Author Archives: Talbot Davis

Talbot Davis ~ Hidden Heroes: The What Can Brown Do For You? Hero

I love these two companies:  Fed Ex – “when it absolutely positively has to be there overnight” – and UPS – “what can brown do for you?”  What do these two companies do? They deliver.  An entire crew of handlers, warehousers, pilots, truck drivers, all laboring in obscurity, are tasked with delivering packages and goodies from point A to point B. Master deliverers.  Because think about it.  What good is it if you go to the store to buy a gift for mom who lives in, say, Texas, you wrap it up, package it, and send it, but it never gets delivered? And mom never knows just how thoughtful you are?! No good! Or what good is an order you place with Amazon if you check your front porch every day and the darn thing never gets delivered? Or guys, what good is it if you order flowers to make up for A) causing that fight or B) forgetting her birthday or C) you don’t know what you did but you just know she’s mad…if the flowers never get delivered? And don’t you hate those emails with the message Delivery Status Delayed? Because the best note, package, or gift is useless if it is not delivered well from the giver to the recipient.

And as we start this series of conversations on Hidden Heroes, we are going to look at a really interesting story and character who has to do with delivery.  Paul, that travelling pastor and missionary who wrote so much of the New Testament, that celebrity of the early church and even today’s church,  is likely under house arrest in Rome.  But as part of the arrest he is still allowed to hear about and communicate with the churches under his charge.  And one of those is the church in the city of Colossae, located in what is today Turkey.  And the four short chapters of the book of Colossians are loaded with some of the most glorious, Christ-honoring teaching and thinking anywhere, ever. Here’s just a sampling of Paul’s words, sections that give me goose bumps:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (2:9)

 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. (2:13)

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (3:11)

In particular, chapter 3:11 has become a mantra of sorts for me, as I don’t believe it can be improved on.  That’s why Paul is so known, such a celebrity; he’s brilliant!

And yet Paul concludes the letter in 4:7-18 with a long list of people whom he describes briefly and to whom he wants to convey his greetings.  You could say that at the conclusion of what many consider to be his most epic letter, he hides a list of eight heroes.  They are eight hidden heroes, hidden not only in this letter – the part of a biblical letter that, admit it, you skim right over – but hidden within scripture as a whole.  And these heroes are so hidden we’re going to spend the next six weeks seeking them.

The first is Tychicus.  Look at what Paul says about him in Colossians 4:7: “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.”

You know what that means?  He’s not in Colossae as Paul writes the letter; he’s not a recipient of it. Those folks are coming later.  He is also not staying with Paul after the letter goes out.  One of the future heroes, Epaphras who “sends greetings,” does that.  (That’s what you do when you’re not coming, as in “tell them I said ‘hey!’”)  So he’s not with Paul, yet he knows Paul and he is going to convey information about Paul to the Colossians, so you know what that means?

He’s going to deliver the letter that Paul wrote!  He’s the courier!  They didn’t have post offices, there were no Wells Fargo stage coaches, and they darn sure didn’t have “when it absolutely positively has to be there overnight.”  So Ty, accompanied by Onesimus, took Paul’s parchment, tucked it in his satchel or hid it in his belt or enclosed it in a cellophane protector, protected it from robbers, and walked the long, difficult distance from Rome to Colossae.

It was a dangerous, exhausting journey.  And if he doesn’t deliver it, no one gets it.  If he is careless, casual, bad with directions, the effort Paul has put into writing his masterpiece is for naught.  If he leaves it at the motel along with his umbrella and his reading glasses, I never get to have my own life shaped by the majesty of 3:11!  And here’s what I can’t get my mind to let go of:  he is delivering the Word Of God.  I doubt he knew it, but that’s what he did!  God inspired it, Paul wrote it, and Ty delivered it and it took all of them to make it happen.  You take one link out of that chain and the inspired word gets lost.

And yet here’s what I love:  God – you’ve heard of God.  Paul – most of you had heard of him before this morning.  Tychicus?  Ninety-nine percent of you had never heard of him before today and those of you who had are professional preachers, missionaries, or just weird. Yet he is as vital and necessary as the other two.  He’s the FTD to your flowers; he’s the UPS to your important order from; he’s the email server to your direct deposit.  You’ve never heard of him, you don’t see him, he’s not the celebrity, but without his delivery there is no ministry.  He’s little known, but God chooses him to make known the One who must be known.

And look, look, look at how Paul describes him in the last part of 4:7:  fellow servant.  Not scribe, not errand boy, not anonymous delivery guy, but on par with Paul.  We are equals, Paul is saying.  God’s the divinity, I am the celebrity, Ty labors in obscurity, but we are equals.  God inspired it, I wrote it, he delivers it, and it’s all essential.  My light shines, his heroism is hidden but in the kingdom we are equals.The deliverer of the good news is as essential as the writer.

And so do you know what it means for us and for the kingdom and even for all you invited people becoming inviters?  God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.  The greatest impact usually happens when no one notices.  Tychicus arrives in Colossae after this difficult journey, hands the parchment to the church leaders there, and voila! the word of God gets propelled to new places in new ways.  The celebrity gets the credit – “Paul’s letter to the Colossians” – but the one working in obscurity is the linchpin of the whole deal.  The teamwork of Paul & Ty divides the work yet multiplies the impact.  God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

It is a little like Philip Pillsbury.  Huh?  Yes, a son and heir to those Pillsburies – the one with the doughboy, the ones who make all the baked goods.  Do you know what Philip’s most distinguishing physical characteristic is? He is missing the tips of three of his fingers.  Why?  That’s what happens to grain millers.  He, who could be an heir celebrity, never leaving the corner office, has been working on the floor with the guys, milling the flour.  Don’t you know he has their respect?  Don’t you know in that obscurity he communicated volumes?

God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

It’s even like two funerals that happened here over the last several months. At one, the person who died loved Chick-Fil-A.  Loved it.  At the other, the person who died had an odd attraction for celery.  I don’t know why, but she did. She liked celery like the other one liked Chick-Fil-A.  Why do I tell you that?  Because at both funerals, we hosted small receptions and greetings out in the lobby and at the first one the hospitality team made up of volunteers served Chick-Fil-A nuggets to everyone and at the second, sliced celery.  Now no one really noticed the workers, they thanked Chris for his singing and me for my preaching, everyone saw us (minor celebrities!), but the real ministry was in the food delivery.

God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

I love the skill set Tychicus must have shared with Paul.  Ty, did you go to seminary? Nope.  College?  One year of CP.  Can you preach?  Not really.  Lead a LifeGroup?  Not yet.  Run the youth group?  Doubt it.  Well, can you walk?  Yep.  Follow directions?  Sure.  Good!  You’re hired!  That’s it!  He could walk, he could probably read what passed back then for maps, he was persistent.  Paul was the genius, Ty was the grunt and put them together and you have the Word of God coming to life.  He wallowed then and wallows now in obscurity, but in that obscurity is the authentic ministry.

Why am I saying this?  We have a lot of Tychicuses here who do not realize the extent to which your seemingly insignificant efforts for Christ and his church are in fact of supreme importance.  Or, more to the point, we have Tychicuses here who, because you figure you can’t do any notable, you don’t do anything at all – and you’re not tapping into the hero hidden inside of you!  You think, “I can’t sing, I can’t preach, I’m not leadership material, I’m nothing,” and God says no, no, no!  There’s a hero hidden in there.  There’s a part of the indestructible ministry chain inside you and though you’re not public your role is still perfect.  You are still the delivery man or delivery woman for my word.

See, those of you who have roles off-stage, in the wings, out of the limelight, your apparently insignificant ministry is loaded with meaning and purpose, it is pulsing with power.  It is no less vital than the songs we sing or the sermons we preach.  The Tychicus in you completes this incredible thing God starts.  With the gospel, there is no such thing as “I’m just the messenger.”

God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

Do you know how I know that this is true?  You had a Tychicus who reached you!  For some of you, it was that anonymous person who handed you a nametag or a bulletin. For others, it was the second grade Sunday School teacher whose name you can’t remember today but you sure knew she loved Jesus.  And for still others it was that crew of people who came by your house and built the wheelchair ramp for your grandmother. The names are gone now but the influence lives on.  I loved hearing from the lady who joined our church recently who told me, “Dennis is why I joined.  My friend was dying and he visited her with such grace and care and spirit and so I thought, ‘I want to be part of whatever church he represents.’” Not my sermons! Our servant.  You have that ability, that gifting in you.

God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

Because you can “do” what has been “done” for you.

The person who prayed over your seat this morning before you got here?  God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

The one who handed you your program? God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

The one in the nursery to whom you handed your child? God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

The guy sitting right now with a 4th grader in a circle where Jesus is the topic of conversation? God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

The young single woman who tonight will gather with 6th grade girls?  God’s word is better delivered in obscurity than by celebrity.

Not a celebrity among them.  Laboring in obscurity all of them. Delivering the Word of God – spoken and not – all of them. How about you find the hidden hero within and join in?

Talbot Davis ~ Lost Trust

What’s that saying? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on…?”

That’s sort of descriptive, isn’t it? When it comes to trusting other people, trust is something we give only with great difficulty, but we take it away with great ease. Put another way from the other perspective, it is very difficult to earn the trust of other folks these days but very easy to lose it. Isn’t that the way you are? Hesitant to give it but quick to take it away? Whether with businesses or politicians or friends or romances or faith?

