Sunday, December 2, 2007



(Ventriloquism with a raven puppet)

· R: Eh, what’s up, Doug?

· D: You can talk!

· R: I can sing, too: “These are the days of Elijah...”

· D: A talking and singing raven; who knew? – and I told my kids that animals can't talk.

· R: Well most can't, you know.

· D: No kidding.

· R: In fact, only a very special family of ravens can talk.

· D: How did you learn?

· R: Well we ravens have a story about that – it happened a long time ago.

· D: Hmmm… That gives me an idea. Do you know what I’m thinking?

· R: Of course not; do I look like a magic trick to you?

· D: Well… I was just about to tell a story – so how about you tell your story, and I'll tell mine.

· R: OK. It all starts with my great, great, great, great, great, …

· D: Hold up. How many times were you going to say “great”

· R: One thousand two hundred and fifty four.

· D: You’re raven mad… what comes after all those greats?

· R: “Grandpa.”

· D: Ah. Do you think we could skip all those greats and just talk about your grandpa?

· R: OK…

· D: Go ahead.

· R: Well, God talked to…grandpa.

· D: God talked to a raven?

· R: Believe me, it was a surprise to grandpa, too!

· D: Go on.

· R: God asked grandpa to go get some food, and bring it to this man down by a creek.

· D: Hey, that story reminds me of a story I know.

· R: And this man's name was Elijah.

· D: I knew it was familiar. Elijah was fed by ravens! We have that story, too!

· R: No way!

· D: Yes way!

· R: That is so cool.

· D: It is true. In 1 Kings Chapter 17. Elijah had just told King Ahab that it wasn't going to rain for three and a half years. But he knew that the king wasn't very nice, and so as soon as he told this to the king, he ran away and hid beside the brook. And God told ravens to bring Elijah food! I suppose Elijah taught your grandpa to talk?

· R: Grandpa even followed Elijah around after the brook dried up, when God told him to go and live with a widow in a place called Zar... Zara...

· D: Zaraphath

· R: That's the place, thanks.

· D: You're welcome.

· R: And then, finally, God told Elijah it was time to tell King Ahab to get ready for rain.

· D: Yes, yes! That's one of my all-time favorite stories from the Bible. In fact, I was just about to tell that story to the boys and girls.

· R: Well tell away.

· D: Would you mind? My arm is starting to get tired.

· R: No worries. I can listen just fine down under [the pulpit].

So Elijah was public enemy number one in Israel. If they had paper in those days, they would have put his picture up on billboards with "Have you seen this man?" or "Wanted". He was "wanted" all right: King Ahab knew that if Elijah didn't come back, it might never rain again.

But why did Elijah make it stop rain, anyway? Well, you see, the King of Israel had gone and married the daughter of the King of Lebanon. Not cool. Her name was Jezebel, and she didn't believe in God. Instead, she brought with her an idol which she called Baal. She wanted everybody in Israel to worship her idol. And God wasn't too happy about that. So along comes Elijah who says that it won’t rain at all until he says so. You see, this idol that Jezebel called Baal was supposed to be the god of rain. Jezebel and her followers prayed to Baal so that the rain would come. Can a chunk of rock make it rain? Of course not. And Elijah told the king so: "you are trusting Baal to bring you rain -- but that’s a waste of time: God is in charge of the rain, and to prove it, the rain is going to stop for the next three years." By the time the king realizes that he has to take Elijah seriously, Elijah is hiding at the creek teaching grammar to the ravens. King Ahab tried everything he can think of to make it rain, but nothing worked. Now Elijah has come back and announces that the rain will start again. And this is where the story gets really exciting.

