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What to Do When God Isn’t Listening

1 Kings 17:17-24

 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the Lord, “OLord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Be careful when you are faithful to the voice of God. It gets you in trouble.

Elijah has been listening to God and following God’s leading already several times just in this chapter. He heard “the word of the Lord” telling him where to hide from the wrath of a king, that there would be a drought and where he could find food, that there would be shelter in a town called Zarephath, and how he could provide ongoing food for himself and his host–a widow there.

Be careful, Elijah. You’re being pretty faithful. You’re about to get into trouble.

Sure enough, after Elijah had done all this, including feeding this woman and her son for eight days, her son dies. She blames Elijah for it.  In the middle of a drought where there is no food, Elijah–by being faithful to God–has fed this little family for 8 days, now is being blamed for this trajedy.

Have you had that Elijah experience? Being nothing but faithful, he’s being blamed for this poor woman’s grief and loss: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Sometimes, when we’re frightened or lost or grieving, we just need to blame someone. For this woman, Elijah is the scapegoat for her pain and misery.

Elijah gets that too. After being unjustly blamed for the boy’s death, he turns around and does the same thing. He takes the boy upstairs  and cries out to God, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he demands that God do something about it, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” Have you ever blamed God for your misery and then asked God to do something about it?

So far, I’m tracking with Elijah pretty well. I’ve been blamed when I’ve tried only to be faithful. I’ve blamed others–often God–when things are difficult. And I’ve begged God to intervene somehow to change the situation.

But then comes the part that causes a little problem for me. Vs. 22, “The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.”

I’m fine with the child being revived. I think God uses uses all kinds of things, including hospitals and skilled medical people of all kinds to do this sort of thing with some regularity. Some of you have had personal experience with that and have amazing stories to tell of God giving you a new chance, a new life; sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, sometimes relationally.

No, that’s not where I get stumped. I find myself a little annoyed at the phrase, “The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah.” I don’t know about you, but it seems that God doesn’t always listen. Sometimes, it seems like God isn’t listening at all. Perhaps we can understand that if we haven’t been listening to God, if we’ve been neglecting our relationship a bit. But how about when we’re in a stretch where we’re feeling tight with God, like we’re being pretty faithful, like we’re all about God’s will, and God and us are on the same page. And then, like Elijah, all that faithfulness gets us in trouble. Someone’s experiencing a loss and they’re blaming you for it; one of your kids does something stupid and your spouse assures you that it’s your fault; a friend misunderstands an innocent statement and the relationship is seriously damaged. Then there are those days when all this and more happens all at once. Have you had a day like that? It all just piles up, snowballs, and gets overwhelming?

What do you do? Many will cry out to God, “O Lord my God, do something!” Do something. Anything. Please. . . Hello? . . . Are you there?

And then we hear vs. 22 in 1Kings 17, “The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah” and intervened. The Lord did exactly what Elijah asked and restored the boy’s life. Well, isn’t that special? What about us, God? What about our pain, our loss, our grief, our despair? Why aren’t you listening to our voice? When we cry out for help, for you to make things better, where are you then?

Here’s what happens. God hears your cries. And God answers and points to the cross and says, “That’s how committed to you I am. That’s how willing I am to go into your pain with you. I’m not leaving. Nothing can keep me away from you; not even death. I’m with you–right with you–in your struggle. I’m holding you in your fear. I’m comforting you in your pain. I’m at your side in your suffering. I know you feel overwhelmed, but I’m here to sustain you. Life is coming. There will be an easing of your pain and loss. Watch for it. I’m here. I’m here. Whether you are faithful or not, doing my will or not, listening to my voice or not, I am the God of life. For the son of the widow of Zarephath. For you. And nothing will keep me from coming to you. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2013 in Sermon

 

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Do not Make a Distinction Between Them and Us

Acts 11:1-18

I wonder if you share this thinking: I have this default setting that keeps telling me that God uses Godly people to make good things happen; and God also spends quite a bit of time trying to reform the ungodly people. Do you have that assumption—that God is better able to use Godly people because they are on the same page? And part of that assumption is that we know who the Godly people are. Right? You can name them.

