The following is the final sermon I preached at Wallace UMC on June 23, 2013. It’s been a wonderful two years there, and it was a hard sermon to get through. I will always remember them as my first church. A heartfelt thank you goes out to the people there. I love you, and God bless you.
1 Kings 19:1-15
19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword.2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”
3 Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. 4 He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” 5 He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.
Then suddenly a messenger tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!” 6 Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. 7 The Lord’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” 8 Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
The Lord’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake.12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram.
I love stories. I told you that my first day here. Stories are the things that give us our identity, our purpose, our history, and our hope. The stories we live today are but new chapters in the ongoing story of God and God’s people. I’ve fallen in love with the story of God, how God loves creation, and the people that bear God’s image. Stories contain a certain kind of mysterious magical quality that enables us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. Today’s scripture, though, makes me think of the words spoken by a personal hero of mine, Bilbo Baggins. “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”
Two years ago, I started here with a story, one not as old as this one, but still incredibly important. My first sermon here was on Pentecost, a day in which the Spirit of God descended and rested on people like a fire, made them zealous and gave them gifts to enable them to spread the good news—in essence, preparing them for a journey. Two years ago, I set out on a journey with you all, a journey with its own mountains and valleys, twists and turns, landmarks and empty stretches. I hoped to live into the ministry that was given to me, and to lead you all at least for a little while in your walk with God. With this scripture of Elijah on the run, encountering God in the wilderness, you and I are given a new command: Get up, and go.
It’s a difficult kind of command to take, though—evidence of this is everywhere in scripture, yet it’s one that is given over and over again. It’s one of God’s favorite commands, and the most common response by the people that God gives it is to reject it. Abraham, when told to leave his home and go to the place God had promised him, fell on his face laughing. Moses, when told to go free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, stammered out a bunch of excuses trying to get out of it. Jonah didn’t even argue with God, he just ran away, and took a boat to get to the other side of the world from where God wanted him to be. It’s kind of funny how when God tells people to go do something, the immediate response is to refuse.
Why do we, on gut instinct, refuse to do what God tells us to do? Of course, we as faithful believers love to say how obedient to God we are, how fervent in our love for God we are, how strong we are in our faith, but when the rubber hits the road and we actually get the message from God to actually do something about it, we laugh, we argue, or we run away. Why is this? Why this gut reaction to disobey? Partly it’s out of pride; people in general don’t like being told what to do. We like to think we have the ultimate control in our lives, and to a certain extent, we do. It’s also a priority issue; we have the power to make every and any choice in our lives, including when it comes to God. But at the same time, we also have the power to make our priorities: who is most important in the grand scheme of things? What I want, or what God wants? We all have to make this decision, but as believers in God, we have a tacit understanding that God supersedes our own desires. Indeed, this is why we are called followers of Christ—we follow. Following is hard to do, period. It doesn’t get any easier when God is involved. The hardest part of being a follower of Christ is letting go.
This story of Elijah informs us greatly about what it means to faithfully follow God. For all his faithfulness and zealousness for God, Elijah winds up not honored or respected, but for his faith, he is rewarded with a death sentence. On the run, Elijah evacuates his home and escapes to the desert, depressed and jaded, so much that he decides to sit under a bush and wait for death to take him. Elijah is burnt out, used up, and tired. He’s done all this great work for the glory of God, and all it gets him is either death or exile. He wants to just give up.
The feeling of wanting to give up after working so hard and not seeing any good results I think is a common one. We want to succeed—nobody wants to fail! Failure is the worst feeling I can imagine, and fear of failure can drive us bonkers. When it feels like it was all for nothing, what do we do then? Do we, like Elijah, sit under a bush and wait for death to take us? Some do. And this is ultimately tragic. When it comes to depression, which many people suffer, even when things go well, it’s easy to want to give up. Depression is a monster that does not go away easily, nor does it end by sheer will. In all honesty, nobody can face depression alone. Sometimes what it takes to tackle it is compassion from another. Sometimes what it takes to go on a journey is a companion to rely on.
