As we get back into The Story this morning, we find ourselves with the theme of messages and messengers.
You’ll remember that God chose his people, not for their own sake, but so that all the nations of earth could come to know the one true God; that Israel should be a light to enlighten the nations, a city on a hill with lamps burning brightly to draw in all those who are lost and wandering.
God gave them that opportunity, to be part of his amazing plan.
But, you’ll remember, they wavered back and forth. They’d trust for a bit, they’d rely on God to get them through some incredibly difficult situation, but then they’d slam on the brakes.
They’d trust in God to do the impossible, but they’d give up trusting as soon as they could: He’d lead them through a famine, but they’d not trust him in the regular seasons of planting and harvest; He’d lead them through the raging waters, but they wouldn’t trust him to provide food the next day; He’d defend them and fight for them when they were hugely outnumbered by a well-trained army, but they won’t trust him with the everyday faithfulness of learning to love their neighbours as themselves.
And so the great nation of Israel brought together under King David was divided. And to be clear, it was no accident: it was God’s doing as he sought to wake his people up and draw them back to himself.
It’s brutal to read: they cry out to God in the hard times, but once things start to get easy, they forget God again; and so God removes his blessing, and they find themselves facing hard times again and wondering where to turn.
But here’s the incredible part: even when God removes his blessing and protection, God never abandons them. Even when they’ve become so deaf to God’s still, small voice, God will send human messengers to speak those challenging words and call his people back.
Now, here’s the question. Do you think God still does that today?
We live in a time that looks a lot like Israel under King Ahab. We trust in money, we’re distracted by the big stories of things beyond our borders rather than caring for those at home; we prize the fulfilment of the individual over creating a community that seeks the common good, and while we don’t call them Ashtoreth or Baal anymore, we’re a very much living in a time that worships beauty and power.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 95% of our neighbours only think of God when tragedy strikes, or when they take his name in vain in anger: seriously, if you added up the attendance at all three churches in town this morning, all three of us together make up less than 5% of Fort Smith.
It’s not unlike Israel in the days of Elijah, when only 7000 – just a tiny fraction of the population – were found to be trusting in God.
And yet, the message of it all is that God sends that faithful few to call his people back; God doesn’t abandon his people, even if we do experience the painful consequences of years of going our own way and trusting in our own plans, and giving in to that need to slam on the brakes before each new act of faithfulness.
But again, here’s the big question: Do you think God still sends messengers to call his people back?
Being a church member has changed.
40 years ago, you could sit on the sidelines, knowing there were a faithful few who would step up to do the work of ministry; to do the work of learning to lead, of learning to meet people where they are, of learning to trust God to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know how to do.
But those days are over. There is no place on the sidelines, because we are the faithful few who are left.
My friends, whether or not we signed up for it, we are like Elijah: look around, think through your family, friends, and neighbours. Who will the Lord send to call his people back?
Elijah said “I’m the only one left”; and isn’t that true in your circle of friends, too?
And no, it’s not something we would ever sign up for – certainly Elijah didn’t either – but think about it: who else would God call to minister to that circle of friends? You’re already perfectly positioned for the task.
The Work of a Prophet
There’s a lot of confusion about prophecy. The general understanding of most people is that a prophet is a fortune-teller, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The work of a prophet is to call people back to God, and to do so by both their words and the example of their own life.
And it is real work, though it looks different for each person. Like I said, the days of a place on the sidelines are gone, there’s no comfortable pews left to sit on. If we look at our reading from First John this morning, we’ll see that the key word there is “walk”; we can’t just sit in the light, but we will be called to move forward in faith, even if we can’t work out where the next step might land us. It’s one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting that God will work all things together for good, in spite of our fears.
And central with that is the second half of that little reading: we must not “deceive ourselves”, but are called to be honest and quick to confess those times when we’ve been proud or scared or self-reliant or maybe just a little too comfortable (and I’ll be the first to admit that I have fallen into those categories too!).
…now I know what you might be thinking. That’s nice… but I’m worn out.
Yes! Amen. Hallelujah. Let’s be honest about that. I’d say we’re not really worn out, but we are worn down. This has gone on long enough, and if you honestly stop and look around this little congregation, these faithful few, it’s heartbreaking: how many families in this room don’t have some real burden to bear?
And I’m willing to bet that, any family that you look at and can’t name their burden, it’s not because they don’t have one.
We are worn down.
But, my friends, there’s good news there too, also because we find ourselves in a position much like the prophet Elijah.
Do you remember from your reading this weekend?
Elijah was worn down. He had delivered his message, and now he feared for his life.
What did he do next?
Did he say some spiritual-sounding words? Did he give himself a little pep talk? Did he tell himself to suck it up, put on a happy face, and pretend everything is alright?
No, not at all! What did he do?
He got away from the noise, he went to be alone with God, and he was honest. Brutally honest. He poured out his heart. He said “Lord, I’m fed up; I’m done with this; I wish I would die.”
But God met him where he was. And, miraculously, God gave him the rest and refreshment he needed. Seriously, re-read it when you go home: God gave him not one, but two naps, and when he woke up, there was a fresh loaf of bread waiting for him to eat.
And then God told him the truth: no, Elijah, these are not easy times. And yes, what I’m asking you to do is hard. I’ll go with you, but I need you to walk forward in faith, one step at a time; we can’t sit where we are, because I have a plan: that my people will be a light to enlighten the nations, that all people would have the opportunity to trust in the one true God, and I want you to be part of that plan.
God has blessed this church – but not for our sake.
God has blessed each of us – but not for our sake.
God has blessed us to be a blessing, for I’m willing to bet, as you look at your neighbours, as we look at our town, we’ll find ourselves in the place of Elijah: “Lord, I’m the only one left who knows you.”
But God is in the business of revealing himself. All we have to do is trust him, to be faithful in each opportunity, to be honest with ourselves and with God, and to be willing to follow, even when we’re not sure where that next step will lead.
One thing is sure: God has called us according to his purpose, and he will never abandon those who walk by faith rather than by sight.
To God be the glory, now and forevermore. Amen.
The Renewal of Baptismal Vows
My friends, I want you to think seriously about this covenant.
You’ve made these vows before, dozens of times, but it’s important we don’t take them lightly.
These are vows that you’re making before God and his Church, and we really are the faithful remnant, as the three churches in this town are a tiny fraction of Fort Smith. And God’s plan is that we invite our neighbours in.
So take a moment to read these vows before I ask you to renew them, especially that third one that has proven so difficult for the church through the decades: “will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?”.
Read them now, and if you’re willing to make them, please remain standing.