So, I need your help this morning, y’all. You’re going to help provide the sermon illustration this morning. I have a question for you:
What’s a holiday tradition that you cherish? Something that was handed down from family? [ANSWERS]
Okay … follow-up to that (and be honest!): Have you tweaked that tradition at all? Have you made any alterations to it – slight or otherwise? [ANSWERS]
There are few times of year as steeped in tradition as Christmas, right? We have traditions about how we decorate – when we put up the tree, what ornaments go on, what goes on the top. We have traditions about what we eat – recipes handed down, meals that we replicate from year to year, tastes and smells that transport us immediately back to Christmases past. We have traditions about things that we do and places we go – special days and ways that we shop and wrap gifts, special light displays that we visit and revisit year after year, organizations to which we give our financial support or our time or both. But every so often, a tradition changes, right?
New traditions born
Old traditions given a bit of an update
Doesn’t make the original iteration of the tradition any less meaningful or important → just means that we are growing and changing and making our mark as our families and lives grow and change, too
Throughout the fall, we’ve been winding our way through the Old Testament, hearing some of the old stories of our faith. Some were stories we’ve heard before and were hearing again. Some were stories we’d never heard before. Today, we make the shift from Old Testament to New Testament with this story of the pronouncement and birth of John the Baptist. → story that really has a foot in both worlds – OT and NT
First part of the story = angel Gabriel bringing news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the impending birth of a new prophet
Gabriel to Zechariah in text: He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord. — Zechariah’s response = disbelief – flat out asks Gabriel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.” → This first part of the story sounds a lot like another out-of-the-ordinary, amazing birth story that we read back in Sept.
Abraham and Sarah camped out under the Oaks of Mamre for the day
Visited by 3 strangers → tell Abraham that his wife, Sarah, is going to have a baby
Because of her advanced age, Sarah is so disbelieving at this that she laughs
9 mos. later, Isaac is born
So even in the beginning of our story for today, we get a story that is old being retold and relived and rewritten by the God who started it all.
Scholar picks up on this repetition and its significance: From the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke reminds us of an even earlier beginning, the beginning of the story of God’s relationship with God’s people Israel. … The entire story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, beginning with the promise to Abraham and Sarah, is coming to fulfillment in this story Luke tells – this story that begins, once again, with a promise and a birth against all odds. → That’s what today’s Scripture reading is all about: God doing an old thing in a new time, a new place, a new way – a way that is bold and world-altering, a way that is true and sacred and holy.
Twist on the old story in today’s text = Gabriel’s response (a bit of a holy mic drop) – text: The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.” → Maybe it’s crazy, but I find this part of the story just a bit comical. I mean, can’t you just imagine Zechariah’s doubt and disbelief. Can’t you just imagine him saying, “Wait … what now? Is this a joke? How can I be sure of this? How can I be sure this is real? How can I be sure this isn’t a dream? How can I be sure of this?”
Gr. “sure” = dense word – layers of knowing (to be struck by something + realize + acknowledge + understand) → This is more than just a shallow, surface understanding. It goes layer upon layer down to a deeper understanding – from that initial, shocking revelation to the dawning of realization to acknowledgment and finally to a deep, foundational understanding. It’s the same way we process any kind of earth-shaking, life-changing news.
Story of finding out we were having twins: very first doctor appt/ultrasound → initial inkling = line down the center of the image on the u/s screen → doctor’s words: “Oh, it looks like you’re having twins. Did you know that already?” (How could we know that already?!?!) → understand more fully as she pointed out various images on the screen → finally processing and taking in the information as we waited for blood work following that appt → calling our parents from the lab waiting room and hearing ourselves disbelievingly say, “Ummm, Mom? Yeah, everything’s fine. But there are two of them. Yup. Two of them. Twins.” → It is this deeper, fuller, more comprehensive kind of understanding that Zechariah is asking about, and really, who can blame him, right?
Gabriel’s response is a bit “tit for tat” = Zechariah’s protest: “But I am old.” Gabriel’s response: “But I am Gabriel.” – goes on to enumerate not only his credentials as an angel (“I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you.”) but also add a bit of a kick at the end (in an exasperated tone, I imagine) – text: Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen. → And there’s the new twist on the old story. Lucky Sarah who laughed in disbelief and simply got chastised for it. Unlucky Zechariah who asks a question and gets muted for 9 months while he waits for the birth of this truly unbelievable boy.
One thing we can’t ignore in this first part of the story = the setting – text: One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. → So Zechariah is a priest who is in the midst of worshipping in the house of the Lord when Gabriel appears to him.
Scholar highlights importance of this: Here is a story of a priest who was praying fervently but who was not prepared for his prayers to be answered. He was officiating in the sanctuary itself, but he did not really expect to experience God’s presence. The scene once again challenges us, this time to trust in God expectantly and to be prepared for God’s response to our needs.
2nd part of the story = physical answer to those fervent prayers – birth of this long-awaited child → more old-vs.-new mash-ups
Big deal is made of the naming of the child
Tradition = name this child after his father
BUT both Zechariah and Elizabeth had the words of Gabriel circling in their minds: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.”
Reads a bit like a church basement ladies skit, doesn’t it?
8 days after birth = circumcision and naming ceremony (called a bris) → nosy-but-well-meaning neighbors and relatives and religious officials (Zechariah’s colleagues, remember) want to name the baby Zechariah
Elizabeth tells the nosy-but-well-meaning neighbors and relatives and religious officials, “His name is John.”
Assembled crowd can’t believe that she and Zechariah are bucking this time-honored Hebrew tradition (commence the meddling!) – text: They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.” Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.
SIDE NOTE: Y’all, this is why so many people I know don’t reveal the names they’ve picked for this children until the ink on the birth certificate has already dried!
Zechariah motions for something to write on and reinforces what his wife has already said: “His name is John.”
Instant affirmation – text: At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God. All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?”
2nd half of the 2nd part of today’s story = Zechariah’s prophecy → Zechariah declaring boldly and truly both the old and constant faithfulness of God and the brilliant newness of the thing that God was about to do – text: Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace. → Zechariah seamlessly weaves the old and the new together, speaking simultaneously of what God has done for the people of Israel in the past and what God is about to do, all the while boldly declaring the goodness and mercifulness and steadfast love of God, a truth that rang true throughout the ages … a truth that rings true for us today … a truth that will continue to ring true throughout the ages to come.