Elijah tells the king to meet him on Mount Carmel, to bring all the priests of Baal, and to get representatives from all the towns in the land. This was one of the history's first theological conventions, and Elijah was the keynote speaker. So everyone arrives at the top of the mountain, and Elijah stands up and this is what he says: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." You see, the people, for the most part, didn’t want to give up on God entirely. They could see that God's justice was always a good thing when times were unfair, and his mercy was always a good thing when we didn't behave perfectly. So people kept behaving as if they believed in God. The trouble was that they wanted to believe in God and also believe in Baal. Today, we don't have Baal. But there are many who would like to believe in God and also put their faith in money. Or in power. Or in pleasure. Or in friends. Or in education. Those are today’s idols, and some people think that they can bring success or prosperity, but success and prosperity only ever come from God. And Elijah was saying to the people of Israel thousands of years ago and is saying to us today: “don't play games with God.” Believing in God is a serious matter. Serious commitment. Serious joy. Serious compassion. Seriously abundant life. But as soon as we think we can dilute God with little bits of this world, God might politely excuse himself: "Do you think that you can do better than me?" he says. "Be my guest." We shouldn’t imagine that we can play games with God.

But then the story begins to get really dramatic. It is showdown time. On one hand, there are four hundred and fifty priests of Baal. On the other hand, there was Elijah. To all the people standing around, it might have looked like the odds were stacked against Elijah. But was Elijah alone? Not at all. God was with Elijah. Those priests didn't stand a chance. The rules of the game were simple: Each team had a bull and a bunch of wood; each team was to take their bull, kill it, and prepare it for a sacrifice, but they weren't allowed to light any fire. Do you remember that Baal was supposed to be in charge of rain? Well, that means he was also supposed to be in charge of lightning. So once again the people thought that the game was unfair to Elijah. But can an idol make thunder or lightning? Of course not. Finally, Elijah gave the other team a big head start. And I mean big. He didn't just give them lots of extra time, he also gave himself a serious disadvantage. He asked some people to go down the mountain to the ocean and fill up four big jars with water and to bring them up and pour them all over his bull. Then he asked them to do it again, and then a third time. And then, then, just when the sun is going down, the altar is dripping with water and the ditch around the altar is full of water, then Elijah prays to God. "Let it be known," he prays. "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known that you are God in Israel." And *boom*. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the sacrifice, and the altar, and the water – it all vaporizes. Talk about drama. Talk about victory. The Bible says that all the people fell on their faces and cried, "The Lord is God." yes!

Before we go any further, let me tell you what I think about the fire that came down from heaven. Now God could have easily just “poofed” the altar and the sacrifice with fire. He can do what he wants. But I don’t think that he did. God often likes to use the universe as it is. Some people think that it was lightning. But I don't. You know why? It hadn't rained for three and a half years. A little later on in chapter eighteen, Elijah prays for rain, but he waits for hours for the first cloud to appear in the sky. And we usually need clouds before we have lightning. So if it wasn't lightning, then it might have been a meteorite. Giving God credit for leading Elijah into the path of a meteorite is by no means irreverent. You see, it couldn’t have been just any meteorite. It had to be just the right size. If it was any smaller, it would have burned up before hitting the altar. If it was any bigger, it could have destroyed the entire mountain. And it had to be just the right material. Most meteors are made of gas, and they never make it to the surface of the earth. But if a meteorite is made of iron, then it heats up as it zooms through the atmosphere. But not only did the meteorite have to be the right size and the right material. It had to come at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right place. Meteorites travel at approximately fifty kilometers per second. That means that when Elijah started his prayer, the meteorite was more than one thousand kilometers away. From that far away, the slightest deflection would cause the meteorite to miss the altar. One thousandth of a degree off course, and the meteorite would have missed the altar by 17 meters, which is probably right where the king was standing, but no matter. God knew where that meteorite was going to land, and God knew when it was going to land, and God gave instructions to Elijah, and Elijah obeyed those instructions so closely that we have a fabulous convergence. That's a big word, isn't it? But convergence means that everything came together just perfectly. And God loves it when a plan comes together.

