1 Kings 17:1-16; Luke 13:1-5
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events. John Calvin, Institutes
Rain, Rain, Go Away!
When I was in Israel we stopped at several places that were connected with the prophet Elijah. I had thought of our trip as more of a focus on Jesus, but I found myself moved by the story of Elijah. When I got back here and looked at the sermons I had planned through the summer I realized that several months before my trip I had scheduled three sermons on Elijah!
Let me give you a little bit of background for Elijah’s story. Ahab was one of the kings that followed several generations after King David. He was not a good king. In fact, in the passage right before the one I read we hear that Ahab did more evil than any other king. Part of that included marrying a woman named Jezebel. The God of Israel was Yahweh but Jezebel worshipped Baal and encouraged Ahab and all of Israel to worship Baal.
Baal was the god of fertility and the Lord of the rain and the clouds. Followers of Baal believed that he was the god who watered the crops and brought the harvest. Into that situation, God sent the prophet Elijah. “1 Kings 17:1-16” (The Message)
“Rain, rain, go away. Come again when I say.” Okay, that isn’t quite how Elijah said it, but that was what he meant. And that is what happened. It didn’t rain for three years. We live in an area where it is difficult to imagine a drought. A drought here is nothing like out west. Drought is a devastating tragedy that happens slowly. Drought leads to food shortages and starvation.
Elijah’s word brought a drought. “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). At first, no one took him seriously. Palestine is like California. Every year they have a dry season. From April until October they don’t get much rain. The rains come during the winter months. After Elijah’s word they didn’t come at all. For three years there was absolutely no rain or even dew. Food was scarce and the people were desperate.
Elijah’s word that there would be no rain was a theological statement. “You worship Baal, the Lord of the rain. I worship Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Lord of all creation. Yahweh is the one who controls the rain. Your god is nothing. Baal is a wimp. He doesn’t have any power! ”
As soon as Elijah said that, God told him to leave and sent him to the Wadi Cherith. A wadi is a dry river bed. The only time there is water in it is right after it rains. That doesn’t make any sense to those of us who live in Pittsburgh. We have three rivers that always have water in them. The wadis in Israel are dry and desolate areas.
We don’t know how long Elijah stayed at the wadi. It may have been a week or a month. Maybe even a year. During that time there was enough water in the wadi to keep Elijah alive. Ravens brought bread and meat for Elijah twice every day. Back in biblical times people usually ate meat only once or twice a week. A rich person might have meat every day. Elijah had meat twice a day. In other words, this wasn’t just survival. This was extravagant. God provided a feast for Elijah
Eventually the wadi dried up and God sent Elijah to Zarephath, a town right along the Mediterranean coast. It was an area where Baal was the primary god. Elijah hid in the heart of Jezebel’s country. He stayed with a widow who was poor and desperate. She was on the edge of starving. But she fed Elijah and God provided a miracle of sustaining her flour and oil.
These stories of God providing for Elijah, first at the Wadi Cherith and then with the widow, demonstrate the providence of God. The word providence is related to the word provide, and even the word provision. They all come from the same root. Pro means before, and vid means to see – think video. God sees what we need and gives it to us before we even know that we need it. Theologically, providence means that God controls and directs everything that happens. God is more than just the creator of the universe who then sits back and does nothing. God continues to work, sustaining and caring for creation, giving us what we need. These two miracles of God providing food for Elijah show us the providence of God: God is in control of the world and our of lives.
That sounds good until you start to think about the bad things that happen in our world. A thunderstorm knocks a tree over onto a house or causes a flood. An earthquake causes a tsunami and together they destroy a city. Lawyers and insurance companies call these natural disasters an act of God. Yet, for the most part, our world has rejected that idea.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” He was trying to make sense of the evil things that happen in our world. He was trying to make sense of why his own son died at the age of 14. I liked Kushner’s book and he has some wonderful things to say, but I disagree with his basic premise. Kushner’s belief is that the bad things that happen are not caused by God. They are caused by an impersonal force called Fate. Fate does not care about people. It has no feelings at all. It is an impersonal power that causes bad things to happen. God, on the other hand, is personal and loving, and only causes good things to happen.
The problem with this idea is that Fate becomes more powerful than God. If God wants something good to happen but Fate decides it wants to do something bad, then Fate is in control. In this way of thinking Fate becomes the ultimate source of good and evil. Whoever, or whatever, controls the good things must also be in control of the bad things.
