves to serving their God once again. That victory, however, came at a cost. Soon after these events, the Queen of Israel, Jezebel, vowed that Elijah would pay for his insolence – specifically for ordering the death of the prophets of Ba’al who had opposed him. From that day forward, Elijah spoke God’s word under the threat of death, a fact that caused him great pain and frustration for the rest of his life.

Perhaps that’s the point, though. The work of a prophet is never easy. Speaking truth to those in power is a frightening proposition, and it has always had the potential to end badly. Yet that work is also vital, because the word of God spoken by prophets like Elijah draws strength and vitality from that place of uncertainty. It’s a relatively simple matter, after all, to give thanks to God when things are going well, when there is nothing and no one to challenge us and our understanding of how God is working in the world. It is quite another thing to speak the truth about God’s call on our lives when we find ourselves on unsteady ground, faced with the prospect of a world that doesn’t make sense to us anymore. Elijah calls out to us from his place of fear and reminds us of God’s love for us, God’s guidance for us, and God’s history with us, even in the most trying of circumstances

All that brings us back to the central question I asked in the first part of this morning’s sermon, the question at the heart of the prophet’s calling: Whom will you serve? We live in a world in which there are any number of people and things vying for our time and energy and attention and allegiance on a daily basis. The problem of idolatry and false worship isn’t any less acute than it was in Elijah’s day, it just looks a little different. Instead of Ba’al, we might be drawn to place our trust in our bank accounts. Instead of the gods of Greece or Rome, we might be drawn to place our trust in those things that satisfy our greed or romantic notions of self-sufficiency. Instead of the idols of wood and stone that tempted the people of Israel, we might we drawn to place our trust in more abstract things like “the market”, or the so-called “prosperity gospel”, or our individual freedoms, or our stubborn insistence on our innocence in the face of societal and systemic sin and brokenness that concerns us all. In the process, we might find ourselves looking less like Elijah and more like the prophets of Ba’al, who shouted and screamed and limped and dashed themselves to pieces in pursuit of a god who could never grant them the peace and wholeness and abundant life offered by the God of Israel who has called us by name.

Brothers and sisters, the story of Elijah – beyond being an amazing, almost cinematic tale of conflict between the living God and the gods of our imagination – is a story of God’s faithfulness and our calling to respond to that faithfulness with our whole lives. It is a reminder that trust in God is not born out of naïveté, but out of an honest view of the world around us that maintains hope against hope. Wherever you might find yourself this morning, the Word speaks to you anew and calls each of us to turn our hearts to the God who created us in love, who saved us by grace, and who sustains us moment by moment by the movement of the Holy Spirit. This week, then, may we be inspired by the words and deeds of Elijah to look closely at our lives and to recommit ourselves to the God who desires life and love and joy for us and for the whole creation. May we set aside all those other gods who lay claim to our allegiance with false and fleeting rewards that do us more harm than good. Finally, may we, even in the direst circumstances, rely on the one who has called and claimed us as his own, and who has promised to be with us always, come what may. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Moses and God’s Name – October 4, 2015 (NL Week 4)

Sunday’s Reading:
Exodus 1:8-14; 3:1-15

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Have you ever just wanted to be forgotten? Have you ever wondered if your life would be better if you could just disappear? It might seem strange to start out today’s sermon with a question like that, but as we encounter Moses – perhaps the most widely known figure in the Old Testament – we’re encountering a man who, more than anything, was desperate to be forgotten by all but a few people.

What makes that desire to be forgotten so ironic is that the tragic story which begins in chapter one grows out of a failure of memory. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8-14) Joseph, you’ll remember, was the favorite son of Jacob, the man who was renamed Israel – he who struggles with God – after he wrestled God to a draw. Jacob may have loved Joseph, but Joseph’s brothers didn’t share that sentiment, especially because he had this annoying habit of telling them about his repeated dreams of becoming the most powerful and respected of Jacob’s sons. In fact, they hated him so much that they conspired to fake his death, then sold him into slavery so that they could be rid of him once and for all. The slave traders that bought him eventually made their way west into the Nile River delta, where they sold Joseph to a man named Potiphar, a high-ranking official who served the king of Egypt – the Pharaoh. Joseph’s integrity led him to be unjustly imprisoned until his knack for interpreting dreams elevated him from the dungeon to the court of the Pharaoh and, eventually, to a position as second-in-command over all of Egypt. In time, famine struck the region, and Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt to barter for grain and feed their starving families. They had no idea that they were bartering with their long-lost brother until he finally cracked and revealed his identity. At the urging of the Pharaoh, Joseph invited his brothers to bring their father and their families to Egypt, where they would resettle and become prosperous neighbors to the Egyptians.

