Pastor Walther / Aug 27, 2017 / Unexpected / 1 Kings 19:9-18 / Pentecost 12
In what world does evil triumph over good? Everything seemed to be upside down. It was so unexpected. Bloodied by the carcass of a bull that he had just slaughtered; dusty from the stones of the altar that he had pieced together; his clothes, his beard and his hair smelling of charred flesh; his face sweaty because of the heat caused by the Lord’s fire; Elijah, the prophet of God had a showdown. Elijah wanted to demonstrate God’s power to 850 prophets of two false gods named Baal and Asherah. He went before the Israel people who had grown indifferent to the differences between these false gods and the true God. So, Elijah sets up the scenario where there were two altars, one for the true God and one for the false Baal. The first to get their God to burn up the offering on the altar wins. In short, God absolutely humiliates the enemy. The false prophets attempted to call out to their false god Baal but nothing happened. There was no response. God on the other hand, heard Elijah’s prayer and burned everything including the altar. If there was a scoreboard, it would say: God, a million; enemies of God, zero. The people fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God!” With such an awesome display of power, how couldn’t people be amazed by God and his power? You would think that such a display of power would have to change hearts and minds. At least, that was Elijah’s expectations, and that would probably be our expectation. We look at the creation around us and see the beauty that God has created, or the miracle of someone surviving a lethal car crash without a scratch and think, how can people not believe that there is a God, right?
But what he expected, what you and I would have expected, was so far off. Instead of a great religious revival, the king and queen threatened to kill Elijah by the next day. With the stench and sweat still in his clothes and in his hair, Elijah fled for his life and fled for a mountain which was very familiar to the history buffs of Israel. He flees to the exact mountain that Moses had been on 600 years before. On this mountain, the Lord had appeared in the burning bush to Moses and later where the Lord gave the ten commandments.
Now, after such an unexpected turn of events, Elijah holes himself up at this famous mountain, doing something also so unexpected. Growing up you kind of think of prophets or even pastors or teachers or even parents as being robots, unable to express any emotion. God shows in our text here for today though how emotionally exhausting it was for prophets to see their people not listening. Elijah breaks down crying because he feels as if he has failed his people, failed his job, and failed God. You can see the pain that pastors have for their people when the people stop coming to church and when bible classes are empty. You can see the pain of our Christian teachers when their students take the gospel home that they learned at school to a family that couldn't care less about the gospel. I’m sure you have felt that same pain when you have invited someone to church or shared the hope that you have with someone, and they laughed in your face or threw your invite into the trash. Elijah was not some emotionless robot but he was like you and me. This failure weighed heavily on him as failure often does and in his depression, he honestly believed that he was the only godly prophet left in Israel. Everything that he had done, the famous showdown against the prophets of Baal before our section, felt like a waste of time and effort.
My situation felt like a waste of time and effort to me. Maybe it was something I said. Maybe I didn’t use the right bible passage. Maybe I didn’t say something well enough. It seemed like all my attempts to share the gospel with an acquaintance of mine failed. I think about all the different avenues of ministry that we have tried at St. Paul to reach out to the community that sort of just didn’t work out, or all the missions that our synod started but we had to close. Was it all just a waste of time and effort to share the gospel? Was it all just a waste of time and effort for Elijah to preach to his people? You and I, and Elijah alike, do something so expected in this world: we begin to make our expectations based on our work, based on our toil and effort, based on our time, based on the correct wording that we put to persuade someone to become Christian, rather than trusting in God and his plans.
At a certain point, you kind of just wish every unbeliever would have a Martin Luther experience being caught in a lightning storm to scare them into becoming Christians. God doesn’t necessarily work that way, though. Interestingly, when God had given the 10 commandments on this mountain 600 years before, he DID demonstrate his powerful, terrifying presence with fire, smoke, and an earthquake. He created fear and awe, and the people saw that the threats of God’s law were not empty. Occasionally, God does use hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc. as his tools. He uses them to put fear and awe in the hearts of his people and to test them, and at times he uses them also to judge the ungodly. Maybe Elijah expected to meet this same threatening God, who could demonstrate his power.
