Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sermon Sketches: I Kings 18:17-39 ~ Fire from Heaven!

Something about these dynamic stories from the Old Testament grabs our attention. We can’t turn our eyes away. In fact, we begin to pine for these kinds of demonstration of God’s power in our lives, in our world. Why doesn’t God do this in our world of skepticism and growing unbelief? Surely if fire would fall from heaven as in Elijah’s day that would capture people’s attention! While this brief chapter in the history of the people of God captures our imaginations, this event also reveals truths that we may miss if we don’t look closely. Let’s see what the Scriptures have for us here.

1 Kings 18:17-39
Vs. 17-19: Last week, we learned of the division of David and Solomon’s kingdom into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Today, we see that Jeroboam’s great idea for ensuring the strength and integrity of the Northern Kingdom—moving the religious cult away from Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom to designated holy sites in the north—has resulted in religious disintegration: The people have abandoned the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and are following other gods—Baal and Asherah. One prophet of the God of Israel remains in the north—Elijah. And he is determined to bring the people back to faith in the one true God.

Vs. 20-24: There’s almost a ‘Western’ feel to this reading, almost like a showdown at the O.K. corral. Except, there are no peacemaker revolvers and no cowboy hats. There’s almost a comic feel as well, like we find in the old Terrence Hill ‘Trinity’ films…a bit of the absurd. We find Elijah up against what? 450 prophets of Baal? The gauntlet is thrown down—let’s see whose god responds to the prayers of which prophet(s). And, the whole world is looking on. All the people are standing around to see who the last man standing is going to be. The people themselves resemble what Jesus saw in his own day--"sheep without a shepherd" (Matt.9:26). They seem to be completely as the will of the prophets, not willing to fight for one god or another. Perhaps people have not changed so much down through the ages--they'll roll with what's convenient, easy...or with what proves to be true and impactful.

Vs. 25-29: Just because Elijah is God’s man, so to speak, doesn’t mean he’s perfect. In fact, if anything, this passage reveals yet again that God uses anyone and everyone at times. Elijah’s behavior here is questionable at best; just plain rude at worst. Yet, some Christian leaders will see Elijah taunting his ‘enemies’ and think they, too, are justified in acting the same way. I can only imagine God shaking his head as Elijah hurls insults at the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Our behavior as Christians is based on Jesus, not Elijah…just in case we think this passage gives us license to behave badly towards people who believe differently.

Vs. 30-38: We like this story on one hand because God comes through in a mighty spectacular way—fire falls from heaven at the simple, humble request of the prophet. This is how we want God to respond to God’s people. This how we want God to respond for us. We want to reveal to others, to the world around, just how powerful and amazing our God is, and how nice it would be if the fire would just fall from heaven once in a while! But, that doesn’t happen. So, why not? What’s going on here in this passage…and why doesn’t this sort of thing happen in our lives?

Of course, we hope for the amazing display of Elijah, but we're more likely to find what Dr. Rene Belloq finds in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Fire falls from heaven at the end of that film, and Belloq discovers the truth: we don't control the fire, we don't control God...and any lame attempt on our part will probably end badly. (Yes, of course Indiana Jones is fiction, but I do appreciate Hollywood's not minimizing or trivializing the power of God in the film.)

This inability on our part, on Elijah's part, to control or direct God makes the prayer in this passage quite notable. Elijah does not pray for 'fire from heaven'--he doesn't tell God what to do; rather, his prayer is "let it be known today that you are God in these people will know that you, Lord, are God..." (vs. 36-37). These two verses themselves would be enough to preach--"God make yourself known for who you are!" No plea for miracles, no plea for spectacle...just a plea for revelation and changed hearts. Perhaps we learn something about prayer from Elijah here.


In this this passage from I Kings, we’re looking at an Old Testament revelation of God, an expression of power through fire and spectacle. And, we are looking at the work of an Old Testament prophet—someone who is called to reveal the invisible God and who will often do so in spectacular ways. On the other hand, we’re living in New Testament times—when God is no less powerful but often acts in subtlety and understatement: instead of fire from heaven, a few loaves and fish feed 5,000 people; instead of fire from heaven, a man cries out for faith when his epileptic son falls in a fire; instead of fire from heaven, the right person shows up at our door or your door in the moment of need with just the words we need to hear or the food we need to eat. Today, the fires of heaven are more like a candle in the darkness or a heart strangely warmed. God is no less powerful; God chooses to act in different ways today.

