1 Kg 19:11-21
Perhaps you have wondered at some point how I choose the text that I will preach on each Sunday. Now obviously there are only three options available as they are found in the lectionary – the readings assigned for each Sunday in the church year. But still, there are three choices – so how do I choose?
During the first half of the church year – the time when we have all the major seasons and feasts – there is a general orientation toward the Gospel lesson. We focus on the word and deeds of Jesus. Normally the Old Testament lesson has some kind of connection with the Gospel lesson, and so this is often the second choice. During the second half of the church year that we are in right now – the Trinity season – the emphasis is more generally on the teaching of Scripture, and so the epistle lesson becomes a good option.
But taking those factors into consideration, what determines the choice of the text? Sometimes it is the theological content – that there is just great stuff in there for preaching. But quite often a more pragmatic criterion helps make the decision. If a good introduction for a sermon occurs to me, I am likely to go with that text.
I maintain - and I know many pastors would agree with me – that the most difficult part of writing a sermon is the introduction. You must begin the sermon from a dead stop. You have to get it going in a way that begins to engage the congregation so that they are at least somewhat interested in what you are going to say. The introduction also has to relate to the text in some way. There has to be something about it that is going to tie in to the text and what the sermon will say. And you have to this over and over again. I am guaranteed to preach just about seventy sermons a year. The pastor is constantly facing the question: How am I going to get this sermon going?
But things worked out a little differently on Tuesday of this past week when I sat down and looked at the assigned texts. On this occasion one of them was the obvious choice, not because an introduction occurred to me or because the theological content was something on which I wanted to preach. Instead it was the obvious choice because it speaks so directly to what we are experiencing right now.
In the Old Testament lesson this morning, dramatic events have occurred in the northern kingdom of Israel and the prophet Elijah feels alone. He feels like the earth has shifted under his feet and that he is the only one remaining who wants to be faithful to Yahweh. In fact he says twice in his encounter with God, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Elijah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel during the ninth century B.C. It was a time when things were good – at least economically. The southern kingdom of Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel and the port city state of Tyre had a thriving commercial relationship going. In order to cement this relationship, Ahab the king of Israel was married to Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre.
The problem was that Jezebel was a committed follower of the false god Baal. She promoted the worship of this god vigorously in Israel and opposed the worship of Yahweh. Finally, there was a shown down on Mt. Carmel as Yahweh sent down fire from heaven to burn up a sacrifice, while the prophets of Baal weren’t able to make anything happen.
After Yahweh’s victory, Elijah ordered that the prophets of Baal who were misleading the people were to be killed. Queen Jezebel was angry about this. And she had the power to do something about it. She sent a message to Elijah after she heard about the death of the prophets of Baal saying: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
Elijah knew that Jezebel wasn’t messing around. And so he fled for his life. Eventually he came to Mt. Horeb – which is also called Mt. Sinai. He came to the very mountain where Yahweh had entered into his covenant with Israel – the same covenant that Israel was now violating.
Twice God asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Twice Elijah replies: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Unless you have been living in a cave during the last week and a half, it is impossible not to hear in these words the lament of Christians in our nation who believe what God’s word says about sexuality and marriage. The Supreme Court decided that same sex marriage – marriage between homosexuals – is a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United State. The implications of this are going to reverberate for years. Armed with this decision, a new phase in the suppression of the Church and the truth of God’s word in our nation has begun. How far and how fast this will extend, only God knows. But it’s not going to be good.
Yet more disturbing than the implications for the future is the terrible sense that we are alone. It seems as if Facebook has become one big rainbow. The media, entertainment industry and big business couldn’t celebrate same sex marriage enough. Even the White House – the people’s house - was bathed in rainbow colors.
We want to ask, “How did this happen?” Yet the truth is, you aren’t going to like the answer. You see, we did it. Or at least, we were part of it. Same sex marriage is nothing more than the outcome of a new view of sex and marriage. Contraception and the Sexual Revolution separated sex from babies. Marriage became fundamentally a matter of personal happiness instead of producing and raising children.
Who’s to blame? We are. Because we have gone along with it. Have you had sex outside of marriage? We did it. Have you lived with someone outside of marriage? We did it. Have you looked at pornography? We did it. Have you listened to music that glorifies sex apart from marriage? We did it. Have you divorced for reasons that are not biblical? We did it. Have you separated sex from procreation, determining the number of children you have in order to fit your definition of what a comfortable life is? We did it.
We certainly weren’t alone. But you can’t do these things and then act surprised and upset that it has led to this outcome. To be fair, sometimes we didn’t understand how all of this was related – I certainly didn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Law confronts us on it now.
So what are we to do? The first thing is to repent. We need to confess all of the ways that we have abandoned God’s will for sex, marriage and family. We need to confess all the ways that we have made ourselves god as we focused on our pleasure, our version of happiness, our desired lifestyle.
And that brings us back to our text. Elijah is the persecuted prophet. He is alone. He has fled for his life. God comes to him, not in the might of a wind that tears rocks apart; not in an earthquake; not in fire. Instead in a low whisper – in a voice – he comes to Elijah and assures him that Yahweh is still in charge. And he sends Elijah off with things to do.
But don’t be mistaken. It helped in that time, but it did not make everything all better. Instead, Israel and Judah continued in unfaithfulness. They kept persecuting and rejecting the prophets. The writer of 2 Kings summarized it this way: “Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.’ But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God.” The end result was God’s judgment and exile.
The prophets were called to speak a word from God that people didn’t want to hear. Like the prophet Jeremiah in the sixth century B.C., they were called to face persecution and suffer. And this is important because God had promised through Moses: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”
God did raise up this prophet like Moses. He did it when he sent his Son into the world in the incarnation. Jesus Christ came not like a wind the shatters stones, or an earthquake, or fire. He came as a low whisper – voice that said God was acting to deal with sin. Yet the paradox of God’s action was that his might could be rejected. His salvation could be persecuted. In fact it was by being persecuted – by being nailed to cross – that his salvation was accomplished.
Jesus died on the cross bearing all of your failures. And then on the third day he rose from the dead as he won the victory over sin’s progeny – death. On that first Easter he said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” The suffering and death of Jesus had looked like it was failure. But it was not. It was God working salvation in his way.
That truth holds in our day as well. God is still in charge. He is still bringing salvation in his way. And guess what? It looks a lot like Jesus. In the proclamation of his word and the administration of his sacraments God’s reign is present bringing forgiveness and victory over death. Yet it does not appear powerful. It is easy for people to reject. It is easy for people to persecute. It is something that is persecuted.
But because of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ we know the reality. We know how things really are. We know Jesus’ victory. We know that just as the persecution of Jesus Christ was always leading towards God’s intended goal, so also the persecution of his people is doing the same. For you see, it is the risen Lord who is at work forgiving and sustaining his people. And this work leads to the goal of his return in glory on the Last Day. It leads to resurrection and eternal life when all things will perfectly reflect God’s will.
We do not know what the years to come will bring for Christ’s Church – for those who are faithful to what God’s word says. But we do know what we need to do. We need to teach our children about the inherent connection and goodness of sex, marriage and babies. We need to allow this to guide our own lives as well. And we need to trust that the crucified and risen Lord gives us forgiveness and will sustain us in his truth until he brings the final victory and vindication on the Last Day.