Love of a God willing to enter into sacred and holy covenant relationship with a people flawed and broken and inconsistent
Love of a God willing to reach out to those people again and again through words, through actions, through miracles, through story after story after story
Love of a God willing to do the ultimate new thing based on the old love – to be born as one of us: vulnerable and needing, able to laugh and to cry and to love in a whole new way, the same old flesh and bone with a spirit wholly and holy new and bold and true
It is this old thing for which we wait. It is this new thing for which we wait. It is this bold thing for which we wait. It is this true thing for which we wait. And hallelujah, friends … the wait is nearly over. Amen.
 R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 49 (emphasis added).
Are you all familiar with the idea of the tongue map?
Concept that various areas on your tongue contain different taste receptors
Back of the tongue = bitter
Sides (toward the back) = sour
Sides (toward the front) = salty
Tip/front = sweet
Well, I was prepared to use that as my sermon illustration this morning, so I started looking into it a little more deeply, and I discovered something: the idea of the tongue map is … a myth.
Origin in some research done by a German scientist back in 1901 – research confirmed that there are parts of our tongues that are more sensitive to flavor in general (more taste buds concentrated around the edges of our tongues) → The problem arose in the way the scientist presented his finding. It was a vague graph that was ambiguous to read at best. The graph made it look like different parts of the tongue were responsible for different tastes as opposed to showing that different parts of the tongue are more sensitive or receptive to taste in general.
Taste map itself (as its been taught for decades) came from a Harvard psychology professor in 1940 who decided to reimagine that original (inaccurate) graph and drew up the taste/tongue map we know today
Tongue map = concept that’s been debunked for a long time
Questions started with medical experiments in 1965
Continued by American researcher in Florida in 1993
I have to be honest with you: when I learned that what I thought was going to be a great sermon illustration was actually completely untrue, I was a little confused for a bit. But then I did a little more reading, and I discovered that in the last 15 years, researchers have discovered that the way our tongues and our taste buds distinguish between these different flavors – salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and the fifth flavor umami (a savory flavor that the original researchers didn’t test or name) … The way that our tongues and taste buds distinguish between these different flavors is through receptor proteins in the cells in our taste buds.
Bitter receptor proteins = different than sweet receptor proteins = different than salty receptor proteins … and so on.
Receptor proteins ≠ grouped in specific areas of the tongue (as originally presented by the tongue map) but exist simultaneously side-by-side
So I started thinking about this information, and I realized that even though it wasn’t what I had originally been thinking about, it works even better than I had initially thought it would. You see, we find ourselves in Advent – in this time of waiting: waiting for Christmas, waiting for a star and angels and shepherds, waiting for the birth of the Messiah. And we’re waiting with sweet joy knowing that the birth of this baby will bring about salvation for all … but we also wait knowing the rest of the story, knowing how that salvation will have to come about: through the bitterness of betrayal and arrest, trial and false conviction, crucifixion and death, and ultimately resurrection.
Also cannot inhabit this space of holiday preparation without acknowledging that it’s not a holly jolly holiday for everyone
Those grieving and missing people
Those dealing with difficult family dynamics in this season when Hallmark pushes harmonious family togetherness
Those dealing with financial struggles and all the stress that presents in the face of the giving expectations of this season
Those battling illnesses and those watching loved ones battle illnesses
Those who don’t have a home to take refuge in
Those who are barred from being with their loved ones by distance, work commitments, prison, and other reasons
Words from Julie Beck a few years ago: “This year the sweetness of Christmas has been dented … light shines in the darkness but it is very still and very, very small.” → not the reality for everyone this holiday season, but it is certainly the reality for some
So here we are in this time of year sitting simultaneously with both the sweet and the bitter, holding them both in tension with one another, and in that space, we hear this morning’s Scripture.
We’ve talked about the Babylonian captivity a number of times.
597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (modern day Iraq) conquered the southern kingdom of Judah → deported all the best and brightest of the people of Israel (scholars, politicians, priests, etc.) and forced them to live in Babylon
Captivity ended when King Cyrus the Great of Persia (modern day Iran) conquered the Babylonian empire in 538 BCE
Today’s passage = the end of that captivity! → reading = 3 separate parts to the story
Pt. 1 = declaration of the end of captivity – text: In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia’s rule, to fulfill the Lord’s word spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Persia’s King Cyrus. The king issued a proclamation throughout his kingdom (it was also in writing) that stated: Persia’s King Cyrus says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has commanded me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. If there are any of you who are from his people, may their God be with them! They may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem.
Doesn’t stop there → instructs all the Babylonian neighbors of the exiles Jews to supply them with silver and gold, goods and livestock = “spontaneous gifts for God’s house in Jerusalem”
I want you to stop for a minute and imagine what this must have been like for the Jews who had been exiled in Babylon for so long.
Imagine the initial fear they must have felt – people of Israel had been conquered so many times, and there they were in a foreign land being conquered yet again →The previous conqueror had torn them from their homeland and their families, their friends and the heart of their worship. What would this new conqueror do? Would he be better? Would he be worse? What did this Persian King Cyrus have in store for them?
Imagine the shock and disbelief when they heard the decree – that they were not only to return to Jerusalem but that Cyrus was going to help them “build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” → Remember, the First Temple was destroyed in the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem. The siege itself took a few months with the Babylonian army pressing closer and closer to the heart of Jerusalem – breaching city walls, destroying homes and property, bringing the famine and disease that were inevitable with any and every siege, and killing thousands of Israelites in the process. When they finally reached the Temple, they set fire to it. According to the Talmud, the fire began just after the conclusion of Sabbath worship (Friday), and by Sunday night, the Temple was completely destroyed. There would certainly have been Jews in exile who would have remembered that horrible experience. And yet here they were a generation later, not only being released from their forced captivity but being encouraged to return to Jerusalem and being provided with assistance in rebuilding the Temple.
Importance of the Temple = only place in which holy sacrifices could take place
Pt. 2 = return and the beginning of the building process
Text gives us a little bit of the passage of time: When the seventh month came and the Israelites were in their towns, the people gathered as one in Jerusalem. → And what was one of the first things they did once they finally returned to Jerusalem? – text: [They] started to rebuild the altar of Israel’s God so that they might offer entirely burned offerings upon it as prescribed in the Instruction from Moses the man of God. → Before building walls, before building any kind of sanctuary or seating, before worrying about any of the other sacred accoutrements, they built the altar so they could worship.
Powerful thing to imagine: brand new altar built there among any remaining rubble from the first Temple, open to the air and the elements and the sunshine and the desert wind, people gathered around it in a crowd for the sole purpose of worship
Not just a simple “one and done” worship – text: They celebrated the Festival of Booths, as prescribed. Every day they presented the number of entirely burned offerings required by ordinance for that day.
