Behold, the Power of God!
A sermon based on 1 Kings 19:9-18
Sunday, September 4, 2011– Pentecost 12A
In 1871, four square miles of Chicago burned for almost two days straight, killing hundreds of people and causing $222 million in damages – roughly one third of the entire city's value. Almost a century later – some of you may have lived through it – in 1964 the largest earthquake ever recorded in the world devastated Alaska. It took 131 lives and cost over $300 million in damages. And just a few days ago Hurricane Irene crashed into the east coast. It took 55 lives and $3.1 billion in damages.
How awesome is the power, not of "Mother Nature," but of God, as he displays it in fire, in the wind, in earthquakes!!
About 28 centuries ago (circa 840 B.C.), one of God's prophets was growing discouraged. It seemed that all of his hard work was accomplishing nothing. It felt like the whole world was against him. He was depressed and despairing and he was ready to quit. "Just, end it all, God," he thought. "Life isn't even worth living!"
And God stepped in to give him encouragement and to remind him of his awesome power that was still at work. But God didn't display his power in dynamic disasters like fire, earthquake, or hurricane, but in a different way… in a quiet gentle whisper. And he taught Elijah that his greatest power is not in judging the world with his might, but in saving the world by his Word.
Dear friends… does it sometimes seem that all your hard work is for nothing? Does it seem that you work hard to empty the inbox, just to find that it full again the next day? Do you sometimes feel like the whole world is against you? Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired and ready to throw in the towel and quit? When you do feel that way, where do you turn for help? Where do you find the strength to carry on?
It's not in the dynamic disasters that God brings into this world, but in the gentle whisper of the Word. Listen now to the comfort and encouragement that God gave Elijah, recorded for us in 1 Kings 19:9-18…
9 [Elijah] went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10 He replied, "I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken 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." 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. 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, broken 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. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him."
I. Not in Dynamic Disasters
Elijah was frustrated. He was frustrated with the wicked King Ahab who (as Scripture puts it) "did more evil in the eyes of Lord than any of those before him." He was frustrated with Queen Jezebel who was intent on killing off the Lord's prophets—including himself. He was frustrated with the Israelites who continued to reject God even after the miraculous display of God's power on Mt. Carmel where God sent a fire from heaven to disintegrate not only the offering of a drenched bull, but the wood beneath it, the stone altar, the trench of water around it, and the very soil beneath it all! And finally, Elijah was frustrated with God…
Elijah had worked hard. He had served God faithfully, but all for nothing. What did he get in return? A death threat. When Queen Jezebel heard what had happened on Mt. Carmel she sent word to Elijah, "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 [the prophets of Baal that were killed on the mountain]." (1 Kings 19:2).
And Elijah had had it. It was too much for him. He no longer put his trust in God, but was afraid of Queen Jezebel and ran for his life. Finally, he collapsed in the desert and pleaded for God to take his life.
God sent an angel to refresh Elijah, but he continued to run. He ran for forty days and forty nights until he reached Mt. Sinai, also called Mt. Horeb, and went to hide in the back of a cave. There God confronted him… the word of the Lord came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" And Elijah explained his frustration to God. "10 He replied, "I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken 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."
Elijah had been faithful to God. He did stand up boldly to the prophets of Baal, to the Israelites, to Ahab and Jezebel. But what audacity he now displays! He complains to God almost as if it were his fault. You can almost hear him saying, "God, why would you do this to me?" Here's how God responded…
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. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
Elijah was told to stand on the mountain, perhaps the very same place that God revealed himself to Moses, the same place he revealed himself with the thunder, lightning, smoke and fire when gave them his ten commandments. What awesome power he displayed on Sinai!
But he revealed himself differently this time. He didn't display his awesome power with a dynamic disaster and tell Elijah to shape up, or he'd wipe him off the mountain with a powerful wind. He didn't say quit complaining or I'll send an earthquake to swallow you up like I did to Korah. He didn't say quit griping or a fire will consume you like a soaking wet offering. No. God was patient with Elijah. He appeared to him in a gentle whisper, in a still small voice, or literally, "in a voice of thin quiet." He appeared to Elijah in mercy.
Elijah deserved to be punished for his sin, for complaining, for running away, for his self-pity and frustration with God for not doing things his way. He deserved hell for his lack of trust in God to preserve his life from the wicked Queen Jezebel and for his countless other sins. But God didn't deal with the prophet as his sins deserved. Though Elijah may have wanted God to come with a display of his power in a dynamic disaster pour out his wrath on the stubborn Israelites, he forgot that he himself was sinful with shortcomings of his own. He needed a Savior, not a display of God's wrath.
And God in his grace was patient with him. He forgave Elijah. He refreshed him and gave him the encouragement he needed: 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him." And he gave him a task to do and set him back to work. He gave Elijah the reassurance he so desperately needed, but not with his power, driving him in fear, but with a gentle whisper of his grace.
Now, how about us? Do you sometimes feel like Elijah did? Do you sometimes get frustrated by the evil that surrounds you? Do you get tired of reading the same depressing headlines in the news day after day? Do you get upset that friends at work (and even at home) sin against you in the most loveless ways? Do you get caught up in self-pity and loneliness like Elijah did? Do you ever complain to God that things aren't going your way? Do you sometimes run and hide in a (figurative) cave to block it all out instead of doing the work that God has given you to do?
