October 10, 2010
I Kings 19:9-14
Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way
The Challenge of Faithfulness
Bart Ehrman is a professor at the University of North Carolina. The author of numerous books, he wrote a book titled God’s Problem, which deals with the question of theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile the belief in an all-powerful and loving God with the presence of evil and suffering in our world. Ehrman’s struggle with the question of evil and suffering led him to eventually reject his own faith and become an agnostic.
You can find many people who have stories similar to Bart Ehrman, stories that come down to the question of faithfulness. By the question of faithfulness I mean this – how do we hold to our faith when faith is so often subject to challenges? What do we do when our faith is assailed by critics or by our own doubts? What do we do when we struggle to give an answer for why we believe? What do we do when we feel let down by our faith? How do we continue to remain committed to faith amidst such challenges?
We are continuing our series of messages on the topic Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, and today we come to The Challenge of Faithfulness. For our text we read part of the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah is an interesting study, because the most famous story from Elijah’s life is his contest with the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel. Elijah had challenged the prophets of Baal and Asherah to a contest to demonstrate that Yahweh is the true God. On that day Elijah stood before 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah and the nation of Israel, and we see him as unwavering, strong, and determined in his faith. When we read that part of the story we don’t see Elijah as a person who would seem to struggle with faith.
Then we turn the page and a few verses later find him hiding out in a cave. He is in the cave hiding from Ahab and Jezebel, and in that cave he feels so abandoned that he prays to die, which is odd, since he fled to the cave to save his life. His once rock-solid faith and convictions seem to have melted in the face of the challenges that came his way.
What happened to Elijah?
What happened to Elijah is the same thing that happens to all of us at some point in life. Life and the challenges of life have a way not only of wearing us down physically but spiritually as well. As the struggles of life pile up perhaps we begin to wonder, where is God? When we’ve struggled through some difficult losses perhaps we begin to think maybe I don’t need or want God, or maybe God really isn’t there. And we enter our own cave, like Elijah, and we have a crisis of faith and struggle to be faithful.
I think Elijah’s story is instructive to us in some important ways. One is in how God speaks to us, how he comforts us. It’s interesting to compare God’s appearances to Elijah. In the contest on Mount Carmel we see this dramatic fire that consumes the altar, which is a very visible sign of God’s power and presence. And then, when Elijah is in the cave, we see God come to him in a dramatically different way. First there is a powerful wind that tears at the mountain, but God was not in the wind. Next came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Instead of coming in a dramatic way, God appears in a gentle whisper, or in the translation we are more familiar with, a still, small voice.
Why did God make himself obvious on Mount Carmel, but in the cave come in such a less obvious manner? Why didn’t God choose the strong wind, or the earthquake, or the fire when coming to Elijah? Why didn’t God appear in a moment of great drama and say Elijah, I will take care of your every problem, I will meet your every need, I will protect you, I am right here with you in a powerfully obvious way?
Perhaps faith that is overwhelmed by God’s strength is not so much our own faith. God could have solved every struggle and met every challenge for Elijah, but would it then be Elijah’s faith that he possessed or would it simply have been a dependence upon God’s demonstration’s of power?
I used to be greatly unnerved by the challenges and doubts of those who rejected faith. To even read their arguments against faith used to bother me a great deal. Perhaps it was a revealing of my own securities, but I mostly stayed away from such things. I have learned, though, how unnecessary that was. I am no longer frightened or challenged by someone’s unbelief or by their challenge to faith. I am not frightened by the Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens of the world or their challenges to faith. And while I wanted at one time for God to make things so obvious to me that it would remove my doubts and fear, what I learned was that would ultimately make my faith weak. Struggle brought strength to my faith. Fear was banished when I learned to embrace a faith that didn’t depend on an obvious demonstration of God’s power or presence. Elijah went into that cave weary and insecure in his faith, but he walked out of that cave a different person, and he did so because God didn’t do Elijah’s faith for him, but rather allowed Elijah’s faith to grow in strength.
The Scriptures tell us of many miracles, but the big, flashy miracles are not how God generally dealt with people. God, even in the Scriptures, is not usually flashy. A parent does not solve every problem for their child, even when they can, because they know it is not ultimately what their child needs. For faith to be faith, it has to be a response of our genuine desire to follow God, even when God is not being obvious to us.
We don’t have to have an answer to every question. We don’t have to have a reason for everything that happens. The Biblical characters were much more willing to live with a level of mystery and uncertainty than we find in our modern age. We live in an age of rationalism, science, and materialism (by materialistic I mean believing in what is material, versus what is spiritual) that demands the explained and the obvious. God’s lesson to Elijah in that gentle whisper was to invite him to embrace mystery and a faith that is not dependent upon every question being answered or everything being perfectly obvious.
