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Sermon for Sunday 8 August 2021

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, 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.” 3Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” 5And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. 7And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

Psalm 34:1-8

1I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth. 2I will glory in the Lord; let the humble hear and rejoice. 3Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord; let us exalt his name together. 4I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. 5Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. 6I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles. 7The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them. 8Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:17-5:2

17Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20But that is not the way you learned Christ! — 21assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 25Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and give no opportunity to the devil. 28Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Gospel: John 6:35-51

35Jesus said to {the crowd}, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” 41So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me — 46not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Points of Despair

I think we’ve all had the privilege of knowing that special someone.  That certain extraordinary and unique person who comes into our lives to enrich us.  These people may, on the surface, initially seem peculiar, and in a sense, they may be, but if we look past what makes them different, they can add depth to our lives.  By societal norms, these are folks that struggle socially and possibly even intellectually, but when you take the time to look past these differences, what you find is an interesting individual that can really enhance your life.  Such was a man I was introduced to years ago.  The man’s wife would usually describe her husband as an “acquired taste.”  And despite his idiosyncrasies, I liked him.  I found him to be very intelligent and at times, very humorous. 

While no one ever explained the medical basis behind my friend’s behavior, I believe the man would have been diagnosed today as a highly functioning Autistic.  To me this man was gifted; he was a tool designer and metallurgist who worked for a big corporation.  I found him to be very smart and very detail oriented.  He loved machines and was driven to discover how they worked.  I found this out when he invited me, one day, to accompany him to drag races at Beeline Dragway in Phoenix.

Instead of simply enjoying the competition, my friend spent the day down in the pits talking to the mechanics and the drivers about the cars, their design, the engines, and the many other technical detail he could pull from them.  On another occasion, we watched a tractor pull on TV, and he spent most of the time lecturing me on the different kinds of tractors and their engines and what had been done to them to give them more power.  But his need for information wasn’t limited to the mechanical, he was also driven to learn the details of history and art.

His wife also told me he loved to visit museums, but getting him out of these places was a challenge.  He would refuse to leave until he had read every single placard and plaque in the place and explained to her what they said.  He was especially delighted when he found an error.  Additionally, he was also known as the neighborhood fix-it guy.  He had an outbuilding full of old radio tubes and switches and small, old electrical appliances from which he would cannibalize parts for the ones he was fixing.  As one might expect, He refused to allow a mechanic to touch his car; insisting insisted on doing all the engine repairs himself.  This man loved details and machines.  People however, were a different matter.

Because of his makeup and personality, he had a hard time making eye contact with others.  He also had a habit of standing too close when he talked to people, and then would mumble what he said until it was nearly indecipherable.  Additionally, he hated parties or any situation where he was forced to talk to people he didn’t know.  At church functions, he could usually be found on the perimeter, nervously clearing his throat, and scratching his forearm.  Or if he did find someone who was interested in machines, he would corner them and mumble to them incessantly until they could figure out how to escape.  To me the most interesting and humorous thing about my friend was that he was a literalist in every sense of the word.

He took everything anyone said to him literally.  He struggled to understand or use figures of speech.  When someone would use a metaphor, you could see the wheels turning in his brain as he deconstructed the mental image and, after a few moments, he would come to the conclusion that this wasn’t something to be taken literally.  At times, he would chuckle to himself and repeat the metaphor over and over, continuing to examine it in his mind.  As I recall, the two analogies that used to drive him crazy was “that dog won’t hunt” and “hotter than hoosie.”  Now if you’re not familiar with the second one, my mother told me that “hotter than Hoosie” was an old Okie expression.

Growing up in a family that used irony, I never really paid much attention to them other than as illustrations.  Our family used them a lot, but in dealing with my friend, I learned that they had to be used sparingly or with further explanation.  Eventually, I learned to stay away from figures of speech, exaggerations, or metaphors of any kind when talking to him.  Other folks, unfamiliar with this man, often found themselves trying to explain a common, harmless metaphor or, worse yet, having to listen to my friend deconstruct or explain in depth the history of the metaphor.

One of my friend’s favorite oxymorons was when people would say they were going, or had been, to the “coin laundry”.  He would always pause, repeat the phrase several times, snicker and then ask, if their coins were clean now.  Still chuckling to himself, he would usually ask them the same question several times.  I’ve shared this experience with you, because our story from the Old Testament today reminds me of my friend of yester-year.

In our first reading for today, we get but a piece of the bigger story.  If you were to go back to the beginning of this particular event in Elijah’s life, you would find that, like my friend, some of the details might seem exaggerated or hard to understand.  Starting in chapter 18 we read that Elijah challenges the king.  In this encounter, Elijah sends the prophet Obadiah to tell king Ahab that he wants to meet him and the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah that “eat at [queen] Jezebel’s table.”  The phrase “eat at the queen’s table” is a metaphor, and my friend would have spent considerable time trying to picture a table in a room large enough for 850+ people to sit at.  This, of course, cannot be taken literally, this just means that Jezebel supported these false prophets that lived throughout the land.

