Now You See It -- Now You Don't!

2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-8
(c) Stacey Steck

“Now you see it, now you don’t!” -- the magician’s favorite phrase. Adept at hiding and producing an object, the magician plays with the audience and its limited perception. It doesn’t hurt that the magician knows how to do the trick and the audience doesn’t. Of course, what most magic tricks have in common is that what we see isn’t really what’s there. There isn’t one egg, really, there’s two. There’s not one ace of spades, there are several. We just don’t get to see all the tricks of the trade.

Thank goodness that God deals with us differently. With God, what you see is what you get and it’s always there, even though at times it’s hard to see. The Gospel tells us, and you can take to the bank, the fact that God loves us and wants us to have life and have it abundantly. That’s no illusion! But it’s also not always so easy to see that fact. But the reason it is hard to see is not because God is adept at hiding and producing it, but because we are not so adept at perceiving it. Watch the children in the audience at a magician’s show and their little eyes are glued to the performer’s hand. The performer has to get the trick right or those kids are gonna know that the Wizard of Oz is really a small man with a mechanically aided voice. But in the divine revelation game, even when we fix our eyes on the prize, we are often disappointed, not because God has tricked us, or because God is not God, but because the eyes it takes to see God all the time have yet to be dispensed to anyone but Jesus.

The story of the Bible is the story of God revealing Godself to human beings, first to Israel and then to the whole world in Jesus Christ. In that capital “S” story are the stories in which we mere human beings encounter God -- walking in the cool of the garden, camped out on a mountaintop, thrown into a fiery furnace, and on and on. Out of those encounters come a direction for living, an understanding of where to go, a purpose for life. In the midst of these encounters, the characters do their limited best to discern what God wants from them. Some do it better than others, as we heard in our stories this morning.

You will recall that Elijah was a prophet of the Lord who took on the powerful King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal. Blasting them for doing evil in the sight of the Lord, Elijah flees for his life to Mount Horeb and encounters God not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, an experience in which God reveals to him his successor, Elisha, son of Shaphat, the Elisha of our story today, who will carry on the work of the Lord amongst the kings of Israel who seem never to be able to walk the straight and narrow. In this final scene of Elijah’s life, as he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, he passes on to Elisha a double portion of his impressive spirit, the double portion Elisha has requested and the double portion a father customarily gives to his first born son. Elijah has literally and figuratively passed the mantle to the next great prophet of Israel. The stories that follow our reading confirm Elisha’s power, especially my favorite part in verses 23-25 about when Elisha went up to Bethel; while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. Words to the wise: don’t mess with the bald prophet of the Lord!

In our other story, Peter, James, and John receive the invitation of a lifetime - a trip up a mountain with Jesus. They see something no one before or since has seen, Jesus shining like the noonday sun, talking to two of the all-time great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Moses. After some fear and trembling and some confusion about what is happening, they hear a voice from the cloud proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” You will remember that the very same voice proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That first announcement is made to Jesus alone, this one to the three disciples, and a final one will come from the lips of the Centurion at the foot of the cross, when he says, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” Mark is making clear the gradual revelation to the world that Jesus is the Son of God; Peter, James, and John are there for this amazing event and yet, Mark lets us know that they did not really get it, for as they are coming down the mountain, what occupies their minds is what it means when Jesus says he will rise from the dead. They seem singularly uninterested in the fact that God has spoken to them; they are the “duh-sciples” not the disciples.

The reading of the stories of Elijah and Elisha and of the Transfiguration of Jesus are an occasion to reflect on the art of discernment, the ability to see things for what, and who, they really are. Taken together, they say much about God’s revelation, and about our ability to perceive that revelation. In the Elijah story, Elisha is blessed with “eyes to see.” In the Transfiguration story, Peter’s vision is somewhat less clear, and although he sees Jesus shining like the very sun, he doesn’t quite get the significance of what is taking place around him. Rather, like Mary who disparaged her sister Martha for sitting at the feet of Jesus while she herself worked to prepare for her guests, Peter misses the opportunity to bask in Jesus’ glow when he proposes his construction project. These two stories, taken together, represent our own experience, don’t they, being able to see so clearly at times exactly what God wants from us and for us, and at others missing it completely, stumbling around asking the wrong questions. How many earnest prayers have gone up over the centuries asking for direction and guidance for God’s people, both individually, and collectively? Trillions, perhaps, and still, some seem to be answered and some seem to be delayed in being answered.

