Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 12

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

Today we make a jump forward many years in our look at the prophets as we go from Isaiah to Jeremiah. Last week we heard Isaiah speaking a word of hope into the kingdom of Judah, which was surrounded by enemies on all sides, and we heard Isaiah telling us that our hope is not in earthly kings and alliances, but rather it is in God alone. This week we’re going to a much different historical situation as we hear Jeremiah’s words to us, so I hope you’ll bear with me for a short history lesson. After Isaiah’s career in Jerusalem, things started to go badly for the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In the year 722 BC, the empire of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and displaced many of the people who were living there. However, in the years following, Assyria’s power waned, and the empire of Babylon took over in the east. In the west, however, was the mighty empire of Egypt. And stuck in the middle of these two empires fighting for ultimate domination over the Middle East was the tiny kingdom of Judah, with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.

Into this messy political situation steps the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, who was the last truly good king that Judah had, and King Jehoiakim and King Zedekiah, the last kings that Judah would have. The Lord called Jeremiah to prophesy when he was a boy, so we can assume that he had a long career of being the Lord’s prophet. We can tell from the book that Jeremiah also had access to the kings to speak his prophecies, so he had some kind of connections in society. But the message that Jeremiah was called to bring to the people of Jerusalem was a hard one. God was not pleased with the people of Judah because they had disobeyed the Law and had worshiped other gods. Through Jeremiah, God pleads with God’s people to repent of their sins and to return to worship of the Lord. If they did not, Babylon was going to come and take over their kingdom and take the people away into exile. Because of this message, and because tradition says that Jeremiah also wrote the little book of Lamentations, Jeremiah is often nicknamed the “weeping prophet.”

And that’s the thing about prophets: they often say things that the people don’t want to hear. Throughout most of his book, we see Jeremiah telling the people that they need to repent of their sins and return to the Lord. We see him telling the people that God has told him that Babylon is going to come in and destroy them. We see him telling the king and the other politicians that an alliance with Egypt is not going to work. And the people don’t listen to a word that Jeremiah is telling them. The king listens to the false prophets who are telling him that everything is going to be okay and that there will be peace, and that Babylon is not going to bother them. And the king and his court get so annoyed with Jeremiah’s message of doom and gloom that they put Jeremiah in the stocks and then, later, dump him in a muddy well that had no water in it. It’s really no fun being a prophet with a message that the people do not want to hear.

But in the midst of all of this doom and gloom, Jeremiah also brings words of hope. The passage that we have today skips a few verses, because those verses have a lot of names in them that we have difficulty pronouncing. But they are important ones because they give us a date and a context for the letter. In the year 597 BC, Babylon came in to Jerusalem and captured the king, the royal family, and all of the important nobles and hauled them off into exile in Babylon. In King Jehoiachin’s place, Babylon installed his brother Zedekiah as a kind of puppet king—one who would keep the people in line and pay the appropriate tribute to Babylon. In today’s section of Jeremiah, we see Jeremiah writing to these first exiles in Babylon and giving them instructions from the Lord as to how they are to live. They are not to attempt to come back to the land of Judah, but instead they are to settle in Babylon, to live there, and to seek the welfare of the city to which they have been forcibly resettled.

So, let’s imagine the situation for a moment. We are the royalty and the nobles of the kingdom of Judah. Our king has surrendered to the Babylonian king, and we are forcibly taken to live in a country we have never been in before. We are surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, an unfamiliar language, and unfamiliar gods. We are terribly homesick. We are wondering where God is—after all, aren’t we God’s chosen people? Sure, we messed up, but is God really so angry with us that the Lord would send us away from the land that God promised us? And what about the people who are left behind in Judah? Are they going to take care of our home the way we would want them to? And is the king of Babylon going to leave them alone now, or will he come in again and do more damage?