Exactly what the church leaders in Jerusalem thought in this text from Acts. You see, they were Godly people, committed followers of Jesus. They were doing good things. They were organizing a new church in a culture that wasn’t exactly supportive of their efforts. They were so sure of their Godliness that they called Peter out on some of his behavior because it didn’t line up with that. They understood that God only works through the Godly people. Which, of course, was them.

Before we judge them too harshly, understand that they had some reason to think that. Up until then, all believers in Jesus were Jewish. Male circumcision was the sign of inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham—and there’s no one more Godly than Abraham. Every believer—every Christian—was circumcised. It had always been God’s way. It was a covenant of trust, of relationship, of commitment, of a life given to God. It was Godly. You could tell who the Godly people were. Or at least you could tell who they weren’t.

So they called Peter out on his ungodly behavior, saying, “You had dinner with uncircumcised people? What were you thinking?! Those people know nothing of God. They aren’t Godly—they don’t even know what it means! Now, because of you, they will assume that they are Godly, and will have no reason to actually become Godly.”

But Peter had a different perspective because he was told by God what God was doing. He tells the church leaders exactly what happened. He had a vision of all the ungodly animals coming down in a large sheet. Every food animal that was forbidden, sinful, that separated one from God was lowered in front of him. God not only tolerated, this, God commanded Peter to eat them. Three times this happened, each time Peter refused, saying that he knew that no believer in Jesus could ever eat these things. And each time God answered telling Peter that God decides what is Godly and what isn’t.

While he’s puzzling about this some unbelievers came from Caesarea. “The Spirit told [Peter] to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Make no distinction between us as Godly people and them as unbelieving, ungodly, unrighteous people. So he ended up baptizing them.

What are our assumptions today about who is Godly and who isn’t? By what standard do we impose status of Godliness? Who do we assume God will bless? Those who pray a certain way? Who wear certain clothes? Whose children behave in particular ways? Who live a life-style we approve of? Think for a minute about who you believe to be “ungodly.” . . . “The Spirit told [Peter] to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So you imagine Peter’s surprise when he was informed by God to go with these pagan unbelievers. You can imagine Peter’s shock when God said I’m coming to them, too, just the way they are. Even though they believe differently than you and understand differently than you. You see, Peter, God is powerfully at work well outside your standards.

Well, God is powerfully at work well outside our standards, too. God can and does reveal God’s reign through people with dirty clothes, through disruptive children, through people who don’t pray articulately, through those whose morals and ethics are different than mine.

Peter finally got that. God will do what God does, through those God calls to do it. God decides who is Godly and who isn’t. Not us. And God declared these people from Caesarea to be Godly. “The Spirit told [Peter] to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So he told the leaders in Jerusalem. And (here’s the miracle) all those pastors in Jerusalem got it too. They came to understand that they weren’t any more Godly than anyone else. If they saw God at work somewhere, somehow, they were to get on board. If they understood God to be loving people different than them, they were to love them too. And so they did. They praised God for working in the lives of people they had previously considered ungodly.

The honest question for us is who do we consider to be ungodly? What if God is teaching us something about God through them? What if God is working in Godly ways through them? “The Spirit tells us to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” That’s hard enough.

But here’s the really difficult thing. What if God is working in Godly ways through you, just the way you are right now? What if you have something to teach the world about who God is and how God works, today? What if, even if you think of yourself as not particularly Godly, God is showing love in the world through you right now? What if God has declared you Godly.

God will do what God does, through those God calls to do it. God decides who is Godly and who isn’t. Not us. And God declares you Godly people today, right now. “The Spirit tells us to go with each other and not to make a distinction between us.” God made you to reveal God to the world. Just the way you are.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Sermon

 

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Jesus Meets us in Abnormality (2 Pentecost B)

Pentecost 2

Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1; Mark 3:20-35

He’s out of his mind. Yeah, he’s had some success, but it’s deluded him. He needs to be restrained. And that’s what his friends and family are saying!

What’s happened? What has Jesus done to make even his own family think he’s become unbalanced? Whatever he’s been doing is seen as “abnormal.” However they were defining normal, usual behavior, Jesus is operating outside of that.

