He Leads Us on by Paths We Did Not Know 09/09/2018

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Sojourn Sermon – September 9, 2018 – 1 Kings 19:1-8

“He leads us on by paths we did not know.”

So goes Hiram Wiley’s nineteenth century hymn.

“Upward he leads us, tho’ our steps be slow,

Tho’ oft’ we faint and falter on the way,

Tho’ storms and darkness of obscure the day.”

Almost two months ago, my dad suffered heat stroke while he was riding his bike and almost died. He arrived at the hospital with a temperature of 107, unconscious, and with multiple organ failure.

The doctors were pretty clearly preparing us for him to die, every update came with a sympathetic sigh, pursed lips, and an angled gaze that said SIGH “We’re doing what we can, but it doesn’t look good.”

That first night, my mom and sister and I couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the hospital for fear he might take his last breath alone in the staleness of the ICU, so we held vigil over this man who been our hero all these years and who now was reduced to mere humanity. All our idols must fall but this one seemed to fall earlier than we anticipated.

My dad survived. And more than that, he made what doctors called a “miraculous” recovery, having moved not one, but two doctors to tears. He’s home now, after more than 50 days in the hospital. He can walk, and talk, feed and dress himself. He’s not made a 100 percent recovery, but he’s come really close.

Wiley’s hymn continues, “Yet when the clouds are gone. We know he leads us on.”

It would be impossible for me to put into words how grateful I am that this, and not the alternative, was the outcome. Most other people who suffer heat stroke aren’t so lucky.

But in the time I’ve had to reflect on this experience, I cannot help but continue to go back to those first uncertain few days, while my dad was still unconscious, while his kidneys and liver were failing, when we were unsure of his brain function, and the fact is, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, that I was neither emotionally nor spiritually prepared to deal with the possibility that my dad might die.

There’s a part of you that probably wants to say, “No one ever is. You can’t expect yourself to be.”

That is true, and I agree.

At the same time, our faith never promises that we won’t find ourselves stumbling along uncharted paths. Perhaps the opposite is more true.

What it does promise, however, is we don’t walk these paths alone. We are promised that God never leaves or forsakes us. In our baptism, we are promised that our community of faith, our new family, will walk alongside us. “All we have learned, felt, and thought, from birth until now,” Howard Thurman reminds us, “all the love that had nourished us at other times, all the yearnings rooted in our spirits – all these are with us as we move into the unknown way.”

“He leads us on by paths we did not know.”

“Upward he leads us, tho’ our steps be slow,

Tho’ oft’ we faint and falter on the way,

Tho’ storms and darkness of obscure the day.

Yet when the clouds are gone,

We know he leads us on.”

Elijah’s flight from Israel immediately follows his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. See, in years following Solomon’s death, the Kingdom that had been establish in the land split into two different kingdoms. Israel in the north, with their capitol in Samaria, and Judah in the south, with their capitol in Jerusalem. Both kingdoms were rebellious in their ways, but the north more so. Israel grew increasingly wealthy, and powerful, and idolatrous, until finally Ahab became king, and Ahab, we learn in 1 Kings 16, “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than any before him.”

Chief among Ahab’s sins were his marriage to Jezebel and his worship of Baal, the Canaanite fertility god. The prophet Elijah, who continued to be loyal to YHWH, spoke out against Ahab several times until, finally, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest. Both the prophets of Baal and Elijah would make a sacrifice and place it on a wooden alter. Then both would call upon their respective deities to rain down fire on the alter and burn up the sacrifice.

After hours of libations and self-mutilation, the prophets of Baal are unsuccessful. When it comes to Elijah, he goes a step further. He drenches the alter in water before calling on YHWH to burn up the sacrifice, and when he calls upon the Lord, his prayers are answered, the fire rains down from heaven, lapping up the water and burning the sacrifice. Elijah then calls upon the people of Israel to kill all the prophets of Baal, and they do.

This makes Jezebel upset. And this is where our text picks up for today. “So may the gods do to me, and more also,” Jezebel says, “if I do not make your life like one of [these prophets of Baal].”

Fearing for his life, Elijah flees. He makes his way into the wilderness, after leaving his servant in Judah, and takes refuge under a tree. Here he utters an incredibly important line, “It is enough now,” He says. “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

Elijah’s request recalls one of the less flattering episodes in Israelite history. After having been freed from bondage in Egypt and saved from Pharaoh’s charging armies, Moses and the people of Israel finally reach the promised land, and when they arrive they send Caleb, Joshua, and others to spy in the land beyond the Jordan.