And into this situation of questioning, homesickness, and confusion, comes a letter from the prophet Jeremiah. You know, that guy who was forever prophesying that Babylon was going to come in and conquer us, the guy who the king ignored and punished—and now his words are coming true. Maybe we should listen to him. And Jeremiah is telling us that we’re going to be in Babylon for a while, so we should stay put and live out our lives here, with no expectation of returning home. But, God has not forgotten us: the Lord is telling us that we are still God’s children, and that God has plans for our future. And that future will be a future with hope—no more doom, gloom, and punishment. Hope. And a plan for future restoration.

That hope extends to us today in the 21st century. We are a people of hope, and our business is spreading that hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. So how does this letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon still bring hope to us and to everyone we meet today? Well, first, I want to take a look at what might seem like a minor grammar point, but is actually very important to what we’re thinking about today. Many of us have heard the verse, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many of us have taken the “you” in this verse as a singular “you”. Actually, it’s not singular—it’s plural. God is speaking to the community of exiles, so what God is actually saying is, “For surely I know the plans I have for y’all.” God is not talking to you or to me, personally; God is talking to the community. The Lord knows the plans that God has for us, the congregations of Salem and St. John’s, plans for our welfare and not for our harm, to give us a future with hope. That is good news indeed.

Now, something important needs to be said at this point. There is a lot that God does not spell out for us here. God has plans for our welfare and for a future with hope. But this does not mean that God is going to bring us back to the days of the 1950s and the 1960s with children overflowing our Sunday school rooms and everyone coming to church every week. Those days are gone, and you know what? I think God is a lot more creative than that. As God’s people, we need to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit can take us in some interesting directions. Like the Jewish exiles in the country of Babylon adjusting to a new language and culture, we Christians need to adjust to a culture that does not always regard the church favorably or that simply thinks the church is irrelevant. We need to find new ways of bringing the hope we have in Jesus Christ to everyone we meet, and sometimes that means speaking about that hope in the new language of the culture that now surrounds us.

So, how do we learn the new language of the culture that surrounds us? I have studied several different foreign languages now, and what I can tell you is this: book learning is great to give you a foundation for how a different language works. But the language doesn’t really start to gel in your own mind until you go out, get over your fears, and start to practice it. So, here is your assignment: start talking to people. You can start with people you know who do not regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. If you have adult children or grandchildren who do not come, ask them why. And don’t do it in a judgmental tone, and when they speak, don’t immediately reply or get defensive. Listen to them. Truly listen to them, and try to understand what they’re saying. Then, start talking to people you don’t know as well. Invite them to come to worship with you on Sunday—make the invitation for a specific date, and make sure you are there in church that Sunday to sit beside them. If they say no, start listening to their reasons. Sometimes the reason is simple. One of my colleagues said that they encountered someone who thought she couldn’t come to worship on Sunday if she wasn’t a member of the church. Other times the reason is more complicated, as in the person got hurt by the church in some way. But whatever the reason is, listen to the person, don’t be judgmental, and when it is appropriate, invite them to come to worship with you. I will periodically be asking you in meetings how this assignment is going, and if we are getting a better feel for the needs of the people in our communities. And as we practice the new language of this new culture around us, with God’s help, we will eventually be able to bring hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in a language that they can understand.

Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, God has told us Christians today to settle in to this new, strange culture and to stay where we are. There is no going back to the way that the church used to be. But here is the good news: God has not abandoned us. God has said that God has plans for our communities of Christians, plans for our welfare and not harm, to give us a future with hope. We don’t know exactly what that future looks like yet. But we can trust that God will be with us, no matter what. Amen.

 

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Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 11

Isaiah 9:1-7

Merry Christmas! Well, not really, but this passage that we have before us today is one that we are familiar with because it comes around every Christmas time. And it may be a little jarring for us to hear it when we know it’s not Christmas yet, and it’s not even Advent yet. So, as we did last week, let’s take a step back and refresh our memories on who prophets were and what they did. Then we can look at who Isaiah was and what was going on at the time that he prophesied. And finally, we can look at this passage afresh and see what new meaning Isaiah’s words have for us today.