Actually, the fire from heaven does fall again in Scripture, and it falls on us…at Pentecost. Rather than falling to consume dead flesh and ordered stone, the fire from heaven falls on God’s church to give life and hope and assurance, to make all of God’s people into prophets and priests (I Peter 2:5). That fire still falls today on every baptized Christian, empowering him or her to live out the faith and to reveal the love of God. It’s true—we don’t see the spectacular roaring flames of Elijah in our world today. It’s also true, however, that God still works through all of us to bring people to faith.

When the church lives the faith, when we live the faith in our lives, people see the difference that a life of trust, hope and love makes in a life, in a family, in a community. And when they see, God has a chance to change a heart. The masses may not see and all fall prostrate and cry, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” as in Elijah's day. But, one or three or a family may see and experience what we have found in Christ Jesus, and they may turn their hearts to God and be changed forever.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Sermon Sketches: I Kings 12:1-17, 25-29 ~ When Wisdom Wanes…

Sometimes, I come to a passage and I wonder where it will take me, I wonder how I can possibly preach it. Any of you who have followed my “Sermon Sketches” know that I always look for where Jesus fits in the picture, and I have to admit that on my first reading of this passage, I was a bit stumped. But—as is true for many of you—I have wrestled with this passage over the last few days, and there may be something here that both brings us to Jesus and speaks to our world.

As we look at this passage together, let us remember why we are following these ancient stories—stories that began with Creation, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; stories about Moses, Ruth, and David. We are following the story of God’s people; we are following our story. The moment we were baptized into the Church, the day we confirmed the faith, the occasion we decided to say ‘Yes!’ to Jesus and follow him, we entered this very story of life and faith. In that moment, the men and women I’ve just named became our ancestors—every bit as real as those folks named on your family tree. Your family tree follows our blood-line; the Bible gives us our faith-line.

So, today we come to that chaotic time in the history of Israel just after King Solomon has died. Solomon was the son of David…who was the son of Jesse…who was the son of Boaz and Ruth. Yes, the connections are all there…and we’ll keep connecting the dots of this story until we arrive at the birth of Christ’s Church. Just stay with us!

David, as you may recall, was the one who was able to unite the tribes and form the first ‘united kingdom.’ His reign was one of peace, and war, and trade, and more. His son, Solomon, came after David’s death, and we are told that his reign was spectacular. Israel shined like a beacon under his rule. The kingdom is rich. The borders are fairly secure. And then he died. Enter Rehoboam, son of Solomon…eager to ascend his father’s throne. Also enter Jeroboam, returning from his Egyptian exile, a former public servant of Solomon who had to flee the kingdom when he decided to ‘go for the gold.’

As we hear in this reading, Rehoboam places his confidence in his young friends, his comrades…rather than listening to the words of his elders. He has the whole kingdom before him, and they are gathered either to give him their loyalty…or walk away. He has the chance to shine to like his father. He has the opportunity to solidify and strengthen what has been passed on to him. All he has to do is listen to the right voices. And he doesn’t. Then the kingdom falls apart.

Jeroboam returns from exile just in time to benefit from Rehoboam’s foolishness. He gratefully steps in to lead the northern tribes who are having nothing to do with Rehoboam. And then he makes a smart move—he moves the center of faith and religious life to the Northern Kingdom. This will solidify the Northern alliance, and further separate them from the Southern Kingdom of Rehoboam. While this may be a divisive act, destructive to Israel, for his own purposes, this a politically shrewd.

Jesus tells us two parables in Luke that speak to these kings and their issues. When Jesus tells his disciples about the “cost” of following him (Lk.14:25-33), he uses the example of the king preparing for battle—" Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able…?” Rehoboam doesn’t sit down, doesn’t count the cost. He ignores the words of wisdom of his ‘elders’ and listens instead to the untested thoughts of his peers. He rejects wisdom.

Jeroboam—sort of the ‘bad guy’ in the story, the usurper, the king-wanna-be—is the one who actually acts wisely. Jesus tells that troubling story of the “shrewd manager” (LK. 16:1-9), called the parable of the “Unjust Servant” in some places, but Jesus holds this fellow up at exemplary: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (v.8) Jeroboam proves to be this kind of fellow—smart for moving the centers of worship out of Jerusalem. Obviously, he ignores the commandment concerning idols, but for the consolidation and strengthening of the Northern Kingdom, he is shrewd in deed.

