November 29, 2015

I Kings 18:30-38; 19;1-7; Romans 10:14

In the slave camps they called her Preacher Woman.   She was a most unusual person, a slave who could read.

When she was a child a young girl about her own age taught her to read.  This had to be accomplished in secret, of course.  If their hidden lessons had been discovered, both would have been punished.  It was against both law and custom to teach a slave to read.

Her textbook was the Bible, and in the Bible she discovered more than how vowels and consonants formed words, more than how words shaped sentences and paragraphs, more than how words unlocked thoughts and imagination.

This book opened her to a world of hopes and dreams that she had never thought possible.  This book lead her to a God of hope and possibility, a God who understood suffering, a God of liberation.

In this book she read of a God who remembered the suffering of enslaved children and led them to their freedom.

In this book she heard the voice of a prophet tell a people who had waited in darkness for centuries that their path would soon be illuminated by a Great Light.

She read of a young, poor Jewish girl who found favor with God and was told by an angel that she carried in her womb the promised Messiah, the hope of the world, miraculously conceived within her by the Holy Spirit.

When the young slave was sold, her mistress gave her the Bible from which she had learned to read. She secreted this gift away and took it with her.

At the plantation where she was sent, she would take it under the cover of darkness and read Bible stories to any who would listen.  She swore them to secrecy.  They must never reveal her ability to read.  They called her Preacher Woman.

She told them stories of a God who listened, who felt the lashes of the slave-master’s whip right along with them, who wanted more than anything to set them free.  Other preachers might shout from their pulpits, but she was destined to whisper her sermons at firesides.

When they sang, it was in guarded language, words that could not be understood at the Big House. “Everybody talkin’ bout’ heaven ain’t a goin’,” they sang.  And a new song that was passing through the slave camps, “Follow the drinkin’ gourd.”

When she slept, she dreamed of a God who would sweep through the land with plagues, picking up the Big Houses with hands of fire and with a mighty breath blow the cotton out of the fields like dandelion fluff.

Then one day the word got out, and the warning came back in panicked, whispered tones.  “They’ve found out your secret, Preacher Woman.  Men from the Big House….They’s come’n to get cha.”   She ran.

Without even taking time to get her Bible, she rushed from the camp and ran as fast as she could until darkness came

When she heard the sound of dogs and knew with a shudder that she was to be the prey of their hunt, she even ran through the darkness.

A week passed.  She hid during the day and traveled at night, following the drinking gourd she had sung about so often.

She had no idea whether she was still in Tennessee or had crossed the border into Kentucky.  She would remain in hiding until she knew for sure that her feet were touching the land of freedom.

Hope kept her going, every day, every night.  All she had to comfort her were her old friends, darkness and silence.

There in the night sky, she stared at the North Star and the handle of the Big Dipper.  She listened to the silence of the starry sky.  That’s when it came, the still small voice.  It was a barely audible whisper.   It spoke the words of hope and freedom.

Would you, just for a moment, compare this woman to the prophet Elijah after his grand exhibition of God’s power on top of Mount Carmel?

There Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. Their gods were thought to be the agents of all growing things – the gods of fertility.

The scene could not have been more dramatic as the prophets of Baal danced around their altar asking their gods to send fire from heaven to consume the dead animal on their altar. They shouted, slashed themselves with swords, and finally gave up.

Elijah mocked them and asked them if their gods had gone to sleep.  Then he stepped up to his altar, dug a trench around it, had water hauled in and poured over the sacrifice until the trench was full.  This was for dramatic effect of course, sort of like Michael Jordan challenging you to a game of horse.  You miss your shot from the free throw line and Michael walks up the free throw line, but he turns around to shoot at the goal at the other end of the court and calls his shot, “One hand, off the backboard, nothing but net.”  Then he makes it.  That’s what Elijah was doing on Mt. Carmel by adding all that water to the altar.

Then he prayed for God to show up and fire fell, burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and licked up the water in the trench.   When all the people saw this they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord–he is God! The Lord–he is God!” (v. 40)

How’s that for drama?   Now if God were to reveal himself with that kind of drama today, would it not be enough to carry this church for a month, a year? Wouldn’t you be talking about it a generation from now?

We would draw strength from this event in those times when God seemed far away, wouldn’t we?  To see the strength of God demonstrated so vividly and powerfully would give us such a feeling of confidence like Paul had when he wrote: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and we would never fear evil, doubt God, or fail to recognize God’s voice ever again, right?

Well, it didn’t happen that way for Elijah.  In fact, after obeying God and being a servant in the hands of God on that mountain and after he saw God’s power demonstrated in such dramatic fashion, life got tougher for Elijah.

After the incident on Mt. Carmel, Elijah’s life became like that of the Preacher Woman.  He became a hunted man.  Queen Jezebel set her men looking for him to take his life.  Her goal was to kill him for what happened on Mt. Carmel.

