Monday, July 16, 2012

The Ministry of Ravens and the Rest of God's Strange Help

Preached on Sunday, July 15, 2012; a revision of a sermon preached July 24, 2011.

Scripture readings: 1 Kings 17:1-9; Mark 2:13-17

Elijah was a prophet in the northern part of Israel. He lived after the great days of King David and King Solomon. The united kingdom of Israel had been divided between the northern and the southern tribes.

A Yucca Tree at the Back of the Family Home 
King Ahab ruled the northern tribes. He had married the princess Jezebel, the daughter of the king of the Phoenician city state of Sidon, in what is now Lebanon. It was a lucky political match, because it gave northern Israel an alliance with the great naval and trading power of the Phoenicians.

But it was an unholy match. Jezebel and her parents looked down on Israel’s worship of such a primitive God as the Lord, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses: the God of smelly shepherds and slaves. How hideous!

Jezebel was determined to spiritually reform Israel to a civilized faith full of the Phoenician designer gods and designer goddesses who were equipped to serve your every need for listed prices. There was a weather god. There was a sex goddess. There was a money god, and much, much more.

The few prophets and priests left who were determined to remain faithful to the Lord had the choice of hiding or being killed. Even though all seemed lost, there were still people who helped them hide at the risk of their own lives.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, backed by the money and power of Sidon, seemed to represent the winning side. They were the civilized side, the intelligent side, the cool side, the side of the future.

But God had a different idea, and he put his plan in motion through a peasant dressed in a goat-hair robe (see 2 Kings 1:8) named Elijah. Elijah came up to the king and said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there will be neither dew nor rain in the years ahead except by my word.” (1 Kings 17:1)

As it was, Queen Jezebel’s people, and her husband Ahab, had the god Baal on their side. Baal’s specialties were rain and storms. Elijah was defying one of their most impressive gods. Elijah was defying the new order of things. He was defying the future.

More than that, Elijah was making himself a special target. He was claiming to be the Lord’s agent for rain. The king and queen would have to bargain directly with Elijah and meet his terms, or else kill him. Knowing them, they would choose killing.

Who Is That On the Roof?
So God moved to the next part of his plan. We read that: ‘The word of the Lord came to Elijah, “Leave here… and hide!” (1 Kings 17:2-3) Elijah hid in one of the best hiding places in Israel, the Kerith Ravine. It was so good a hiding place that we have no idea where it is today. And, “Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening.” 1 Kings 17:6)

These ravens are important. The Lord took care of Elijah by means of the ravens. In fact, this meeting with the king, and the orders to hide and be fed by ravens, were all a part of God’s plan to train Elijah.

The hiding of Elijah was not wasted time. For Elijah it was his introduction to the providence of God. Providence is the tender loving care (the providing care) of God. What happened in the ravine with the ravens taught Elijah to trust God’s care.

It showed him what God’s care looked like. It showed what God expected of Elijah and of us.

The ravens tell us that God’s care does not isolate us from the world, or from the needs of others. Ravens are carrion eaters. They were labeled as unclean by the Jewish law. They could not be offered to God in sacrifice because, according to the Law of Moses, they were dirty and unfit for the presence of God. They were forbidden as food, and to eat raven meat would make the eater unclean, dirty, and unfit to come into the presence and worship of God.

They were messengers of the presence of weakness, sickness, death, and rot. They reminded Elijah of the starvation and death that was going on around him, even though he could not see it from his hiding place.

Elijah had been commanded by God to denounce the evil of his world, and to speak God’s judgment against it. And then it was the strange help that God gave to Elijah to make him remember the starvation, and sickness, and death of his own people twice a day, when the ravens came.

It is God’s strange help to his people, and to us, to remember the suffering of others. The early Christians interpreted the hiding, and the isolation, and the strange feeding of Elijah as God’s way of teaching him compassion and love for others. The ravens are a message from God to say that we, as Christians, need to remember our connection with the needs of the world around us, even when those needs are out of sight, and even when we have more than others.

Oh It's Me, Cutting Down the Yucca with a Chainsaw!
Every day Elijah was visited by carrion birds. They reminded him of his own danger because, without God’s care, he could have the same fate as so many others of his own people. He could have become raven food.

It wasn’t just the drought and famine that put him in danger. It was Elijah’s faithfulness to God that put him in danger. He would be at risk as long as he served.

Something deep within us tells us that it is not quite safe to listen to God. That is why, when I was a kid, I didn’t want to go into the ministry. Even if you don’t become a pastor or a missionary there is always a risk in serving God. Even if you lead church music, or choose music for others to sing, or teach Sunday school, or work with a youth group, or serve on some church board or committee, there is the danger of standing out. There is the danger of a thankless job that everyone has a better idea of than you do.

There is the danger of you causing actual harm to others because God has made you responsible for others. You are there to help, and you can make mistakes that do the opposite of help. And God has put you in a place where everything you say and do has expectations. People will judge God and they will judge the gospel by what you say and do.