This passage is a passage about the rejection and embrace of wisdom. Wisdom. It’s one of those soothing words like ‘peace.’ And, like peace, it’s one of those things our world sorely needs. We have information unlike any generation in history—we can access information, data, charts, graphs, history and more through our smartphones and devices. But wisdom…ah, that’s the thing we don’t have, don’t see, and have a hard time teaching in our schools and universities. How do we make good use of our information? What information is worth having or using? What do we do with the kingdoms we’ve been given (perhaps the small kingdoms of our home or job or our own bodies)?

The call today underlying this reading is a call to seek wisdom, to listen to words of experience, to take counsel…and Proverbs reminds us:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7)


“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound warning, so do not forsake my teaching. For I too was a son to my father, still tender, and cherished by my mother. Then he taught me, and he said to me, ‘Take hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands, and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you….’ (Prov. 4:1-6).

Rehoboam provides us a negative example—who not to live like. Jeroboam provides us a positive example—shrewd and wise. Perhaps it's time to revisit the book of Proverbs--just a chapter each day for a month. Perhaps there we'll begin to find the wisdom we and our world craves. 

May we learn from the story of our spiritual ancestors and embrace the gift of wisdom that God offers to us.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Sermon Sketches: II Samuel 6:1-5 ~ The Work of Celebration

1David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. 2He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. 3They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. 5David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.        2 Samuel 6:1-5 (NIV)

Last week, we heard about and joined with Ruth in her journey to the land of Israel. She, the one who was welcoming and embracing of foreigners, became a foreigner, embraced by her new land. If you had a chance to read the rest of the book of Ruth this week, you learned that in the land of Israel, she worked the fields of Boaz…a man who fell in love with her and eventually married her. Together, they had a son, Jesse, and he in turn became the father of David—the future king of Israel.

David is the stuff of legends. Even in the Old Testament, he was quite the figure—an amazing warrior and leader, a wise king (most of the time!), and—as Luke reminds us in Act 13:22—a man after God’s own heart. Add to all that his amazing good looks, and David becomes the ‘whole package.’ He was able to do what Saul, the first and previous king, could not do—he united the kingdom of Israel.

But, besides his great feats of war and diplomacy, we find tucked into II Samuel 6 an act of faith, an act of religious importance—he moves the Ark, that symbol of God’s presence that had preceded the People of Israel as they left Egypt for the Promised Land, to the city of Jerusalem. Oh, we dare not separate this act of faith from his feats of war and diplomacy. His life, like ours, is not broken up into little boxes; rather, all aspects of his life—and ours—are woven together, each sphere of our lives impacting the others—whether we admit it or not. So, the act of bringing the Ark from Baalah to Jerusalem in simply another facet of David’s expansive life of leadership and faith.

As I read these verses, I was taken by verse five:

5David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord…

Celebration—we generally love this part of life. When we have a chance, we rarely pass up the moment to gather with family or friends to celebrate something. When my grandson, Santiago, turned four months old a couple of weeks ago, it was a fine excuse to get together with our daughter and her husband to celebrate. When our daughter, Meg, got married last month, family came in from Wyoming, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama to celebrate with us. When my birthday arrives towards the end of the month, we’ll celebrate…eat lasagna and chocolate-chip pound cake. Usually, we love to celebrate.

But, there are those days we do not enjoy celebrating. There are those days that we are weighed down, tired, empty…and we just don’t want to celebrate. I know those times have come when a friend has invited me out to celebrate, and I beg off saying that the day was long and I’m too tired to be good company. Maybe I was a little tired, but more than anything, I didn’t feel like going out and ‘celebrating.’ I was heavy and did not care to be surrounded by joy and laughter…and I didn’t want to have the pressure of being a source of joy and mirth. Have you ever felt like not celebrating?

I suppose this is why II Samuel 6:5 catches my eye. Did you see it? 5David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might…. “Celebrating with all their might….” They weren’t just celebrating; they were working at it! “Might” is strength, energy. I imagine that not everyone there felt like celebrating. David and his men had just returned from battles (see II Sam. 5)—while they were victorious, that does not mean they not suffer losses. Friends, brothers, cousins, uncles probably fell on the field of battle. Others may have suffered life-changing injuries—lost limbs, broken bones that would never heal properly. While there was victory on the battle field, certainly there was loss and pain. And, I’m guessing they didn’t sleep great during those days in the field, so people were tired. No wonder celebrating was a chore!

