Monday, June 27, 2016

A Gentile is Healed

This Sunday's Old Testament lesson from II Kings contains an ancient story where the God of Israel grants a miracle to someone from outside the nation of Israel.  The prophet Elisha was on his own after his friend and mentor Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind to heaven so he began to travel through the countryside exhibiting the power of Yahweh to all.  This story concerns a man named Naaman, a commander of an army of Aram, a Gentile and foreigner to the people of Israel.  Even though he is in a position of authority, he has the disease of leprosy, which was feared by all in the ancient world.

A servant girl from the land of Israel who had been captured by the Arameans tells Naaman that the prophet Elisha may have the power to cure him of his leprosy.  So, he went to see Elisha, taking along with him an abundance of gifts to present to him as a token of his thanks for the healing that could come.  Naaman went to Elisha's house and Elisha sent a servant out to meet him with the the command, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."  (II Kings 5:10)

Instead of immediately obeying the prophet, Naaman became angry and went away complaining about the command, thinking that the prophet should have at least come out and seen him personally and performed some kind of incantation to ward off the disease.  He also resented being told to wash in the Jordan River, thinking that the waters of his homeland were cleaner and better than this river in Israel.

Naaman's servant girl helped him come to his senses, however, by asking him if he would not have done something even more difficult than what he had been commanded to do if it would bring his healing.  So, he finally obeyed the word of Elisha and was miraculously made free from his disease.

The result of the miracle was that Naaman believed in the God of the nation of Israel, of whom he knew little.  "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel..." (II Kings 5:15b)  When Naaman saw the result of his obedience to what the prophet had asked him to do, it changed his heart as well as his body.

This story speaks to us as well as to the ancient hearers to which it was addressed.  It spoke of Naaman's humility that he had to achieve in order to obey the word of the prophet.  Naaman had to put aside his own concerns and objections to washing in the Jordan and simply do what the prophet asked him to do so that he could receive his healing.  He had to yield his own ideas and accept those of another in order to gain what he desired so much.  We often have to act in humility also in order to achieve positive results in life.

After returning to Elisha, Naaman demonstrated his healing by returning in a state of submission and knelt before Elisha, identifying himself as a servant to both Elisha and Elisha's God.  He confessed his faith in the God of Israel.  His healing of body and spirit had been accomplished by his obedience to the word of the prophet.

The experience of healing in our own lives is an active process.  The progression from humility to a change of mind to submission and confession translates into a series of actions for our lives.  We must go down, turn around, kneel before and finally stand up before God's power and grace.

Do we have the ability to see and admit our own need, asking for God's presence in our lives?  Can we admit that we too need healing in our lives and are ready to take the steps to allow God to be present and active in our lives?  We believe in an all powerful, all knowing God, one who is aware of who we are and what happens in our lives.  We also believe in a God who cares for each of us and wants our lives to be complete and whole.  If God knows and cares, then perhaps God is ready for us to trust God for what God would provide for our lives so that we would be the most complete people we can be, ready to assist others in their own struggles in life.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Chariots of Fire

There are many supernatural, un-explainable, unbelievable stories in the ancient writings of the Bible.  The miraculous stories are just that...miracle stories that were never meant to be explained.  These stories were recorded in scripture to make a statement about humans and the interaction between God and humans.  The stories say something about the nature of God also.  God is present and involved in the lives of humans and has an overarching plan for all of humankind.  Perhaps the story from the book of II Kings that we have heard preached many times says something to us about God, humans, and the nature of God.

Elijah, the crusty old prophet of old, had done many miraculous things as God used him in ministry to and for the people called Israel.  Elijah represented the covenant that God had established with Israel through Moses in decades past.  The kings of Israel and Judah had imported strange gods into their lands and had encouraged worship to these idols.  Elijah railed against idol worship since it was forbidden by the first commandment given by God to the people of Israel.  Elijah used violence to combat the high priests of Baal and then retreated to the wilderness to hear the voice of God speak to him and reassure him that God was with him and would protect him.  God gave Elijah a coworker in the effort named Elisha and the two of them worked together to do what they felt God had called them to do in their efforts to bring righteousness into the land.

The day came, however, when Elijah's ministry had been completed and God would take him miraculously to the heavens to live with God.  Elisha had been warned at least twice by other prophets in the area that Elijah would soon be leaving.  Elisha could hardly bear the thought of his friend and companion no longer being with him so he tried to put it out of his mind but he was confronted by the reality again and again by others.

So, Elisha asked his friend if he could receive a special blessing to strengthen him once Elijah was no longer nearby.  "...if you see me as I am being taken from you," Elijah promised, "it will be granted you; if not, it will not." (II Kings 2:10b,c).  Elisha stuck close to Elijah the reminder of the day until suddenly a miraculous event occurred.  A chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared in the sky and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  Elisha saw it happen and the mantle that Elijah had been wearing fell to earth.  Elisha picked it up and used it to strike the Jordan River so that the water parted for him just as it had done for Elijah in days of old.  Elisha became the new Elijah that God would use in ministry with a hot and dusty people who needed to know of God's love for them.

