Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sermon – Luke 12:32-40 – "Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Heart Will Be"

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon – Luke 12:32-40 – "Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Heart Will Be"
August 11, 2019

We are continuing today with our look at Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Luke.  Last week we learned that forgiving and reconciling with people is far more important than our own economic security.  Today we will hear Jesus’ teaching about money.  And, as you might expect, Jesus’ idea about money is quite different than ours.  This is because in the Kingdom of God everything is turned upside down.  We will get to this, but first, let’s pray.

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification.  Amen.”   (John Calvin)

Today, here in America, people are filled with fears.  Businesses are facing increased competition from abroad, higher taxes, higher minimum wages, and higher tariffs on imported goods.  The effect of this is a drop in profitability and consequently less hiring.  Also, increased immigration has increased competition for the jobs that are available.  New college graduates wonder if the education they received actually prepares them for the job market they are facing.  More established workers wonder if their skills and experiences are still relevant today.  And retirees wonder if there are enough workers to support the Social Security retirement system and what government deficits will do to our retirement savings.  All of this causes our fear to grow.  And with growing anxiety, we need to hear from our savior.  So let’s listen to Jesus.

Luke 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

You walk into your favorite store.  As you go up and down the aisles you see it.  It is beautiful.  It takes your breath away.  And you have the perfect spot for it.  But you walk away looking at other things, when, all of a sudden, you find yourself looking at it again.  You just have to have it.  So you look at the price tag and quickly walk away.  It is way too expensive.  It doesn’t fit your budget.  There might be trouble at home if you buy it.  But you have to buy it.  You have the perfect spot for it.  It will look so good there.  So you buy it.  And when you go home you put it in its spot.  You look at it and experience a thrill.  It is so beautiful.  And it is perfect for this room. 

A few days later you have some friends over for tea.  You hope they will notice it and how beautiful it is.  When no one notices it you pick it up and show it to your friends.  They agree it is beautiful.  And you have found the perfect spot for it.  Everyone is overjoyed.

Then a few months pass with it proudly on display until one day when something seems wrong.  It is beautiful, just not as beautiful as before.  And it really doesn’t fit that spot very well anymore.  So you move it to a less conspicuous place in the house and put something new in that spot. 

A few years pass and you notice it collecting dust on a shelf.  It is so old and really doesn’t do anything for you anymore.  So you pick it up and put it in the attic until you find someplace to put it.

A few decades pass and your daughter comes over to help you move into a retirement home.  She is cleaning out your attic and finds it.  She remembers growing up with it.  And she brings it to you and asks if you want to bring it.  You don’t want that old thing in your new apartment.  So you put it in the church’s rummage shed where it will be sold for $1 and the proceeds used for local missions.

This is the way the world usually works.  Where your heart is, there your money will go.  If you value things you will spend your money on things.   Whatever you value most, that is where your money goes.  And this is the place where wise preachers will tell you that if Jesus is in your heart then your money should go to the church.

But according to Jesus in the Kingdom of God, the opposite is true.  Our culture says, “where your heart is, there your money will go.”  But Jesus says, that in the Kingdom of God, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Jesus tells us the opposite of what we normally think.  It works this way.  Usually, we think that our wants and desires determine what we buy.  But Jesus says what we buy affects our wants and desires.  If money follows your desires then you will buy things that you want.  But what happens if desires follow spending as Jesus suggests?

Suppose you gather up all the things you have acquired and sell them and then give the money to people who need it, the poor, the homeless, any person living on the margins of society.  What would this do to your heart?  Your heart would soften.  You would become kinder and more generous.  The way you spend your money affects your thoughts and feelings.  So by giving your money to those who need it, you become a different person.  You are transformed.

But, of course, we can’t do that.  We love our money.  We love the things we can buy with it.  But money can be lost and things wear out and get old.  They no longer bring you pleasure.  But if you work alongside God, to care for the ones God loves, if you give your money away to those who need it, then you experience great joy, and your fears melt away.  Here is how Jesus put it.

Luke 12:22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?[d] 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?  27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;[e] yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his[f] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

To seek the kingdom of God, we spend our time and resources to care for those in need.  And as we spend our money to care for others our hearts change, our fears go away, and we become more and more like Christ. Jesus says that we become servants of the kingdom.  And as servants, we will be richly blessed by God. 

Listen to this story about St. Francis.  St. Francis was the son of a nobleman and desired fame and glory.  But God had something different in mind for his life.  One day while St. Francis was praying, Jesus spoke to him from the crucifix on the altar of the church.  Jesus said, “Francis, do you see that my house is in ruin.  Go and restore it for me.”  When Francis heard these words from Jesus, he knew what he had to do.  He stole some fabric from his father’s shop and sold it.  Then he used the money to repair the church.  Of course, Francis’ father was angry and called the police. 

After months of hiding, Francis presented himself to the bishop.   The bishop said to Francis that he had to restore the money he had stolen from his father.  Francis stood there calmly without fear.  Something had changed in his heart.  He was like a new man.  Francis stood up before the bishop and announced that he was a servant of God.  All of his money belonged to God.  And then Francis removed all his clothes and threw them and what money had on the floor in front of the bishop and his father.  C.K. Chesterton described the scene in this way:

“ “He went out half-naked into the winter woods, walking the frozen ground between the frosty trees; a man without a father.  He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearances without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.”

