Rollercoaster ministry isn’t healthy

There is a danger in the Christian life.  I’ve seen it again and again in young people and families and others; it’s the Christian life lived as a rollercoaster.  They slog through the year with their jobs and school, average church with an average pastor who preaches average sermons.  Life has its ups and downs and becomes about making it through.  Church is there, it’s a part of life, they serve there, though there are some Sundays when they wish church felt a bit more significant, that it was a bit bigger, or a bit better. They may even begin to drift and let other things creep in.

What gets them through and gives them a boost is the Christian conference they go to every year with its big band worship, great preachers, and brilliant youth work for the kids.   That’s the high point, that’s the point in the year that peaks for them.  That’s where they feel spiritually vibrant, it’s what they wish the rest of the year looked like, and they often resolve that this year will be different as they go back. But soon they’re back in the mundane and the normal and there’s that drift and the busyness, and work, and sickness, and family and soon life is bumping along the bottom again. But there’s always the next time, the next year..

I’ve had loads of conversations with young people about that; camp, Word Alive, Keswick, or New Wine is the week. or weeks. when they feel alive spiritually.  It’s the high before the descent into the norm where the struggle to follow Jesus is so much harder. I’ve had that conversion with lots of adults too, who just wish normal life could be a bit more like that week!

And church leaders are no different.  I’ve just come back from the Medhurst Ministers retreat in Pollington.  And it’s a refreshing couple of days of teaching, laughing, encouraging and relaxing with others in ministry in the UK’s forgotten places.  The danger is that it becomes a ministry high point on the rollercoaster ride that ministry so easily becomes.  But I was asked this year to look at Philippians 4 in one of the sessions, about joy in keeping going with the gospel.

I’m going to publish some of the material from that with some thoughts over the next few posts.  In part because one of my convictions is that we don’t really rejoice enough because we do rollercoaster life and ministry – we settle for a relatively low bar normally and rely on a few high points to keep us going, often struggling up what feels like a long uphill before we get to that week.  But here’s the danger with that – rollercoaster ministry is unhealthy in the short term but disastrous in the long term.  It leads to disillusionment, spiritual malnourishment and burn out.

But just be honest as we start.  What keeps you going following Jesus?  What keeps you going if you lead?  And is that healthy or unhealthy?  Where does your spiritual life and leadership resemble a rollercoaster?  And finally where is your joy?

Getting God’s people into God’s word

Over the summer we tried to tweak our service. We started a 10 minutes section where people worked in groups answering some basic questions about the passage we had read and which would be preached on later in the service. There were 3 or 4 questions, the last one of which started people thinking about application or questions they had about the passage we read.

There were a number of reasons behind trying this. Firstly we haven’t got the manpower to restart our Sunday school classes post COVID, so the children have been in the service with sheets that accompanied the sermon. But many have just been quite passive in the service. Partly I think that’s the result of lockdown online church, partly for some it’s a lack of discipleship at home, but also because listening to someone speak for an extended period of time isn’t what they’re used to. Secondly I wanted to encourage families to engage with the bible together, to ask and answer questions together and learn together. Thirdly I still feel like we’re missing some of the relational warmth and connections we had as a church before COVID and this is another opportunity for people to talk together and learn about each other and hopefully cement the place of the Bible and conversations about faith in those friendships .

It’s taken a few weeks but it’s great to see the vast majority of people engaging with the bible. There are print outs of the Bible passage available with crayons and coloured pens for those who think best as they highlight key words and can scribble all over things. There is always an easy observation question to get people started moving through to the more thought provoking, heart searching questions at the end. And then we gather together again and feedback answers to the questions and any questions we have about the passage. It has been encouraging to have a few people say how much they’ve loved it, how great it is to have their families talking together over the Bible. The children have really engaged with it.

We’re planning to carry on with it over this coming term though it may need tweaking as we return to our series in Deuteronomy. I’d love you to pray that families and friendships are formed through God’s word.

Postponing sanctification

We all do it. We assume that when something changes then we’ll do what we know we should be doing. When the kids are sleeping better I’ll be able to get out to church more. When work isn’t so full on I’ll be better at engaging with the church family. When I’m not so stressed I’ll serve rather than just attend church. Once things are a bit less crisis to crisis or when my heads less of a shed I’ll pick up my Bible and pray. Once I get the new promotion, or the new boss, or change jobs entirely I’ll be able to disciple my family. But here’s the things, that never happens.

The bible warns us that our hearts are deceitful above all things. In other words we’re masters at fooling ourselves, and this is one of the ways we do it. We postpone sanctification while we wait for a change in circumstance. It may be a small thing like those mentioned above or it may be a big thing like moving location or getting a new job. We always default to thinking that situational tweaks will make a difference without realising that the problem isn’t out there it is in here.

It also reveals that we default to thinking following Jesus should be easy not a battle. Despite all of the Old Testament being a warning to us reminding us that the battle for spiritual fidelity is fought in the ordinary and everyday decisions that set our trajectory. Despite Jesus calls to deny self and carry our cross and follow him. Despite all the warnings in the Epistles that we are in a spiritual battle each and every day of our lives, we postpone fighting while we wait for circumstance change that will make it easier.

