Hearing God Over the Noise

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Hearing God Over the Noise

June 19, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

1 Kings 19:1-15a        Luke 8:26-39              Galatians 3:23-29

Have you ever been so busy, or so stressed out, or afraid, or depressed, or angry, or grief stricken, or otherwise distracted, that you just didn’t see how God fit anymore?  Or, because of one or more of those things, you somehow lost track of God?  You couldn’t hear God anymore, you couldn’t feel the closeness with God that you once felt, you didn’t feel the sense of direction from God or the sense of purpose that you once felt?  Sometimes those things happen because of what is happening to us, and sometimes it’s because we’ve filled our lives with so much busyness that there’s no more room for God to fit into our lives anywhere. 

But losing track of God because of the stress of everyday living is not something new and unique to the twenty-first century.  Our modern, high speed, jet-age, cell phone carrying, computer using, busyness might look different and even alien to the people of the ancient world, but the grief, stress, and busyness of our lives are not that different from the people of the Old and New Testaments.  This morning we begin reading from 1 Kings 19:1-15 where we encounter a story that most of us have heard many times.  It is a story about how the prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal, was victorious, had hundreds of those idolatrous priests put to death, and then fled in fear as Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen of Israel, threatened to kill him.  You can find more of the story in your bulletins, but in the interest of time, I’ll just say that Elijah ran for his life, was fed by God as he hid in the desert, and finally has this encounter with God:

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10 He replied, “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.”

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14 He replied, “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.”

15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.

Elijah had just won an enormous victory over the prophets of Baal.  God had visibly revealed himself to everyone present, and through them, to the people of Israel by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice offered by Elijah.  But the threats from the throne of the queen erased Elijah’s confidence and Elijah’s fear made it impossible to remember the power of God.  Elijah could no longer hear God over the noise of his fear.

And so, once he was in the desert, God called him and told him to go and wait for him on the mountain.  And a great wind came, and although it tore at the rocks and made a lot of noise, God wasn’t in it.  And then there was an earthquake, and although it was incredibly powerful, made even more noise, and shook the earth, God wasn’t in it.  And after that there was a fire which roared, stole the oxygen from the air, and filled Elijah’s world with heat and light, but God wasn’t in it.  And then, finally, came a soft whisper, and when he heard it, Elijah covered his face, went out of the cave, and met God.

This story reminds us that God isn’t always in the noise.  Our stress, our fear, our busyness, and other things that fill our lives may make a lot of heat, light, noise, and even shake the earth with their power, but none of those things are God.

We see something similar in Luke 8:26-39 when Jesus casts out a legion of demons.  Jesus meets a man who lived in the tombs of the cemetery.  Many demons possessed this man, as many as a thousand.  And Jesus heals him.  The demons beg Jesus not to send them to hell, and Jesus allows them to leave the man and enter a herd of pigs instead… and the pigs immediately run full-speed right off a cliff.

34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So, he got into the boat and left.

38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So, the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

The point that I want to make is that this group of people lived with a man in their community that was terrifyingly demon possessed.  He had superhuman strength that, more than once broke the chains that bound him, overpowered the guards that stood watch over him, and escaped into places where he could be alone.  Everyone knew who he was and what he could do, and they were terrified of him.  But when they witness him sitting, clothed, cured, holding a normal conversation with Jesus, and in his right mind, they ask Jesus to leave because they afraid of the power that he has.  The people of the region of the Gerasenes stood before the messenger of God and the savior of the world, but they couldn’t hear God’s voice over the noise of their stress and fear.

Twenty-one centuries later, we aren’t so different.  Our stress, fear, busyness, and other things fill our lives, make a lot of heat, light, noise, and even shake the earth with their power.  And while none of those things are God, they often make so much noise in our lives that we fail to hear God whispering to our soul.

But what do we do about it?

