Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
2016 Trinity 1 -1 Kings 18 20- end; Galatians 1: 1-12; Luke 7: 1-10
I want to talk to you today about Faith. It is the building block of our spiritual life and it is possible, in our day to day lives, to take it for granted that we all have faith. What is it? What do we have faith in? Who has faith?
Today’s bible readings tell us of two very different experiences of faith in action: a very dramatic event in the old testament, and one in the new testament that is so un-dramatic, it could easily slip by without remark.
The Old Testament reading relates an exciting episode in the life and work of Elijah, one of the greatest prophets. As usual, I have a bit of history for you first. It is been a hundred, or so, years since the glory days of David and Solomon and Israel has had fluctuating fortunes. At the time of our story, the country is ruled by King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel. They wanted to wipe out the one true God of Israel and were having some success; the people were worshipping foreign Gods, usually referred to as Baal, and this is a name sometimes given to a collection, a family, of Gods. Today’s text focuses on the God of the weather. Ahab has thousands of prophets for his false gods; we’ve just got 450 of them on this mountainside for our story today. I say “just got 450”, but just imagine for an instant how many 450 people are – we are about 40 – so 11 times as many people as there are here – a big crowd –and that’s just the so-called-prophets of Baal, there is the King and his entourage as well. The true God has only one prophet, Elijah. Imagine Elijah - he has been hiding in the desert for three years, ever since the drought started; we can imagine that he is not a pretty sight!
Three years before Elijah had told Ahab that there would be neither dew nor rain except at his word; and sure enough, there was a drought. The king did his best, his prophets and priests kept asking the god of the weather for rain until finally, there is this wonderful confrontation on the mountain. The king blamed Elijah for the drought – but “oh no”, said Elijah, “it’s not my fault – you needed to listen to God’s warning and to turn back to the one true God”.
Now, I’m not going to repeat the whole story again, but wouldn’t you just love to see a Steven Spielberg film of it? Imagine, all those prophets and the king’s people, all chanting and imploring, and nothing happens. Elijah is a bit scornful – “Where is your god then, off having a cup of tea somewhere?” Then he starts - chucking 12 large jars of precious water on to the altar and burning them up.
Elijah was really a man to be admired for his faithful obedience to God’s commands. Firstly in warning a powerful and nasty king and queen like Ahab and Jezebel, but then going and making this amazing challenge. Let’s face it, if he had been wrong, he would have been the next one being chucked on the burning altar. Bronze Age kings were not noted for gentleness. But what a finale - he sees a small cloud as small as a man’s hand – and he tells his servant to hurry up and tell Ahab before the rain stops you!
It is a wonderful and dramatic story. The sacrifice and the 12 jars of water are not the cause of the end of the drought. It is God’s mighty power in action. There was no need for the theatricals, except to draw attention to God, and for today, I just want you to think about Elijah. He faithfully obeyed God. Ina time when to disobey the King would have had some pretty dire consequences; the people had followed the easy path. Evil was winning, and one man was brave enough to change things. One man, who knew God, trusted God and obeyed God. The amazing faith of one man enabled God to change the lives of the nation; it’s written down - the people cried out “The Lord – he is God, The Lord – he is God”.
Elijah’s adventures were not over, of course, and if you want to know more you will have to read it your selves. His faith changed other people’s lives. Remember that.
Fast forward 8 or 9 hundred years and we are with Jesus in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. His ministry is in full swing, amazing things have happened – grown men in lucrative work drop everything to follow him. Crowds throng to him wherever he goes, he is teaching, preaching, healing the sick. Amazing. The crowds keep coming and he even has been – wait for it - healing the sick and forgiving sins on the Sabbath. The religious authorities are not happy. He asks them “Which is lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil?” The danger for the Jewish authorities was that they had stopped thinking about God’s will, and become bogged down in the rules and regulations that they thought would please God. One might almost say, the rules and regulations had become false gods (almost). But, wouldn’t you have loved to see them squirm at Jesus’ question?
But, naturally, the more they squirm at Jesus’ unpalatable truths, the more they wanted to stop him. The gospels record this many times. I have a little note of warning here. The gospel writers use a sort of shorthand when they refer to the “Jews”, something which might imply that everyone else around Jesus was not a Jew. Almost everyone that is mentioned in the gospels is a Jew, as indeed was Jesus himself. And among those who believed in him were some of the Jewish hierarchy – imagine their dilemma!