Festival of Booths (a.k.a. – Festival of Tabernacles or Festival of Shelters) = harvest festival → Each family present for the celebration would construct their own booth with palm branches and an open roof as a reminder of when their ancestors wandered in the wilderness.So even in the midst of the sweet joy and celebration of this new Temple, this new beginning, this return to their holy homeland, the people of Israel held the sorrow and bitterness of many forms of exile in their memories and in their worship.
See that in pt. 3 of the story = the people’s reaction → best illustrates both the bitter and the sweet in this Scripture reading
Speaks of the joy of the priests as they fulfilled their duties and the foundation of the new Temple was laid
Priestly garments and trumpets and cymbals
Text: They praised and gave thanks to the Lord, singing responsively, “He is good, his graciousness for Israel lasts forever.”
Speaks of the enthusiastic, jubilant response of the people – text: All of the people shouted with praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid.
But in the same breath, it also speaks of the people’s lament and grief for the experiences they’d had, the first Temple that they’d lost, and the pain that they’d suffered at the hands of others. – text: But many of the older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house, although many others shouted with joy.
Final verse = crux of it all: No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance. → And there it is. The sweet, sweet joy of a new beginning inhabiting the same space … the same worship … the same breath as the bitter pang of grief and loss and pain. Joy and pain that had lived side-by-side in the hearts of those in exile for so long. Joy and pain that couldn’t help but be built into the walls and woven in the rich fabrics of the tapestries for that new Temple as it grew up on the site of the destruction and desecration of the old Temple. Joy and pain that would be incarnate in that little baby for whom we wait – a baby who would be born to save the descendants of those rebuilding that Temple, who would teach and worship himself within its walls, who would be tried and convicted within its walls as well, who would hear both the sweet joy of “Hosanna!” and the bitter pain of “Crucify!”
Fellow clergywoman and Ph.D. candidate Rachel Wrenn: Ultimately, this is a story of redemption, but painful redemption; of return, but a return marked with grief; of rejoicing, but of a joy that is inextricably linked to the losses that came before. It is a story of ambiguous joy—and are not our lives? For that matter, is that not the core of Advent itself? [PAUSE] Amen.
“Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.” – John Muir → Once upon a time, there was a man named John. John was born in a small coastal town in Scotland, but when he was 11 years old, his family emigrated to America and settled in one of the wildest, wooliest places on earth: Wisconsin. Portage, to be exact. Being a dutiful son, when he got older, John went to college and began a career in mechanical invention. It was the 1860, and John was riding the powerful, unstoppable wave of the Industrial Revolution … but John got a little too caught up in that wave. Four years after graduating from college and beginning his career, John was involved in an industrial accident that nearly cost him his eye. Instead of returning to such a perilous career, John Muir devoted himself to nature.
Walked from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico (wrote a book about it published posthumously: A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf)
Traveled extensively in parts of the southwest (Utah and Nevada) and along the west coast of the U.S. (California, Oregon, Washington, even Alaska) → first to propose theory that the incredible natural Yosemite formations were made by glacial erosion (widely accepted today)
1876: embarked on what would be his most important contribution: advocating for forest conservation
Published myriad of articles in magazines
Differed from his contemporaries who wanted to establish protected land but also utilize the resources of that land → Muir’s approach: lands should be preserved in their entirety and off-limits to development/resource harvesting of any/all kinds
Co-founded the Sierra Club along with Professor Henry Senger (Berkley, CA), an organization dedicated to environmental advocacy and protection to this day
Influential in the establishment of a number of national parks including Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park (California), Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), and Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
Photography (bulletin cover photo): recognized the impact visual images can have on people’s opinions and decisions → allowed him to share his profound wilderness experiences with a wider audience
“Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek..” It’s easy to see how John Muir earned the nicknames “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks.” Clearly, for him, the wilderness was something to be treasured, something to be preserved and protected, something special and sacred. But for so many, “the wilderness” is something intimidating – something vast and unknown where all sorts of scary things could be hiding. Or “the wilderness” is something remote and detached from their day-to-day lives – something “out there,” something reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime family summer road trip to Yellowstone a la Clark and Ellen Griswold. Or “the wilderness” is only a commodity – wasted space to be mined and drained and developed and dominated. And yet, another of John Muir’s quotes resonates: “And into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
Advent = season of preparation and reflection → season meant to mirror the contemplation, self-examination, and even repentance of Lent
Notice the liturgical color for both = purple → purple = color of royalty and also of repentance
Advent = surely a season of spiritual wilderness wandering → something we usually shy away from/try to avoid … But maybe – just maybe – wilderness wandering isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Scripture presents an interesting relationship with wilderness wandering
Now, if the idea of wilderness wandering makes you nervous or uncomfortable, you are far from alone. → certainly have a history of negative wilderness wandering in the Bible
Hagar and Ishmael = forced to wander in the wilderness after Sarah’s jealously compels Abraham to expel them from his home
People of Israel = forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 yrs. when they refused to trust God after being liberated from Egypt
Jesus’ encounters with Satan in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River
And while the wilderness of the Bible definitely looked different than the wilderness that John Muir dedicated his life to, it was just as wild, just as unpredictable, just as simultaneously full of delight and danger, possibility and peril. → more positive wilderness wandering experiences in Scripture
Moses wandering in the desert with sheep and encountering God in a burning bush
Elijah encountering God on Mount Horeb in the utter silence that followed the wind storm, the earthquake, and the fire
And, of course, we have another John of the Wilderness – John the Baptist. – Lk’s gospel: God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.” → Sound familiar? That’s our text for today – a text that speaks of wilderness wandering not in a scary sense, not wilderness wandering as a punishment or a consequence, not as something to be feared or dreaded, but as a blessing … as a comfort … as a calling. Wilderness wandering with a purpose.
Today’s text: Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins! A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together.” → Today’s text is actually a call to go out and wander in the wilderness. It’s a call to find those wild places, those rough places, those places that pull you so far outside your comfort zone you can’t even see the borders of that comfort zone anymore. Because that’s our “wilderness wandering” today, isn’t it, friends?
Wilderness wandering today = intentional time in uncomfortable spaces
Situations that tug at our growing edges
Places that look nothing like our norm
Relationships that challenge us to more clearly understand both ourselves and the other person
IMPORTANT NOTE: not dangerous places – not places/situations/relationships that put your physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual health in jeopardy
But at the same time, wilderness wandering isn’t supposed to be easy and carefree. It’s not supposed to be something taken lightly. It’s not the kind of experience from which you emerge exactly the same as you were when you went in. Wilderness wandering is supposed to both challenge and change us.