In last week’s sermon, I said that we Christians tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, because we have generally been taught to believe that all that the Old Testament prophets ever did was predict the coming of Jesus. As we looked at Amos last week, we discovered that this is a misunderstanding of the call of a prophet. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God, and God had a lot more to say to the people than just to tell them about the coming Messiah, although that was very important. People as diverse as Moses and Samuel were named as prophets, because they gave people messages from God about what God wanted them to do and how they were to behave. Last week, we saw how God sent the prophet Amos to the northern kingdom of Israel to criticize the country’s economic system, and how it made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Amos gave the people the call to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And today, we come to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah. Unlike Amos, who was a farmer minding his own business until God called him to go and prophesy, Isaiah seems to have been a career prophet. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and from his prophecies, we can see that he had regular access to both the Temple and the king. He prophesied during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This would have been approximately 742 through 689 BC, so Isaiah prophesied shortly after the time of Amos. During this time, there was a lot of political turmoil in the area, and people were very afraid. As we look at the time immediately surrounding today’s prophecy, we see that the northern kingdom of Israel was threatening to attack the southern kingdom, Judah, and King Ahaz was desperately trying to help his kingdom survive. He wanted to make an alliance with Assyria, the powerful empire to the east. Isaiah repeatedly told the king that he needed to trust in God alone, and not in the political and military might of the strong empires around him.

So now, we come to the section of Isaiah’s prophecy that is our reading today. Again, as Christians, we have heard this read so often at Christmas time that we immediately think that Isaiah is referring to Jesus. But I want us to take a step back from that for a moment, and try to put ourselves into the shoes of the people of the kingdom of Judah in the 700s BC, including Isaiah. Remember what the political situation is at this time: a lot of turmoil and a lot of threat of war from the surrounding kingdoms. And remember, too, that one of the tasks that the prophets had at that time was to speak God’s word to the situation that was presently happening. Isaiah and the people were not looking for a far-off Messiah to save them from their sins. They were looking for a word of hope from God right then and there, to save them from the threats surrounding them.

And so, we can ask ourselves, if this prophecy was not initially referring to Jesus, who is the child who was born upon whom the people were going to rest their hopes? Well, the best guess is that a prince was born to King Ahaz at this time, and that prince was Hezekiah. It was common in ancient times to assign divine titles to kings, and so even though we are a little taken aback today by the idea that any human should be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, it was nothing unusual at that time. And when Hezekiah grows up and becomes king, he is one of the better kings that Judah has; the book of 2 Kings tells us that “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” But even Hezekiah wasn’t perfect, and outside political turmoil continued during his reign. It turns out that peace did not come during Hezekiah’s lifetime.

So, early Christians who were looking at Hebrew Scriptures read this prophecy of Isaiah and interpreted it to apply to Jesus, who indeed came to save us from our sins. We believe that through his teachings, his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus did show himself to truly be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace”. Because of Jesus, we and all of our brother and sister Christians around the world no longer walk in darkness, but have indeed seen that great light. But, you know, the world around us is still in as much turmoil as there was in Isaiah’s time. There is still darkness everywhere, and we only need to turn on the news to see it. So, what kind of word does this prophecy have for us in this time? Does it mean anything to us anymore, or is it merely part of the sentimental barrage of Christmas cards that we give and receive each year, only to throw away after Christmas is over?

I would argue that Isaiah’s words have just as much to say to us today as they did in his own time. We, too, are living in a time of darkness due to political turmoil. We worry about North Korea. We worry about men who lose control and who decide to shoot people at outdoor concerts and now, even in churches. And even though we all know that politicians are not always the best people in the world, it seems like every time we turn around, another one of our leaders has been accused of sexual assault or some other form of inappropriate behavior. We have to determine what news reports are “fake” and what are real, and our biases and political leanings often make that determination. We don’t see that there is an objective truth any longer. We feel helpless and without hope, and we put our heads down and try to make it through life one day at a time.