Let me tell you a story of convergence from my own life. It might sound crazy. I still smile every time I think about it. But it is entirely true. It happened some time ago, during a rough patch at the company I worked for. One day, R. came to my desk with a rumor. And this wasn't a very good rumor: R. had heard that there were going to be some serious lay-offs at the company, and in particular he had heard that there would be layoffs in my group. And then on his way from my desk he said, "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket on my way home." What an odd thing to say, I thought. But then, as the day went on, I started wondering what I might do if I was laid off, and, well, at the time, the prospects didn't seem very good. But I would never do something as foolish as buy a lottery ticket, I told myself. Besides, I wasn't carrying any money. And I reached my hand into my pocket, and there was a loose twonie. How did that get there? I wondered.

So for the first time in my life, I started giving serious thought to lottery tickets. Not to get rich, mind you; I knew better than to ask for a jackpot. But there are second and third prizes that would help you get on your feet if you lost your job, for example. But I still didn't think that buying a lottery ticket was the thing to do, so I had an idea. The bank was a little out of my way to the train from the office. But every time I had gone to the bank, I had seen a panhandler asking for money. No problem, I thought, I'll take the long way to the train past the bank, and I'll give the twonie to the panhandler. That way I won't have to think about lottery tickets. And so I did. There was one problem: he wasn’t there that day. So I got on the train with that twonie still in my pocket, and I wondered. Raimondo coming to my desk and mentioning lottery tickets… a twonie in my pocket that I don't remember getting… the panhandler not in his normal spot… could this be God's way to help me out if I were to lose my job?

So I prayed. I prayed that God would give me some kind of a nudge if he actually wanted me to buy a lottery ticket. And I settled into my seat, and started to read my book on the train. The next thing that I knew, the conductor was saying, "prochain arret/next stop Beaurepaire", Beaurepaire??? I was jarred out of my comfort. For the first and only time in my life I had missed my train stop. In those days, I was supposed to get off at the Beaconsfield station, and we had already passed that station. What a delightful answer to prayer, I thought. How? Let me tell you. You see, I'd usually have to walk past the plaza to get home from the train. But there were just houses between the Beaurepaire station and home: no place to buy a ticket at all.

Now usually, having to walk two and a half kilometers would have been a drag. But it was a nice summer day; there was a bit of a breeze, and I was really very amused by what I thought must be God's way of telling me I didn't need to buy a lottery ticket. In fact, I'm pretty sure I smiled most of that long walk home. There was one break in the smiling, however, when my face must have looked something like this...and that happened when, well, when the wind blew a small something across my path. And then the wind changed direction, and that small something landed there, directly in front of me, no more than two steps away. I reached down and, to my exceeding amusement, picked up...a lottery ticket. Now if you find a lottery ticket on the ground, the chance is pretty high that it is a discard from a previous draw. So I checked. Nope. The piece of paper that the wind blew into my path, that lottery ticket was indeed for the upcoming Saturday draw. The chance of all these things happening together was crazy tiny. Not as crazy tiny as praying in the path of a meteorite, but crazy tiny nonetheless. Even smaller, incidentally, than winning the lottery! Convergence. Something that God loves to arrange for his children.

In fact, the whole universe is a fabulous convergence of physical laws. If the pull of gravity wasn’t exactly what it is now, if the other intra-atomic forces weren’t precisely as they are, the universe would look altogether different, and it almost certainly wouldn’t support life as we know it. God is in the business of beating the odds. Convergence was in play in our salvation, too: the Bible says that “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us.”