Now there are occasions when that approach to trust is with good reason. Maybe you’ve heard of the restaurant where the server brought the guy his steak but while carrying the plate he put his thumb right on the filet. “Are you crazy?”yells the now-irate customer. “You bring my food with your hand on my steak?!” And the server answers, “what? Do you want it to fall on the floor again?” Now all of a sudden that server, his restaurant, and that food lost whatever trust they had begun to earn.

You’ve been there. Some of you have had a business take advantage of you, and so you have found it impossible to trust it or a business like it again. Someone else lost trust in a friend who, you found out, was Facebooking about you behind your back…but of course nothing online really stays behind your back, does it? You know who and where it is for me? I have trouble trusting flatterers. Especially people who tell me how much more they like me than the preacher at their former church. You know what that tells me? I’m likely their next former pastor! So I’m leery and distrustful.

And I know there are others out there, sadly, who, because of what happened in their marriage, can’t trust people of the opposite sex. Some of you women think all men are like your ex and some of you guys can’t trust any woman for anything because it makes you think of your ex and how she treated you. You don’t want to hear another “somebody done somebody wrong” song. And for some folks here that path to not trusting started very, very young as someone older in your life or family made you the victim of abuse. They robbed you not only of your innocence but your ability to trust.

And then don’t even get me started on religion – you’ve been burned by churches, pastors, small group friends, TV preachers, and for a few of you that means you feel like you’re the only one living the faith with any real integrity. Something deep inside some of you doesn’t even trust me ­– and you’re here every Sunday! You figure there’s got to be an angle somewhere. And while you still follow God as best you can, sometimes you wonder if anyone else really is.

Which is where we find Elijah in I Kings 19:9b. Here’s a quick reminder if you haven’t been with us for “Lost And Found.” It’s about 850 BC, the children of Israel are divided into two nations, Elijah is a prophet to the northern half, called Israel, and Israel is led by King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel:  Dumb and Dumber.  Wicked and Wickeder.  The two have brought with them the worship of a certain idol called Baal. When Elijah came on the scene, he predicted a drought, it happened, he survived a fatwa by fleeing, then he returns home and stages a contest between the idol Baal and the living God on Mt. Carmel, which is Baal’s home court. And Elijah wins a victory for the Lord! Dramatic, decisive, definitive. Yet that victory doesn’t lead to celebration but to another death threat against him, this time at the hands of Jezebel whose name literally means “Where is Baal?” (say it with a thick southern accent and you’ll see what I mean). So he loses all hope, which he found last week when he discovered God won’t do for you what he needs to do with you.

Which brings us to the final scene. Elijah is hovering, hiding, waiting on Mt. Horeb, unsure of his next move. Look at what happens in I Kings 19:9b: “And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?'”

I love that! You think God doesn’t know?! It’s not like God is really curious or uncertain; he just wants Elijah to gives his own situation some thought, which he does in the answer in 19:10. Note all the destructive verbs: “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.'”

Look how it ends: I am the only one left! Honestly – and this is weird – some of that destruction in I Kings 19:10 is like what folks have done to Methodism around the country (well, except for the killing part).  Gutting a faith tradition from the inside-out.  And a few of us, when we are feeling particularly self-righteous, have felt we’re the only ones in this unwieldy movement who still believe in Jesus and still hold up the Bible. But more truthfully, whether it’s Elijah’s reaction or mine, I think that 19:10 gives us a window into something that happens when we decide not to trust people: exaggeration. We exaggerate how bad others are; after all, Elijah is forgetting how a whole lot of others came to faith just in the previous chapter! And he is sort of exaggerating his own holiness! Lord, if it wasn’t for me, you’d have nothing going on on planet earth!

As you look at the ways you have lost trust, I have to ask you honestly: does exaggeration have anything to do with it? Do you either exaggerate your goodness or the relative wickedness of others? Are you throwing a daily pity party at which you are the guest of honor?

I think that’s what Elijah is doing here. So God does something dramatic in reply, a scene within a scene that actually gets overhyped sometimes. Look at 19:11-13.

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. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

You might have heard of the “still small voice;” actually, it’s better rendered as the “sound of sheer silence.” It was all God’s way of saying that he speaks as much in the silence as the spectacle. Yes, he’d set a bull on fire on Mt. Carmel, but he communicates in more subtle and less flammable ways as well. It’s almost like God’s steady silence is to contrast Elijah’s loud complaints!

But I love 10:13b and the response in 10:14:

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

Wait! Did we just hear that? Yes! It’s an exact copy of 19:9-10, which given how arduous it was to write in those days and how expensive writing material was, tells you we are supposed to notice the repetition.

You know what it tells me? Elijah has made no progress. He is in the exact same place, no movement. He has followed the exaggeration with stagnation. It’s so true. When you exaggerate people’s flaws or your virtues, when you lose trust in others, you stagnate.  You stay drunk because you don’t trust the folks in AA. You stay unbalanced because you don’t trust the therapist. You stay mad because you don’t trust Proverbs 15:1. You stay skeptical because you don’t trust church, faith, God. Exaggeration leads to stagnation.

Which is why God’s answer to Elijah in 19:15-17 is so perfect: 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. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.'”

All of that means, Elijah, my man, that battle you’re fighting against Baal? There are others in the fight, too. There are other soldiers, the battle is not all yours, I’m working in ways and places you don’t even know about. And then to bring it all home, God’s in-your-face reminder to a man who has lost trust in everyone but himself: “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

We had exaggeration, we had stagnation, and now we have correction.  You know what that 7,000 means? Seven is the number of perfection, completion. They used 1,000 in the same way we use a million, meaning: I’ve got the perfect number of people you can trust. It’s complete in its vastness and it’s vast in its completion.

Oh, I love this rebuke. Because every time I think I’m the only preacher, every time you think you’re the only honest person left, every time you think there are no good men or no good women left, God who is the One and Only whispers back: You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust. He has the ideal number of people to surround you, to advise you, to walk alongside you, to make you realize that there are a lot more trustworthy people than you realize because God is at work in every life on the planet! That’s what we believe about him! He is at work even in people who aren’t looking for him! He is leaving drops of grace all around!

Listen, you, who have lost trust in the basic honesty of people you see around you; look again! You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust. Your incessant negativity is not blessing anyone!

You, who’ve been burned in love and so lost trust in all people of the opposite sex? Look again! You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust.

You, who lost trust in church because of a bad experience 10 years ago? Look again! You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust.

I believe in this so much because I have benefited from it. There’s someone here at this church whom I let down twice over the span of a few years. The kind of preacherly thing I pride myself on and I dropped the ball twice. But not long ago, I was in the Prayer Room with that same person praying over a deep need and the whole time I thought, “what a blessing that this person trusts me. I don’t deserve it.” She must have heard the same living word as Elijah – you’re not alone, people can be trusted, don’t give up. You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust.

And look one more time at what God says in 19:15: “The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came.'” Go back. Yes! Revisit my faithfulness, Elijah. I’ve been faithful, I’ve put people in your path, and now you need to remember it.

He has put people in your past who guided you and loved you; you just decided to have a selective memory about it. And that selectively negative memory is no great skill! Well, the Lord wants the facts of his faithfulness in the past to crash your pity party in the present. You’ve had friends, bosses, mentors, pastors, and counselors who have not only earned your trust, they kept it. And God put them there.

This is why I love our friends in recovery. Man, do you know how much trust it takes to walk into a room of strangers the first time and say, “I’m a drunk. I’m on coke. I’m a compulsive gambler.” I don’t care if it’s the only way out of a DUI or jail sentence, it takes a lot of trust. By definition, these folks put their recovery in the hands of a group of people they’ve never met but sure will grow to love. You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust.

So who is your 7,000? What is that perfect number, for you, of people God is asking you to trust, as a sign that he is sovereign and is still working in the world? What God is doing is bigger than you. God has a plan and you’re part of it, but you’re not all of it. This is why LifeGroups are at the heart of everything here. Because we need our own 7,000 and for a whole lot of us, it’s that group. You’re NOT the only one. The One And Only has 7,000 you can trust.

Do you know what fascinates me about this whole subject of trust? That the miracle is not the degree to which we trust God, but the degree to which God trusts us. Think about it. God trusted Adam and Eve to populate the earth even after they’d messed it up. He trusted the Jews to be a light to the world. Then he trusted the church to tell the story of how Jesus fulfilled that light. That’s the miracle. After all the times we’ve disappointed him, after all the times we’ve proven to be undeserving of the trust he places in us to accomplish his mission, God still trusts us.

I guess here is where I say: go and do likewise.

Talbot Davis ~ Lost Hope

Isn’t it true that there are times when we’ve had enough? Our parents said that to us, didn’t they? We’d push all their buttons, we were persistently disobedient and out it came: “I’ve had enough of you, young man!” or “I’ve had enough of your lip, young lady!” And that phrase sunk into us so deeply that to our horror we have heard ourselves saying the same thing to our kids when they push our buttons. The very thing we promised we’d never be, we’ve become. I’ve had enough ! We get frustrated or angry at people and situations and politicians and preachers and we collectively have had enough.

