With Thanksgiving | Philippians 4:4-7

Friends, this is a perfect little scripture passage to read aloud together today.  It’s Thanksgiving, it’s good to take a weekend to rejoice.  It’s good to take some time to set aside anxieties.  It’s good to gather around a table, pass a plate of turkey, and focus on thankfulness.  I don’t think any one would disagree.   But this passage doesn’t say, Rejoice in the Lord this the weekend.  It says, Rejoice in the Lord always. 

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

These words from the Bible are familiar to many of us.  And they’re really lovely and encouraging.  But… are they realistic?  Is this a real thing?  Is it possible for us to rejoice always, to not be anxious about anything, to pray in everything?

The book of Philippians was penned by the Apostle Paul, a man whom God called and then empowered to tell people throughout the Middle East the good news that Jesus from Nazareth is Lord, and that God is establishing a brand new, diverse, holy people through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and reign.  Paul traveled around, shared this news about Jesus, he established small churches of people who believed his message, and then he wrote a lot of letters to these different groups in order to support them, encourage them, and correct them, as they sought to live together under Jesus’ lordship as God’s new people.

Paul wrote this particular letter, and these particular words to a small group of Christians in the city of Philippi.  And I bet that they themselves had that question that I just asked:  Thanks, Paul, that sounds really good.… but, is that realistic? 

The Christians living in Philippi had some significant concerns, some genuine reasons to be anxious.  The cultural climate at the time was tenuous.  They were living in a Roman colony in the Roman Empire and to proclaim that someone was Lord rather than Caesar at best, got you mocked and lost you some business and at worst got you killed.  The practice of feeding Jesus-followers to lions in a Roman arena for entertainment hadn’t started up yet at the time that these words were written, but that kind of persecution was on the horizon.   They could feel it in the air.  They could sense it in their gut.

Don’t be anxious about anything?    

Those of us here don’t have that specific concern, but we do have real reasons to feel anxious.  Cancer.  Chronic pain.  Mental health, our own or that of a loved one. That sadness or anger or despair that you just can’t seem to shake.   A broken or strained relationship at work or at home that seems to colour everything.  Will my struggling child be okay?   Will my ailing parent be okay?  Will my sibling survive this tough time?  Will it get done?  Will it heal?   Do I have what it takes?  Why isn’t this working?  Will we make it through? 

Don’t be anxious about anything. 

Really? 

If you yourself have ever asked that question, or if you are connected to anyone that is asking themselves that question, this word from God is especially for you today:  Is it realistic to rejoice in the Lord always?  Yes.  Is it realistic to not be anxious about anything?  Yes.  Is it realistic to pray with thanksgiving in every situation?  Yes. 

And the key here is this:  The Lord is near.   Listen for that little sentence again.  Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Jesus told his followers two things before he left them.  First, he told them that he was going to come back.   When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, The Lord is near, that is what is is referring to.  Jesus’ return.  Don’t forget, Paul says, he’s coming back.  And he is coming back soon.  His return is near. And when the Lord comes, he has promised to bring full justice, bring full healing, right everything wrong, mend everything broken, get rid of every trace of sin, and wipe every tear from his beloved children’s eyes.  The Lord is near.  And he will set it right. 

Second, Jesus told his followers that in the meantime, while they waited for him, he wasn’t going to leave them on their own.  He was going to give them the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the third person of the almighty, most holy, eternal Trinity to live in them and in their little church.  The Lord is near.  The Lord is near in that we have received His Spirit.  And the Spirit in us gives us power to engage our circumstances.  The Spirit in us gives us strength to persevere when weak.  The Spirit in us comforts us in our pain.  The Spirit in us guides us into truth.  The Spirit in us helps us to pray. 

And that there is the thing.  The Truth is that the Lord is near.  The action that comes out of that truth is prayer.   The Lord is near.  Therefore, when faced with the myriad of things that cause you to be anxious, instead of putting your mental/emotional/ spiritual energy into circling and stewing and stressing and fretting and planning and wringing your hands and crossing your fingers, put your capacities into prayer.  Because the Lord is near. 

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

A few comments about prayer here.  While prayer is totally the natural result of faith in the reality that the Lord is near, it is by no means easy.  Not unlike learning how to ride a bike, it might feel hard and awkward, and not very fun at first.  But, don’t get discouraged!  Just because it’s hard right now doesn’t mean it’s not your gift or you’re not meant to do it.  Prayer is for every Christian.  The Lord is near to each of us.  Put in the commitment.  Put in the time.  Ask some questions, get some instruction, find some accountability.  And as you do, you’ll notice that getting on that bike, finding your balance and keeping your balance becomes easier… and it even becomes fun. 

Another comment about prayer is that prayer is not meant to be a tactic for avoidance.  It’s not meant to enable you to avoid looking at your hard things.  It’s not meant to enable you to avoid feeling your hard feelings.  And it’s certainly not meant to enable you to view your life with fake, rose-coloured glasses.  It’s not that things aren’t actually as bad as they seem.  For some of you, things really are that bad.  And it’s not that you might not get hurt.  Some of you have been.  And some of you will be.  The call to pray when you feel anxious is meant to ground you in the fact that there is a Truth that trumps your hard circumstances.  The call to pray when you feel anxious is meant to give you a deep, unshakable peace as you look at your hard things, as you wade through your hard feelings, as you engage your difficult circumstances. 

And a last thing comment about prayer is this bit about thanksgiving.  When we present our requests to God, we are to do so with thanksgiving.  The thanksgiving part of our prayer when it’s being referred to here is less about the material things God has given us, and more about the spiritual things.  It’s not so much the habit of saying while praying, “Well, Lord, I’m so anxious about this job situation, but thank you at least for my health.”  It’s not so much, “Well, I’m really worried about this terrible illness that I’m facing, but at least I have some supportive family members.”  It’s good to be grateful for everything, God is the One who gives us even these material things.  But, here, the instruction is to recognize what we have been given spiritually in Christ, and to let our thankfulness for that shape our prayer.  Thank you God, for the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Thank you God, that I have been incorporated into your people by your grace.  Thank you God, that Jesus is coming soon to make a new world of which I get to be apart.  Thank you God, that until then, I have your Spirit to be with me always.  Thank you God that, you are near

I was with my family at the breakfast table earlier this week.  And I was eating my bowl of granola, and I didn’t have much of an appetite, because I was feeling anxious.  There are a number of challenges on my plate right now, minor ones relatively speaking, but a few that I’m needing to manage all at the same time.  And I was thinking about all those things, and then I was thinking about adding sermon-writing, and I had the feeling in my chest, that heaviness combined with a tightness, and I said aloud, “I feeling nervous about this week.  I’m anxious.  I feel afraid.”  And Dave said, “You don’t have to be afraid.”  And then he said, “I mean, if you were doing it all alone and if the outcome was up to you, then you should afraid.  But, you’re not alone.  And the outcome is not up to you.”  In other words, he was reminding me, “The Lord is near.” 

Put yourself at my breakfast table, feel your own heaviness, and insert your own concern into the conversation.  Insert whatever minor challenge you are dealing with.  Or insert that giant one you are facing right now. That word is meant for all of us, and it is meant for each and every situation.  You are not alone.  The outcome does not depend on you.  The Lord is near.

Don’t be anxious about anything?  Is it realistic?  Yes, brother.  Yes, sister.  Yes, friend who is listening in.  It is realistic.  Because the Lord is seated securely on the throne.  Because His is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory.  Because He is coming soon to bring justice and healing to our broken lives and broken world.  Because you belong to him!  Because the Father smiles upon you and nothing can change that.  Because Jesus died to win you and promises to keep you for eternity.  And because the Spirit dwells within you, giving you everything you need to live your life with him and for him. 

So, together, let’s … rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen!

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Widow of Zarephath | 1 Kings 17:7-24

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Before, diving into the story at hand, let me to give a brief recap of the story so far.

Recall that this is a dark time in Israel’s history. Under the leadership of Ahab and Jezebel, Israel has slammed the door in the Lord’s face. And they have sought refuge in Baal, the Sidonian god of fertility and rain.

Nobody worships Baal anymore, of course. But the desire for security, for “more” crops; for better returns on investments. The worship of this god, which Baal is a manifestation, is still alive and well.

So Israel is rebelling against the covenant. They have put another god before the Lord their God. What will the Lord do?

In the midst of this, a man named Elijah rises up to speak truth to power. “As the Lord lives, whom I serve,” Elijah says to Ahab, “there will be neither rain nor dew in Israel except at my word.”

As we’ve seen, Elijah is somewhat of a mysterious character. But its become clear now that he does indeed hold a prophetic office in God’s mission to Israel. When Elijah proclaims the drought, the Lord enacts his prophet’s word.

And so the consequences of Israel’s rebellion begins.

But God’s grace remains effective too.

Last week we noticed both the judgement and the grace evident in Elijah’s Exodus from Israel. This Exodus is judgement, because Elijah’s departure symbolizes the reality that God has left the building. But its grace, because the Lord preserves the one who speaks on his behalf. And so long as the Lord sustains the one ordained to speak on his behalf, there is hope for the people whom the office is designed to serve.

So with all that in mind, let’s return to the story.

Now, its our typical pattern, on Sunday morning, to read the text all at once, and then I talk about it for a while. This week, I’m going to try something different. Instead of reading all the way through this story at once, I’m going to break it up, and offer commentary as we go.

So, I invite you to open up your bibles and follow along. Hear the word of the Lord from 1st Kings 17.

Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him [Elijah]: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that Elijah has been biding his time by the Cherith Ravine, east of the Jordan. God told him to go there immediately after Elijah declared the drought.

We don’t know how long Elijah drank from the creek and food provided by ravens, but we know that one day the ravens stopped coming and the water stopped flowing. So it’s time for Elijah to move on.

Of course, this lack of resources is not the real reason that God told Elijah to relocate. If the Lord can command Ravens to bring Elijah food, surely he could have commanded other animals to fill up Elijah’s canteen.

The Lord is not lacking in resources. Rather, its his desire that Elijah head north to Zarephath?

And we have to wonder why?

Why Zarephath? Zarephath was deep in Baal country. This is Jezebel’s home turf.

Why not some town in rural Israel? Surely there were many faithful widows in Israel who would have gladly housed and hid a prophet of the Lord. Certainly they were running out of flour and oil too.

But God doesn’t send Elijah to one of his own.

Why? Its tough to say why…

But certainly, this is another sign of God’s judgement. For the time being, God has set up a boundary between him and his people.

And like with the ravens, there’s a little jab in this relocation to gentile territory.

Imagine reading this story from a Jewish perspective. This would be a good reminder to them to not think of God as being their special possession. A good reminder that if they reject him, he will partner with someone else.

But God could have sent Elijah further East or South in order to make this point. Why send Elijah into the heart of Baal country?

To answer that question, we need to remember one of the main questions this story is designed to answer. And that question is: Who is really God? Which God is the living God? Is it Baal or Yahweh.

The question gets answered in in a dramatic way in chapter 18. But here in chapter 17, we get a little foreshadowing.

On Baal’s home turf, the Lord will prove himself to be the sovereign one. Keep that in mind as we continue through this text.

When [Elijah] came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

So, at this point, its important to remember that Elijah only knows a few details about the person who the Lord has ordained to care for him. He knows that the person is a widow. And he knows that she lives in Zarephath. But no one meets him at the city gate with a sign like the ones you see at the airport.

Elijah has to test the Lord’s word by invoking the help of the widow he meets at the gate. If she is the one that the Lord has ordained, then certainly she will get him water and serve him bread.

But the first widow that Elijah meets is not in a place to give generously. The Lord’s curse on Israel has shut down the rains in Baal territory too. And not only is this woman without a husband, but she and her son are about to die of starvation.

But while the pantry is nearly empty, there is something else rattling around this widow’s heart.

And we have to wonder how this all played out. Did the Lord visit her in a dream? Did an Angel come to her house and tell her to expect a man of God? Or, did she simply have a strong hunch, the internal witness of the Spirit, that she needed to offer hospitality to a stranger in need. Whatever the case, the Lord had impressed something upon her.

And when Elijah spoke the word, that impression was brought to the fore.

How God works… Word and Spirit.

Its seems unfair for God to give this call to this woman. Putting her in a position to have to choose between her maternal instinct and her internal compass. But that’s seeing this situation from a worldly perspective. Yahweh has come to bless and not to take.

Elijah speaks the the words that encourages faith in the living God.

 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid. Fear not.

Easy for Elijah to say, I suppose. He spent the last few weeks of his life being miraculously fed by wild ravens. But this widow has yet to see the living God in action.

Do not be afraid.

We’re not used to hearing these words spoken by prophets. Its usually the Angels that get to speak these words of assurance. And they usually speak them, just before, or just after God has does an amazing thing.

Do not be afraid, Mary, mother of Jesus, you have found favour with God. Do not be afraid, Shepherds, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Do not be afraid disciples, He is not here, but he is risen.

Its a foolish phrase to say to someone if you can’t actually back it up with the reassurance of security. But Elijah knows that the Lord lives and that the Lord is at work.

And so he bolsters the woman’s faith with these words of assurance.

Do not be afraid, says Elijah.

Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”

Then she went away and did as Elijah had told her. 

Elijah’s request here is a little strange. It makes you wonder what his parents taught him about how to be a guest in someone else’s home.

“Feed me first. We’ll see if there’s any left over for you.”

This request would indeed be a little strange if we stripped it away from the context of the larger story.

Recall that Elijah is operating in accordance with the Lord’s word. All he knows is that God has commanded a widow to take care of him. What he’s simply doing here is living into that promise by inviting the widow into obedience.

And this is important for the widow too. Elijah’s word resonates with what the Spirit has been doing in her. She may fear for her son, but she now knows what she has to do.

But this little exchange is part of a bigger story too. What the Widow of Zarephath is modelling here, is so important to see. God has come to her, called to her, and she is responding by giving God the first fruits of her pantry.

Now this is complex, but stick with me.

In this instance, the widow of Zarephath is modelling the kind of life that Israel was supposed to live.

When the Lord gave Israel the land of Canaan, the land was divided up between the 11 tribes. The Levites didn’t get any, because they were the priests in the temple. And then each of the 11 tribes split their territory up among the families that made up their tribe.

And everyone had their own slice of paradise.

But, and this is the important point, they were never to think of the land as their own possession. For the land belonged to the Lord. They were stewards, not land owners.

And one of the ways that the Lord kept this reality front and centre was by claiming the first fruits of the harvest as his own.

You know what a first fruit is, right? Its the first apple to turn red. The first cluster of  grapes to turn purple. The first sheaf of wheat that you’ve cut. What I usually want to do is pop the first fruits in my mouth. But the Israelites were supposed to offer them up to the Lord.

This practice wasn’t so much a property tax, as it was a way of reminding the people that they weren’t owners but stewards. Everything they had was a gift, and everything they had was to be used in service to God and neighbour.

And the covenant stated that so long as Israel gave their all to the Lord, they could count on the Lord to give the blessings all back.

The covenant demand was: serve me with your whole heart, your life, and your land. The covenant promise was, and I will bless your families and fields.

But what did Israel do? Slowly, they began to see the land as their own possession. A commodity to be leveraged for personal gain.

But the widow of Zarephath. What does she do? She goes and gives her first and last fruits to the Lord. Everything she has for God’s glory and the prophet’s good. She does this in faith that as the Lord receives her gift, he will bless her family in return.

This widow is a picture of the true Israel of God. The Lord ordained her to his service, she receives the prophet’s word in faith, and obediently gives her all to the Lord.

Before moving on, a word about this first fruits business.

You know… I remember when I was young, overhearing conversations in Church, and in family. I remember my parents talking about stewardship. They let us know how much they gave to the Church. They told us about the other organizations that they supported. And why. And when I started making money, they made sure I started giving. It was super annoying.

I rarely hear of conversations like that anymore? Doesn’t mean they don’t happen, I suppose. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve got ourselves in the habit of offering God our left-over fruits.

If the statistics are right, most Canadians are leveraging their first fruits to live a life they can’t afford to live, amassing property and personal possessions that they can’t afford to have. This is an orientation that Baal would be proud of. But worshipping Baal is a dangerous game.

Who is the rightful owner of your resources and gifts? You are a steward. Not a landowner. And as you give you all to God, you can expect that the generosity will be reciprocated.

The New Covenant in Christ’s blood cuts deeper than the old, but some of the same principles apply.

In view of God’s mercy, says Paul, offer your lives, not just your first fruits, as living sacrifices.

And Jesus was talking about what it looks like to be a disciple, he said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[f] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

In Faith, the Widow of Zarephath responded to God’s gracious call. And, she became the means through which the Lord sustained his prophet.

And….

So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah. 

So all is well in the widow’s house. They have the Lord, and they have bread and oil. And that is enough to ride out the drought.

But then… the Lord throws them something that takes them both by surprise.

Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?

“Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”

This is a frightening and confusing moment in the story. Both the widow and Elijah are deeply disturbed.

In her pain, the widow confronts Elijah directly. What do you have against me, man of God? And she wonders if the death of her son has something to do with her sin.

Elijah is pained too, though he doesn’t blame this boys death on the sins of his Mother. Instead, he takes his pain and anger to the Lord himself. You caused this to happen. Why?

While the woman thinks that death is the end, Elijah is not prepared to accept that death is final.

Three times Elijah stretches his body over the boy’s body. Then, the prophet speaks a word to the Lord.

“Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”

Then….

The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

As I was preparing this sermon, I found this end section to be quite confusing. Its hard to know why God let that boy die, only to raise him from the dead again at Elijah’s request.

While there a lot of questions, there are somethings we can tell for sure. Recall that the Lord has already proven himself to be more powerful than Baal on Baal’s home turf. But what about Mot, the Canaan God of death.

You know, it was believed that Mot captured Baal for a season and held him hostage. This is why, they believed, it didn’t rain in the dry season. Baal was powerful, but Mot. Mot was more powerful than Baal. People didn’t worship Mot, because they didn’t want more of him. Nobody comes back from the underworld once they have been swallowed by Mot.

We have already seen that the Lord is willing to cross boundaries, from Jew to Gentile, to make himself known. But, as Iain Provan asks in his commentary, “is their any boundary that God can’t cross.” What about the boundary that separates the living from the dead. 

When faced by “Mot,” must the LORD, like Baal, bow the knee? Elijah knows the answer, even if the woman does not, and so he prays and the boy’s life is restored (v. 22). Even the underworld is not a place from which the LORD can be barred (Ps. 139:7–12). Life can storm even death’s strongest towers and rescue those imprisoned there. (Iain Provan)

Both the widow and Elijah are taught something by this miraculous resurrection. The woman’s faith in Elijah is deepened. Now she really knows that Elijah is a man of God and that he speaks truth on behalf of the living God. But Elijah’s faith is deepened too. His identity as a prophet is confirmed. He’s now ready to face the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.

