January 27, 2013

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC


I Kings 18:20-22

I used to run marathons.  Marathons are 26.2 miles in length.  I ran 27 of them.  I still love to run, but I decided about 20 years ago that I would leave the 26.2 mile distance to others.  Of my 27 marathons, my fastest was number 19.  My slowest two were my first and my last.  Had I run 28 marathons, I’m quite confident number 28 would have been my slowest.  So it was a good time to quit.

The funny thing about marathons is the slower your time, the more it hurts.  And another funny thing is that it hurts most of all on the day after.  Those muscles that you overworked have a way of stiffening up over night.  Getting out bed that next morning can be quite the adventure!  There is a distinctive way marathoners walk on the day after and someone even put together this little video to illustrate:

(Youtube video: “The Day After the Marathon”)

I ran many of my marathons when I was in high school and college.  I remember that first Monday back in class.  I was rather proud of the limp I had earned in that marathon.  I was rather hoping people would notice and ask me about it.  And I’m not sure if I  actually did this, but I suppose it’s possible.  If no one noticed my limp enough to ask about it, I might exaggerate that limp just a little bit.  Just enough to get some attention.  That would be called limping  when I didn’t have to.

Or maybe during track season, when the workout on the coach’s schedule was something I really wasn’t too excited about doing, not that I would ever do this, but I suppose it’s possible.  A little limp might mysteriously appear in my gait and the coach, wisely concerned about the risk of further injury, just might suggest that I sit this one out.  Again, limping when I didn’t have to.

Elijah the prophet said to the people ofIsrael, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal [is God], then follow him” (I Kings 18:21).

We read just a short segment of the larger story, so I’d like to take a moment to fill out the picture.  When the people ofIsraelsettled down in the Promised Land, they had neighbors.  Their neighbors were the Canaanites.  Now the Canaanites were farmers.  They had been farming for a long time.  They knew what they were doing.  The Israelites, on the other hand, were new to farming.  They had been slaves inEgyptfor all those years.  Then they were wandering around in the wilderness.  They were nomads.  So when they finally got to the Promised Land and realized that farming was going to be an important skill to learn if they wanted to eat, they realized they had a lot to learn.

Especially after the first harvest.  The Israelites had worked so hard and had nothing to show for it.  The Canaanites, on the other hand, had the proverbial green thumb.  Everything they planted grew and grew bountifully.  “How do you do it?” they were asked.  “What is your secret?”

They said, “That’s easy.  We pray to Baal.  Baal is our fertility god.  All we have to do is pray to Baal and Baal makes sure our harvest is bountiful.”

Of course Baal had nothing to do with it.  They just knew how to farm.  But they convinced themselves that it was really Baal behind it all.  That’s what they told the Israelites.

And the Israelites now found themselves in a quandary.  They had these Ten Commandments that God gave them during their time in the wilderness.  The first one said, “You shall have no other gods.”    The second one said, “You shall make no graven images.”  Now the Canaanites had shown them that making a graven image of this other god called Baal and worshiping it was the secret to successful farming.  Surely God wanted them to eat!  Surely God would understand!

That’s when Elijah entered the picture.  He could see that his people were at a moment of truth.  They were teetering on the edge of a disastrous mistake.  They weren’t walking confidently with God.  Neither were they yet walking with Baal.  They were limping, pulled first one way and then the other.  Elijah knew it was going to take more than just telling them to choose God.  They already knew that.  But when you get hungry you get desperate.  So it would take more than just a reasoned argument.  It would take a dramatic, never to be forgotten, demonstration.  And so Elijah challenged Baal’s 450 prophets to a contest.  For once and  for all they would find out who is in control of this universe.

They built a bonfire.  What I picture in my mind is a huge pile of wood like I remember at the pep rally before our homecoming games.  Then Elijah told the prophets of Baal, all 450 of them, to pray their best prayers that Baal would ignite the wood.  Nothing happened.

Then we find something most people don’t even know is in the Bible.  Trash talk.  Elijah starts taunting the prophets of Baal.  “Maybe your prayers aren’t loud enough.  Maybe your god is taking a nap.  Maybe your god is taking a bathroom break.”  It really does say that in the Hebrew.  There are a few modern translations brave enough to translate it that way.  Elijah can lay it on so thick because Elijah is so confident in God’s victory.

After all morning, it is clear the prophets of Baal have tried and have failed.  Now can Elijah do any better by praying to God?  Before he tries, he wants to build a little suspense.  He wants this to be as dramatic as possible.  So he has the pile of wood drenched with water.  Not once, not twice, but three times.  The wood was now so soggy you couldn’t ignite it with a blow torch.  That’s when Elijah prayed that God would send down fire.  And God did.  It was one spectacular inferno.  “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God'” (I Kings 18:39).

Elijah’s question way back then is our question today.  If Elijah were here right now, I think I know what he would ask us.  “How long are you going to continue limping between various opinions?  If God is God, follow him.  If God isn’t, well, follow whoever else it is you’d rather follow.  Just decide!”

Years before Elijah, Joshua said much the same thing to God’s people.  “Choose this day whom you will serve, but for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15).  We have to choose.  We have to stop limping, stop staggering, stop being pulled first one way and then another.  We need to make up our minds. And then we need to stand tall and walk straight for God.

If we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to get rid of our limp and replace it with a new confidence to our step.  First, we’re going to have to walk in love.  If we are not loving people, we are limping through life.