Into this mess, the prophet Isaiah speaks: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” We are the people walking in darkness and we are looking for that word of hope, that light to shine upon us. And that light comes in the form of Jesus: the Son of God who became human for us, who was born just like we are, who lived just like we do, who suffered and who died for us, and who, in his resurrection, gave us the promise of what the coming kingdom of heaven will look like. When Jesus returns, he will indeed be God with us, and he will indeed be the Prince of Peace. There will be no more war, no more crying, and no more pain.

So, what do we do in the meantime? We hope. On Friday night, I went to see the Justice League movie, and at the end of the movie, one of the characters said this: “The truest darkness is not absence of light, but the despair that the light will never return. But the light always returns. Hope is real. You can see it. All you have to do is look up into the sky.” I think that’s what part of our problem today is. We are losing hope. We see everything that’s wrong in the world and are at a loss as to how to make it better. We see the struggles that we go through in our congregations and we lose some more hope. Perhaps it is because we have forgotten to put Jesus at the center of our lives—both individual and as congregations—that we are losing our hope. So, hear this now: As Christians, we are a people of hope. And we are in the business of spreading this hope—this crazy hope in someone who rose from the dead and who promised the same thing to us—to everyone we meet.

So, how do we spread this hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? How do we keep Jesus at the center of our congregational lives? Starting today, every time a new activity is proposed in a committee or council meeting for both Salem and St. John’s, I will be asking this question: How does this proposal spread hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? If we as a group can’t answer that, then I will ask us to rethink the project until the Spirit reveals to us how we can work it in such a way that it will be spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. As we look at the projects we are currently undertaking, I will be asking that question so that we understand why we are doing what we are doing. And if what we are doing does not have anything to do with hope in Jesus, we are going to rethink it. Because as Christians, we are not just another social club. We are people who do what we do because we have hope in Jesus.

The light of hope has shined upon us in the midst of a dark world. And the name of that Son that has been born to us, the name of the one who gives us hope for peace, is Jesus. Jesus is the one who gives hope in this world troubled with political turmoil. Jesus is the one who we put our trust in—not our politicians, not our guns, and not anything else on this earth. Jesus is the one who we find our unity in, for Jesus binds us together over and across any lines we humans might be able to think of to divide us one from the other. That hope in Jesus is why we exist, and it is why we are doing the things that we are doing in the community and in the world. We are a people of hope, and we are in the business of spreading that hope to everyone we meet. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 10

Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

Today we make a shift in our story of the Bible, from stories about what prophets did to accounts of what the prophets said. And we start our journey with the prophets with a man named Amos. If you remember from last week, we heard a story of the prophet Elijah who went up against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of the northern kingdom of Israel. That would have been somewhere between the years 869 and 850 BC. Amos did his prophesying work during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah, perhaps somewhere in the 750s BC. So this would be many years after Elijah; remember that years count down when we’re talking about BC. But before we get deeper into Amos’ background and what he said, I want to take a step back and talk about what a prophet actually is.

Most of us, when we think about prophets, think about people who are able to foretell the future. And we think of that probably because, as Christians, we have been brought up to believe that many of the Old Testament prophets said particular things that point to the coming of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. But actually, that was only a small part of the prophet’s call from God. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God. And God had many more things to say to the people than to just tell them about the coming of Jesus. If we look back in our series several weeks ago, we will see that one of the first Old Testament figures we encountered along the way was Moses. Moses acted as a prophet, or a spokesperson, for God, when he went back down to Egypt and told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. Moses continued to act as God’s spokesperson when he went up onto Mount Sinai and came down again with God’s law for the people. Samuel acted as God’s spokesperson when he anointed David as king over Israel, to show that God had chosen David. And, as we saw last week, Elijah’s call as a prophet was to speak out for God against the prophets of Baal that Queen Jezebel had allowed to promote the worship of Baal in the kingdom of Israel. Just like these prophets, God had a particular message that God wanted Amos to speak to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel.