This resurrection of the boy at Zarepath is the first resurrection account in the scriptures. But it won’t be the last. In the New Testament, Jesus raises a number of people from the dead. His raises a widow’s son at the village of Nain. He raises Jairus’ daughter. And Lazarus too.

These resurrections were a blessing to the families that lost loved ones. But that’s not the only reason Jesus performed those miracles. He performed them so that we might know that he is indeed God’s Son. And that we might believe in him, not unlike how the widow came to faith in Elijah.

The sign is designed to confirm the identity of God’s servant.

But all these people died again. Lazarus. Jairus’s daughter. The widow of Zarepath’s son.

Even though God displayed his power over death through them, all of them died again, because they still lived under the curse of Adam’s sin.

What these people needed, and us too, was not a temporary restoration to life, but a deep fix. The storming of death’s strongest towers to rescue those imprisoned there.

Thanks be to God that that is exactly what he provided in Jesus Christ, the greater Elijah.

Jesus not only raised people from the dead, but he reversed the curse of Adam itself through his own poured out blood, and then resurrected body.

Give your first fruits to him, and your trust. And he will lead you through life, through death, and into life everlasting.

Amen.

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The Exodus From Israel | 1 Kings 17:1-6

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Isn’t it strange that God calls Elijah out of Israel?

I mean, here’s a man who is fired up for the Lord; ready to proclaim God’s word to a nation that is adrift.

You’d think that God would give him a least a few weeks in Samaria. Who knows, maybe Elijah could start a revival. Or at the very least, maybe Elijah could form a small group of faithful men and woman. And then, together, they could try to pull Israel back toward’s God.

But’s that’s not God’s plan for Elijah. As soon as his message of drought is delivered to Ahab, God calls him to leave.

Prophets weren’t popular figures in ancient days. It turns out that calling out idolatry is not a recipe for making friends. So far as we know, only Elisha had buddies. The rest of the prophets lived like John the Baptist—out on the fridges of society.

But, though unpopular, a prophet was never supposed to be a hermit. Their call was not to retreat, but to engage. Like sheepdogs of the Good Shepherd, a prophet’s call was to be with the sheep, barking hem back onto paths of righteousness. What good is a sheepdog that runs away to live by a stream?

We have to wonder what Elijah thought of the Lord’s word here.

Clearly he is a man who likes to be in the thick of things.

One of the things I noted about Elijah, last week, is that with Elijah, we don’t get an origin story. There’s no call narrative. No moment, that we know, where God takes Elijah aside and says, “I want you to confront Israel with my word.”

That’s usually how it works in the Old Testament. But with Elijah, things are different. Elijah emerges. He’s seen enough Baal worship to know that it’s time to take a stand for the Lord.

Now I’m not suggesting here that Elijah’s initiative surprised God. God’s not up in heaven saying, “Oh snap, what’s this guy doing? I guess I’d better get down there and start backing him up.”

No. What’s happening here is that there is concurrence between the fire building in Elijah’s soul, and God’s plan for his wayward people. Like the surfer reads the swell, so Elijah is discerning the growing swell of God’s anger, and he paddles out in front to catch the wave.

But as soon as Elijah stands up and gets his balance, God calls him out of the water.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Cherith Ravine, east of the Jordan.”

We don’t get Elijah’s internal monologue on this. But the fact that he obeys is surely a sign that Elijah is committed to being a prophet on God’s terms, not his own.

One commentator I read this week made a big deal of Elijah’s obedience, and I think he raises a good point:

“As we watch Elijah picking his way through the desolate ravines…, we should ask ourselves: When did the prophet give the greatest demonstration of his power—when he appeared in Ahab’s palace with the thunder of judgment…, or when he withdrew from his people to spend… the drought in apparent idleness. When was his consciousness of his calling as prophet strongest—when he wrested with God in prayer to be allowed to proclaim covenant wrath…, or when he wrestled with that strange mandate to remain inactive at the very time when felt an urgent necessity of appealing prophetically to his people for repentance.” (Van’t Veer, pg 62)

It takes courage to stand up and to speak. No doubt about that. But sometimes it takes more courage to sit still and obediently wait on the Lord.

Last year, I had a long conversation with a man in Vancouver. He graduated from Regent Seminary in 2012. His parents wanted him to move back to St. Louis. A good job in the family business was waiting for him. But while in prayer with people at his church, this man felt strongly like God wanted him to stay in Vancouver.

It’s now been seven years. And he’s still not sure why God wants him to stay. But he remains convicted that he’s still where God has called him to be.

Elijah’s a man of action. How hard would have been for him to spend 3 years in relative isolation?

Now, the Cherith Ravine, East of the Jordan. A word about this special place. I happen to have a special daughter named after this special place.

A Cherith is not the name of a location, or a city. A Cherith, rather, is a geological formation. “A cutting in the rock”. The grand canyon, for instance, is a rather large example of Cherith.

Here’s a picture of a Cherith found in the region east of the Jordan.

What’s important about Cherith Ravine, is not anything about the Ravine itself. What’s important about it is what God does there for Elijah, and the message that his sending Elijah there sends to Israel and us.

One thing important know about prophets, is that sometimes God speaks through them with words, and other times God speaks through them with actions.

Ezekiel’s a great example of this full-bodied approach to prophecy. In Ezekiel 4, God calls Ezekiel to show God’s judgment instead of speaking of God’s judgment.

First, God calls Ezekiel to draw a diagram on the wall, depicting the siege of Jerusalem.

Then he calls Ezekiel to lay on his left side for 390 days, which symbolized the sins of Israel. After that, Ezekiel was to lay on his right side for 40 days, which symbolized the sins of Judah.

All the while, while laying there, Ezekiel was to bake his bread over a fire fuelled by cow dung. God wanted him to use human feces, but Ezekiel insisted that cow dung would make the point just as well. The point being that this was picture of the future. A picture of the day that Israel would be forced to eat defiled food in exile.

Sometimes words do the trick. But there’s something about the smell of burning dung, and baking bread…  That drives the point home in a different sort of way. Prophetic actions can speak just as loud as prophetic words.

So what is God communicating to Israel, by sending Elijah, his representative, east of the Jordan?

Remember that the Jordan was a symbolic boundary line. Joshua and the people had to cross the Jordan river in order to enter the promised land. Everyone knew that the area west of the Jordan was their inheritance from the Lord.

But God calls Elijah the opposite direction. He calls him out of the land. This is an Exodus scene in reverse.

Notice the similarities between Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, and Elijah’s Exodus from Israel.

In Egypt, Israel lived under the oppression of Pharaoh. So God raised up Moses and brought in the plagues. Then God split the sea and brought his people to freedom on the other side. God then led them out into the wilderness where he provided for their needs: manna from heaven, water from the rock.

But now, the oppressive power is no longer in Egypt. Its in Israel. Ahab and Jezebel are killing off the priests of the Lord and replacing them with priests of Baal. So God raises up Elijah, and brings in a drought. Then Elijah is brought through the Jordan, to the wilderness on the other side. And there, God provides for his servant with ravens.

What does this Exodus communicate?

Well, it communicates that God has left the building. It communicates that the good news of the covenant and the blessings of the covenant will, for a time, no longer be heard or experienced in Israel. Instead, they will be experienced by one man, east of the Jordan. And later on, they will be experienced by a gentile widow in Zarephath—more on that next week.

The ravens are a nice touch to this prophetic picture too.  According to Leviticus 11, ravens were considered to be unclean animals. But, here, they are elected and commanded to take care of the Lord’s servant. And they respond with obedience.

This is a jab against Israel. It was their special functions in the world was to maintain the ministry of the Word. They were to be a nation that lived not by bread alone but by every word that came from the mouth of God. Sustaining the ministry of the word, and the ministers of the word, was their calling.

But now, that job is being carried out by the birds.

So, all in all, Elijah’s relocation is a damning prophetic action.

But, there is hope for God’s people in this picture too. For while God has taken his presence out of Israel, he has not snuffed out the ministry of the word, or the minister of the word.

Here are a few quotations from Van’t Veer that testify to God’s grace in judgment:

“As for the Lord’s intentions, the important thing to realize is that there is grace in judgment. Yahweh did not remove Elijah from the earth. In other words, He did not completely silence his Word of grace.”

“As long as the Lord sustained this office-bearer [Elijah] and chose to communicate with him, the ex-communication of His people could not be definitive.”

In other words, God may have left the building, but he did not leave his people without a witness. And so long as God sustains the one called to speak on his behalf, there is hope for the people whom this office was designed to serve.

This is so important to see in order to understand the meaning of this text.

God isn’t sustaining Elijah just because he likes Elijah, or even because Elijah is a righteous man.

There were many others in Israel who didn’t bow a knee to Baal. Other faithful servants of the Lord. But they weren’t protected from the drought. They suffered the curses of the covenant, just like the rest of Israel.

Elijah is sustained, not because he is faithful. He is sustained because he is an office bearer in the mission of God. 

Some look at this text and see in it a God who provides. He sent the Ravens to take care of Elijah. And then the application for us today is, “and he will send ravens to you too in the midst of your need.”

And it’s true, of course, that God’s eye is on the sparrow. It’s also true that he occasionally intervenes to provide for our needs in ways that are absolutely astounding. I have my own stories of provision to share, and I’m sure that some of you do to.

But that’s not the point of this miraculous provision at the Cherith Ravine. 

The hope that this text provides, is not that God will send you ravens. The hope is that God will not abandon the ministry of his word in the world. 