But you know not all of that energy is directed externally. Sometimes the thing we’ve had enough of is us. Some of you reach that place where you’ve had enough of your marriage. Or you’ve had enough of that chronic pain in your back. You’ve had enough of losing your temper. You’ve had enough of being single. You’ve had enough of compulsive, self-destructive behavior. Yeah, there’s a whole lot of people I know who’ve had enough, and the target is us.

And saddest of all are the people who have had enough of life itself. The obstacles are so steep and the burdens are so heavy that you’ve had enough of living. You lose any hope that it could possibly get any better. The marriage won’t heal, the kids won’t be functional, the body won’t respond, the eviction notice arrived, and you just see no way out. Today is so dark that there is no way tomorrow can have any light at all. Some of you have been there, some of you are headed there, and others are there right now; it’s why you came to church. Did you know that kind of hopelessness moves about 765,000 people a year to attempt suicide and 30,000 to succeed?

It’s so sad, but it is really nothing new. That place of hopelessness and even that death wish is exactly where we find Elijah in I Kings chapter 19: he’s had enough – enough of life, enough of opposition, he’s lost hope and he wants to die. Here’s the deal: it’s about 750 BC, the children of Israel are divided into two, Elijah is a prophet to the Northern half, called Israel, and Israel has been overrun with worship of a certain idol called Baal. When Elijah came on the scene, he predicted a drought, it happened, he survived a fatwa by fleeing, then he returns home and stages a contest between the idol Baal and the living God on Mt. Carmel, which is Baal’s home court. And Elijah wins a victory for the Lord! Dramatic, decisive, and definitive. So in the aftermath of that great moment, he’s like Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug (check the first 15 seconds of this clip), expecting to be carried down the mountain on the shoulders of his adoring fans. Total euphoria that demands a hero’s welcome.

Except that’s not what happens. Look at I Kings 19:1: “Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.”

Can you imagine that conversation? Ahab has his tail between his legs, he is “Jay Pritchett” to Jezebel’s “Gloria,” and it really is no contest. Jezebel, whose name means “Where is Baal,” comes up with her own way of “celebrating” Elijah’s win: “So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.'”

Ugh. He expects praise, anticipates a parade, and he receives a death threat. His second fatwa in three chapters! So look at 19:3a: Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.”

I love the irony: he runs for his life…the same life that he is shortly going to ask to be taken from him.

So look next at 19:3b-4: “When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said.”

And there it is.

I’ve had enough, Lord! I’m not gonna take it anymore!  

Isn’t it true that many of us are more vulnerable after prosperity than we are in the middle of adversity? When we fly high we fall hard. I know it’s that way for me. I remember that time after Easter – record attendance, big head, euphoric celebration – I checked my mail and there was every preacher’s worst nightmare: an anonymous letter. It wasn’t kicking me when I was down; it was sabotaging me when I was up! All around, be the most watchful and attentive after success, because that’s when you become complacent, self-reliant, and even cocky. Elijah’s expectations were so high and the disappointment so great that he saw no way tomorrow could have any light in it at all. So he’d had enough.

Which leads to the worst prayer in the Bible: “‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.”

 Wow. The “had enough” pile on top of each other, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all. And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here. Because I know some of you have prayed it. Or you are praying it. Hope is gone because the marriage is over, the job market is closed, the voices are still in your head, the pain is relentless, so it seems there is no way out except to get out. Take my life. Do it now. Instantly. Painlessly. Fix it, take it, do it. I’m tired of being responsible for it.

That’s you. And that was Elijah. Except look what happens in 19:5b-6: “All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.”

Hey, that’s a major upgrade from having ravens deliver your food! I’ll take an messenger of God over a scavenger of carrion anyday! And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a: “The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank.”

And the repetition is the key. The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small: bread, water, and a bed. Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed. As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.

But it’s the double command: “Get up and eat,” that I love the most. You notice what God’s representative does? Puts the burden back on Elijah. God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it. It’s not like the messenger put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not. He had to act. He had to own. He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him. Either kill him or make him all better in a snap. But instead God gives a task, a massively small task: get up and eat. I’m sending bread, water, and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing. And so you know what the repeated command tells me, all of you who’ve lost hope and want God to send a quick, thorough fix?

God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.

He’ll only give you what you are willing to “own.” If he had delivered (or killed!) a thoroughly passive Elijah from the season of hopelessness, the same situation would have recurred again. Elijah had to assume some responsibility for his own healing, even if it was as small as getting up, eating, and then doing it again, for the healing to endure. The recovery of hope is not one great leap, it’s many small steps, but you have to take them.

God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.

Elijah prays for this instantaneous deliverance and God in reply starts a process. Do the next right, healthy thing, Elijah. I’ll provide the tools, you take the steps. I could do it all for you but that would not grow you. I want to do it with you. It’s the concept of toxic charity applied to how God relates to us! God is not going to restore hope for Elijah; he will restore it with him.

God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.

You know why I really believe this? Because some people here have lost all hope…and you like it that way. Some folks don’t want to get well. They like the notoriety, the attention, the helplessness. It’s a learned state and they’ve learned it well. They nurse their own helplessness; it’s like their security blanket. Some people are not happy unless they are unhappy – and if they find themselves temporarily happy – or hopeful – they will conjure up a way to revert to unhappiness and hopelessness. You know people like this. You might have been raised by someone like this. But you just realized in a flash that, “that’s me!” You’re not happy unless you’re unhappy; you’re not well unless you’re sick. And that’s why God’s not delivering you from it. Because you aren’t partnering with him! You’re whimpering before him!

God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.

Our recovery friends talk about “spiritual bypass.” Where people walk into AA or a pastor’s office and want a “zap” and all of a sudden no more alcohol cravings: alcoholism healed and hope restored. Now I have seen that happen. Like once. Compared to a million people I know who need to walk all the steps.

God needs to invite you to ownership, into a process, one in which you take massively small steps, each one full of meaning while appearing insignificant. It’s a bit like what we say around here when it comes to pastoral counseling of people: it can’t mean more to you than it does to them. I love what Thomas Edison said about the light bulb: “I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2,000 step process.” Finding the hope you’ve lost will likely be the same. Not one step. Maybe not even 12. Maybe as many as 2,000. You, partnering with God, not passive before him.

God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.

I’ve told many of you before of how I went through a season where I wanted either a) to leave ministry and work in landscaping (genius at an edger!) or b) get a job at a small church with less responsibility. Pretty heavily settled despair. You know how I was delivered from it? When I kept getting up in the morning, coming to work, preparing sermons, and visiting people. No quick fix, just a thousand small, not very glamorous steps. And a couple of years later I was like “Oh! I don’t feel like crap anymore!”

What will that look like for you? How will you move to a with God instead of for you? Is it the appointment with that therapist? Is it following through on your intention to go to a fitness center? Because you know the health of your body is completely connected to the health of your spirit. Is it quitting smoking? And how much of a blessing will that be to your finances?! Is it simply getting up, going to work, and realizing that in the middle of all these little things that God brings healing and hope?

I know one thing it can be, easily, this week: use the Daily Readings. They are about hope this week. Follow them. It’s not glamorous. It is beautiful. God is giving you bread, water, and bed. Get up and eat.

God won’t do FOR you what he needs to do WITH you.

Because look at where Elijah ends up in 19:8: So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.”

He ends up at Horeb, also known to most as Sinai, the mountain of God. Look where his journey has taken him: from Carmel the home of Baal to Horeb the mountain of the Lord. Home of the Ten Commandments, home of Moses, summer home of Charlton Heston. But that’s what happens, isn’t it? When you’re not passively demanding God do things for you, but taking ownership of your own journey, he works with you and brings you not only into hope but back to home. And you just can’t get enough of that.

Talbot Davis ~ Lost Religion


Some of you might remember when this happened in an NFL football game:

And that gave rise to a whole breed of commercials called “Not In My House!” – in the world of sports, a way of saying, “there is no way I am going to let you come into my home field, home court, home stadium, and beat me, taunt me, or take away what’s mine!” It’s sort of macho, but it sort of works, and the deal is if you can go into someone’s “house” and beat them at their own game while on their own turf, well, you’ve done something: a victory for the ages. (I looked for some kind of parallel in tennis but it’s not like Harvard used to get all macho and say to the Princeton tennis team: not in our house! They’d be more likely to say, “I’ve got an interview on Wall Street later, can we hurry?”

Well, as we get to our second installment with Elijah in our series “Lost And Found,” it’s a “not in my house!” kind of deal. Here’s what is going on: the people of Israel had lost their faith. There had been a civil war, a division into north and south, and in the Northern Kingdom King Ahab was on the throne and quickly staking claim to title of Worst. King. Ever. By marrying a woman named Jezebel, he (and she) brought the worship of Baal into the kingdom of the Lord.

Look at I Kings 16:32: “He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.”

Who and what was Baal? A god they could make with their hands.

The people had lost patience with the invisible God and so they decided to make one that was visible. As we saw in the first installment, since Baal was a fertility god, worshipping him involved rain dances and temple prostitutes. I don’t care how good a church’s band is, that can be hard to compete with as far as “gettin’ the men in church”!

