One Big Story - Week 7: "Fire Fall"
Did you know that the Bible is One Big Story of God’s love for people who don’t always feel like they deserve God’s love? It's true--it's the best kind of story, to be honest.
And God has a way of always picking the wrong kinds of people to do what God needs doing. People who think they aren't good enough, people who the rest of the world thinks aren't good enough--heck, people who really aren't good enough... that's who God seems to love to pick to write God's One Big Story.
The Bible is One Big Story filled with heroes and villains, great adventures, epic battles, love stories and astonishing tales. It’s also the story of a “once and future” King who picked the most unlikely people to help him share the story of God’s amazing love, and how far God was willing to go to save the world.
Today we are continuing our summer sermon series, One Big Story. And what we're going to be learning over the course of this summer is one very simple fact: "God can use you no matter what."
You might think that you aren't good enough to be used by God... You might think you're too old, too young, too busy, too messed up, too much of a sinner... but God doesn't care about that. God loves you and wants to use you no matter what.
Today we're going to be encountering another of the great characters from the Hebrew Scriptures: Elijah. And we're going to be learning something extremely important from one of the stories of his life.
But first let me ask you a question:
Have you ever had a moment when you wished that God would just show up and reveal Godself to you and to the world? Do you ever wish that you would be able to feel God's presence--to just know without a doubt that God was here, right here, right now?
If you're like me, you have probably had that desire more than once in your life--maybe even more often than you'd like to admit.
But here's where it gets real. I have to admit that I've had more than a few moments in my life when I found myself actually wondering if God really existed.
And those moments manifested themselves as a battle within my heart.
Last year my mom started to grow seriously ill, and I prayed that God would provide healing for her. And nothing happened.
When it became clear that her illness was too serious to treat, I prayed that God would make her comfortable and to let her live long enough to make it through the upcoming holidays--at least. And nothing happened.
The only prayer that seemed to get answered in the midst of my mom passing away was the one I prayed when I begged God to let her die in peace---the kind of prayer that I honestly resented God for making me pray.
And all I wanted... all along was to just know that God had heard me... that God was actually there.
Listen, if we are all being honest. We've been there. We've all had our moments when we've struggled and battled because we just wanted to know that God was real.
What if... and this might be a stretch... What if an entire culture was struggling with this kind of thing? What if people in this culture were walking around hoping, wishing for a sign that God gave a fig about them and their issues... that God was there?
Not much of a stretch to imagine this, is it? It's us.
Everyone is searching for something to believe, aren't they?
And we could all use a sign, right? Wouldn't it be wonderful if God just appeared and told us all to settle down? To finally show us all what's what?
Maybe to have some fire fall from heaven or something.
What if I told you that the proof--evidence of God's presence--the fire was closer than you think?
Today we're going to be learning something very important from the life of Elijah, hold on to it, remember it because it's one of the truest things that anyone will ever say to you:
You are on fire and you don't even know it.
We're going to be exploring a story from 1 Kings 18:16-40, which is easily one of the coolest passages of Scripture in the whole Old Testament.
The setting of 1 Kings is the ancient kingdom of Israel--the northern kingdom that we have been talking about over the last couple of weeks. This kingdom was eventually destroyed by the Assyrian empire but at this point, it was flourishing under a king by the name of Ahab.
Ahab was great at making alliances, building his military, amassing wealth and making Israel stronger and more powerful. But he was terrible at leading Israel when it came to their covenant with God.
In fact, at the outset of our story, Ahab has basically driven all of the true worshippers of God into hiding. The main religion of Israel at this time was the worship of the Mesopotamian god Baal.
Most of the Hebrew people at this point have lost faith in the one God of their ancestors. There doesn't seem to be any evidence of this God. So it makes no difference to them that they worship Baal--at least they have statues of Baal.
Enter the prophet Elijah--who enters into Israel's story and begins to proclaim that things are going to need to change--that Israel needs to return to worshipping the one true God.
Elijah is a powerful prophet, an eccentric character to dresses like a caveman, who eats locusts and wild honey, performs miracles and is a huge pain in the butt for Ahab.
Ahab finally goes out to meet Elijah, and he says to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?”
Ahab thought he was being all snarky and cool right then, but Elijah turns things around on him...
18 “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. 19 Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”So Ahab does it. He figures that he'll finally be done with Elijah if he can shame him in front of all the people. Besides 450 to 1 is pretty good odds, he's thinking.
So when everyone is assembled, Elijah asks the people: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
The actual translation here is "how long will you keep hopping between two crevices?" The image here is of the people jumping back and forth between rocks. They couldn't decide whether to worship God fully or Baal. There were hedging their bets at this point.
They had ceased to be able to see God at work in their lives. They had forgotten the stories of their ancestors. They were blinded to God's presence all around them and the struggle was real.
Because they couldn't experience God in the way they wanted to experience God, they opted to worship the god that everyone else around them was worshipping--that the king had commanded they worship.
Then Elijah tells the four hundred and fifty prophets to get two bulls to sacrifice. Both he and the four hundred prophets will prepare the sacrifice and then not set fire to it. Instead, they will take turns calling on the name of their respective deities. The one who answers by fire will be the one the people will worship.