This is good news. Because our greatest need is not daily bread. Our greatest need is to live in a life giving relationship with our creator.

No matter how bad things get, the world will never be left without a witness to God’s covenant of grace. No matter how how far the world or the Church strays from God’s ways, he will always raise up men and woman to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and call people to repentance and faith.

This story testifies to the persistence of the Lord. And his desire to commune with creation and its creatures—which is the end for which his Word works to secure.

And I don’t know about you, but this is very comforting to me.

A few days ago, Brittney attended a friend’s Birthday party. While there, she struck up a conversation with an acquaintance. This person was pretty discouraged. A few days ago, she had attended a family reunion.

10 years ago, nearly everyone in her extended family identified as a Christian. Today, there are just 2 or 3 Christians left. This person is pretty discouraged. She’s also in ministry, herself, and she just doesn’t have hope right now that the work she’s engaged in will bear any kind of fruit.

Perhaps you can relate to this woman.

According to the National Trust foundation, its estimated that about 9000 churches will fold over the next 10 years in Canada.

Sometimes, it feels like God has left the building. There’s just no power in the preaching. No zest for God left in the Church.

Some have lost the story, and no longer preach Jesus, crucified and risen and ascended on high. Its not really surprising that these churches are folding, since there’s no power left in a Church when the gospel isn’t told.

But many Churches are declining, even as they remain faithful. The narratives supplied by the idols of modern Canadian life are compelling. And the complexities of figuring out life in this secular age are disrupting us all.

And yet, God will not leave this world without a witness. As we speak, new immigrants are reviving the Canadian Church. In New Westminter Christian Reformed Church, for instance, the Heidelberg Catechism is being studied in three languages.

And as the Church fades in Canada, the good news of the gospel is bearing fruit in other parts of the world. And one day, office bearers in Jesus’ Church will come to Canada from Nigerian and China to tell our great grandchildren this strange story about a man from Nazareth named Jesus.

At the Cherith Ravine, God preserved the ministry of the word, by preserving the one called to share that word.

This world will not be left without witness. Which is a good thing. Because there is no greater joy, no sweeter experience of freedom, no more complete fullness to be found, than being found in Jesus, and living in loving communion with our creator.

Speaking of Jesus. The New Testament writers refer Jesus as the word made flesh. Like Elijah, Jesus lived into his prophetic office. He spoke God’s word to the people, calling them to living faith.

But what Elijah was powerless to do, Jesus did with his body and blood.

Elijah spoke for God, but he could not redeem for God. But Jesus was more than just a prophet. He was also the great high priest.

And so, as he confronted the world with God’s message, he also had within him the power to forgive and restore.

On the cross, Jesus enacted the Message. Not with words. But with his body and blood.

And while God would let the Word made flesh remain silent for 3 days, he would not leave his world without a witness.

There is grace in the judgment. Hope for the people whom Jesus was sent to save.

Amen.

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The Man of God | 1 Kings 17:1

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

A few weeks ago I had lunch with about 10 missionary minded pastors in Victoria.

The person sharing on this occasion was a Church planter, named Johnathon. He’s trying to revive an old Anglican Church in Central Saanich. It’s not been easy.

At the end of our time together, we took a few minutes to pray for Johnathon. We also spent a fair amount of time praying for the people who live in Brentwood Bay and Saanichton.

We prayed for the typical things. We prayed that God would strengthen Johnathan, protect his family, and bless his ministry. We prayed that the people of Central Saanich would come to know Jesus.

But then one pastor prayed something that was less typical. At least it’s not something that I’ve ever prayed before. He prayed that God would frustrate the lives of those who live in Brentwood Bay. He prayed that they would be brought low, so that they might look beyond the things in front of them and cry out to God.

I spent much of the day pondering that prayer. “Frustrate the lives of those who live in Brentwood Bay.”

Have you ever asked God to curse your neighbourhood? Have you ever asked that his wrath fall upon your city?

Are we allowed to do that?

God’s wants his church to be a blessing in the world. “Seek the welfare of the city in which God has placed you,” we read in Jeremiah. Shouldn’t our prayers reflect that reality?

But then again, I suppose its also true that God sometimes (perhaps often?) uses catastrophe as a means to draw people to himself.

This pastor wasn’t praying for personal revenge. His fervent desire, rather, was for people to be jolted off the slow, wide path that leads to death, and come to discover the joy of communion with God that comes through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

I have to say that I spent more time thinking about this prayer this past week, because Elijah prays a similar prayer over the people of Northern Israel. His prayer is that God would enact the covenant curses and bring his people to repentance. His prayer is that Israel would come to see the impotence of Baal and Asherah and be brought back to faith in the living God.

The Apostle James fills in what is lacking in 1st Kings 17: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.” James 5:17

………….

Elijah bursts onto the scene while Ahab is King in Northern Israel. Ahab was the 7th King in Northern Israel. He inherited a stable throne from his Father Omri.

Omri ruled for 12 years and spent all of them strengthening his country politically and economically. One of Omri’s strategic moves was to form an alliance with King Ethbaal of Sidon. Sidon was due North of Israel and it was an economic powerhouse—the centre of trade. But like Israel, Sidon didn’t have a lot of military might. Both countries worried about Syria to the East. So they made a pact.

This pact made Northern Israel relatively safe, and relatively wealthy. All of a Sudden, Israelite farmers and merchants had access to the booming global markets of Tyre and Sidon.

And all Omri had to do to secure this partnership was to make peace with Baal worship, and to welcome Jezebel, Ethbaal’s daughter, into his family.

The marriage of Ahab and Jezebel was arranged by Omri and Ethbaal. It was the seal of their political partnership.

Now Jezebel was quite dedicated to the gods of her Father. And so, her first order of business as queen, was to lobby Ahab to make Baal and Asherah the official deities in Northern Israel.

Baal was known as the god of the heavens—the bringer of rain, the lord of the harvest.

Asherah was god of the night. She caused dew to form in the morning. And was believed to ensure fertility of land and fertility of the womb.

Rain and fertility. Food security and family security. Its not hard to see the appeal of Baal and Asherah. Today, we still bend over backwards and organize our lives around whatever helps us build up our net or whatever we think will help our family flourish.

Idolatry changes shape. But the gist is still the same.

Influenced by Jezebel, Ahab made official what Omri tolerated. And in so doing, he actively slammed the door in Yahweh’s face.

So much for the covenant that Israel made with the Lord at Mount Sinai. So much for being a nation of priests, set aside to showcase God’s ways among the nations.

Its easy to look at this situation from the outside and to be critical. But try putting yourself in Ahab’s shoes. It’s not easy being king. If Ahab would have ditched Baal, Jezebel would have returned to Sidon. And then King Ethbaal would have nullified his pact with Israel. And that would have ruined Northern Israel, economically and politically.

This is the power of idolatry, eh. False gods woo us into following their lead. They enthral us with their version of the good life. But then they hem us in, blind us. And before you know it, they take more than they give, and you can’t conceive of doing life apart from the false gods that have your devotion.

Perhaps Ahab thought about repentance—turning away from Baal and returning to the Lord. But he rightly saw that the cost of doing this was great. And he wasn’t prepared to shake up his Kingdom for the sake of the Covenant.

Did he think that he would get away with it? Did he think the Lord would just drift off and find a new nation to partner with?   

Elijah saw the other side of the equation. When he surveyed Northern Israel he knew that Israel was slowly drifting towards destruction. And he knew that the time was now to take a stand for the Lord.

Elijah bursts onto the scene in a sudden and mysterious way. Most Old Testament prophets have an origin story. A calling from the Lord. The word of the Lord came to Jonah. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Many of the prophets resist the Lord’s initial call. “Why me?” they cry. But God calls them anyway.

But with Elijah we get no such origin story. Scholars don’t even know where Tishbe is on the map. Its almost as if Elijah drops out of heaven. He’s a little burst of God-light in the dark night of Israel’s apostasy.

Elijah. His name means: the Lord is My God. And Elijah’s entire ministry is summarized in the meaning of his name.

Questions abound regarding Elijah’s appearance and initial message.

Did the Lord call Elijah and command him to confront Ahab? Or did Elijah rise up on his own accord?”

Did the Lord tell Elijah to pray for and prophecy the drought? Or was this Elijah’s initiative based on his knowledge of the Lord’s word in Deuteronomy 28.

It’s hard to get the bottom of these questions. But as the story progresses, its clear that Elijah is much more than God’s mouthpiece. He’s an active participant in the outworking of God’s plan. When God speaks to Elijah, Elijah obeys the word of the Lord. And when Elijah prays to God, God heeds the word of Elijah.

These two are partners in ministry.  Like the surfer and the swell, they come together to showcase the power of God.

“Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe[a] in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Elijah’s initial message to Ahab is a one-sentence zinger. 

It’s an announcement that disturbs Israel’s modus operandi. “Not so fast, Ahab” the message says. You can try to eradicate Yahweh in Israel, but you can’t eradicate Yahweh. You can try to wriggle out of your covenant obligations to him, forsake him for other lovers, but the Lord your God is jealous God and will not forsake his covenant with you.

The Lord lives.

Let those words sink in.

You know, the history of the world is the history of humanity seeking to get out from under God’s authority, to keep the creator at arm’s length. Adam and Eve started the struggle. They wanted life in the garden on their own terms, not God’s terms. They wanted the goodness of creation without having to live under the authority of their their creator.

And we’ve been following their example ever since.

How foolish and how prideful.