In the next little while, and indeed forever, we at Thyatira Presbyterian Church are going to be about the business of discerning what God has in store for us. Sometimes it will be clear, other times it will not. Sometimes we will be able to keep our eyes on Elijah until he is gone, and at others, we will want to build booths even when the Lord is blazing right in front of us. What is important for us to remember is that the revelation is always there, and if it seems elusive, it is not that God has abandoned us, but that we are a work in progress, neophytes at discernment, the blind leading the blind.

So what can we do to make the discernment process a little easier? Let me suggest a few lessons drawn from the characters from our two stories. The first lesson is simple: Hang out with the right people. Peter, James, and John hung out with Jesus; Elisha hung out with Elijah. Stay close to the best and something is bound to rub off on you. What this means for us is not to try to get close to Billy Graham or some other famous Christian, but by prayer, study, and service to be in fellowship with those who have gone before us in the faith and those who are with us on the journey, those people who live their lives as if God matters. Those heroes of the faith, from the Bible, from our church history, from the pew in front of you, are the people whose ability to keep their eyes on the prize help us to learn to do the same and will help us in our task of discernment.

Second, don’t listen to the voices that would deter you. Elisha received counsel from several reputable sources, including Elijah himself, yet he did not let the advice sway him from following his course. His answer to those who would deter him by saying, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” in other words, “Do you know that it will be unwise for you to follow him,” was “Yes, I know; be silent.” The prophets who tried to warn Elisha may have sensed something dangerous, or may have wanted the honor for themselves, but Elisha would not listen. What this means for us is that in a world of negativity, let us focus on the positive. There are all kinds of reasons why the church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t succeed, but that should never deter us from our task. We are not a sinking ship and neither is our God.

Third: be persistent. Even after Elijah, the company of prophets in Bethel, and the company of prophets at Jericho told him to stay behind, Elisha was persistent enough to be able to ask for the double share of Elijah’s spirit, and to see the chariots of the Lord. The process of discernment takes time, patience, prayer, and much more, all needing to be undertaken with persistence. If we give up because it seems to be taking too long, or because there seems to be an easier way, we will have veered off the path before we get to the River Jordan or up the mountain, and we shall miss the revelation that awaits us in those places.

And fourth and finally, rejoice in the good news that God does not give up on us. Even when Peter and the other disciples miss the real point of the Transfiguration, they are not banished from Jesus’ side but invited to continue on the journey. We will not always comprehend the divine will fully, and at times, we may be going in the other direction. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, crossing their path again and again. Yet they were still loved by God who ultimately lead them to the promised land. If we are faithful in our attempt to discern what God will have us do, how God will use us to address the human hurts and hopes of our community, how each member of this body can be in active ministry, it will be revealed to us finally, perhaps in fits and starts, perhaps in a grand vision, but revealed nonetheless. And then the adventure will really begin. May God bless us as we do our best to keep our eyes on the prize, and even when we can’t, because with God, what you see is what you get and it’s always there, even though at times it’s hard to see. Amen.

You Couldn't Even Hear a Pin Drop

1 Kings 19:1-18
© Stacey Steck

You may remember that big, bad Ahab, King of Israel was a sore loser. Ahab, son of Omri, who reigned 22 years over Israel and who married Jezebel the foreigner; Ahab, whom the author of First King earlier told us “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him,” this Ahab got his little feelings hurt by our hero Elijah and high tailed back to the castle to cry on Jezebel’s idolatrous shoulder. You see, Elijah had just humiliated Ahab on Mt. Carmel, at a contest between himself, the prophet of the Lord, and the prophets of Baal, that local storm and fertility god who somehow must have always seemed like a lot more fun than the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. For this contest, two huge piles of wood were gathered and sacrificial bulls were prepared and all the prophets of Baal needed to do was call upon Baal to ignite their pile as a burnt offering. After those poor, misguided prophets of Baal danced and raved all day and even cut themselves with their swords and called out to Baal who never bothered to answer, Elijah called down fire from God to consume his burnt offering so that, in Elijah’s own words: “this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back,” back from worshipping Baal and back to worshipping the God of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob. And then Elijah rounded up all the 450 prophets of Baal and ran them through with the sword.

