June 24, 2007
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
I would like to tell you a story about a boy named Sam. One day, Sam waited too late to do his homework. He played until it got dark, and then it was time for supper. So when we finished eating, his father said, “Sam, sit right there and get started on your homework.”
“I’m too tired,” said Sam.
“You should have thought about that when you were playing,” said his father.
“I don’t have my book,” said Sam.
“You can go get what you need,” said his father, “but come back and work right here at the table.”
Sam got his math book and his notebook and found the assignment and wrote down the first problem. He worked at it and erased it; worked at it and erased it. He tried over and over, but he just couldn’t get it right. Then he threw the paper on the floor and said, “I wish I were through with school, married, and dead.”
“Oh, not so fast,” said his father. “Let’s just get through these math problems and see what happens.”
“But I don’t know how to do it,” said Sam.
“Well, I’ll help you,” said his father.
Later that night, when Sam was ready for bed, his father came into his room to read a Bible story and say prayers. They sat down on the bed and talked.
“I’m proud of you,” said his father.
“How come?” said Sam.
“Because you didn’t quit,” said his father.
“Quit what?” said Sam.
“The math homework,” said his father.
“Oh that,” said Sam.
“Yes, ‘Oh that’, you were ready to quit and die,” said his father.
“But, you helped me,” said Sam. “That doesn’t count.”
“Sure it counts,” said his father. “If I wanted to quit and you helped me keep going, wouldn’t that count if I didn’t quit.”
“I guess so,” said Sam.
“Well, sometimes I feel like quitting, but I remember you need me to keep going, so I keep going,” said his father. “But do you know who it is that is really helping us when we want to quit but keep going?”
“Who?” said Sam.
“God,” said his father. “So let’s say ‘Thank you’ to God for helping us not quit what needs to be done.” So they said a prayer like this:
“Dear God, thank you for helping us when we want to give up. Thank you for staying with us
until we feel better. Amen.”
Have you ever felt like Sam with his math problems? You’ve been trying and trying to accomplish something, but you keep getting it wrong. You’ve started over countless times, but you just can’t seem to get it! You’re ready to give up, pack it in, forget it — it’s not worth the effort.
I have a friend who’s been working on a paper for one of his seminary classes. It’s for a required class — one that you absolutely need in order to graduate. It’s his second time taking the class already, because he failed it on the first try —not because he slacked off or didn’t take it seriously, but because he was really having trouble getting his head around the material.
The second time around, things haven’t gone much better. He spent weeks on the final paper, but it was returned with a failing grade and the suggestion that he re-write it to be reconsidered. The thing is, he’d already written it twice, and looking at the professor’s comments, he didn’t even know where to begin in order to fix it. He felt like Sam did. He was ready to give up on the paper, give up on the class, give up on seminary, give up on ministry.
For many of us, the times when we’ve felt like that haven’t been around academic issues.
Maybe you’ve felt like that when you haven’t been successful at work, or when you haven’t been able to find a job — resume and resume, interview after interview, and rejection after rejection.
Maybe you’ve felt like that when you’ve had trouble in a relationship — the spouse with whom you do nothing but argue, the parent who demands so much from you and makes you feel so inadequate, the child or teen who treats you like an enemy rather than a parent who loves them.
Maybe you’ve felt like that because of an illness or disability — either yours or that of your loved one — that makes every day and every activity more challenging or painful or so frustrating that you just want to give up.
Or maybe, like so many people within the Christian church, you’ve felt like that about your ministry at times. Whether you’re a minister, an elder, a pastoral visitor, a committee member, or any other person who contributes your gifts to the church’s ministry, you may have, at times, felt very discouraged and frustrated with the work that God has called you to do.
Personally, I get discouraged when we plan programs and very few people choose to take part. I get frustrated when I spend more time in meetings than actually doing ministry. I get depressed when finding volunteers begins to feel like pulling teeth. I want to give up when I look around and see so many people who are in need of practical, emotional, or spiritual support and I feel like it’s up to me alone to provide it.
There are times in so many areas of our lives, when we can get frustrated, discouraged, and even depressed, because it feels like we’re alone in this, and we don’t seem to be making any progress, and we want to give up.
That’s exactly what Elijah was feeling like in the story that we read today. He’s scared. He’s discouraged, and he’s ready to give up the prophet’s life — if not his life altogether.
