Sunday, November 24, 2019

Our Sin, God's Faithfulness: Who is Your King?

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. Amen.

At the beginning of worship this morning, we talked about discoveries. About finding things during excavations. Things that have been hidden for a time. Have you ever put something in a “safe place” and then forgotten where that something was? How many of you have ever bought Christmas presents weeks or months ahead of time, put them somewhere in your home, and, then, when it comes time to wrap and give them, can no longer find them? Welcome to my world!

Our story today is a story of discovery. For the past few weeks, we’ve been reading in the prophets. Today, we are turning to second Kings, chapters 22 and 23. For the first several minutes today, we’re going to work our way through the text, section by section. Let’s begin our discovery by reading at verse 1. 

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. --2 Kings 22:1-2 (NRSV)

Our story is set during the reign of King Josiah. We are about 100 years after the setting of last week’s reading in Isaiah, around 620 BC, in the southern kingdom. Josiah has just become king, at the ripe age of 8 years old. The northern kingdom has fallen. Although Assyria has already begun to encroach into Judah, Jerusalem still stands. Josiah’s reign happens about 35 years before the Assyrian empire will collapse and the Babylonians will come from the south and defeat and capture Jerusalem, and exile the Jewish people from their homeland. We are near the end, near the catastrophic failure of the line of King David. About 586 BC.

We’ve talked before about these historical texts in the Hebrew scripture, that they are theological histories. Each of these stories has elements from actual history, but they are not written for historical purposes, but for theological reasons. They present clear theologies, clear understandings of the way the world works or is supposed to work. There is a lot of what we might call confirmation bias - finding evidence of God in history. It’s often what we like to do in our own lives, when we look at something in our own histories and believe we can seek the hand of God at work. 

These books from Joshua through Kings are called Deuteronomistic histories - histories that are read through the lens of Deuteronomy - the book in the Torah that gave Israel an understanding of what an ideal king should be, even before there were any kings. In these first verses, King Josiah begins his reign as an 8 year old. Verse 2 says that he did “what was right in the sight of the Lord.” That he did not “turn aside to the right or to the left.” This is direct language from Deuteronomy about what a good king should look like. There are only three kings in scripture described in this way: David, Hezekiah, and Josiah.

The book of Chronicles in two parts is a companion to the book of Kings. It expands in areas where Kings doesn’t. So, if we turn to 2nd Chronicles, chapter 34, we read what it looks like for a king to do what is right in the sight of God, to not turn aside to the right or to the left. Chronicles tells us that, in Josiah’s eighth year, he began to seek God. At 12, he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the “high places,” the shrines where people would go to worship the Baals, which, as I mentioned last week, were representative of all the gods that the people had begun to worship. All of the other gods except for the true God. Josiah not only purged the “high places,” but removed the incense altars, the sacred poles, the carved and cast images and the priests that had distracted the people from the true God. All of the cultural artifacts that had pulled them away from God.

This is what a good leader does. A good leader turns to God and then works to turn his or her people to God.

We read on. 

In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.” Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. --2 Kings 22:3-10 (NRSV)

Part of Josiah’s reform was to begin restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, which had fallen into disrepair. We get a true sense of Josiah’s leadership and of his people here. That Josiah trusted them to do the right things. To live in upright and honest ways because this was how he lived and how he led them. There was no need to double-check the work of the temple workers, because they could be trusted. Just as their leader could be trusted.

It is in the midst of the temple repair that a discovery is made. The book of the law. The Torah. Which included in it, the book of Deuteronomy - this guide book for how a king should lead. Josiah asks that this newly-discovered book be read aloud to him.

When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” --2 Kings 22:11-13 (NRSV) 

When Josiah hears the words, he tears his clothes. In the Jewish tradition, this represents that something very bad has happened. So, he sends his advisors to go to God’s prophet to inquire of God. One must wonder if this is our first step when something bad has happened to us. Or the first place our leaders turn. Do we seek God’s guidance first?

So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. She declared to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” They took the message back to the king. --2 Kings 22:14-20 (NRSV) 

If Josiah thought he had heard bad news before, this news is so much worse. “You’ll be okay for right now, but the future for your country will be no more.” It is news that God will not change God’s plan even though the people have turned back and re-committed themselves to God. Or that they are now walking in God’s ways. The prophetess Huldah does not have hopeful words for the kingdom of Judah. Because choices have consequences.

Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant. --2 Kings 23:1-3 (NRSV) 

So what does Josiah do with the information that Jerusalem will be doomed? He gathers everyone together. All Jerusalem. And he reads all of the discovered scroll - the Torah or the instruction - to them. Publicly. All of it. Following the command found in Deuteronomy 31, that the king will command everyone to assemble and read the words. To re-commit themselves to the covenant. And so, with Josiah knowing the eventual doom that will come to Jerusalem, he reads scripture to them. And then he, knowing their fate but not telling the people their fate, will, with them, re-commit. And by the end of chapter 23, we find a king and a people who are fully in. Who have shed the artifacts of culture that have pulled them away. And who have committed themselves to God once again. This is the highest point for God’s people since King David.

This is a hard text. What are we to do with this story? What sense of it are we to make for ourselves? We, who are on the other side of history from this text? Knowing the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of the people, the loss of the temple - their religious center?

Friends, our choices today have consequences. If not for us, then for future generations. There are any number of issues I might point out here: climate change; the growing gap between rich and poor; our selfish focus in the church on individual salvation rather than the shalom, the wholeness of the entire community; a government we have elected that, day after day, we learn is more and more corrupt, whether you watch Fox News or MSNBC. All of our choices have consequences. If not immediate, then in the future. 

What are we to do in the midst of this, in this unknown times, wondering if our own future destruction is only years away? King Josiah helps us in this respect. Even when it seems there is no hope, we turn to the Word. It is here in reading scripture that we are pointed back to God. Where, in the Word made manifest in the form of a baby king, we find hope for the future. A promised future - God’s promised future - of peace. Where all are fed, where all are restored to community, where creation is made whole, where only justice and righteousness reign.

And so as we wait for that future of the reign of Christ, we live as people of God, shedding the artifacts and things that distract us from God. Following God’s command, first given in Deuteronomy, then expanded by our King and Savior Jesus Christ, through whom all of us have been freed. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And your neighbor as yourself.” Amen.

Preached November 24, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Christ the King Sunday
Readings: 2 Kings 22:1-20, 23:1-3; Luke 24:30-32, Psalm 105:1-6 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Our Sin, God's Faithfulness: A Vineyard Love Song

Let me sing for my beloved
    my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and people of Judah,
judge between me
    and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
    that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
    but heard a cry! 
--Isaiah 5:1-7 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was around 30 years old, I met a man. I’d been divorced at this point for about 2 years and life as a working single mom was busy and, often, pretty hard. So, the idea of dating was a bit beyond me. However, one day, work colleagues of mine invited me to go out dancing with them one evening. I was resistant at first, thinking of all of the chores I still had to do at home, plus the challenge of finding a babysitter for my young son. But, they kept working on me and, eventually, I agreed.

They had a favorite hangout spot. It was this combination restaurant and bar that was on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, one of the wealthier communities in Los Angeles, which was where they also lived. We agreed that I would meet them there that evening. 

About 30 minutes into the evening, as I was wondering why I’d ever agreed to come, a gentleman approached our table to greet my friends. He was quite a bit older than we were. But, he was known to my friends and was respected in the community. He was a well known hotel developer. Wealthy. Very smart. Best of all, he was a great dancer! Over the next few minutes, we began to engage in conversation. And, then, to dance together. 

Have you ever had that sense after having just met someone that you are unexpectedly being pulled into a relationship? There is a sense of underlying excitement and an electricity that happens, that’s hard to explain. It’s a type of infatuation that happens, when everything just clicks. And it feels like it's destiny. 

Well, that’s what happened that evening to both of us. Over the next few weeks, we were in this whirlwind period of romance. Then, one Saturday morning, I received a call from him, saying we needed to talk. He’d spent the morning eating breakfast with friends - friends who were his age - who had convinced him of the folly of our relationship. The “May-November” nature of our relationship, if you will. And so, in that phone call, he told me we could no longer see each other. And, he broke up with me.

Earlier in worship this morning, we shared the names of love songs with each other. What we didn’t share, though, were the names of “break-up songs.” At that moment in my life, when it felt as though my destiny - as though our destiny - had been destroyed by his friends, this was my “break-up song.” 