So now, let’s get a little background on the prophet Amos. We find out from a conversation that Amos has with a man named Amaziah in chapter 7 that Amos never expected to be called by God as a prophet. He says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” We also find out from the first part of our reading today that Amos comes from a town named Tekoa, which was located somewhat south of Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah. In other words, God takes a no-name farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah and sends him up to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s words to the king and the people of the northern kingdom. The ways of the Lord are mysterious, indeed.

Now we can take a look at what God’s message to the king and the people of Israel through the prophet Amos was. The portions of Amos that we have today give a summary of what the main points of his message are. Seek good and not evil, Amos says. Okay, that’s pretty easy to follow; God’s been telling the people that since the beginning of the story. But then we get a surprising message: God is not happy with the people’s worship, but commands instead for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. When we just look at the snippet of Amos that we have for today, we can get confused, because we know that God wants us to come and worship. Is God giving a different message after all?

Well, not really, and this is where we have to look at some of what the rest of Amos says. The problem that God was calling Amos to address was an economic one. During the reign of Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel reached its peak of prosperity. Scholar Abraham Heschel writes, “When Amos appeared in the North there was pride, plenty, and splendor in the land, elegance in the cities, and might in the palaces. . . . At the same time there was no justice in the land, the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery, and the judges were corrupt” (27-28). And so Amos says this: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying ‘When will the new moon by over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweeping of the wheat.’” When we look at the rest of what Amos says, we find that worship of God itself is not the problem; rather, it is the hypocrisy of the people that is the problem. Amos is asking how the people can come and worship God, and then turn around and exploit the poor. The people think that God doesn’t care about what they do outside of worship, and Amos is saying that yes, God cares very much.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” So now we come to this idea of justice, and this is where things get sticky for us. We here in the church understand charity. We collect food for the hungry. We give money to the poor and we collect money to help those who have been hit by natural disasters, and we will soon be giving shelter to the homeless through Family Promise. And that is all good, and we need to keep doing these things. But there is a difference between charity and justice. Justice takes things a step further than charity. Justice asks why there are hungry people, poor people, and homeless people, and justice asks how we as a community are treating those people. Justice looks at the system that produces poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction and asks how we can change that system for the better.

Changing the system is not an easy task. For example, every time I fill up my car with gas, I think about how I am part of the system that is polluting the earth and warming the climate. I want to do the right thing, but with the system that we have now, transportation is essential. I know and I confess to God that even though I try to care for the earth by reducing what I use and recycling all I can, I could still do more. And growing out of that confession of my sin is a call to work for change in the system: writing to legislators when they want to roll back emissions standards for cars and speaking out against reducing the size of national parks and monuments just so that oil companies can try to drill some more and pollute the earth even more, for example. In this way, and in other ways as well, I can do my part to work for justice for God’s creation, and to advocate for more respectful ways to coexist with other parts of that creation.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We think that church should not have anything to do with politics. And yet, here is the prophet Amos, criticizing the economic system of the northern kingdom of Israel that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He was told to go back to Judah and leave Israel alone, but in response, he said he could not, for the Lord had called him to this post. And here is the prophet Amos, still part of our Holy Scriptures today. Here he is, telling us centuries later that we as Christians have something to say to the injustices around us that make it seem like we are getting political. We have something to say to environmental injustice, because God has created this good earth that we live on. We have something to say about the economic system that creates poverty and homelessness, especially as we help those people who are reduced to poverty and homelessness. We have something to say about racial discrimination and injustice, because through the apostle Paul, God has told us that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos is just the beginning of the message of the prophets. From now until Christmas, our readings will take us through a sampling of the writings of the prophets, and we will hear what messages they have for us today. It may be helpful for us to remember that, as a good Jewish man, Jesus would have been immersed in the message of the prophets, and that he continued to bring their message to the people. As we go through Advent, the time when we await the coming of the Lord, it will be helpful for us to consider the stories that we have learned about Jesus and how they fit in with the message of the prophets, because Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of both the Law and the prophets—and not in a “predict-the-future” kind of way. We will continue to ask ourselves how we can hear the message of the prophets and use it in the 21st century. For now, let us go forth from here meditating on this most famous verse from Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 9

Note: Last week I did not post a sermon, as the four Lutheran churches in my area gathered for a joint Reformation Day worship service at St. Peter’s Lutheran in Highspire, PA. I did not preach at that service.