In the wake of these events, Elijah tells Ahab there is going to be a drought. This is to prove that God – the invisible one – is more in charge of the rain and the sun than Baal could ever be. Elijah pronounces the drought and then disappears for three years. The people all around him had lost their religion because they were busy making gods, and so Elijah opposes it and then vanishes.

But I wonder, are we done with that? Are we really finished with making our own gods? Now: not too many of you are making ceramic idols, but did you know that a survey of American Christians showed that 22% believe in reincarnation, 23% believe in astrology and 15% have seen a fortune teller? More to the point, maybe you have made a god of a relationship in your life. It’s not a healthy one, mind you – toxic, actually – but you feel like if it is taken away from you, you won’t be able to breathe anymore. That relationship, in spite of its turmoil, gives you security, identity, and meaning. Or maybe you have made a god of your resume. If you can’t hand a business card with a nice title on it to people you meet, what’s the point in living? It’s a god you have made. You know what it is for me? Church! Reputation! How those two intersect! My own image is a god I make and tend and protect and obsess over. Yeah, ancient Israel had lost their religion because they had traded the original, invisible god for a visible substitute, and we do the same.

Here’s what’s even more true: if you are at that place of thinking about leaving faith – “I don’t really believe anymore. I believe nothing.” I’ve been there. Most have. But you need to know that you are really just substituting another god in God’s place: most likely, you! You have a god, whether you know it or not. The question is whether it’s the One who made you or the one you are making.

Back to Elijah. He proclaims drought’s coming and then he’s gone for three years. He returns to public life in I Kings 18, meets Ahab, and look at what he does in 18:16-19: “So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’ ‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.'”

So he wants everyone who is anyone to gather at Mt. Carmel. Why Mt. Carmel? He could have chosen any mountain in Israel; why this one? Because it was the center of Baal-worship. Baal had home court advantage on Mt. Carmel! And so Elijah wanted to see Baal’s “Not in my house!” and raise it by “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof!” and put his Hebrew National football right on Baal’s 50-yard line star. Ahab and the prophets may believe “Baal’s gonna protect his house!” but Elijah knows “No he ain’t! I’m gonna ROCK HIS HOUSE!”

And Elijah challenges the people in I Kings 18:21: “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.'”

And note the people’s answer in 18:21c:

“But the people said nothing…”

They said nothing: all the folks who have lost their religion and gone to follow a god they made just sit in silent observation.

And what does Elijah want to do in Baal’s house on Carmel? Stage a contest in which they’d kill a bull – these were the days before PETA – put it on a pallet, and the Baal prophets would pray to Baal, and Elijah would pray to the Lord, and whichever god sets the bull on fire is really God.

So here’s the big question: is Baal going to protect his house or not? He’s the god people have made, he’s the one for whom they have lost their religion, and that’s the question. And I love the people’s reaction in 18:24: “Then all the people said, ‘What you say is good.'”

Good idea! They have gone from silent to intrigued!

So the contest starts and it’s really a thing of comedy. Baal’s reps go first in 18:26: “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.”

Elijah taunts them in I Kings 18:27 (not very Christlike, but then again, Christ hadn’t been born yet, so Elijah gets a pass).

“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.'”

When it says “busy” there in the original language, the inference is that he is “using the men’s room.” The longer they pray, the more notable the non-answer, and the more panicked the Baal followers become, as we read in 18:28: “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.”

And then the loudest silence in Scripture: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

The panic and the escalation is exactly what we do with the gods we make. When you beg your boyfriend or girlfriend to stay; when you think one more hit of the drug will satisfy; when the next job will finally be the one to make you happy; when the cutting you do will make you calm. Increasing desperation yielding smaller rewards and it’s all because of the gods you make.

So Elijah steps up for his turn. First, in a nod to Jewish history, look what he does in 18:30-32: 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. 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.’ 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 of seed.”

And then he declares what he has demonstrated in I Kings 18:36:

“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.'”

He traces his prayer to history. Not fertility, like Baal, not the seasons of the year as with idolatry, but to the way God has acted in the history of the people. The way that Elijah knows that he is just the next in a long line of people to whom God has been faithful. “Lord, I’m just one in this tree of folks you have touched and held and protected.”

Then the prayer’s simplicity & brevity stands in marked contrast to the panicked offerings to Baal in 18:37:  “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” And the answer in 18:38: “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.”

The gods the people make: nothing. The God who made this people, all the way from Abraham to Elijah: fire from heaven. And I see that for this people who had lost their religion because they have substituted something they’d made – and how what they’d made disappointed them – and I see how that still happens, and here’s the deal: the gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

Because look at the crowd! Remember how they were silent and then intrigued? Look what I Kings records next of their response: When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!'”

That’s it! That’s the moment! That faceless crowd is actually the most important character in the story – even more than Elijah, more than Ahab, more than the bull! It’s their trajectory from silence to interest to confession: the God who makes us is the only God there is! El Yah! We remember who made us now! We too are in the line that stretches from Abraham and Isaac to today. He made us and he’s holding us even when we tried to run away! But the gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

Can I ask you something that Elijah asked the people at the heart of the story?

How long will you waver?

If you are in the middle of losing your religion is it truthfully, honestly, because you’ve made another god? People do. Religious people do. Like the Episcopal priest out in Washington state who decided to become Episcopalian and Muslim. It sounds nice, it sounds all, “can’t we all just get along,” but intellectually it falls apart. You can’t be both. It’s why standing in the middle of the road you get hit by cars coming from both sides.

No parent, for example, wants your child so influenced by peers that you get overruled as outdated. That’s what we do with God. Whether it’s another religion or our horoscope or a toxic romance, drug use that yields inevitably diminishing returns, or preoccupation with image, it’s all wavering. If you stay in that place too long you make self-destructive decisions that have a long term impact and then BAM! you’re done. Some of you married or formerly married people let that guy or that girl be the god you’d made in the moment, and that’s why your marriage died.  The gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

I really love the introduction to Elijah’s prayer. Look at it again in 18:36: history, people, a line. It demonstrates that even when God doesn’t fix our circumstances – when he does in a sense “let us down” – he doesn’t leave us alone. He won’t let go that way. And who is it who reminds me God is real? I don’t have that vivid immediacy to say “the God of Abraham” like Elijah did. I might say “the God of Matt Ristuccia”!

Who is he? The New Jersey pastor who mentored me in college and then married me and Julie upon graduation. Lord, the God of Matt!

Or the God of Claude Kayler.

Who is he? The guy who is my best preacher-friend, who founded this church, and because he built it on Jesus and not on Claude it was incredibly easy to follow him. Lord, you’re the God of Claude Kayler and because I see what I see in him I believe in you! Or even the people who work here now.  Why? Because some of what has been poured into me through the years I can pour into them. Ministry gets multiplied. It shows that God is faithful, enduring, and he won’t let go. I may run, I may think he is invisible, but he’s still not letting go.

See, when God feels distant and you’re losing your religion, something else is going on. He’s like the sun. The sun is never “not on.” It’s always burning; never “not shining”. When it gets dark, that’s because the earth turns, not because anything happened with the sun, and it’s the same with God. He’s never not on. We lose our religion when we turn, not when he does, and when we turn, our hands get busy making our own gods. The same gods who invariably, inevitably disappoint.

Oh, turn back. Test him. Move from silence to intrigue to confession!  The gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go.

Down in rural Florida, a little boy was walking near a pond near the family home. (Child, water, Florida…you know what’s next). As happens down there, a gator bit on to the boy’s legs. Fortunately, the boys’ mother was near, saw what had happened, was filled with adrenaline and grabbed his little arms. A tug of war started. More tug. More war. The gator was stronger but the mother was more passionate. The great thing was, a farmer drove by, heard the screams, had a gun in his gun rack, took aim, and shot the gator dead.

Remarkably, the boy survived, though his legs were badly scarred. Several weeks later a reporter came to the hospital room to do an update. He asked the boy if he could see the scars on his legs. He pulled the sheets over so he could. But then the boy did something else: “But look at my arms! I have some great scars there, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let me go.”


Because the gods you make will always let you down. The God who makes you will never let you go!

Talbot Davis ~ Lost Relationships

Some of you may remember Salman Rushdie,Rushdie the novelist who a generation ago  was the victim of a fatwa.

What was that? Well, he wrote & published a slightly scandalous novel by Muslim terms called The Satanic Verses & so the Ayatolla Khomeini of Iran pronounced a death sentence on him. He put a worldwide Muslim bounty on his head. (It would be as if the Pope put a bounty on the head of the guy in charge of the movie The Last Temptation Of Christ.)

So immediately, Salman Rushdie became a man on the run. A man alone. A man isolated from friends, family, safety, home. A man who had suddenly lost his sense of place, of security, of connection. When you obey your conscience & speak truth or art to a certain kind of power, the cost can be incredibly high and the losses amazingly deep.

And truthfully, Salman Rushdie is hardly the first to have a fatwa pronounced on his life. Such a practice even predates the existence of the Muslim religion (which started 500 AD). Elijah, this Old Testament prophet who is going to be our guide as we search through the lost & found of I Kings 17-19, goes through the same thing. Here’s the situation: it is about 850 BC and Israel is divided into two kingdoms – the North and the South. The North is called Israel & the South is called Judah. And Elijah’s entire story happens in the North – you know, where they eat bagels instead of biscuits, rye bread instead of cornbread, and where people talk really fast with strange accents, right? Elijah’s a Yankee!