St. Francis gave up everything he had.  He lost his old life of privilege.  But he gained a new life.  He shared everything he had for the rest of his days.  And he lived a life of joy.
(https://chapel.duke.edu/sites/default/files/RogerOwens08-11-13.pdf)

If we give up what we have, God will care for us.  Jesus put it this way.

35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

Jesus’ promise is that if you care for the marginalized with your treasure, then your heart will change, your fears will go away, and God will come to take care of you.  The image Jesus has given us is that of God putting on an apron and serving a banquet to us.  We, who care for others, are cared for by our God. 

So what have we learned from Jesus today?  Where our treasure is there our hearts will be.  So use your money for God’s purposes, and your hearts will be transformed.  You will become kinder and more generous.  Your fears will go away.  And God will care for you.  Let’s pray.

Father in heaven, help us to change our perspective about money.   We allow our hearts to dictate where our money goes.   Help us to use our money for your purposes and through that change our hearts.   This we pray in Jesus’ name.   Amen.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Sermon – Luke 12:13-21 The Rich Fool

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon – Luke 12:13-21  The Rich Fool
August 4, 2019


In today’s culture, we believe that happiness comes from a lack of conflict.  We are happy when we are employed and can support our families.   We are happy when we have enough money in the bank and insurance to take care of all possible needs.  Our favorite government program is Social Security which we hope will give us happiness when we grow old.  But before recent generations, people did not live secure lives.  They experienced great difficulty and hardship.  They had many life-threatening problems.  Happiness for them was not about living secure lives.  They would not know what that meant.  For our ancestors, happiness was the result of overcoming obstacles to life.  Let me tell you a story about the need to overcome obstacles.

There was once a young boy raising silkworms.  He kept them in a shoebox and he watched as the worms covered cardboard cutouts in the box with newly made silk.  Then one day the silkworms began spinning a silk cocoon for themselves. And then one day the little boy watched as butterflies began to emerge from the cocoons.  He was concerned that the butterflies were having great difficulty getting out of the cocoons, and he wanted to help them.  So he asked his mother if it was ok to help the butterflies exit their cocoons.  She told him to help two butterflies exit, but to leave the others alone.  So the little boy helped two of the butterflies escape their cocoons.  As he watched what happened he made a very interesting discovery.  The butterflies he had not helped grew strong and began laying eggs for new silkworms.  But the butterflies he had helped never grew strong and eventually died.  What happened?  The silkworms need the struggle of getting out of the cocoon in order to experience the great joy of being a butterfly.  (https://soundcloud.com/rabbi-daniel-lapin-show/struggling-striving-is-superior-to-safety-security-72316)

The same is true for us.  Leading dull secure lives with no conflict prevents us from experiencing the great joy of overcoming problems and watching God at work.  Today we will look at a person dealing with personal problems with his brother.  He hopes that economic security will be the answer.  But Jesus knows that economic security is not the path to happiness. And so we will see how Jesus helps him to experience great joy.  We will get to this, but first, let’s pray.

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification.  Amen.”   (John Calvin)

Luke 12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”

A person in the crowd has come to Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother.  They had an argument over their inheritance.   And since in their culture economic livelihood and land, were tied together that wanted the dispute settled.  It was common for a rabbi to serve as a judge and settle simple disputes.  And so Jesus gives this man a standard rabbinic answer.

15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Jesus realizes that the issue presented by this young man was not really about money.  He and his brother had far deeper issues.  Solving the inheritance problem would not solve the real problem.  Jesus was more concerned about this man’s relationship with his brother than with the distribution of inheritance.  And to help heal the relationship between these brothers Jesus told them a story.

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

Jesus’ story reminds us of the story we heard earlier from the book of Genesis.  In that reading, Joseph had interpreted a dream indicating that there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine in Egypt.  So Joseph was put in charge of grain storage for the Egyptians.  He stored mountains of grain in large warehouses for seven years.  Then when the famine hit there was plenty of grain for everyone to eat.  Joseph had done a very wise thing.  He had allowed God to use his abilities to save the people from starvation.  Like Joseph, the farmer in Jesus’ story also did a very wise thing.  He built bigger barns to store his excess grain so that there would be plenty in dry years to come.

But that is not at all what happened.  Let’s listen as Jesus continues his story.

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

So according to Jesus, this farmer was not wise in building barns to store excess grain.  Jesus said he was foolish.  So what is happening here?  How can Joseph building grain storage barns be wise, but this farmer doing the same thing is a fool?  Jesus said that he is not rich toward God.  Let’s go back to the Joseph story and see if we can figure this out.

When the seven years of famine came it effected not just Egypt but the surrounding countries as went.  The draught affected Canaan.  And so Joseph’s father sent some of his sons, Joseph’s brothers, to Egypt to buy grain.  Joseph had a very difficult relationship with his brothers.  His father had favored him and gave him a richly decorated coat.  And Joseph had dreams of becoming the head of the family.  This infuriated Joseph’s brothers to the point that they staged his death and sold him into slavery.  As you might imagine, the relationship between Joseph and his brothers was not very good.