Implied in the Heb.: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!” → “clear” (translated “prepare” in many texts) = expectation of work and effort attached to it but also expectation of a change of course
= “turn away/turn around/turn aside”
= “concern yourself with”
= “clear up/clear away”
= “pay attention”
When you swirl all these ideas together – all of these layers of meaning – into one word, you’re left with an intentional experience that changes both the world around you and the world within you. You’re left with wilderness wandering.
Eagle Rock School outside Estes Park, CO – school that combines standard learning with wilderness experiences → from their website: “Eagle Rock School serves adolescents who are not thriving in their current situations, for whom few positive options exist, and who are interested in taking control of their lives and learning.”
Documentary follows one “patrol” (group of 9 new students) as they embark on their very first course/experience at Eagle Rock: a 24-day wilderness excursion meant to test them and encourage them and help them build relationships with each other and confidence in themselves
These students all choose to come to Eagle Rock. They recognize that the situations they’re living in at home – whatever those situations may be – aren’t the best for them, and so they apply to Eagle Rock hoping for a change. Not just a simple change. Not just a slow and easy, comfortable, nearly-undetectable change. They apply hoping for a drastic change – a change in their circumstances, a change in their outlook, a change in themselves.
You see, friends, that’s what wilderness wandering is all about – recognizing the need for something different, something new, something out-of-the-ordinary. And taking that first step – that first step into the wilderness, that first step into the unknown. Because you know what? That’s where God is.
No matter whether it was a positive wilderness experience like John the Baptist’s or a more distressing wilderness experience like Hagar and Ishmael’s, God was there in the wilderness
God found Hagar and Ishmael and provided for them
God wandered along with the people of Israel throughout those 40 yrs., protecting and leading and teaching them
God stayed with Jesus in the wilderness as he rebuffed Satan’s temptations
Moses encountered God and a whole new calling in that burning bush
Elijah heard the voice of God calling him to leave the safety of the cave and find his successor, Elisha
And of course, John the Baptist not only heard God’s call in the wilderness and found his place there but also called others to God in the wilderness, baptizing hundred in the Jordan River before Jesus himself would find John in the wilderness for the very same thing.
Today’s text: A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” … Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.
Calling is clear – a call to call
To share the good news
To share our faith → what it is for us, what it means to us, what it’s been for us
To share our own wilderness wanderings
Comfort is clear as well → even in the midst of the difficulty and unfamiliarity and challenge of wilderness wanderings, God is with us, guiding and protecting like a shepherd caring tenderly and steadfastly for even the smallest, most vulnerable lambs in the flock
So be reassured, friends. We cannot avoid wilderness wanderings in our lives, and to be honest, we shouldn’t avoid them. Because in the wilderness, we find both a calling and a comfort.
Line from Lord of the Rings: “Not all who wander are lost …” → And to that I say, “Thanks be to God.” Now with all the love I can muster, I say, “Let’s get lost.” Amen.
[READ The Fellowship of the Ring – pp. 48-49] → “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness, bind them.” So begins probably The Most Epic quest story of all time. You know, if we had a screen, I could really nerd out for a minute and play the movie clip for you … but since we don’t, you’ll just have to make do with what has become probably one of the most famous lines in movie history: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
One Ring = ring of power forged by evil Lord Sauron
Purpose = basically world domination
Rule over the other rings of power
Rule over the free will of those unlucky enough to be bearers of the ring
Rule over all the various races: elves and humans, dwarves and hobbits alike
One Ring to unite all the power, all the darkness, all the evil in one single, simple-looking gold ring and impose dominion for all time – “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
And throughout the entire epic adventure, Tolkien’s beloved cast of characters puts life, love, and limb on the line time and time again just to make sure that the One Ring doesn’t achieve its evil purpose of uniting all in evil and darkness. “One Ring to rule them all … One Ring to rule them all.”
Throughout the fall, we’ve been traveling through story after story in the Old Testament.
Began with the story of God creating humanity in the Garden of Eden
Touched on the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and various kings of Israel and Judah
Lots of ups and downs in those stories
Lots of challenges
Lots of big issues and ideas to grapple with
Lots of insights into faith and God
Lots of variety in these stories, too → But throughout all of them runs one common thread: relationship.
Created by God to be in relationship with God
Offer of special, sacred relationship from God to Abraham
Offer renewed over and over again
Through Jacob with whom God wrestled → result: God gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “triumphant with God” (inextricable relationship implied)
Through Joseph who carried the sacred relationship to a new land: Egypt
Through Moses who renewed the relationship in a burning bush and liberation and tablets of stone and 10 commandments
Through prophets like Elijah and Hosea
Through kings like David, Solomon, and Josiah
Special name for this relationship used throughout Scripture: covenant.
Powerful word throughout Scripture – Dr. Schlimm: The fundamental idea is that God and the covenant people are bound together in the closest imaginable ways. … It’s amazing that God willingly enters into such an agreement. … [Covenant making] created a powerful bond between two parties.
Each covenant different slightly. The covenant – the sacred, binding promise – that God made with Abraham wasn’t exactly the same as the one God made with Jacob or Moses or King David. And none of them were the same as the unspoken covenant in which God created humanity – beings who could create and love and imagine and hope in God’s own image … what stronger sacred relationship could there be?! But as I said, the common thread that ran through each of those individual covenant promises was the promise of sacred, unprecedented, inimitable relationship with God Most High.
PROBLEM: in creating beings who could create and love and imagine and hope like God, God had the silly idea to give us free will → Because when you think about it, is love really love when choice is removed from the equation? If we didn’t willingly choose to love God and be in relationship with God, would it actually be a relationship … or would it be something more mundane, more passive, more subservient? So in hopes of a love more genuine and reciprocal, God gave us free will so that we could, in turn, freely choose God every minute of every day. If that’s what we choose … which time and again, we fail to do.
Failure to freely choose God = reason for so many covenants → Every time the people turned away from God, God reached out to them – through pilgrims, through prophets, through kings, through every possible way God could think of. And it would work for a while. The people would return. They would worship God lovingly and freely, reveling in that holy promise and that sacred relationship. But inevitably, the people would fall away again.
And so we come to today’s text: The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people if Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord is Our Righteousness. → And God said, “It’s time to do a new thing.” After centuries of the people falling away and returning and falling away and returning and falling away again, God knew that something different – something drastic! – needed to be done. And so God prepared to do the most drastic thing of all: to fulfill that sacred promise of relationship with humans as a human. God chose to come down to earth in the form of one of those beloved, vulnerable, messy and messed up creature God had created: us.
