Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fifth Sunday after Trinity + July 21, 2019
Text: 1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor. 1:18-25; Luke 5:1-11
I think we would all agree that God is higher and greater than us. (After all, we wouldn’t be here if we were convinced otherwise.) As He explains in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” But sometimes it’s hard to remember that in our daily lives. We’re going to take a closer look at each of the three readings and focus on how this truth comforts and guides us in our lives.
Before we do, I’d like to turn our attention to the Collect of the Day (which we will pray in a little bit). The purpose of the Collect is to collect the common lessons from the Scripture assigned for the day, and then put it in the form of a prayer. So, we pray:
O God, You have prepared for those who love You good things that surpass all understanding. Pour into our hearts such love toward You that we, loving You above all things, may obtain Your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Old Testament: Putting God above our observations.
Now, turn over your bulletin and follow along with the lessons. First, in the Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings 19, a little background: Elijah is a faithful prophet. But there isn’t much market for a faithful prophet, because Israel is being ruled by Ahab and Jezebel, who have embraced pagan worship and tried to supplant or at best synchronize worship of the Lord with the Baals (manmade deities). In the previous chapter, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest of offerings, to see whose was the true God. The Lord vindicated His might before Israel and Elijah had the false prophets put to death. But that got him in hot water with Queen Jezebel, and she wanted him gone. Elijah fled from her into the wilderness, and even asked that God take his life, “saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’” So, Elijah had gone from a great, visible success in his ministry to the depths of loneliness and despair. He was to be no better than the prophets who were rejected before him—Moses, Samuel, or the company of brothers who had preached in vain to wicked kings before him.
This is the background for the Lord’s lesson in our text (1 Kings 19:11-21). Elijah is struggling with his jealousy for the Lord, and the rejection and persecution he’s gotten in return for it. He’s weary from fighting. His conscience won’t allow him to just go along with the crowd and take the broad and easy path, because that would be unfaithful to His Redeemer, the Lord. But all that remaining true to God has seemed to have gotten him is scorn and alienation.
But God teaches Elijah by four illustrations: a great wind, a great earthquake, a fire, and finally a whisper—a “still, small voice.” (NKJV) The impressive and powerful things it says, “the Lord was not in” them. But He was in the seemingly weak and ineffectual—a whisper. Here, God is teaching Elijah that His ways are not to be judged by human observation and reason, but by His Word and faith.
This had been a continual lesson for God’s people, in their battles—Pharaoh’s army drown in the Red Sea (Exodus 14), the walls of Jericho falling at the sound of the trumpet and a mere shout (Joshua 6), and the 120,000 Midianites defeated by Gideon’s 300 men (Judges 7-8). God is at work even when the visible and immediate seems to be just the opposite.
Can’t you relate? The immediate seems impossible and hopeless. How could there be any reconciling after months or years of wrongs? What hope is there for that wayward grandson to ever know the Lord? Who could survive when the doctors say the chances are so low?
When we witness the world around us, and see how degraded it’s getting, it can wear us down. Living as a faithful (not nominal) Christian is only getting harder and more unpopular. When we are convinced from God’s Word of right and wrong, we run contrary to hordes of people who are caught up in the times. Masses of people could care less what Scripture says, and the plethora of churches that were planted 60 years ago now struggle to be self-supporting. Visibly, outwardly weak.
But God is greater than our observations, and He is still at work. Sinners do hear the word of God and turn from their wickedness. Parents do make worship and Bible study a priority for their family and make the time. And He even gives us eyes to see the signs that this world is passing away, and the Great Day is surely drawing near. As the hymn says, “Though hidden yet from mortal eyes, His Gideon shall for you arise. Uphold you and His Word.” (LSB 666:2)
Epistle: Putting God above our expectations of Him.
Next, we turn to the Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Jesus is not the Savior people want Him to be. He doesn’t fit into our human reason. He also doesn’t open the ground to swallow His enemies or make manna appear on the ground anymore. Not that He doesn’t reveal Himself through these things.
He gave us reason and language so that He could relate and interact with His creatures. He is a God of the Word, and He inspired the very words and language syntax so that we might know Him. His Word reveals clear truths that can be communicated and placed in categories. But on the other hand, there are things that we cannot know about Him through reason—how His Son can be the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and yet many are not saved, how He created the world and sustains it by His Word, how He is one God in three Persons, how Jesus Christ is able to be bodily present everywhere His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk. These things defy our love of reason. We want to have everything figured out and understood. The first temptation into sin came with the promise that we would become wise, but it was in fact filled with evil and actually blinded us to God’s truth.
He also used to reveal Himself in signs and wonders. We ought to be fully convinced from His Word that He did turn the water of the Nile into blood (and it was no red algae bloom), that He did truly part the waters of the Red Sea and Israel passed through on dry ground. We should not doubt that Jesus healed the sick with a touch, cast out ferocious demons, and raised the dead. We can further believe that the apostles spontaneously spoke in other languages, that they were able to heal the sick, and on one occasion raise the dead. But we should also be content that the time for those supernatural, visible signs has passed for the most part. It’s not like God isn’t capable of doing them, and in cases where it’s needed He does. But to seek and demand these signs is to despise the places where He has promised to be for all people in every generation: in the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the holy and saving signs of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. The sign that He is living and active, upon which the rock of the Church is built, is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:15-19).
The lesson here is that our expectations of God should not come from our darkened hearts, but from His own revealing of Himself on His terms. Be sure that He does reveal Himself when and how He knows best! A religion that “makes sense” in every point might be appealing, but it’s also the sign of manmade snake oil. A blinding sign from heaven might be frightful to unbelievers and encouraging to believers, but the true work of God is what Jesus says in John 6: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It is His work that we give up our expectations of a reasonable faith and a God of signs and wonders. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” It is through Christ crucified that we sinners are put in our right mind and see heaven open before us.
Gospel: Putting God above our unworthiness and weakness.
Finally, in the Gospel, Luke 5:1-11, we hear of the first disciples meeting Jesus. By virtue of hearing these stories many times, and through the fog of history, it’s hard to understand why Peter reacts the way he does. Though the sign that Jesus does, it’s revealed to Peter that he is standing in the presence of the living God. His reaction is not unlike Isaiah, who cries, “Woe is me!” when he is suddenly up-close and personal with Holy God. There’s nothing that Peter can hide, as he finds himself veritably naked before God.
We’re often not aware how true this is. God is omniscient, knowing our thoughts, words, and actions truly and completely. Nobody is able to hide from His gaze, no matter how well we cover it from others. So Peter, like us, cry out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
But thanks be to God, He doesn’t listen to that request. Jesus, the Crucified One, the physician of sinners, instead forgives Peter: “Do not be afraid” because where God removes fear, He has removed the guilt and condemnation. These are words of the Absolution. The God who fully knows your sin has brought it to your attention and yet His divine judgement is: Not guilty because the Lamb of God has been sacrificed in your place.
And here the lesson is that we put God’s Word above our own unworthiness and weakness. It truly is His desire to come and dine with you, in a house of sinners like this. He earnestly desires to receive you. When we think about worthiness, we must put His judgement above our own. In preparation for the Lord’s Supper today, the Catechism asks, “Who receives this sacrament worthily? Answer: Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” What makes us worthy is a true and faithful confession, as John writes,
If we say we have fellowship [communion] with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:6-10)
It’s true that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and thanks be to God for that, because it’s in those ways that we believe His Word and through His Son we are saved. Amen.