Next, we see that God reminded Elijah he was not alone. Elijah was asked, what are you doing here, Elijah? Notice he doesn’t ask why are you here Elijah? The what are you doing question is simple – Elijah is trying to stay alive. But Elijah gives a deeper answer; it is the real answer to why he is in that cave. It’s not just that he fears for his life. Elijah is in that cave because he’s mad at God; he feels as though God has let him down. In his answer, Elijah gives God a scolding. Listen to the words of Elijah and hear his frustration and disappointment – I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. Elijah feels abandoned. He has been faithful in his calling but he feels God has not been faithful to him.
But God points out to Elijah that he is not alone. In verse 18 he tells Elijah there are 7,000 people in Israel who have not rejected him for Baal. 7,000 people! Elijah is not alone, though he may believe he is.
The difficulty with struggles and challenges is in the way they isolate us. We are tempted to believe we are the only ones who have ever experienced challenge, or struggle, or loss; but we aren’t. Others have experienced those same things and they are people who are our brothers and sisters and they will stand with us and they will comfort us. This is where I find the really big hole in the I don’t need to be a part of a church line of thinking. Yes, you can have the support and love of friends, but to be part of the body of Christ brings you into the care and support of a larger circle of brothers and sisters than we would have on our own.
And then God gave Elijah something to do. Elijah was instructed to go back the way he came – right back through the danger – and to anoint Jehu as the king of Israel and to anoint his own successor as well. That probably wasn’t very encouraging to Elijah, since there was already a king and his anointing of a new one would be seen as an act of sedition.
One of the answers to fear and doubt and struggle is having something to do. Not just anything, but a commissioning by God to step into the lives of others. One of the greatest antidotes to our own struggles is to step into the lives and struggles of others. Caring for and loving others is a great antidote to our own struggles.
Mark Hatfield, when he was a senator, wrote of touring Calcutta with Mother Teresa and visiting the so-called “House of Dying,” where sick children are cared for in their last days, and the dispensary, where the poor line up by the hundreds to receive medical attention. Watching Mother Teresa minister to these people, feeding and nursing those left by others to die, Hatfield was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the suffering she and her co-workers face daily. How can you bear the load without being crushed by it? he asked. Mother Teresa replied, My dear Senator, I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.
She didn’t need the answer to why so many were suffering; she stepped out of her own live and into the lives of others. This is the antidote to our self-absorbed and skeptical world, and it is the antidote to our own lives when doubt and uncertainty wash over us. This is what helped Elijah to get up out of that cave and continue on.
Clarence Jordan was a man of unusual abilities and commitment. He had two Ph.D.s, one in agriculture and one in Greek and Hebrew. He could have chosen to do anything, but chose to serve the poor. In the 1940s, he founded a farm in Americus, Georgia, and called it Koinonia Farm. It was a community for poor whites and poor blacks. The idea did not go over well in the south of the 1940s. People tried everything to stop Clarence Jordan and his work. They tried boycotting him, and slashing workers’ tires when they came to town. Over and over, for fourteen years, they tried to stop him.
Finally, in 1954, the Ku Klux Klan had enough of Clarence Jordan, so they decided to get rid of him once and for all. They came one night with guns and torches and set fire to every building on Koinonia Farm but Clarence’s home, which they riddled with bullets. And they chased off all the families except one black family which refused to leave.
Jordan recognized the voices of many of the Klansmen, and some of them were church people. Another was the local newspaper’s reporter. The next day, the reporter came out to see what remained of the farm. He found Clarence in the field, hoeing and planting.
I heard the awful news,” he said to Clarence, and I came out to do a story on the tragedy of your farm closing. Clarence just kept on hoeing and planting. The reporter kept prodding, kept poking, trying to get a rise from this quietly determined man who seemed to be planting instead of packing his bags. So, finally, the reporter said in a haughty voice, Well, Dr. Jordan, you got two of them Ph.D.s and you’ve put fourteen years into this farm, and there’s nothing left of it at all. Just how successful do you think you’ve been?
Clarence stopped hoeing, turned toward the reporter and said quietly but firmly, About as successful as the cross. Sir, I don’t think you understand us. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We’re staying. Good day.
When the measure is faithfulness, and not success, everything changes. God didn’t ask Elijah for any great success; he asked for faithfulness. God doesn’t ask us for any great success; he just asks for faithfulness. May we be ever faithful.