I mean. We live in bodies that we did not create. Breathing oxygen that we cannot produce. Dependent on the processes of nature than we can influence but can’t finally control.

The proper posture towards the universe is to thank the one who created all this, and to show our gratitude by living in line with his design for life.

But that takes humility; being content to live on someone else’s terms. And that’s something we kick against. Like the prodigal son, humanity wants the inheritance the Father has to give, but we don’t want the Father himself.

So we try to do away with God. Push him from memory. If he came to earth, we’d crucify him. No doubt about it.

But yet, the Lord lives.

And you can try to flee his presence, like Jonah. But he lives. And he will track you down.

You can try to take his name out of the national anthem, tear down his temple, like Ahab. But the Lord lives.

Israel’s was set aside to bear witness this reality. But they forsook their living God for other lovers. This is why Elijah prays for drought.

“Show them your power Lord. Show them that you live.”

Elijah prays and forecasts that there won’t be any rain or dew in the land for a few years.

The irony here is thick. Recall that Baal was thought to bring rain, and Asherah was thought to bring dew.

So there’s a bit of poetic justice happening here. The curse matches the crime. The drought is designed to reveal the foolishness of worshipping Baal and Asherah.

But the curse also matches the word of the Lord too.

Elijah’s prayer request isn’t novel. He’s simply asking God to stay true to his word, and to follow through on the curses of the covenant as written in Deuteronomy.

In Deuteronomy 28, God describes what will happen to Israel if they’re faithful and what will happen to Israel if they’re not.

He says: If you remain faithful to the covenant, you can expect blessing. Your crops will be abundant, your cities will flourish. And so on and so forth.

But, if you are not faithful to the covenant, then your land won’t bear fruit, and your cities will be destroyed.

Here’s how Moses puts it:

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to… because of the evil you have done in forsaking him.[a21 The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land… 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. 23 The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. 24 The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” Deuteronomy 28:20-24

So, Elijah is not praying for God to do a new thing. His prayer is that God enacts these covenant curses in response to Israel’s idolatry. He’s bringing God’s word to bear on the situation at hand.

And this, dear congregation, is what makes Elijah a prophet. A prophet is someone who interprets God’s word and applies it in a given situation. Prophets proclaim and apply God’s prior word, to the contemporary life of God’s people. And in so doing, they speak for God.

M.B. Van’t Veer describes the prophetic office like this: “It is the prophet’s calling to work in the name of the Lord for the continuous conversion of the people; he must bind the covenant people to the law of the Lord. The prophet must maintain the law of Yahweh and zealously urge others to keep it as well.”

Elijah knows God’s law, has the courage to speak it out loud, and God ordains him as his spokesman. Together, they will work for the conversion of God’s people.

And that’s really what the drought and the curses are designed to produce. Neither Elijah or the Lord is out for revenge. They are both longing for Israel to repent and turn to back to the Lord.

Many people have a hard time with the idea of God’s wrath. “I’m so done with that,” I’ve heard people say. “My God is a God of love, not a God of wrath.”

But it’s so important to see that God’s wrath does not stand in opposition to his love. Rather, his wrath is an extension of his love.

Tim Keller helped me see this. In his book, the Reason for God, Keller makes the observation that love does not stand in opposition to wrath. Wrath’s opposite is not love, but indifference.

Imagine if God were indifferent to the idolatry present in Israel. “Whatever. You want to destroy yourself. Go at it. I was thinking it was time for us to see other people, anyway.”

That’s the opposite of love.

When you really love someone, you get genuinely angry when you see them going down a path that leads to destruction. And the more you love them, the more angry you get. Its an expression of care and concern. I love you too much to let you go down this road. I have to put up some boundaries. “Come back.”

The drought is designed to shock Israel off the slow road that leads to death.

The question is, will Israel repent and cast out her idols. Or will they harden their hearts and double down with their bets on Baal.

Does the Lord still work like this? Does he still enact the curses of the covenant when we stray off course?

Obviously, its not always easy to interpret the Lord’s ways in real time. And of course, not every catastrophe or natural disaster we have to endure is a curse designed to produce repentance in us. The story of Job in the Old Testament is a nice antidote to any black and white thinking on this.

And yet, as many of you know from experience, sometimes you have to be brought low, in order look up to the Lord. And later on in life, you look back on the hard times and say, “It was a grace in disguise.”

God disciplines those that he loves.

As with last week, this text gives us a lot think on and wonder about.

Yesterday I found myself wondering about our vocation as a Church. God has set us apart to testify to the reality that he lives. Are we living by faith? Leaning out in hope. Trusting that as we make plans that honour God, God will reveal himself. Or are we living in fear. Operating like functional atheists.

I also found myself thinking about those covenant curses and how they can help us glory in the cross of Christ.

You know, as a man, Jesus upheld the covenant perfectly. He loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and his neighbour as himself. He did not put his trust in money, or food, or family. He lived by Faith, trusting his Father’s word

If anyone deserved the covenant blessings, if was Jesus. But Jesus didn’t get the blessings, at least not right away. In fact, he willingly took upon himself all the curses of the covenant, the full wrath of God, in order that the covenant blessings may be passed onto us by grace and through faith.

The man of God hanging on the cross. Suffering the wages of sin. So that you can experience the blessings of eternal life.

The Lord Lives. The Lord will not forsake his covenant people. He steps in to make a way and to rescue us from our slow slide to death.

Don’t go looking for life in other idols. They will always take more than they give. Put your trust, rather in the one who lives and loves and works to restore. Repent and find life in his name.

Amen

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1 Kings 16:29-34 | Ahab’s Rebellion

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to play in a wavy ocean or lake. Its great fun.

When I was young, I body surfaced a lot in Lake Huron. Its an exhilarating feeling to hit a wave just right. To feels its power wash over you.

Waves are fun. But they can be dangerous too. You have to watch out for undertow currents on wavy days. Those can be dangerous. In addition to that, waves rarely hit the shore on a 90 degree angle. They usually tilt to the left or two the right. And so, as you play in the waves, they slowly take whatever way they are tilting.

You barely feel it when you’re in the water. The drift only becomes noticeable when you look back at the shore, and you see just how far you’ve strayed from your parent’s lawn chairs.

More than once, my mom had to come out to pull my sister and I back. And as we got older, she would wave and yell at us from the shore. “Come back!”

Brothers and sisters, life in this world is not all that different from a wavy day in the water. The subtle forces of culture, advertising, peers, trends, they impact us. They work on our imaginations, and form our desires. And if we’re not careful, these things will cause us to drift off course in our life with God.

The Book of Kings tells the story of Israel’s drift as a nation. It describes how Israel goes from being a God-worshipping nation under the mostly faithful leadership of King David and Solomon, to being a Baal worshipping nation under the rebellious leadership of Omri and Ahab and others like them.

Its a tragic story. One that ultimately ends in undertow. The Lord calls to Israel from the shore. He speaks to them through the prophets. “Come Back.” But they don’t listen.

This fall, we’re going to take a deep dive into the story that sits in the middle of this larger narrative. The story of Elijah. Elijah was a prophet that God raised up in Israel. God used him to confront King Ahab, and the idolatry that he solidified in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. 

As we engage this story, we’ll be gleaning wisdom that I hope will encourage us to remain faithful to God, in a culture that promotes the worship of self.

In order to understand why God needed to call Elijah, first we have to understand a little bit about the political situation in Northern Israel.

If you know the history, you’ll know that the Kingdom of Israel has already divided. Rehaboam and Jeraboam both wanted Solomon’s throne. This power struggle ended with a split. The 10 tribes to north became Israel, and the two tribes to the south became Judah.

Ahab was the 7th King in the Norther Kingdom.

Ahab was the son of Omri. Omri was the 6th King in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Before becoming King, he was a general in Elah’s army. But Elah, the 4th King, was a drinker, and he was murdered by Zimri, the 5th King, during one of Elah’s parties. Zimri’s first order of business as King was to kill off all of Elah’s relatives.

But when the army heard of Zimri’s coup d’etat, they declared Omri King and marched on Tirzah where Zimri was located. Zimri committed suicide when he saw that he couldn’t win. His rule lasted 7 days.

After a skirmish with another wannabe King named Tibni, Omri became the undisputed King of Northern Israel.

Needless to say, Ahab didn’t have any God-fearing mentors or role models in his life.

Things are not how they should be in the promised land. There’s no fear of the Lord. Just the chaos caused by power struggles.

From a worldly perspective, Omri was a successful King. He brought stability. Built a capital city. Held onto power for 12 years, and successfully handed his power over to his Son, Ahab.

But from a Covenant perspective, Omri failed miserably. 

Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him. 1 Kings 16:25

Ahab inherited his Father’s throne and reigned in Northern Israel for 22 years.  Not only did he reign almost twice as long as his Father, but he committed basically twice as many sins. And he considered all this to be trivial, the text says. Trivial: meaning light, insignificant. No big deal. 

Idolatry. What’s that? Ah, no one cares about those antiquated laws anymore. The Sidonians are worshipping Baal and it seems to be working out for them. In fact, it would be good for me, politically speaking, to get a Baal worshipping wife and make a temple in Baal’s honour. And while we’re at it, I think I’ll set up a few Asherah poles too.

Ahab considered this to be trivial.

Perhaps Omri hadn’t taught him to read his royal copy of the 10 commandments. The first commandment is this:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before[a] me.”

And the second is like it.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

But Ahab considers all this to be trivial. 6 generations of drift has resulted in him having a calloused conscience towards the things of God.

………..

