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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Game of Thrones - Elijah: Playing with Fire

1 Kings 18:20-40

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.

Mark 1:32-39

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all those who were sick or possessed by demons.  The whole city was gathered outside the house.  And he cured many who were sick and he cast out many demons.  He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place by himself, and there he prayed.  Simon and his companions were hunting for him and when they found him, they said to him, “everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I might proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons.


I picked this morning’s story about Elijah – and called today’s sermon “playing with fire” – because it’s another story from Hebrew Scripture we don’t hear very often and because it’s very much like something you’d see in the “Game of Thrones” series. But I really want to talk about what happens after Elijah dukes it out – after he plays with fire – against the false prophets of the false god of Baal.

We heard a couple of weeks ago about how Moses duked it out with the false gods of Pharaoh, in Egypt, and today’s story seems similar. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to start a fire, over a sacrificed bull, on an altar to their god and they fail. Despite all 450 of their prophets and their prayers and their limping and blood-letting around that altar, their god, Baal, fails to deliver the fire they long for to prove his power.

But for Elijah, just like God did for Moses – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivers. Even on an altar thrice-soaked with water and surrounded by a mote, the fire of God came and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, the dust and all the rest. It even licked up the water-soaked seeds in the mote. And because of it, of course, and because Elijah has all 450 of those false prophets seized and killed, Elijah is soon to be on the run for his own life – hunted by Ahab’s Queen Jezebel.

And, on the run for his life, he finds himself alone and desperate and afraid, in the wilderness, asking for God – the same God who had saved him before, the same God who had established him as a prophet of the One True God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Elijah asks that he might just die. But after a dream and some conversations with angels, some solid meals, and 40 days and 40 nights of wilderness wandering, Elijah ends up at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, wondering what in the world is next for him after all he’s done, all he’s run from and all he’s escaped in recent days.

Elijah is aching for, longing for, dying for God’s voice, God’s guidance, God’s presence to teach him or lead him or comfort him or show him something, anything about what could or should be next for him.

Haven’t we all felt something like Elijah at one time or another – in a wilderness of some kind; aching, longing, hungry; dying for guidance, for answers, for comfort, for direction? And haven’t we looked in all kinds of places for those answers, for that comfort, for some direction?

We look for insight in books, don’t we? The self-help section has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, I believe. And there’s some good stuff out there, don’t get me wrong. We ask advice from friends and family. We seek guidance from mentors and counselors and pastors, perhaps. And that can be great. I think God is present in and through the people who love us. And sometimes we seek comfort by way of food or drink or drugs or something else, which may seem to work for a minute, but never lasts or serves us well in the end.

Well, God promises Elijah up on that mountain, that he is about to get what he longed for in the midst of his wilderness wandering. Maybe Elijah was expecting a book – or at least some tablets to appear. That had been known to happen before. Maybe he was expecting a conversation or another meal or an angel, who knows? None of that happened. But there was a great wind, strong enough to split mountains and break rocks, but the answer wasn’t in the wind. The wind is followed by an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. And then there was a fire, (remember how much Elijah could do with some fire), but God wasn’t in the fire this time, either.

And after all of that, there is the sound of sheer silence. Utter noiselessness. Absolute stillness. Pure calm. Total tranquility. Complete quiet. The kind of nothing and silence you could touch… feel… hear, even, as bizarre as that seems. And when Elijah finally hears this sheer silence he finally finds what he was looking for: direction… guidance… answers… hope… and the presence of God.

And I’m inclined to think Jesus learned as much from Elijah’s story as we are called to learn from them both – that silence and stillness and time with ourselves, alone with God – are opportunities, not just to tell God what we need and want and long for, but opportunities to shut up, to be quiet, and to let God show us what God would have for us because of – or in spite of – all we think we need.

See, when we meet up with Jesus today, he’s been on a roll, much like Elijah, you might say. In the little bit of Mark’s Gospel leading up to this morning’s portion of the story Jesus has called his first disciples and they have accepted the invitation. He’s been preaching and teaching and healing – and people had apparently been listening and learning, and getting well. He has duked it out with a demon in the synagogue – and won. And just after leaving that synagogue, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever and then spends an entire evening curing all kinds of sickness and casting out all sorts of demons for the people in that little town of Capernaum.