Sure enough, compassion comes in an unexpected way. This text says God says a messenger to Elijah to give him food—the reason for this is that the greek word from which we get the word angel is actually the word for “messenger,” “angelos.” Angels are the messengers of God, and not only does this messenger give Elijah food, but also as the title implies, a message. It also happens to be the same kind of message a loving but stern mother might give a petulant child. “Get up! Eat something!” So Elijah does. And then he promptly rolls over and falls back asleep. Thus, in the bible we find direct prohibitions against the snooze button…possibly. Anyways, the angel gets frustrated and says again to Elijah: “Get up! Eat something! You’ve got a long journey ahead of you.” In other words, “Get up and go—but don’t go unprepared.”
Preparing for a journey is the second hardest part of a journey. Thinking about the things you will need for the journey can be nerve-wracking. Do I have all the things I need? Will I have the abilities to go through with it? Am I going solo, or will I have companions? No journey is completely easy, but Elijah got the best help he could get. Not everybody gets an angelic wakeup call! But what we can take away from this is that, in any journey, God is with us, even though we might feel all alone. I said the second hardest part of the journey is preparation. The hardest part is taking the first step. Actually getting out the door can take a tremendous amount of courage. It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.
For Elijah, he was swept off to God’s mountain, mount Horeb, and fell asleep in the cave there. From here we get an incredible and powerful account of God’s presence. Elijah met God with protest and complaints, and God answered with a display of power—or so we are led to think. Remember though, the lesson of the display. God was not in the wind. God wasn’t in the earthquake. God wasn’t in the fire. God was present in the thin, quiet, silence. It is not in power and miracles that God is often found, nor is faith that is based on the miracle so of God firm or long-lasting—Jesus’s ministry is testament to that. No, God wasn’t found in any of that. God was in the silence, the quiet moments when we feel everything is absent. God is there.
Elijah, though, didn’t quite get that. He was too preoccupied with his own depression, his own fear, his own problems to see what God was showing him. In response to Elijah’s rebuttal, God gives a final command, same as the first one. Get up, and go.
Over and over again, God’s people are told to get up and go. Get up, and follow me. This is the first command of Jesus’s ministry to his disciples, and really, it sums up what we are to do as self-proclaimed Christians. Get up, and go. We may not know where we are going, but we do know that we are being led, and that leader is one we can rely on, on we can trust. It’s not any kind of fallible, sinful human that leads us, though we might like to pretend for a while that we are in control. We are being led by God to a new future, one with hope, with life, with truth, and with justice. That journey will continue.
I have had the joy and the honor of being with you the past two years as your pastor, walking with you, sharing in the faith that has been given to us by God. Today, though this will be my last Sunday as pastor here, I want to assure you that this church will always be in my heart. I may not be your pastor, but I hope to remain your friend, a friend in Christ, a friend in faith. Not only do I hope to remain your friend, but also your brother. You welcomed me into your church as a loving member of your family, and I am overwhelmed by the love you’ve shown for me. I hope that you too feel that I love you, because I do. God put me here for a reason, as did God put all of you here. God gives us all an opportunity to share in ministry with one another, and I count myself blessed for all the good things that have happened here at Wallace because of God’s work in us all.
This is not an ending, but the beginning of a new journey. God will be leading you to newer, richer, deeper faith, as God will do for me. I hope that you all remain faithful as you have been with me. Take the lessons of Elijah to heart. When you are in need, sometimes the best help you can get is simple compassion from a friend. When you feel like you need a sign from God to make your faith more real, remember that God was not in the wind, nor the fire, nor the earthquake, but in the silence. In the quiet places, the empty places, the desert places, God is there, and God’s presence is a powerful thing. Finally, remember to listen and trust in God when God tells you to get up and go, as God does for us today. God is telling you to get up, go out, and be the people God wants us to be. Christ came for all of us, and it’s up to us to share that good news with everyone. Remember, though, it’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to. Amen.