I have a few moments in life that are free of fear and worry – I call them moments of sheer panic. But with God’s help, there’s another name for such moments – we call them “peace.”
Travelers insurance ran a series of TV commercials a few years ago about fear. One of my favorites showed a bunch of cute bunnies who are confronted by a very large menacing rattle snake. We see the panic in their little rabbit eyes. But then something strange happens. The rabbits all start laughing hysterically, and as the camera pans around to show a full view of the snake, we see why. Instead of a real rattle, this snake has a pink baby rattle duct taped to his tail. And the announcer says, “Let Travelers take the scary out of life.”
With all due respect to any of you who are in the insurance industry – we can’t really take the scary out of life thru any kind of financial instruments. We even call our investments “securities.” But as we know from the recent roller coaster recession, they aren’t always. I hasten to add that we all need insurance because insurance can take some of the pain out of accidents and life events. When Hurricane Ike took half the roof off our house a couple of years ago we were very glad to have coverage that paid most of the cost of putting a roof back over our heads. But any time we get high winds and ominous skies and the tornado sirens are wailing, it’s still scary.
I even read in the Columbus Dispatch recently that you can now buy divorce insurance. Honest, I’m not making that up. What a great wedding gift for the couple that has everything? Sort of seems like betting against your own team, doesn’t it? I’ll check with Pete Rose about that next time I see him.
The problem is that it’s not insurance we need, its assurance. We all know money can’t buy happiness (even though we keep trying). Well, you can’t buy peace of mind either. That’s putting trust in things that “thieves can steal and rust and moths can consume,” – to quote Jesus in Matthew 6. Nothing that’s finite and material can give us peace because none of that stuff will last forever.
I mentioned the prophet Elijah in my Ash Wednesday post on “Transfiguration” a few weeks ago, and his story is worth a deeper look for what it can teach us. I Kings 19 tells how Elijah learned up close and personal how scary and uncertain life can be. Remember the job description for a ‘prophet’ in the Bible is not a fortune teller, but someone who speaks God’s truth to powerful people who need to hear it, and who usually don’t want to. It’s not a job for sissies. To understand Elijah’s fear, we need the back story that precedes chapter 19. In those chapters Elijah gets engaged in a super bowl contest with the prophets of Baal, one of the pagan gods in Israel. The odds are not good in this contest. 450 prophets of Baal vs. only 1 prophet for Yahweh, and that prophet is Elijah. The contest is pretty simple. Each team calls upon their god to send fire down from heaven and ignite a big bonfire they have built around an altar. The 450 prophets of Baal go first and try everything they can think of to implore Baal to show his power. Nothing happens.
When it’s Elijah’s turn, he decides to up the ante. He pours gallons and gallons of water on the wood piled around the altar. If any of you have ever been camping and tried to build a fire with wet wood, you know how difficult that is. But Elijah calls on Yahweh, and the altar is consumed in flames. And then the story takes an ugly turn. Elijah gets a little carried away with himself and his victory. It’s sort of like football players celebrating too much after a touchdown, only much, much worse. Elijah killed all of the prophets of Baal. I’m guessing he was still a little afraid of a rematch in a BCS bowl game; so he wasn’t taking any chances. But very seriously, we need a footnote and reminder that whenever we read these kinds of Hebrew scriptures that seem to glorify vengeance we need to read them thru the filter of Jesus’ commands that we love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Violence and revenge only perpetuate more of the same until someone says “enough, this is just not working.”
And speaking of vengeance – that’s exactly where we pick up the story in I Kings 19. Verse one says, “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” Oops – now, Elijah is in deep do do. Ahab and Jezebel were king and queen of Israel and big fans of the false god Baal and his prophets. And Jezebel hasn’t heard Jesus’ message about loving enemies. She’s from the eye for an eye school, and when she threatens to kill Elijah he knows she means business. Let’s just say Jezebel was never in the running for Miss Congeniality.
So Elijah, quite understandably, is afraid. His flight or fight mechanism kicks in, and knowing he has no chance to win a power struggle with the wicked queen, he gets out of Dodge post haste. He goes a day’s journey into the wilderness and leaves his servant behind so he can be as alone as he feels. He is so scared and discouraged that he simply plops himself down under a solitary broom tree and asks that he might just die and get it over with.