Way for God to fulfill that holy and unprecedented promise of relationship that God made in creation and tried so diligently and purposefully to maintain → This promise spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was truly God’s One Promise to bring all the other promises to fruition and fulfillment.
See this in the Heb. in a really interesting way – Heb. for “I will fulfill my gracious promise”
Expect “promise” to be the typical word for “covenant,” right? Nope. → The Hebrew word used here is actually “word.”
Heb. “fulfill” = complex word with lots of meanings including “recover,” “continue,” and “rise up to” → So God is essentially saying to the people, “I will rise up to the word that I gave you before. I will recover that word. I will continue that word.”
“Fulfill” also has interesting connotations both cost and belonging → So is God also implying that this new form of the promise – this re-creation and re-statement of that same sacred promise … this baby soon to be born in a stable … this God Incarnate, God-Made-Flesh, God-With-Us, Emmanuel … this fulfillment of promise in its most genuine, organic, intimate, human form ………… Is God implying that this promise will bring both belonging and cost as well?
Belonging = final, definitive, everlasting grace that welcomes us into God’s arms as children adopted through the free gift of grace offered to us through Jesus Christ
Cost = cost for both God and for us
Cost for God = painfully simple and complex at the same time → It’s as simple and as intricate, as beautiful and as brutal as the cross – the love that God displayed there, the sacrifice that God made there, the grace that was laid out for us there.
Cost for us = also simple and complex – cycles back to that pesky free will → As I said, in hopes of a love more genuine and reciprocal, God gave us free will so that we could, in turn, freely choose God every minute of every day. Choose God in the midst of easier, flashier, more instantly-gratifying options. Choose God in the midst of questions and doubts and uncertainties and fears, those of the world around us as well as those we harbor within ourselves. Choose God in the easy moments and the hard moment. Choose God in the light moments and the dark moments. Choose God in the hopeful moments and the hopeless moments. And what is sometimes hardest, choose God in all the routine, day-to-day, in between moments.
Because here’s the thing about this promise that we read today – these words from Jeremiah. They are eternal. Yes, they were spoken in a specific time and place to a specific people thousands of years ago. But their promise still stands. “I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land … And this is what he will be called: The Lord is Our Righteousness.” He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. He will be called a prophet and a king, a rabbi and a friend, a blasphemer and a seditious radical, the One who comes in the name of the Lord and the One to be crucified. He will be called Jesus, and he will indeed be the ultimate, eternal, grace-filled fulfillment of God’s blessed and sacred promise of relationship. One Promise to rule them all, One Promise to find them, One Promise to bring them all and in a humble stable, bind them. Alleluia. Amen.
 J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 48-49.
 Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2018), 101, 102.
It’s time for a little truth telling, friends. I had a cute and funny opening written for this morning’s sermon – something about the return of 80s fashion and how everything comes back around for better or for worse – but when I sat down at my computer this morning, I erased it. Something about today doesn’t feel like a “cute and funny” morning. Maybe it’s because the weather is a bit dark and gloomy. Maybe it’s because of the darkness that is ever-encroaching during this time of year, eating up more and more of that precious daylight. Maybe it’s because of the somber events that we’ve witnessed on the national stage this week – impeachment hearings, continued threats from wildfires in California, and yet another school shooting, this time in Santa Clarita, CA. Maybe it’s because of some serious and difficult things going on in the lives of people I know and love. Maybe it’s just that time of year as we approach Advent – a season in the life of the church meant to be reflective and deliberate and measured. Whatever the reason, something about this morning feels like it requires a more serious, more contemplative approach to our text.
This morning’s text = a coming full circle for the people of Israel → It is a powerful moment of self-recognition, contrition, and repentance.
Story begins in a way that many of the previous stories have not – text: Josiah was 8 years old when he became king, and he ruled for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. … He did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David – not deviating from it even a bit to the right or left. → Remember, in pretty much all of the Old Testament stories that we’ve read recently, we’ve encountered kings who did the exact opposite – kings who did evil in the sight of God, kings who worshipped other gods and led the people of Israel to worship them as well, kings who seemed to almost go out of their way to not follow God’s guidance and commands for the people.
A couple weeks ago = King Ahab → cream of the crop when it comes to evil and corrupt kings
And so just the beginning of this morning’s Scripture reading seems to be a turning and returning … a new page … a breath of fresh air.
What follows = fascinating story about remodeling and buried treasure of sorts and utter repentance
History behind the remodel/reform (from Rev. Dr. Mark Throntveit, prof. of OT at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): It seems probable that Assyria’s rapidly diminishing power was a major factor in [Josiah’s] reforms. Since political domination in the ancient Near East usually involved participation in the conqueror’s religious practices, Josiah’s religious reforms not only witnessed to his piety, they were also a strong reassertion of Judah’s political independence from Assyrian domination. → So this Temple remodel isn’t just a little DIY project a lá HGTV.
Repairing and remodeling of the Temple = restoration and reassertion of Judah’s power and sovereignty as an independent nation in the region → restoring long-dominated and long-abused nation of Judah to a place of self-reliance and national autonomy
Repairing and remodeling of the Temple = repairing and remodeling of the faith → restore the long-neglected and long-abused Temple, and indeed, the faith of the people of Judah, to its right and sacred glory
Discovery in the midst of the renovations = hidden “book of the law”
Scholars in agreement that this is some sort of copy of the 5 books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) – probably not the full books that we have today but some sort of collection of portions of them
Some scholars speculate it may have been hidden by previous priests in order to protect it in the face of some of the more forceful and dangerous counter-reformations of previous kings, including Josiah’s immediate predecessor – his father, Amon, as well as his predecessor before that (and grandfather), Manasseh, both of who were evil and sinful kings more along the lines of Ahab than Josiah
So one of King Josiah’s secretaries heads to the Temple in the morning to pay the workers and instead is met with this incredible discovery that was made by Hilkiah, the high priest. Hilkiah gives the scroll to this secretary who returns to the king and reads him the scroll. – text: As soon as the king heard what the Instruction scroll said, he ripped his clothes. The king ordered the priest Hilkiah …: “Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah concerning us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this scroll and do everything written in it about us.” → You can feel Josiah’s desperation and devastation in every word of this account. As soon as he hears these long-lost words of God, he is beside himself with shame and grief on behalf of himself and his people.