We all do it. Where are you doing it at the moment? What’s the ‘if only…’? Where are you believing ‘if I just had’ this, or ‘if they would just’ that, or ‘if only this’. Sanctification doesn’t only happen against a backdrop of ideal circumstances. Sanctification is the progress we make when we grasp our redeemed and recreated identity in Christ and full of the Spirit, humbly reliant upon him pursue following Jesus – obeying his commands – where we are right now. Otherwise the danger is that we’ll make it to the end of our lives and never have grown up, never reached maturity and we’ll look back on a life of putting off sanctification.

Losing Lament

In yesterday’s post I shared some thoughts on the way our celebrity obsession and cancel culture has kicked the doors in and taken a seat in the church, as it does so influencing and warping our culture. We crave the big and significant and so we want leaders who are known, we want to be associated with something big and famous. But we also don’t know how to handle the failures of those very same people and so we’re quick to cancel, or are cynically knowing when sin comes to light, or gloat if we’re not pastored by a celebrity pastor. Neither are an attractive look for the church of Jesus Christ.

But there’s another facet of the cultural air that we breath that has more influence than it should in our churches. We fear mourning and we’ve lost lament. I don’t just mean when it comes to the end of life or of loss or unfulfilled hopes – that’s also an issue but it’s a topic for a separate post. I mean in terms of mourning for our sin and the impact of sin on those we know and love, on our churches and more generally in a broken world.

When did you last mourn over your sin? Last feel that deep conviction of sin that you can’t escape or anaesthetise with entertainment or some other distraction? That feeling that drives you, like David in Psalm 51, to a deep searching of the heart that dispenses with excuses or reasons or buts, and is struck once again by the deep rootedness horror of sin in your heart and life? When did that last lead you to mourn your sin not just run to Jesus with a glib I’m sorry? When did you last honestly take an unfiltered look at your heart, your motives, your loves and name sin when you see it as sin?

There are lots of reasons why we struggle with this. We fill our days full of noise, we keep busy, we rush from thing to thing. Even when we come to church it’s often having just rushed from something and squeezing it in before we rush to something else. We don’t allow time to be still, to be quiet, to stop, for deep examination of our souls, of our sin, of our spiritual state. We plan to hear God’s word but not for it to do it’s deep work of opening up, examining and exposing the soul and spirit. We don’t come to God’s word expecting to have our sins exposed, we come for a quick spiritual vitamin shot of grace and love to get us through another day or week. We also live a filtered life, lets be honest we filter out so much of the brokenness, so much of the suffering in our world. And not just in terms of our news feeds but in terms of the relationships we inhabit and in terms of ourselves. We don’t look to deeply because we’re afraid of what we’ll see..

All of this means that as a church we don’t know how to mourn sin. We’ve lost our ability to lament. To lament the impact of our own sin on our hearts and emotions and spiritual state, how it separates us from God’s presence and the joy that is found in him. To lament the impact of our sin on others, the harm and hurt it has caused, the rippling outward of sins consequences from our sinful actions. To lament the impact of our sin on the world’s view of the church, the gospel and our Saviour.

Just like a muscle atrophies with a lack of use so our ability to lament. And so when a pastor or leader fails we don’t know how to react. Some cancel. Some clap. Few leaders, leaderships or churches have the ability to lament. To mourn and be broken over sin, to humbly wrestle with sins consequences. Fewer still do it not just when the crisis hits but regularly. Examining hearts together, allowing the horror of sin to lead them to lament sin’s deep rootedness, it’s ability to wound, cut off, isolate, destroy, and separate us from joy in God. What if part of the rediscovery of healthy church cultures was learning to lament again.

Swallowing the pill

The church is supposed to be different from the world. We’re supposed to stand out from it. We’re exhorted to be transformed in our thinking. To have the mind of Christ. The Old Testament warns us about a wide variety of ways that can go wrong, as well as giving us plentiful examples of everyday faith lived out in a hostile world. The gospels show us what that looks like in action perfectly in Jesus. Whilst the Epistles flesh that out in specific practical application of doctrine to our lives as Christ’s body. And yet all too often we default to thinking and acting just like the world with a thin veneer of gospel laid over the top. We settle for being one shade different from the hue of the world rather than being radically different.

That is seen in all sorts of ways both personally and corporately. But here’s the one that I’m finding deeply sad at the moment. It’s the way we deal with failures in leadership when there is a humble acceptance of mistakes made and a desire to seek repentance for sin. I’ve been disheartened by hearing story after story of leadership abuse and scandal and failure over the last few years. It’s nothing new, ever since I can remember there have been leaders that have failed, that have drifted away, that have been galactically stupid and sinful. Abuse, tragically, has taken place inside the church and been hidden rather than exposed and dealt with. The victims have been silenced or put under pressure rather than listened to and cared for. That needs dealing with and there needs to be justice regardless of fame, reputation or success in ministry. We must be the holy people we are called to be in reality not pretence.

But there’s a couple of things that concern me deeply, where I worry we’ve swallowed the pills of celebrity and cancel culture and are being more shaped by it than by the gospel. It’s seen in the gloating tone of some publications reporting about a leadership failure even when that leader accepts and listens to challenge and then repents, seeking forgiveness and help to change. Or in an unhealthy skepticism and cynicism about any leader and their expressions of repentance. It concerns me because the church cannot have a cancel culture just as we should not have a celebrity culture.

We need to have a grace filled, mercy saturated, holiness seeking culture, that’s marked by a radical humility. A humility that doesn’t elevate people or their gifting but praises the God who showers gifts on his church abundantly not just in one person but in every member ministry. We need every member ministry multiplying not a one man show. We need a radical shift away from a culture than celebrates the individual as a celebrity whose glow we bask in, and is as excited about the quietly exercised gifts of widow care and compassion as the up front worship leading or preaching. We need a church culture that doesn’t put people on a pedestal isolating them from real friendship and relationship, as if somehow they don’t need it, but commits to the one anothering the epistles tells us everybody needs without exception. And where all are humbly expected to take part in this not be isolated individuals somehow above it all.

The picture of the church in the Bible is a community humble committed to honesty about our struggles with sin and with following Jesus, that constantly points one another to Jesus for forgiveness and transformation as we bring our lives into step with the Spirit. That doesn’t make leaders feel like they can’t be honest or let the brand down. That isn’t about the individual as a nexus of gifting but about equipping and training and growing together to be more like Jesus – who whilst the most spectacularly gifted person ever to walk on the crust of this orb consistently called others to ministry and poured himself out for them so they played their part in God’s purposes.

The culture of heresy spotting, of gloating name calling out from a distance is the result of swallowing those two cultural pills. Celebrity culture that puffs up and isolates and loads pressure on to an individual. And cancel culture that then turns on those who fail or sin with a smug gleeful outing of sins. We need to be transformed in our thinking. That might mean we need to unplug, unsubscribe, unfollow some of those places where that is happening. It may mean we need to step out of the celebrity Christian culture that I think is doing so much harm in our churches. It definitely means we need to commit to our local church, to unknown leaders who are far from perfect but who show they love us as we see them humbly fighting sin in themselves and asking for help from others to do so, praying for us and teaching us week by week, less than spectacularly but always faithfully.

The church, the gospel, humility and class

Think about the leaders of your church, or of the churches that you have attended.  Think of the pastors and assistant pastors you have been taught by? How many have been professionals?  How many have been middle class?  How many have been working class? And why do you think that is?

We are so blind to our assumptions and biases about class in the church in the UK that we don’t even see the problem.  The church in the UK is predominantly (overwhelmingly?) middle class.  And that is even more the case when you look at a churches leadership be it deacons, elders, pastors.  That is partly the legacy of the middle class nature of the church, and partly due to our class prejudices and partly due to the way we train, and the cost to train, people for ministry.

We need to recognise the problem.  I need to recognise the problem.  I wear class blinkers.  We all do.  We tend to think that leadership looks like the leadership we have experienced both in the church and in the world.  And that experience is not class neutral, it comes with a bucket load of bias.

How do we overcome that?  Partly we need to honestly look at the problem.  To take some time to evaluate and recognise the problem.  We also need to work to be humble about class.  To recognise that leadership is not based on class, being born into a class does not make us more fit for leadership.  Whilst it confers benefits it also comes with a whole load of unhealthy baggage that makes us prone to class specific sin.  The danger is in confusing gospel culture and class culture.  Too often we can assume that our class outlook is the biblical outlook when it is far from it.  Every class has facets of gospel culture because of God’s common grace.  And every class has been warped by sin in it’s thinking, values and assumptions.

In light of that we need to be humble about class.  Humble enough to recognise it’s influence on us.  Humble enough to honestly look at the values we assume and how gospel shaped they really are.  Humble enough to repent of where we have simply laid a think layer of gospel veneer over class values rather than deeply think through what the Bible is calling us to.

How do we approach the issue of church leadership with humility about class?  We need to read the instructions given on the character and gifting of deacons and elders and work hard to expose and root out class bias in how we read and apply it.  None of those characteristics require a university education or to be a professional.  Godliness is not the preserve of a certain segment of society or class, and so church leadership mustn’t be.

Secondly we need to remove the barriers to church leadership in terms of training, working and structures.  Too many of our training opportunities are inaccessible to those from working class backgrounds; be it bible college or ministry trainee opportunities.  We need to think of more practical apprenticeship with greater flexibility and greater funding.  How about how we work as a leadership, the times we hold meetings, the way those meetings are run, and accessibility to those things.

If as churches we want to reach everyone with the gospel.  If we want churches that are diverse in terms of class we need leaders from every class and background not as a token or a quota but because that is the nature of leadership in the church.  As churches we mustn’t be class blind because that will only lead to resentment, hurt and ultimately division.  Rather we must be humble enough to recognise our bias, our experience and the way it shapes us.  We must be humble enough to see the current blockages in our church and the wider church and humble enough to recognise the need to change.

God’s what next for his people

So what does God want from his people?  We started with that question and I wonder after look at 1 Kings 19, how that’s changed?

We’ve seen that God is passionate for his people, his glory and his gospel and he wants his people to be passionate for that too.  But we’ve also seen that passion can get out of kilter as it did for Elijah.  That God doesn’t call us to do more than we can.  He cares for his people and provides rest and food and spiritual refreshment for his prophet on the run.  We can’t minister, we can’t serve, just on passion.  God has made us finite, dependent and we need rest, food and closeness to him.  We can only ever serve him out of an experience of and enjoyment of him. I wonder if that idea seems strange to you?  Enjoying God?  What does it mean to enjoy God? 

One of the dangers we face in serving in a local church, especially in Yorkshire where less than 1% of the population go to church, where so many are sleepwalking to a lost eternity, is in thinking that we care more about God’s glory than God does.

In v14 God speaks to Elijah again, and repeats his question “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And Elijah speaks again of Israel’s covenant breaking and his zeal.  His passion for God’s glory is tangible isn’t it?  He’s almost burning up with his passion for God, and yet Israel aren’t, they’re indifferent to their sin, indifferent to God, indifferent to the covenant and their breaking it and are trying to kill Elijah!

So what’s next for Elijah?  A hermit-cy in the cave on Mount Horeb?  A new location – greener spiritual pastures?  Should he be scrolling the FIEC jobs board looking for somewhere where people will actually listen to God and respond?  Where his ministry actually produces fruit?  What is God’s what next for his passionate prophet?

Here’s God’s what next(15-21).  Elijah’s to appoint Hazael King of Aram, Jehu King of Israel, and Elijah as his successor as prophet.  God sees and God has a plan, in fact God had that plan all along, he doesn’t start scribbling it down as Elijah sat under the broom tree or even when things didn’t go to plan post Carmel.  Elijah’s assessment of Israel’s spiritual state isn’t wrong.  And God is going to act; Hazael and Jehu will be God’s means of judgement, God’s discipline of his covenant breaking people, designed to bring them back to him.  And Elisha will be the one who brings God’s word to those people.

Elijah, trust me, I’m not done with my people.  I’m not finished with them.  They may not have turned at Carmel but trust me and my plans and purposes.  But notice something else, Elijah is told to go back to where it’s hard and continue his ministry.  He’s to keep going because Elijah is just one link in the chain of God’s gospel purposes.  Elijah is to prepare the way and pass on the truth to Elisha – whose name means God saves.

Don’t despair, don’t think you care more about the lost God’s glory than God does.  And we mustn’t think that we know better what our role in God’s kingdom should be better than he does.  God has placed us where he has put us to serve him there.  No one else can reach your colleagues at work.  No one else can disciple your children like you can.  No one else can live a gospel life out in front of your neighbours like you can.  Don’t mortgage God’s plans for you right here and right now, the places he’s put you to be his light in the darkness, by longing to be somewhere else.

But we also need to realise it’s not all on us!  Elijah was just one link in the chain.  God graciously shows Elijah some more of the links in the chain of his kingdom purposes.  God has others in Israel who’ve not bowed the knee to Baal.  That’s so helpful for us to realise isn’t it?  Your church family is God’s gift to you, a weekly reminder that you’re not alone – you need them, they need you.  They remind you it doesn’t all rest on your shoulders.  You’re not solely responsible for whether those around you come to trust Jesus.  Yes, you need to live out the gospel and speak the gospel to those around you, but so do others who are in their lives.  We’re free to just play the part God calls us to, to be our link in the chain.

Don’t mortgage the present opportunities because you imagined they would look different.  Don’t give up because it is hard and slow.  Just like Elijah go back and keep labouring, keep speaking the gospel to each other, keeping listening to God’s word and putting it to work, keep praying, keep playing your part, being the link in the building of God’s kingdom you can be.

Our society loves the fast, the instant, the spectacular, the silver bullet.  And that means we’re tempted to despair of the unspectacular, slow, steady, and opposed.  But God knows what he’s doing.  God cares passionately for his people, his glory and his gospel and that takes time.  That’s why the images we get of growth in the Bible are of vines, and fields, and harvest, and trees, and flocks which all take time to grow.

What is God’s what next for you?  Go back and be passionate for his glory in the ordinary and everyday acts of faithfulness.  In your parenting, in your marriages, in your care for elderly parents, your love for your neighbours, your service of the community, your work, your listening to and applying his word.  Be the link in the gospel chain he calls you to be as you live as disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus teaching them everything he has commanded us.

Do you know one of the most wonderful liberating truths I’ve been realising more and more recently.  I know only a tiny fraction of what God is doing at any time in me, through me, in my family, my church family, and in our community.  That’s what Elijah is shown here.  God is building his kingdom and trusting him to do so as he knows is best liberates us from burdens to live enjoying him.

And as we go back to our ordinary and everyday we can go back full of hope and faith because God isn’t finished yet.  Elijah lived his whole life longing to see God’s salvation, longing to see God’s gospel promises of a Messiah restoring a people to relationship with God free from sin and blessing the nations but he never did.  That brief conflagration on the top of Mount Carmel was a good as it got in terms of spiritual revival.  And when he was taken into heaven in a whirlwind it still hadn’t happened.  

But years later, in Luke 9v28-33, finally Elijah got to see what his ministry was about, where in God’s sovereign goodness and wisdom everything was leading, what his ministry was a link in the chain of.  As he and Moses stand on the mountain and talk to God the Son in all his glory what do they talk to Jesus about?  “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.”  Don’t rush passed that.  So often we major on the glory, or Peter and his mistaken blurted out building plan, in this passage.  But what is it they speak of?  They spoke together about Jesus Exodus.  Jesus is about to lead his people out of slavery to sin into a new world flowing with milk and honey where they will be free to worship and enjoy God Father, Son and Spirit.

All of Elijah’s hopes and dreams are going to be fulfilled beyond his wildest expectations, in Jesus.  And its only centuries after he’s gone back and played his part does he fully understand where it was all leading, what God was really doing.  And it was all worth it.  His everyday ordinary obedience was ultimately, In God’s sovereign immutable plan leading to God made man who would be the offering for sin, not burnt but crucified on a hill, rejected by God’s people just like Elijah, but actually killed by God’s people, but through that death and rejection and judgement opening up the way to God and freeing his people from the enslaving power of sin.

Elijah and Moses see a glimpse of Jesus coming kingdom.  A kingdom that is certain.  A Kingdom that cannot be conquered, that he is building and giving everything for it is worth it.

How are you feeling about serving God where you are?  Will we share God’s passion for his glory, his people and his gospel?  Will we go back trusting in his love and provision and goodness in food and rest and every other evidence of his goodness and love and develop healthy routines?  Will we go back setting aside time to enjoy God?  Not burdened thinking it all depends on us but trusting that we are called to play our part in making Jesus known but that God is working out his purposes and plans that are far bigger than we can imagine?  And will we go back trusting in Jesus and his power to change the world one life at a time certain in his promise that his kingdom will come?

God’s care for his people

Does God care for you?  How do you experience that care?  When are you tempted to forget it and what’s the result of that? Take a minute to answer those questions, don’t rush past them.

We have a funny attitude to work, self-care, and failure.  Not funny ‘ha ha!’ but funny distorted.  It’s like we’re in a fun fair hall of mirrors, for some of us the distortion warps us and makes us lazy, or fearful and not want to do or risk anything.  For others of us it stretches everything and makes us want to work harder and harder, burning ourselves out.  There are lots of reasons for that but ultimately for us as Christians it can be traced back to the wrong way we think about God.  It’s as if we view God via a funhouse mirror.  Our theology is faulty, it’s warped by our performance management, DIY, and expressive individualism culture.  

And it surfaces in the way we serve in church.  Some of us are so fearful of getting something wrong, so scared of the imperfect, so anti-failure that we daren’t try because we look at God in the distorted mirror of the perfectionist.  Others of us are burdened, and when something goes wrong just redouble our efforts, trying harder and harder, working longer and longer, telling ourselves its better to burn out than have anything left, because we view God in the mirror of slave driver.

We saw in the last post that Elijah is passionate about God, his people and the gospel – God’s great plan to redeem the universe.  And that passion is a good thing.  But it’s led Elijah to be discouraged and despairing because Israel haven’t turned despite a miraculous intervention.  How do you think God feels about that?  How do you expect God to react to Elijah’s brutally honest prayer?  How would you react to a friend who felt like that?

We left Elijah asleep under a broom bush (5-8)and an angel wakes him and what does he say? “Get up and eat.”  There’s not normally a lot to eat in the wilderness but, there by his head is (6)some bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water.  Then what does Elijah do?  He “lay down again”.  And notice the angel doesn’t treat him like a lazy teen and start banging and clanking around moaning about ‘prophets these days!’  No the angel lets him sleep.

Then a second time the angel wakes him again and provides food and water for him.  It’s vital we get this.  What does God do for Elijah?  He provides for his physical needs.  Spiritual labour exacts a physical toll and we are embodied beings.  The angel doesn’t tell Elijah to ‘Man Up!’ or hurry up.  He doesn’t tell him he hasn’t got time to eat or drink or sleep because God has big things for him to do.  No twice the angel provides food and water and lets him rest. God knows how we are made, he made us to eat, sleep and drink.  That’s not an accident, it’s not a result of the fall.  It’s part of the good God’s good design.  It’s a way we’re unlike him, that we show our creaturely-ness, our dependence on him.

And notice something else about the provision.  What’s on the menu?  Bread and water.  OK it’s not a Michelin Star meal, although I wonder if angel bread would be a showstopper on Bake Off in bread week.  But there’s huge significance in this.  In ch 17 when Elijah is fed by ravens he’s fed bread and drinks water from the brook.  When the brook dries up God sends him to Zarephath where God says he has a widow ready to supply his needs.  When he gets there he asks her for what?  “a little water in a jar…. And a piece of bread.”

Do you see the significance of what God provides for him here?  There’s theology on the menu.  God is feeding both his body and his soul with this food.  Elijah don’t you remember how I provided for you last time you were on the run?  Have you forgotten I care about your physical needs?  Won’t you trust me?

God’s provision and protection in the past should be a constant reminder for our present and future.  God cares.  And God cares for our physical needs.  Every single meal you eat is a direct answer to the prayer for provision that we often forget to make.  Every meal is a sign of God’s care and blessing for you and your family, whether it’s cheese or beans on toast or a 24oz steak with all the trimmings.  And times of eating and sleeping aren’t distractions or necessary evils, our society is sinfully wrong in its attitude to them.  They are gifts of a good God to us, so we’re renewed in our faith and trust in him and put it into action. 

I don’t know about you but I need that reminder.  When something goes wrong, or just not as well as it could have gone, or I’m discouraged, my sinful tendency is to work longer, sleep less, do more, eat on the go.  To do meals as pit stops and rest as necessary inconvenience after I’ve tried everything to stave it off.  But God has made me finite.  He’s set my limitations and it is ungodly, it is sinful to try to live outside of those limitations.  It’s a rebellion that forgets, or deliberately denies God’s nature, wisdom, character and his care, and our nature as not-God.

But the angel does one more thing.  (7)When he’s rested, fed and watered the angels tells him he has somewhere to be.  Now he’s not ‘hangry’ he has a journey to go on.  So he ate and drank again(8) and journeyed 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, or Sinai as we know it better.  The very mountain where the covenant was made with Israel after the exodus from Egypt.  Where Moses met with God, Elijah will meet with God.  There, Elijah goes into a cave and spends the night – gets another nights rest (Don’t you love the unhurried, patient, caring nature of God, he’s not rushed, he’s not stood rolling his eyes waiting for the tiny finite mortal to get on with it!).

And the next morning God speaks “What are you doing here Elijah?”   It’s an odd question isn’t it?  I wonder how you hear it?  Some suggest it’s a rebuke but it can’t be can it?  God has led him there, fed him to give him the strength to meet him on the mountain of God.  Why would he do that and then rebuke him for being there?  That would make God capricious and unfair and he’s not.

It’s not a rebuke it’s an invitation; Elijah share with me your disappointment and despair.  Tell me how you feel.  God is inviting Elijah to pray.  Elijah pour out your heart to me, tell me how you feel, tell me how you’ve got here, to this point?  That is gracious loving care from God for his prophet.

And Elijah does, he pours out his heart to God (10)“I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”  On the mountain where the covenant was made, with the God who made the covenant with his covenant people, Elijah shares how Israel have broken the covenant.  Some people accuse Elijah of having a pity party, but look at his words, who have Israel sinned against?  They have rejected God’s covenant, torn down God’s altar, and killed God’s prophets.  Elijah isn’t self-focused, he’s passionate about God and his glory and so when Israel reject God it breaks Elijah’s heart. He’s a covenant watchdog and yet Israel keep breaking the covenant, ignoring the warning and the discipline.

If we feel any less when people reject Jesus, or shipwreck their faith, we have professionalised our faith and fail to share God’s passion for his glory and his compassion for the lost.

And what does God do?  God listens.  God graciously, tenderly and lovingly meets with Elijah.  He doesn’t tell him to man up.  He tells him to go to the mouth of the cave and experience a Moses like encounter with God.  And God appears to him not in the hurricane force winds, not in the earthquake or the fire.  Not in any of the spectacular or pyrotechnic but in the gentle whisper.

What is it that Elijah needs?  Elijah needs physical food and rest and God provides it.  And Elijah needs a fresh encounter with God and God meets him and provides.  God’s not done but that’s for the next session for now I want us to see God’s care, to feed and feast on it.  Because I think it’s something we can so easily miss or forget about God.  God doesn’t want his people to serve to the point of burn out either physically or spiritually.

Jesus in his earthly ministry often withdrew from the crowds to recharge and spend time alone with God.  When Paul writes to Timothy ministering in Ephesus in a church that needs all kind of reform and where false teaching and its impact needs confronting he reminds Timothy that he needs to be nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed again and again and again.  As well as exhorting him to drink a little wine for his stomach and his frequent illnesses.

God cares about his people.  He provides for us.  He doesn’t set unrealistic expectations of us.  If we’re going to serve him we need to care for our physical needs, by resting and eating, and we need to care for our spiritual needs – taking time to be with God, to behold Jesus, to pour out our hearts to him in prayer.

I don’t know where you are.  But my hunch is that for some of us the physical tank is running low.  The warning light is blinking showing low fuel on your spiritual tank because you’ve just been busy doing, doing, doing.  Can I ask you to stop requiring of yourself what God does not require of you.  Don’t be like our society that binge rests so it can binge work.  See the God who provides food and rest for Elijah, and meets with him to refresh him so he can continue to serve with his expectations reset and his vision renewed.

Maybe this morning you need to ask God to show you again who he is in all his loving compassionate generosity.  Maybe you need to repent of serving a slave driving deity in the image of our societies management style, rather than the God who in love provides salvation and calls us to rest and to look forward to eternal rest.  Perhaps you need to repent and change your attitude to food and sleep and prayer and time with God.

God wants us to trust him, to know him, to enjoy him, to find our rest in him.  To experience his provision and serve him passionate for his glory because we have tasted and seen that he is good all the way down.

Why not pray about that now?

What does God want from his people?

I wonder how you answer that question? What’s your instinctive first reaction?

What is God like?  How you answered that first question ‘what does God want from his people’ is largely determined by how you answer that question.  How you think of God.  Is God a headmaster or boss setting challenging, or impossible, targets and demanding results?  Or is he happy go lucky, chilled out and more of a people person than a target setter?  How we think of God will determine what we think God wants from his people.  What he expects of you at work, at home and in the community, at church and as a church.

