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TEXT: II Kings 2:1-15
SUBJECT: The Signs that God is with Someone.
Thirty years ago today, a skinny young man preached to a little mission church in Clearlake Highlands, California. Fifteen or twenty people were there that night, and to tell you the truth, nothing much happened. The sermon was neither electrifying nor embarrassing. But the skinny young man will never forget the sermon.It was his first.
The skinny young man is no longer young or skinny, but he's still preaching the Gospel, and for that he publicly thanks our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was He who put the man in the ministry of the Word and He who has kept him in for thirty years, in spite of his weakness, folly, and sin.
Like Samuel back in the day, the man would set up a stone this morning and call it-
Hitherto has the Lord helped us.
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of my first sermon, and if you'll pardon me for repeating myself, I'd like to preach it again. Nostalgia has colored my thinking this week, but the sermon has more than sentimental value. It is the Word of God, and as powerful as it was in 1980, and when it was first enacted more than two thousand-five hundred years ago.
The title is bit clumsy, but you'll know what I mean: The Signs that God is with Someone. The story is taken from the verses we just read, II Kings 2:1-15.
Except for Moses, Elijah was the greatest prophet Israel ever knew. The man was not widely loved, but everyone respected him, because they all knew the Lord was with him. How did they know God was with him? Because of the miracles he performed in the Lord's name.
His first sermon was preached to King Ahab, and it did not please his royal majesty-
As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be no rain nor dew these years except at my word.
As the king recoiled at the man's impudence, Elijah ran off and hid for three and a half years, during which time, not a drop fell from the sky or beaded up on the grass. If people took him for a madman at first, in time they learned he was a man of God.
The next time he and the king met was on Mount Carmel. There, with the whole nation in attendance, Elijah threw down the gauntlet-
How long will you waver between two opinions?
If the Lord is God, serve Him,
And if Baal is god, serve him.
'Well, that's fine, Elijah, but how do we know who is the True God? You say the Lord is, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets who say otherwise.' How can we know for sure?
Here's how: The one who answers by fire is God. The prophets of Baal build an altar, sacrifice a bull on it, and ask their god to send fire. Of course he doesn't. Then they beg. Still nothing. Then they scream and jump up and down, and even cut themselves to ribbons, hoping he'll see how serious they are and give them what they want. Baal doesn't see them, of course, and had they read their Bibles, they would have known why-
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of men's hands.
They have mouths,
But they do not speak;
Eyes they have,
But they do not see...
Those who make them are like them;
So is everyone who trusts in them.
Baal is a phony god, but this does not prove the Lord is the True God. Elijah rebuilds the altar of the Lord, with twelve stones, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He then cuts up a second bull and places it on the grill. Then he calls for water-twelve barrels of water, to drench the animal and the altar, and the earth all around them. Then, to show there's no trickery in what he does, he tells the people, 'Draw near to me'. As the people move in, they hear the man pray a short, simple prayer-
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.
Before he says, 'amen' the fire of God whooshes down from heaven and consumes the bull, the altar, and even licks up the water.
The people fall back in wonder, crying-
The Lord, He is God!
The Lord, He is God!
The prophets of Baal are taken down to the river and killed, every one of them was, because God was not with them, He was with Elijah.
Later, the prophet does other great things, but nobody takes him for a magician. He's a man of God, the Lord is with him, and everyone knows it, because his miracles prove it.
Elijah was an extraordinary man, but he was not the only person God was with, or the only one with whom God's presence could be seen. Go back a few centuries from his day, and all Israel had a sign the Lord was with them. His promise should have been enough for them, but He knew it wouldn't be. They needed visible proof of His Presence, and He gave it to them.
Over the Tabernacle. During the day, it was a cloud; at night, it was pillar of fire. When God wanted His people to move from one place to another, the cloud or pillar moved first and they followed it.
It gave the people direction, but don't mistake it for an ancient GPS. It signaled more than where to go and when; it signaled the presence of God. Anyone seeing that cloud in the daytime or pillar of fire at night, knew the Israelites were not alone in the wilderness; the Lord was with them. The cloud and fire proved it.
Now, back to Elijah. One day, he set off from Gilgal to Bethel, but before he left, he told his assistant, Elisha to stay behind. He wouldn't do it. When they got to Bethel, the command was issued again and again disobeyed. At Jericho it was given a third time and for a third time it was disobeyed. When the men came to the banks of the Jordan River, Elijah asked his friend what he wanted, and he was told in no uncertain terms-
A double portion of your spirit.