For our frustration, our lack of patience, our insolent complaints against God, we deserve hell. We deserve a display of God's powerful wrath against us in some dynamic disaster. But we don't get what we deserve. Instead, Christ did. He suffered the hell that should have been ours. And he paid the debt that we owed. So now, instead of his wrath, God shows us his grace. And in the gentle whisper of his Gospel, he gives us the comfort and encouragement we need…
"Scared and feel like running away? Have no fear," he says. "Your sins are forgiven in Christ. Feeling lonely? You're never alone. I'm always with you. Frustrated with the evil that surrounds you? Know that all evil has been defeated on the cross and will be destroyed once and for all on Judgment day. Don't worry that things aren't going your way, because my way is much better. My way leads to forgiveness. My way leads to a stronger faith. My way leads to the glory of heaven."
And don't wish God's wrath on others in some dynamic disaster, not even on those who continue to reject him. Instead, thank God that he is so slow to display his wrath. Thank him that he shows us his grace in a gentle whisper. Thank him that he gives us the comfort and encouragement that we so desperately need. And since he equips us (yes, even sinners like us) to do his work with that encouragement, serve him in thanksgiving for his grace and zealously share the grace of our gentle God with others.
II. But In the Whisper of the Word
What do we use to share the grace of our God? The same thing Elijah did. The message of God's law and gospel working quietly in the Word.
God told Elijah, "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. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu."
God would send judgment on Israel. Elijah was to anoint these three men as instruments of his wrath. Israel would soon see a great deal of blood spilled in her land. But even this outpouring of God's wrath was really done in love. His acts of judgment only paved the way for an outpouring of his mercy. You see, out of love for his stubborn people he would punish them to bring them to repentance; to bring them back to him that they might listen to his prophets and cling to the promise of the Messiah who would take away their sins once and for all. But that gospel message wasn't revealed by a natural disaster. It wasn't revealed by a sword. It was only revealed in the gentle whisper of the gospel in the Scriptures and through God's prophets.
Elijah learned that in spite of the long hard battle he faced, in spite of the slow growth of the church, that he thought didn't exist, in spite of his frustration and despair; he must continue to wait patiently for the gentle whisper of the gospel to enter people's hearts and do its work.
Fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes still bring terror today. And God does still use them to evoke a sense of awe in people, to test them and to judge them. He still uses war to spank those he loves and bring them back to him in repentance. But comfort and encouragement still come only in the gentle whisper of the gospel. It still comes through the seemingly unimpressive Word.
Do you sometimes wish that God would appear here on earth with some display of power to drive away all your doubts and to convince all your unbelieving friends that you're right? But God knows that he can't get what he wants that way. You see God can't force anyone to love him. He can inspire fear… and awe… and respect with dynamic displays of his power and wrath, but not love.
If I tell you to put more money in the offering plate, or God will bring you to financial ruin, it might increase the dollar amount we collect, but it wouldn't be an offering to God, given with a cheerful heart of love. If I tell you, "Christ went to hell for you! Why can't you come to Bible Class for him?!" you might come, driven by guilt, but not with a glad heart eager to hear more of God's love for you. God can't force love with his wrath or with his law. But he still motivates us to love and serve him with the gentle whisper of the gospel.
And what a gentle whisper it is! God doesn't write the gospel in hundred-foot neon letters that light up the sky. He uses ordinary ink on ordinary paper to share the gentle whisper of the Word. He doesn't create faith by a baptism with liquid gold from a special pool, but with ordinary water and the gentle whisper of his Word. He doesn't strengthen that faith by giving us the fruit of some rare, exquisite tree to eat, but gives his body and blood in ordinary bread and wine by the gentle whisper of the Word. And God doesn't send his angels to proclaim the gospel with voices that shake the foundations of the earth, but uses simple people like me, like you, to share the gentle whisper of his Word.
And though God uses some rather ordinary means, don't despise them. Don't think they're too ordinary to work. Though the whisper is gentle, it is most powerful!! So put your trust in that Word. For it's by the power of that Word that God could tell Elijah, "I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him." Trust that Word and faithfully carry out the task that God has given you to do, even if it feels like you're the only one.
A pastor once received a phone call soliciting funds to support a moral-majority type group. The caller was devoted to lobbying for legislation to force a change in behavior by means of the law. But the pastor explained that rather than using laws to coerce people, the way to bring about real change was with the gospel working in individual hearts. "The gospel?" the solicitor replied, "We've already tried that. It doesn't work." And the phone call quickly ended.
Don't be like that caller. Don't abandon the gospel and reach for the law. Though it may seem like you're failing, that you're all alone, thought there may be no apparent positive results to the Work God has given you to do, thought you may be tempted to give up on the simple gospel message of Christ crucified when it doesn't appear to produce the results that you would like to see, don't abandon the gospel.
Rather, use the still small voice, the gentle whisper of the Word, waiting patiently for it to do its work. And the behold, God's most awesome power—far more powerful than any earthquake, fire, or hurricane!—a power that brings dead sinners back to life!
And thank God for displaying that awesome power, not in some dynamic disaster as he pours out his wrath, but in the gentle whisper of the Word as he comforts you with the simple message of Christ crucified. Like Elijah, be encouraged by the still small voice and do the task he sets before you. Find renewed strength in God's grace to you and keep on keeping on. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.