The first part of our reading this morning from Isaiah is nothing more than a break-up song. A love song about a love that has gone awry. A song of a farmer and his vineyard. A farmer who has taken the utmost care to prepare the land for a bountiful harvest of grapes for wine-making. Not just any grapes, but the best grapes, the most excellent grapes. He has planted this vineyard on a fertile hill. He has done everything to ensure the growth of his precious vines -  digging up the dirt, clearing the stones, planting the choicest vines. Then, placing a tower in the midst of the vineyard - a watchtower - so that he might watch for those unwanted animals that might come and destroy his newly-planted vines. Digging out a wine vat, also in the midst of the vineyard, to make this wine that will be the best wine, of the highest quality. 

This is a love song that begins with such a sense of expectation and anticipation. An infatuation, if you must. And, then, we get to this line of the song, in verse 4, which ends with this question - a lament really. From the farmer: “When I expected my vineyard to yield good grapes, why did it yield rotten grapes?”

The next step the farmer takes is logical. With vines that have produced such a poor harvest, he removes the fences surrounding his previous vineyard. Allowing the natural predators to come in and destroy it. He stops farming the vineyard, allowing the thorns and thistles to grow up. The farmer walks away from what was once his beloved vineyard. Broken-hearted. Singing nothing other than a break up song. And, then, near the end of the song, we realize that this is not a song about a farmer and a vineyard. But this is a song - a breakup song - about God and God’s people.

The book of Isaiah is written in two parts by the prophet Isaiah. Unlike Hosea last week, who was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel, Isaiah is located in the southern kingdom, in Jerusalem. Isaiah has been witness to the destruction of the northern kingdom and the exile of Judah’s northern kin. It is this destruction and exile of Israel in the north that is the subject of this first part of Isaiah. A lament. A break-up song between God and God’s people. A people from whom God expected the production of good fruit. The fruits of - as we read in verse 7 - fruits of justice and righteousness. And yet, instead, Israel has become a people who have produced bad fruit. Fruits of bloodshed and distress. The harvest is not simply poor or inadequate. The harvest is evil. 

Friends, we are like this harvest. Like Israel. Our world produces similar fruit. A harvest from which God expects justice and righteousness. Where salvation is not just the hope of us as individuals, but where salvation in God’s eyes is about the establishment of a just society. Where the common good is of utmost importance. Where justice and righteousness prevail. A world in which the rights of all, including the most marginalized, are respected. Isaiah’s musical metaphor is a stinging rebuke to Israel, and to us, of the world we have created. A world that produces bloodshed. And cries. Particularly, the cries of children. Hungry. Living in unsafe conditions. In fear of the next mass shooting. Or separated from their parents.

For ten full chapters in this first part of Isaiah, we hear the lament of God over this harvest. Heavy, sobering words from God to the people of Judah, intended to wake them from their similar stupor. We hear God’s sense of despair at their unfaithfulness. At our unfaithfulness.

But, then, suddenly. Unexpectedly. The song changes in chapter 11.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
--Isaiah 11:1-9 (NRSV)

As the song begins, the vineyard is a stump. Nothing more than a stump that appears to be dead. But, this stump still has roots. And as we listen to the song, Isaiah lifts our eyes. This is a song of a new
vision. An acknowledgement that life is about to be different. An intrusion of good news - very good news to the people of Judah. That, out of this seemingly dead stump, will come a new shoot. And, then, a branch. A new king. Who wears on his mantle the spirit of wisdom and understanding. The spirit of counsel and might. The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The very words used in each of our baptisms.

This new king will judge with righteousness and equity. With a single-minded devotion to the community and to justice - a devotion that will require the abandonment of his own ambition. A new king, through whose leadership, the order of peace will be reestablished. A whole peace. Shalom. Not simply a peace among humans, but a peace that encompasses all of creation. Harmony will be restored.

What a vision! What a love song this is! Where children are safe and where the most likely of enemies live beside each other in peace. Where no one and nothing will be hurt or destroyed. Because the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of God.

By placing this vision - this love song - into the midst of the very stark realities of Israel’s life, into the midst of the stark realities of our lives, Isaiah reminds us that occasionally we need to stop and allow ourselves the privilege of seeing life not how it is, but about how it can be. About how God desires it to be and promises that it will be. Not a breakup song. But, a love song. A love story. A story of hope. A vision of peace. A true destiny for you and I and all creation. A destiny of justice and righteousness. And peace. And love.