Heb. “kriah” = ancient tradition of expressing pain and sorrow
Mandated by Torah as part of the grieving process
1) outward expression of that torn feeling you have in your heart when you’re grieving
2) recognition that the body is only a garment that the soul wears à death is the opportunity to strip off one garment and don another
So in his response, Josiah is immediately and viscerally reacting to the spiritual disobedience of himself and his people as though it were a death – something lost, something to grieve. But perhaps there is also a layer of recognition that he and the people have the chance to strip off that outer layer of disobedience and sinfulness that they have worn for so long to expose a new layer of faithfulness beneath.
Supported by Josiah’s actions at the end of our reading – text: Then the king went up to the Lord’s temple, together with all the people of Judah and all the citizens of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets, and all the people, young and old alike. There the king read out loud all the words of the covenant scroll that had been found in the Lord’s temple. The king stood beside the pillar and made a covenant with the Lord that he would follow the Lord by keeping his commandments, his laws, and his regulations with all his heart and all his being in order to fulfill the words of this covenant that were written in this scroll. All of the people accepted the covenant.
And if that were all to the story, it would be perfect and beautiful and wrapped up nicely in a neat, little package with a bow. But friends, Scripture rarely (if ever) wraps things up that neatly for us.
On the king’s orders, Hilkiah, the high priest, seeks the counsel of Huldah, the prophetess – Huldah’s words ring out in the middle of our text: “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: … I am about to bring disaster on this place and its citizens – all the words in the scroll that Judah’s king has read! My anger burns against this place, never to be quenched, because they’ve deserted me and have burned incense to other gods, angering me by everything they have done.” → As much as we may like to, friends, we cannot ignore this portion of the text. It is neither healthy nor faithful to read a story like this in Scripture and only take to heart the easy parts … the light parts … the pretty parts … the parts that make us sit comfortably and contentedly in our pews and pat ourselves on the back. Today’s Scripture is truly a text of repentance – of returning to God with hearts and souls that are woefully contrite. In order to return to God in such a way, like the people of Israel, we have to acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake. We have to actively name that mistake and claim it within our hearts and our minds. We have to own up to it and bear the consequences.
BUT this is where we find light and everlasting hope in the good news of the gospel (from Paul’s letter to the Romans): All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. → Friends, God knows that we are not perfect. God has had plenty of experience with God’s people throughout the millennia to fully know and understand that we are going to make mistakes. We are going to turn away. We are going to disobey God, both intentionally and unintentionally. We are going to fall short in our relationships with one another, in our relationship with ourselves, and in our relationship with God. None of that is news to God. Trust me, God is aware. But God is also merciful and grace-filled. God is loving and steadfast in that love beyond anything we could ever imagine.
Frederica Mathewes-Green (Eastern Orthodox speaker, author, and theologian): God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition.
So this is what we’re going to do this morning, friends. We’re going to take an extended time to give you a chance to come to God with all those things that feel broken in your world – in your heart, in your relationships, in your faith, in your belief in yourself and God and other people. We’ve all got broken places. We’ve all got places within ourselves that are as ragged and raw on the edges as Josiah’s torn garments. Take some time to bring those before God this morning.
Symbol of the destruction that Josiah and the Israelites had to go through to find their way back to God
Symbol of the strong, steadfast nature of God in the midst of all the turbulence of our world and our lives
Prayer for wholeness:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
ruler of all creation.
We praise you for the abundance of your blessings.
To those who ask, you give love;
to those who seek, you give faith;
to those who knock, you open the way of hope.
Help us to serve you in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1918, made radio receivers as a young boy, and started working at an AM talk radio station at the ripe old age of 14 when one of his teachers told him she was “impressed by his voice.” He started as a janitor, moved up to filling in on the air reading commercials and news briefs, and eventually ended up with his own show on ABC syndicated stations nationwide. By the time his illustrious career came to an end with his death at age 90, he had won just about every radio broadcast journalist award there was as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For millions of Americans, his voice was the calm, velvety voice that narrated stories that touched their hearts and lives for decades. [PLAY PAUL HARVEY CLIP] After those now-infamous words, Paul Harvey would weave together his own particular blend of history, narrative, and personal commentary.
Stories as touching and innocent as a story of a man trying to save a flock of birds on Christmas Eve and instead finding a renewed sense of faith
News stories as momentous and history-altering as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Following that famous phrase, Harvey would present a different facet, a different angle, a different element of a story – something you probably hadn’t known or considered before. More often than not, it was a more human element, a more personal connection, or a twist in the story that revealed some profound element of faith. Friends, today is our Paul Harvey moment in the midst of all this Old Testament meandering we’ve been doing. Today is our “rest of the story.”
Weeks leading up to today = lots of stories of the people of God in the Old Testament
Elijah the prophet taking on the prophets of Baal and the deterioration of the people’s devotion
In all of these stories, we’ve heard the people’s side. We’ve heard about the people turning to God and away from God. We’ve heard about the people trusting God and doubting God. We’ve heard about the people acting for God and acting against God’s will.
But today’s Scripture is wholly different. In today’s Scripture, we hear from God. Today’s Scripture is, in fact, the rest of the story.
Today’s text = from book of Hosea → Now, Hosea is a challenging little book.
One of what we call the 12 minor prophets (major prophets being Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Lamentations) → all of the writings of the minor prophets are fairly “doom and gloom.”
REMINDER: job of the prophets was to bring God’s word to a people who had strayed in an attempt to bring them back to God
Necessarily includes calling the people out for their wrongdoings AND detailing the terrible things that will happen if they don’t repent and return to God
NOT a popular message → prophets = not popular people
Very little is known about the prophet Hosea himself
Historically somewhere between 750 and 724 BCE → period of heavy political, economic, and religious turmoil in Israel
6 kings on the throne during Hosea’s time → all but one assassinated
Corruption in highest levels of court and government was rampant
Borders of the northern kingdom of Israel constantly threatened by kingdom of Judah to the south and kingdom of Assyria to the east
Practice of religion at the time had become intimately interwoven with various Canaanite religious practices (worship of Baal, rituals involving golden calves, cultic fertility sacrifices, etc.)
Suffice to say thing in Israel have gotten pretty horrible.
