Sunday, June 26, 2022

Meeting God in the Fine Silence

[Below you'll find live stream video of both of today's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, along with the prepared message for the day. But note that when I actually preach, there were a few additions.]

1 Kings 19:9b-21
Our text today is the first lesson, 1 Kings 19:9b-21. In looking at it, we must begin with two fundamental facts.

The first is this: Life is hard. Even God the Son, Jesus, experienced this when He came into this world and we are no more exempt than Him. 

The second fact is this: God is still in charge, still at work to put the world right, and, still present among us, here, in the midst of the challenges, burdens, suffering, contention, and grief. The risen Jesus promises those who trust in Him, “...surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Most of the world finds this second fact hard to believe. Most people’s expectation is that if God is for real and really working, everything should be easy, we should get what we want. Even those who confess faith in Jesus as God the Son are tempted to think that their faith in Jesus entitles them to a place on Easy Street. The God we know in Jesus doesn’t promise that the pain and death of living in a fallen and condemned world will be erased when we follow Him. He promises to give us strength and peace in the midst of this world and to give us everlasting life with God in a new world at the end of this one. He promises us the forgiveness of sins we don’t want to acknowledge. He gives reconciliation with a God we may not really be sure we want to be around, but would rather keep at arm’s length. We can be like Moses, who wanted to avoid and evade God (Exodus 3:1-4:14). Or like the ancient Israelites who told Moses, “ not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19). Or like Simon Peter, who told Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

The human attempt to evade and avoid God or to make Him over in a way more acceptable to us is nothing new. After the reign of ancient Israel’s third king, Solomon, God’s people split themselves into two nations. The southern kingdom was Judah, with its capital and worship life centered in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom, called Israel, had its capital and worship life centered in Samaria. As long as these two kingdoms existed, whatever their economic or military status, they mostly limped along spiritually, sometimes trusting in God but mostly not. They chased after other gods that promised them what they wanted. Sometimes, they tried combining the worship of Yahweh with worshiping various idols. (Exactly what we see happening in the world and in the Church today.)

From 874 to 853 BC, a king named Ahab ruled in Israel. Ahab was married to a Phoenician princess named Jezebel. Jezebel introduced the worship of a fertility god called Baal among God’s people. Ahab built a temple to Baal in Israel. The Baal cult promised fertile soil, high crop yields, success. God, Yahweh, seemed helpless as His people abandoned Him. Finally, God sent the prophet Elijah to Ahab to announce that because of the faithlessness of  king and people, there would be a drought in Israel. God was calling His people to turn back to Him.

The drought lasted three-and-a-half years, until a gathering at a place called Mount Carmel. There, 450 prophets of Baal asked their idol to rain fire down from heaven. Elijah built a stone altar to God, poured gallons of water on and around it, burnt offerings to God, and prayed. God sent fire down that consumed the altar, the offerings, the wood, and the stone, reducing it to dust. The people saw, for a while anyway, that the God they had betrayed was in control of the world, not Baal. They killed the false prophets. And soon, Elijah announced that God would soon send rain.

This was a victory for God. God had used Elijah to bring it. Queen Jezebel now vowed to kill Elijah. Elijah ran away, to a place called Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, the place where God had given Moses the Ten Commandments. Elijah hid in a cave. Why did Elijah run and hide? Maybe he thought that once God called His people away from Baal worship and back to Himself, his life would get back to “normal.” But after doing the will of God, he was proclaimed an enemy of the state. Whatever his reasoning, Elijah had had enough. He didn’t want to do the will of God or speak God’s Word any longer. He seems to have hidden from not just Jezebel, but also from God.

God finds Elijah though. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks (1 Kings 19:9) You can almost hear the self-righteousness and self-pity as Elijah says: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 9:10) This last claim isn’t true! Elijah witnessed how many in Israel had just turned back to God. Elijah’s self-righteousness had isolated him not just from others, but from God. That can happen to us too.

But God doesn’t give up on sinners, not even those in Christ’s Church! He doesn’t give up on you. God tells Elijah to step outside the cave and wait for Him to pass by. Here, our lesson says: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

When God does miracles in our lives–hears our prayers, brings healing, restores relationships, those are loving acts of a sovereign God that point us to rely on Him for life and salvation. But we can become miracle addicts. “What have you done for me lately, God? What big thing are you going to do next? Why isn’t my life in this world perfect yet?” This appears to have been Elijah’s attitude after the contest at Mount Carmel. Nine hundred years after the events in our first lesson, after Jesus fed 5000 on a few pieces of bread and fish, a crowd chased after Him. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me,” Jesus told the crowd, “not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26)

Today, if our faith in God depends on anything other than what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ, we’re in trouble. We’re running away from God. We’re putting our faith in signs rather than in God. Elijah looked for God in gale force winds, an earthquake, in fire. But God came to Him “in a gentle whisper,” literally, “a sound of fine silence” in the original Hebrew. Jesus sometimes performs notable miracles today. We give Him thanks and praise when He does. But we can most reliably find the Lord Who, in His death and resurrection, has finished everything needed to save us from sin, death, and darkness and to give us life with God that never ends not in miraculous signs or in showy religious acts. We find Him most certainly in the fine silence of His Gospel Word, the baptismal font, and the bread and the wine of Holy Communion. By these understated means, we receive greater gifts than healing or ease. After all, every healed person eventually dies and every person allowed to live with ease in this world goes to the grave. Instead, by the means of Word and Sacrament by which the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith in Jesus, we receive God’s forgiveness and everlasting life. By these simple means, we are assured that God loves us, that God is with us, and that we belong to Him for all eternity. Quite simply, in the Gospel Word about Jesus and in Baptism and Communion, we receive God. And for those of us so prone by sin to huddle in our caves of self-righteousness and self-justification, to be able to receive God and the everlasting life that God alone can give us through Christ in these quiet ways, is a more stupendous blessing than any victory we may experience in this life! What we learn is what God showed Elijah outside that cave on Mount Horeb, that the God we meet in Jesus Christ is all we really need. Amen