And so we now know why Jesus has told this story about bigger barns and excess grain.  He wants the young man who asked the question about inheritance to think not about money, but about his relationship with his brother.  Like Joseph, this man has a conflict with his brother.  So let’s see what happened to Joseph. 

When the draught hit Canaan, Jacob sent some of his sons to Egypt.  When they arrived they did not recognize that it was their brother Joseph who was in charge of distributing Egyptian grain, but Joseph knew who they were.  Joseph could have sent them away to certain death from starvation.  And he was probably tempted to do just that.  But he didn’t.  He welcomed his brothers and not only gave them the grain they needed but also land where they could sustain themselves.  Joseph could have cursed his brothers who had sold him into slavery, but he didn’t.  He blessed them and forgave them.  And Joseph gave all the glory to God.

Genesis 45:4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.[a]   

God took the evil of Joseph’s brothers and used it for good.  Joseph realized this and forgave his brothers.  And so they all experienced the great joy of reconciliation.

Genesis 45:14 Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them.

And so we see why the farmer in Jesus’ story was so foolish.  He was foolish not for building barns and storing grain.  He was foolish because unlike Joseph he never reconciled with his brothers before he died.  This was a warning for the young man who had come to Jesus to talk about inheritance.  Jesus warned him to go and be reconciled with his brother before it was too late.  Go and forgive your brother, and like Joseph experience the great joy of reconciliation before you die.  Do this and like Joseph, you will be very wise.

In worship, we come into the presence of Jesus.  And we bring with us all of our failed relationships, our anger, and our hurts.  We ask Jesus to deal justly with our enemies.  But Jesus wants us to go out of here and forgive our enemies.  And through this Jesus wants us to experience the great joy of reconciliation.

So as you prepare for your future, invest in your IRAs and 401k programs.  Meet with a financial advisor and make sure that you will have a secure retirement.  But the most important investment you can make for your future is to forgive those who have wronged you and seek reconciliation.  Your retirement investments will only give you comfort and security.  Forgiveness and reconciliation will give you great joy.

The silkworms needed the struggle of exiting the cocoon to experience the joy of being a butterfly.  You need the struggle of forgiving people you are angry with to experience the great joy of reconciliation that God is providing you.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the blessing of forgiveness.  We thank you for the economic security we enjoy.  Help us to experience the great joy of forgiving others and reconciling broken relationships.  We pray this in the name of Jesus who forgave us and reconciled our relationship with you.  Amen.


Friday, July 5, 2019

Sermon - Acts 3:1-10 - “A Little Touch of God’s Grace”

Jeffrey T. Howard
Faith United Presbyterian Church
Sermon - Acts 3:1-10 - “A Little Touch of God’s Grace”
June 3, 2007

Acts 3:1-10 NRS Acts 3:1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms.  4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, "Look at us." 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

8 Years Old
In the last year of Herod the Great, a young couple came to Jerusalem to have their baby dedicated to God. They named their baby Jesus. Possibly as they entered the temple they saw another young couple with a little boy, about 8, sitting outside the gate. They may have noticed that this boy could not enter into the temple grounds because of his bad feet. 

The rules were very clear on this. The temple was the place where God met humanity. Since God was holy the men and women who approached God must also be holy. A strict set of rules were developed that determined who was holy enough to enter the temple grounds.  And the closer you approached God the holier you had to be. The boy’s bad feet was a clear indication that he was not holy enough. So the little boy sat outside of the big bronze gate of the temple that everyone called “beautiful” hoping to receive what he really needed, a little bit of God’s grace that would leak out of the gate and he would hear the words of God saying, “I love you and forgive you.”

20 Years Old
Twelve years later a young couple from Nazareth returned to the temple with their almost teenage boy, named Jesus. Possibly they noticed an older woman with a grown son sitting beside the gate. Her son could not walk and had to be carried to the gate by family and friends every day. As he sat there she hoped somehow, someway, her son would get what he truly needed. She had carried her son in her womb for nine months. And she discovered, in horror, that he was born with a birth defect, bad feet. So she carried him to the temple every day to sit next to the large bronze everyone call “beautiful”. As he grew she was unable to carry him alone. So his uncles and brothers and friends helped out. They brought him here every day hoping that the young man with the bad feet would find what he really needed, that a little of God’s grace would be brought out the gate and rub off. It was the only hope he had.

40 years old
An additional 20 years have passed and the man with bad feet, now 40 years old, was still sitting next to the big bronze gate of the temple, the one everyone called “beautiful”. He hoped that somehow someone would give what he truly needed. He didn’t need money. Rather, what he needed was a little touch of God’s grace. 

One day he heard a remarkable story. A rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. He was known as a great teacher and healer. The rumor going around town was that a man with bad feet, who had been sitting next to the pool of Bethzatha for years, had been healed by Jesus. What great news! This is what the man with bad feet had been waiting for, a little of God’s grace.

But no sooner had this good new reached his he heard that the rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus had been arrested and died on a cross. And with Jesus, all of the hopes of the man with bad feet were buried in a tomb.