Hosea’s unique framing of his message = metaphor of marriage
Nation of Israel as a whole = unfaithful spouse who has turned away from God
People = children of that marriage
First 10 chs. of Hosea are full of stark, no-holds-barred, call-it-like-it-is recriminations aimed at Israel
E.g. – Hear the Lord’s word, people of Israel; for the Lord has a dispute with the inhabitants of the land. There’s no faithful love or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murder, together with stealing and adultery are common; bloody crime followed by bloody crime. … My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Since you [priest] have rejected knowledge, so I will reject you from serving me as a priest. Since you have forgotten the instruction of your God, so also I will forget your children. → And that’s probably one of the most G-rated parts. Truly, all, Hosea is a very difficult book to read. It’s full of agony and hurt and abandonment, and all of that is felt, not by the people but by God. God has not turned away from the people. The people have turned away from God.
Today’s passage = unique and even refreshing moment of grace and love and light in the midst of a grim text → speaks of God’s love in pure, unadulterated, unequivocal terms
Text: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them. … How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment. → You can hear God’s anguish in this. You can hear God’s yearning. You can hear God’s heartbreak. You can hear how desperately God misses the children who have so willingly and so easily turned away despite all that God has done for them. It is truly both stunningly painful and stirringly powerful to read.
Margaret Odell (prof of religion at St. Olaf): This poem of YHWH’s anguished love for the beloved child Israel stands as one of the most poignant testimonies to divine love in the Old Testament, if not in the entire Bible. Quite possibly the earliest expression of God’s love in the Bible, it is also the most passionate, as it portrays God’s heart in conflict with his plans, his compassion averting his anger.
Up to this point, much of the Old Testament stories that we read have been the “turning away” stories from the point of view of the people. Today, we hear a stirring, heart-rending reminder from God of just how much that turning away tears at the heart of God. It is, indeed, the rest of the story, and that story is LOVE. You see, friends, that is how big God’s love is for us.
Love that overcomes “turning away”
Love that overcomes waywardness and faithlessness
Love that overcomes excuses and exceptions
Love that overcomes even God’s own frustrations and intended consequences
Text: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
“Ephraim” = Israel (interchangeable in this text)
Admah and Zeboiim = cities completely and permanently destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah
Love that overcomes anything and everything just to get to us
Scholar: This is not the story of the “prodigal” son who, having struggled with his own bad choices, finally turns and comes home. This is the story of a prodigal God who – in anguish, heartbreak, and the fiercest love – comes seeking out the children who have strayed.
“But,” you might be saying, “I haven’t strayed. Not that much. Not really. Not intentionally, anyway.” And that may be true. But the reality of life and faith and the brokenness of the world around us and the world inside us, friends, is that we have all strayed – in big ways and small ways, in intentional ways and unintentional ways, in simple ways and in complex ways, always in ways that hurt God.
Description from Fall Breakaway workshop → turning ever-so-slightly bit by bit until God is completely out of sight
Friends, we are not perfect … at least, not the last time I checked. And even despite our best efforts … on our best days … with our best intentions, we cannot love God perfectly. But the good news is that God can love us perfect. The good news is that God does love us perfectly.
1 John 4: God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. … here is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.
This is why I say what I do and we profess what we profess whenever we come to the table. “No matter who you are … no matter where you come from … no matter what you bring with you this morning, you are welcome.” God’s love is big enough to love us through all our ups and downs, our turning aways and running aways, our doubts and our frustrations and our messes and anything else we think might be “too much.” The point is that with God, there is no “too much.” No. Matter. What. God loves you. God loved you before it. God loves you in the midst of it. And God will love you after it … no matter what “it” might be. Loves. You. Full stop.
I want to leave you with a song this morning – a song that speaks to that holy, perfect, infinite, pursing, forgiving, all-encompassing love of God.
Halleljuah, indeed. Amen.
“The faith that I profess is rooted in a belief in a God who loves us deeply, desperately, and with a passion that cannot be contained. This God is always seeking us out, wanting to be with us and wanting us to experience the very best that life has to offer. This God is protective because we are loved so damn much.” – Rozella Haydee White from Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World
 Stacey Simpson Duke. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive) – Hosea 11:1-11, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 296.
I want you to take a look at your bulletin cover this morning [see image above]. This is a meme I’ve been seeing make the Facebook rounds lately, and it makes me chuckle every single time I see it.
READ MEME: “Me trying to ask someone for a favor: Hey could you help me with this thing? Absolutely no pressure though. Totally ok if you can’t. If you’d father run me over with a car that’s cool. Are you mad at me?” → Full disclosure: Part of the reason I chuckle at this is because this is exactly the way I ask for favors. Many of you probably know that from various messages or emails you’ve received from me.
Maybe it’s the Midwesterner → Minnesota nice on steroids, right? You’ve heard the old adage that you have to ask a Minnesotan if they want something 3 times, right? “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” “Oh, no. That’s okay.” (2 minutes later) “Are you sure I can’t offer you a cup of coffee?” “No, really. I’m fine.” (5 minutes later) “Really, I can get you a cup of coffee. It’s okay.” “Well, I guess I’ll take a cup of coffee.”
Maybe it’s the introvert in me → not wanting to put someone out
Maybe it’s just the “me” in me …
But I know I can’t be the only one that asks for favors this way, right?
Lots of ways that we soft ask for things
“Could you maybe …”
“Would you possibly …”
“I might like you to …”
Lots of ways that we couch our requests in a way out for the person we’re asking
“If you want to …”
“If it’s not too much to ask …”
“When you have time …”
“But …” “But …” “But …”
And all this hesitation and bet hedging certainly doesn’t stop with asking people for things, does it? How often do our prayers sound like this as well? “If it’s your will, God … when you make a way, God … maybe … possibly … but … but … but …”
TRUE: persistant little petition in the Lord’s Prayer “THY will be done” → And in the past, I know we’ve talked about “thy will” vs. “my will” and how important and impactful it can be to leave ourselves open to the moving of the Holy Spirit and the potential of God’s calling and leading in our lives. I think “Thy will, not my will” qualifies as a prayer couched in uncertainty. But there’s a big different between declaring our openness to God’s direction and hedging our prayers because we’re not really sure God can handle them. We’re afraid that God won’t “show up.” We’re so concerned we can’t handle a “no” response to our prayers that we don’t even want to give God the opportunity.
Today’s Scripture reading = exact opposite attitude → Strange as it may sound, I love this Bible story because it’s so excessive. It’s so sensational. It’s so over-the-top. In it, Elijah embodies such a wildly audacious Plus, he’s sarcastic as all get out, and how often do we encounter a little snarky sarcasm in the Bible, right?
Last week: splitting of the whole kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah → very end of last week’s Scripture reading
Jeroboam made king of the northern kingdom of Israel → worried that the people would go back to King Rehoboam (southern kingdom) because the temple was in Jerusalem and Jerusalem was located in the southern kingdom
Bottom line: people needed a place to worship SO Jeroboam set up 2 golden calves to worship in the northern kingdom → Do you remember me saying last week that that was foreshadowing of more trouble to come? Yeah … that trouble comes TODAY.