May we long for this love song! And may we learn to sing it with our God. Amen.

Preached November 17, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 23
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-9; Mark 12:1-3; Psalm 107:38-43

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Our Sin, God's Faithfulness: God, Parent, Metaphor

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Parent, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’ve been reading about prophets recently as they have participated in the stories of Israel. Last week, for example, we heard about the Prophet Elijah. Today, we’re moving into a section of scripture that is written by and about the prophets themselves. Take out, if you will, one of the pew Bibles in front of you and turn to the Table of Contents. The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, isn’t organized chronologically in date order, but by the type of writing in each book. This past fall, we read our first lessons from the first group of books. These first books are called...anyone? The Torah. Or the Law. Or the Instruction. Or, sometimes, the Books of Moses. Anyone remember how many books are in the Torah? Yes, there are five.

The next group of books are the Histories. They begin with the Book of Joshua and extend to the book of Esther. Why do you think they are called the Histories? That’s right, they tell the history of the Israelites, as they settled into the Promised Land, then how the kingdom was first unified and then divided. They close with the time of exile, when first the northern kingdom - Israel - and then the southern kingdom - Judah - were conquered by other empires.  

After the Histories come the Wisdom books. There are five of these. Let’s name them: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs or Solomon.

Finally, the rest of the Hebrew scriptures are the writings of the Prophets. The first five books are what we call the Major prophets. We call them this because they are longer and their prophecies are broader and more far-reaching. The remaining books are called the Minor prophets, because they are shorter and their prophecies are more specific to their context or their situation. So, if the first five are the major prophets, which book is the first of the minor prophets? Hosea. Who is the prophet we are reading from today. Look for the page on which Hosea begins. Then, open to Hosea and find Chapter 11. Follow along as I read verses 1-9. 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
    the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
    and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with bands of love.
I was to them like those
    who lift infants to their cheeks.
    I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
    and Assyria shall be their king,
    because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
    it consumes their oracle-priests,
    and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
    To the Most High they call,
    but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath. --Hosea 11:1-9 (NRSV)

One of my favorite things about social media are the photos and stories shared by friends and family that include their children. Some of my friends have children that are still quite small; others have children who are grown. Yet, no matter the age, they are, to their parents, still their kids.

Raising (or really, the proper term is rearing) children can be the most amazing experience. It can also be the hardest. Our kids start out small and helpless. We can’t wait until they can learn to crawl or to walk. And, then, when they do, we’re horrified about what they do and get into. Or, we work with them over and over to say words, to name things, to talk. And then, when they reach that point at about 2 or 3 where we pray that, for just a minute or two, they will be quiet. Or we’re terrified about what they might actually say in public.

There’s a story about parents who taught their daughter to always compliment people who insulted her. So, one day, as the family was out shopping, a stranger said something rude to the mom. Her daughter caught on that her mom was angry. So, she popped out in front of her mom and said to the woman who had been so rude, “Your teeth are such a pretty yellow!”

We try so hard to teach our children important lessons. We set boundaries around them to protect them. We constantly talk to them about hard things that happen at school or on the sports field to help them learn or, perhaps, consider a better way of doing things. It’s like the man who wanted to teach his son the value of money and a work ethic because he kept wanting  Robux, which is virtual currency to purchase special abilities in the Roblox video game (I only know this from my experiences with my own son who is a gamer!). So, he created a chore chart and gave each household chore a value. Then, they established a schedule together. It was working wonderfully! Every day his son did what he was supposed to do without having to be told: washing dishes, cleaning up his room, picking up dog poop. And on and on. It was epic!

Then, one day, the man came home and nothing had been done. He confronted his son. “Hey, man, what’s up with the dishes? Go wash them. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to pickup the dog poop in the backyard. He son looked at him, as only a child can look at a parent, and said, “Nah. I made enough Robux to get what I wanted. So, I’m good now.”

Sometimes the lessons we try to teach our children backfire on us. And, then, we’re the ones learning the lesson.