So you might be wondering about that lottery ticket. No, it wasn’t a winner. But then, I didn’t lose my job either. Now hold on, you might be thinking: if the ticket wasn’t a winner, then what was the point? That’s a good question! And I don’t exactly know why God permits these things to happen, either – but that brings us back to the story of Elijah, because it isn’t clear that Elijah’s work on Mount Carmel was a winner either. You see, the Bible doesn’t suggest that Elijah’s momentous confrontation with evil was “successful” in any lasting or meaningful way. The object of the exercise was (18:37) “that the people would know that the LORD is God.” And sure, the people who saw the fire come down were in awe, but Jewish tradition says that, “In spite of Elijah's many miracles the great mass of the Jewish people remained as godless as before.” In chapter 19, Elijah complains to God: “[Your people] have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death.” The people were like those in the parable, where Jesus says: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if [they see a mighty miracle] (Luke 16:31)” Big miracle, but no success. And, naturally, this lack of success depresses Elijah no end. That simply means that he was human, and reacted like you or me. In fact, Elijah was so depressed, only twelve verses after fire came down from heaven, we read this: “[Elijah] came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’”

Some days, we might be tempted to think that we are called to confront evil in the world. But it is interesting that Elijah, the most successful confronter of evil in history did not achieve the results he was hoping for. Instead, he was driven to the conclusion that he was no better than anyone else. Perhaps we need to reach this same conclusion.

So Elijah was naturally heartbroken. But if we’ve ever been depressed or heartbroken there is good news for us in the Bible. God takes no time to criticize Elijah for his depression. Rather, God makes sure that Elijah gets some rest, and gets some food, and finds other work to do – a very sensible remedy for depression indeed. It is as if this is the way the story was meant to turn out in the first place. Unfortunately for Elijah, God didn’t provide the script to him in advance. And God doesn’t give us the script of our lives in advance either.

As nice as it might be for God to fall in line and make our lives turn out the way in which we know that they “should”, life doesn’t usually work that way. God’s ways are higher than our ways after all. Being human, Elijah had certain expectations for the results of his obedience. Perhaps you do, too. Some Christians imagine that our faithfulness must make things turn out the way we prefer. That is not to say that our preferences are self-centered. We might very well have God-honoring preferences. Elijah wanted desperately for the people of Israel to return to God. We might want our family’s stability, or the salvation of dear relative, or for a friend to be healed, or the success of a business that employs a number of people. But you can’t always get what you want, and when what we want involves other people, God makes no promises; all bets are off.

So how do we understand the story of Elijah? Elijah was in perfect sync with what God wanted, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t get what he wanted. And so Elijah was crushed because the people of Israel would not turn back to God. But God shared in Elijah’s pain. In fact, he carried Elijah’s pain, and he continues to carry the pain of all of his children whose heart is broken by a world that doesn’t live up to God’s perfect plan. You see, Elijah didn’t get what he wanted. But he got something better. And not just a little bit better. To set us up for the climax, the Bible says that Elijah received the ultimate cosmic vote of confidence: God took Elijah to heaven in a chariot of fire! That’s right: Elijah never had to die – God took him straight to heaven. How cool is that? But if you can imagine, that’s just the appetizer; it gets even better than that! You see, what Elijah’s wanted most in the world was for God’s children to draw closer to God. His despair was from watching them miss the point – even after witnessing proof of God’s power. And so the final chapter in the story of Elijah takes place some time later, when Elijah has a private conference with God, and God explains His plan to save the world to Elijah in person. Matthew chapter seventeen: Moses and Elijah appear on the Mount of Transfiguration and talk with Jesus.

Moses brought God’s Law to His people. Elijah demonstrated God’s power to His people. But neither Law nor Power are sufficient to save people from themselves. During that conversation on the Mount of Transfiguration, I bet Jesus explained that people’s hearts aren’t won by shock and awe. Proof is good for the head, but rarely reaches the heart. People’s hearts aren’t turned toward God by demonstrations of power, or by the elimination of evil. You see, we can eliminate all the outside evil we want, and it simply doesn’t address the real problem, which is the inside evil. In order to solve that problem, Jesus had to come and die for us – to show us perfect love, to become the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and to take on himself all the pain and all the suffering. Only then can we be washed clean. Only then can we be brought into the Kingdom of God. Only then can we see God’s perfect plan unfolding. We might not fully appreciate how things are going at the moment, but God has an eternity to bless us if we are obedient and faithful like Elijah was.