But, they did it. They chose to celebrate…with all their might. The put aside their feelings of loss or weariness or whatever else, and they determined to celebrate the coming of the Lord’s presence to their capitol city of Jerusalem.

How often do we gather on Sunday to celebrate the goodness of God, to worship, to celebrate Communion, and we really don’t feel like celebrating. We’ve had a difficult week. The test at school was harder than we thought it would be. The results of the check-up weren’t what we expected or wanted. The diagnosis of a parent’s condition left us with little hope. The deal we were working on at our job fell through. The visit the children promised didn’t materialize. The retirement isn’t turning out how we expected. Or, that fool driver who cut us off on the highway is still very present in our thoughts…even though he drove on his merry way two hours ago. For whatever reason, we arrive on Sunday morning, and we don’t feel like celebrating anything.

David and his people were not relying on how they felt. They determined to celebrate the coming of the Ark to Jerusalem. They celebrated with all their might—they physically forced themselves to celebrate.

And, when we gather for worship, we may have to do the same…if we don’t have the feelings. We may need to make ourselves smile. We may need to force ourselves to greet the old friend and the new visitor. We may need to coax ourselves to sing the songs with passion. We may need to push ourselves to recite the Creed, to join in the Lord’s Prayer. We may need to apply our ‘might’ to the acts of worship.

I imagine some will ask, “Are you asking me to be a hypocrite? Are you asking me to put on a fake smile and act happy when I feel like crap and would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else?” No. I’m not asking anyone to be a hypocrite. I’m asking us all to embrace what contemporary psychology now understands and teaches us: not only do our feelings and attitudes affect our behavior, but our behavior affects our feelings and attitudes. How we act directly impacts our feelings. Just try it. Stand before a mirror and smile at yourself—you’ll be amazed at how it changes or reinforces how you feel.

When I officiate wedding ceremonies, I remind the couple that love is not a mere feeling. Feelings come and go; they’re about as predictable as the weather. If we rely on feelings, we’re in for a world of trouble. So, I remind the couple that love is what Paul describes in I Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. These are not descriptions of feelings; these are ways of acting, thinking, behaving. I encourage the couple not to rely on the feelings but to do the acts of love, for when we do the acts of love, the feelings return…again and again as we act in love.

So, no—I’m not asking anyone to be a hypocrite. I’m asking everyone—all of us—to remember to do the sometimes hard work of celebration, to celebrate with all our might, to worship with all our power. Perhaps this is why Jesus reminds us that we’re to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). Jesus knew there would be days we didn’t feel loving towards God, so we would need to rely not on our hearts alone but also on our strength and mind to carry us forward in the life of faith.

As we determine to do this hard work, we will find that our hearts, our attitudes, will catch up with our actions, our behavior, and so the set smile on our faces will soften in natural smile. The words of grace spoken haltingly soon becomes flowing conversation. The somewhat perfunctory greeting soon shifts to warm welcome. The song that our lungs force out of mouths slowly crescendos into words of praise that lift our hearts, if not our hands, to God.

As David and the people celebrated the moving of the Ark—that symbol of God’s presence—to Jerusalem with all their “might,” we, too, gather to celebrate God’s grace, love, and presence through worship and Communion…and we may need to do so with all our might. In fact, we should do so with all our might! As we ‘share the peace,’ may we do so with all our might. As we lift our voices in song, may we do so with all our might. As we come to the Table, may we so with all our might. As we pray, may we do so with all our might.

May we do the work of celebration…and allow those actions of joy, kindness, and celebration to change us from the inside out.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Ruth 1:1-17 ~ Crossing Borders

I usually come to Ruth in weddings—that declaration of fealty that Ruth makes to Naomi at the end of today’s passage works well in the ceremony, an example of the kind of devotion that a couple are to have for each other throughout their lives (I use the ‘old-fashioned’ version for weddings):
Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16, NKJV)

However, we would quite amiss to think that this is merely a passage about family commitment. This is a passage about change, movement, crossing borders. This is the beginning of yet another chapter in the story of the people of God and the coming Messiah.