And so the stage is set for our passage today in which a fearful, and, some would say clinically depressed, Elijah sits down under a tree and asks God to end it all, for he is really as good as dead. But as we have heard, God is not about to let Elijah off so easy, and so the prophet of the Lord is strengthened by angels for his journey of forty days and nights to Mt. Horeb, the very place where Moses spent his forty days and forty nights before he brought down the tablets with those now famous ten commandments. After a night in the cave and a stirring speech proclaiming both his righteousness and his despair, Elijah is summoned to the mountaintop for the Lord to pass by and then the action really begins: wind and earthquake and fire and finally those three Hebrew words which designate something so unlike anything else, they keep translators up at night trying to render them meaningfully for us: kol demama dekkaa, the “sound of sheer silence,” as we heard the New Revised Standard Version say it, or the more traditional rendering of “a still small voice.” These are two wonderful ways of describing what happened on that mountain but listen to some other ways of translating that phrase, all of which come from versions of the Bible you can find on the shelves of a bookstore near you: a gentle whisper, the sound of the thinnest stillness, a low murmuring sound, a tiny whispering sound, a sound of a gentle stillness, the sound of fine silence, un silbo apacible y delicado.

For many Hebrew words there is but one translation. A temple is a temple is a temple. But for other words, their character suggests something more to the translator. And so we have an incredibly inconclusive range of expressions for the same experience atop Mt. Horeb. I cannot think of another instance in the Bible where different English translations vary so thoroughly than here, a situation that speaks to its ineffability, its completely “other” quality. You see, the closer we come to the divine, the more approximate must be our language. We are not very good with specifics for things we don’t understand very well. In the Bible, very often in passages that describe heavenly beings or divine visions, the language used is either poetic or indeterminate: it was “something like” such and so or it “appeared like” this or that. In this passage are words which do not designate your ordinary, everyday object, but rather something divinely indescribable, an experience like no other.

And this is really the key to understanding this passage. It is important to remember that the silence Elijah hears is the thing which allows him to know God is passing by. God is clearly not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but neither is God in the spoken word. It was not a still, small voice which spoke to Elijah and gave him comfort and direction, but it was a sound of sheer silence that terrified him and caused him to cover his face lest he should see God and die. The voice of God comes after the “sound of sheer silence,” after God passes by. But it is the sound of the silence that brings Elijah to the entrance of the cave, and not the voice itself, no matter how still we might describe it.

When we want to talk about quiet, we usually reach for that old saying, “You could have heard a pin drop.” For us, in our common language, the very quietest environment we can imagine is one in which the tinkle of a pin falling on the floor can be heard above all else. But that does not go far enough to describe what took place that day, because what Elijah experienced was a silence in which you couldn’t even hear a pin drop. This is not to say this is a silence in which God is unable to speak, but rather it is to say that this is a silence through which and by which only God is able to communicate. This is not a sound you or I can create, even with the best acoustical engineers at our disposal. This is not a sound we can hope to capture to reproduce, even with the best audio recording technology available to us. This is not even a sound that we can even talk about using the same words. And the reason we cannot do these things is not because the sound is silence, but because it is God’s holy lack of sound and it was God’s unique gift to Elijah and was and hopefully still is God’s way of letting us know that something or someone divine is passing by.

So what’s the big deal about this sound you can’t even hear? The big deal is that it serves as the antithesis of the contest I described earlier between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In that contest, God does not speak but God comes in fire at Elijah’s command. Baal, who is supposed to come in natural phenomena and who is asked to speak by his prophets, neither brings fire nor speaks. Then, on Mt. Horeb, God comes not as fire but in silence and then does speak. This juxtaposition is meant to remind us that our God is a God who is unlike any other God, that our God is to be understood in completely different terms from anything else we know, even ourselves. God passing by in silence is completely unlike the gods of Baal whose expected appearance was in thunder and lightning and rain. It is as if God is saying in that silence, “Yes, I sent fire down to win that contest for you but let there be no mistake: I am not like Baal, and to show you how unlike him I am, I will appear before you in a way that Baal cannot and in a way completely different than the way Baal appears.”