This miraculous story says something about God's providential care for human beings.  God cares for all humans on the planet and wants to equip all with the tools to achieve and live a happy and productive life.  Unfortunately, not all humans are prepared to receive what God has provided in the planet and in human life so that they can live better lives.  The rejection of education and learning, the wastefulness and misuse of the resources of earth, and the failure to live in ways that would bring harmony into individual lives has caused some to not grasp the care that God would have for them.

God cared for Elijah as he performed the ministry tasks that God guided him to do.  God cared for Elijah also when it was time for him to leave the earth and go to heavenly places.  God had provided a co-worked for Elijah to assist him in his duties and when it was time for Elijah to leave, God equipped Elisha with the same tools that he needed in order to do ministry in the way that his friend had done.  Elisha received the spiritual energy necessary to work for God in the land and among the people of Israel.

God equips all who seek God and desire to be of service to God and humankind.  God provides all we need to find strength in our bodies and spirits so that we may help others to live in ways that will bring them joy and peace.  When we seek God and ask for God's blessings, God will always provide what we need in order to continue the ministry on behalf of others around us.

God's mantle of blessing falls upon all who seek a deeper understanding of God and how God can be involved in our daily lives.  As we pray and read God's Word and seek the guidance that God would give us in our lives, we will always receive what we need for our future and for that of others.  It does not take a chariot of fire streaking across the sky to open our eyes to God's miraculous universe.  If we look around us with eyes of wonder and curiosity, we will see God's Spirit in action wherever we may look.  It is enough to believe that God is, and that God is the rewarder of all who diligently seek God.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

God is Still Speaking, Quietly

The Old Testament lesson for next Sunday is the story from I Kings of Elijah the prophet running away from the wrath of the evil queen, Jezebel.  Elijah has displeased her by having a contest with the priest of Baal and then doing away with them.  So, Jezebel threatened revenge upon Elijah if she could catch him.  Elijah ran away to the distant wilderness area as most of us would have done also.  God miraculously provided food and water for Elijah while he was in the wilderness and then God is revealed to Elijah through the world around him.

Elijah figured that a God as mighty and powerful as YAHWEH would be revealed in the power of the world around him.  So, when an earthquake happened, Elijah thought God's voice would be heard in the earthquake but it did not happen that way.  Then a fire appeared and Elijah thought that surely God's voice could be heard in the fire but that was not the way it would work either.  After that there was nothing but sheer silence.  No noise at all, just a silence peaceful assurance that Elijah would be okay.

Elijah needed God's assurance that God would care for Elijah even in the midst of the threat that Jezebel had uttered against him.  He told God all that he had done to bring about righteousness in the land of Israel, despite the idolatry that Jezebel and Ahab had instituted in the land.  "I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away," Elijah told God.  (I Kings19:14c)

God listened to Elijah's complaint and, I believe, understood what Elijah needed in order to feel cared for by God.  He needed to know that God knew what he had gone through and that he was not alone.  God's word for Elijah in this instance was: ..."all the knees have not bowed to Baal..." (I Kings 19:18b)  Elijah was not alone in his quest to bring worship to the One God of Israel back in existence in Israel.  There were others who would assist Elijah if he needed them.

Sure enough as he went done the road toward Damascus he met the one who would be his helper, the prophet Elisha.  Elisha was plowing with oxen when Elijah met him and threw his mantle around him.  Then, after making peace with his family, he "set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant."  (I Kings 19:21c)

We all go through times of loneliness and despair.  Perhaps it is because of our ill health or due to circumstances that are beyond our control and we think that no one cares or understands what we are enduring.  We may even think that God does not care for us because we have not recognized God around us in a long time.  We may think that God may speak through something dramatic in our lives and expect it to happen in a thunderstorm as the lightning flashes or when the skies are threatening.  Those circumstances could speak to us but more often God speaks to us in the quiet moments of life when we have the time to really listen for God's voice.

God's voice is often heard in the quiet working out of history such as when the wall of Communism fell in 1989 and suddenly people who had been held captive by an oppressive society experienced personal freedom for the first time in many years.

God's voice is often heard in the daily lives of ordinary people as we are around them.  People quietly doing their jobs in the world often have something to say that encourages us and lifts our spirits, perhaps in the way they smile at us or say something cheerful to us.

God's voice may be heard in the birth of a child or a wedding or even at a funeral.  God is present in joy and in sorrow and there at times that those events make us slow down enough to listen for God to speak to us.

God is still speaking, even in the midst of tragedy.  I am writing this on the day after our country experienced the worst mass murder rampage by a gunman in our the history of our country.  Fifty persons going about their daily lives were murdered by a crazy, hateful person whose own life was taken in the conflict also.  God did not cause this event to happen but God wept for those whose lives were taken by this act of violence and hatred.  And in the midst of  the bloodshed and confusion, God was present and speaking through the actions of courage and bravery and love as humans helped other humans in need and as first responders worked diligently to save the lives of many who were wounded by this madman with a gun.

