Monday, May 23, 2016

The Story 15. God's Messengers

Readings: Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 6:12-15,1 Kings 18:18-39
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 22nd, 2016

In South Africa in 1861 a bishop, by the name of John Colenso, published a series of controversial papers on the earliest books of the Bible. He was a charismatic leader and when the Episcopalian church branded him a heretic, many sided with the bishop rather than the church. Others felt the church was right in upholding her standards, and it became something of an unholy mess.

Over in Windsor, England, there was a young clergyman by the name of Thomas Stone, who was both distressed by the bishop's actions and wanted to offer something to the debate. Bishop Colenso is forgotten, but the hymn Thomas Stone wrote has survived.

It is number 442 in our Church hymnal. “The Churches One Foundation, is Jesus Christ her Lord.”. The verses speak of how “The world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” His great hope is that all Christians will be recalled to faithfulness and once again declare “One Lord, One Faith, One Birth.” Whenever the church is in conflict, this hymn has proved to be a prophetic voice that recalls us to what is important... namely faith in Jesus Christ our one Lord and Savior.

Throughout history God has raised up individuals to challenge the people of God to return to faithfulness. In our journey through “The Story” we have reached chapter 15 which focuses on a group of people in the Old Testament known as prophet's; “God's Messengers.” Their task is to speak God's word into situations where faithfulness had become questionable.

The prophets are all very different characters. In Chapter 15 we meet just four of them. Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. They teach us is that everyone of us has a voice. Every one of us the capacity to be a world changer.

Elijah is known for his confrontation on Mount Carmel with King Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. He challenges them to call down fire from heaven to light a bonfire upon which a sacrificial offering has been made. There are 450 prophets of Baal and one Elijah.

When nothing happens he taunts them, suggesting that Baal might be taking a siesta or on vacation or might just be deep in thought. After their unsuccessful attempt Elijah invites them three times to pour water on the bonfire. At Elijah's bidding, the fire falls, the people see what has happened and declare “The Lord – He is God, The Lord – He is God.” Faithfulness returns. At least for a moment. Jezebel the Queen is not impressed. She decides that Elijah needed to be dealt with and orders his execution.

The conflict leaves Elijah exhausted and fearing for his life. As the people quickly turn back to their idolatrous ways he has severe doubts about his call and his ability and ends up hiding in a cave. There is nothing new about “Burn-Out.”

But God comes to where he is and reveals God's presence in a gentle and beautiful way. We read 1 Kings 19:11-13 “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. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

In the stillness, with a gentle whisper, God speaks and reassures him. When Elijah protests his loneliness, God let's him know that there were actually “Seven thousand in Israel whose knees had not bowed down to Baal” (1Kings 19:18). God speaks to Elijah about how the witness would continue through one who becomes for a time Elijah's servant, the prophet Elisha.

Time passes. The mantle of prophet passes from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha has a very different mission to that of Elijah. Elisha's mission is not defined by confrontation, but by compassion.

He secures the release of soldiers from Aram and effects a peaceful resolution to their conflict. He promises a barren woman she will be with child and then later brings that child back from the dead. He heals Namaan of leprosy. He saves a widow and her sons from starvation through a jar of oil that never runs out.

There's a great passage where Elisha reveals to a servant that people of God were never alone. The servant is in the midst of battle and sees that they are surrounded. We pick up the story in 2 Kings 6:5-11 "Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see." Then the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

The early Celtic church used to speak about their being a great unseen cloud of witnesses that are traveling with us as we make our pilgrimage through life. In the company of angels and the company of saints we walk within the presence of God. Back in my homelands the theme tune for Liverpool Football Club, sung on the terraces every game
was the anthem “You'll never walk alone.”

Whenever we make a stand, be it a bold venture like Elijah, or through multiple acts of compassion like Elisha, we may feel like we are part of a remnant, but God intervenes to remind us that whilst we may feel like we are going against the crowd, the crowd is going in the wrong direction!