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
So from morning till noon the prophets of Baal danced and screamed. “Baal, answer us!” But there was no response; no one answered.
The prophets are trying to wake Baal from the dead essentially. He would supposedly die in the winter and be raised in the Spring... only he hadn't been raised because God wasn't letting it rain.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
Famously, there is a phrase that Elijah mentions here---"busy" that could also be translated "he is away having a bowel movement." Only it doesn't say it that nicely.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones, he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” 34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again. “Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
Elijah was about to preach, but he needed some props to do it. Come on now! I didn't come up with the idea of dramatic symbolism in a sermon! There are twelve stones for twelve tribes, water symbolizing the Red Sea, wood, sacrifices---Elijah is reminding the people of God's history with them, taking them from the land of Egypt and slavery, always being with them.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. 39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
The epic nature of this struggle was larger than the moment, larger than the battle against the false prophets, against an evil king and queen. This was a battle between God and Baal and God kicked some idol hiney.
This was the equivalent---if you are a Star Wars fan---of the Rebels shutting the generator that kept the Empire's force field up in the Return of the Jedi. The barrier fell down, and the Resistance started to believe.
But before this whole thing started, the people were in a bad way. The may have been longing for things to be different, but they had gotten tired of waiting on a sign from God. They moved on, or at the very least decided not to choose one deity over another. By refusing to choose, they made a choice.
What Elijah did, however, was confront them with what they already knew... and had forgotten. There were signs of God all around them, and they didn't... even... know it.
Sometimes you need to be reminded of the ways God has revealed Godself to you over the course of your life's journey. Sometimes you need to finally open your eyes and believe.
Maybe you have been hoping for some evidence to show that a life with God is the kind of life you should lead. Maybe you have been wondering if it's all worth it? You've been trying to do right, but there's no sign that God is paying attention.
You say to yourself, "The Old Testament is full of stories like that. It would have been so easy for them to believe with fire falling, smoke rising and all manner of stuff going on to freak them out and drive them to the straight and narrow. But in real life, none of those kinds of thing ever happen. I wish fire would fall from heaven!!"
What if I told you that the fire from heaven that you are looking for is inside you? What if I told you that you are on fire and you don't even know it. You are the sign and the symbol that you are searching for... because the fire of God is within you.
In Geneva Switzerland is a huge building that contains the largest atomic particle collider in the world. The collider works round the clock smashing atomic stuff together in order to see what kind of particles can be detected by their destruction. The collider is the epicenter of the search for the very building blocks of life, the unseen, unknown, unfathomable atomic pieces of whatever that will help us understand the universe.
And what the scientists who gather in Geneva are hoping to learn more about is a particle called the Higgs Boson.
The Higgs Boson has also been called "The God Particle," because it is the very thing that seems to be holding all of everything together. Including you, and me. Bosons are subatomic particles that help slow other particles from natural super speed and let them join up with other particles so they can stick together.
Without this particle even if there was a Big Bang, some scientists say, the universe would not have been able to form without them.
Scientists say that trying to learn about the Higgs Boson is like trying to hear a tiny, delicate whisper over the massive thundering din of a NASCAR race.
One scientist that has worked on this project for years was quoted as saying, "There must be some sort of underlying structure that we don't understand." They know that it must be there because without it life wouldn't exist. Yet it remains so unknowable and unpredictable.
And you keep waiting for fire from heaven. When it's all around you... in you... and through you... The very DNA, the fire of God is within you and all of Creation.
What would it look like if you fully embraced this?
First, it would help you banish your fear. You wouldn't walk around wondering if God was there any longer, would you? You would know the truth about God's presence all around you and in you. You would remember who you are because you would see yourself as a living, moving symbol of God's presence.
God doesn't have to prove himself to anyone... but he does. And just because we are too sophisticated to understand the earthy, ancient symbolism of fire from heaven, doesn't mean that God can't show his grace and glory in other ways that are even more miraculous and mind-blowing.
Second, it would help you tip the balance in your inner struggle. So many of us have been taught that we were born worthless. We've been told that we've been cursed from the very beginning. And so the inner struggle to experience God has always been filtered through that lens--a lens where we see ourselves as originally broken and messed up.
But you are not originally cursed. You are originally blessed. God loves you so much that God created you in God's very image. When you look in the mirror, you are not looking at someone who is too broken, too messed up, and too far gone to be able to experience God. Far from it---God imprinted you with God. You are God's child.
Finally, when you embrace this, it will help you see the signs of God's presence more clearly. Jesus taught that "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." In other words, whatever you are filled with, is what comes out. He also said that the way you see the world depends on how you are viewing it.
The eye is the lamp of the body. You draw light into your body through your eyes, and light shines out to the world through your eyes. So if your eye is well and shows you what is true, then your whole body will be filled with light
When you fully embrace the fire of God within you, it changes your inside and what's inside affects how we see the outside.
May you know what it means to have sure and certain hope that God will never leave or forsake you. May you see his presence all around you. May you be reminded of who you are, and what God has done to redeem you through the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, who became one of us to save all of us. May you finally, once and for all realize with joy that you... are... on... fire...