“Are We Listening”
February 12th, 2017
Elijah the Tishbite is running from the law. Queen Jezebel has killed hundreds of the prophets and King Ahab has sent the army out looking for Elijah. Elijah appears like a fugitive out of nowhere, running here, hiding there, and taking refuge from King Ahab and his Phoenician Queen Jezebel. We know little about Elijah’s background but Elijah engages in a dramatic battle with King Ahab’s throne. Why is the king seeking Elijah’s life? Elijah prophesied a three year drought directly challenging Ahab and Jezebel who worship a false-god of storms, Baal. When Elijah walks past the guards alone into Ahab’s Palace, the king greets Elijah, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
Ponder that title- troubler of Israel. How long we would endure a pastor who the governor slanders as “troubler of Tennessee”? We like our preachers to avoid sermons on money, and politics. Yet, over and over the Old Testament prophets call down judgement on the King. Indeed, God never wanted a king for Israel but longed for them to be a righteous people living holy lives as a nation of priests. (1 Samuel 8 and Exodus 19:4)
Is that you, you of troubler of Israel? In a time of national uncertainty, division, and trouble, is the Word of the Lord troubling you? Does the Spirit stir us? Do the commandments poke us? Do we welcome troubling sermons that shake us up, challenging our ways of thinking? Do we listen to Paul’s instruction to “take captive every thought to Christ”? (2 Corinthians 10:5)
In his book “Not a Fan”, Pastor Kyle Idleman shares how a church member left the church by email, offering his reason for leaving as “I don’t like Kyle’s sermons.” So a little ticked off, Pastor Kyle called the man up and said, “hey I hear you are leaving the church because you don’t like my sermons.” Pastor Kyle asked a few probing questions and the man, stumbling around a bit, said, “well whenever I listen to your messages I feel like you are trying to interfere with my life.” Preaching should interfere with our lives. Preaching should interfere with our commerce, our voting, our Facebook posting or snap-chatting, our conversations, our interactions, our relations, and our families. If we deeply hear the Word of God, it often troubles us!
Is that you oh troubler of Israel? Elijah answers the King: “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18). With the Queen systematically killing the prophets, Elijah roars at the king unafraid even to lose his life. Elijah lives, for he knows “we must lose our life in order to find it” (Matthew 16:25). What is extraordinary is not so much that Elijah challenges the king, who can cut off his head with a wave of his hand, but that Israel looks to this challenge as a bedrock national value, recording in annuals that became Kings! The power of the prophetic Word always matters more than the power of any throne. For power resides with God. Enduring power flows from righteousness (doing the right thing), justice (treating others fairly), goodness (empathy in action) and love (redemptive goodwill for all people). That kind of soul-force power endures and changes everything. As the Gospel song goes, “kings and kingdoms will all pass away”, becoming names we struggle to barely pronounce, but the Love, Faithfulness, and Word of the Lord endures forever (Psalm 118:2 or 1 Peter 1:25). The Lord is King. The Lord is the Lawgiver. The Lord is our only savior! The Lord is the Judge of every law, life, action and inaction. (Isaiah 33)
Is that you oh troubler of Israel? Why did God care about the Baals enough to send a life disrupting drought and call down judgement on the King? The Scripture mentions a jealous god, but I think the prophets fierce preaching against false Baal finds roots in the nature of Baal worship more than ascribing a poetic human attribute like jealousy to God. You see, when King Ahab married the Phoenician princess Jezebel, he built a temple to Baal in Israel (1 Kings 16). Archeologists have found the remains of babies sacrificed to the so-called Storm-god in the foundations of false temples. Our Holy Father so deeply values life that such a profanity of worship stirs God to action. Baal worship becomes a holy soundbite for a nation forgetting God.
In due season, whether by direct divine action or a slow unwinding of national morality, the nation falls apart. So 150 years after Elijah challenges the unprincipled immorality of King Ahab, 2 Kings 17 tells of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Listen for the warning.
The Assyrian King invaded and laid siege for three years. Assyria defeated Israel and carried the Israelites away as slaves, because Israel sinned against the Lord, forgetting the Lord who freed them from Egyptian slavery. They worshiped false gods and walked and sought to be like other powers and kings. They served idols, even though the Lord warned them, “You shall not do this.” The Lord warned Israel by every prophet and every preacher, saying, “Turn from your evil and keep my commandments.” They would not listen, being stiff-necked and stubborn. They despised God’s covenant, laws, and warnings. They followed false idols and became false. They sold themselves. They even served Baal: making their sons and their daughters pass through fire, until God cast them out of his presence. (2 Kings 17)
Is that you troubler of Israel? Do we welcome sermons interfering with our lives, our politics, our business, and our family life? Do we worship false things and become false? Do we seek power and popularity or live for principles and people? The ancient Israelites got so off kilter they passed their babies through the fire. And so with the moral glue coming apart the Assyrian King laid siege and enslaved the nation. The writer tells us the God who divided the Red Sea now watched as the Chosen People are once again enslaved and stand weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Even though the preachers and prophets never stopped warning the people and kings to do justice, live righteously and govern within God’s eternal ethical commandments and principles, the nation failed to hear! The Chosen People never chose to live as “a nation of priests” mediating God’s grace and goodness to others. (Exodus 19:4)
Sometimes I want to roar like Elijah, but perhaps I fear that such preaching might mean needing to hide in a cave like Elijah or being tossed into a well like Jeremiah. Perhaps, I know I have been duped by many platforms, parties and politicians. I also know that policy matters are complicated. For example, Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”, and some of the commandments Israel ignored protected resident aliens living inside their land (Mathew 25). “The same law applies to both the native-born and the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49). With more laws than any nation on earth, the application of eternal ethics to the national scene is not always easy or straight-forward. It may be a rationalization to not-speak out, but I wonder if my roaring about Jesus’ words would fall deaf upon our ears? After all: “The Lord warned Israel by every prophet and every preacher, saying: ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments. They would not listen but were stiff-necked and stubborn.”