A little touch of God’s Grace
Jesus’ apostles, Peter and John, went to the temple every day for evening prayers. The temple offered continuous sacrifices twice each day. The first was at daybreak. Then, nine hours later at around 3pm, they would have the evening sacrifices. John and Peter usually came to these sacrifices for prayer. Day after day they would enter through a large bronze gat that everyone called “beautiful” never noticing the middle-aged man with bad feet sitting next to the gate.

This man was lovingly brought there each day to sit next to the gate hoping that someone somehow would give him what he really needed, a little bit of God’s grace. But day after day everyone just ignored this man with bad feet. So he just sat there and waited.

Then one day Peter and John came to the temple and were about to pass through the Beautiful gate. Peter’s eyes had been opened by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He saw the world in a new way. Now he noticed people in need, like the man with bad feet sitting next to the gate. So he went over to the man with the bad feet.

The man didn’t know who Peter was. He had been there for so long. Few people ever came over to talk. Those who did usually gave him a few coins as charity. But rarely did anyone talk with him. Rarely did anyone want to know him or to help find what he really needed.

But Peter with the help of the Holy Spirit saw the man as few others did. He stared right at him for a few moments and was filled for compassion for the man, realizing his deep need. And Peter knew why this man came to the temple every day. He wanted to be touched by God’s grace. So Peter reached down and grabbed his hand. Peter had been a fisherman all of his life. He used his powerful arms and hands to reach over the side of the boat and pull in a net filled with fish.  Jesus had told him that one day he would the fisher of people. And this day, Peter reached down with those powerful arms and hands and pulled up the man with bad feet.

Peter realized that with the coming of the Holy Spirit everything has changed. God was no longer just in the temple. No more did someone have to enter the temple to find God. In the Holy Spirit, God had left the temple to come directly to his people. God no longer will wait for us to make ourselves holy before we can enter into his presence. Rather he comes to us as we are in our brokenness and sin. The Holy Spirit prepares us with Christ’s holiness. So clothed in Christ we are ready to meet God.

As soon as Peter grabbed the man his bad feet began to heal. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied centuries before, God created flesh and muscle and ligaments on the dry bones. For the first time in his life, the man was able to stand. And he did what he always wanted to do. He walked through the big bronze gate everyone called “beautiful”. The man’s joy was intense and leaped into the air with joy. The man who used to have bad feet jumped and danced and praised God for everything God had done.

The people in the temple were amazed, astonished, bewildered by all they had seen. Here was the man who had sat outside the gate with bad feet for as long as anyone could remember. And now he was healed, jumping for joy and praising God for this great gift. Five thousand people saw with there own eyes this miracle of God.

Miracles
But we as modern people have a hard time believing this story. We have told over and over again that miracles do not happen. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, we have believed that science can give us answers to all questions. If we just give the scientists enough time and enough resources they can find natural causes for everything that happens. Belief in science is an element of faith for modern people.

The church has been divided as to how to handle this scientific world view. Most Christians believe that miracles do not happen now. Some accept that miracles did happen in Jesus’ time but stopped once the New Testament was written. Others look at the miracles in the Bible as just helpful myths. But I believe that we have been too quick to throw out the idea of miracles. Just because science has been very successful in finding natural explanations for things does not mean that miracles do not happen. In fact, there are many things that science just cannot answer. Let me give you an example.

Contemporary Miracle
Several years ago a dear friend of mine was not feeling well. She went to the doctor to see what was wrong. He found that she suffered from extremely high blood pressure. It was so high she was in danger of a stroke. So she was put on blood pressure medicine. But it didn’t work. The doctor changed the prescription.  But this one did not work any better. So my friend went to the hospital for a complete set of tests to see what was wrong. While in the hospital the doctors discovered a lump on her breast. It was an early form of breast cancer. As soon as the diagnosis of breast cancer was made her blood pressure went to normal.

The doctors were amazed and astonished. They had no explanation for what had happened. To their scientific minds, it did not make sense. But they celebrated the great joy of their patient who was relieved to finally know what was wrong. My friend strongly believes that her high blood pressure was a sign from God that helped the doctors to find cancer while it was still treatable. My friend is happy and healthy today. Her cancer is in complete remission. And she is extremely thankful for all that God had done for her. Miracles do happen today. We just have to look for them with the eyes of Pentecost.

Of course, not everyone will experience a miracle. Many people suffer from chronic diseases and disabilities. Sadly, many prayers for healing have been left unanswered. Not everyone will be cured. But we are comforted by the fact that God knows what we really need and genuinely desires our well being. We will be provided with a little touch of God’s grace.

The Lord’s Supper
So why do we come Sunday after Sunday to church? Why do we sit here on Sunday morning when we could be at Starbucks reading the paper, or on a golf course or at the beach? My guess is that there is something that we really, really need. That is why we come to this table. No longer do we have to sit outside the gate. Rather God has invited us here to his own table, which some call “beautiful”, to receive what we really need, a little bit of God’s grace. Amen.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Sermon Acts 2:1-13 “What Difference Does It Make”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Delaware City Presbyterian Church
Sermon Acts 2:1-13 “What Difference Does It Make”
June 9, 2019

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  For Israelites, two thousand years ago, this was the festival of first fruits.   The vegetables planted fifty days ago are ripening on the vine and the first of these are ready to be eaten.   So the people would gather to thank God for this blessing.   And they would open a scroll and read the story of God’s blessing to their ancestors when Moses ascended a mountain to receive the 10 commandments. 

