Sermon, April 27, 2014 | Grace Reformed Church
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
No one likes to be rejected. Whether in personal or professional matters, whether by friends or strangers, whether in big things or in little, rejection stings. It is as though we have been judged and found wanting, even if we know at some level that what has been rejected as worthless or undesirable is not us but some other item or idea or person that we are in some way representing.
It is a disheartening, discouraging, and above all a lonely feeling, and we want to avoid it. It must have been with this feeling, with the sting of rejection still smarting, that Paul and Barnabus came to Iconium.
Despite some initial success at their previous stopping place in Antioch they had ultimately been run out of town. And to make it worse, some of the prime movers against them in the anti-Paul and anti-Barnabus camp had been their own people, the Jews.
Here they had offered the best news that had ever been given them. The Messianic promises were laid out and Jesus proclaimed. The very thing the people of Israel had waited for for hundreds of years was being announced, but only some of their people were willing to hear it.
Indeed, the reception of the Word among the Gentiles was far greater than among the Jews, to the point that Paul had said that it was not only to the Jews but to Gentiles also that the promised new life in Christ and forgiveness of sins was addressed. It must have been with a mixture of optimism and dread that the two missionaries continued their proclamation.
Just as at Antioch in Pisidia, Paul and Silas began in the synagogue and stressed the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures in Jesus the Messiah. They did this in such a way that great numbers of both Jews and Gentiles believed. And again, just like at Antioch, there were those of the Jews who stirred up animosity amongst some of the people. Paul and Barnabus did not cut and run. They stayed in town for awhile and continued to proclaim boldly for the Lord. But when they got wind of a plot against them to stone them, they fled.
Paul came to Iconium proclaiming the greatest good news they could ever have heard. Why didn’t Paul’s own people hear? How could they not believe his testimony? What was so blindingly, obviously clear to Paul must have been opaque to his contemporaries.
Paul and Barnabus must have felt rejected, isolated, and distressed. In spite of an initial positive response and the response of the Gentiles, Paul must have felt a great disappointment in the response of his fellow Israelites who, being offered life, chose to threaten him with death.
Rejected, isolated, and distressed; these are not unusual things for people to feel when they serve God. These feelings were not unique to Paul and Barnabus. We read today in our Old Testament lesson about the prophet Elijah and his feelings of isolation that he felt.
I think this is one of the very interesting points of Scripture in regard to the human condition. Elijah, the first of the great prophets of Israel, some 850 years before the time of Paul, here is at the high point of his prophetic career. He has just defeated all the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. God has sent down fire to show that he is God and that Elijah is his true prophet. The crowds have just proclaimed their belief that the Lord is God. And the prophets of Baal have been killed to a man. Just like Paul and Barnabus, he started well.
The high point of his career is upon him, but not for long. The notorious foreign-born Jezebel is not among those who greet with satisfaction the killing of the prophets of Baal. After all, she is a serious worshipper of Baal, who is a native God from her native country.
Hearing this news Jezebel speaks a great oath. Then Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” The text tells us, in something of an understatement, that Elijah is afraid. You would certainly think so. The most powerful woman in the kingdom wants Elijah dead.
So Elijah flees, first to Beersheba, which was about as far as he could get from Jezebel and still be in Israel. But that isn’t far enough to suit him. He leaves his servant there and goes on a day’s travel into the desert.
And now we get a glimpse into Elijah’s true feelings of rejection and loneliness, which must have been like those of Paul and Barnabus. Elijah sits down under a broom tree. And he asks that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lies down and sleeps under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touches him and says to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looks, and behold, there is at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he eats and drinks and lies down again. And the angel of the LORD comes again a second time and touches him and says, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arises and eats and drinks, and goes in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
So Elijah is ministered to in the desert. He gets a meal from the angel, then he sleeps, then eats again. It is going to take at least two meals to get Elijah through the 40 days and 40 nights to get to Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God.
Mount Horeb is Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the law. And on Mt. Horeb Elijah goes into the same cave that had sheltered Moses when God passed by.
And the word of the Lord comes to Elijah, “What are you doing here Elijah?“ And we hear a full note of rejection, isolation and distress in Elijah’s voice as he responds, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Elijah has a notion that all is lost, that everybody else has given in to Baal worship. He pours out his feelings of isolation and distress. He’s done everything he can do and his people just don’t get it! It is interesting to note that it is at the high point in his career that this happens. Only the threat from Jezebel confronts Elijah. How little discouragement it sometimes takes to counter the encouragement! But God is gracious and gives Elijah a taste of the truth.
In that well-known passage God sends a mighty wind, an earthquake, and fire, but God is not in these things. Then God sends the sound of a low whisper, or as many of us learned it, “a still small voice.”
Then Elijah hears the question again, “What are you doing here Elijah?” and again Elijah gives the same answer, the same bleak assessment of the situation, the same sense of rejection, isolation and distress. As the story continues we see that Elijah does as God bids him do. He is not through with his prophet yet. And we see that God ultimately works His will. Elijah is pretty sure he knows the score, but God knows otherwise. He says there is a faithful remnant of 7,000 people who have not given in. Elijah has already twice said that he was alone.
Here is the point of contact between Elijah and his later apostolic successors, Paul and Barnabus. Each was stung by the rejection of their message by the very people who should have been most ready and happy to hear. And each was put in fear of his life by the very people they were trying to reach with the word of God.
Even as God had in Elijah’s day preserved a secret faithful remnant of 7,000 who had not served Baal or Asherah, in Paul and Barnabus’ day he had called and created a newly configured covenant people, bound not by the blood of Abraham but made up by all those, Jew and Gentile alike, who had been reborn by the blood of Jesus.
Now, as we look to what this says to us today, there are a couple obvious points. One is that our estimation of the situation may seem far more grim than it really is. Only God knows the size and shape of His faithful remnant. But you can be sure that God does know who all of his people are.
So the message for us is simply; do not despair! Though the world around us may resist our spreading of the Gospel and may ridicule our work for God and may even strive to put an end to the church, do not despair.
The same God who was not done with Elijah, or with Paul,or with his people, the same God who preserves for himself a faithful remnant, the same God who we are imperfectly trying to serve will equip us to go on proclaiming the good news.
Whoever else may reject us, God will not. That, it seems to me, is enough. Amen.