I think Paul’s thoughts in Galatians 3:23-29 are applicable here.  He said:

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Before Jesus Christ, before faith, God’s people were watched over by the law just as a guardian watches over a minor child.  But now that we have faith, we no longer need such a strict adherence to the law to govern our behavior.  Instead of rigid rules to follow, we instead remind ourselves of our baptism and wear the clothing of Jesus Christ.  We are no longer divided into classes, groups, divisions, of race, nationality, denomination, language, or political party.  In Christ, we are united.  We are grafted into the people of God and have the same legal status as the genetic children of Abraham.  We are the people of God.  We are God’s children.  We are the heirs of God and the co-heirs of Jesus Christ.

I suspect that really rich people don’t worry when their car breaks down or when they discover that their wallet is empty.  When those things happen, they overcome their stress when they remember who they are.  They’re rich.  Being in a broken-down car, or having an empty wallet is a temporary condition, it doesn’t define them, and it isn’t who they are.  That same advice applies to us as the children of God.

When the storms and the wind scream in our ears, the fire roars, the earth shakes, or any natural and unnatural stress overcomes us, and it will, take a moment to remember who you are.  Take a break.  Maybe, like Elijah, escape for a while to a quiet place.  Get your head on straight, take a deep breath, and remember that you are a child of God, that you are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, that you are loved by the creator of the universe, and that you have, even now, an eternal future that awaits you no matter what happens today or tomorrow.

Life is full of stress and noise.  There are stock market crashes, pandemics, politics, insurrections, wars, famines, fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, housing bubbles, violence, death, and all sorts of other things happening all the time.  But don’t let any of those things prevent you from hearing God’s whispering to your soul. 

Take break, pause, listen, reflect, breathe… and remember who you are.

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Do Not Lose Heart

    Americans are a resilient bunch.  Throughout our history we have been known to roll with the punches.  Our fights with the British roamed halfway across the continent from 1776 until 1812.  During the American Civil War between 600,000 and 700,000 lives were lost, then more through other wars including a devastating attack at Pearl Harbor and the more recent attacks in September 11, 2001.  While we have always come back after such horror, it is difficult for us to grapple with death on our home soil.  It has been a long time since 1812, but we understood that we were at war with England and the English, generally, only fought those who chose to fight.  Pearl Harbor was hard but it was, at least, an attack on a military target.  September 11th was different.  It shook us and caused many to begin looking for revenge.   Many joined the military to be a part of finding the perpetrators or at least to do something to be a part of our national defense.  
    After September 11th most everyone expected that there would be more of the same.  We knew we were in a “War on Terror” and so we expected that there would be more frequent attacks on American citizens and on American soil.  It is a huge credit to law enforcement and military personnel across the country and around the world that nearly all of the expected attacks since 2001 were discovered and averted before they could be carried out.  Until now…
    With this latest attack during the Boston Marathon many of our feelings revert to what we felt on September 11th.  At this time we do not know anything about the attacker(s), who they are, or where they are from, or why they did what they did.  We heard that a suspect has been arrested but that too, was premature.  We want revenge, we want retribution and a few may feel that somehow we should run away, or give up fighting.  Any of these responses will cause us to lose our way.  As Christians we are called to something different, to follow a different path.  Today I specifically want to speak to those who are frightened by these events.
    In scripture our temptation to surrender because of our fear is referred to as losing heart.  It is ‘heart’ that makes us who we are and what we are, it is ‘heart’ that makes us move forward in the face of fear.  In Hebrews 12 we are encouraged, when times are hard, to consider all that Jesus endured for us, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:3)  The prophet Jeremiah offers similar advice, especially in times like this, saying…
 “Do not lose heart or be afraid
    when rumors are heard in the land;
one rumor comes this year, another the next,
    rumors of violence in the land
    and of ruler against ruler.”
(Jeremiah 51:46)
    Remember that we are citizens of two nations, one is an earthly kingdom ruled by men, and the other an eternal kingdom ruled by the creator of the universe.  Our King has not forgotten us.  The Savior of the world still cares for us and watches over us.  Jesus knows your limits.  He knows how much you can take.  Find comfort and reassurance in knowing that even though…
He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:19-21)
A bruised reed he will not break.  
A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  
He knows what you need… and how you feel.
He hears your prayers and he understands your fear.