I believe that Scripture declares that Yahweh, the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ, is in control and is the ultimate source of everything, both good and bad. Elijah spoke the word that started the drought, but God was the one who caused it. The drought probably brought famine and maybe even death. It came as a punishment for Ahab’s sin, but it impacted thousands of people. Yahweh was the author of these struggles. If we want to give God credit for the good things then we need to say that the bad things are allowed by God or even caused by God, even if we don’t understand them or like them. That is what providence is all about.
We need to be very careful in saying this. The drought that happened in Israel when Ahab was king was God’s judgment for the sins of Israel. Idolatry and injustice caused God to punish them with a drought. In the New Testament passage that Kirk read Jesus rejected this idea, or at least limited it. The tragedies that were described were not a result of God’s punishment. Jesus doesn’t tell us why they happened.
The cause of evil is a mystery that we will never understand. There is no easy explanation. It may, or may not, be God’s judgment. You and I never have the right to accuse someone or blame them, saying “God’s punishing you.” The concept of providence has problems with it. However, the purpose of this doctrine is not to try to explain the problem of evil. It is intended to bring us comfort.
Several years ago there was an accident a couple of miles from our house. Tanya was on her way home from work and had to turn around and go a different way. A friend of ours, Helen, said that she came up to the accident just after it happened. She was able to drive by the cars and see the injured people.
We found out later that a man was driving a pick-up truck. He had a heart attack and swerved into the on-coming traffic. In the accident a mother and her daughter were killed. As we talked about this accident I remember thinking that both Tanya and Helen were lucky that they weren’t there a few minutes earlier. The truth is, it wasn’t luck. It wasn’t Fate that kept them from being in the accident. It was the providence of God that kept them safe.
God, not Fate, is in control of our world. The God of providence is not an impersonal power that doesn’t care about us. The God who controls our world was revealed in Jesus Christ, who loves us and longs for a relationship with us. This is true, even when the worst things we can imagine happen to us. If and when bad things happen we may never understand why. But we are invited to trust that God is in control and God loves us.
Let me share with you three practical ideas about providence. First, providence leads to gratitude. When good things come into our lives we have someone to thank. We all have those moments when our hearts are filled with joy, when we are aware of the blessings that surround us, when we know that life is good. To whom does an atheist say “Thank you”? The blessings of your life are not there just because you are better than others, or because you’ve worked harder, but because God loves you and chose to bless you. The way to respond to that is to say “Thank you.” Friends, God is the author of everything good in your life. Therefore, give thanks for the blessings of your life.
Second, providence encourages us to be patient in adversity. We all have times when we are going to struggle. Life is hard – whether we struggle with our health, our job, our relationships or something else. Whether we say that God allowed the struggle or even caused the struggle, God is using the struggle to work in your life. God is using the struggle to shape you into the person he wants you to be. Therefore be patient.
In the midst of the struggle I encourage you to say a prayer something like this:
God, this stinks! I don’t understand it and I certainly don’t like it. But I’m going to trust that you are in control and that nothing happens that is outside of your mercy. Please, help me through this as I cling to you for you are my only hope.”
The providence of God means we can give thanks for our blessings and we can be patient in the midst of our struggles.
Third, providence allows us to let go of our worries about the future. God is in control of our past, our present, and our future. That means we don’t need to be afraid. Fear and worry are big part of our lives and cause us all sorts of pain. I’m not talking about the obvious fears – snakes or spiders or heights. I’m talking about the fears that most of the time we can’t even name: fear of being abandoned or ignored; fear of being known with all our weaknesses and struggles; fear of what might happen to our children, or to the church, or to our country. Faith in the providence of God means that we know God loves us and is in control of our world, of this church, of our lives. When we believe in the providence of God we can let go of our fears and worries.
This has been a difficult sermon. The providence of God is not an easy topic. It doesn’t fully explain the problem of evil and it must never be used against someone who is struggling. However, the doctrine of providence is intended to bring us comfort and assurance. The God who controls the universe and controls our lives, loves us. He provides for us. “God Will Take Care of You.”
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall nether reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion” II.2.15
New Life in the Spirit
This weekend, my daughter had planned to go backpacking on the Laurel Highlands Trail. She and a friend were going to hike out by Beam Rocks. They canceled the trip because of the weather. I was at Beam Rocks four or five years ago and it has a wonderful view. I doubt if the view was as good yesterday. Last weekend I went hiking at Deer Lakes Park. It was beautiful – the wildflowers were spectacular.