As part of this challenge, Elijah asks the king to gather the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel for a challenge.  Choose who you will serve Elijah tells Ahab, God or the idol Baal.  Then to prove who the real God is, Elijah tells the king that whichever God can reign down fire to burn up a sacrifice, that was the true God.  You recall the story.

Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to build an altar and sacrifice a bull on it.  The prophets of Baal danced and prayed all day and even cut themselves as Elijah taunted them, yet no fire came from heaven to burn up the offering to Baal.  When evening came, Elijah rebuilds the altar previously torn down and digs a trench around it.  He then commands that 4 large jars of water be poured not once, but twice over the altar, wood and sacrifice.  There was so much water poured over the altar that the trench was full.  Elijah then prays and God sends fire that burned up everything, the water, the sacrifice, the wood and even the stones.  As you can imagine, that must have been a tremendously hot fire to do all that, and my friend would have spent considerable time trying to absorb and figure out all the details of how hot that fire needed to be to cause that to happen.

Suffice it to say, it was an amazing event, and to cap it all off, in the end Elijah kills all 450 of the false prophets with a sword.  Now one would think that after all this, Elijah would feel unstoppable.  If this had been you or I, we would be riding on a huge adrenaline high.  But as we read the stories of Elijah’s life, we find he was no different than any other servant of God.  As we learn, Elijah wasn’t the first to experience highs and lows within his life.

It seems almost inevitable that people who experience the highs of life are also going to experience the lows in life.  No one lives on a perpetual high.  In this life, there are always peaks and valleys.  The disciples accompanied Jesus to the mount to witness His transfiguration, but after that, they descended into the valley below.  It almost seems unavoidable, but doesn’t it seem that the lows of life come right after the peaks?  

As Christians, we too are faced with both the victories and struggles of life.  I believe one reason God allows this to happen is to teach us to look for the presence of God in both the good times and the bad.  This is true for both individual Chris­tians and for churches as well.  The story of Elijah is the faith biography for many of us.  Elijah was one of the greatest prophets of the Bible, yet he too had his struggles.  As I mentioned, he lived in the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

Ahab had formed a political alliance with his marriage to Jezebel.  When Jezebel moved into the palace, she wanted to bring her gods with her.  At first, I’m sure Ahab resisted, “That’s just not the way things are done here, Jezebel.”  But Jezebel wasn’t easily dissuaded, “But Ahab, your God is so stern and demanding.  My gods will add a little variety and spice to the people’s lives.”  Jezebel was urging Ahab and Israel to be polytheistic like the nations around them, “it’s okay to worship other gods as well” Jezebel insisted.  You see, satan through Jezebel, was crafty, she wasn’t outright rejecting the God of Israel, she simply wanted to “add some spice to life,” to “have some fun.”  But her nemesis, Elijah the prophet, knew God’s laws and commands and sternly said, “No.”  The first Commandment is clear, “you shall  have other gods before me.”

“How long will you go limping with two different opin­ions?” (1 Kings 18:21).  Choose this day who you will serve and worship.  Then Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel.  And when they had built an altar to their gods — the gods of sex, greed, wealth, power, hate, selfishness etc., Elijah also built an altar to the one true God.  After the false prophets tried futilely to get their gods to show themselves, after all the other passions of life had failed to satisfy the hunger of the soul, Elijah called on God to accept his sacrifice and fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, wood, stone, water, everything.  As I said earlier, it was a great victory for Elijah, but then it happened.  After the high, then came the low.

Jezebel, as we read in our Old Testament text, was furious at Elijah for spoiling all the fun in life.  She sent him a message and said, “You aren’t the only one who can play rough.  I’m going to have your head.”  To this Elijah responds, “Don’t you understand, I have demon­strated that there is only one true God.”  After this Jezebel tells Elijah, “I don’t care what you’ve demonstrated.  I’m going to have your head.”  Elijah had won a great victory and yet nothing seemed to have changed, the world was still full of the same temptations and evil.

As many of us have done, Elijah begins to question God, what good does it do to fight the battles you send me into if nothing ever changes?  Then afraid, Elijah runs to the desert.  One could use the analogy that Elijah fled into the desert of despair.  After traveling a day’s journey into the desert, Elijah finds a solitary broom tree to pro­vide shade, and he lays down and asks God to let him die.