1 Kings 19:1-18

After a hiatus last Sunday, today we continue our journey through the story of the Bible. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of how Samuel anointed David to be king over Israel, and to get to today’s story, we have to get the general outline of what’s been happening over many, many years. Eventually, King Saul was killed in battle, and King David came to power. Although David made some pretty dramatic mistakes as king, he continued to be favored by God, and the period of David’s rule is looked upon as the Golden Age of the kingdom of Israel. After David died, his son Solomon came to power, and Solomon also ruled for many years. Under King Solomon, the temple in Jerusalem was built. Solomon was famous for his wisdom, and many people from other countries came to seek Solomon out for his wise judgments. But then, Solomon dies, and his son Rehoboam comes to power. Rehoboam is not as wise as his father Solomon, and he decides to rule the country more harshly than his father did. As a result, the northern part of the kingdom, led by a man named Jeroboam, secedes and creates its own kingdom, which they call Israel. The southern half of the kingdom, which includes Jerusalem, is still led by Rehoboam and is called Judah. The ruler of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam, sees that his people are still going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord in the temple there, and worries that because of this, the people may want to come back under the rule of Rehoboam, which means that he, Jeroboam, will lose power. So he builds new places in the north to worship and puts idols in these places, and the people of the north go there to worship. This continually gets him and subsequent kings in trouble with God, who sends prophets to warn them of their sins.

Many years go by with different kings ruling over the two kingdoms. And then a king named Ahab comes to power in the northern kingdom of Israel, and he marries a woman named Jezebel. I know you all have probably heard of the name Jezebel before, and the name has certain connotations in our society: loose, immoral, wicked, may be some of the descriptors that come to your mind. Queen Jezebel came from an area outside of Israel called Sidon, and she did not worship the Lord; rather, she worshiped a god named Baal. And when she became queen of the northern kingdom of Israel, she instituted worship of Baal throughout the northern kingdom. As you can imagine, God was not best pleased with this situation, and sent the prophet Elijah to warn the king and the people that they were being led astray.

Elijah is another one of those big names in the history of Israel, and there are many stories of the things that he did. But to help us understand what’s going on in today’s story of Elijah, we need to briefly review what happened in the previous chapter. In chapter 18, Elijah had set up a contest between Baal and the Lord: whichever god could rain down fire on an altar with a sacrifice on it was the true God. And this is really a rather funny story, because all of the prophets of Baal start dancing around and praying to Baal, and nothing happens. So Elijah starts taunting them and saying that maybe Baal is taking a bathroom break, among other things. But then, when Elijah calls on the name of the Lord, the Lord is the one who rains down fire. When this happens, Elijah has the people seize the prophets of Baal, and he kills them all.

This brings us to our story today. When Jezebel finds out that Elijah has killed all of her prophets of Baal, she is furious, and she threatens Elijah’s life. And so Elijah runs. Elijah is tired and he’s just done with this whole prophet business; being a prophet of the Lord is never easy, but this threat against his life has just broken him down completely. But God is not done with Elijah yet. God sends angels to strengthen Elijah, and then God appears to Elijah on the mountain of Horeb, speaks with him, and tells him what his next steps will be. And Elijah is strengthened and renewed for the continuing work that God has for him to do, and he goes forward knowing that God is with him.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday—the day that we remember our loved ones who have gone on before us. This idea of a saint is something that we struggle with, because in popular culture a saint is someone who is perfect: who believes in God, who does something extraordinarily good to help other people, who makes sacrifices that most ordinary people would not be able to make, and who doesn’t make mistakes. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints. Most of us will not be officially named as saints by the Roman Catholic Church, for example. But our story of Elijah, that lion of a prophet who God sent to take down the prophets of Baal, tells us that a saint is still a flawed human being. A saint is one who will go from the high of a victory for God one day to the low of a threat against his life the next day. A saint is one who does get discouraged when bad things happen and who looks up to God and says, “God, I am so done with all of this.” And a saint is one whom God loves and whom God encourages and to whom God says, “I know it’s rough. But I will strengthen you and guide you in this journey. I’m not done with you yet, and I will still work great things through you.”