Ever had times in your life when you are just ready to give up – when all hope is lost? Elijah is overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty. Life is coming at him fast in the form of Jezebel’s hit men, and he sees no way out. He has forgotten about the God of Moses and Ruth and Abraham and Sarah who can make a way out of no way.
There are several lessons we can learn from Elijah about coping with uncertainty in our lives:
Lesson 1: God provides for our needs.
Elijah has forgotten God, but God hasn’t forgotten Elijah. God sends room service – an angel touches him, not once but twice, and says “get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you.” And that angel is not just talking about Elijah’s trip from point A to B. He’s talking about the journey of life. When we are lost and lonely and grieving, we frequently lose our appetite or literally forget to eat. But God provides for our needs—both physical and spiritual– when we’re ready to receive them–and frequently in most unexpected ways.
Elijah eats the food provided by God, and it must have been really good food. The text tells us that “on the strength of that food Elijah went on for 40 days and nights,” Why 40? The same reason Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter. 40 is a Biblical number that is used often to show us how long God provides for us; and the answer is for as long as it takes. Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and nights. The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. And Elijah travels for 40 days. All of that means God is with us for the long haul. The 40’s are not necessarily literal numbers but a way to remind us that God provides for us for as long as it takes, no matter how long that is.
And please note where Elijah’s journey takes him – to Mt. Horeb, the mount of God. Horeb is another Hebrew name for a mountain we know better as Mt. Sinai, the very place that Moses ascends during the Exodus to receive the 10 commandments. Just as we call that big mountain in Alaska “Denali” or “McKinley” because it was named by different tribes of people at different times, so the Hebrews had two names for this Holy place where God’s presence was found.
Elijah thought he was running away from evil, but he was really running to God. He doesn’t know it, apparently, just as we are often surprised when we stumble into God when we least expect to, because there is no place we can go that God is not already there.
Lesson 2: We are never separated from God.
And that’s another important lesson for us to learn from this story – we can run, but we can’t hide from God. God comes to Elijah in the cave where he is hiding and asks a haunting question that we all need to hear. God says, “what are you doing here Elijah?’ And Elijah takes the question, as we often do, too literally. He goes into this long sob story about how awful his life is and why he needs to hide, and how he’s the only faithful person left on the face of the earth. But the question for Elijah and for us is not so literal – it’s a life purpose and mission question – what are we doing here? What is our life purpose as individual Christians, as a church, as citizens of a troubled nation and world? What are we doing to make a difference? Hiding because we’re afraid, because life is coming at us too fast? Saving up for a rainy day instead of trusting God’s abundance and providence to meet our needs? Snarfing up all the manna from heaven we can find in case God reneges on his promise and fails to provide daily bread for us tomorrow or next week? Because we trust God to provide for us every day, the Lord’s prayer doesn’t ask for food to last us until spring or until the economy recovers – we simply pray “give us this day our DAILY bread.”
What are we doing here? Shaking in our boots, making excuses, complaining about how awful those politicians or CEO’s or terrorists, relatives, bosses, kids, spouses, teachers, coaches, preachers… are making our lives? Or are we drawing on the resources of our faith and our mighty God and living lives of faithfulness–confronting our fears and turning them over to the only one who can ever really take the scary out of life.
Lesson 3: Most Fear = False Evidence Appearing Real
Most fears are false evidence appearing real, but the only way to know that is to face them. You can’t defeat an imaginary foe. Our granddaughter once told her little brother that there were vampires living in the closet in his room. For weeks he was afraid to go into his room alone because he believed his sister’s false evidence was real. Elijah was afraid because he believed he was totally alone, doomed, abandoned by God and everyone else. He believed that he was dead meat, and as we will see, he was dead wrong on all counts. His fear was fed by false evidence appearing real.
Lesson 4: We all need time alone with God ….
The next lesson here is that Elijah needs rest – time alone with God. And we all need that. Turn off the “smart” phone and computer and Ipod and tv and telephone, and take time, regularly to relax, re-create our bodies, minds and souls. We all need vacations, sabbaticals, retreats – even Jesus did, and if he did, what makes us think we don’t? We need time to listen for God’s still small voice. As Elijah learns, God doesn’t always speak to us in earthquakes or wind or fire, but in what one translation calls “the sound of sheer silence.” In other words, if we want to hear what God is telling us, we need to shut up and listen. And that includes when we pray. Don’t just spend all your prayer time telling God things God already knows! Take time to listen.