Which brings us to Amos. Amos comes on the scene during the reign of Uzziah in Judah and Jereboam in Israel. Though he was from Judah, his ministry takes place among Israel. At this stage in Israel's story, some in Samaria have grown incredibly wealthy. They have built their mansions on the backs of the poor. Such inequality was not what God had in mind for God's chosen people.

In Amos 3:8-10 we read 'The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken; who can but prophesy? Proclaim ... "Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria; see the great unrest within her and the oppression among her people. They do not know how to do right," declares the LORD, "they store up in their fortresses what they have plundered and looted." '

In chapter after chapter Amos catalogs their excesses, the legal system that was biased in favor of the rich, the prophets who spoke lies and told them all was well, the plight of those who were bottom of the food chain and the complacency of those who were at the top. He criticizes their worship, because though they honored him with their lips, their hearts were far away. For a while they would enjoy prosperity, but the time was coming when it was all going to be stripped away.

Amid his words of judgment he pleads for them to repent and he maintains that God's plans would not be thwarted. Though they were unfaithful, God remained faithful and would one day lift up again the house of David that they had so little regard for.

Hardly surprisingly Amos's ministry it is not met with a warm reception. In Amos 7:12 King Amaziah comes to him and say "Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don't prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king's sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom."

Amos explains that he would be happy to do that, because he was just a shepherd who also looked after a few vines on the hillsides, but God had told him to speak to Israel, so how could he not do as he was told?

Our final prophet is Hosea. Amos had a heart for social justice. Hosea's concern is the idolatry that had gripped the people of Israel and drawn them away from the one true God.

Hosea describes it as a form of adultery and prostitution, something he vividly illustrates by marrying an unfaithful wife called Gomer. Through her he has two children, Lo-Ruhamah (which means "not loved") and a son called Lo-Ammi (which means "not my people") He describes the people of Israel as being, like Gomer, unfaithful spouses who were “Not loved” and “Not my people.” Harsh words. If ever you wanted to write a book called “A rough guide to extreme prophets” Hosea would be number 1 on the list.

Hosea 4:1-2 “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”

In chapter 3 of the prophet, Hosea's relationship with Gomer is restored. This is an illustration that though Israel were unfaithful, God would never stop loving them or trying to win them back to faithfulness.

Messengers of God come in many forms and address many different situations. We've seen a number of them. Elijah, who boldly challenges and ridicules false prophets. Elisha who demonstrates a mission of compassion and healing. Amos who cries out against social injustice. Hosea who admonishes the people of God to recognize the serious consequences their unfaithfulness would bring and return to the God who held them accountable, yet in love, refused to give up on them.

What unites them is that they are individuals speaking out of the conviction that their voice counted. They refuse to keep silent. In the face of false religion, they call it out. When confronted by suffering, they act. They expose injustice. They remind people that they are responsible for the outcome of their unfaithfulness.

Solo voices. Words that go against the tide spoken from within communities that are not the majority. Isn't that also the call of each one of us? To speak out? Not because it's easy. Not because we are somehow special or gifted. But speak about the things God has put on our hearts.

We can't leave that up to somebody else. What if Elijah had kept silent? What if Elisha had refused to act. What if Amos had stayed home with his sheep? What if Hosea had not obeyed God?

Never underestimate the power of your voice to change the world. You have a mission. You are called to be worldchangers. God has given every one of us a mission field. It is called “Our daily life.”

Be aware, there is no one way of acting in a prophetic manner. For Thomas Stone, as he saw his church ravaged by schism and discord, his call, back in the 1860's, was to write a song. A hymn that still speaks to us today to remind us that our center is Jesus Christ.

Some are called to serve food. Some are called to write letters or organize campaigns. Some to blog. Some to march. Some to protest. Some to quietly do subversive acts of kindness. Christians are called to be world changers. When Jesus said, “Go into all the World” I think He meant it! We are all God's messengers.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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