Today’s reading takes place centuries later, when memory had faded and the shared history of the Israelites and the Egyptians had somehow been lost. Where previous kings had recognized their indebtedness to Joseph and his kindred, this new king saw only a faceless, numberless horde who might someday turn on him if he didn’t bring them in line. The oppression and cruelty unleashed by that Pharoah, born of ignorance and fear, would last centuries, until God, whose name had also been all but forgotten, determined that something had to be done. That something was liberation, and the “someone” whom God chose to make it happen would be about as unlikely as anyone could have imagined.

Moses – the man we started our sermon talking about – was born to descendants of Israel, who by this time had become so numerous that the Pharaoh had decreed that every male Israelite child was to be thrown into the river and drowned as soon as they were born. In a desperate effort to save his life, Moses’ mother placed her newborn son in a tightly-woven basket and floated him down the Nile in hopes that he would be found and raised in safety. Moses’ little basket eventually washed up on shore and was recovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who saw the child inside and decided to adopt him as her own son. And so it was that Moses, born of Israelite parents under the threat of death, was instead raised among Egyptian royalty and destined for a life of greatness… until he lost it all. One day, Moses came across an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave. In a fit of rage, he murdered the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. When he realized that his adopted father, the Pharaoh, had found out about his crime, he bolted for the wilderness, leaving behind everything and everyone in a desperate search for anonymity.

To his credit, he’d eventually found it. At the beginning of chapter three, Moses was out there in the middle of nowhere. The Bible tells us, in fact, that he was beyond the wilderness, in a place so remote that it almost defied description. Then, it happened. In an instant, he heard the crackling sound of flames. He saw the flashing of fire. A mysterious voice called out to him and shattered his hopes of being forgotten. Moses! Moses! I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob! (Exodus 3:4, 6) Suddenly, Moses was standing on holy ground, in the presence of the Almighty, and his identity, his life, his people’s history – everything that he had tried so hard to forget – came flooding back. What followed can only be described as an experience of divinely-inflicted whiplash. It began as a bitter moment with God recounting how the cries of the Israelites had reached into the heavens, spurring God to action. Who wants to be reminded of violence and oppression? Who wants to be confronted with the on-going reality of suffering? It quickly turned to joy at the promise of deliverance. Finally, something was going to happen! Finally, the pain of the Israelites had been heard! But then, just as quickly, it turned sour again. Wait a minute… You want me? Who I am? Don’t you know what I’ve done? Don’t you understand what I’m capable of doing now? And just who are you, anyway?

As if this emotional roller coaster wasn’t enough, God’s answer to that last question – Who are you? – represents perhaps the most profound and mysterious statement found anywhere in Scripture. In essence, God responds twice, and those responses are incredibly different and equally important. The first answer has baffled interpreters for centuries, and continues to defy our attempts to understand it: EHYEH-ASHER-EHYEHI am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be. The second answer is a reminder of the covenant that still bound God to the people of Israel: [I am t]he Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:15-16, NRSV) To a man who had become disconnected from his people, and to a people who had lost touch with their own history, these words were life, grace, peace, and promise.

This is the story of Moses, the stuttering son of Israel who escaped death twice only to be called back into the fray in service of a long-forgotten God. This is the story of the God who attended to the cries of the people, who remembered Moses even when what he wanted more than anything was to be forgotten, and whose very name represented a promise to heal the pain brought on by broken memory and lost hope. It is also our story, brothers and sisters, the story of an existence marred by the persistent problem of amnesia, both welcome and unwelcome. Like Moses, we sometimes want desperately to be forgotten, because we’ve convinced ourselves that if God ever found us and truly understood who we are, it would all be over. In our quest for anonymity, we are guilty of forgetting who we are, whose we are, what our purpose is in the world, and what God is calling us to be and do for the sake of our neighbors. God chose Moses with full awareness of all his faults and flaws, because God knew that together they were capable of leading Israel from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to intimacy, from a strange land to a homeland. In the same way, God has chosen us with full awareness of all our faults and flaws, because God knows that in Christ we are capable of being instruments of grace and peace in a broken and hurting world.