You know, one of the things I hear, especially when I talk to elderly people in our Church, is that things have changed a lot. Technology has changed. Cultural values have changed.

And a lot has changed in the Church too. We used to read the 10 commandments every week,  all dressed up in our Sunday best. We used to refer to God using Thee’s and Thou’s. No one would dare shop on a Sunday. Or cut the lawn. Movies were anathema.

But things have changed. Now, we rarely read the law. And the pastor sometimes doesn’t even tuck his shirt in. And one of them is a woman. Just about everyone watches the odd movie, now and again. No big deal.

Some of you are thankful for all these changes. Happy to put some distance between you and your rigid upbringing. But others of you worry that maybe something has been lost. It feels to you like we’re starting to drift.

When I was a boy, no one let their children join a sports team, if that team happened to play on Sunday Mornings.

I was one of the first children in my church to join a travel baseball team—which occasionally played on Sundays.    

My parents were super torn about it. And whenever I couldn’t make it to the morning service, due to baseball, they made sure that I was at the evening services. (We used to have evening services too.) Sometimes I’d even still be in my baseball uniform as we rolled into Church.

My parents communicated frequently to me that God was more important than baseball.

It was a big deal for them to allow me to play baseball on Sunday. But today this seems kind of trivial. What’s the debate?

Now, we could talk for a while this morning, about children and sports and Sunday morning worship. Obviously, having your butt in the pew on Sunday morning is not the be all, end all, of the life of faith. And we could talk about shopping on Sunday or watching movies, or dress code.

Some of these things are trivial.

But what about family devotions or personal time with God. What about setting aside time, to worship God with others who love him and are consciously choosing to live their life under his word.

Idols, you see, are rarely generated overnight. But overtime, without intentionally fighting the current, we drift. And a few generations later, who knows how far away from the centre, we could be.

The Lord’s covenant with his people is not trivial. And nor are the things that serve to protect and preserve this relationship.

………….

Baal was known as the storm-god in Ahab’s time. The bringer of rain. Worshipping the storm god may seem strange to us modern folks, but it made complete sense to the agrarian folks of the ancient near east. They lived off the land. No rain meant no crops. No crops meant no food. No food meant death.

So of course you are going to try to please the one who is believed to bring the rain.

The cult of Asherah had a similar focus on fertility. But instead of the bringing the rain, Asherah worship was thought to be connected to a woman’s fertility.

So you can see the temptation to go searching for help from Baal and Asherah. Together, they held out the promise of food security and family security.

Who doesn’t want that?

Of course, we don’t worship Baal and Asherah anymore, but man are we still ever tempted to organize our lives around, and bow our knee to that which will give us more food and better family.

An idol is a person, place or thing, other than God, that you trust to give you the good life. An idol is anything other than the Lord, that you look to for your ultimate comfort and strength. It could be food or sex, money or possessions. Good looks. Family. Some shiny object in creation, other than God, that has your heart.

The trouble with idols is that, though they promise the world, they can’t deliver the goods. And they end up stealing joy, instead of giving it.

“You shall have no other gods before me,” the Lord told Israel. Nothing else in all creation can give you what I can give you. You were made to be in relationship with me. Let me be #1 and you will be alive with joy.

But Ahab’s moved on from this old fashioned way of thinking.

The full extent of Ahab’s rebellion is on display in his attempt, with Hiel, to rebuild the walls of  Jericho.

Jericho. You might know about this city. Jericho was the first city that the Lord gave to the people of Israel in the conquest of Canaan. Israel didn’t fire a shot in that battle. All they did was walk around the city, trusting God to give them the victory.

And on the 7th day, the Lord toppled the impenetrable walls of Jericho.

Joshua proclaimed the word of the Lord at the end of the battle:

“Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.” Joshua 6:26

Why I wonder, did the Lord forbid people to rebuild the walls?

Ahab clearly thought it was a good idea. So did Hiel, the architect. Jericho was a strategic city on a strategic trade route. Furthermore, it was the southern edge of Ahab’s Kingdom. How could Ahab possibility secure his territory if Jericho wasn’t re-fortified.

But the Lord didn’t want the walls to be rebuilt. Why? Because those toppled stones were a testimony to his Victory over the Caananites.

Joshua didn’t fight the battle of Jericho. The Lord did. And those broken walls declared that message.The toppled walls were a monument to the Lord’s greatness and goodness. A constant reminder to Israel to not put their trust in walls, but to put their trust in the Lord.

But Ahab doesn’t trust the Lord. And he craves the security that walls provide.

………..

You’ll notice that the Lord is pretty quiet in 1 Kings 16. At a certain point, one starts to wonder if maybe all this rebellion is trivial to him. Does he not see Omri’s sinful ways. Does he not care that Ahab has built up a temple for Baal?

The text doesn’t give us a window into God’s mind. But what it does tell is telling. Notice what happens to Hiel’s children.

“In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken by Joshua son of Nun.” 1 Kings 17:34.

Do you see it?

Ahab and Hiel may have succeeded in breaking God’s command, but they suffered the curses of breaking God’s word. The wages of Hiel’s sin, was the death of all his children.

Clearly the Lord is aware of what is going on in Israel. And his word will not be nullified. I wonder  how he will respond to Ahab’s blatant idolatry?

Stay tuned to find out.

In the meantime, I think this text gives us plenty to ponder. I hope it causes us to think about some of the ways that we might be drifting. Now may be the time to correct course. Or maybe there is there some person, place or thing, other than the Lord, that is taking up more and more space in your heart. If that were allowed to grow, where would that take you in 3-5 years? If left unchecked, what fruit would that produce, in 3-4 generations?

But mostly, I think this texts invites us to humble ourselves. To remember who the Lord is, and to remember who we are.

This is not my world. This is not your world. We are not our own. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. To fear the Lord, means to respect his being and authority. To acknowledge his place and your place.

The other day, I was speeding down the highway. As I turned a corner, I noticed a police officer in the distance. I gasped and immediate began to break as fast as I could in a way that draw as little attention as possible. You ever done that before?

Its not that I’m afraid of Police officers. I don’t fear them. I know that they have authority over me and have the right to exercise that authority should they see fit.

To live in fear of the Lord is to know yourself to be living in God’s world, before the face of God. It should cause you to gasp every now and then. Because life is not trivial.

In addition to humbling ourselves before the Lord, I think this text also calls us back to faith. To trust that the God who is over all is for us, and that his purposes in the world will not be thwarted.

Ahab’s biggest sin was not building a temple to Baal. His biggest sin was forgetting about God’s victory in Jericho.

The toppled walls of Jericho were a testimony to God’s judgement of sin, and God’s Victory over the enemy. God did not want the walls to be rebuilt, because he wanted to his name to be feared by the nations and revered by the Jews.

Israel was not to trust in walls, but to trust in the Lord.

But he had forgotten about God’s power.

Have we?

It was at the cost of his only son, that the Lord laid the foundations of the new Jerusalem. Jesus bore the curses of our covenant rebellion, so that we may inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. The cross testifies to God’s punishment of Sin. The cracked grave stone testifies to God’s victory over death.

We dare not forget or trivialize the cross and the empty tomb. We dare not act like we put our trust in budgets, or pastors, or fancy new programs.

And why would we. The Lord is for us. Together, let us not forget this message.

We live by faith in his finished work. Trusting that he will complete what he has started.

Amen.

Posted in Kings, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Psalm 138 | The Work of His Hands

A number of years ago, Anthony Armstrong was the director of the Calvin College alumni choir. During the last concert of his tenure, his mother was in attendance. She had front row seats in the balcony.

After some words were shared and the last song was sung, the crowd gave Armstrong and the choir a standing ovation. When the clapping had stopped, Anthony’s mom shouted out from the Balcony: “That’s my boy!” And then Anthony turned and pointed towards his mom, and said: “And that’s my mom.”

It was a playful exchange between a mom and her son. But also quite beautiful, I think. We don’t take enough time to point out the people that matter to us.

I was thinking about this exchange between Athony and his mom as I pondered the meaning and purpose of Psalm 138.

The psalmist who wrote this Psalm—perhaps King David—is so thankful. He’s amazed that the Lord has looked upon him and has answered his prayer. He’s so grateful that the God of Israel has emboldened him in the midst of his trials, protected him from the wrath of his enemies.

And so, publicly, he points to the heavens: “That’s my God.”

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart. Before the “gods,” I will sing your praise.” Psalm 138:1

David is bursting with gratitude in the opening 3 verses of this Psalm. He’s filled with praise.

The most common Hebrew word for Praise in the Old Testament is Halal. Or Hallelujah. To Halal someone is to boast about that person. To talk them up. We halaled God with our first song this morning. “How great is our God. Sing with me. How great is our God.” That’s praise.

David doesn’t use Halal here, but he uses a similar word. Yadah. To Yadah someone is to point them out. To shine a spotlight on them. The goal of Yadahing something or someone is to help others to see what you see. Then they can join you in celebration too.

In addition to standing and pointing, David is also kneeling and bowing down.

This too is a way of giving attention to someone else. When you bow to someone, you make that person bigger. Its a symbolic gesture. “This person. He must become more, and I must become less.”

And David is doing all this pointing and bowing, with all his heart and in a public way.

“Before the “gods,” I will sing your praise.” Psalm 138:1

Before the gods. What is meant by this?

I think David is simply talking about praising god before the other powers that be. Before the Kings of the middle east, with their gods and deities. Before Pharaoh, and the priests of Baal, he’s going to magnify the Lord.

This is not something we think about all that often. But when we engage in public worship, we are engaging in public witness. What we do here is political.

