"Don't Look For Magic"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 24, 2001
Luke 8:26-39; I Kings 19:1-9, 11-15a
Through the ages people have tended to look to God as the powerful creator of the universe, a being whose power can be tapped anytime when life's alternatives appear impossible to negotiate. It is easy to look upon God as a source of magic, a being who can step into our lives when we believe we can no longer manage. Did God design creation in order to be the benevolent care-giver? Is this how God wishes to relate to us?
Jesus prayed that his life might be spared, but he added, "Not my will but thine be done," a statement that has led many to believe that it was God's will that Jesus be crucified. In fact, most of us have been taught this understanding since childhood. Because God did not intervene, writers through the ages have assumed that Jesus' death was the will of God. Was it?
Such an understanding becomes murky when we think of Andrea Yates, who willed the death of her five children this past week in Houston, Texas. In fact, she had thought about killing them for months. We cannot possibly put God into such a category; yet for centuries learned Christian theologians have done just that. Andrea was diagnosed as having postpartum psychosis. We have called God's act "A Divine Plan" for the salvation of all humankind. Try explaining that to a nine- year-old!
Such an understanding can only go so far until we remember the deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust, or we recall that eleven of Jesus' disciples died as martyrs for their faith. As with Jesus' crucifixion, God did not intervene in those circumstances either. Is God's lack of intervention a way we can discern God's will?
When we think about how to answer that question, particularly in the context of historical events, our theology may produce more questions than answers. Elijah's interaction with God may provide us with insights on how God's will can be known.
A number of you enjoy studying the origins of our faith so let us begin by setting the stage for Elijah's "awakening." Elijah was born 900 years before the birth of Jesus in a small community named Tishbe. The place was so insignificant that the town is never mentioned again in the Bible. Tishbe is located in Gilead, a very rugged area on the edge of the Arabian desert, east of the Jordan.
Elijah's ministry took place in the northern part of the divided Kingdom. Northern Israel and Judah to the south were warring factions. A man named Omri captured the throne of Israel and at last made peace with Judah. Biblical authors devoted only six verses to his reign and claim that he did more evil than all other kings before him. Secular historians, however, described him as one of Israel's most effective rulers. He came to power when Israel was in severe decline.
Omri initiated stability with Judah and cemented economic ties with Canaanite Phoenicia by arranging for his son, Ahab, to marry the Phoenician princess, Jezebel. Omri's decision brought a clash between two cultural religions, resulting in the Canaanite god, Baal, being placed on equal ground with the Hebrew God, Yahweh.
After Ahab ascended the throne of Israel, Jezebel poured great wealth into the shrines of Baal. She also had many priests of Yahweh banished or executed. Elijah was the only one left. He alone carried the standard for the Hebrew
traditions and beliefs. Elijah spoke with great boldness. He invited all of Israel to witness a final showdown between the gods Baal and Yahweh. Many of us remember that contest.
The 400 prophets of Baal prepared their sacrifice, as did Elijah. Elijah said, "Since there are so many of you, you take a bull and prepare it first. Pray that your god sets fire to the wood." The prophets of Baal prayed and danced around the altar for hours but no answer came. In the middle of the day Elijah began to make fun of them. He said,
No answer ever came from Baal.
Now it was Yahweh's turn. To insure that there would be no doubt of Yahweh's power, Elijah poured about 12 gallons of water over the prepared sacrifice. Then Elijah called out to God and immediately fire came down from the sky and consumed the offering. All the witnesses threw themselves on the ground, exclaiming that "The Lord is God; the Lord alone is God!" Following this very impressive display of power, Elijah ordered the 400 prophets of Baal to be seized. They were led to the Kishon Brook and slaughtered.
This background sets the stage for our lesson. When Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done, she immediately sent the following message to him: "May the gods strike me dead if by this time tomorrow I do not do the same thing to you that you did to the prophets." Upon receiving that message, Elijah became fearful and fled for his life.
God had responded with fire. Now that is magic! We would all enjoy the ability to evoke the power of God. The fact is, we can. However, we must do so with the understanding that what is true will always be true every moment of every day. Truth can have no competition from any other source. So, is God's awesome demonstration of power the truth? Is this how God wishes to be known? As the story continues, we learn that such a power-displaying God had little effect on Elijah. Our lesson tells us, "He fled for his life." Elijah still lived in fear.
We need to learn that an external power cannot empower us. Even Jesus failed to empower his disciples. In spite of all the wonderful, miraculous events that took place around them during Jesus' ministry, the disciples only became increasingly reliant on the extraordinary. When Jesus left them, they were ill-equipped to carry on his work.
Why live if God intends to wave a magic wand over every troubling experience and make our pain go away? God did not intervene during the close of Jesus' life. Do we expect too much when we invite God to intervene in ours?
As we return to our story, we find Elijah seeking safety in a cave on Mt. Sinai. While there Elijah hears the voice of God. God asked, "Elijah, what are you doing here? Go out and stand before me on top of the mountain." The fireworks started! There was the furious wind that split the hills and shattered rocks. There was an earthquake. When the ground stopped shaking, there was a great fire. God let it be known to Elijah that God was not in such things. Then there was this "very still, softly spoken, inner voice." After hearing it, Elijah's confidence in God was restored and he went on with his life.