And then, very early the next morning, after this marathon day and night of some pretty miraculous work, Jesus goes off, much like Elijah did, by himself to pray. He seems to have snuck out of the house, “while it was still dark,” as the story goes. And because of that, I can’t help but think God’s Spirit was on the move and stirring up something new and mighty in the heart of Jesus. He seems to have been moved up and out and away from the people and the crowds and his followers, to get some time to himself; some time with his God; some time to pray about what had happened; some time to listen for what was happening; some time to pray about what in the world was next for him.

Elijah and Jesus are examples of and inspiration for our need as believers for solitude, for prayer, for reflection, for conversation with God, for time away from the demands and distractions of life so that we can center ourselves faithfully on what God is calling us toward, as we make our way in the world. We are called to do more waiting than working every once in a while; to do more listening than talking on occasion; to be patient more and to push less.

And it seems we need more of that, these days. We need more time for this silence and this stillness because there is so much noise out there in the world. There are earthquakes and fires and a whole lot of hot air, for sure. There are threats of war and rumors of war. There are mass shootings and global warming and cancer and the beginning of another school year.

And we are consumed and distracted by so many ideas and opinions about all of it; so much heartache and heaviness; so many lies and so much division we need to separate ourselves – for enough time to be reminded of God’s presence, even in the midst of it; and to discern God’s will – not our own – precisely because of it.

This kind of silence and stillness, this listening and learning, can save our sanity and our lives and our souls on this side of heaven. And I’m not great at it, to be honest, but I’m learning, the longer I’m around – living and working and being in the world – that we’re playing with fire when we refuse to get still, when we neglect to be quiet, and when we resist being found by the silence of God’s grace.

Amen

Seeking the Sacred – Dreaming

Acts 10 (abridged)

In Caesarea there was a centurion named Cornelius. He was a good dude with a heart for the Lord. One afternoon he had a vision in which an angel of God said to him, “Cornelius. Your prayers and your generosity tell me you desire my heart and my ways. Now send men to Joppa to find a man called Peter who lives on the beach.” Cornelius told three people about the vision and asked them to go to Joppa to find Peter.

The next day, around the time the three men were approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof of his house to pray. He became hungry and while his food was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large tablecloth coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Yuck. Oh, God, no; I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean like that stuff.” The voice corrected him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

Peter was still on his roof, dumfounded, when Cornelius’ men approached and asked if he was Peter. Peter was still out of it, so the Spirit said to him, “I sent those guys to find you, so talk to them.” So Peter went down to the men and said, “You’re looking for me, but I have no idea why.” 

They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, but a good dude with lots of Jewish friends, was directed by a holy angel to invite you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 

Peter wasn’t sure he had anything to say, but he accompanied them to Caesarea, where Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. Peter said to everyone, “You know it is unlawful for a Jew, like me, to associate with or to visit a Gentile, like you all; but God has shown me in a weird vision with a tablecloth and snakes and birds that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but anyone, regardless of nationality, who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”


Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God our Father, from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit who unites us in faith. Amen.

If any of our midweek worship topics were going to make you feel uncomfortable, my guess is it would be tonight’s subject of dreams. Human beings have a tendency to prefer things that are concrete, practical, knowable, and controllable. Given that our primary motivation as a species is survival, what better way to ensure survival than to know and control as many variables as possible. Dreams, then, seem to have little practical importance.

After all, what’s the use of a dream in which your best friend, Mr. Fish, with a mackerel face and a lion’s tail, teaches you how to rumba so that you can walk upside down when it’s raining and enjoy a nice refreshing glass of purple lemonade with your second-grade teacher who is wearing a rainbow clown wig?

Before we get into the profound spiritual dimensions of dreams, here’s a quick primer on the brain physiology of dreams. The parts of your brain that, when awake, are busy assessing risk and testing sensory input against reality as you understand it are offline when you sleep. Then there’s your visual cortex, which is usually busy analyzing visual imagery. Even though your eyes are closed and there’s no visual sensory input, it continues to go to work, replacing the visual darkness with seemingly random bits of memories and experiences. One of the most active parts of the brain during sleep is the amygdala – your fight or flight center and the seat of emotions. Purely from a brain science perspective, dreams are the uncontrolled processing of sensory input that is charged by heightened emotional response; all of which takes place when you are unconscious and literally paralyzed.

That’s the what, but what’s the why?

The purpose of dreams is to help us organize our thoughts and memories. It is scientific fact that dreaming makes us smarter. The memories you make while awake is new information that has to transfer between several different parts of your brain in order to stick around for awhile. Those same patterns correspond with the patterns of brain activity during sleep.

