I was asked to stand in Pastor Jack Marsh at Pleasant Ridge United Methodist Church in Middletown, Ohio. Pleasant Ridge is a small "town and country" congregation in southwest Ohio. Jack is an interim pastor who is helping them through a transitional period and assisting them discern God's call for their congregation.
While the sermon likely changed when I gave it, I reread through it and it still spoke to me. We all need to take a step back from ourselves and ask "what are we doing here?"
Sermon - “Questions God Asks Us: What are you Doing Here?”
1 Kings 19:1-18 (NRSV)
1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
The Power of Questions
Today we are continuing our sermon series on “Questions God Asks Us.” Questions are wonderful things. Whether we want to or not, we answer questions almost automatically. I can ask a question like, “what is your favorite food?” and I bet most of you already answered me in your heads. I can ask things like “Will the Bengals win today?” or “What is your favorite color?” and wham…you have the answer.
Throughout the Bible, God uses questions to focus our attention on what matters most. Last week, you focused on “What is Your Name?” Names are powerful things because they publically declare who we are. Today we are focusing on another question asked in 1 Kings to the prophet Elijah.
The rise of Elijah
For those of you not familiar with Elijah, he is considered one of the greatest prophets, considered only second to Moses. He showed up on the scene with little fanfare, shortly after the splitting of the tribe of Israel into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms after King Solomon’s death.
He first showed up when Ahab, the son of the King of Israel (the northern kingdom) married Jezebel, who was a priestess of Baal and a princess of the King of Phoenicia (now Lebanon & Syria). The majority of the people of the north turned away from God and started worshipping Baal. Baal was the Canaanite god responsible for rain, thunder, lightning, and dew. Worshipping Baal often involved ritual prostitution, child sacrifice and other acts strictly forbidden by God.
To make a long story short, Elijah challenges Ahab to turn away from worshipping Baal, it stops raining for 3 years and then Elijah comes back, proposes a challenge between Baal and God. In the end, it results in 850 extra-crispy prophets of Baal and Asherah. God shows his power in a mighty way.
Now we come into our bible reading for today. Elijah just won a huge victory over Baal. God has ended the drought he brought upon them because of their idolatry. Elijah now comes back to Jezreel, where he expects Ahab and Jezebel to repent, surrender or accept defeat.
Elijah’s pity party
Elijah should be on the mountaintop. He just showed that God is God and Ba’al is not. The people of Israel start turning away from Ba’al and back toward God. Roll credits, the movie is over right?
Nope! Instead, Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, Elijah runs away, hides, wants to die and gives up hope. He goes out into the wilderness to die. In verse 4 he says, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Some would say that Elijah was in a funk. I would say that Elijah was having a spiritual pity party.
He basically believed that everything he did was useless. He believed God couldn’t do anything with it. He lost faith and hope that God could work through it.
He gave up.
Physical Restoration comes before Spiritual Renewal
You see, the story could end right here. God could abandon Elijah and pick another person to carry on his mission. He could have said, “OK, you give up. I’ll go find another prophet.” But he didn’t. God sent an angel (or in some translations, a messenger) to care for him and take care of his physical needs. He gave him food, water, and even a safe place to go so he could get refocused on his mission.
God took him on a journey for 40 days and he ended in a cave on Mt. Horab. God provided for his physical needs and isolated him so he would be willing to listen to God instead of his own self-pity.
Hearing God in Silence…
Now, Elijah was ready to listen to God. Elijah does not hear God in a windstorm, earthquake or fire, but it a sheer silence.
And God comes back with a question…”What are your doing here, Elijah?”
This question forces us to examine our intent. We are forced to answer what we stand for and what we are about. We are forced (almost automatically) to think about the WHY we are where we are and WHY does it matter.
It is only after Elijah answers this question, that God can give him instructions and he can get back on track.
Bringing it to the present…
You see, Elijah’ story is not unique. We all go through periods of depression, loss of hope and even personal pity parties. We become overwhelmed with what life has thrown at us and we are ready to give up. We want to throw in the towel, call it quits and go live in our own proverbial cave for the rest of our lives. Even me…
My cave in Mariemont…
My wife and I went through the same thing about six years ago. She was a seminary student as Asbury Theological Seminary and an Associate Pastor at Epiphany United Methodist Church in Loveland, Ohio. During her time there, we experienced amazing ministry and witnessed explosive growth in the size of the congregation. It started with about 250 people in worship and in less than 3 years, the church grew to almost 800 people attending their services. Kim and I were deeply involved in ministry and felt like we were really serving God in powerful ways.