And when Elijah is on the scene, a man named Ahab is the king of Israel. He is the seventh in a series of uniquely bad kings. Take a look at how I Kings 16:30 describes him:

Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.

Nice! Why is he so evil? Look at 16:31-32:

He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.

And on top of all that he married the original Jezebel.  You know there’s a reason no one names their little girl “Jezebel” right? This is the people whose First Commandment was “to have no other gods before me,” and what have they done? Put another god in front of the Lord: Baal, the god of fertility, the god whose worship involved prostitutes, the god of rain and spring and body fluids.  Ahab not only allows Baal worship; he builds him his own temple! That’s the kind of man King Ahab was. Makes the Ayatollah look friendly!

So in I Kings 17:1, presumably because God has directed him, Elijah approaches Ahab with this message:

Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Now what is a Tishbite? A mountain man. So it is as if Elijah comes from a hollow in Kentucky or West Virginia and goes to the White House and says to the one in power: drought’s coming and I’m sort of in control of that. Why drought? Remember? Baal is the god of what? Rain. Fertility. Springtime. Elijah is saying, “my God, the real Lord, the only Lord, is so great he controls all of it. Rain & drought. And Baal.”

So what happens next? Look at 17:2-3:

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah:“Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 

Why? Well, we find out in chapter 18 (and we can figure out just because we know how kings are) that Ahab has put the fatwa out on Elijah! He searches for him all over the kingdom. He hires Dog the Bounty Hunter!

Everybody knows that if you see Elijah alive you better bring him to the king, dead. Or you’ll be dead. And so I’ll get to the specifics of the place God tells him to hide in a moment, but what gets me about all this interaction – the Mountain Man, the wicked king, the drought prediction, the fatwa – is how many relationships Elijah loses because of what he has done. Because of a stand he took and a truth he spoke, he is suddenly cut off from his family. From his hometown of Tishbe. From his religion. From his kosher diet. From his nation. From support. From everything and everyone. And this is at a time in human history when, to a much greater degree than now, there was no “you” apart from your group. If you lost relationships, you were lost: a fate worse than death. So in his exile, as a fugitive, the loss of relationships for Elijah was all-encompassing – a moment of courage, followed by season of loss.

And a lot of you know what that’s like. Because of a stand you took or a truth you spoke . . . you lost a job and the friends that went with it. Because of a person you married – or stayed married to – you lost relationships with family members who didn’t like him or her to begin with and want you to be done with him now. Or because you ended a marriage in which you were the victim of abuse, you lost friends and family. You know all about being exiled from the ones you love. Someone else lost a romance because of principles you kept. Some of you have lost touch with your own children because you actually lived out your tough-love promise. You haven’t exactly had the Ayatolloh or Ahab declare a fatwa over you, but your ongoing loneliness makes it so that you know Elijah and the relationships he lost.

You know what else? Others of you are Ahab. You’ve done the exiling. You got offended, you got upset, you couldn’t handle the truth!


But some of you “exilers” couldn’t handle the truth about you. Part of you now wants to reconcile that relationship you’ve lost but the bigger part of you is too proud to do it. Lost relationships all around and you’re thinking, what am I gonna do now?

I believe that whether you are Elijah (exiled) or Ahab (exiler), what happens next is instructive. Look at I Kings 17:4:

You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.

So, Elijah, travel by yourself – and here’s how you’re gonna eat: ravens. Now it’s one thing to read that word and another to see a picture:


A ginormous crow! A 50-inch wingspan. Ravens are such aggressive eaters that “raven” is where we get the word “ravenous.” And…they’re scavengers. That means their beaks have been burrowing in a whole lot of dead, maggot-infested, animal bodies. If you are a Jew, that’s the worst of the unclean, the least-kosher way of eating. So God says to Elijah: these large, mean, foul-smelling, bacteria-infected birds are going to fly to you with meat hanging out of their beaks and that’s your dinner. OK?

You know what I would say to that? NEVERMORE!

Yet Elijah says something different. Look at I Kings 17:5, the highest drama we got!

 So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.

Oh, that’s it? Just obedience? Yes! That’s it! Look at what his obedience has cost him so far – in 17:1 it cost him all of his relationships and now in 17:4 it’s going to cost him even more – even his sense of his kosher self. There’s costly obedience everywhere.

Even here. For the young woman I know, dating a good-looking guy with a great job, and he says either we have sex now or I’m out. She obeys God and loses him.

The parent who stops enabling the pot use by their 19-year-old daughter. Obey God and lose her.

The wife who stayed married even though parents and friends said dump him now! In her case, obeyed God and lost them.

Costly obedience. It’s not eating meat from a raven’s beak, but many times there’s nothing pretty about it.

Yet look at 17:6:

The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

The pattern is actually quite lovely. It’s almost like Genesis 1! Morning, evening, good. Morning, evening, good. Serenity, peace, provision. You know what Elijah realized there in the Kerith Ravine? He’d lost all those relationships but God provided him with new ones. Unexpected, unpredictable, unending provision. He learned that the period of isolation was in fact a season of preparation for the ministry to follow (and we’ll look over that during the next few weeks). He lost one set of things but found something deeper, better, more enduring: the supply of God is limitless and unexpected. He came to regard that time in the Kerith Ravine as priceless. How do we even know about it? He told the author of I Kings! It was like, “I’ve gotta tell them this!” Because the ravens may have fed but they didn’t write. Only Elijah. His costly obedience put him in that creek bed but he wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

Here’s what it means for all of you, Elijah’s & Ahab’s alike, struggling with lost relationships: costly obedience brings priceless treasure. When you take a stand, declare a truth and it costs you a relationship, that’s not the time to compromise your faith to win the person back. It’s the time for the next step of obedience, a step in which God will show you just how amazing He is.

See, the only command you ever understand is the one you obey. That’s all. You can’t study them until you follow them. And in the realm of relationships, obedience can be so costly – when to end, when to restore, when to renew. My gosh, this is so true in church life. Even within Methodism or making decisions about who does and doesn’t work here. Sometimes you have to make decisions that not all can understand but you know the holiness of the group is at stake. It can bring a high cost in the short run and a priceless treasure in the long; I’ve seen it time and time and time again. Costly obedience brings priceless treasure.

And what do you do if you are stuck in that place of isolation? In your alone time because of something you said or something you did or even someone you exiled? Oh, look around. Who are the ravens in your life? God will send unexpected people with unpredictable blessings in your life. They will fill in the holes left from relationships you’ve lost. They could be church people; they could be work people; they could be LifeGroup. It could be random encounters.

But God will provide you with resources and companionship. He knows your need not to be alone and He longs to fill it, and in so doing, to demonstrate that His supply is limitless. But you’ve got to be on the lookout for the ravens He sends.

It’s a bit like the little boy at the grocery store: his mom asked if he wanted some candy. Well what’s he GONNA say? So the grocer hands him a jar and says “reach in and grab a handful.” But the boy said no. The grocer got confused. Finally the boy says to him, “I want you to give it to me.” So the grocer reaches, grabs, and gives. Afterwards in the parking lot, the mom asks, “why’d you do that, honey?” “Because, momma, his hands are bigger than mine.” Genius!

And so are God’s. When obedience costs you a relationship and you think you can’t go on, God has a knack of providing something better and bolder. Elijah never would have known God’s supply, God’s surprise, God’s goodness, had he not had that time of isolation. He knew God better after the time at Kerith Ravine than he ever would have known him before. Costly obedience brings priceless treasure.

One other thing to consider, especially if you are at a place of isolation: ask yourself – have I caused this? Not through costly obedience but by being difficult? Is the new relationship I need one with a therapist or recovery group? Do I force people away from me? Some of the costliest obedience you’ll ever embark on is that which comes from true self-awareness. Costly obedience brings priceless treasure.

Remember Salman Rushdie? Well, the Ayatollah died and a new, kinder, gentler Ayatollah ultimately ended the fatwa. So the author was able to come in from exile, come up from underground. And as we’re going to see, Elijah’s bounty ends as well – sort of, for a little while. But that time of isolation we’ve looked at today became a time of incredible preparation for exposing Baal as the fraudulent fertility cult he was and extolling the Lord for the true God He is.

And it all worked! How do we know? Look around…how many churches of Baal are there out there today? No one still worships him.

But the Lord? Well, we are a gathered group of people who know from study and experience that costly obedience brings priceless treasure. We’re going to celebrate the living Lord of drought and rain together now…

Talbot Davis ~ Doubt’s Big Bang

This is the fourth sermon (first HERE) in a series entitled “The Shadow of a Doubt.” Rev. Talbot Davis preached this at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

I have known for several years that on some level behavior precedes doubt.

In other words, we don’t arrive at our shadow of doubt by objective analysis of relevant facts; instead, most of us begin to act a certain way and then circle back around and develop some doubts to substantiate that behavior.

We don’t think our way into doubting.  We (mis)behave our way into it.

It’s the kind of thing Psalm 14 teaches if you take the time to dig.  So I dug.  And along with that study came  the bottom line for doubt’s origin here:

Doubt justifies disobedience but surrender magnifies understanding.