Today’s passage in Hosea 11 is a passage that every parent can relate to. We set those boundaries for our children and then watch in agony as they push through them. Or we feel the wounds going deep in our hearts when we hear our child say for the first time, “I hate you.” How can this child, whom we have cared for, for whom we have provided every need, for whom we have lost sleep over, for whom we have cleaned up, coddled and kissed - how can this child do this or say this to us? How can they break our hearts like this?

God, as Israel’s parent, is in the very same position. Israel is that willful child - that rebellious child - that pushes against the boundaries God has set for them, just as our toddlers and then our teenagers do. Even worse, Israel has seemingly rejected all of the values and traditions that God has taught them, that God has shared with them. Israel is oppressing the poor. Israel is worshiping other gods now. Israel is ignoring God, going back to Egypt who enslaved her for support. She goes to Assyria’s king for aid, even though he doesn’t have her best interests at heart. 

God looks at Israel - God’s own child - just as we look at our own children as they sleep and wonder how they can do this. How, after we have loved them, taught them to walk, took them in our arms, healed them, led them with kindness, with love. Lifted them up as babies and held them against our cheeks as we smelled their sweet smell. Or bent down to feed them. How can they do this? And, for just a moment in Hosea, we get a glimpse of God’s deep suffering. A glimpse of the suffering that God experiences when we rebel. When we ignore God. When we walk away.

Israel will, of course, realize the consequences of her choices. Her identity will be torn apart by her choices. She will be broken and battered. She will not be safe from the sword. Violence will consume all of her people. 

And God’s heart will be broken.

If it were you or I, we might just walk away. “Enough!” we might say in agony. “Enough of this! I’ve done everything I can. There’s nothing more I can do.” This might be our very valid and human response. 

But, this is not God’s response. Because God’s mercy runs hot. God’s love runs deep. God will never refuse the child. God will welcome Israel back with warmth and tenderness. Even when the child expects to be condemned by God, that is not what they will receive. Instead, they will receive an invitation. A welcome home. And a reminder that they are a beloved child of God.

We, too, are beloved children of God. Even when we rebel, when we ignore God, when we walk away and we suffer the consequence of our own sinful choices or of a world that is so fully broken, we know that this is not God’s plan. That we should be harmed. That we should hurt. That we should suffer. No matter how far we have strayed. No matter what we have done or what has been done to us. We are like Israel, God’s beloved child. God’s heart beats for us. God’s love is never ending. There is nothing we can do to change this. So, come home. Live with God. 

“For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

Welcome home, beloved of God! Amen.

Preached Sunday, November 10, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 22
Readings: Hosea 11:1-9, Mark 10:13-14, Psalm 2

Sunday, November 3, 2019

God's Way of Leading: Indeed God

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” --1 Kings 18:17-39 (NRSV)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.

When my son was small, he went through a series of phases. Phases of infatuation. Perhaps you’ve experienced this with a small child. From 2-3 years old, he was infatuated with dinosaurs. He could identify and pronounce the names of every dinosaur. From 3-4, it was Spiderman. One Halloween during that time, I made him a Spiderman costume. He loved it so much that every morning for the next three months, when I would go into his bedroom to wake him up, he would be wearing it - having changed out of his pajamas into it at some point during the night. Then, at 5 and 6, it was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Funny, how all that stuff circles back around, isn’t. Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michaelangelo.  It’s only recently I realized that they were named after important artists.

By about 7 or 8, thought, he was moving away from cartoon figures to real-life heroes. It was during this period that he began to get into wrestling. Now, I’m not talking about the usual horseplay and running around and wrestling that siblings or young boys, in particular, like to engage in. No. This was serious wrestling. This was World Wrestling Federation wrestling. Real wrestlers. Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Macho Man Randy Savage. The Rock. And on and on. He was hooked.

My ex-husband was, too! So, whenever they could, the two of them would go to World Wrestling Federation matches, where maybe one or two of the matches would feature one of the big stars that my son loved. But, the best matches - the biggest, best, and baddest matches - were the WWF Smackdowns. Everyone went to watch all the wrestling stars. “Who’s the greatest of them all?” That’s what the smackdown was about - to decide who was #1.

Friends, this is what we’ve got today in our story! This is nothing other than a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown!

But, before we get into this Smackdown story, let’s see how we got here. Last week, we heard about the split of the unified kingdom of Israel. Under both David and Solomon, the tribes of Israel were one kingdom. Under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, the kingdom had split in two, with Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Today and next week, we will be in the northern kingdom. In Israel.