God still loves humanity and God still speaks even in the darkest of hours to reassure us that we are not alone.  God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What is Yours is Mine

I was just finishing my seminary education at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas in 1994 when I heard the news that one of my fellows students, an older woman who was attending seminary also, had suffered a great tragedy.  She and her husband were returning home from dinner out, and as they pulled into their driveway, suddenly they were ambushed by three young men who surrounded their car and demanded the keys.  One of the young men shot this woman's husband and he fell to the ground.  She crawled under the car in hopes of saving her own life as he husband lay dying a few feet from her.  The bandits drove off in their Mercedes without harming the woman who had crouched under the car, and as they sped away, they ran off a curb and damaged the car so that it was soon not drive-able.

The police began looking for those who had committed the crime and soon the evidence led them to a small town in Texas not too far away from where the crime had happened.  The three young men who had committed the crime were arrested and soon two of them named the other as the trigger man in exchange for two less severe sentences.  The young man who had pulled the trigger and killed the owner of the car he wanted was only 17 years old.  He had been president of his senior class and was from a well respected family in his small town.

What would cause such a fine young man from an upstanding family in a small town, an athlete that many looked up to, to want to steal an expensive car and in the process murder the man who owned the car?  No one can really answer that question but even the man who committed the crime could not give an adequate answer.  He was interviewed by Texas Monthly prior to this execution in 2002 and all he could say was that it not only a heinous act, but a senseless one, a realization that came too late to save his own life or that of the man he had murdered.

The reading from I Kings 21 for this next Sunday is an ancient story that has a similar theme.  The story involves the current king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife Jezebel.  It also involves a man who is a neighbor to the king, and who owns a vineyard.  The man's name was Naboth.  Ahab wanted the land that Naboth owned upon which sat his vineyard.  Ahab talked with Naboth and offered to buy the land from him but Naboth did not want to sell his land for any price.  In fact, he claimed the land was an ancestral inheritance and he could not sell it because it had been given to him by his ancestors and they had received it from the Lord.

Ahab became resentful and sullen and went home and turned his face toward the wall as he lay on his bed.  His wife, Jezebel, asked him why he was depressed and he told her that he wanted Naboth's land and he would not sell it to him.  Jezebel had an answer to his dilemma.  "Get up, eat some food, and be cheeful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."  (I Kings 21:7)

Jezebel went about a plan to falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King with false witnessed to make the case.  She carried out her plan and soon Naboth was stoned to death and Jezebel delivered the news to Ahab that the land and the vineyard now belonged to him.  Case closed.

But if you read a bit farther in the story, the case is not entirely closed.  It may have been a cold case until God got involved but soon God spoke to the prophet Elijah and told him the story that had happened and Elijah delivered the news to Ahab that God would soon judge and punish Ahab and Jezebel for the despicable thing they had done.

Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" (v.20)
He answered, "I have found you.  Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord."
Then Elijah told Ahab the fate that would befall him and Jezebel because of their wicked deeds.
Ahab repented after hearing Elijah's stern warning and immediately put on sackcloth and fasted.  Because he humbled himself before God, God forgave him and did not bring disaster on him but did judge his house and bring disaster upon his son's reign.  Jezebel lived a while longer but she did not escape judgment.  In II Kings 9, her violent death is explained.

Ahab and Jezebel broke at least three of the Commandments given by God to the People of Israel.  Ahab coveted what Naboth owned and when Naboth refused to sell it to him, he and Jezebel brought false witness against him and had him murdered in order to take the land from him.  Ahab was involved in idol worship before and during his reign as king of Israel.  His reign is described as one of the most evil and wicked in the history of Israel.

This ancient story is contained in sacred scripture, I think, to continue to teach the lessons that we all need to continue to remember even in our modern age.  Ahab wanted what Naboth possessed and would stop at nothing to have it for himself.  The young man that I described in the opening story, only 17 years old, wanted a luxury car of his own.  He stopped at nothing to have it, either, resulting in the murder of another person.  Too many times, people become fixed upon an object or a person or a goal that they want to have as their own and they will not stop until they obtain it.  Their vision and sensibility are clouded by their desire to have as their own the thing they covet.  They see no need to stop at anything until they have achieved the goal they have set before them.  The news stations report such incidents on a daily basis in our country.

Ahab began his killing spree by dabbling in idolatry with his new wife Jezebel.  He was influenced by her to begin straying from the path of righteousness laid out in the Commandments given by Moses to his people.  Then, when he began to desire what his neighbor had, he again listened to what his wife would have him do and his common sense seemed obsolete.

We can all be swayed by what others say we should do, either as individuals or as part of a group.  We can listen to their arguments or advice and decide for ourselves whether or not it will be good for us as part of our lives.  Even someone close to us can send us in a wrong direction if their advice is not good advice, as Ahab learned.  Our need for prayerful consideration of what we do in life is made real as we consider both ancient and modern stories that serve as illustrations of what can go wrong in life when we make decisions that take us places where we do not need to go, either literally or in our thinking.  Perhaps Ahab's story is provided as a story of warning, helping us who live in this modern world with so many choices confronting us daily, that we need to involve God in our lives and in our decisions so that the choices we make will be good ones both for us as individuals and for the land in which we live.