The sound of sheer silence is an oxymoron, and one which speaks to the kind of lives we lead as people of faith. Like it or not, we live somewhere between the promise of “I am with you” and the reality that “no one has ever seen God.” Some of us are fortunate enough to experience the presence of God in ways as profound as Elijah who knew enough to wrap his face rather than see God and die. Others of us must depend on such gifts as the Lord’s Supper in which we acknowledge that although God is not in the bread nor the wine, God is present with us at the table, and speaks to us as we commune with God and with one another.

Friends, we live in trust that God is with us through the most turbulent times, those very times when we would most like to do the impossible and “see” God. We live in faith that ours is a God who would not fail one man who wished to die, and who is not a god who would fail 450 men who went so far as to make themselves bleed that their god might answer their prayers. Perhaps it would be more comforting to know that God is only found in rocksplitting winds, earthquakes, and fire. But that would be to limit God, and to make God fit our picture of who God is. It would be making God in our own image instead of the other way around. May we live rejoicing that we are loved by a God who has at the divine disposal all kinds of power but chooses to show it in ways that are just right for our needs. Amen.

The Flip of a Coin

Acts 1:1-17, 21-26
© Stacey Steck

I have a method for playing roulette that is a sure thing. That’s right, I never lose playing roulette. Well, at least that has been true the three times I’ve ever played! My method is simple: never bet more than the least amount you can win. In roulette, there are a variety of odds you can bet on each spin of the wheel and if you diversify your bets and play your chips right, you will break even or better often enough to keep playing long enough to win big. Now, those of you who may be growing uncomfortable with the thought of your pastor gambling might wish to take a closer look at today’s passage from Acts in which you will find that gambling is a profoundly Biblical and spiritual practice. This is, after all, the way Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas as the twelfth apostle. It was in a game of chance called “casting lots.” Casting lots is not much different than flipping a coin, or drawing straws, or cutting a deck of cards. It is chance given divine purpose, the luck of the Lord, the fate of God Almighty. The names of the two contenders, or a symbol that represented them, would likely have been placed on stones, and then the winner’s lot would be the one chosen in a blind draw. Simple as that. Stay tuned for subsequent sermons, which will extol the virtues of dancing and smoking. Just kidding.

No matter our beliefs on whether or not gambling is a sin, it is pervasive in our society, so pervasive that nearly all of us are involved in it in one form or another, whether we know it or not, or like it or not. If you go to the casino or play the lottery, you are gambling. That one seems pretty obvious. But, if you own life insurance or auto insurance you are also gambling. If you have money in a pension plan, you are gambling. In all these ways, you are betting that the odds, or fate, or the market, will leave you better off, or at least let you break even. In the life insurance game, you are actually betting against yourself, betting that you’ll die before you have been able to accumulate enough money for your loved ones to be financially secure without you. With car insurance, you are betting that you’ll have an accident before you can fully pay for whatever damage results, and the company is betting that you won’t have an accident at all, or at least that it will be cheaper than the sum total of your premiums paid to date. Investing is gambling, gambling that your money will earn more in the stock market than under your mattress. And just like the disciples, we gamble with a certain trust in the system, that the casino, or the bank, or the insurance company will actually give us our payout. Just remember, however, that in gambling, the house always wins!

This sermon is not really about gambling, except as it illustrates the issues of trust involved in decision making in the church and in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. You see, if we are willing to gamble in all those earthly kinds of ways shouldn’t we be willing to do it about spiritual matters? Suppose our Session were to come before you and say that after a great deal of soul searching and prayer, and a thorough process of discernment, it had decided to cast lots about whether to continue our ministry of love, faith, service and patient endurance in this community, or sell the place and give all the money to another worthy ministry – that they had decided to leave that choice up to chance, or even divine will if you prefer. I suspect there would be some misgivings, if not a call for their removal as leaders of the church. We would deem irresponsible any decision which took the power of the vote out of our hands. The hard won rights of democracy, celebrated as a hallmark of our nation, would be at stake, and heaven forbid we should allow a power higher than the right to vote to make a decision about the direction of God’s people.