Who Can We Blame?

It seems that every day there is more to read about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I understand that this is a huge news story that affects millions of people along the southern coast of the United States and I am really not too concerned that the media is (typically) overplaying the story. What concerns me is the way that local residents, and politicians of all stripes (local, state, and federal) are turning a horrible accident into a bizarre circus of finger pointing in the extreme. Legally, I understand that the cost to clean up the mess will be enough to bankrupt several major corporations and that BP may not survive to pay for it all. I understand that BP will want to shift some or all of this financial burden onto whichever other corporate entities may have had a role in allowing this accident to happen. What I have a problem with, is the tendency that people have for wanting to make this tragedy personal.

Folks are pointing a finger at the CEO of British Petroleum and saying that it is, personally, his fault that this happened. They point fingers variously at President George Bush and President Obama and the commander of the Coast Guard and anyone else that seems even remotely convenient and somehow construe the facts of history to make it that persons fault. Yes, mistakes were made. No, things happened that shouldn’t have happened. Shortcuts were taken that shouldn’t have been. All that can be true and still, it doesn’t have to be any single person’s “fault.” That’s why they call them accidents.

Many of the policies in place were enacted by the Bush administration but they were likely voted on by many members of the opposing party. Many of these policies were changed by the Obama administration and the enforcement of these regulations fall to that administration as well. In either case, I doubt very much that either President Bush or President Obama had any specific knowledge of what was happening on this one particular drilling rig. Likewise, I doubt that the president of BP, who is (or at least was) not an American and who does not live in the United States (BP stands for British Petroleum, remember?) knew anything about the specifics of what was happening on one of the hundreds of drilling operations his company was conduction around the globe. Certainly none of this was intentional. The spill alone is horrible. The environmental damage is unimaginable. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and eleven men lost their lives aboard the Deepwater Horizon. No sane person would have intentionally caused this to happen or even allowed it to happen. It was an accident.

Psychologists tell us that when people are under stress they look for a place to focus that stress. It happens in churches that are undergoing significant change. When people are under stress they want someone to be responsible for the stress they feel and will often reach out to any convenient authority figure. I have been the focus of such stress. All sorts of elaborate stories can be created to direct that stress, or blame, upon these convenient figures regardless of the facts or the truth. Reality just isn’t that tidy.

The reality is that churches that are undergoing change have often come upon that change in a process that spanned many years and involved many more people. The reality of the accident aboard the Deepwater Horizon is that its causes were undoubtedly many and involved persons from the drilling rig, its owners, BP, regulators and members of state and federal government. Even worse, pressures were put on all these players by market forces by which each and every one of us played a part. Face it, when I get off the freeway to buy gasoline I really don’t give a rip about who has the best environmental record, I just want the cheapest gas. The pressure to produce fuel cheaply and to develop an abundant domestic supply while abiding by the various restrictions placed upon them undoubtedly played upon some of the poor decisions that were made and which led up to the accident. Besides that, accidents happen despite the best intentions or preparations of any of human being. That’s why we call them accidents.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a complete and thorough investigation, there should and if criminal acts were committed then those acts should be punished. Neither am I saying that BP and its subsidiaries and subcontractors should not pay for the damages caused and the cleanup that is required, they should. What I am saying is that I doubt that we will ever find a smoking gun. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to say that any one person or that any specific group of people are, personally, responsible for this accident.

As people of faith, especially as people of faith, we need to be clearer about that. Instead of becoming belligerent and argumentative, instead of busying ourselves pointing fingers at people who were far removed from actual events, we need to have a different focus. As people of faith, we need to let the justice system do its job and conduct its investigation without our interference. As people of faith, we need to focus our attention on the least and the lost, to try to help those who have been harmed by this disaster and who have no safety net to catch them. As people of faith, instead of looking for people to blame, we need to show a little grace.