Shannon Meacham (colleague and fellow YCW): Last week’s reading ended with two golden calves and a dagger in God’s heart with the words that echoed Aaron at Mt. Siani. After weeks of skipping books and centuries, this week we move only 6 chapters to hear how bad things have really gotten.
A handful of kings in between Jeroboam and King Ahab in today’s passage – IMPORTANT POINT: all of them “did evil in the Lord’s eyes” in one way or another, mostly by leading people away from worshipping God → Now, you may also remember those pesky, sort of obscure rules that we read a few weeks ago. You know … the Ten Commandments! That first rule was something about not having gods other than the Lord God. Yeah. Uh oh.
Today’s king = Ahab → And as far as wayward kings who did evil things are concerned, Ahab was by far the worst! – text (1 Kgs 16): [Ahab] did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. … He served and worshipped Baal. He made an altar for Baal in the Baal temple he had constructed in Samaria. Ahab also made a sacred pole and did more to anger the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of Israel’s kings who preceded him.
Quick history lesson: “Who was Baal?” = god of storms and fertility worshipped by a number of ancient Middle Eastern cultures including the Canaanites (modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine)
So this is who the prophet Elijah is up against.
Today’s text = not Elijah’s first run-in with Ahab
Previous encounter: Elijah telling Abah that Israel will suffer a severe drought because of Ahab’s wicked ways → As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly something Ahab enjoyed hearing, so Elijah’s already on the wrong side of King Ahab’s temper.
Hear that tension in the opening part of today’s reading – text: When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?” Elijah answered, “I haven’t troubled Israel; you and your father’s house have! You did as much when you deserted the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals.”
Bulk of today’s story = dramatic scene straight out of Biblical soap opera
Villain: Ahab, the corrupt and evil king
Hero: Elijah, the prophet of God
Pawns/stooges: 450 prophets of Baal
Drama: one singular, solitary prophet (Elijah) essentially challenging great, overwhelming hoard of Baal’s prophets to a duel → It is a duel of belief. It is a duel of fire and sacrifice and pageantry. It is a duel of prayer vs. prayer, god vs. God.
Elijah challenges prophets of Baal to build an altar, sacrifice a bull (one of the most expensive and sacred offerings), and call on Baal to light the fire on the altar – text: “Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire – that’s the real God!” And all the people answered, “That’s an excellent idea.” → Now, there’s a really important point embedded in this portion: Elijah’s audience. In preparation for this scene, Elijah has called “all the Israelites” to witness because, after all, Elijah is attempting to turn the people’s attention and devotion back to the Lord God. That’s his ultimate goal, right? He’s not going through these crazy, elaborate paces just to show off to a bunch of false prophets and a dangerously maniacal king. He’s doing it for the people.
Makes this point clear – text (Elijah basically calls the people out): Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.” → super funky Heb. in this portion of the text
Scholar: The Hebrew word translated “opinion” is related to a word meaning “tree bough” that might have been fashioned into a crutch creating “unequal legs” and causing an unsteady gait. Elijah is calling the people to pick the god behind whom they can steadily walk. → So basically, Elijah is calling out the people’s wishy-washy attitude toward God and their faith up to this point. They’ve been flip-flopping back and forth for generations, and Elijah says, “You know what? Not anymore. It is time to choose. And by the way … here. Let me help you make that choice.”
450 prophets of Baal build their altar, prepare their sacrifice, and spend “from morning to midday” parading around the altar and calling out to Baal to light the fire … But … NOTHING.
As if that embarrassing silence wasn’t bad enough, the added bonus is that Elijah starts taunting them! (This is where that snarky sarcasm comes in.) – text: Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” → And Elijah’s spiritual trash talk ends up having quite the effect on the prophets. – text: So the prophets of Baal cried with a louder voice and cut themselves with swords and knives as was their custom. Their blood flowed all over them. As noon passed they went crazy with their ritual until it was time for the evening offering. Still there was no sound or answer, no response whatsoever.
Elijah’s turn = builds his own altar using 12 stones (one stone for each of the 12 tribes of Israel) → But then Elijah ups the ante even more. To his altar of wood and stone, he adds water. Not just a dribble. Not just a little bowl. Not even a single, full jar of water. Elijah has those around him fill four jars with water, then douse the altar not once, not twice, but three times, so much so that the abundance of water basically creates a moat around the altar!
Historical point: jars that Elijah calls for are not cute little mason jars but massive jars used to catch rainwater for various purposes → similar to the jars that Jesus uses to turn water to wine at the wedding at Cana in gospel of John
Capacity = 9 gallons per jar (do the math: 9×4 = 36 gallons per trip TIMES 3 trips = 108 gallons of water)
And remember, they’re in the midst of a severe drought … and here’s Elijah, pouring gallons upon gallons upon gallons of water on his altar. This, friends, is a Biblical throw-down right here. Without a doubt!
Elijah’s prayer: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. I have done all these things at your instructions. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Lord, are the real God and that you can change their hearts.” → Elijah is essentially laying down a big ol’ “PROVE IT” to God before all the people of Israel. All his eggs are in one basket. And that basket … is on fire. Literally. Or at least, it’s about to be. Elijah’s ask here is not It’s not couched in escape clauses and possible outs and “maybe-possibly-if-but” language. Elijah’s ask is big. It’s bold. It’s ostentatious. It’s wildly audacious. Elijah is literally calling on God to show up in power and presence, in essence and extravagance, in sparks and flames and blazing glory.
God does not disappoint – text: Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench! All the people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed.
Friends, it’s certainly true that sometimes, God’s answer to prayer is not the answer that we’re seeking. And it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to put ourselves – our deepest desires and most desperate hopes – out there when we cannot hear or see God, when we cannot prove God like Elijah did with fire from heaven – not to the world around us, not to those who laugh at or question us … not even to ourselves. But here’s the thing: if we don’t take that risk … if we don’t leap out in faith … if we don’t ASK, we don’t give God the opportunity to be audacious in God’s abundance and grace. We deny God the chance to show up in our lives in extravagantly unanticipated and unexpected ways. And we deprive God of the opening to work through us to inspire faith in those around us – people we know as well as people we don’t. So be brave. Be bold. Be wildly audacious. Because you never know what kind of spark God is just waiting to forge into a wild, faith-fed blaze. Alleluia! Amen.