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.