In Lutheran teaching, we are all saints. Martin Luther says that we are simultaneously sinners and saints: that even though we still sin, because Christ died for those sins, we are covered by his righteousness, and so, we are, in fact, saints. This is what enables me, for example, to remember my paternal grandmother, who was very ornery in this life and who, it seemed like, wasn’t happy unless she was complaining about something, and yet, despite all of her flaws, I am confident that she is now resting with the Lord—because Jesus died for her, too, and he covered her with his righteousness. Being a saint is not what popular culture imagines it to be. Being a saint means that we are not perfect and that we struggle. Being a saint means that we talk back to God when God calls us into rough places. Being a saint means that we can even lose our faith for a time. But, being a saint also means that, in the end, we trust in God because we can rest confidently in the knowledge that God loves us, no matter what.

Part of being a saint also means that we know there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s love. In our Thursday morning Bible study, we have begun viewing a video series on Martin Luther and the Reformation. And one of the questions that the leader’s guide asked was this: “Can you identify with Luther’s question, ‘When will I know when I’ve done enough to earn God’s love?’” And those of you who were there on Thursday know that I pushed you guys on this, and I’m now going to extend that to the entire congregation. We may have asked this question ourselves at some point, “When will I know when I’ve done enough to earn God’s love?” And the answer that Luther gave, and that I will repeatedly also give to you, is this: THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO TO EARN GOD’S LOVE. PERIOD. God has already freely given us that love. God loved us so much that God gave God’s only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for us. Everything that needs to be done has already been done. You’re good. God loves you, no matter what. The good works that we do are things that we do in grateful response to how much God loves us. They are NOT what saves us. Jesus has already done that.

This is how we can be sinners and saints at the same time. We live in the time before Jesus’ return, and sin and evil still run rampant over this earth. We ourselves are sinful, because we are part of this fallen world. But, because we know that God loves us, and because we know that Jesus died for us and gave his righteousness to us, we trust in God’s word that we are God’s children, and that God can still work through us. God’s kingdom is coming here on earth, and we as God’s saints want to participate in the coming of that kingdom. And in order to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom, we need to be open to what God wants to do through us. We need to come and worship, to hear again through God’s Word and the Holy Sacraments how much God loves us, to allow God to strengthen us, and then to go out into the world again to show God’s love to everyone we meet.

I wonder how Elijah felt after his encounter with God. Relieved, perhaps, that God had given him definite instructions for what he was to do next? Still tired, but strengthened because he knew that he was going to have help with this prophet business by the man named Elisha? Renewed, because he knew that Elisha would succeed him and that one day, God’s call on his life would be finished and that he could finally rest? I’m guessing probably a little of all of those things. When it comes time for God to take us home and to join our loved ones around the throne, I imagine we will feel all of these things as well as other emotions. We are both sinners and saints while we are here on this earth, but when we go to be with Jesus, the sinfulness will drop like a veil and we will be revealed as saints. And those who are left behind will mourn, as we mourn those who have gone ahead of us. But rather than say, “My grandmother was a good person,” we can say, with confidence, “My grandmother had a good God, and God’s got her now. And I will see her again one day.” My sisters and brothers, we have a good God, and we can trust that we are in God’s hands. Amen.