The spies return, and they gave a negative report. “These people in the land are too great for us,” they said. “Their cities are large and fortified. They devour their inhabitants. We are not able to go up against them.” Upon hearing this, the people rebel, and say they don’t want to enter the promised land. It was better in Egypt, they say.

It’s the last in a whole list of offenses, and YHWH has had enough. God declares that this generation will not enter into the promised land. They will be condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years until they have all died off. The promised land will be for their children

See the Israelites had forgotten something very important. They had forgotten that their God was the God who brought them out of Egypt with are strong arm and outstretched hand, who fed them in the wilderness, and saved them from Pharaoh’s army. Had they remembered, they would have known that no nation was too great for this God, that with YWHW beside them they need fear no one. But they did not remember.

Elijah says he’s no better than these, the rebellious generation, his ancestors. He too had forgotten what this God is capable of. This same God, who Elijah now asks to take his life from him, had just shown great strength in burning up the sacrifice. This same God caused a seven-year drought in the land, proving God’s superiority to the Canaanite fertility god.

Yet, in the face of Jezebel’s threat, Elijah flees. Is this God not bigger than Jezebel? Could not this God save him?

So, Elijah says, I am not better than my ancestors, who also fled in the face of adversity. So I should die here in the wilderness, as they did, beyond the bounds of the promised land.

The lesson we might glean from Elijah’s flight is that there is real danger in forgetting that we do not go it alone. The Israelites looked at their small number and meager provisions and thought they would be no match for the great armies of the Philistines, the Canaanites, and the Hittites. But they forgot that they wouldn’t go into battle alone: God would be with them. And sure these kinds of stories are deeply unsettling to twenty-first century pacifists, but the lesson here is one of God’s enduring presence in hardship. Elijah deemed his flight to be as severe as that of his forebears.

The danger here is that in the face of adversity and struggle we might take flight too. Maybe not in the same physical literal way that Elijah did, but in our inner spiritual lives. This is when hope turns to anger, fear, and shame, and we follow their lead. When we turn and run from the peace of God.

That’s where I was, those first three days that my dad was in the ICU. Ask Megan, it was ugly. The only hope I held in my heart was I’d get the opportunity to yell at someone that day. I was largely unavailable to the people who needed me most, my mom and my sister because I was so burnt up and angry.

This is what happens when we forget that God goes with us. When we forget to trust in the loving embrace of our faith community, and our own stories: we turn instead to anger, or fear, or shame, and they become our guides along these unknown paths, rather than God gracious presence.

My mother on the other hand, a woman whose faith astounds me every day, was able not only to endure, not without anxiety and tears, the sight of her intubated husband, but also her indignant son. On this new an uncertain path, my mother never faltered in the belief that she was not on this journey alone.

This is what happens, I think, when we don’t forget that God goes with us. Though anger, fear, and shame remain, they are not our guides. That isn’t what we act out of. We are more open to trust and hope and can remain gracious in our spirit.

Of course I’m not saying that trusting in God’s enduring presence ensures a positive outcome. That’s the whole point of the cross. God enters into tragedy too, and God does not leave us alone there either.

Elijah allows his fear to overcome him. He prays to God, “Take my life from me.” He’s ready to throw in the towel. God doesn’t leave him there to die. Instead, God send angels to fed him so he can make the journey to mount Horeb, where he will encounter God in the still small voice.

I had a similar experience. Though the angels who fed me were neither seraphim nor cherubim. They were family and friends who prayed for us, who visited us in the hospital, who sent food and gift cards, who offered to do yard work, who watched Margot, who sent encouraging messages, who came around us. They were you all.

I can’t say that I’ve made it to the mountain quite yet, but I think I have strength for the journey.

“He leads us on by paths we did not know.”

Upward he leads us, tho’ our steps be slow,

Tho’ oft’ we faint and falter on the way,

Tho’ storms and darkness of obscure the day.

My hope is that we would be the kind of community who guides people into a faith like that of my mothers. Who trust, even when the outcome is uncertain, that God has not abandoned us. The struggles of our lives are no mystery to God. Our anger, fear, and shame, are no match for the grace and peace of God. To quote the great theologian, Veggie Tale’s Larry the Cucumber, “God is bigger than the boogie man.”

“He leads us on by paths we did not know.”

“Upward he leads us, tho’ our steps be slow,

Tho’ oft’ we faint and falter on the way,

Tho’ storms and darkness of obscure the day.

Yet when the clouds are gone,

We know he leads us on.”

Amen.