We like finding out where things come from, don’t we? The origins of things.  That question is the source of some of the human race’s most intense scientific speculation:  where did the world (and the universe it’s in) come from and where did our particular human species come from?  And scientists have reached some kind of consensus that in the recesses of time there was actually a BIG BANG that is ultimately the source, the origin, of all we see.  Agnostics give that Big Bang a scientific explanation; people of faith tend to say more simply: God spoke – BANG – and it was.  But we’re interested in all kinds of origins. On things bad and good; ugly and beautiful. Where did the HIV virus originate?  Where did the beauty of a monarch butterfly originate?  Where do mosquitoes come from? (Wetlands!)

And on the more positive side, what parent hasn’t dreaded that moment when your eight-year-old turns and asks, “where do babies come from?”  We’re interested in origins; we like to know where things ultimately come from. But have you ever wondered where doubts come from?  Their origins?  What is the Big Bang that tends to produce doubts?  I mean, we all have some level of doubt – it’s why this thing is called the Christian faith, not the Christian certainty.  But where do they start?  Whether it’s the kind of doubts and uncertainties that I’ve decided I can live with – what’s the deal with dinosaurs? what about people who never hear about Christ? – or the kind of doubting you may have seen or gone through in college – you know, when the college professor of philosophy or comparative religion was so smart, so shrewd, and they have a knack for chopping the Christian faith of their students right down.  You knew at some level you weren’t educated or mentally agile enough to engage in debate, and so your faith felt like it was perpetually stuck in a second grade Sunday School class:  why do you believe?  Because my parents did.  It’s hard to measure up.  Where do those kinds of sophisticated, superior doubts come from?

Or even worse, the kind of doubt you may have seen or lived when you ultimately decide, “nope, that’s not me anymore.  I used to believe a little but no more.”  Where do those doubts come from?  And will locating doubt’s Big Bang origin in any way help us to stop dwelling in its shadow and move beyond it?

This may make Psalm 14:1 seem like an odd place to answer those questions, beginning as it does with more than a little aggression:

“The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.'”

So from the perspective of biblical wisdom, disbelieving in God’s existence or living like you do is the apex of arrogance and folly.  And given our image of the super-intellectual doubter – people like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Christopher Hitchens  – you might think the next line in Psalm 14:1 would be:  “he sits in the ivory tower and writes books,” or “he hangs out with East Coast elites and pontificates at trendy bars,” or “he corrupts the minds of young collegians,” or “he weighed all the options carefully and still made the wrong choice,” or “he dug for bones for a living and became convinced there was more evidence for dinosaurs than for God.”  I mean, really, that’s our expectation for a description of how it happens that a person comes to believe in his heart there is no God.

Except that’s not what comes next in Psalm 14:1.  Instead, look at 14:1b and c:

“They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.”

Ahhh, the Psalm goes immediately to deeds: what people do; how they act, how violence and revenge govern their interactions.  And then the Psalm becomes incredibly comprehensive in 14:3:

“All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

By the way, Paul, in writing the New Testament book Romans uses this Psalm and this verse in particular to articulate a compelling argument on our sin nature. It’s where we get the term “original sin.”  Yet from the perspective of the Psalm’s logic, it’s almost like it works backwards.  These deeds, this corruption, that totality of sin piles one on top of the other, act upon act, and finally the perpetrator – the one Psalm 14 calls the fool – decides, “Nope! There is no God.”  See, I look at the way the logic flows, I look at what it doesn’t say and the conclusion is inescapable:  the disobedience, the behavior, the sin, the deeds come first and then the doubt follows.  We don’t come by our doubts innocently.

It’s very rare that people explore all the options and come to a head-only belief that there is no God, or at least one who is remotely interested in what we do.  It’s much more common that people behave in a certain way, adopt a frankly self-centered mode of living and then, as if to substantiate it, decide and declare that any God who might possibly disapprove simply does not exist.  Here’s how it circles back around:  doubt justifies disobedience.

It’s a pattern I’ve noticed in atheists both famous and anonymous.  You investigate their back stories and it is almost never an unbiased review of evidence that led to their conclusion; it starts with a behavior, a pattern, an outlook that gets settled deep inside the person and then it becomes, “oh, I don’t believe in the God who didn’t want me to do that thing.”  Doubt is to justify what you are already doing.  Remove God, remove guilt, remove accountability, remove correction.  You remove God so that you can become one and then do as you please.  I’ve seen it all over, even in church.  Money, sex, and anger seem to be the primary areas.

In our denomination we have a whole collection of church leaders in other parts of the country who’ve decided they are smarter than the Bible when it comes to sexual boundaries.  It’s not the doubt of atheism like what appears in Psalm 14, but it is the doubt that can cause you to decide the Bible no longer applies.  And these leaders and teachers often couch their suddenly-smarter-than-the-Bible position in terms of helping others and extending love. Yet when some of the stories go a bit deeper you discover, “Nope.  There’s quite a bit of self-interest involved.  People want to indulge themselves sexually and still keep their jobs.”  Doh! Less principle and more convenience.  Doubt justifies the disobedience that’s already going on.  I may be a know-it-all, but I am not smarter than the people who wrote the Bible when it comes to boundaries for sexual intimacy.

I tell you all that to say this:  if you are harboring doubts, if you are thinking of leaving the faith because of questions you have, what’s really going on?  What’s honestly behind it all?  Is it the desire to spend your money as you wish and not as some 3,000-year-old text commands you to?  Is it the anger you want to express, either physically at those you love or digitally at those you hate?  Is it the affair you are contemplating, the one you’re having, the one that just ended?  Are you truthfully, honestly like the nervous guy who came to the confessional booth one time and blurted out, “my sin is full of life!”  Will you be honest enough to acknowledge the sort of selfish, mostly ego-based origin of all those doubts?  Will you take that kind of personal inventory?  It’s not that you truly don’t believe in God, you just want to remove God so you can become one . . . do whatever . . . the hell . . . you want to do.  Doubt justifies disobedience.

However. Except. But.  We’re not at the end of Psalm 14 by a long shot.  Look at 14:6:

“You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.”

The strong-armed atheists of this Psalm don’t know that the people who appear weak and humble and pitiful actually have the Lord on their side.  And in that refuge there is a marvelous combination of strength and clarity. Look at 14:7:

“Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!”

There is coming a time when oppression against believers ceases and faithful people know the source of their deliverance.  Not the Big Bang of their doubt, but the Big Bang of their deliverance!  They’re given the insight here to see below and beneath the surface events – why it is that seemingly wicked people prosper on earth – and into the heart and will of God.  You know what that means?  Doubt may justify disobedience but surrender magnifies understanding.

Yes!  Sometimes you’ve got to do in order to know.  You follow the instructions,  the commands, the teachings without complete clarity and along the way you discover:  “Oh, I get it!  That’s why he says to live this way!”  It’s the pattern of the entire Bible!  Abraham: Go. Leave your family, your property, your business, your 401K, and go to a land you don’t know.  Lord, can I have the agenda for the trip?  No, just go.  Along the way you’ll understand.  And so he did.  Moses, take your people and get out of slavery on the other side of the Red Sea.  Do what I say and leave now.  And Moses answers, what’s the plan? what shall I tell them? Tell them my name and who I am and that’s enough.  Along the way, you’ll understand.

And Jesus to Peter, the fisherman son of a fisherman.  Peter, come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.  Peter: who’s keeping the books? (Judas!) Who’s your right hand man? What’s the plan?  When are you coming back?  Jesus answers: Not for you to know the times and seasons, Peter, just come with me and you’ll discover along the way.  People:  they all followed first and comprehended second!  As if it is, “Oh, once I did this, I got that!”  And it hasn’t stopped being true!

It’s true with generosity: what would more strengthen your doubts than this archaic Old Testament notion of 10% going to God and then a New Testament crew of people who gave more than that!  It’s so tempting to say, “I don’t believe in a God who would ask that! Doesn’t he know I’ve got taxes, alimony, insurance?”  Yet I hear from those of you who follow on this – word after word after word – and you say “I did it and it worked! I understand!”  Goodness, in our own house we’ve been committed to some New Testament levels of giving for years and my wife’s company was sold to private equity. Everybody around Julie lost their jobs. Except her. No explanation but God.

It’s true in the realm of sexual intimacy.  Talk about an area where people want to doubt so they can justify behavior!  But then, I run across these exceedingly odd yet inordinately blessed couples – young adults and middle age! – who wait, and they realize that abstinence before marriage reinforces fidelity after it.  Oh! This command that cramped my style ended up saving my life!  I get it now!  The same is true with how you express your anger, how you refrain from gossip, how you bless people you could manipulate.  Just because you think it doesn’t mean you must say it.  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  You show your relational power by restraining it . . . and then God lets you know this is why it works better. It’s just like Jesus.

If you’re in the middle of a season of doubt, surrender to that which you do not fully understand.  Follow first, and comprehension will come.  Because here’s what I truly believe happens when you surrender to that inconvenient, unpredictable, madly-in-love-with-you Savior:  you start on a road in the dark but the longer you walk, follow, and submit, the more clear become the ways and will of God.  And you’ll experience the Big Bang, not of doubt, but of your own living relationship with Jesus Christ.