But in order to appreciate how Elijah’s feeling in today’s story, we should take note of his story so far and its context in the Book of Kings. The two books of Kings are mostly about the kings of Israel and Judah — beginning with David and Solomon, through some lesser known kings, and right up to the reforming kings Hezekiah and Josiah. But though the kings feature prominently in the story, the main character is the Lord God of Israel, and the other characters include both kings, prophets, and a number of significant foreigners.
The plot concerns the attempts Israel makes (or more often, fails to make) under its monarchy, to live as the people of God in the promised land, and how God deals with his people in their success and their failure. God doesn’t require a great deal from the kings and people of Israel, but they do seem to have a lot of trouble following even the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Then again, people still seem to have trouble with that one. Today, God often takes second place to recreation, entertainment, or convenience. Even those who worship God, often do so when we feel like it, when it’s convenient or fun or when we think we might “get something out of it” — not because God is truly first in our lives, above all else.
The Israelites and their kings have the challenge of living in a time and place in which the people around them do, quite literally, worship and pay homage to other gods — the Baals and Asherah being some of the major ones.
One of the things that God does to assist his people in staying faithful to him is to send prophets. The prophets, including Elijah and Elisha, spoke the words of God, reminding them to worship God, and warning them of God’s wrath if they keep on worshipping other gods. But, of course, the other gods had prophets too, who claimed that the Baals were real and powerful, and convinced people to worship them with gifts and sacrifices.
At the time of our story, Ahab is the king of Israel. Chapter 16 says that Ahab “did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.” Ahab took as his wife, a woman named Jezebel, daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and Ahab went and served Baal, and worshipped him.
We’ve already heard a couple of stories about Elijah’s work as a prophet of the Lord. He’s done some miracles, raised a widow’s son, and shown his own God to be more powerful than the Baals. After demonstrating the superiority and power of the God of Israel, Elijah has killed off the prophets of Baal, and he must be thinking that he’s finished his job. King Ahab has witnessed God’s triumph, and he will turn the kingdom away from those other gods and back to the God of Israel.
But Elijah gets a disappointing surprise when Ahab goes home to tell his wife, Jezebel, about what’s happened. She’s angry about her god’s prophets being killed, and she sends a message to Elijah promising that she will have him killed within 24 hours. And with the power and resources that she has at her disposal, Elijah knows that this is no idle threat. He’s afraid. He gets up and flees for his life — he gets himself as far away from Jezebel as he can.
After going a long way already, Elijah goes another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down under a broom tree, and prays that he will die. He’s had enough, and he’s giving up. Maybe he’s exhausted from the journey and doesn’t think that he can go any further.
Maybe he doesn’t even know where he’s going — where can he go to escape Jezebel?
Maybe he’s grown tired of the battle against the false gods. Just when he thought he was making progress, he realizes that all his work has not turned the kingdom back to God, and the Queen of Israel is trying to have him killed.
But even though Elijah may have given up on God’s mission, God has not given up on Elijah.
God sends an angel to him who feeds him and prepares him for the journey that lies ahead — a long journey that takes him to Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai) — and the same place where Moses had his amazing meeting with God.
And this is the place where Elijah hears God’s voice as well. God doesn’t come in a powerful force that destroys Elijah’s enemies or guarantees Elijah’s safety. God doesn’t come in wind, fire, or earthquake to assert his power or claim control. Instead, when he listens, Elijah hears God speaking to him in the sound of sheer silence.
And when God speaks, God doesn’t praise him for his faithful service, and God doesn’t scold him for wanting to give up. God only tells him what to do next. God lets him know that he’s not alone, and God assures him that he is called to and capable of doing the Lord’s work. That’s all Elijah needs, and he sets off to anoint kings and call prophets, trusting that he just has to do his part, and God will take care of Israel and turn them back from the Baals.
Whatever the experiences in our lives that lead us to feel like Elijah did that day, this story can be good news for us. When we are scared or frustrated, disappointed or depressed, God wants to lead us to a place where we can meet with him and hear God’s voice. We will need to listen carefully, because it might not be as dramatic and earth-shattering as we might expect.
The good news is that we are not alone. God speaks to us in silence, God comes to us in Jesus Christ, and God abides with us by the Holy Spirit. May God be first in our lives… the first and only one that we worship and serve, and the first one that we turn to when we are feeling like Elijah did. Amen.