Ahab, in today’s story, is now king of Israel. He is not a “good” king. In fact, in chapter 16, we hear that Ahab “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” Ahab is a bad king. He is the worst of the worst. 

He marries Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. Jezebel serves and is faithful to Baal. Baal is a Canaanite god, associated with weather, and fertility, and thunderstorms. Ahab begins to worship Baal, building and dedicating a “gate” at Jericho to Baal. Engaging in child sacrifice. 

This is not a good regime. 

Elijah comes into the story in the midst of a drought. A drought that has been going on for three years. Now, Elijah is not your typical prophet. Elijah is kind of rough and wooly - unlike Nathan, for example, who was a court prophet - part of King David’s court. Elijah lives more on the edges of society. But, he, just as Nathan was, is sent by God to call Israel back. And not only the people of Israel, but also their king. Ahab.

As our story opens today, Elijah is on his way to meet Ahab. When he gets there, Ahab greets him. “Is it you, Elijah, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah? Troubler of Israel? 

Elijah responds, “I have not troubled Israel. But you have. You, and your father’s house. Because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.” Remember the shema, Elijah is saying to Ahab. Remember it?  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might!”

Then it is time for the big smackdown. Elijah tells Ahab to call everyone - all of Israel - to Mount Carmel so they can witness a contest. A match. Between the god of Baal. And the God - the true God. Best god wins!

Now, you have to understand the setup of this smackdown. Mount Carmel is the home of Baal in the northern kingdom. So, it’s on their home turf. It’s a contest of 450 to 1. Four hundred Baal prophets to one prophet of the true God. Elijah. And what’s the contest? Whose god can bring down fire. Baal is the god of thunderstorms - of storms and lightening. So, here’s the contest: it’s on their home turf, with 450 of their prophets to 1, and their choice of weapon. Then, on top of all this, they get to go first. And they have all day to get their god to respond.

They set up their altar. And then, Baal’s prophets cry out. From morning to noon. “O answer us!” Then, they start to limp around and to cut themselves, to harm themselves. Perhaps this will get Baal’s attention. They beg for their god to hear them. All day long until it is the time of the offering of oblation. Sunset. Time to make, ironically, the annual offering of loyalty. 

Yet, there is no voice. No answer. No response. Nothing. Only silence. Baal - the god of weather and fertility, the god of thunderstorms - Baal is M-I-A.

Then, Elijah steps forward. He repairs the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. Stone by stone. Twelve of them to represent the 12 tribes. He makes a trench around it. Then he prepares the wood and the sacrifice and puts it on the altar, pouring water all over it. Not once, but twice, and a third time. Water runs down over the entire altar and fills the surrounding trench. Finally, Elijah prays to God, to the true God. The god who is indeed God. Fire immediately falls from the sky, consuming the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even the water that is in the trench.

When the people see this, they fall on their faces, saying, This is indeed God. This is indeed God.

On this All Saints Sunday, one might wonder how this story of God’s smackdown of Baal fits into the story of the saints. It’s important to understand that this story, along with all of the historical books of scripture, are a theological history of Israel. Written down during and after the period of exile. At a time when Israel and Judah were seeking to make meaning of everything that had happened and where, in the midst of exile and loss, God could be found. Or even whether God could be found.

You and I come out of a long line of saints. Of those, like Elijah, who bore witness to us of the central nature of God’s claim. That God is a God who brings people out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery and bondage, out of death and loss. Who delivers. And who brings life. Each of us have been blessed with saints in our lives like Elijah, who witnessed to us of this one, true God. God of Gods. Light of Light. True God of True Gods. This God who laid claim to them. Who has laid claim to us. The God in whom they placed their trust. In whom we place our trust. Not some icon - some god who doesn’t respond. But, a God who is faithful. Who seeks relationship with us. Who promises and who gives life. Who calls us, just as God called our ancestors, to this journey of faith. Who promises to be with us. Now and forever.

This is the true God. The God of Elijah. The God of Jacob. The God of Isaac. The God of Abraham. The God of our ancestors. The God of whom John wrote in the book of the apocalypse: “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying,’Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This is indeed God. This is our God. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forevermore. Amen.

Preached November 3, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
All Saints Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 18:17-39; Mark 9:2-4; Psalm 149