In this public place, we gather to declare through word and song that Our World belongs to God. Before Bankers, and Billionaires, presidents and prime ministers we say: The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Christ’s is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, forever and ever, amen.

This doesn’t get us in much trouble here in Canada, at least not yet. But elsewhere in the world, the tension is definitely felt. In 2018, a Chinese House Church Pastor named Wang Yi was hauled off to prison by the communist authorities. Figuring that this would happen at some point, Yi had a letter ready to go. He told his church to publish it, should he be arrested. Yi’s letter is a profound piece of public witness. Breathtaking. I suggest you read his letter in full. Its easily found on line.

Yi concludes his letter with this statement of praise before the gods of communist China:

Jesus is the Christ, son of the eternal, living God. He died for sinners and rose to life for us. He is my king and the king of the whole earth yesterday, today, and forever. I am his servant, and I am imprisoned because of this. I will resist in meekness those who resist God, and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws.

That’s what is looks like to shine a light on God, with your whole heart, before the “gods.”

Now Jesus warns us to be careful about practicing our faith in public. For if we aren’t careful, it can turn into a show. And that defeats the purpose. But there’s a ditch on the other side of the road too. And that is to error of keeping our faith entirely within, never to shine the light on God, publicly, at all.

How will others come to know about the awesomeness of God, if their Christian neighbours never point out God’s goodness? How with the other kings of the earth ever come to worship the Lord, as David desires, if David doesn’t praise the Lord before them?

I think Stan Mast is correct in his conclusion on this point:

Our praise, then, must be born in the secret depths of our hearts, but it must not be kept secret. Both secrecy and superficiality are enemies of proper praise. (Stan Mast, from Centre for Excellence in Preaching Website)

So we know so far that this Psalmist is filled with gratitude and that he’s promising to shine a light on his God in a public way. But why is this so? What is the source of the psalmist’s praise.

There are a few reasons given in the Psalm. The First reason given has to do with God’s character. His love and faithfulness.

Essentially, David is praising the Lord because he believes his God is worth it. There isn’t anyone greater.

Long ago, this God took Abraham aside and made a promise to him. “You, you are mine, and I am yours. I will bless you and make your name Great. I will give you land.”

When Abraham’s descendants were slaves in Egypt, God heard their cries and came to the rescue. With his mighty arm, he split the Red Sea. With his generous hand, he sustained his people in the wilderness. And when the time was right, he displayed his power before the nations, and gave Abraham’s children the land he had promised them.

“That’s our God.”

The other nations had their gods, but they weren’t loyal like Yahweh. Their gods were high above, but they didn’t concern themselves with things below. If you wanted their attention, you had to try to manipulate them into action through sacrifices. But not so with the Lord. He always stayed true to his word and true to his promises. He could always be counted out to hear the cries of the poor.

“Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly; though lofty, he sees them from afar.” Psalm 138:6

“That’s my God!”

And how much more worthy of praise does God become, when we consider the rest of the story. In Christ, God actually made a home among the lowly. In Christ, he stretched out his mighty hand, to rescue us from the enemies of sin and death.

I mean, the loyal love of God. Is it not on full display in the cross that Jesus bore?

Jesus took upon himself the sin of the whole world. He bore the consequences of human rebellion, the curses of the covenant. So that you and I could restored to full communion with our creator through faith in his finished work.

“That’s my God.” 

I know it can be hard to praise God sometimes. You might know in your head that he’s worth it, but maybe its been a tough week, or a tough few years. It makes it hard to sing with your whole heart.

I find it helpful to know that King David wrote as many laments Psalms as he did Psalms of Praise. So if you’re having a hard time praising today, know you’re in good company.

But I do hope, that through the sorrow, you can catch a good glimpse of, and be reminded of the Faithful God who has loved you into his Kingdom through his Son. He has the whole world in his hands. And won’t let it go until he’s made it new and until he’s wiped the tears from our eyes.

Hold onto the Victory of God, in the midst of the struggle.

The second reason that David praises the LORD with his whole heart is personal.

When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me. Psalm 138:3

God didn’t answer all the prayers that David prayed in his life, at least not in the way David wanted them to be answered. But he did answer this one. What prayer did the Lord answer? We don’t know exactly.

But we do know that the result of this answered call, was an emboldened Spirit. The Hebrew is tricky to translate here. Translated woodenly, its something like this: “You made me bold in my life, with strength.” Another translation says: “You energized me.”

This strengthening. It could be result of David having his prayer answered. But I suppose that it could have also have been the content of David’s prayer.

“Lord, make me bold. Energize me as a worship you before the gods. Strengthen my soul as a I engage the trials before me and the enemies that surround me.

Whatever the case its clear that David’s troubles haven’t entirely gone away. He still has enemies. He still has to journey through trials.

But he does so now, with the Lord’s strength, in the knowledge of the Lord’s goodness and love. And that makes all the difference.

To be strong in the Lord. Oh, to be strong in the Lord.

The Community of Jesus in Acts. Prays for boldness.

You know, next week, our community will be praying over Ashley as she prepares to relocate to Edmonton. Some things are lined up for Ashley in Edmonton. But there’s a lot up in the air. Can I get an amen, Ashley.

I’m sure that there is going to be some trials. Some hard days. Next week, we’re going to pray for Ashley. We’ll pray for God to make a way. But most of all, we’re going to pray that God would empower Ashley in this journey of faith. That he would make her bold to face the day, and courageous to move forward in trust.

He will fulfill his purposes for you, Ashley. He will fulfill his purposes for you, congregation. His strong arm will protect you. His powerful presence will preserve you.

Be bolded. Energized.

I’ve been praying for strength of soul, lately. For myself. I’ve been praying for this because I often feel weak and timid. God’s been ministering his grace to me.

I had a soul strengthening moment recently. It happened at Rachelann’s Dad’s funeral service. Doug Patstone, as many of know, suffered a heart attack in August, and passed away suddenly. I attended the service.

I don’t know exactly when it started. But as the service progressed, I had a profound experience of being held by God. Not embraced, really. Just held, secure. On a strong foundation.

In those moments I think I experienced something of what Paul means when he says: that we have died with Christ and that now our lives are hidden with Christ, in God.

The final hymn during the service was the Anthem, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,

Stand in his strength alone;

The arm of flesh will fail you,

Ye dare not trust your own.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,

The strife will not be long;

This day the noise of battle,

The next the victor’s song.

To those who vanquish evil

A crown of life shall be;

They with the King of Glory

Shall reign eternally.

When the song ended, I stood in silence for sometime. My eyes closed. When I opened my eyes, the first thing I noticed was a stained glass picture of Jesus that is situated at the centre of Church of our Lord’s Sanctuary.

In the picture, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is holding a sheep in his hands.

“That’s my God.”

Brothers and sisters. Take heart. Be energized. The Lord is Faithful and Strong. He will not abandon the work of his hands.

Amen.

Posted in Psalms, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Good Samaritan | Luke 10:25-37

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

At this point in his ministry, Jesus has Jerusalem in his crosshairs. His face is firmly fixed on the city of David.

Having heard the voice of his Father on the mount where he was transfigured, Jesus now knows who he is, and what me must do. And so, as he walks, he is preparing himself to offer everything, his very life, out of love for his Father in Heaven, and love for his neighbour.

Along the way, Jesus teaches his disciples. When he’s gone, he wants them to continue his ministry. So he sends them out, two by two. They go into the villages in Jesus name. A few days later, they come back with stories of victory and hope. Ever the disciple-er, Jesus debriefs these experiences with his disciples and prays for them.

It was during one of those debriefing sessions, that an expert in the law approached Jesus to test him.

Now its important to know that this man wasn’t a lawyer or a judge in the way that we conceive of those offices. Rather, he was a Bible Scholar—an expert in the law of Moses, the first five books of the bible.

He’s come to test Jesus, Luke says. Test what, I wonder? Jesus’ orthodoxy? Jesus’ knowledge of the law? Maybe this man just published his dissertation on neighbour love in Leviticus, and wants to see where Jesus stands on the relevant issues. Or maybe he’s looking for a way to build his social status, by challenging a popular Rabbi.

Whatever the case, Jesus is unfazed by the question. For him, this is just another moment to disciple his followers in the way of his Father’s Kingdom.

“Teacher,” the expert asks. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“You’re an expert in the law,” Jesus says to the man. “How do you read it?”

Quoting the Torah, the man answered. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). And “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Being a man of the book too, Jesus appreciates and commends this man for his answer.

And it truly is a remarkable answer. This expert in the law is no slouch. He gets the law and the prophets. Jesus himself gives the same answer when asked about the greatest command. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.”

Clearly, this man understands the core values of God’s incoming Kingdom.

But its one thing to have the right answer in your mind. It’s another thing to live it. Eternal life in God’s kingdom is not simply for those who know the right answer, it for those who live it out.

Do this, says Jesus, and you will live.

Do this. Don’t just quote these passages when you want to impress a Rabbi. Do this and you will live.

So far in the discussion, Jesus and the expert in the law are in complete agreement. But the expert in the law wants to justify himself—he wants to show himself to be in the right. So he asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbour?”

Once again, this man’s motives aren’t exactly clear. Maybe he had a debate with one of Jesus’ disciples, and he wants Jesus to take his side in the debate. Or maybe he’s interested in trapping Jesus in an academic debate that he’s ready to win.

Or maybe he simply wants to know the scope of his responsibility so that he can live it out and know himself to be righteous in the eyes of God.

Who is my neighbour? This isn’t a stupid question, really.