But God was not in the destructive blast of the wind, the shaking earth, or the intense heat of the fire. He didn’t announce his presence with thunder. More often than not, God comes to us in the means of his own choosing: at the manger, at the cross, at the empty tomb, in the gentle whisper of his word, and all of it wrapped in the beautiful gospel. Our God is a God who can demonstrate his power, but our God is also a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” This whisper that Elijah heard was God’s patience with his people, as opposed to violent destruction. This is the God who wins his people over with the amazing words that our salvation is through the innocent blood of Jesus on the cross.
In his word, God asks us to do something unexpected. He asks us to trust him. The salvation of souls is not dependent on us and how well we can be persuasive or how well we can touch the emotions of someone, but that it is dependent on him and his word. That is a truth that we have to learn time and time again as sometimes we can become impatient with the slow growth of a church, as we become impatient with sharing the gospel with a family member or a friend who doesn’t want to hear about Jesus. When we fail to see growth, we may feel tempted to change the message, or choose not to share certain parts because we don’t want to offend people. Maybe we are tempted to make Jesus into a show, an experience, something that you have to feel with fire, and wind, and earthquakes of production and yet forget about the whisper of the gospel, the whisper of God’s word. Thankfully, faith in our heart doesn’t come about by our doing or choosing, and the faith that I want in someone else’s heart doesn't come about by my hard work, but it comes through hearing the word and hearing the law and gospel.
It is inevitable that some people will choose to reject God’s Word. As painful as it may be Jesus promised that people would reject his word. Yet, God also promised us that his word changes hearts and minds. The whisper of God’s word is always working and is always effective. We see the beautiful and unexpected patience that God has for his people, even when we are too stubborn to trust in him, even when it may seem like we have failed. What was unexpected to Elijah was that there were at least 7,000 people who believed in the true God! That’s like the size of my hometown that Elijah just skimmed over and didn’t realize had hear that whisper of the gospel. Was all the time and effort that Elijah put in worth it? Was all the rejection that he had dealt with worth it? Yes! We look back at the different avenues of ministry at St. Paul that outwardly looked like they failed, but maybe one person heard and believed in the gospel. Was all the time and effort sharing the gospel worth it! Yes! Faith will never grow if the whisper of God’s word isn’t preached.
We have to trust that it is by God’s power and his word that people come to faith, which is why we need to continue as well to be fed and nourished by this amazing and unexpected whisper. If we want to share with other people the life giving gospel, we need to be well fed too! At this point, Elijah was spiritually starving from the lack of the gospel. Yet again, we see God acting so unexpectedly. He didn’t strike Elijah down with power and the law, but he restored Elijah with the gospel, the reminder that we have been forgiven for all our failures, all the time we relied on ourselves rather than trusting in God and his power. Our God always restores us with his gospel, but he also doesn’t let us wallow in our failures.
People’s rejection of us or of God’s word does not mean we have failed God and it surely doesn’t mean that our task is over. God gives us purpose to continue to share God’s word. During his time, much like many other prophets, Elijah was hated and wanted dead. He felt that impact. Yet, through God’s word he continued his purpose of sharing God’s message, even when people didn’t want to hear it. Elijah wasn’t supposed to stay in that cave forever. When we face “failure” with our sharing of God’s word, God encourages us with the same gospel and reminds us to keep sharing the gospel. God does not relieve us of our responsibilities and maybe encourages us to try different avenues of ministry, but always preaching God's word.
30 years. It took 30 years for a man that I knew, a husband of a family, to start coming to church and become a member. 30 years of denying the whisper of the gospel. 30 years of sitting at home alone while the rest of the family was at church. 30 years for his life to change. One day as a secret to his family, he began taking Bible information class with the pastor to learn more about Jesus and on his wedding anniversary, announced to his family that he had become a member at the church. It was so unexpected.
I can’t help but be amazed that the Lord graciously comes to sinful people, people who fail in so many different ways, like you and me, and Elijah, but equips us again and again by that whisper of the gospel to serve him and to be preachers of his Word! When you leave today, do not by saddened by our failed attempts to share God’s word, or maybe the hypocrisy you might feel thinking why would people want to listen to me when I’ve messed up so much in my personal life!? But be renewed by his gospel and his wonderful encouragement like this bible account so that we are reminded that we are forgiven and that we continue to share that message again and again to as many people as we can. The world around us expects us to fail as Christians. But God’s love is so unexpected. Amen.