Our story begins with Jesus’ disciples, both men, and women, waiting in an upper room.   We will get to what happens next and ask the question “What difference does it make?”.  But first, let’s pray.

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy Heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification. Amen.” (John Calvin)

For forty days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Jesus prepared his disciples for their own ministries.   When this period of preparation was complete Jesus gave them their mission.   He told them to do this.

Acts 1:8 “... You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus has promised that they will receive the power that is needed for them to tell others about what they had seen and heard.   They will be witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and mission.   And the Holy Spirit will empower them to do what God wants them to do.   They will be evangelists and through them, a global church will be born.  But Jesus also said something surprising.

4 … “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

Jesus told them to wait.  Wait?   Why wait?  Jesus has been with them for years.   He has been preparing them for forty days.   Jesus is ready to ascend to heaven.  Why not bring in the Holy Spirit right now?  Why wait?  I think the reason Jesus had them wait was so that they could see what church would be like without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  And then they would see what church would be like with this empowerment.   And then they would understand, “What difference does the Holy Spirit make?”

So, let take a look at what the church is like before the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled ...
23 …  They nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” 26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

  So before the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the church engaged in prayer, listened to Peter preach and teach from scripture, and held a congregational meeting to elect officers.   All this sound pretty familiar.   This is what the church does today.   We engage in fellowship, worship, prayer and Bible study.   We have meetings and elections.   We do everything the earliest church did before the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  But we are not empowered to be witnesses to our faith in Jesus Christ to this community.  Let’s go back to scripture.

Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

This is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that Jesus has promised.   Luke tries to describe if with figurative language, “violent wind”, “tongues of fire”.   And he tells us of the effect of the empowerment.  Christians can talk about Jesus Christ and people will understand it and respond. 

What difference did the Holy Spirit make in the church?    Before the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the church engaged in fellowship, worship, prayer, and Bible study.  They had meetings and elected officers.   But now, with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, they can do what Jesus told them to do.  They can be witnesses of Jesus, his ministry and mission, in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world.

We can see the empowerment of Holy Spirit at work in the Apostle Peter.  Fifty days before the empowerment of the Holy Spirit Peter was unable to be a witness.  On the night of Jesus’ arrest, on three occasions, Peter had an opportunity to give his testimony.  But this happened. 

Luke 22:55 … Some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. 56 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”
57 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.
58 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”
“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.
59 About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”
60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

So fifty days before his empowerment by the Holy Spirit, Peter was unable to witness to his faith in Jesus Christ.   But fifty days later, all that changed.

Acts 2:14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 
22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

What difference does the empowerment of the Holy Spirit make to a church?   Without this empowerment, all we can do is have fellowship, worship, prayer, Bible studies, meetings, and elections.    That’s it.  With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we have the extraordinary ability to witness to others, bringing them to faith. 

What about Delaware City church?  I know you have fellowship, worship, prayer, Bible studies, meetings, and elections.   But have you been empowered by the Holy Spirit?  Do you have the ability to go today and tell others, here is Delaware City, about your faith in Jesus Christ bringing them to faith?  Or are you waiting for the empowerment that Jesus has promised?

After Jesus’ ascension to heaven his disciples, both men and women went back to the upper room and engaged in constant prayer.   They prayed for Jesus’ promise to be realized.   They prayed for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that would allow them to do what Jesus told them to do.   They prayed for the Spirit’s power to go into the community, share their faith, and bring people to faith in Christ.  And those prayers were answered.

What if Delaware City Church engaged in constant prayer too?   What if we prayed for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit?  What if we prayed for the ability to share the testimony of our faith with others?  What if we prayed for the ability to bring others to faith?  I think that the Holy Spirit would come upon us and we would have the ability to go into our community telling people about Jesus and bringing them to faith.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, your church is waiting for the empowerment of your Holy Spirit.  We ask that the Spirit come upon us and empower us to do what you have told us to do.   Empower us to go into our community and tell others about our faith in Jesus Christ.   Empower us to bring others to faith.    In Jesus’ name, we pray all of this.  Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Sermon 2 Kings 2:1-18 "Elijah - A Double Portion of Spirit"

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
New Covenant Presbyterian Church
Sermon 2 Kings 2:1-18 "Elijah - A Double Portion of Spirit"
June 2, 2019

Listen to this sermon.

This is my final sermon in my series on the life of the prophet Elijah.   Last week we heard God’s instructions to Elijah from atop Mt. Horeb.  God told his prophet to begin the process that will lead to the downfall of the Omri dynasty of the Kingdom of Israel.  As part of that, Elijah was instructed to anoint Elisha as the Prophet of Israel.

