A sermon based on 1 Kings 19: 1-18
Dr. Andrew Stirling is the Senior Minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto. He lived and studied in South Africa during a time when apartheid was still in force. During the 1970s, he was a student minister to a small congregation in one of the black townships. While he was there, he took a stand against apartheid. He engaged in some activities in which he ended up protecting some black youths from the white police. In 1980, he was exiled from South Africa and came to Canada.
At one point, he was the minister at Parkdale United Church in Ottawa. He was serving there at the time when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was being installed as the Prime Minister of the new South Africa. In honour of that occasion, the Canadian government held a reception from some ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps. Somebody in the government knew of Dr. Stirling’s involvement in the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa and arranged from him to receive an invitation to the reception as well.
He arrived wearing his clerical collar and a suit jacket. Very quickly, he felt out of place as the only clergy person in the midst of government officials, diplomats and ambassadors. He spent some time standing around awkwardly until, at one point in the evening, three ambassadors — from Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana — came up to him and introduced themselves. They asked him, “Do you represent anyone in particular?”
“Not really,” he replied.
“Then, what are you doing here?”
“I am beginning to wonder that myself.”
He told them about living and working in South Africa, about his role in the anti-apartheid movement and about the incident with the young boys, and how all of that had led to his being expelled and exiled from the country.
When he had finished, the three ambassadors put their arms around him and said to him, “Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.”
“Never underestimate the importance of the one whom you represent.” Like Dr. Stirling, we are prone to doing just that. Many voices these days tell us that what the church is and what the church does is unimportant to the real business of the world. These voices are pervasive and they are persistent.
An eighty-five year old woman does nothing more important than buy two winning lottery tickets and she makes headline news. A small group of women, mostly 60 to 90 years old, meet every month for years, quietly raising money in a variety of ways so that some young girl in a distant country will get an education and some shoes to wear. They donate some of their funds to the local food bank so that the working poor, persons with disabilities, and single moms trying to feed and clothe their children can get some pasta and soup to see them through to the end of the month. They do it because they believe that, by doing so, they are serving Jesus their Lord. They will never once make headline news but what they do has a far greater impact than any of us will ever know.
Jennifer Aniston breaks up with her latest boyfriend and her picture gets plastered on the front page of magazines as if this were world-shaking news. Yet, I know people who go about their everyday lives, trying to live with decency and integrity and faithfulness and courage wherever they work and play and serve their communities. They keep at it even though they will never receive the acclaim, money or notoriety that celebrities do in our culture. They do it because they understand that this is what it means to live out of the truth that Jesus is Lord. The witness of their lives will impact their communities in a depth far exceeding what any Hollywood star could accomplish.
Apple announces a new technological toy and stock holders rush to adjust their portfolios. Yet, week in and week out, small groups of Christians gather to worship God and to create communities where children are taught to pray and to live with compassion. Together, they learn the difficult art of loving one another and forgiving one another and loving again after the hurt and the pain. They are carried into an unknown future by hope in the living Christ. They do it because they have been baptized into a life of dying to self and being raised by God into a new creation. They seek to make and keep life human — caring, compassionate, and truthful. They just keep doing living this way even though most of their neighbours do not think that it matters whether or not their little churches survive. Those neighbours will only realize what the community has lost long after the building is closed and gone; yet, those congregations do more to effect the quality of life in that community than all the stock portfolios in the world.
“Never underestimate the importance of the one you represent.”
Many Christian churches are now in the position of being missionary outposts of the kingdom of heaven. We do not receive the support, encouragement or recognition from the culture around us that we once enjoyed. Because of that, we are constantly in danger of underestimating the importance of whom it is we represent. It is easy to get discouraged and disoriented. We can lose our way. When the people of Israel were in danger of forgetting those things, somebody told them again the story of Elijah.
Elijah was a prophet of the Lord God Almighty but, as can happen to God’s people, he was broken down, discouraged, worn out and used up. He wanted to do nothing more than crawl away and hide somewhere. He headed out to the desert. However, Yahweh would not let him settle for that. Yahweh sought him out in the wilderness and sent an angel to feed and nourish him. The angel told him that there was still a journey ahead of him that he needed to take. The journey would take him even deeper into the wilderness.
Elijah got up and, for forty days and forty nights, made his way to Mount Horeb — to the place where God had invited Moses and the people of Israel to live in covenant partnership. Elijah was being sent back to the roots of the people of God.
When Elijah got there, God asked him the kind of question that made him focus on the basics of his life again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah could not get past his disappointment, discouragement and sense of isolation. “I’ve been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts. I, only I, am left.”
It’s not a very good answer. It is filled with self-pity. It’s all about him, but it’s all he has left.
God does not really respond to what Elijah says. God does not try to comfort him or encourage him. God does not promise that things will work out for the best. Yahweh just tells Elijah to stand on the mountain because the Lord is about to pass by.
Elijah cannot manage to do even that.
Nevertheless, there is a great wind, an earthquake and a fire. The Lord is not in any of those. Then, there is the sound of sheer silence. Somehow, it was that silence, that sense of utmost awe and majesty that accompanies the presence of God, that drew Elijah out of the cave and onto the mountain before God.
God asks Elijah the same question God has asked before: “What are you doing here?”
Elijah gives the same answer: “I’ve worked so hard for you, God. It doesn’t seem to have made any difference. I’m the only one left who really cares.”
Again, God does not spend any time on Elijah’s fears and laments. He re-commissions Elijah. There’s still work to be done. He is not alone as he thinks: there are seven thousand who are still faithful and upon whom Elijah can count, even as Yahweh counts on them.
He is to anoint Elisha as his successor. God’s work is so big that it will continue long after Elijah is gone. It will continue: God is already preparing the next generation and it is up to Elijah to disciple them.
He is to anoint Hazael as ruler of Israel and Jehu as ruler of Judah. God is still at work in the world, even directing the future those who hold power. Elijah gets to get in on that world-shaping work.
Elijah gets up and starts again.
The question God is asking us in such a time as this is the same one God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” If Elijah’s story is any indication, the chances are that the first answer we give to that question will not be adequate. Probably, the second answer won’t be either. When we are feeling threatened or discouraged, we are prone to focus on ourselves and on what we have done and how we are feeling about all of that.
Nevertheless, God persists. “Why are you here?” Why is there a church in this place?
Even after we get past our initial self-focussed answers, we may make the mistake of looking for the presence of God in something big, spectacular, glamourous. We want an answer that hits us like a great wind or an earthquake or a fire. Yet, that is not the way of Jesus. When Jesus spoke about the church, he used modest metaphors. We are yeast, salt, a light in the darkness. We are a ‘little flock’.
The story tells us to listen for God’s answer to the question in the sound of sheer silence — in moments of awe and majesty when we know ourselves to be in the presence of a holy God. We cannot manufacture those moments. God reveals Godself when God wills. However, we can be ready to respond to them when they come.
That’s why we show up, Sunday by Sunday. We worship God who has claimed our lives and our hearts. We praise the one who rules the cosmos. We sit under the authority of these stories. We wrestle with them. Then we wait and we pray and we offer ourselves to live in obedience to God.
It does not seem like much. Most of the time, it is not glamourous or spectacular in the way the world measures such things. Then again, it is not all about us and what we manage to do. It is all about God — a holy God who takes our fears and transforms them into courage. It’s about our God who meets our brokenness with resurrecting power and impels us into a new sense of mission in the world that God loves. Our work is never to forget the importance of the one whom we represent.