Monday, June 24, 2019

Sermon: "You Know What They Say About Assuming..." Isaiah 65:1-9/1 Kings 19:1-15 (June 23, 2019)


Today, I’d like to present to you a tale of three assumptions:

Jezebel was a queen. She’d grown up a princess, the daughter of a Phoenician king. Because she was a beautiful woman of royal lineage, she’d married King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel as a gesture of peace and goodwill between their two nations. Her whole life had been shaped by the intrigues and politics of court, so she was no stranger to conflict. She wasn’t particularly seductive or devious, as tradition has made her out to be; she was just a product of her context.

As queen, Jezebel had her husband construct an altar to Baal so that she might continue to worship the god of her childhood in the foreign land that she now inhabited. She didn’t consider it unreasonable in any way; why shouldn’t she continue her devotion to the god of her ancestors? And why shouldn’t she encourage her husband and her subjects to follow her god, too? And why shouldn’t she do everything she could to honor Baal? Surely, killing the prophets of Yahweh so that she could reallocate royal resources to Baal’s temple was the pious thing to do…

And yet somehow, incredibly, Elijah didn’t agree. The lone remaining prophet of Yahweh insolently challenged Baal’s power. He proposed a test: whoever’s god answered when called upon by their prophets was the superior god. Incredibly, he somehow managed to triumph over the priests of Baal—he must have cheated somehow. And to add insult to injury, this arrogant heretic had Baal’s priests captured and slaughtered afterwards. Unbelievable.

Just because a god doesn’t choose to answer when their priests call doesn’t mean they’re not a real god. How dare Elijah presume to kill these priests—HER priests—just because HIS god, this Yahweh, didn’t have anything better to do when called upon? But she was no stranger to insolence and subversion. She knew what a queen had to do to deal with troublemakers like Elijah. Violence begets violence; that’s an assumption that anyone in her position would make. Elijah needed to die: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like one of them.” He should have seen this coming; he should have assumed this would happen. It was the only possible response she could make.

Elijah was a prophet of the Lord. No, not just a prophet—THE prophet. He was the most prolific and zealous of God’s messengers, and by this point, he was the only one left, anyway. Eventually, he’d be the conduit for some of God’s most incredible miracles, such as resurrection from the dead and bringing fire down from the sky, but for now, he was just trying to convince God’s stubborn people to turn away from the false god Baal.

It was a more difficult task than he’d anticipated—the king’s wife was quite an adversary. There he was, minding his own business and doing what he thought God wanted (which is to say, killing the false prophets), and then SHE had to butt in where she wasn’t welcome and threaten his life! Queens think they can just do whatever they want…the nerve!

If he was being entirely honest, though, Elijah was more frightened than he was angry. After all, Jezebel wasn’t bluffing—she’d already made Yahweh’s prophets an endangered species, and she was a pious person in her own way; she wouldn’t make a vow to the gods if she didn’t mean it. He certainly couldn’t turn to the king for help; the man was useless. So, Elijah did the only thing he could think of to do: he ran.

He ran and ran and ran until his body couldn’t take him any further. Then he stopped and collapsed under a bush. As he was catching his breath, he took stock of his situation. He was exhausted, terrified, and alone…he didn’t like his odds. He knew that God could help him, but he assumed the only thing that would really bring relief was a merciful death. “God, I’ve had enough,” he cried, “take my life because there’s nothing more I can do, and I’m afraid of what will happen to me if I keep living.” Elijah laid back and waited for God to strike him down.

Trito-Isaiah was also a prophet of the Lord (turns out, Yahweh’s prophets DIDN’T go extinct, after all). He was an admirer and student of the original Isaiah’s writings, and so, long after the original was dead and gone, Trito continued prophesying in his name. God had big plans for the Israelites, and someone had to share the message. But some things never change: no matter how hard Trito tried to come up with a message of hope and good news, all he could hear was God’s frustration and anger.

“My people are rebellious fools! They ignore my plans, assuming that they know better than me; they go out of their way to provoke me; they obsess about death even though I promise them life; they break my rules; and on top of all that, they have the audacity to claim that they’re holier than everyone else! I’m fed up with it!” Trito didn’t want to have to be the bearer of bad news, but it kinda comes with the prophetic territory. So, he rolled up his sleeves and started writing furiously.

Once he had gotten God’s scathing indictment of the people down on parchment, he paused for a moment. What did God intend to do about God’s problematic people? God had been reaching out to them, begging them to turn around, requiring only repentance for them to be welcomed back into God’s arms. God’s grace had been met only with arrogance and scorn. Trito assumed that God’s justice would require a full accounting of the people’s sins. Surely, God would repay the people’s evil with the merciless punishment that they deserved. It’s a fair assumption that the God of justice would hold humanity accountable for their choices. He put his quill back to the parchment.

Three people; three assumptions. Where do you see yourself reflected in Jezebel, following society’s prescribed patterns instead of listening for God’s will? Where do you see yourself reflected in Elijah, believing that you’ve done everything you can instead of considering God’s ongoing plans for you? Where do you see yourself reflected in Trito-Isaiah, resigning yourself to an “eye-for-an-eye” sense of justice instead of imagining that God can and will do something new in the world?

Our assumptions, no matter how well-intentioned, are never greater than God. God isn’t confined by the patterns of the world, the limits of humanity, or the “rules” of retribution. God isn’t restrained by what we expect; God is GOD. God operates on God’s own terms. Sometimes, God comes in the sound of sheer silence, even when we expect the violence of the wind, an earthquake, a fire. Sometimes, God calls us to keep going, to do more, even when we expect to be relieved of duty. Sometimes, God offers mercy and recognizes a blessing within us, even when we deserve punishment for our sin.

Why would God choose to operate this way? Why would God persist in working through us, even though we presume to know better? Why would God pursue us, even though we act on assumptions that are based on nothing more than our own ego? Because even when our faith in God falters, God has faith in US. It’s not an idealistic faith that blindly trusts our every choice, but it’s faith in our capacity to reflect God’s nature through our own lives. It’s faith that even when we go into “default” mode and lean a little too heavily on our assumptions, our imago dei (“Image of God”) is still there and will not be silenced.

But the most dangerous assumption of all is that God’s faith in us, like God’s grace, is both unearned and unchanging. This isn’t the case. We need to prove that God’s faith is justified by doing our best not to live according to our lazy assumptions, but according to God’s ongoing guidance, revelation, and love. Unlike Jezebel, we must practice self-examination in our reactions: responding in a way that truly reflects God’s will. Unlike Elijah, we must practice holy dialogue: asking, “What should I do, God?” when we feel like we’ve hit a dead end. Unlike Trito-Isaiah, we must practice seeing potential instead of sin: believing that God can and will always find a blessing among God’s children.

God doesn’t operate according to our expectations. God turns the other cheek in response to violence. God insists that we have more to offer in the face of our fear and weariness. God finds a blessing in the midst of our brokenness. God defies assumptions. And yet, we find ourselves surprised again and again by this fact. For once, let’s pause, and instead of jumping ahead to what we think God wants…let’s ask. The answer might surprise us. It probably will.

God is still speaking. Are you listening? Amen.

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