Many of us tend to understand our relationship with God by the quality of what is happening around us. As life changes and the unfavorable winds blow as they occasionally do, we find ourselves pleading with and beseeching God to intervene. When there is no intervention, again, is this God's will?
God's message to Elijah was this, "If you look for me to become involved with all the changing elements of the physical world, you will not find me there. You will find me through your trust. Do not be afraid of anything in your world." When we go on with life with such an understanding of God, what else do we need? Wondrous miracles occur when we abandon fearful thinking, come out of our caves as Elijah did, and walk into the future armed only with our trust.
However, we have to stop our insistence that God act on behalf of a particular outcome. We do not know what is needed for our growth. We only know what we want. And what we want may not contribute to our growth. The miraculous can come packaged in forms we may not recognize.
Once a young girl heard her parents talking about not having enough money to pay for the medical treatment that would save her brother's life. Upstairs she watched from the balcony as her parents wept during their discussion. They did not know what they were going to do.
That night she knelt beside her bed and said to God, "My little brother needs my help right now. What can I do?" A flash of inspiration came to her. The little girl decided to take her piggy bank to the drugstore two blocks from her home. The next day that is exactly what she did.
As she approached the counter, the druggist was engaged in conversation with a man. The two either did not see her or they chose to ignore her. The needs of little people can often be overlooked by adults. After waiting and waiting, she took the bottom off her piggy bank and spilled the coins on the counter. The clanking change attracted the attention of both men.
The pharmacist said, "I'll be with you in a minute, honey." She said, "But I have an emergency! My brother is dying and I want to buy the medicine that will make him well." Her comment made both men give her their undivided attention. The man beside her said, "Do you know why your brother is dying?" She said, "I think he has a hole in his heart and I know that you have medicine in here that can fix that. My parents do not have any money but I do."
The man said, "Do you live near here?" She said, "Yes." He put her money back in the piggy bank and said, "Why don't we walk to your house where I can talk to your parents. I'm a doctor. And I fix people's hearts all the time. Maybe I can help your brother."
After hearing the story from the little girl's parents and reviewing her brother's medical history, Dr. Armstrong made arrangements to have the boy flown to Houston, Texas, where he proceeded to repair her brother's heart.
The story of the little girl and her piggy bank circulated in the family's hometown as well as in Houston where the story was carried in the newspaper. More than enough money was donated to cover all the expenses of the operation and the travel for her family. Aren't people wonderful? A miracle? Yes. Did God intervene?
There is another story about a man named Tom. Tom's wife was dying of cancer. They consulted every specialist they could find. They prayed. Tom was by her side every moment he had available. The time came when they both realized there was little reason to continue hoping. The cancer continued to spread throughout her body. The medical community could do nothing to stop it.
Eventually Tom began the process of letting go and so did she. They both grew beyond the limitations of this life. Her cancer and conquering it no longer remained the dominant focus of their relationship. They spent a lot of quality time together. Eventually his wife closed her eyes as she left her body.
A miracle? Even though death is the final healing, it certainly was not what Tom and his wife had wanted. Yet it happened. Tom went on with his life and eventually he met my sister Jane. The two married. Today they have two wonderful boys. Tom has been a very welcomed addition to our family.
If the purpose of life is our growth and coming into a greater harmony with God is our goal, than the will of God becomes clear. Specific outcomes in the physical world are not essential. Every one of them, in spite of how miraculous they are, will eventually change.
Even when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he did so knowing that Lazarus would have to die again. Every miracle we proclaim in our world of change will in time alter its form. What is essential is our spiritual evolution. This is why we are here.
In spite of all the fireworks from God, Elijah only grew when he overcame his fear of Jezebel, trusted God, and went on with his life. Our complete trust in God assures us complete victory. This is true and what is true cannot change. What is important is that we can live with such truth every day. Elijah did, and miracles happened all around him. How about our lives? Do we exude the same trust in our Creator as Elijah discovered?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Lord, we have given up our pride and turned away from our arrogance. We are no longer preoccupied with matters of life that are great and small, or with finding answers to subjects that are too challenging for us to comprehend. Instead, we are content to be at peace. As children lie quietly in their mother's arms, so our hearts are quiet within us. We have learned the wisdom of surrendering our frustrations to you, and we trust in you for the outcome for all things both now and forever. We understand the simplicity of being at peace. May our hearts and spirits radiate such harmony with you that our love for others will unmistakably be clear. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for your moment-by-moment presence in our lives. We have been trained to look for you outside ourselves. For some of us you have become a mysterious being that we talk to during our prayer life. You are the one we reference on Sunday mornings. You are the one whose support we reach for when life appears unmanageable. You are the one we credit when life takes us to the heights of joy. Yet, what is the truth, O God?
Are you the one who divides the seas when our perceived enemies approach? Are you the one who heals some of us and not others? Are you the one who inspires the few while so many remained bored, distracted and self-absorbed? Help us in our understanding. Help us to discover that you are not as interested in specific outcomes as you are about our growth. Lead us into circumstances that will enhance our evolution.
Some of us experience illnesses. Some of us experience separation from those we love. Some of us will soon be walking on Mexican soil building houses. Some of us live with fears and worries over issues we cannot resolve. In all these moments, may we learn to extend ourselves and evolve into the beings you created us to be. And when we find the treasure and buy the field where it was buried, teach us the art of giving it away. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .