Popular? Or Faithful?
June 23, 2019*
By Pastor John Partridge
1 Kings 18:20-39 Luke 7:1-10 Galatians 1:1-12
Martin Luther had seen rampant abuse in the way that the church raised money and preached that both the church and the pope had claimed powers that were not to be found anywhere in scripture. Threatened with excommunication and imprisonment, Luther was tried for heresy against the church for the things that he had written and preached regarding the corruption of the church and the powers wielded by the pope. He stood trial and defended himself on April 16 – 17, 1521 and on the 17th famously concluded his arguments by saying, “Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest evidence…I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience… Here I stand. God help me! Amen!”
In 1932, in a rigged election, key positions in the German Lutheran Church were won by Nazi supporters and, shortly afterwards, official church rules were changed in order to remove all pastors and church officials of Jewish descent. As a result, many pastors left the church and joined together in opposition of the Nazified church in what would be known as the “Confessing Church” which was increasingly persecuted by the growing Nazi regime. One of those Lutheran pastors, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood with those in the confessing church because, having lived and taught alongside the poor in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Bonhoeffer believed that the church, and its people, had to stand against social injustice. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer’s participation in the Confessing Church and his opposition to the Nazis and the Hitler cult brought about his arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution.
Today, the pressures that we face are not likely to be nearly so life threatening, but we struggle all the same. Every day, the church and its people are tempted to agree with government policies, elected officials, and partisan party platforms that stand in opposition to the teaching of scripture. And, as the followers of Jesus Christ, we are compelled to choose whether we want to risk disagreeing with our friends, family members, fellow union members, or with political parties that we have identified with for decades or if we will stand up for what we know to be right.
This is deep stuff so, before we dive into that dark water, let’s go back and look at some of our history. Let’s begin in 1 Kings 18:20-39, where we find Elijah standing alone against the King of Israel, all the people, and four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal whose worship was officially encouraged (if not required), and which had become the predominant religion of Israel.
20 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs [about 24 pounds] of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, were worshippers of the god Baal and they both encouraged, and enforced, Baal worship among the people of Israel. Under their rule, the priests and prophets of the God of Israel were hunted down and killed. Even Elijah had lived in hiding for many years in fear of the king and his armies. But now was a time for a showdown. And in that showdown, God demonstrates, in an inescapably obvious way, that there is only one God in Israel. In answer to Elijah’s simple prayer, fire falls from the sky and consumes the sacrifice, the wood, twelve large jars full of water, the rocks, and even the dirt under the altar.
Clearly God wins.
But what about Elijah? We remember this story not only because of the great power that God displayed on that day, but because of the courage that we witness in Elijah. Not only was it unpopular to stand against Ahab and Jezebel, it was dangerous and positively life-threatening. By this time, Elijah believes that he is the only prophet left in all of Israel (although we learn that God has hidden others as well), and he is afraid for his life, but he still stands up for his God, for his faith, and for what is right regardless of the risks.
And we see something similar, on both sides, in the story of a Roman centurion who had a sick servant in Luke 7:1-10.
7:1 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
The elders of the Jews recommended that Jesus meet with the centurion because he had come to love Israel and had provided the funds to build a synagogue. It seems that he had become sympathetic to the Jewish faith though I suspect that he did not become a convert to Judaism. It was probably not popular for a Roman to be so friendly with the Jews. It seems likely that his Roman countrymen would look down on this kind of fraternizing, and just being a Roman would make you unpopular among most Jews. Jesus would have faced this same criticism among the Jews for meeting with a Roman, but he consents to go anyway. Likewise, I’m sure that there was criticism for healing a Roman servant, but Jesus not only did so, he praises the centurion by saying that he had never seen anyone, in all of Israel, Jewish or not, that had such great faith.
Doing such things, and saying such things, did not make Jesus popular.
In Galatians 1:1-12, Paul explains it this way:
1:1 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers and sisters with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
I completely understand why we do what we do. We really aren’t that different than the Israelites in the time of Elijah and King Ahab.
We all want people to like us. We want to be safe.
But being popular has never been the goal of a follower of God or a believer in Jesus Christ.
As Paul said, we aren’t trying to win the approval of human beings, we should be seeking the approval of God.
We must stand up for what is right and stand against what is wrong even when it’s “our” political party, our friends, or our family that’s wrong.
We must choose Jesus. Even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous. Even when it’s life-threatening.
Do what’s right.
Keep the faith.
Do the things that God has called us to do.
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