Two weeks ago we talked about Elijah’s name.   In Hebrew it is Eli-yah, “My God is Yahweh”.      Elisha’s name in Hebrew is Eli-shua, “My God is the Savior”.  Let’s do a mental exercise.   Combine in your minds the last syllable of Elijah name, “yah” with the last syllable of Elisha’s name, “shua”.   “Yah-shua”.   Hold that name in your minds.  “Yah-shua”.

Nine centuries after Elijah an angel came to a young woman named Mary.   He told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would conceive and bear a son.   And she would call this son, in Hebrew, “Yah-shua”.   “Yah-shua” means “Yahweh is the savior”.  It is a combination of the final syllables in the name Eli-yah and Eil-shua, Elijah and Elisha.   And when “Yah-shua” is spoken in English we say, Jesus.  So Jesus’ name is a combination of the names Elijah and Elisha and means “Yahweh is the savior”.   Let’s pray to Yah-shua, Jesus. 

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy Heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification. Amen.” (John Calvin)

God told Elijah to anoint his successor, Elisha.  Here is what happened.

1 Kings 19:19 So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him.

The whole community has gathered.  My guess is that Elijah has come to pray and bless them in the coming growing season.  Twelve pair of oxen have been yoked to plows.  After the prayer, twelve farmers each takes one pair of oxen out into the field to begin work.   Eleven farmers pass by Elijah and receive his blessing.  But when the twelfth farmer passes Elijah, the prophet removes his cloak and places it on the farmer.

Elijah’s cloak was a camel skin overcoat with a leather belt worn in cold weather.   It became associated with Elijah’s ministry so much that when people heard that a prophet was coming wearing a camel skin cloak with a leather belt they knew it was Elijah.   Wearing a cloak like this became the symbol of being a prophet.  Nine centuries later, John the Baptist wore a camel skin cloak with a leather belt indicating that he had come as a prophet like Elijah.   By putting this cloak on Elisha, Elijah was anointing him as new the Prophet of Israel.
But Elisha was not so sure that he wanted to be a prophet.   

20 Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”
This is clearly a delaying tactic.  Elisha wants to go home and talk this over with his parents.   Elijah is clearly annoyed at this but he lets Elisha go home to say goodbye to his family and village. 

“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”
21 So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.

Elisha had a great feast to say goodbye to family and friends and then followed Elijah.   This began a season of preparation as Elijah taught Elisha how to be a prophet.  We don’t how long this lasted, but eventually, Elisha was ready,  and it was time for Elijah to leave.

2 Kings 2:1 When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.

So, the two prophets are traveling together and we know that it is time for Elijah to leave and go to heaven in a whirlwind.  But Elisha does not want Elijah to go away.

2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”  But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
Poor Elisha!  He does not want his spiritual mentor to leave.  So they continue walking together all the way to Bethel.

3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”
4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”
And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

Other prophets have come to Elisha.   They told him that the time had come for Elijah to leave.  They told Elisha that he would now be the prophet of Israel.  But Elisha didn’t want to hear any of this.  He wanted Elijah to remain.  So Elijah again to Elisha to stay behind but Elisha refused.  Elisha followed his mentor all the way to Jericho.

5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”
And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on.
The prophets of Jericho have told Elisha that this is the day.   Elijah is leaving you today.   You should stay here and let him go.  But again Elisha will hear none of this and continues to follow his mentor.

7 Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

Elijah takes his cloak, the camel hair overcoat, symbol of his prophetic identity, and uses it to part the waters just as Moses did when he used Arron’s rod to part the Red Sea.  And like Moses and the Hebrews, Elijah and Elisha crossed on dry ground.   Then they had their final conversation.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”

The firstborn son of an Israelite inherits a double portion of his father’s assets.    Elisha is asking Elijah to treat him as his son.   Elijah has no earthly possessions, except a camel hair coat.  But what Elijah does have in abundance is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  Elisha is asking for a double share of Elijah spiritual gifts.  Although this is a hard thing to promise Elijah says it will happen if Elisha watches what happens next.

11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them.

Elisha can walk with Elijah no more.   God has intervened by sending a tank, a fiery chariot,  to separate them just as God sent the flaming swords to prevent Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden.  And then this happens.

11b and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.  12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.

Elisha is experiencing great grief.  He has lost his spiritual mentor, father, and friend.   Elijah is gone for good until Jesus has a committee meeting on the Mount of Transfiguration.  But for Elijah and Elisha, this is the end of the road.   Elisha will go forward alone. 

No!  Elisha is not alone.   He has a double portion of the Holy Spirit who will comfort him and empower him to do what God wants him to do.

13 Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

Just as God parted the Jordan River to allow Joshua and the Hebrews to enter the Promised Land so too is that river parted to allow Elisha to begin his ministry as the Prophet of Israel.

This is my last Sunday with you as Interim Pastor.  I have been with you for over two years.   My call to this church was to prepare you for the coming of a new pastor.   That work is complete.  Beginning next Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Carol Fisher will be in this pulpit.   God is taking me away to some other call.  I don’t think we will be seeing a whirlwind today.   Like Elijah, I won’t be here anymore.  My prayer is that you, New Covenant Church, like Elisha will inherit a double portion of God’s Holy Spirit.   With this, you will be comforted in parting with me and empowered to accomplish God’s mission here in Middletown, Delaware.   Let’s pray.