Talbot Davis ~ Laughing Doubt

Yeah, right. Yeah, RIGHT. YEAH, RIGHT. You know what that is, don’t you? It’s a phrase we use at the height of sarcasm as our way of letting it be known that we don’t have one bit of faith that what was promised will actually be delivered. Our way of laughing in the face of the chronic overpromisers and underdeliverers in our lives. A coping mechanism when we’re confronted with truth stretchers. I’ve done it, you’ve done it; I’ve said it; you’ve said it.

Like I’ll see people out, haven’t seen them here in months and they say, “Oh, I’ll be there Sunday!” and I think, yeah right. (What a jerk!) Or people will move to Mooresville and say, “but we’re still driving 50 miles down to Steele Creek for church!” and of course I think, or mutter, yeah right. It gets bigger than that, doesn’t it? You see a politician make a promise, you read an ad about a new cure for cancer with no side effects, you learn of a sure-fire prevention for hair loss, you get a promise that the Panthers are going to win the Super Bowl! and we respond with this collective yeah right. Or maybe the best: you get an announcement at work that someone is leaving – suddenly – to pursue other interests or to spend time with family and the answer: yeah, right.

And isn’t it true that we can bring this overall attitude to our God connection? To the point that the shadow of doubt today is not so much about God’s existence as it is about his involvement. Not really about his greatness but about his goodness. Those times and those occasions when we see – due to the laws of nature and patterns of human behavior and the height of life’s obstacles – that there seems to be a gap between God’s ability and his interest. When we bump up against those situations that seem intractable and the thought that God might rescue us, deliver them, fix that, moves us to sarcasm: yeah right. He COULD but he WON’T because I’ve seen time and time again in the past that he DOESN’T. From BIG issues like “Peace in The Middle East” and spiritual revival in Western Europe and the US to the much more personal. That couple to reconcile, that mental illness to subside, that family member to get saved, that infertile couple to give birth. Even like the person who said to me while in the middle of deep depression: “Sometimes I feel like his grace and mercy is meant for everyone but me.”

I’ve been on the “sort of” receiving end of this. I remember being in college, at a tennis tournament, and seeing another player whom I had known relatively well in high school. We were catching up and he didn’t even know I’d had a spiritual conversion and so when he asked what I was going to do after graduation, I answered, “I’m going to seminary!” and the deadpan look had written all over it: yeah right. Even the great God couldn’t do that with you, Talbot Davis. God could but doubt he will so: yeah right.

Which brings us to one of the oddest, strangest, most yeah right stories in the whole library of the bible. So many unanswered questions come from just a casual look at the story, much less an in-depth one! Here’s the situation: it’s probably 3900 years ago; 1900 BC or so. Abraham & Sarah, the First Couple of the faith, are old, trekking to the Promised Land, and trying to avoid trouble. Abraham is supposed to be the Father of many nations but he doesn’t have biological children with his wife Sarah. He DOES have one, Ishmael, with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar – BUT THAT IS HIGHLY NOT RECOMMENDED! And as Genesis 15 opens, they’ve parked their RV at the KOA at a place called the oaks of Mamre. Look what happens:

The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. 

Genesis 18:1-2a.

So what is it? Is it one Lord or three guys? Yes. While we don’t know exactly what is going on or how it happened, it seems that Abe gets visited by an incarnate edition of God. Almost a “pre-Jesus”; similar to the being with whom Jacob wrestles in Genesis 32. It’s most likely one God-in-a-body with two attendants, though it could be an early image of the Trinity but we don’t know. We DO know it’s unprecedented and odd. We also know that Abe goes into super hospitality mode in 18:2b-6:

When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.

“My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet.And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”

“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”

So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.”

Reading this is so much like how a visitor and an American gets treated in India today. Hospitality is exceedingly important in that culture and people scurry around making sure you feel appropriately honored–what Abe does to the Lord here.

Then look at more hurry in 18:7-8:

Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.

That line in 8 about the strangers eating and Abe standing, again, just like India: the guest eats and the host hovers. There is a love of hospitality and a commitment to honoring that is so winsome, so different from the way I am as either guest or host.

Then at 18:9, everything changes with the question: Where’s Sarah? Hey – if he’s God, he already knows; if he’s not, it sure is a nervy question! Answer: she’s in her tent, eavesdropping on us. Because look at 18:10:

Then one of them said, “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!”

Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent.

Isn’t it sad, sort of? This news that Sarah has been waiting all her life to hear – I’m gonna be a mom! – and even now she only overhears it. Now, if we were to make a show Housewives Of Genesis, eavesdropping would be one of the main devices to advance the plot. Sarah, Rebekah, others. But with this overheard promise, we’re immediately confronted with the unlikelihood of delivery in 18:11:

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children.

Old, old. My mom was 46 when I was born and that’s old but it’s not Sarah old by a long shot. What gets promised here is simply not possible.

So Sarah’s response in 18:12 is perfect:

So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?”

She’s old, there’s a double entendre involving pleasure – both that of child rearing and that of love making and in each case the time for it has passed in Sarah’s life – and she can do nothing with the promise but laugh. And I’ve tried to picture that laugh to herself and I figure it’s like Huhmph . . . yeah, right. Sarcastic little grin. You could God, but you won’t, Lord. Because the odds of this are just too long. You might have created nature & reproduction, but I don’t see you bend the rules of nature. I’m 75 and that’s a promise that just gets a laugh, a great big ‘yeah right.’

And I know. You bring that same slight sneer to the biggest obstacles you have. You believe in God’s greatness but you’re not so sure about his goodness and it’s yeah right. That marriage you’re in that just keeps spiraling. That status as single that you don’t think will ever change either because you’re not the right person or you haven’t found the right person. For me, it’s even on occasion: the promise that this church would completely live up to and beyond its potential (we haven’t!) and that I’d be the kind of leader to make that happen (not yet). I think about that sometimes and I’m like yeah, right. Sarah’s laughing doubt is ours.

But the story goes on. Look at 18:13:

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’

Woops! Caught in the act! Of course the irony is that Abe had done the same thing in 17:17 and he suffered no reprimand. Sarah has no such grace and to make matters worse, she lies. Look at 18:15:

Sarah was afraid, so she denied it, saying, “I didn’t laugh.”

Love that! Red handed. Nope. That’s not my hand in that cookie jar. That’s not my laugh you heard. As if the Lord doesn’t know! But tucked in between the crime and its cover-up is this gem in 18:14a:

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Ah! Is anything too supernatural? Too mystical? Too great for God to do? Nope. Is it too hard for him to bend the laws of nature? Nope. He wrote them. To emphasize it all, 18:14b repeats the promise of 18:10: You, Sarah, are going to have that boy. Your laughter and even your lying doesn’t end our conversation because I’m going to show you what kind of God I am. I’m not only GREAT but I’m GOOD and you hang on to that. My desire matches my ability.

And so you know what it all means? Sarah’s sneer, Sarah’s lie, God’s grace, even Abe’s hopping hospitality? When you sneer ‘yeah right’ God says ‘Watch this!’ I’m not only great, I’m also good, watch this. I not only have ability, I have desire, watch this. My nature is loving kindness, making a way where there seems to be no way, watch this. You’re so cynical, sarcastic, watch this.

Now, 18:14 and its “is anything too hard for the Lord?” and all that, is not a promise to claim. It IS a trait to embrace. And there is a big difference between the two. If you believe God is great but doubt that he is good, I am not suggesting you start claiming nature-bending miracles as your birthright before they even happen. However, you embrace God’s character trait – that even when he doesn’t bend nature’s laws your way he is still faithful and good and wise and loving and intimate – ah, that’s how you endure. Confession: I cry every time I sing Our God. Either here or somewhere else. Why? Because some parents whom I love so dearly insisted that song be sung at the funeral for their child. Can’t hear the song without thinking of their integrity, their endurance, and God’s goodness through it all. Laws of nature weren’t reversed; beauty of the Spirit continues to come through.

Oh, hold to that character, you who believe in God but just aren’t sure he believes in you. His 18:14 miracle may be to sustain and bless you through circumstances that don’t change. It’s like the person of faith who was sharing with a skeptic one time and the skeptic asked her what had God ever done for her. The answer came back: because I’m alive. Yup. Sometimes, that’s more than enough. You relate to God by faith and not by certainty. You’ll never know it all; never know why he answers and doesn’t. You just know his character through it. It’s why my favorite epigraph on a cemetery belongs to a Louisiana woman whose marker says simply: Waiting. Aren’t we all. Waiting.

Which brings us back to Sarah and her yeah right. Genesis 18 isn’t complete without Genesis 21:1-6:

The Lord kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he had promised. She became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son for Abraham in his old age. This happened at just the time God had said it would. And Abraham named their son Isaac. Eight days after Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised him as God had commanded. Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born.

And Sarah declared, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me.

The meaning of the name Isaac? One who laughs. Laughter. Laugh with me. Sarah’s sin gets forgiven, her cynicism overcome, her doubt blessed, even her lying overlooked! Her sneer turns into a celebration. And you know what Isaac will be? Simply by virtue of his presence in her life, he will be a perpetual reminder to Sarah: don’t underestimate God. Watch this boy the rest of your days and don’t sell me short.

You know what? You, too, have continual reminders in your life of not underestimating God. The cross here. The marriage still intact. The addiction in remission & recovery. I have you, the people of GSUMC. We have those reminders, items large & small, global & personal, to urge us not to underestimate God. To celebrate the ways in which he has the last laugh.








