There was a time when many of you can remember that being a Christian was as ordinary as being an American. The foundation for our institutions was a Judeo-Christian belief in one God. People knew that the Bible was the story of Israel and Jesus. And our understandings of morality were based on the 10 commandments and the Golden Rule and other ethical standards found in the Bible.
But as the prophet Bob Dylan said “The times they are a-chainging.”
While 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal force. Only 35% are classified as Born-again.” When conducting his surveys George Barna, an evangelical pollster used 2 criteria to classify respondents as born-again.
The 1st were people who said that they have an ongoing, personal commitment to Christ that is still important today. Second, they said that they believe they are going to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior. Only 35% of Americans hold these beliefs.
Worse is the number of Americans who are classified as Evangelical. To be classified as evangelical respondents must agree with the previous two statements about being born again plus six others: First, that religion is important in their lives; Second that God is an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and ruler of the world; Third, that you cannot get to heaven just by doing good things; Fourth, that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; Fifth that Satan is a living force and not symbolic; And finally that Christians have a personal obligation to tell other people about their religious beliefs. Only 7 percent of American adults polled can be classified as “evangelical.”
That leaves 65% of Americans who are either non-religious or follow non-Christian beliefs. Even though they believe in God, more Americans claim “no church affiliation” then claim affiliation with any other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists.
And while all of this is disconcerting, the future is even more precarious. Additional research indicates that “40 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds” are already “outside the church” and only a small fraction of those currently within the church will remain
It’s important for us to understand that the America we live in today is very different from the one 60 years ago.
This is the first of a series of 3 sermons that I have the priveledge to preach this summer about the prophet Elijah. Studying Elijah is worthwhile to us because he lived at a similar time. He ministered while Ahab was king of the northern kingdom, Israel. According to 1Kings 16:30, Ahab and his infamous wife Jezebel “did evil n the sight of the LORD.” They led Israel in the worship of Baal, the Canaanite god of storms and fertility rather than Yahweh, the God of Israel.
However, the key difference between Elijah’s time and ours is that not only had his nation turned from Yahweh, it had become hostile to those who still served Him. Our country is not hostile to Christianity in the way that Israel was hostile to Elijah at this time. It is safe for us to go to church. We won’t be arrested for sharing our faith with someone. We do not have to register with the authorities if we want to have a bible study in our home. We can even speak out against our president without risking our life as Elijah did. But as the statistics show, most of our neighbors do not worship Jesus. In fact many of them worship other Gods.
When Elijah found himself living in the country where God’s chosen people had turned their backs on Him, Elijah was not allowed to retreat into seclusion. Rather, God placed him in the home of a woman who worshipped Baal. God used Elijah to demonstrate to us that when our neighbors turns away from God, we cannot turn away them.
I want to share 3 skills we need to practice when God has placed us amongst people that are increasingly turning their back on Yahweh and Jesus.
First, we need to learn which people to treat with hostility and which people we should be hospitable to.
Second, we need the faith and vision to believe that God may miraculously provide for our neighbor’s needs so that we can use that provision as an opportunity to showcase God’s faithfulness.
And finally, when tragedy occurs in the lives of friends who are serving other gods, they will believe it is a sign of judgment because their god’s approval depends on their service to him. This is an opportunity for us to show them that the true God is a God of love and grace and that tragedy is simply a natural part of life rather then a sign of God’s judgment.
When we first encounter Elijah in the Bible in 1Kings 17, he has hit the ground running. The only biographical information we have is that he was a foreigner of Gilead. But from that point on it is all action. Offended for God and seemingly on his own authority Elijah decreed a drought as a national punishment for Ahab’s waywardness. In Verse 1 Elijah said to Ahab “As Yahweh, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” This was a rather bold move for Elijah because as far as we know, he hadn’t even been commissioned as a prophet.
But it also put him in an awkward position. If there’s no water for the infidel, there’s also no water for the prophet. So in vv. 2-3, God provided for him by telling him “Get up, and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan. 4 It shall be, that you shall drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” But eventually the brook dried up and he had to move. So verse 8 says “The word of Yahweh came to him, saying, 9 Arise, get you to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow there to sustain you. 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath which was a safe distance from Ahab. But rather then putting Elijah in country that served His God, Elijah found himself in a time and place where worship of Yahweh was foreign. In fact God placed him in a home where a woman who worshipped Baal took care of him.
So now we see the first skill that we need to learn to practice. We need to learn which people to treat with hostility and which people we should be hospitable to. The situation Elijah found himself contrasts these two types of people and demonstrates the appropriate way that each should be treated.
Ahab was a leader of Israel, a nation that had covenanted with God to serve Him and Him alone. He not only chose to turn his back on the God with whom he had a covenant, but He led the nation in the same way. But this woman grew up in a nation that never had a covenant with Yahweh. She was a simple woman living out the beliefs that had been handed out to her. It was appropriate to treat each of these differently because of what each needed. Elijah was hostile to Ahab because he was leading the nation away from God. But Elijah was hospitable to this woman because God was using his relationship with her to teach her about Yahweh’s faithfulness.