Father in heaven, pour down your blessings on New Covenant Church.   Bless them with spiritual growth as each of them grow into the stature of Christ.  Bless them with numerical growth as they welcome to this church people moving into the new homes being built.   And bless them with the resources and facilities needed to make this church effective in reaching this community for Christ.   I whose name we pray.   Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Sermon 1 Kings 19:10-21 “Elijah - Zealous for the Lord”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
New Covenant Presbyterian Church
Sermon 1 Kings 19:10-21 “Elijah - Zealous for the Lord”
May 26, 2019

Listen to this sermon.

This is my second in a series of sermons drawn from the life of the Prophet Elijah.   Elijah was called by God to deal with a problem King and Queen, Ahab and Jezebel.   They were so terrible God had to send the greatest prophet he had to try to bring them to repentance.   Today we will see what happened, but first, let’s pray.

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy Heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification. Amen.” (John Calvin)

Ahab and Jezebel were the worst king and queen ever. 

1 Kings 16:29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years. 30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. 31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him.

So, here we have a problem king.   Ahab has turned his whole country away from God.   He has them worshiping Baal, the god of nature, and Asherah, the goddess of sexuality.   God will do something about this.   God will give Ahab the opportunity to repent and return to Him. 

As we saw last week God sent the prophet Elijah to Ahab to propose a test.   This test would be to see which god, Baal, the god of nature, or Yahweh, the God of Israel, answers prayer.  And in a most spectacular way, Elijah proved that only Yahweh, the God of Israel, answers prayer. 

King Ahab, King of Israel saw all of this.   Certainly, he repented and returned to the God of Israel.  Right?   Well, no.  Ahab did not turn from the gods of nature and sexuality.   He did not return to God.   Rather, he turned to his wife, Queen Jezebel.

1 Kings 19:1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

Jezebel could have killed Elijah if she wanted to.   She could have sent her army and they would have returned with his head.  But she didn’t.   She didn’t want to kill Elijah because that would turn him into a martyr.   And martyr can be very dangerous to a king.   So what she did was what tyrants always do.   She intimidated him.   Jezebel wanted Elijah to be so afraid of her that he would no longer bother them with prophecies.   And her intimidation worked.   Elijah was scared to death.

3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

Elijah was so afraid he ran away and gave up.  He got out of Israel as fast as he could, fired his assistant, and went a days journey into the desert without food and water to die. 

God needs courageous prophets.  But Elijah’s courage had failed.  Elijah needs some encouragement.  So God dispatched an angel.

5b All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank.

God started his encouragement of Elijah by preparing him physically.   God made sure that Elijah had enough sleep and plenty to eat because there was something big God wanted Elijah to do.

 8b Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

When you see the number 40 in the Bible remember that it always refers to a time of preparation.    Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the 10 Commandments from God.   The Israelites wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land.   Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry.   The forty days and nights Elijah spent on a journey was preparing him to take on Ahab and Jezebel.    The purpose of these forty days was to give Elijah the courage he needed to bring about reform in Israel.  And this courage would be tested on Mt. Horeb.  Mt. Horeb is the mountain of God when Moses had received the 10 Commandments.   On this mountain, Elijah’s courage will be tested. 

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

Was Elijah afraid of the hurricane?  No.   Was Elijah afraid of the earthquake?  No.   Was Elijah afraid of the fire? No.   Did Elijah run away and give up after any of these?  No!  Elijah’s courage has been restored.   And he is ready to receive God’s instructions.

12b And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.

Now we know how Yahweh, God of Israel will deal with Ahab and Jezebel, King and Queen of Israel.   God has demonstrated his power to his king with a draught, but Ahab refused to repent.   So now God will remove the Omri Dynasty from the throne of Israel.   Elijah will anoint Jehu to lead a revolution that will topple the king.  He will be assisted by Hazael, the King of Aram.  And they will have a prophet to lead them, Elisha.  This is God’s plan to deal with the evil king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel.   They will lose their thrones because they led the people astray toward the gods of nature and sexuality. 

This is a warning to all those in power who seek to lead people away from God.   Anyone who leads a nation toward the worship of nature and sexuality risks losing their power to an angry God.

We Christian must be courageous.  We must proclaim the truth no matter the cost.  We must constantly call people back to the one true God, whom we know as Jesus Christ.   God will encourage us through our spiritual practices of worship, prayer and Bible study. 

Elijah never saw the end of the Omri dynasty.   He was gone before the revolution.   But he knew that through his courage he was helping implement God’s plan for the world.  So too with us.   If we act courageously to witness to God’s amazing love and call people to faith the fruits of what we do may not be known in our lifetimes.   But rest assured that God is using your courageous work to bring his glorious plan into fruition.   Let’s pray.

Father in heaven we thank you for the courage you give us.   Help us to hold fast to your truth and proclaim it to a world hungry to hear it.   This we pray in Jesus’ name.   Amen.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Sermon 1 Kings 18 “Elijah - A Wonderful Life”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
New Covenant Presbyterian Church
Sermon 1 Kings 18 “A Wonderful Life”
May 19, 2019

Listen to this sermon.