As we go out this week, let us do so with the awareness that we may find ourselves on holy ground when we least expect it. Let us pray that God will continue to bless us with the memory of who we are – God’s holy people – and whose we are – children of the one who is, who was, and who will be. Finally, let us pray for the courage to respond to God’s call as Moses did, confident that the one who calls us is faithful, and that when we turn aside to encounter God, we will never be led astray. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Who Is the Greatest? (Ash Wednesday) – Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wednesday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Psalm 51:1-3
Preaching Text: Matthew 18:1-9

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 There are few questions that are more “human” than the question asked by the disciples at the beginning of this evening’s reading. From the beginning, for both good reasons and bad ones, human society has been built in part on distinguishing between the strong and the weak, between the haves and the have-nots, between the leaders and the followers. The results, all too often, create more problems than they solve. Hatred and violence, war and conflict, oppression and abuse, most – if not all – of the besetting sins of humanity are caused by this universal tendency to divide and define people so that we can determine “who is the greatest”. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the disciples of Jesus find themselves dealing with that seemingly inescapable human problem. OK, Jesus, we get that this whole “kingdom of heaven” thing is different. But we’ve still got to know who’s greatest in that kingdom. Once you leave, who’s going to be calling the shots, here?

Not much has changed, right? Even in the church, we have this problem of looking around for people to emulate or follow. Who’s the most righteous Christian? Who’s the most inspired preacher? Who’s the one getting the most butts into their pews and bucks into their offering plates? Who’s got the newest program to guarantee health and wealth and favor for people who have enough faith (and enough cash)?  It is human nature, both inside and outside the church, to be on the lookout for what’s next and who’s in charge.

We gather this evening for a service whose message flies in the face of that natural tendency and then makes its mark to stop that question – Who is the greatest? – in its tracks. Ash Wednesday, the first service of Lent, is in many ways the great equalizer. In a society obsessed with top-ten lists and awards and charts and graphs and numbers, all of which seek to size us up and put us in our place, the observance of Ash Wednesday is one of the most poignant reminders of the fundamental truth of human existence: in the end, we are dust and ashes. That’s not intended to be a depressing statement, but it is a brutally honest one. For all of our striving to make a name for ourselves, for all the blood, sweat, and tears that we pour into distinguishing ourselves from others, when it comes down to it, we are nothing but dust and ashes. There are two ways to approach that truth. One is to despair and question whether there’s any meaning to life at all. The other is to figure out what gives meaning to this life and strive for those things above all else. Ash Wednesday prepares us for the work of Lent, the work of searching our lives and seeking God’s face so that we can align ourselves and our purposes with God’s, the work of setting aside everything that draws us from God so that we can live more fully in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a way, that work is parallel to what Jesus describes in response to the disciple’s question. Who is the greatest? This child right here. This child who enjoys no status or power or authority, who lives at the beck and call of parents and elders, who is entirely dependent on the generosity of others, and who most people agree would be better seen and not heard. In Jesus’ day, children were often regarded with scorn by the wider society until they got old enough to be useful to someone. This is the image of someone who is great? This is what the disciples should aspire to be? Yes, because only someone who recognizes that they have little (if anything) to contribute can be truly open to receiving the gifts of revelation and grace and renewal and new life that are offered through the gospel. By ourselves, we have nothing to offer but our selfishness, our stubbornness, our pride, our envy, our arrogance, things that turn our attention toward ourselves and away from God. But when we embrace the truth of Ash Wednesday – that we are but dust and ashes – and when we remember that the greatest in Heaven’s Reign are those who understand that everything they have is a gift from a gracious God, we can begin the process of unlearning what defines greatness by the world’s standards and learning anew what defines greatness in Heaven’s Reign: humility, wonder, openness to the Spirit’s movement in our lives, and regarding the needs of others as greater than our own.

That’s what this season is about – turning away from the priorities of this world and embracing the priorities of God’s righteous reign. As Lent continues, we will examine what that looks like in practice as we learn what Jesus teaches about forgiveness, about God’s generosity in giving, about openness to God’s invitation, about readiness to welcome Christ, and about the importance of serving Christ by serving others. But before we get there, we learn again the truth of this night – that on our own we are dust, but in Christ we are beloved children; that greatness in Heaven’s Reign lies in setting aside our need to be great in the eyes of others; that it is in humbling ourselves and giving up our own designs on power that God’s grace and power are poured out on us in Christ. Remember that you are dust… Thanks be to God. Amen.