One perfect spring day, I was taking my long walk out by the Snake and Palouse rivers and I found a nice place to sit down. There was some grass and a place to lean back. It was perfect. I drifted into contemplation and from there into sleep.

All of a sudden, I woke to the sound of the flapping of big wings. I jumped out of sleep and saw a big black bird take off, just as startled as I was. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird flew off. I think I was visited by a curious buzzard, but it could have been a crow or a raven.

It is God’s strange help to remind us that we are at some kind of risk when we follow the steps where the Lord’s love and goodness lead us. Elijah read this good and helpful advice from God in the face of those ravens, every day.

If you have livestock out grazing somewhere and you drive or ride out to see them, and you see big black birds circling and descending, you want to see what they are up to. You know you have to go and see whatever there is to see, whether you like it or not.

For the rest of us, we drive along the highway and see the same big dark birds in formation, and then we see the red spot on the road. If we were like Elijah and saw the ravens come to us with gifts of food in their talons, how would we feel about that food?

Most of It Is Down. The Rest Goes Next Year.
The bread and meat in the raven’s claws were not raven food. They were people food. Still we would know where else those claws had been. We would feel a little queasy at the thought of eating that meal.

In Elijah’s world, only rich people ate meat every day. Only the richest people ate meat twice a day. Where would the rich people get their meat in those days when livestock everywhere were dying from the drought? Something in me wonders if the ravens flew twice each day to the royal palace in Samaria where they stole from the king’s and queen’s food and brought it back to Elijah.

I don’t know. Only it seems that Elijah ate like a king while he was in hiding deep in Kerith Ravine.

Even if angels prepared those meals, they were delivered in those awful, stinking claws. Elijah had been raised to hate the sight of ravens but, in the course of time, they became like angels to him. They became the messengers of God and God’s care for him.

Imagine there are people in your world who are like the ravens. Imagine there are people you don’t want to see, or talk to, or have anything to do with. Those may be God’s ravens.

I have ravens who visit me. The ones I see the most often are the people others laugh at or look down on. There is always a person or a family who have some kind of trouble that makes them undesirable to others. There is a neediness of some kind. It might be a financial neediness. More often it is a neediness of the mind or the emotions. Often this neediness makes them difficult to be around, difficult to relate to. Often there is a neediness that never seems to go away, and no amount of patience, and time, and advice, and effort seems to make a difference. These ravens seldom feed me, but they often remind me of my own need for grace.

Some surprising people become ravens. There are perfectly good and innocent people who become ravens so that others avoid the very sight of them. People in nursing homes become ravens, especially if they have dementia or Alzheimer’s. I knew a husband who wouldn’t visit his wife because he hated to see how she had changed. People with cancer become ravens, even though cancer is not contagious. People who have lost their life’s work or even their home become ravens. People in the depth of grief become ravens. Old friends, and even their own families, avoid them, because they don’t know what to say to them. It is hard to know what to say with such people.

Friend and Neighbor Ottis Who Helped So Much
Jesus told a parable about how those people we might try to avoid are his most important representatives. If we claim to have loved him without accepting his ravens, he will say this to us: “Depart from me….For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me….I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

If you read the story of what happened after the brook of Kerith dried up, you will see how Elijah learned this lesson. He went, as the Lord commanded, to the land of Sidon, the land of Queen Jezebel. There in the land of Sidon he found a widow and her son who were starving and preparing their last meal.

The famine and death in Israel had spread to the people of Jezebel the Terrible. This was news that would have made people like Elijah glad. The widow and her son were people who worshiped Jezebel’s gods and knew nothing better.

Elijah moved into their home and took care of them in miraculous ways. (1 Kings 17:7-24) They would have been nothing but ravens to him, and here he found himself becoming part of their family, for a while.

Elijah, in his coat of goat-hair, became their special raven. He brought them gifts from God that kept them alive. And when the boy got sick, and died, Elijah raised him from the dead. (1 Kings 17:17-23)

We really are ravens ourselves. Surely there are people who aren’t glad to see us coming. Let’s pray to be ravens sent by God for them, in spite of ourselves.

Jesus was, and is, the ultimate raven. He was feared and hated by the best people in the world, by the best of the people of God. They crucified him because they found him offensive, and his cross just made him look all the more disgraceful. On the cross, Jesus became dead meat to save a world that is full of the decay of heartlessness.

Wildfowers by the Old Barn
The good people, the religious people didn’t want to get too close to Jesus. They didn’t want to listen to him because Jesus attracted the wrong kind of people. Jesus attracted the people they laughed and or spoke ill of. Jesus attracted the people they wanted to avoid. He even made disciples out of them. It was as if he drew flies; or crows and ravens.

The truth is that Jesus drew to himself the people who knew their own tremendous and desperate need. I hope that includes us.

Through the awful things of his humility, and his suffering and death, grace comes to us in the places of desert and drought in our lives. The inner healing and the comfort of Jesus (for which we yearn and ache) come to us in our isolation and in our hiding places. Through his life, and his cross, and his resurrection Jesus brings us healing, and mercy, and a new life every day.

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