Most of the time when I go hiking I find myself longing to see what is at the end of the trail or what’s over the next mountain. I remember a time I was out in Colorado, hiking in the foothills outside of Colorado Springs. It was a beautiful, sunny day in May. I walked up a valley and came up to the top of a ridge that looked out over another valley. Across that second valley I could see Pikes Peak. It was spectacular. It had snowed several days earlier so the mountains were white. The sky was a brilliant blue. I found a tree that had fallen and the snow had melted around it, so I sat down, and just enjoyed the beauty. I was overwhelmed by the majesty and glory. A sense of awe welled up from deep inside.
As I sat there, I found myself wishing I could climb Pikes Peak, wishing I could explore the other side of the mountains I could see. I felt a pull to keep exploring, a tug on my heart. My body and the amount of time I have usually limits what I can do, but that longing toward the mountains is usually there. I believe that this tug on our hearts, is a symbol of the spiritual life. It points to the desire we all have to draw close to God.
This urge to connect with God, and to grow in our faith, is inherent in everyone. It is part of being human. We were created with a desire to know God and experience God. Augustine, the great theologian from the 4th century, put it best. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God." This morning, my hope is to invite you to become aware of this urge in your life. I want to encourage you to start or continue your own spiritual journey. I want to challenge you to live, to be fully alive.
To be fully alive, to be fully human, is to be on a journey of faith. It is to be growing in our relationship with God. I know that some of you are already doing that. You are spiritually alive. You are pursuing a relationship with God. You are being filled with the fullness of God. I rejoice in that and encourage you to continue.
Mike Davis, my best friend from seminary, talked on the phone yesterday. He is a pastor outside of Nashville, TN. He started a group in his church of people who were going to commit thirty days, fifteen minutes a day, to praying and reading the Bible. At the end of the thirty days they got together and talked about their experience. One man was 82 years old. He had been in the church his whole life. He’d came to church regularly, had served on Session and several different committees. His comment about the thirty days was that he never knew that you could have a relationship with God. He had been a Sunday Christian his whole life and didn’t know that God wanted to be part of his life the other six days of the week.
That may describe some of you here this morning. You’ve never started on a spiritual journey. There are probably others here who at one point were growing in your faith, but something happened and you stopped. Maybe it was a crisis of some sort, or just the busyness of life. Other activities started filling up your time and God was put on the back burner. Since then you’ve been going through the motions of being a Christian but you aren’t growing in your faith.
If that describes you right now, I invite you to become aware of that longing for God, that tug on your heart. Let me ask you a few questions – is your faith strong enough to deal with a crisis that overwhelms you? Will your faith hold up and bring you comfort when someone you love dies? Or when the doctor says you have cancer? Or you lose your job? Being a Christian does not mean that God is going to make life easy and we will never need to struggle or deal with pain. Being a Christian involves finding hope and comfort in the midst of our struggles and pain. That hope comes from a growing relationship with God.
If you are aware of that tug on your heart toward God, there is good news. If you have a desire to continue on your spiritual journey, if you want a faith that will carry you through the trials of life, here is the good news:
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in our lives, we can grow in our faith.
Today is Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. It is the day we celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. The verses that Dave read this morning, for the call to worship and then for the first Scripture lesson, tell the story of that first Pentecost. The disciples were together and a wind from heaven filled the house they were in. Tongues of fire touched each one of them. They spoke in different languages, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to people from all over the world. Peter then got up and preached his first sermon. Dave read part of that sermon. Peter went on to talk about Jesus and at the end of his sermon three thousand people became followers of Jesus.
This story in Acts, and the ones that follow, show us the presence and power of the Holy Spirit bringing new life. Peter is transformed from a cowardly follower of Jesus into the leader of the church. Just a couple of months earlier Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus. He was afraid for his life. Here he is, standing up in front of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and Jews from all over the world, preaching about Jesus. Later on in Acts there is an even more incredible transformation. The presence of the Holy Spirit transformed Paul from one who persecuted Christians into a follower of Jesus Christ who went all over the world telling people about Jesus. The Spirit brings new life and helps us on our journey of faith.