Lesson 5: We need time alone with God… But, we can’t stay there permanently.
Next lesson, yes, we do regularly need retreats – time alone, but we can’t stay there permanently. In the Gospel accounts, when Jesus takes Peter and James and John with him for a mountain top experience and Elijah and Moses appear to them, the disciples first reaction is to homestead there. They want to build houses for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but Jesus says, no. He knows they have much work to do down in Jerusalem and can’t stay on the mountain forever.
My church’s mission statement says “We share God’s love by words and action.” We need to walk our talk. God’s question is what are we doing here? The letter of James says “faith without works is dead.” We can’t work our way into heaven, but we also know that faith inspires lives that bear good fruit. Of course it is important to be assured of our personal and individual salvation – but that’s only half the gospel. Remember that when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus didn’t stop with one. He said we need to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, but then he says the second is equally important — love your neighbor as yourself.
OK, I can hear what many of you are thinking. It’s the “yes, but” moment in the sermon. You’re thinking, “that’s good, Steve. We believe it, but we’ve got too much to do. There are too many problems in the world. We can’t possibly fix them all. We’d like to help and we do what we can, but we feel so alone.” When the “yes, buts” raise their ugly heads, we need to get off our buts and trust God—because …
Lesson 6: We are NEVER in this Alone!
Perhaps the most important lesson of this Elijah story is that we are never alone, even though it often feels like we are. Elijah is never alone. He is suffering, but we all suffer. It’s part of the human condition. There are two parts to this lesson – we are obviously never away from God (see point #1 above). But sometimes we feel like little Johnny who was afraid of a storm and unable to go to sleep one night. His mother went in to comfort him and reminded him that he had learned in Sunday School that God and Jesus were always with him, that he wasn’t alone. And Johnny said, “Yes, Mommy, I know, but sometimes I need somebody with skin on them.”
We all do, and the Elijah story reminds us that we never without human partners if we’re willing to see them and accept the fact that our partners in mission don’t always look the way we expect them to look. God says to Elijah later chapter 19 – “Go on your way and as you go anoint Elisha to be a prophet in your place and anoint Jehu as new king of Israel, and by the way, there are still 700 faithful people out there who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” We are never alone if we are doing God’s work.
It is so important to face our fears because fear motivates retreat. Fear shrink wraps the Gospel when it makes us afraid of being prophetic, of challenging bigotry and judgmental thinking. That kind of fear is the spark for burning flags and Korans instead of promoting dialogue and tolerance for different perspectives. Fear is what wants to throw the baby out with the bath instead of finding the good in any situation or relationship or failure or political system. Living in assurance means building on those 700 faithful ones instead of letting one evil queen or king silence the truth. Fear keeps us from getting to know others who appear so different from a distance but have the same needs for love and grace all humans have. It is so much easier to judge or fear a stereotype than someone we know as a fellow human being.
Faith is the only antidote to fear that works – it allows us to laugh at our own foolishness, just as the rabbits crack up in the Travelers’ commercial. We love and laugh at our fears because we know that God alone can take the scary out of life. How do we know that? We know the cross of Calvary and the tomb on Easter are empty. We know that in the game of life, the powers of evil and hatred and fear have a big goose egg on the scoreboard, and God’s eternal, life-giving love is off the charts. It’s a worse mismatch than OSU vs. Eastern Michigan. No contest.
Paul says it best in Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who is against us. For we know that nothing – hear that, nothing in all creation, not fear, worry, death, powers or principalities, nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I leave you with a great question: If you knew you could accomplish anything God wants you to do and were guaranteed that you could not fail – what would you do with your life? Well guess what? The good news of the resurrected living Christ that we model our lives after is that we can’t fail if we have God on our side. In Christ, God has already taken the scary out of life and death once and for all.
That means we have no excuse to run and hide when life comes at us fast. God says, hey Steve, hey church, I have already conquered the world – so what are you doing here?