It was time for Kim to get reappointed and we had high hopes. She was seen as an “up and coming” successful pastor and I was convinced we would get a killer appointment. She paid her dues, worked very hard and I thought we would get a nice congregation out in the suburbs as the next logical step in her career.
February, March, April all came and went. May finally rolled around and I lost hope. The District Superintendent finally called and told Kim her appointment. She was sent to East Price Hill in Cincinnati to a little church called Elberon UMC. Elberon UMC has about 35 people in attendance each week, all over the age of 65. The youngest member of the congregation was retiring from teaching that year. The finances were a shambles. The building had plenty of issues and the church was only open one hour a week for worship.
I was mad. I was upset. I thought we got ripped off. Other pastors got better appointments that Kim deserved and I was torqued at God. I was mad at the United Methodist system for sending us to a dying church with no hope of survival. I tried to be upbeat about it, but we came home after the first Sunday and cried. It felt hopeless. I think Kim was determined to make it work, but I was not really on-board.
In other words…I was having a full on pity party.
Two weeks after we started at Elberon, we left for vacation in Egypt. It was already scheduled and we needed to get away for a much needed vacation. I was able to catch up on sleep, eat some good food, see some awesome sights and reconnect with my family in a way not possible before. We were all a little overwhelmed with the transition, and this gave us all an opportunity to get recharged and listen to God outside of the busyness of our lives.
While we had some downtime on our trip, I was reading my bible and asking God why he sent us to Price Hill. The emotion was out of it, but I wondered what his purpose was in this situation.
I ended up reflecting on my favorite verse in Psalms 46:10 "Be still, and know that I am God.“ I had to ask “What are we doing here?” Was I here to serve God or glorify ourselves? Was I here to have an easy ministry or to serve the least, the last and the lost?
It led me to question if I was willing to let God be God and trust him to help the church be the church. It wasn’t about my or my wife’s ability to make things happen. It was about listening to God’s still small voice, and being willing to following the instructions as they are given.
We came back to Price Hill from our vacation and the rest is history. The church made the decision that it was willing to do whatever it took to reconnect with the community and reach out for God. Our first school fair happened about a month later with over 300 people from the community coming onto the church parking lot.
Over the next five years, church attendance grew to almost 130 and we, as a congregation, launched a number of programs, served thousands of meals, coats and school supplies to help the community. Our last year at Elberon, we handed out between 750 and 1,000 school bags in an hour and a half and had well over 1,000 people from the neighborhood come to our school fair.
God answered our question of “what are you doing here?” We were bringing hope to the heart of Price Hill.
What about you?
Think about yourself for a minute. When have you been in a spiritual funk? When have you been scared, retreated from the world and wanted it all to go away?
When that happens, are you willing to take a step back and feed yourself physically and spiritually to recharge your batteries so you can listen to God? Are you willing to ask yourself the question, “what are you doing here?”
We all go through spiritually valleys in our lives. It is up to us if we want it to be a time to rest, recharge and renew our commitment to God or stay stuck in it for a long period of time.
What about your church?
I have been involved with hundreds of United Methodist Churches across the conference and the nation. Almost 75% of United Methodist Churches are in decline. Many blame the changing culture, mega-church movement, or people busy schedules on why people do not come to church. It was a bad pastor or set of pastors we had and it is their fault we can’t grow.
Sorry to say, I think it’s a cop-out, a pity-party and an excuse.
Over the past 2,000 years, the church has survived persecution, paganism, massive shifts in technology, plagues, wars, and direct attacks by competing ideas. Through everything, the church has survived and thrived and grown to be the world's largest faith. HOW? By staying true to its call.
Whether is was the early church that saved 3,000 people in one day, Paul's church plants in very hostile environments (called Gentile cities in Asia (now Turkey and Greece)), missionaries in Africa, or Saddleback Church (which started with two people), they grew in pretty foreign or hostile places to the Gospel. Why? It wasn't because they had a ton of money, hit the "demographic" lottery or had a rock-star pastor. It was because they focused on God and God's calling. In other words, they answered God’s question “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
Sometimes, we need to take a time out and get refocused on “what we are doing here?” Are we here to be a country club or hospice for the saints or are we here to serve the community? Are we here to be a small, comfortable country church where we all know one another, or are we actively seeking out and inviting in all those who need God’s grace and love in their lives?
Which one do you think God is calling for this church to do in a still small voice?
We sometimes need to take advantage of “the land between” to recharge and determine how we can most effectively follow God’s call. But we can’t stay there forever. We need to leave our cave and go back into the world, so we can save it. We need to get clear on our church’s unique calling by God to serve the Middletown area and be willing to sacrifice for the sake of others.
So…let me one last question…”Are you willing to do it?”