An Israelite moving to Moab is about like a Georgian moving to Alabama—an act of last resort. The Moabites were despised and their land avoided. Moab was a land, a kingdom located east-south-east of the Dead Sea, at the edge of the Arabian desert. How they had more food than Israel is a curious thing. No matter—Elimelek took his family where he thought best…or, perhaps, where he was prompted to go. We don’t know because the Scriptures don’t say anything more than that they were escaping the drought.

What we do know is that this family (dad, mom, and two boys) traveled 100 miles or more overland—in a day before cars, buses, or trains. They crossed borders—political and geographical—and boundaries to get to a place where they could eat, live, raise a family. 

Here in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas where my wife and I live, this story is lived out 100 times over--probably more--every day as immigrants cross our southern border seeking work or safety, wanting to reunite with family, looking for opportunities to realize dreams.

We don’t judge Elimelek and his family for making their journey. We don’t cry ‘foul!’ for their decision to save their family and homeland under these circumstances. We accept that they are doing what they need to do to stay alive. Were we to stand in Elimelek’s shoes, we would do the same—whatever was necessary to keep the family alive. This is not a new story for the people of God—moving, crossing borders. Long before Elimelek, the people of God, the children of Abraham, had to leave the ‘Promised Land’ to find food as Jacob moved his family to Egypt during a time of famine. For that matter, famine is not a rare occurrence in Biblical times—there are no less than 11 famines recorded in the Old Testament, and over 80 references to ‘famine.’ Also, in the prophets, the great of fear of the people, or the great cause of death, is usually “sword or famine,” violence and starvation (see Jer. 5:12). Famine was a very real thing. The journey was a very necessary thing…if they were to live.

Not only did the family of Elimelek make the journey to a new land, they settled in the new land of Moab. They settled more than simply in the sense of purchasing land or a house. They threw in their lot with these people…and they were accepted by these people. They accepted and were accepted by this new world: Their sons married local women. In fact, they were so settled, it seems that there were no plans of going back to Israel.

But, life does not roll according to our plans. Elimelek died, and the sons died. Still, Elimelek's wife, Naomi, did not plan to go back to Israel. But, she got word that the "land of milk and honey" was again flowing with milk and honey. There was food back ‘home,’ and lots of it. So, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, Naomi decided it was time to return to Israel.

But what to do with these daughters-in-law? The only right thing to do would be NOT to uproot them from the only land and language and culture they have known. Naomi frees the girls from any obligation, releases them to return to their families, their people, with the hope that they’ll find new husbands and live their lives. But, Ruth is not having it.

We don’t know if Ruth has no family to return to. Perhaps her family is not a good family. Or, maybe she so loves Naomi that she is willing to face the uncertainties of a new land and life to be with her. Maybe she so loved her husband that she wants to remain with this family…this family of one. Ruth commits herself to Naomi...and begins the journey to a new world, crossing boundaries and borders to build a new life in a new land.

Ruth eventually becomes one of those in the grand genealogy of Jesus. We find her in Matthew’s gospel (1:5)—one of just four women mentioned in Jesus’ family tree. Her willingness to uproot and move to a new land ensured her a place in the great story of our faith. Her willingness to marry an outsider (Elimelek's son), or her willingness to make an ‘outsider’ accepted, began her part in this story. And, then she finds a new husband--a man of Israel who is willing to marry an 'outsider.' When you have a chance—this afternoon or one day this week—take a few minutes and read the brief story of Ruth. It’s a story of love and faith and family.

For us, Ruth reminds us of the importance of being willing to cross borders. Will Willimon says that crossing borders is the very definition of ‘mission’—whether the borders be political, geographical, cultural, psychological, or sociological. When we cross borders with the Good News of Jesus, we are engaged in mission. Ruth crossed borders based on faith, on her confidence in Naomi and the stories Naomi had told her of the ‘land of milk and honey.’ This is a story about 'outsiders' and the acceptance of them. Are we willing to cross borders to reach people in need? Are we even willing to say to Jesus those simple yet powerful words of fealty: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God….” Will we go where Jesus goes? Will we stay where Jesus stays? Will we make those who are not ‘our people’ to be ‘our people’? Are there 'outsiders' in our communities, in our congregations, hoping to be allowed in, to be accepted? Ruth seems to demand that we attend to these questions.