In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis paints a wonderful picture of Pentecost and the Spirit bringing new life. After Aslan is killed by the evil, White Witch, she goes off to attack Aslan’s followers. Aslan comes back to life – that is the resurrection. Then he goes to the castle of the White Witch. There are statues all over the castle; dwarves, beavers, dogs, unicorns, foxes and fauns. These statues are creatures that had been turned into stones by the White Witch. Aslan breathes on the statues and they come back to life. It is the breath of Aslan that brings new life.
Breathe. In invite you to take a deep breath. Breathe. The Spirit, the breath of God, brings new life. Take another breath, breathing in the Spirit. Breathe. The Holy Spirit transforms us and helps us to grow in our faith. If you feel the pull of God on your heart, if you have a desire to be fully alive and growing in your faith, if you want to continue your journey of faith, then breathe. Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your life again and to fill you with new life. “Breathe on me Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-17, 27
By Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
When we enter into a community of faith, we’re not graduating, we’re matriculating. In the journey of faith, we don’t cross the finish line at the new members’ class, the seminary graduation, or the installation at the new church. We are always merely beginning a new lap of a race. Daniel & Copenhaver This Odd Wondrous Calling p56
One Sunday a fire and brimstone preacher preached at Presbyterian Church. His basic preaching philosophy was to scare the hell out of people so that they want to go to heaven. He got up into the pulpit and said, “Every member of this church is going to die and face the wrath of Almighty God.” He had a scowl on his face to express the gravitas to his message. He noticed a man sitting in one of the front pews who had a smile on his face. That wasn’t the response he wanted. He wanted fear and trembling. He repeated himself. “Every member of this church is going to die and face the wrath of Almighty God.” Most of the people in the sanctuary had the appropriate look, rather shaken and disturbed, but this man in the front still smiled. This preacher didn’t understand how someone could smile with such terrible news, so he asked him. “How can you be happy with the message that every member of this church is going to die?” The man said, “I’m not a member of this church!”
This morning our session met and five people became new members of Sharon church. At the end of the sermon we are going to welcome them publicly. This raises the question for me, “Why membership?” I’m sure we can all think of people who are members of a church who live their lives in a way that no one would know that they are Christians. At the same time we can think of people who are not members of a church yet they support the church financially and live in a way that puts to shame many Christians. What difference does membership make?
One author claimed that the concept of membership actually started with the church. In our modern world we have watered down the meaning of membership. When I was a pastor at Beulah Church I was a member of Sam’s Club. The church paid for a membership for all of the staff so we could buy things there. When I left Beulah that membership ended. I am a member of our YMCA, AAA and Best Buy, and probably several other places. Do those memberships have the same meaning as being a member of a church?
Technically, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church tells us that there are two benefits of being a church member. First, if you are a member of a Presbyterian church you can be an elder or deacon, or serve on the Pastor Nominating Committee in a church. Second, if you come to a congregational meeting you can vote. Aren’t those exciting reasons to join a church?
I admit a little sarcasm in that statement. Part of me doesn’t really care if a person is a member or not. What is really important is accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior coming to worship and growing in your faith, not having your name on the membership role of a church. However, I would like to suggest that there are certain benefits that come from being a member.
I’d like to share several of those benefits with you this morning. Before I do that, let me remind you that benefits always come with responsibilities. There is always a flip side to these benefits. For every advantage there is also an expectation.
First, one of the benefits of becoming a member of a church is that it provides the opportunity to make a commitment. To join a church is to say to the world “I belong to Jesus and to this particular church.”
Years ago my parents went to a wedding that really bothered them. The vows that the couple made said something about being married “until our love ends.” It wasn’t a commitment until life ends, but only we stop loving each other. In our day and age it seems as if couples living together without the commitment of marriage has become the norm. The rationale is that “we want to see if it is going to work.” The problem with that is that the divorce rate is higher among couples who have lived together first. The lack of commitment makes it harder to sustain the marriage. Every married couple knows that there are times when your love will strengthen your commitment, but there are also times when you need your commitment to strengthen your love.
Whether it is in marriage or joining a church, commitment will strengthen your relationship. If you want to keep growing in your faith, if you want a faith that goes deep enough to survive the greatest struggles of life and death, if you want a faith that will carry you through the greatest struggles of life, then you need commitment. Joining a church is one act of commitment.
Second, becoming a member of a church gives you an identity. Peter tells us that as Christians we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). Through Jesus we have become God’s beloved children. Joining a church includes proclaiming our faith in Christ, which gives us our identity.