This means he wanted to be his heir, Elisha wanted the Lord to be with him as He had been with his master. This was no small favor, and Elijah said he would have it only if he kept his eye on him till he was taken away.
The master rolled up his coat, struck the waters, and they parted for him, as they had for Moses and Joshua long before. There, on the other side of the Jordan, Elijah rode into heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses. The sight sounds exciting to us, but that's not how Elisha felt! He was out of his mind with fear, but he kept looking, and as the master was lost to his sight, he saw something wafting down on the wind. It was Elijah's coat. He put it on, and when he got to the Jordan, he rolled it up as his master had, and invoked the Sacred Name-
Where is the Lord God of Elijah?
The waters parted, and when Elisha got back to Jericho, the young prophets saw him in a whole new way-
'The Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha'. And they came to meet him and they bowed to the ground before him.
The prophets did not debate whether the Lord was with Elisha or not, and they didn't vote on whether they should respect him as they had his master. God was with him, and He had proved it.
When we come to the Gospels, we find a new prophet, in fact, He's the prophet of whom all the others prophesied. He is the Lord Jesus Christ. The Pharisees were no fans of His and the Rulers were always worried that He would replace them. But, deep down, even they knew God was with Him. One night, one of their leaders, a scholar named Nicodemus came to Jesus, and greeted Him with the highest respect-
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent from God, for no man can do the miracles you are doing unless God is with him.
Most of the Pharisees and Rulers did not act on this knowledge of course, but they had it. They knew God was with Jesus: He had proved it by His miracles.
This brings us to the question: How does God identify His people today? Or, to put a finer point on it: How will the world know that God is with us?
Our name won't do it. To most people today, 'Christian' has a bad ring to it. They associate the name with the Crusades, the Inquisition, money-grubbing preachers, and self-righteous hypocrites. Is there any truth in what they say? There is. Of course they don't look at the other side, at the peaceful, generous, humble, and real people who follow the Lord, but my case is made: The world will not know we belong to God by what we call ourselves.
What about our doctrine? Does believing the truth set us apart from others? It does, but the world doesn't think so. They don't care about the finer points of theology, or even the bigger ones. We ought to tell them the truth, as much of it as they will hear, but don't expect your neighbor to take your doctrine of the Trinity to mean you belong to God. He won't. He doesn't know enough to make the connection, or care enough either.
If the world is not impressed with our names or doctrines, what will impress it? Only one thing: our love. Jesus said-
By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.
Most people do not know the life of Christ very well, but they all know one thing about Him: that He was a loving man, ready to forgive people who did Him wrong and welcome people nobody else wanted. Is this all there is to Jesus? No! There is far more than this. If everything there was to know about Him were put down on paper, John says-
The world itself could not contain the books.
But love was and is at the core of His being. John says so-
And Jesus, having loved His own who were in the world, loved them to the end.
Not to 'the end of His life', but to 'the end of His love'. He loved with a deep and wide and lasting love. And His love was practical-not warm feelings only or a quick smile, but the kind of love that-
Suffers long and is kind, that does not envy, does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, [and] does not keep a list.
This is the kind of love the world expects of us-and rightly so! For this is the kind of love Jesus had and has, and the kind of love He communicates to us through His Word and Spirit.
It would be so much easier if God identified His people with haloes or shining faces. But He doesn't do that, because the world doesn't need haloes or shining faces. What it needs is the love of Christ, which we're called to give it. When we do, not everyone will appreciate it, and some will twist it to some evil design.
But we're not responsible for how others perceive our love; we're responsible to give it to people who have no claim on it.
This was the challenge of my first sermon, preached thirty years ago today, and the challenge of today's sermon-
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
To know we ought to love is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We have to move from knowing it to doing it-and this is where the problem lies. How do we love in such a way that others will take us for God's people?
The command is not enough. The commands of God are true and good and beautiful, but they don't give us the power to keep them.
Shame is not enough. We ought to feel ashamed of ourselves when we don't love others, but living in shame is not the same as living in love.
Reward is not enough. Love makes for a satisfying and useful life. But thinking of how happy and holy we would be if only we loved won't make us love.
The only way to live this life is to believe the Gospel, to meditate on how much God loves us, how patient He is, how kind, and how practical and undeserved His love for us is. This brings us to the cross where the love of God was demonstrated by the death of His Son for the salvation of the people who hated Him. This gives us more than direction, it gives us the things we need most: the motive to love and the perseverance to love when loving is hard.
This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you, love one another.
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