Talbot Davis ~ What’s the Alternative?

This is the second sermon (first HERE) in a series entitled “The Shadow of a Doubt.” 

We like to have alternatives in life, don’t we? Like if you went to a restaurant and opened the menu and there was just one item there, you probably wouldn’t be happy. Nor would you return. We like to have an alternative, to choose from a variety of options, to make choices. You go to a car lot to buy a car (can’t really order one online yet can you?) and you want to see it in blue or in gray or in red or even an alternative model. We LIKE alternatives, choices, and options. It’s why a Stepford Wives world scares even if they are all perfect! Just think about the rise of alternative music (a whole station on XM!), alternative sources of energy, alternative lifestyles. If you don’t like something, you like being able to opt out of it for something different.

It’s interesting the way our identity as a choice saturated culture does (or does not) intersect with our discussion in this series about faith and doubt. John 6 is one of the most revealing parts of Scripture and it includes a line from Jesus that exposes his humanity even more than Jesus wept. Now I’m not going to show you that line just yet – it’s coming – but I am going to tell you that as we get to John 6 Jesus’ popularity is on the rise. The ascent. A massive uptick in the way he is in the public consciousness. In fact, he just fed 5000 with five loaves and two fish earlier in John 6 and when the YouTube of that miracle was posted it went viral like that! At this stage, he is so well known and generating such good will with crowds that are bigger and bigger and so the sky really is the limit.

And just when it couldn’t get any better, Jesus keeps talking. And what he says is odd enough, shocking enough, perplexing enough that you know his handlers were like (throat slash) . . . STOP! . . . Cut it short & get out of the way! Don’t stop your own momentum! But that’s exactly what Jesus does when he says these odd, discordant words in 6:53:

 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you.

The people were like, “Ewwww! Cannibalism!” (And incidentally, the concept of holy communion is still a very difficult one to translate into cultures that are brand new to the gospel.) But folks don’t know if he is speaking literally, symbolically, metaphorically, or just crazily. Whatever it was, Jesus kills his own buzz! Because look at the response in 6:60:

Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?”

His own followers! The ones who’d been making him run out of bulletins! All of a sudden they’re like, “I don’t think I’m coming back next week!”

Then look at what Jesus asks in 6:61:

Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, Does this offend you?

He knows there is a murmur and it’s not a holy buzz but an unholy grumbling. So in 6:66 (accidental?!) he goes through a preacher’s worst nightmare:

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.

Lord, I’ve made leadership decisions that have caused people to leave church. I’ve had a demeanor or a position or a style that have caused others to leave. I’ve had friends in ministry who have been decimated when people left in droves in the wake of something they said or something they did. And I can tell you from experience that having a John 6:66 moment shakes your convictions, ruins your confidence, makes me want to take up landscaping. And I don’t know what kind of blow to his self-confidence Jesus endured as a result of 6:66, but I do know he asks the all-time question in 6:67 (aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t speak in 6:66!). 6:67 is when Jesus’ humanity gets most exposed, more than his weeping. His closest aides are probably thinking “maybe we’ve been wrong to follow him.” So in the wake of losing the crowd, Jesus addresses the core with his most human of questions:

Not you too? Are you getting ready to join the exodus? Are you leaving me as well?

And the reason I zero in on the questions is because (well, partly because I’ve asked it more than once!) we are living in a John 6 world right now. The United States in 2014 parallels the John 6 atmosphere in more ways than I can count. It’s a world where the words of Jesus and of Scripture on a wide variety of subject seem so odd, so off-putting, so out of step, that people leave. Leave church, leave bible, leave faith. Think about it! Sex? One man, one woman, in marriage, for a lifetime? Revenge? Don’t get it? Pray for those people who wrong you? Self? You mean self-control is a virtue in the bible and self-expression is not? Money? Give the first 10% back to God instead of to my IRA? Or a new iPad?

Those kind of words out of the mouth of Jesus and from the words of Scripture sound just as odd and offensive today as his language about eat my flesh and drink my blood did yesterday. We’re in a John 6 world, we see some sobering stats about the influence of the church in our land, and every once in awhile it is as if we can hear Jesus still asking that question of 6:67: “You’re not going to leave, too, are you?”

And when some of you hear that question, you’re not quite sure how to answer it. Because you’ve had seeds of doubt sown into you. Maybe for those of you in college now or you remember college then, it’s that class. The professor is so smart, so agnostic, so belittling towards the bible and faith. He makes you feel small for believing it . . . and so part of you doesn’t anymore.

Or you’re in the middle of a marriage that is quite frankly miserable. You’ve heard it said from Scripture that God hates divorce and you wonder if he might just not hate your marriage more. Or you wonder if those words are from such an ancient time (people were dead before midlife crisis ever hit!) that they don’t really apply any more. Or possibly you have been really successful; you keep getting your quarterly bonus check, and you get them without Jesus’ help, thank you very much. So what’s the use? Jesus’ question to them has become his question to you? And it is a haunting question because I have seen people through the years answer with “Yep, I’m leaving faith,” walk away, make some of the most God-awful, life-destroying decisions, and then come back to faith five years later. And when they come back, they still don’t have their questions answered, they just have a debris field of wrecked relationships and ruined psyches in their wake.

Which is why Peter’s answer to Jesus’ all-too-human question in 6:68 is just perfect:

Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.

To whom? If we doubt, if we leave, what’s the alternative? Is there a better idea? Who else has the words of eternal life? See, when you knock up against doubts and they make you consider jettisoning the Christian faith altogether, I want you to not only think about those burning questions, but, as one pastor said, I want you to consider the alternatives as well.

If I stop Jesus/Christ/Church/God, then what? If stop THIS, then WHERE? See, in discussing doubt we always wrestle with the questions; we rarely consider the alternatives to the beliefs we have. Is it nothing? That’s tempting, freeing, it will make you feel as smart as Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. But it will likely lead to a descent of self-absorption – because, face it, you become God – and the trauma of being in charge.

Or maybe it’s another religion as the alternative? Is it like the woman who said to me years ago, “It doesn’t matter really what religion you have just so you are a religious person.” Huh. Would it be Islam? Of course, did you know that even the most devout of Muslims never have assurance of their salvation after death? Which explains the rise of Islamic martyrdom – that’s the one way in their belief to ensure it? What about the religions of the East, like Hinduism & Buddhism? Some of you wouldn’t mind a second chance at this – reincarnation! Did you know that in those systems, the goal of reincarnation is to get off the cycle and be absorbed into the universe? To become nothing? Deeply hopeless. What about Judaism? Incredible, great, our foundation, but again it is a bit murky on a notion of eternity much less on how you get there.

And then I know that because of your experience in AA, a lot of you adopt a “god of your understanding.” Which, again, is so laissez faire, so non-judgmental, it’s very tempting. It’s also what Paul encountered in Acts 17:23:

for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.

Same here! And yet our answer is the same as was Paul’s in Mars Hill – that even in doubt, even with unresolved questions from really smart atheists, we have a name for the God of our understanding: Jesus.

See, here’s what I think will happen when you consider the alternatives in the midst of doubt’s shadow: you will realize that Jesus is the eternal who in the midst of a sea of whats.

You’ll end up echoing with Peter: To whom shall we go? Who else? Where else? How else? You’re the only one with the words of eternal life! Do you have a better idea? A stronger alternative? And the answer every time is no. He alone not only has the words of, but is the way to eternal life. So don’t just weigh yourself down with questions, weigh yourself down with the alternatives. All the other religious options say: do this, do that, do more (the non-religious: do nothing). Christianity alone says: done. On the cross: it is finished. Can’t be added to or improved on. God does for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. You look at doubts that way, weighing the options, and you’ll land with Peter: To whom shall we go?

Look how Peter follows it up in 6:69:

“We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.”

We’ve seen too much. There’s too much evidence. There’s too much that I’ve seen to doubt the One I haven’t seen. Oh, you’ve had that. You’ve seen. Felt. Heard. Answered. Whenever I’m ready to answer Jesus’ you’re not leaving too are you? with sorry, but yes, I remember my shoulder. This one. College. Tennis. Injured and would not get better even after four months of nothing but rest. And so the doctor suggests surgery which would have ended everything prematurely. But I asked a friend of mine who I knew prayed for healing to lay hands on me, to pray in tongues, and to seek healing for my shoulder. Julie joined him. 30+ years later and I still haven’t had that surgery. We have seen too much to go anywhere else! We have come to believe!

Or I even look out at all of you. Multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-hued. What we call full color. Makes no sense. Nothing in my background that qualifies me to be part of leading this kind of unique community. But God. Oh, we have seen too much to go anywhere else! We have come to believe!

See, time and time and time again you’ve seen too much and felt too deeply for it to be anything but true. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know; I’m simply reminding you of what you are tempted to forget. You’ve tasted too much goodness and sweetness through the years and so you know that the alternatives are nothing but empty promises.

To whom shall we go? Who is better? Stronger? More liberating? Who conquered death? No one and no thing. Oh, don’t be the one who walks away and then comes back 10 years later with no more answers but with a debris field trailing behind you. Ask yourself what’s the alternative before you leave and see all the options for the empty promises they are. And then fasten yourself to the eternal who towering over all the pretending whats.