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, when God looks at you he doesn’t see your sin and your weakness. God doesn’t look at you and see that you went through a divorce, or that you failed in your career, or that you have an alcohol problem, or that your kids have walked away from the church. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God looks at you and sees Jesus. That is your identity.
Several years ago I received a letter from my college. It was a typical alumni letter asking for money. The catch was that they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the college. The letter said that over the years the school had six different names: Humboldt State Normal School; Humboldt State Teachers College and Junior College; Humboldt State Teachers College; Humboldt State College; California State University, Humboldt; Humboldt State University. The list of names ended with this statement. “However, the name is much less important than the place.” Is a name really that insignificant?
When we were putting together the bulletin this week we had some confusion about how to spell the names of our new members. Is Stacy, S T A C E Y or just S T A C Y? Is Stephen spelled with a v or a ph? Or maybe it’s S T E P H A N. Or do you prefer “Steve?” And Hepzibah, we have probably misspelled your name several times since you’ve been here. I hope we spelled your names right. If not, please let us know. You would probably be gracious, but our names give us our identity. We want others to get that right.
When you join the church you are making a commitment to Jesus Christ and you are affirming your ultimate identity. Through Jesus you are God’s beloved children.
Third, membership brings with it a community. Membership means that you belong to this church. Peter doesn’t say that you are a chosen individual, or a holy person who belongs to God. “You are a chosen people, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9). We are part of a community.
Dwight Moody, the great evangelist of the 19th century, went to visit a man who had heard the Christian message but was still wrestling with being a Christian. It was a cold winter night. They sat by the fireplace and talked for several hours. This man argued that a person could be saved, could be a good Christian, without being part of a church. Moody listened for a while, then got up out of his chair. He walked over to the fireplace. He took the poker and pulled a flaming coal. At first he held it up in the air, and the flame went out. Then he put it on the stone hearth. Moody watched as the coal slowly faded and went out. He turned and looked at the man, and still said nothing. After a long silence the man replied, “Mr. Moody, you have made your point. Apart from the rest of the fire, the ember goes out.” We need to belong. To keep our faith alive we need the community of faith.
The great joy is that when we join the church we become part of the community of faith. We are no longer alone in this thing we call life. We have others who help us and support us. We are surrounded by people who will be there for us when we need help. We belong.
The fourth benefit of being a member is worship. We can certainly worship when we are by ourselves, and we should. Everyone ought to be spending time on a regular basis praying and reading the Bible. However, we also need to worship together, as the body of Christ.
There is a story of a wealthy European nobleman who wanted to build a church in the mountain village where he lived. After it was completed, the people gathered for the grand opening of the cathedral. They marveled at its beauty. It was a masterpiece. But someone asked, “It’s dark in here. Where are the lamps? How will the church be lighted?” The nobleman pointed to some brackets on the walls. Then he gave each family a lamp and said, “Each time you are here, the place where you will be seated will be lighted. Each time you aren’t here, that place will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to worship, some part of God’s house will be dark.”
One of the most important things you can do as a member of a church is come to worship. I know that I am a better preacher and the choir sings better and we all worship better when the sanctuary is full. I don’t want to become legalistic about it, but one of the greatest gifts you can give to this church is coming on Sunday morning. One of the responsibilities of church membership is coming to worship.
There is also a great benefit to belonging to a church and coming to worship. Let’s be honest, there are times when we don’t feel very spiritual. There are times when we really don’t want to come to worship. There are times we would rather stay home, or go out to the golf course or go early to a Pirates game or a Steelers game. The beauty of belonging to a church and going to worship is that you don’t have to feel spiritual to worship. You don’t have to have a sense of God’s presence to worship. You don’t have to read and study the Scriptures to hear God speak. Hopefully the preacher does that for you. You don’t need a heart that is lifted up and feeling joy to join in the praise of God. The choir will do that for you. You don’t have to want to pray to benefit from the prayers of the congregation. When our faith is weak, when we are struggling with God, when life has knocked us down, all we need to do to worship is show up. Sometimes, the rest of the members of the church will do all of the work of worship for you. And you can receive the benefit.
Why membership? Membership gives us the opportunity to express our commitment to Jesus Christ. Membership gives us our identity. Membership gives us a community. Membership helps us worship. And so, today we celebrate five new members of the church.