Imagine you only ate peanut butter sandwiches but one day you tried chocolate and discovered you liked it. Days went on and you would each peanut butter sandwiches all day long, with a piece of chocolate at night. Then one day you wake up with the inexplicable and crazy-sounding urge to start spreading the peanut directly onto a piece of chocolate. The only reason the Reece’s cup was invented was because Mr. Reece had a good night’s sleep that allowed his brain to make a startling and revolutionary new discovery. This isn’t a true story; but it not not true.

Or you can think of dreams like you are watching someone clean your house while you’re outside watching through a window. You’ll notice as some things are put back in a slightly different place, some things are thrown away, and generally everything is dusted, scrubbed, and organized. The same thing happens in our brains when we dream. Our brains are busy organizing information, sifting through memories to see which ones to keep and which ones to throw away, and sharing information with other parts of the brain.

So let me ask you, is it possible that God could speak to us in our dreams? If we’re not in control of our body or mind, can God really tell us anything? Of course! And that’s what makes us uncomfortable, right? When we’re honest with ourselves we prefer to meet God on our terms, when we’re in complete control of our environment and faculties. The problem, of course, is that we have gotten so good at controlling our lives (or at least maintaining the illusion of control with white knuckles) that we often don’t leave room for God. In which case, allow me to make a bold statement: the more we push God out of our consciousness, the more likely God is to speak to us in our dreams….because that’s the only place God has complete and unfettered access to us.

There’s a compelling case to be made that dreams and visions are not God’s preferred method of communication with us. In the Old Testament there is an observable decline in the esteem of prophets’ dreams and visions. The 23rd chapter of Jeremiah includes the phrase, “The dream is like straw or chaff when compared to the wheat of God’s word.”

Earlier in worship we read the story from Numbers in which the Lord told Aaron and Miriam that he speaks to prophets through dreams and visions, but with Moses he is able to speak plainly, face to face, without the use of riddles. Moses is humble and his heart is fashioned after the Lord, so dreams and visions are unnecessary.

Look also at the accounts of Jesus’ life. There’s not a single reference to Jesus having a dream or vision in which God spoke to him. Now, of course, God spoke to Jesus constantly. The Father and the Son were in full communion with one another. Every breath the Son breathed, the Father breathed; and every teaching and healing demonstrated by the Son came from the Father. This intimate and complete union with the Father meant that Jesus needed no new insights during his dreams. In the scenario referenced earlier, Jesus would watch through his dream house window with a smirk on his face as the housecleaner walked between the furniture and frustratedly couldn’t find a single thing to clean or put away.

As far as I can tell, none of us have reached such union with the divine; so our best spiritual medicine could very well be to relinquish our illusion of control and head to bed a little earlier tonight, hoping that the furniture of our knowledge and memories will be rearranged and something will be put away in a new place that will suddenly make everything more in line with God’s created and redeemed order. If you feel yourself veering off track, chances are God will meet you in your dream with a new revelation or insight that can change everything.

This is exactly what happened to Peter in this evening’s story from Acts 10. Peter was certainly a spiritually mature person, but the divine imperative to dismantle the lines separating Jew and Gentile was so monumental and new that it took a vision in an altered state of consciousness for God to even introduce the idea to Peter. He didn’t even get it right away. He needed another night’s sleep before it all started making sense.

To clarify, not every dream or vision is from God. One surefire way to know if God is speaking to you through a dream or vision is by determining if it is leading you to a place of expansion and abundance. A dream or vision that inspires you to shrink your world, be less generous, and draw tighter lines of exclusion is not a God-ordained dream or vision.

As Christine Valters Paintner writes in The Soul’s Slow Ripening, “Dreams continue to call us into ways of being that are less linear and more intuitive, less goal-driven and more open to receiving the gifts being offered to us in the moment….They speak a language that can feel confusing to our waking minds, so we must approach with reverence and hospitality” (14). The imperative of this week’s spiritual practice of dreaming is to invite you to “Bless the wild edges of life where safe conventions are stripped away and space is opened for new imaginings”(20) for “When we descend into the holy darkness of night and receive an invitation through symbol and imagery, we are called to trust in the imagination of a God much bigger than ourselves” (21).

Your suggested spiritual practice for this week involves keeping a journal and writing utensil next to your bed so that you can write down your dreams and first thoughts when you wake each morning. They might not make any sense to you, but just write uninterrupted and without judgment for 10 minutes or so and see if some patterns or insights emerge – a trail of breadcrumbs that leads you to unexpected storehouses of God’s abundance and grace.

And, of course, this means getting plenty of sleep – which is itself the ultimate spiritual practice of surrender and trust.

Amen.

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