Thomas Wheeler is the retired CEO of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.  One of his favorite stories is about the day he and his wife were out on a drive in the country.  They were getting low on gas and so they were relieved to come upon an old, dilapidated gas station way off the beaten path.  The executive pumped his own gas while the attendant was visiting with his wife.

They drove away with a full tank and the wife said, “You will never believe this, but I knew that gas station attendant.  We went to high school together.  We actually dated some and even talked about marriage.”

Well, Thomas Wheeler, couldn’t help it.  He said, “You sure are lucky I came along.  If you married him, you’d be the wife of a man who pumps gas in a dilapidated old service station instead of the wife of the CEO of Mass Mutual”.

She said, “Dear, if I had married him, he would be the CEO of Mass Mutual and you would be pumping gas.”

We are who we are because of our relationships.  Behind every successful man, there is a woman.  Behind every successful woman, there is a man.  Behind, every successful man or woman, there is a surprised mother-in-law.  We are who we are not because of who we are but because of those with whom we are in relationship.  And if those relationships are relationships of love, it makes all the difference.

There is an organization based inSan Diegocalled “Difference Makers International”.  They are known for their blue ribbons with the words, “Who I Am Makes a Big Difference.”   A schoolteacher called each student in her class forward, one by one, pinned on that ribbon and then told each student in front of the whole class why he or she was special.  She told one, “You are so funny!  Every day you bring joy to our classroom.”  To another she said, “You have such a curious mind.  You ask good questions that stretch us and help us to grow.”  And to another:  “You are kind to everyone.  You encourage all of us to be kinder.”

Each student was given extra ribbons and told to give those ribbons away and tell each person getting a ribbon how he or she has made a difference.  The people getting ribbons were given more ribbons to give, and so it continued, until eventually a certain man was given a blue ribbon by someone who worked for him, along with these words:  “You have helped me so much.  You are a creative genius.  I can’t begin to tell you the difference you have made in my life.”

This man was quite overwhelmed.  He thought about who would get the extra ribbon he was given and he thought of his 14-year-old son.  He came home from work, and found his son alone in his room.  He said, “I want you to see this ribbon someone gave me at work.  I couldn’t believe it.  He said I’m a ‘creative genius’.  I have an extra ribbon.  I want you to wear it.  I want you to know what a difference you make in my life.  I work way too many hours. I know that.  When I come home I don’t pay a lot of attention to you.  Sometimes the only message you hear from me is negative.  I’m criticizing you for one thing or another.  But I want you to know that I am very proud of you.  I love you so much.  You and your mother are the two most precious persons in my life.  I think you are terrific.”

The boy was crying.  He couldn’t stop.  His whole body was shaking.  Finally, I was able to speak.  He said, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about ending my life.  And I didn’t think you would even care.”

We honor God by walking in love.  Second, we honor God by walking in trust.  If we are not trusting people, we are limping through life.

Elton Trueblood said, “Faith is not believing without proof, but trusting without reservation.”

To celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, a couple took a dream vacation together.  They never came home.  They were both killed instantly in a traffic accident.  They left behind three sons, ages 20, 17, and 16.  These boys grew up in a hurry.  They took care of all the arrangements.  They opened the anniversary cards that were arriving along with the sympathy cards.  They stood together and greeted the endless line of well-wishers at the funeral.  They learned in a hurry how cruel life can be.

The middle son confided in his pastor that even in all of the terrible shock and heartache of what he had been through, he felt God helping him through it.  He explained that he’d come upon a way that helped him make sense of it.  God was kind of like a shelf.  You could put things on that shelf.  Those things might be rearranged or broken or taken away.  New things might end up on that shelf.  Everything on top of the shelf is subject to change.  But the shelf itself does not change.  It’s always there.  Like God.  Everything else can change, but God remains the same.

We can trust God.  This 17-year-old boy had already learned that from his parents and from his church.  Can you trust God like that?  We honor God by walking in trust.

Finally, we honor God by walking in commitment.  If we are not committed people, we are limping through life.

This is what Elijah and Joshua were talking about.  They were talking about our commitment to God.  They were saying, “Be strong in that commitment.  Don’t be tossed and turned by every fad that comes along.  Don’t be so cautious and careful and tentative.  Don’t limp through life without a clear, firm, final decision about God.  Choose this day whom you will serve.  And then serve God with all you’ve got.  Nothing held back.  Nothing getting in the way.”

There was an article in “The Christian Century” written by the daughter of a potter.

I’ve spent many happy hours watching [my mother] prepare the wet clay, plop a soggy lump of it on the wheel, start the wheel, and slowly draw the clay up into whatever form she has chosen.  But I’ve also watched her stop and start the process over and over when she’s been unable to center the clay properly.  [She knows that] whatever comes from uncentered clay will not be usable.  (March 24-31, 1993, page 322.)

That’s true for us, too.  Unless we become like clay in the potter’s hands and allow ourselves to be centered in him, we will not be useful in our service.  To be centered in God means to be committed to God.  All the way.   Nothing held back.  Nothing getting in the way.  We honor God by walking in commitment.

Some people limp through life when they don’t have to.  We don’t have to.  We can stand tall.  We can walk straight.  We can walk in love and in trust and in commitment.  Not limping between God and whatever is competing with God for our attention.  Choose this day whom you will serve.  And then serve.  May the words of Joshua be words we can say and mean.  “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

There’s nothing wrong with a physical limp.  Sometimes that can’t be helped.  But God, there is really no excuse for a spiritual limp.  So heal us of whatever it is that is getting in the way of a clear and uncompromised commitment to you.  And let us walk with you, with your confidence in our step.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.