I mean, to love God with your heart, soul, strength and mind, its hard, but there’s a simplicity about it. There’s only one God to love. And he’s good. But we have like 6 billion neighbours on earth. And we’re a mixed bunch. It’s impossible to love them all.

I mean, this Shirt that I’m wearing. It was made by a woman in Sri Lanka. Her hands touched the garment that now touches my skin. And the fabric for this shirt was grown by farmers in African, and Mississipi and Cambodia. Now that I bought this shirt, I’m connected with these farmers and labourers. Were they paid enough for their labour. How can I possibly concern myself with them, when I have my hands full at home and at church.

The Jews in Jesus day had spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out the extent and application of Leviticus 19:18. They knew that they were commanded to love other Israelites. They knew that they were called to love the God fearing foreigners among them. But what about those pagan Romans? Or those half-breed, unorthodox Samaritans. Surely not them. Surely there are limits to neighbour love.

Who is my neighbour?

Now being an expert in the law, I’m sure that this man hoped that Jesus would give him some policy or a clean philosophical principle.  Maybe something like this tongue and cheek example written by Frederick Buechner:

“A neighbour (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part) shall be defined as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence, unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbour to the party of the first part and one is then oneself relieved of all responsibility of any kind to the matters hereunto appertaining.” ~ Frederick Buechner

Its funny. But wouldn’t it be helpful to have something like this. A little fine print to give this command some definition. How can you tick off the “I loved my neighbour today” box when you don’t which ones you are supposed to love and which ones you are allowed to pass over?

Perhaps the expert in the law had mixed motives in asking this question, but the question itself is still a good one.

But Jesus knows us well enough to know that legalese is not the way to answer this question? He knows that if he gives us boundaries, we’ll spend all our energy debating the interpretation of those boundaries instead of living into our call to actually be a loving neighbour.

So instead of a policy, Jesus does what he does best. He tells a story.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

A man. What kind of man? A Jewish man. A Roman man? A rich man? A poor man? A big scary man? A gay man? A drug addicted man? A con man? An escaped-from-prison man? 

Who is this guy?

Part of the brilliance of Jesus’ parable is that this man is not identified in any way. The only thing we know about this man, is that he’s a man.

“Some guy” was walking the treacherous road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Along the way, he was attacked by robbers. The stripped him, they beat him and went away, leaving him half dead on the side of the road.

So, things aren’t looking so good for this unidentified man. You do not want to be left for dead in the Judean wilderness.

Not long after, a priest was going down the same road. He saw the half-dead man, and passed by on the other side of the road.

Not long after this, a Levite comes by and he does the exact same thing. He sees and passes by on the other side of the road.

While Jesus doesn’t identify the roughed up man, he’s quite specific about the Priest and the Levite. These are men of religious standing. Born into families know for their righteousness. When people saw these religious folks in their religious robes, they’d say, “Hey, now, there goes a god fearing man.”

But in this story, both of them see, and both of them do nothing to help.

Its easy to be critical of the priest and the levite, but try to put yourself in their shoes.

Maybe they were on they way to the temple. Maybe they had already cleansed themselves. Touching a corpse would have made them unfit to offer sacrifices. Or maybe they’re going home and their wives gave them strict instruction to be home no later than 4:30pm. Their family was counting on them.

Who of us haven’t passed someone by on our way to something else.

What goes through your mind when you pass by a passed out man on the sidewalk. “This is getting out of hand,” I usually say, “someone ought to do something about this.

Perhaps the priest of the Levite wrote a letter to their city counsellor that night. Or maybe in the next election, they voted for the person who promised better security on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Maybe they had good reasons for passing the man by. Maybe they worked all the harder for justice in their city. But that day, on the road, neither stopped to help.

But the third person that comes walking down the road takes a different approach. Jesus identifies this man as a Samaritan.

We call him good. But the phrase “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to the Faithful Jews of Jesus day.

Samaritans were of suspect pedigree. They were half Jewish, half other. According to the Jews down in Jerusalem, Samaritans also had bad theology. They rejected Jerusalem as the centre of worship. They had different views regarding the scriptures.

I was trying to think of a contemporary example that could help us understand how Jewish people felt about Samaritans. Maybe they viewed Samaritans a little like we view the American Christians who elected Trump President. Who are those people. NRA membership card in their wallet. A Make America Great Again sticker on their beat up Ford Truck. And then they go to their Church to worship.

When people find out that your a Christian, you make sure to say that you are not like those evangelicals down in the states.

But to everyone’s surprise, in this situation, its the Samaritan, the Redneck Trump supporter, who steps up to the plate.

He sees the man lying on the side of the road. And he has compassion on him.

Compassion. Splonknizomai is the greek word for compassion. What a great word. Splonknizomai. It means, literally, to have ones bowels yearn. To have your innards be moved.

When the Father saw his lost son on the horizon, he had sploknizomai on him. When Jesus saw that widow weeping over the body of her dead son, he had sploknizomai on her.

He saw, and he was moved. To be compassionate is to feel deeply another’s pain and situation and to act mercifully to those in need

Moved by compassion, the Samaritan jumps into action. He pulls out his first aid pack and bandages this man’s wounds. He pours on oil and wine. Expensive stuff. Then he picks up the man, puts him on his donkey. And takes took him to the nearest inn.

The next day the Samaritan pulls out his Credit card and gives it to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he says, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expenses you may have.’

The first thing that struck me as I pondered the actions of the Good Samaritan was “Wow, what a risk?” 

I mean, maybe this guy deserved the beating. Maybe he was a thief. Or what if he ordered in room service and put it on the man’s tab. Or, maybe his condition was such that he needed expensive medical attention.

You don’t know what you’re getting into when you decide to take care of a half-dead man you find on the side of the road.

But… I suppose that this is the risk you take, when you see need, and your heart is filled with compassion.

“Who was the the neighbour to this man?” asked Jesus.

Notice that Jesus has refrained the question? The expert in the law asked: “And who is my neighbour?” But Jesus asks: “Who was the neighbour.”

The expert in the law wanted to have a theoretical conversation about boundaries. He wanted to have a debate regarding the ins and outs of Leviticus 19, so that he could justify himself. But Jesus won’t engage in theory. The question for Jesus is not “who is my neighbour?”, but “Will you be a neighbour?

The priest and the levite could have quoted the relevant chapters and verses. But only the Samaritan had compassion, and expressed it in mercy.

Go and do likewise, Jesus said.

I don’t know about you, but I make up a lot of excuses in order to remain selective in my love. I have compassion. But it needs to fit within my schedule. Not cost me too much. I need to feel safe.

I had a love your neighbour fail just the other day. Last week, as I walked home from Starbucks, I saw a woman slumped over on some stairs. She looked high. Or drunk. But I had places to be. I saw her. I even had compassion on her. But I didn’t show her mercy in any way.

In that moment, I was the priest and the levite. Lord have mercy.

Will you be a neighbour? Will you have compassion on, and show mercy to all and any. Regardless of their identity. It takes courage. Intentionality. A willingness to let your schedule be thrown off course. You have to see people, and not social problems.

I just finished a book called “Hospitality Comes with a House Key”, written by Rosaria Butterfield.

The Butterfields live in Durham North Carolina. They practice hospitality in their neighbourhood, daily. Their table is full, 7 days a week.

One day a man named Hank moved into the house across from the Butterfields. Hank kept to himself. Avoided eye contact. He certainly didn’t like it when Rosaria knocked on his door, wondering if he would like to join their family on an afternoon walk with the dogs.

But Hank liked dogs and eventually Rosaria wore him down. Slowly the Butterfields built a relationship with Hank.

One day, the Butterfields woke up to find Hank in Handcuffs; his house wrapped up with yellow police tape. Hank had been cooking Meth in his basement. Eventually, his addiction got the better of him.

But that didn’t stop the Butterfields from being Hank’s neighbour. Though the property value of their house went down, their hospitality ministry increased. Rosaria and her children wrote letters to Hank in Prison. Ken, Rosaria’s husband, visited Hank monthly. Together, they prayed. And prayed and prayed.

And one day, though behind bars, Hank came to find freedom in Christ.

That’s what neighbouring looks like. Turning towards instead of turning away. Courageously engaging instead of making decisions in fear. Seeing need and responding with mercy.

Jesus refuses to draw boundaries around this call to love neighbour. And this can be overwhelming, because the need is so great!

But I’m also convinced as you live in tune with God, he will show you when to lean in and when to retreat. Jesus showed mercy to many. But he also knew when it was time to find a quiet place to pray.

In fact, in the next story we find Mary sitting at the feat of Jesus. She could have been attending to the neighbours that were in her house. That’s what Martha wanted her to do. But instead, she knew it was time to focus on just one neighbour in particular. Jesus.

And speaking of Jesus. Could we have a better neighbour? He is the best. He saw people, and had compassion on them. He surveyed the human condition and said: This is a social problem that I will take on.

While its easy to talk theoretically about loving God and neighbour, in reality, we all fall short. But Jesus didn’t. In fact, he offered his life out Out of love for God, and Love for his neighbour. In fact, he even had compassion on those who were nailing him to the cross. Forgive them, he prayed, for they don’t know what they are doing.

Who is the un-identified man in this parable?

Maybe its you and me. Beaten up by sin. Left for dead. But then Jesus came by and bandaged up your wounds. He pulled out his credit card and put your wholeness on his account.

Let him be your neighbour today. Let him fix you up and tend to your wounds. And then, with your heart enlarged by his mercy, open your heart to others.

Amen

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