We need to learn from Elijah that it is appropriate to speak out when leaders are suppressing the expression of faith in Yahweh and Jesus. When I went to the Filer Idaho High School graduation I was surprised they unabashedly began and ended it with a student led prayer. At my graduation in 1986, we were not allowed to pray during the graduation because it was believed it violated the separation of church and state. But 9 years later, in 1995 the secretary of education, under mandate of the President, provided legal guidelines to help school boards and administrators write policy about religious expression in schools. Rather then simply describe what was not allowed it went on to demonstrate what was allowed. It turns out that there are many religious things students can freely do without infringing on the rights of others. And so, like Elijah, it is appropriate for us to stand up against leaders who try to suppress the public expression of faith in God and to support students within the guidelines given to them by the Secretary of Education.
On the other hand, we learn from Elijah that it is appropriate for us to be hospitable to those who worship either a different god or no god. The worst thing that you can do to your friends who have a different faith is to be hostile to them. All faiths understand what it is to be persecuted for what they believe. And so being hostile to them puts them in a defensive position that reinforces their beliefs about us. Elijah let this woman take care of him. He lived with her in her home. It was only through the years that he spent with her getting to know him and the God he served that she eventually was convinced about who Yahweh was. In the same way we need to learn to be there for our friends who follow a different faith, letting them see God in us. It may be years before they become convinced about who Jesus is, but if we are hostile to them we will only turn them away.
The second skill we need to develop is the faith and vision to believe that God may miraculously provide for our neighbor’s needs so that we can use that provision as an opportunity to showcase God’s faithfulness.
verse 10 says “and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks: and he called to her, and said, Please get me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. 11 As she was going to get it, he called to her, and said, Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand. 12 She said, As Yahweh your God lives, I don’t have a cake, but a handful of meal in the jar, and a little oil in the jar: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and bake it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die. 13 Elijah said to her, Don’t be afraid; go and do as you have said; but make me of it a little cake first, and bring it forth to me, and afterward make for you and for your son. 14 For thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, The jar of meal shall not empty, neither shall the jar of oil fail, until the day that Yahweh sends rain on the earth. 15 She went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, ate many days. 16 The jar of meal didn’t empty, neither did the jar of oil fail, according to the word of Yahweh, which he spoke by Elijah.
One of the opportunities that we have when we have close relationships with people of other faiths is to show them God’s faithfulness. To be there to help them with any need that they may have. The widow saw God’s faithfulness as day after day passed that the jar of meal did not empty nor the jar of oil fail.
And yet, no matter how faithful God is, when tragedy comes it can lead people to think that God doesn’t love them. They believe it is a sign of judgment because their god’s approval depends on their service to him. And so the final skill is that when tragedy occurs in the lives of friends who are serving other gods it is an opportunity for us to show them that the true God is a God of love and grace and that tragedy is simply a natural part of life rather then a sign of God’s judgment.
17 It happened after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him. 18 She said to Elijah, What have I to do with you, you man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to memory, and to kill my son!
This widow believed that it was because of her sins that her son was killed. That when she allowed Elijah into her home God’s attention was suddenly focused on her and He became aware of her sins and judged her by killing her son. When the worst happens, people’s most common reaction is to either believe that God is judging them or that God doesn’t care for them. Each of us knows the wickedness that is in us. And so we fear that when a tragedy happens it must be that God is punishing us.
Jesus addressed this belief in John chapter 6. when he passed by a man who was blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither did this man sin, nor his parents; but, that it was in order that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
When this man was born blind it was not because of his parent’s sins. It wasn’t because of his own sins. And when the widow’s son died, it wasn’t because God was judging her for her sins. When tragedy happens to our friends, it is not a sign that God is judging them for their sins. Elijah uniquely demonstrated this by bringing her son back to life.
19 He said to her, Give me your son. He took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into the chamber, where he abode, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried to Yahweh, and said, Yahweh my God, have you also brought evil on the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son? 21 He stretched himself on the child three times, and cried to Yahweh, and said, Yahweh my God, please let this child’s soul come into him again. 22 Yahweh listened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, Behold, your son lives.
One of the hallmarks of other faiths is that you must work in order to follow their religion. You have to do good deeds. You have to live up to a certain standard of holiness. And if you don’t then you will be under judgment. I went to a seminar once on reaching out to people of another religion and it made the point that often you can’t reach out to these people until they are in their 40’s and 50’s because by that point, they are tired of living under the stress of these expectations. They can’t do it. They can’t be good enough. And then when a tragedy happens, they think that it is a sign that God disapproves of them. It is at this time that we can share with them God’s grace. That Jesus came because we weren’t good enough. This can be hope to someone living under the expectations of another religion. It was to this woman.
This story of Elijah and the widow teaches us the importance of having relationships with people of other faiths. Of reaching out to them. Of demonstrating God’s faithfulness. And of being there for them when the worst happens. Take some time and think about friends that you might have who have different beliefs then you do and how you might learn from Elijah how to minister to them.