How we think of God and what we think he expects of us are hugely important when it comes to how we serve him and especially how we respond when things don’t go the way we thought they would, or when things just seem slow.  That’s when we can feel like we just need to work harder to produce.  Or we feel like a failure.  Or think of giving up.

I’m sure you’ve seen quiz shows where they stop the action and ask ‘What happens next’?  Sometimes it’s helpful to do that with the Bible.

In 1 Kings 19 God’s people are ruled by evil King Ahab.  They’ve been led to ignore God and worship Baal and other idols.  God disciplines them by withholding rain for three years as he promised he would, but Israel won’t turn back to God.  They won’t recognise the covenant curse, God calling them back through his discipline.  They won’t repent.  And so God, through Elijah calls for a showdown on Mount Carmel.  In one lonely corner stands Elijah Yahweh’s prophet and in the other stand 450 prophets of Baal.  It’s a battle over who is God, who is worthy of worship and loyalty and love and who isn’t.  It’s last God standing, a display to once and for all stop the people wavering and call them to follow one God.

Each builds an altar, each puts wood on the altar, each puts an offering on the altar, but mustn’t light it.  Instead of matches they’re to pray for a divine conflagration and the God who sends fire from heaven is the real God.

You can feel the tension can’t you.  The priests of Baal go first.  They pray, they plead, they shout, they cut themselves, they dance from morning till evening getting more and more agitated and frenzied as Elijah taunts them asking if Baal is busy, or travelling or if he’s dozed off.  But despite all the activity, all the energy nothing happens.  There’s no fire, not even a fizzle, because Baal isn’t God.

Then it’s Elijah’s turn and you wonder if he’s been out in the sun too long.  He calls the people to him and rebuilds God’s altar, digs a large trench around it, sets up the wood, cutting up the bull but then, in an act of seemingly staggering stupidity he has 12 large jars of water poured all over it.  Then finally, at the time of evening sacrifice, he prays to God asking that God would act “so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

And instantly, whoosh, the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil, and all the water in the trench.  And the people fall down and proclaim “The LORD – he is God!  The LORD – he is God!”  Then slaughter the 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah prays and rain falls for the first time in 3 years.

Here’s the question; what happens next?  Or rather what should happen next?  Everything should change shouldn’t it?  Ahab should lead the nation in national repentance, and chapter 19 should be the story of Ahab and Elijah leading God’s people to live in his land enjoying his rule as his people for his glory. Revival should break out, the nations see Israel basking in the joy of being God’s people and chapters 20 following should document the nations turning to God.

But that’s not what happens.  No sooner has the smell of BBQ drifted away with the rain and any hope of revival is washed away too.  (1 Kings 19v1-2) Ahab runs home and tells Jezebel everything Elijah had done.  And how does she react?  She isn’t repentant, she doesn’t weigh the evidence and think ‘Wow! I was wrong Baal isn’t God, Yahweh is the one true God, I’d better repent.’  No, she ignores all the evidence and sets out to kill Elijah as soon as she can.

That’s really helpful for us to see.  Sometimes we’re naïve, we think repentance is the result of logic and argument – if I can just show someone who Jesus is, build a case and prove he’s the Messiah then they’ll repent and come to faith.  That’s what our evangelistic courses are built on and why when we reach the end of them we’re a bit stuck as to what to do next with people who liked the course but haven’t trusted Jesus yet.  And so we look around, send a few WhatsApps for recommended courses, and invite them on another course.  Or perhaps we think it’s about seeing the miraculous, surely that will bring them to repent.

But Jezebel shows us that some people just won’t accept God is God and they’ll do anything to crush those who say he is.  And it’s not just that they won’t listen and change they want to silence anyone who teaches the truth.  That’s true for our brothers and sisters in North Korea and India and Nigeria and across so much of the world.  We mustn’t be naïve.  We mustn’t be surprised when people just won’t accept or even look at the evidence for Jesus or react to it aggressively. 

(3)Elijah sees what’s happening and runs for his life, gets to Beersheba and leaves his servant there before going a days journey further into the wilderness.  Sitting under a broom tree and there praying “I’ve had enough, LORD… Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  

Does that shock you?  It should!  God’s prophets aren’t meant to pray like this.  They’re not mean to pray Lord I’m done, take my life.  Don’t rush past this.  Something like this should make us stop and think what on earth is going on here?  How is Elijah who stands so boldly on the mountain now praying like this?

Elijah isn’t despairing because Jezebel wants to kill him.  He’s not afraid of dying or why would he ask God to kill him?  I don’t think he’s having a breakdown, or a depressive episode as some people try to diagnose him with.  Elijah is despairing because after everything that’s happened, after the most spectacular evidence for God Israel could see they haven’t turned back to God.  After Carmel it seems like nothing has changed when he longed for everything to change and surely it should have.  Israel should be God’s people again, revival should have broken out, but Jezebel has just ignored everything and Ahab, and therefore Israel, are going to remain in idolatry.  On the spiritual life support machine Carmel is just a blip when Elijah thought it was the start of a new life, the spiritual defibrillator for God’s people designed to shock them into life.  But it hasn’t happened.