Theresa, next week you become the preacher at Pelham UMC. Pastoring is a great joy. Last week, an elementary student asked a question about Moses, we baptize a child today, we comforted a family in a time of grief yesterday, and we send someone off to preach in Pelham next week! Pastoring is an amazing privilege! Authentic, timely, courageous preaching is terrifying. Why should we preachers go through the trouble of troubling people? Why preach to a world that likely will not listen?
Why preach sermons that interfere with people’s lives, shaking them up? In Matthew 13, Jesus gives us the parable of the sower. As the farmer tosses the seeds, at least seventy-five percent of the preaching produces no results. The parable never names the preaching seed as defective- the listening ears are the problem. Twenty five percent of people simply will not “get it”, another quarter love going to heaven but reject any cost associated with the trip, and at least another quarter dies a slow spiritual death choked out by the deceitfulness of wealth. So why study all week, read, pray, edit and take a preaching risk? Well that last handful of seed somehow might find some good soil- some listening ears- and it might take root, sowing spiritual fruit that changes lives 30, 60 and 100 fold. And one day before the forever Judge “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Jesus adds “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Matthew 13:43
A little later in the passage, Jesus’ lament:
“Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.
With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 6) that says
‘You will listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown callous,
and their ears are stopped up, and they have shut their eyes;
Oh but if you would just open your eyes, listen with your ears,
and understand with your heart and turn—
and the Lord would heal you.”
Are we listening? Who are we listening to? How well do we see? How soft are our hearts? Maybe we need a little spiritual hearing test?
Are our hearts callous?
Do we ever rejoice in another person’s failure, suffering or hurt?
Do we welcome the stranger, bind up the wounded, and care for downtrodden?
Do we “so love the world?” (John 3:16)
Are we pure in heart, merciful, peacemakers, meek, poor in spirit? (Matthew 5)
Are we listening?
Do you listen for God’s still small voice or quickly quote already-marked Scriptures?
Do we know that “we only know in part”? (1 Corinthians 13)
When was the last time you changed your mind?
Do you listen to opposing views without needing to immediately formulate a defense?
Do you know “the tongue is restless evil- set afire by the passions of hell”? (James 3:8)
When you hear unwholesome words coming from your lips or fingertips do you repent and seek forgiveness from those who your words offended? (Ephesians 4:29)
Would you “rather be wrong than to give offense” to another? (1 Corinthians 6:7)
When did you last have a peaceful, kind, civil discussion about politics?
Do you hear your own tone? Would Jesus be proud of the things you say?
Are your eyes open?
Do you know any strangers? Did you welcome them? Get to know them? Eat with them?
Do you look for ways to make peace? (Romans 12:18)
When was the last time you saw oppression?
Do you overlook the failings of your politicians or hold them to the same standard as the other political side? (Matthew 7:12) Can a Christian really align with a party?
Do you love the other side- even if you count them as enemies? (Matthew 5:44)
If you just said, “yes I love the ‘___s’, but they are wrong.” Then if you are lucky enough to have someone say “I love you” on Valentine ’s Day, quickly respond to their sweet words with “Yes, but let me show you where and how you are wrong!” Love listens and sees!
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul challenges our trust in human knowledge. Paul proclaims: “we prophecy in part”, “we know in part”, and “we see in a mirror dimly.” The great Apostle Paul says “you don’t know everything.” Why do we act like we do? Jesus says rather matter of factly “a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:24) and yet we let divisive half-truths drip off our loud lips. Frankly, it worries me. What troubles me is that church people frankly are often divisive and bad listeners. This national division is killing us. We are so divided into partisan pockets and are so cocked sure of ourselves that we fail to listen to the other side, where God may speak to us as an angel unaware!
Pride proceeds a fall, for in deeply trusting in our politics, popularity, and market forces we recommit the sins of ancient Israel, forgetting to listen for God’s peace-bringing and deeply-troubling voice amid the partisan rancor. Confident we are right, we stop up our ears and shut our eyes to the other side. Spun up by professional partisan dividers and self-interested politicos, we forget God’s commandments that govern all human interactions.
Twice Jesus said, “All the law can be summed up by”, giving us 3 foundational rules!
1) “Love God” (Matthew 22:37-40). Love empowers us to live ethically, morally and justly.
2) “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-4). Jesus radically defines a neighbor as the one in need of mercy (Luke 10:29-37).
3) “Treat everyone in the way that you want to be treated.” That requires deep empathy, helping us identify with all people. (Matthew 7:12)
Oh friends, are we listening to God and each other? Will we push our division until we can no longer stand together? Will we open our ears to the cries of the oppressed? Will we love each other even in deep disagreement? Will we treat all people as we want to be treated? Will we let the Lord trouble us, shake us up, and change us… or do we think we are just fine? The Lord is our King. The Lord is our Judge!
Amid the threating midnight storm, Jesus calls us to action: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
Let us unstop our ears. Let us listen for God. Let us listen to others.
Let us open our eyes. And see the people God loves.
Let us live with God’s love that will soften our calloused hearts.
Let us turn and do what is right, loving and fair, and be healed.
Let us shine with love, wholeness speech and good deeds. Amen.