I am beginning today a three-part sermon series on the life of the prophet Elijah.

Earlier this week I received an email from the Trump campaign asking me to support them by purchasing a MAGA hat.   MAGA stands for Make America Great Again, this is the slogan for the Trump campaign.   If you wear a MAGA hat in public you are making a political statement that you support the president.   But be warned that if you do this, other people who do not support Trump may be offended by your hat.   And this can cause problems for you.

We see this sort of thing going all the way back to the ninth century before Christ.   The people of Israel had abandoned the God of their ancestors.   Instead, they worshiped the gods of nature and sexuality.    A prophet came forward to challenge them.   And his name produced the same reaction a MAGA hat might produce today.   The prophet’s name was Elijah.   This is a Hebrew name meaning “Yahweh is God”.  So every time his name was spoken he challenged the worship of nature and sexuality and called people back to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel.  Some people, especially the king and queen, were offended by Elijah’s name.  We will get to this, but first, let’s pray.   

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy Heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification. Amen.” (John Calvin)

I would like to talk about two movies which I think will illustrate an important change that has taken place in Western culture. 

The movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, came out in 1946.   The lead character was George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart.    George had a life-long dream to travel the world.  But time and again circumstances, including the divine interruption by an angel, blocked his ability to travel.  The caused great distress in George.   But by the end of the movie, George realized that he had been richly blessed by God with faith, family, and friends.   He truly had A Wonderful Life.

Now let’s fast forward to 2010 and the movie Eat Pray and Love.   This movie was based on the memoirs of the author Elizabeth Gilbert.   The lead character, Liz, was played by Julia Roberts.  Liz, like George Bailey, had a life-long dream to travel the world.   And like George Bailey, she had a husband, a home, and a career that prevented her from traveling.   But unlike George Bailey, Liz Gilbert decided that nothing could stop her.  So she divorced her husband, quit her job, left her home, and began world travel.   As the title suggests, she ate exotic foods, sampled the spiritual practices of the world’s religions, and fell in love with several different men.   I wouldn’t call this a wonderful life.

What happened between 1946 and 2010?  Our culture changed.   We abandoned the institutional church.   We abandoned the Christian faith.   We abandoned Judeo-Christian morality.   And we have begun worshiping nature and sexuality.   So let’s hear from the prophet Elijah.

1 Kings 18:21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.

The people of Elijah’s day had no answer to his question.    They had no idea why they had abandoned the God of their ancestors.   They couldn’t explain why they worshiped Baal, the god of nature.  And they didn’t know why they worshiped Asherah, the goddess of sexuality. 

And we don’t know either.   Why do we value material things so intensely?  Why do we engage in unlimited sexual activity with anyone, anywhere at any time?   Why have we let our culture abandon God?   We can’t answer this.   So let’s go back to Elijah.

23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

Elijah has proposed a test.    They will set up an altar to worship the gods of nature and sexuality.   Elijah will set up an altar to worship God.   And we will see which one works.

I suggest that this sounds like a pretty good test.   We, the church, will worship God and obey what God tells us to do in scripture.   Everyone else can worship nature and sexuality all they want.   Then we will see who lives a wonderful life.

 We will live lives full of faith, family, and friends.   They will live a life of things and casual sexual experiences.   Who will have a better life?   We will see.

 Let’s get back to our story.

25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered.
     
They tried.  They asked the god of nature to send the lightning they needed to start the fire.   But there was no response, no answer.
That’s what happens when we turn to the gods of nature and sexuality.  They destroy our faith, family, and friendships.  They are powerless to give us what we really need.   What we need is a God that will answer us when we call.  We need a God who, if we follow, will bless us richly.  Let’s go back to our story.

And they danced around the altar they had made.  27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

The gods of nature and sexuality don’t care about you.  They don’t want you to have a good life.   They are offering you fools gold.  They are trying to trick you into giving up your blessings.  They want you to worry that if we don’t do something the world will die in twelve years.   They want you to give up the blessing of marriage and family and engage in mindless sex.   They have no answers to the problems you face.  Why would you follow them? Let’s see what Elijah has to say.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs[a] of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “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 and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Elijah is calling the people back to worship the one true God, the God of their ancestors, the God who answers our prayers.   Elijah has asked God to demonstrate his faithfulness to people again.  And he has asked God to fill his people with faith so that they will turn away from the gods of nature and sexuality and return to faith, family, and friends.   He wants God to give them a wonderful life.

This is my prayer for you today, that God will demonstrate his love for you and give you a wonderful life.   Let’s see if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob answers Elijah’s prayer.

38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

They cried out Elijah, Elijah, Yahweh is God!  Yahweh is God!  Oh, that all of us would experience this, that we would see God working in our lives, that we would turn away from the gods of nature and sexuality, and embrace the true God who made us and wants us to have the blessings of faith, family and friends, a wonderful life.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we confess that you are God.  We have turned from you to worship nature and sexuality.   We now desire to return to you.   And we ask for blessings of faith, family, and friends.   We ask for a wonderful life.  In your son’s name.  Amen.