And that matters to Elijah.  He’s passionate for God’s glory and God’s people.  His ministry is encapsulated in his name, what does Elijah mean?  “The Lord is my God”  What was Carmel supposed to show?  It was supposed to show Israel what Elijah knew, what his name meant, that Yahweh is God and there is no other.  It was supposed to change everything and yet it seems to have changed nothing.  Elijah’s success rate is up there with every other prophet and judge and leader – Israel aren’t loving the LORD their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and he’s gutted by that.  His ministry is a failure.

Have you ever felt like that?  You share the gospel with a friend or family member and you think they’re getting it, they begin to respond, but then something or someone holds them back.

Or you’re studying the Bible with someone and they’re making real progress and it’s exciting watching them grow and change as they grasp God’s love to them in Jesus, it’s sheer magnitude and scale.  But then suddenly the shutters come down, they make excuses not to meet, and drift away from church.

Or maybe it’s for you as a church.  Things were going well, you were getting traction in the community, building some good relationships, knocking down barriers to the gospel, seeing interest.  And then COVID struck and you feel like you’re back to square one and you’re so frustrated.

Or maybe it’s your Jezebel.  Maybe you’re facing opposition, conflict, or threat and it looks like it may derail everything.

In every case we can find ourselves feeling frustrated.  ‘But I just wanted them to know God.  I wanted them to see the hope there is in Jesus, I really wanted them to see that he can change the world one life at a time.’  And we find ourselves like Elijah saying “Lord, I’m done, that’s enough.”  We’d never go as far as to say take my life.  In fact we don’t verbalise it at all.  Can I say I think that’s where one of the places we go wrong.  We Brits are emotionally constipated.  Our upper lips can be so stiff it’s as if we’ve had years of botox there and it’s no longer capable of movement.

Elijah’s words reveal his heart.  This is a shockingly honest prayer – this is genuine prayer!  He’s passionate for God’s glory and his people and the gospel.  Do we ever feel like this?  Am I ever that crushed, or am I simply not that passionate?  It may be that you look back on a time you were but every little disappointment, every person that’s rejected Jesus, has left the church, has opposed you, has little by little cut open your heart and left scar tissue so that you daren’t feel that passion any more.  You’ve walled your heart off; dialled down your passion so you don’t feel the pain.

But notice something in this passage.  God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his words.  God lets Elijah lay down under a bush and fall asleep.  There is no dramatic intervention.  Could it be that Elijah’s passion for God is right?

We have to realise if we’re to be sustained in gospel ministry: God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his discouragement.  He doesn’t rebuke him for his passion for God’s glory and his people and the gospel,  In fact we’ll see God ministers to him in it.  God longs for his people to share his passion for his glory, his people and the gospel of Jesus Christ his Son.

Jesus knew how Elijah felt.  How often does he minister and people miss the point, he preaches and they stop at ‘Wow’.  He stills the storm and people are afraid.  He feeds thousands and they come back to him for more food treating him like a wilderness walk through.  He gives all the evidence he is the Messiah fulfilling prophecy after prophecy after prophecy and they reject him.  Matt 23v37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you will kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  

I don’t know how you feel.  Are you bursting with joy and passion for God?  Or are you like a half full balloon, or a deflated balloon?  Maybe you feel like you’re a failure.  Or that church is hard.  Or you’re mourning a loss.  I’d love you to speak to God about it right now.  To tell God how you feel and why.  Let me let you into a secret – God already knows, and he’s not angry, he promises he’ll collect your tears in a bottle.  And Jesus right now is seated at the Father’s side and he aches with sympathy for you, he knows what that feels like, that longing frustrated, that passion unfulfilled.  Will you stop right now and speak to God about it?  Or even better ask someone to pray with, or for, you.

We also need to recalibrate.  What does God require of you?  It’s not success.  It’s sharing his a passion for God’s glory, his people and his gospel.  Will we pray for that?  Pray that God gives us his heart for his glory, his Son and his people?

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5 words to pray for your church

Do you know what to pray for your church? We pray lots of things don’t we, some good biblically grounded prayers, others a bit more vacuous. We’ve just finished a series in 1 Timothy and I was really struck by the 5 words he closes the letter with, it’s not a throw away line, it’s not a nice sounding ending. It’s his prayer for them; “Grace be with you all.”

The more I’ve thought about it the more I think that simple prayer encapsulates the letter he has written to Timothy. It’s a prayer not just for the abstract idea of grace to be with them but for Jesus who is grace embodied to be increasingly in their midst. It is a prayer for the culture of the church to become one where grace is with and active and transforming them all. It’s a prayer for Timothy’s teaching to be grace all the way through. It’s a prayer for grace in the way he exhorts the various groups within the church. It’s a prayer for grace to nourish Timothy as he feeds on God’s word and on healthy teaching so he can keep on sharing that with the church and feeing them on it even as he combats the false teaching.

It’s a prayer for grace to transform the relationships within the church between those currently at war. It’s a prayer for the church culture to become one where grace is both the melodic line and the first reaction. It’s a prayer for grace to be the thing the world of Ephesus looks at the church and sees in the way it treats one another and the outsider.

I think that’s a prayer we can echo; “Grace be with you all.”