We work hard for good causes.  We try to solve hunger by donating money and gathering food each week to feed the starving, yet the need never seems to be satisfied.  We support agencies like Habitat for Humanity to help build houses for worthy people, but still, there are hundreds more in our community without a home.  We support agencies and ministries that help the addicts, the abused and right to life agencies, yet addiction and abuse and abortions still happen.  We live a life pleasing to God, share the gospel with our neighbors and families, yet there never seems to be any change in their lives.  Those we witness to continue to serve themselves and the gods of this world, greed, hate, sex, selfishness, etc.  There comes a time when we want to run to the desert.  

We want to retire from doing good.  We want to quit putting our shoulder to the wheel.  We want to say with Elijah, I’ve done my best to be faithful, I’ve spent years, decades, working in your kingdom, but it isn’t doing any good.  I want to retire to the beach and play in the sun.  I want to quit working in the church and let someone else do it.  We’re frustrated with the struggles we face both in the church and in society as a result of this pandemic, so we’re tempted to quit trying to find ways to compromise in our worship times, services, and Sunday school and just want to quit coming all together.  But as we learn from our readings, We must each struggle with the highs and lows of life, and we each must look for God in all this.

It’s during these times of struggle, my hope is that like Elijah, we’ll feel a tap on our shoul­der.  As we sympathize with Elijah and his struggles, we can picture him, and maybe even us, saying, “Go away, don’t you see I’m trying to sleep?  I don’t care if I ever wake up.  Stop bothering me.”  But thanks be to God, the tap, tap, tap is persistent.

If we really pay attention to God at those points of despair, we’ll come to realize that God is ready to provide us with the food we need for the journey.  “Get up,” said the messenger to Elijah.  “You must eat and drink or you won’t have strength for the journey.”  There’s something important we need to note here, the Bible uses two phrases to indicate a message from God, “the” messenger of God and “a” messenger of God.  Whenever we read “the” messenger of God, this is Jesus Himself.  “A” messenger of God is either an angel or a human sent by God to speak.  Jesus Himself came to talk with Elijah. 

God came personally to help Elijah in his time of despair.  The same is true for us.  Yes, most of the time God’s word comes to us through “a” messenger, but when it’s really needed, God Himself comes to us during the lows of life to strengthen us, and feed us, and send us once again out into the world.

It was during this personal visit from Jesus that Elijah knew that there was a journey ahead of him.  He had asked to be allowed to die, but God had other plans.  When we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, when we fail to look for God in the lows, it’s natural for us to fail to consider the future.  Like Elijah, when things don’t go our way, we want to slink away and lick our wounds.  Yet, for the faithful, even in our de­spair, there is that tap, tap, tap on our shoulder.  God is gently there to awaken us from our self-absorbed slumber and open us to the greater journey ahead of us.  And when we realize God is there as well, God will provide us food for the jour­ney.  

Elijah traveled forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai.  This was where Moses was given the Ten Commandments that formed the community of Israel.  One could say that Elijah had traveled back to the source.  When we as Christians, and as a church, lose our vision, we begin to turn in on ourselves, and we’re robbed of the energy to go on.  This is the time for us, as members of the body of Christ, to return to the source, to stop and pray and remember the core of our faith, Jesus Christ.  When Elijah returned to the source, God asked that terrifying question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 9).  Why have you come back to the source if you are ready to crawl in a cave and feel sorry for yourself?  To this query, Elijah reverts back to making excuses for why he wants to quit.

Elijah began to defend himself.  “I have been the faithful one while everyone around me has been desecrating your command­ments.”  I have been faithful while society and my people have been ignoring the clear commands of scripture.  I’ve done my work, Lord; it’s the others who have let you down.  To this God tells Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord” (v. 11).  Out on the ledge, there came a great howling, rock shattering wind, but God wasn’t in the wind.  After the wind, there came a mountain-shaking, earth­quake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake.  And after the earth­quake, there was rock-melting fire, but God wasn’t in the fire.  Then there was silence.

It was in the silence that God gave Elijah his next assignment.  God wasn’t interested in all the excuses to quit; God wasn’t through with Elijah yet.  It’s in the silence of prayer that we find God, a God who comes to us to encourage us, strengthen us, and feed us with the Bread of Life.  And when we put our excuses and frustrations aside, we also find that God isn’t through with us yet.

God’s call is still the same: choose this day whom you will serve, the gods of this world, or the one true God.  God still needed Elijah to anoint kings and ordain other prophets to do God’s work, and God isn’t finished with us either.  Old, young, tired or flying high on the mountain top, God still has plans for each and every one of us.  For us the call of the Great Commission still stands, God is sending us to teach, baptize and make disciples, to do the work of His kingdom.  And that work must continue until Jesus returns.   Whether we’re elated or despairing in this life, we can rest assured, God is there to give us what we need to move forward, both in our individual calls, and our lives as a church.  Our psalmist is correct in proclaiming, “I called in all my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles” (Psalm 34:6).


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