Do you agree or disagree that the slave woman’s life was more blessed because she learned how to read and through her reading of the Bible she came to know God and be filled with the Holy Scripture?

Sounds like most of us agree, even though, because of her gift, she eventually found herself on the run, being comforted by her friends, darkness and silence.

Do you agree or disagree that Elijah’s life was more blessed because he was a prophet of God? Yet his life became more difficult because he challenged the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

Of course, he didn’t just challenge them; he also had them killed. To us, this is a bit disturbing, for we know we can’t just kill anyone that disagrees with us theologically. That would make us no different than radical, Islamic terrorists.

We cannot simply eliminate anyone who does not worship like we do or does not believe like we do. The only thing that will accomplish is the very thing that happened to Elijah. Queen Jezebel sent her entourage of men out looking for Elijah in order to do the very same thing to him that he had done to her prophets.

The central symbol of our religion is a cross. The cross is an avenue of change that challenges the established world in a way that seems to make no sense. How can a cross overturn anything? How can a cross free us from anything?

The cross killed Jesus. The cross was a tool of execution used by the enemy. So how can a cross help us fight against an enemy?

That’s the question the disciples had for Jesus. We must not confuse those things which bind us, inhibit us, and nearly destroy us spiritually as a cross.  Those are things the cross of Jesus came to free us from. Slavery was not a cross to bear. It was a grave sin against blacks by case plantation owners of this country and is still a problem today throughout the world. Domestic violence is not a cross one must bear. It is abuse usually against women and children by men who use power and manipulation to control, instill fear, and further abuse. Sexual abuse is not a cross to bear. It is a terrible crime one commits against another that must be stopped as it damages both body and spirit.

The cross of Jesus came to set us free from sin but not necessarily from pain. I’d say the crosses we bear come when others betray us.   It is grieving or hurting we do when others hurt.  It is the pain we feel when tragedies happen in places like Charleston and Paris, when lives are taken unjustly, when crimes are committed as a response to injustice, or when communities are divided and not working to love one another or understand one another.

But the crosses we bear are all about hope and freedom. They free us from fear.  They free us from the demons that haunt us.  They free us from addictions.  They free us from the guilt of sin.  We can be set free from a belief that all strength must come from us.

The cross of Jesus frees us from a legalism that says as long as you are in the right places in the right times doing the right spiritual things that life will come out smooth and easy.

The cross of Jesus is about nonviolence. It is about forgiveness. The cross of Jesus is about sacrifice. It is about taking the initiative to walk into the midst of pain and take the pain of others upon ourselves for the sake and benefit of others.

The cross is about being unselfish. It is about loving God first and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The cross is about going the extra mile and turning the other cheek.

The cross says, “I am willing to suffer, not because I like suffering. I am willing to suffer because I hate to see others suffer and I hate injustice. I am willing to even die in order to see that justice comes.”

That is the reason we have a holiday on January 18 dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. We acknowledge that this kind of cross bearing is very rare. It is the reason we have Memorial Day and a day to honor veteran who place their lives on the line in their service to our country. It is the reason we honor those whose service calls on them to be prepared to do the same, like police officers and fire fighters.

Because of the cross, we can be set free from carrying the wrong kind of burdens and realize we are free to choose to carry the right kind of burden.

Because of the cross, we are set free to live for others and not for ourselves.  We are set free from the chains of materialism, knowing that we are living to lay up treasures in heaven.

Because of the cross, we are set free from the lies of the world, which tell us that we are judged by our outward appearance when the Bible tells us that God judges us by the condition of our hearts.

As the Preacher Woman sat in the darkness and looked up at the sky and hoped for freedom, do you think she ever regretted ever learning how to read the Bible?

Do you think she ever regretted telling others about the God who cared for the enslaved Children of Israel in their suffering?

Elijah in his weak moment may have regretted challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, but after God’s angels attended to him, and encouraged him, Elijah too came back to his senses and realized that taking up God’s command to follow him was indeed the greatest privilege anyone could be given.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the churches of Galatia, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we well reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9 (NIV)

Is there anyone here this morning in need of some hope? Jesus wants to give you that hope today.   Hope is available if you take up your cross and follow him.

Soon we will move into our 151st year as a church. We will be only as strong as the sacrifices we are willing to make.

Three thousand years later we are still talking about Elijah. 180 years later we are still talking about the Preacher Woman. 150 years later we are still taking about the people who started this church.

All of these people made sacrifices, as they understood the God they served. None were perfect. Yet all followed the call of God on their lives.

As you follow, what difference will your faithfulness make for future generations? What legacy will you leave?   That will be determined by how much you are willing to take up your cross and follow Jesus.