That makes me wonder . . .

Do we consider the activity of Jesus “normal”? Do we think of not only his earthly ministry then, but what he calls us to do as the body of Christ today, as usual behavior?

If we get serious about Jesus, I’m pretty sure we’d answer a very clear “no.” But we rarely do. Here’s why. We want Jesus to be normal. We want to see him as being like us—because we want to be normal. If we see him as normal, that validates us as normal too.

What that sometimes means is that we pay more attention to the ways his behavior is like us, and less attention to the ways his behavior is different. Sometimes we just ignore some of his more controversial actions. Or if we’re forced to look at them, we might think he’s gone off the deep end a little too.

But what we’re doing is assuming we know what normal is. We assume that our beliefs, our experiences, our attitudes are perfectly, centrally normal. We judge everyone else by that definition. In most of our opinions and values, don’t we all consider ourselves to be in the center? If anyone strays in any direction too far from our perspective, don’t we think of them as a little closer to radical, crazy, needing to be restrained?

Isn’t that starting in the wrong place? We seem to begin with where we fit with the people around us. Not only are we influenced by what people around us consider normal, but we’re judging Jesus by those same, pretty flimsy standards. That’s what bad politicians to be re-elected. (See how normal I am? I’m just like you. Can I have your vote now?) The Lord of all heaven and earth really doesn’t need our vote to be re-elected as Lord and Savior. He’s pretty much got a lock on that job. But also, when you get down to it, isn’t Jesus the one that ought to define “normal” rather than be judged according to a cultural definition of normal?

For him, normal looks quite different than it does in our world. Normal for Jesus is a deep and full relationship with the Father and a whole life being lived out of that relationship. Normal for Jesus is standing with those things that support this full life relationship with God. Normal is standing against those things that inhibit it.

That’s why Jesus has been doing some things that some people considered abnormal, delirious, or even crazy. He heals people, even breaking the Sabbath law to do so. He casts out demons, even if the religious authorities think he’s a chief demon because of it. He makes friends with the unacceptable, even if that means he’s labeled an outcast. He forgives those furthest away from God, even when doing so means he’ll be accused of blasphemy—and put to death for it. He calls for people to give up power, give away money and possessions, and treat the most undeserving people with love, generosity, and compassion. He even forgives his enemies while they are in the very act of killing him.

These aren’t normal actions. But they are actions that take on powers that get in the way of a relationship between us and God. Sin, illness, demons, abusive power, even religion when it robs humanity of life with God. That’s normal for Jesus, and it should be normal for us. But it’s not, is it?

Admit it, when you see someone doing these kinds of things, you think of them as a little bit out-of-touch, don’t you? The Amish community that completely forgave the man who killed one of their kids made huge news. Abnormal. Someone who gives away more money than they can afford is extreme—not normal. Let’s face it; Jesus isn’t normal, and he doesn’t want us to be either.

Look at this another way. When we’re honest, who among us really thinks of ourselves as completely normal anyway? We may want to be, we may try to be, and we may even pretend to be. But deep down, we all have secluded parts of ourselves that we know don’t fit in.

So here’s a proposition. In our most honest moments we recognize our own abnormality. So as long as we’re abnormal, why not be abnormal in a way that gives us life, connects us to God, and benefits the people around us? Why not let Jesus define our abnormality? Why not claim our abnormality—own it—and recognize it as a way Jesus can relate to us? It’s difficult to trust our culture with our abnormalities, but we can trust Jesus with them. When you feel alone, unacceptable, don’t fit in—Jesus understands and stands with you. And it’s through his own abnormality that he gives us life.

To be honest, the closer we follow Jesus the more abnormal we will probably be perceived. Embrace that. Let Jesus’ abnormality fill you up, let it give you life, let it call you into giving life to others. They’re feeling unacceptable too. That’s probably where we’ll connect with them anyway. That’s where Jesus seems to spend his time. Perhaps we should too.

“When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

Jesus isn’t normal, and he calls us to a life that isn’t normal either. There’s life in Jesus; full, real, authentic, honest, gracious life with God. That’s not normal. But thanks be to God Jesus give provides it for us.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Sermon

 

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