Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 29:10 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes people think Christianity is all about putting on a happy face, always smiling so that no one around you will ever know that things in your life are coming apart; so that people will never guess that you are not fine, that things are not okay; so that people will never know that you suffer from depression, or that you’ve had suicidal thoughts. Those people have probably never heard the story of Elijah. Elijah the prophet, who prayed that it would not rain, and it didn’t; who prayed that God would restore life to a dead boy, and God listened and did give him back his life; who called down fire on his enemies, and they were consumed; who set up a test to show the people of Israel that Yahweh was the real God and Baal was not, and it was successful. God sent fire to consume the sacrifice, and the rocks, and the water. And the people said, “Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God!”
But when Jezebel, the queen, hears that Elijah has killed all her false prophets, she sends a messenger telling him that she’s going to kill him by that time the next day. Instead of standing up to her, instead of standing firm in the promises of God, instead of continuing to proclaim the word of God that He was given, Elijah runs away. After all these experiences proving that God was real and that He could be trusted, Elijah goes into the wilderness and lies down under a tree, and prays to die. But this time God doesn’t answer his prayer. This time God sends an angel to feed Elijah. Elijah eats and goes back to sleep, and the angel wakes him up again: “Rise, and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” Elijah eats, and then he goes for forty days and forty nights in the strength of that food.
But he doesn’t go back to Israel. He goes and hides in a cave on Horeb, the mountain of God. And that’s where we find him today. In a cave on a mountain. And that’s where God finds him, too. “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah says, “I have been extremely zealous for Yahweh, my God. [In fact, Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is my God.] But the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, they have broken down Your altars, they have put Your prophets to the sword, and now they are trying to kill me.” And God says to Elijah: “Hold that thought.” And He sends a wind that tears apart the rocks. And then an earthquake and then a fire. But God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. And then there’s a small, slight, barely audible voice—literally, something like a “voice of thin silence,” whatever that sounds like! And when Elijah hears it, he wraps his prophet’s cloak around his face and goes to the mouth of the cave.
God says again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah repeats the same things. Elijah, what are you doing here? What do all those things have to do with what I’ve given you to do? What if the whole world is against you? You go do what I gave you to do. You be Elijah the prophet, and I’ll be God. Even if wind and fire and earthquake and everything that looks powerful is against you, the Word of God is with you. Go anoint Hazael king of Syria, and Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha prophet in your place. Oh, and by the way, I’ve kept for Myself a remnant of 7000 faithful who have not bowed down to Baal or kissed him. So don’t worry about My Church; you just do what I’ve given you to do.
So Elijah goes, but it doesn’t seem like his mood improves much. He finds Elisha and throws his prophet’s cloak on him, and just keeps walking. He doesn’t even say anything. And when it hits him in the head, Elisha stops plowing and says, “Wait a minute! Let me go say goodbye to my parents and I will go with you.” Elijah says, “Do whatever you want. What do I care? It’s God’s call, not mine.” Elisha burns up everything of his old life, has a goodbye barbecue, and goes with Elijah as his vicar, his prophet intern. Elijah must not have been a very good vicarage supervisor, because Elisha is the only one God lets him have. Eventually, God finally answers Elijah’s last prayer, and takes him to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elijah knows that everything around him is going to hell. The people all worship idols, including Molech, to whom the people sacrificed their children for the sake of their own prosperity. The king and queen are trying to kill the true prophets, and no one in Israel seems to think anything’s wrong. So Elijah’s problem is not that he’s discouraged, but that he forgot that he’s not God. He is not the only one left; he’s not in control; it’s not all up to him. Sometimes we forget we’re not Jesus. So on the one hand, we put on our smiley faces, pretend everything’s okay, and we work at being nice, happy, good Christian people. But people like that don’t need Jesus; they are their own saviors, even if they need a little help to do it. On the other hand, we despair because we look at everything around us going to hell, and we get desperate. But it’s not up to us; we’re not in control; we are not the only faithful ones whom God has reserved for Himself. You and I will not save this congregation; we will not save the LCMS with convention resolutions, or bylaw changes, or electing the right president, or purifying it. We will not save the USA by voting for the right people, or electing the right president, or returning to some imagined Christian roots, or even by getting the right justices on the Supreme Court. We cannot save any of it. Institutions cannot be saved anyway. But when we think we can save the church or the denomination or the country, we’re forgetting that we are not Jesus.
But there is a Jesus, and He wants to be Jesus for you. He was the only one left; all His friends had left Him, deserted Him, denied Him. And if we had been there, we wouldn’t have done any different. The proof is in how many times we have been silent about Him when we should have spoken, and how many times we have confused various opinions, usually of our own political convictions or our own versions of morality, with Christianity itself. But when the religious and civil leaders tried to kill Jesus, He didn’t run away and hide under a tree or in a cave. He set His face to go to Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen there. And He wasn’t going to let anything stop Him: not people who rejected Him, not those who, like James and John, misunderstood Him, not those who refused to follow Him. He set His face to go to Jerusalem, and He wouldn’t be turned aside. And when He got there, He had nothing. No place to lay His head. No home. No friends. No defenders. That cross had been used for other executions. That tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. He didn’t even have any sins to cause His death; He had to take yours and mine. In the end, He didn’t even have life. But God reserved for Himself a remnant in Jesus; when it looked like everything was lost, God raised Him from the dead.
Everything is not okay in this church, in this nation, in this world. Church leaders, pastors, presidents, laws—they all come and go. The best of it all just about rises to the level of what gets flushed down the toilet. The works of the flesh are more than evident everywhere we look. Even if things change at the federal level, at what is considered Constitutional—even if those changes are good and right—states still protect immorality with the law; Christians are still deceived into supporting evil under the guise of compassion. Sinners remain sinners and unbelievers remain unbelievers.
It is too much for us. We will not save it. But there is a Jesus who has come as the salvation of the whole world, forgiving every sin, redeeming every sinner. He set His face to go to Jerusalem, and when He looked to the cross, He saw you. He wouldn’t let anything keep Him from accomplishing your salvation. So let Him be Jesus; you go and do what God has given you to do, as a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a teacher, a student, a voter, a citizen, a legislator, an employee, an employer. The wind can blow and tear up the terrain; the earthquake can shake what it will; the fire can scorch the earth. We have a Word that appears no more powerful than a whisper; in all the noise of this world, it seems no better than a thin silence. Especially when everything looks like it is lost—or maybe even more importantly, when it looks like everything is won by any other power than the Word of God. Because only this Word raises the dead. This is the only word that says, You are forgiven. Jesus is the only word in the midst of discouragement, the only word that takes away all the masks by which we cover up our sin and grief and fear, the only word who heals and gives life. Rise and eat, the journey is too much for you. You are not Jesus. But Jesus is Jesus, and you can go in the strength of this Food, His Body and this Blood, forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/25/22