Today, though, our story revolves around a non-Jew. A Roman Centurion. Arguably more hated and despised than a tax-collector. A Centurion was in charge of a legion – 100 fighting men. If any of you have any military experience, or spent time in an army town, or a naval base, you can start to imagine what sort of person we are talking about! This was a tough guy. Fierce, forceful, powerful. A man to be obeyed instantly (Romans were not just harsh on conquered people, but also on each other).
Obviously, this unnamed Centurion had not only heard about this wandering preacher who healed the sick, but he had complete and utter faith that Jesus was the Son of God and could heal his servant - unseen.
He is a very powerful and important man, so much so that he was able to send some elders of the Jews to ask Jesus to come. Now that is a turn up for the books – one minute, they are condemning Jesus, the next they are asking for his help. And they plead earnestly. This centurion, this Roman, this rich, powerful man is worth helping. He’s a good guy, honest, he loves our nation. He even built us a synagogue. Were the other people Jesus healed not so important? Were they the poor, weak, needy, beggars in the street? Odd, isn’t it? How, when Jesus healed on a Sabbath that was considered a terrible crime – but when he healed at the behest of wealthy benefactor, it was OK!
Now Jesus, had he been a normal human being, could very likely have taught a lesson on values, and said “no”. But Jesus is God in human form, and God cannot turn his back on anyone who truly loves him. So Jesus turned from his journey and began to go with them. We have no idea how far they had to travel, but I would think a little distance – close enough for a messenger to run ahead and tell the centurion “He’s coming” and the Centurion to send word “oh, don’t bother to come all this way”. (Note – the Centurion himself does not speak to Jesus personally).
What an extraordinary message. “Don’t trouble yourself to come all the way. Just say the words.” That really is faith. What an example to follow. Just say the words to God, that’s called prayer. Ask, says God, and you will receive. Of course the Centurion’s servant is healed.
We do not even know if the servant had any faith. The Jewish elders were not demonstrating any faith in God; they were currying favour with a wealthy benefactor. It was the faith of the centurion, the foreigner, the man who was ‘not one of us’; his faith was what changed the life of the servant.
We are all of us praying now, in faith, for our new priest, praying that wherever and whoever our new priest is, that he or she is feeling God’s call to come to us. That soon, he or she will know that God wants him or her to come here and that he or she will respond to God’s call. And our church will move forward with a steady hand to guide us.
My faith, your faith, the faith of the whole church is going to change the life of this priest, and the lives of everyone in the church. Faithful obedient prayer. We sing “Be bold, be strong, the Lord our God is with us”. That comes from the book of Joshua, which I have been reading lately. The people are about to enter the Promised Land, with a new Leader. See the parallel? We are about to enter a new phase of our church life, with a new leader. “Be bold, be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you.”
The Christian writer Hubert Van Zeller says this “”Our prayers do not change God’s mind, elicit his sympathy or reverse a sentence… they allow God to put into operation (in me and through me) something he has willed all along”.
The drought over the nation of Israel would come to an end. God did not want everyone to die! Elijah’s faithful obedience enabled God to demonstrate his mighty power. The servant may have got better eventually or he might have died; but it was the Centurion’s faith in asking Jesus for help that enabled God to act. In an imperfect world, faith is the perfect underpinning of our lives.
Our faithful prayers work in like this. Say, for example, you have noticed that there is a meet and greet team, and you might notice that there is a shortage of people. But, until someone asks “Could you take a turn at meeting people at the door?” You might not realise that your willing response: “Of course I will,” is what is needed. That is what we mean when we say the asking enables the action.
I’m going to finish with a sort of joke, which you may have heard before (too bad, you are a captive audience) but really it is a modern parable.
There was a man whose house was being consumed by flood water. He prayed that God would save him. Someone swam by with a life jacket, “Come with me,” he said. “No replied the man, “I’ve prayed to God, he will save me. A lifeboat come by, “Climb in” said the captain. ”No, said the man, “I’ve prayed to God, he will save me. Eventually the man was sitting on the chimney pot. A helicopter hovered overhead, “Catch the rope”, said the pilot. “No, I’ve prayed and God will save me.”
You probably know the ‘joke’ ending - the man drowned. When he saw God, he asked “Why didn’t you save me?” And God replied, “I sent a life jacket, a boat and a helicopter.”
The man’s prayers enabled God to send the life jacket, etc. The moral of that modern parable is that your prayers enable God to help. So pray, boldly and without fear or trepidation. Pray in faith, your faith will be changing lives.