Looking back at the early church, however, we see precisely that no power other than God is thought to be able to make a divine and important decision like the one that faced Peter and the rest of the disciples. Judas had betrayed Jesus and his companions, and left the leadership team one person short of the twelve needed to reconstitute Israel and prepare the way for the message of the Gospel to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Jesus had made clear to the twelve that they would be an integral part of God’s plan of salvation for the world, but the plan was now threatened by the death of one whom God had chosen. They would need another to fill the ranks, and there was more than one qualified candidate. Clearly the choice was not a clear-cut one, otherwise they would have just selected one or the other. The story doesn’t say so, but there must have been equal support for both candidates, so that one camp or the other was going to be disappointed. Maybe they wanted to vote, but saw it would only end in gridlock. Maybe there were accusations of voter fraud and tampering. Or maybe they realized that the new twelfth disciple must in fact be the one whom God alone could choose. Just as Jesus had chosen the original twelve, they must leave the choice of the replacement twelfth to God. And so, using the method so many of their ancestors had used when they needed to make important decisions, they left it up to God. And so for this incredibly important decision, they simply flipped a coin. They played the lottery, so to speak.

Some of you may be recalling Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, called “The Lottery,” a staple of high school and college creative writing classes everywhere. In this story, an unnamed village annually conducts a lottery to determine which of its residents will die by stoning at the hands of the rest of the village to ensure a good harvest. The lottery is conducted by means of drawing from a black box folded pieces of paper, one of which contains a black dot. You can guess what the dot signifies. Tessie Hutchinson is this year’s choice and as much as they love her, the crowd accepts her selection without question. Some higher power has spoken, be it chance or God, and who are they to question it?

Now, I ask you, is there anything inherently wrong with choosing in this way? In both Shirley Jackson’s story and in the passage from Acts, the candidates have been chosen according to specific criteria, have consented to participate, have acknowledged the validity of the method. On top of that, the method is inscrutable; no one can tamper with it by campaigning, by bribing, by extortion. It is understood that the one chosen is chosen for a reason beyond the understanding of the participants, and in the case of Acts, for a divine reason and for divine purposes. As far as human beings can see, each of the options is equal, so God must be able to know which is the right choice.

There are all kinds of ways of making decisions within a body of people. Some groups strive for consensus, the idea that everyone needs to agree with the decision before it can be made. Other bodies recognize that such a consensus can never be reached in their deliberations and so choose that a simple majority of 50% plus one will carry the day. Some decisions in a voting body require a super majority, a percentage set higher, like two-thirds, or three-quarters, since there is so much at stake in the outcome. Our church uses a combination of these methods. But what if we flipped a coin instead?

Oh my! We might have to trust. You see, this is what really underlies the possibility of coin flips in the life of the church. You see, we would have to trust several things. We would have to trust that God is really choosing, rather than chance. We would have to trust each other that there was no hanky panky, no adjusting of the straws in the hand to deliver a predetermined winner. We would have to trust that even those who might not agree with the outcome would abide by the decision and support the winning position, since it was, after all, God’s choice.

There is a sense in which the process of voting on divided matters indicates a failure of nerve, an inability to trust God. I say this because when we have decided to take matters into our own hands and vote, it is precisely because we cannot all agree on a solution which is suitable. And so we frame the decision in human terms of winning and losing, and who doesn’t want to win! And so we push and pull and persuade and ultimately vote, and often our votes leave a large portion of our people unhappy with the result.

If we look back at how the early church ended up with Matthias as the newest apostle, we see how it might be better to trust than to vote. Through a process of discernment, based on their interpretation of Scripture and the criteria that the new apostle would need to be both someone who had “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” and someone who would “become a witness with us to his resurrection,” in other words, who would be willing to testify, the company of 120 was able to whittle it down to the final two candidates. Then, the group prayed to God seeking God’s assistance and then left it up to God when the lots were cast. God gave them, and gives us, what we need to prepare for these choices: Scripture, the power of the Holy Spirit, and prayer. Why then do we need to vote? Are we afraid that God will not choose as carefully as we would?

I am not naive enough to believe that we can do away with decision making by voting, but I am still idealistic enough to think that we can do our best to return to the basis of the kind of decision-making done by casting lots, that trust in God and each other that helps us prepare for our decisions with creative choices and common conviction. It is not to romanticize the early church to suggest that casting lots is something for which to strive, for the level of trust required to make a decision in this way is a level of trust would do well to attain, and which Jesus left his disciples as a legacy. May we develop the kind of trust in God and in one another, which will lead us to follow God’s leading for our church and in our lives. Amen.