“What are you doing here Elijah?” 1 Kings 19:9
Driving to church today I thought about the thousands of people I passed in their homes or cars. What were they like spiritually? I decided, accurately I think, that very few of them are murderers, serial adulterers, chronically undependable, lying, cheating scoundrels. Most people are probably muddling their way through life with occasional episodes of low level road hostility (not full-blown road rage), fudging on taxes, and padding résumés.
Now I’m not letting any of the more respectable sinners off the hook. We can avoid all of the big, ugly, public sins, and still be a spiritual mess of course. We’re pretty good at keeping our badness private or minimizing it so we can sleep at night.
It’s good to remember that it takes very little to have to declare spiritual bankruptcy. We can’t buy holiness or work our way into heaven. We all have a debt that with our own meager resources is unpayable. Thank God for grace! So comparing ourselves to one another and patting ourselves on the back for being at least a little better than the other guy is a total waste of time and actually does a good bit of spiritual harm. When it comes to comparing and rating ourselves I like a quote attributed to Dolly Parton who, when pressed about numerous rumors of her indiscretions, finally said “Hell, I’ve either done it or I’m capable of it.”
Trust me, I’ve done it or I’m capable of it.
My reason for spending a little bit of space leveling the ground, so to speak, is that when it comes to grace we usually talk about how God’s grace extends to the very worst of sinners. That’s true. But again most of you reading this are not “murderers, serial adulterers, chronically undependable, lying, cheating scoundrels.” Grace is wonderful for the front page failures some of us have, but it’s also essential for the back page details. Grace applies for the spiritual paper cuts and the severed jugular.
Let’s take Elijah as an example. He was a man of powerful faith, no capital s sins. When did he need grace?
The most familiar and impressive scene in his story is the contest with the prophets of Baal. To prove who had the stronger God, Elijah set up a “burnt offering contest.” Build two altars, and see which God shows up with fire.
Elijah was at his faithful, trash-talking best. Literally. The altars were set up. The contest started, and the prophets of Baal began their dancing and futile pleading. When nothing happened Elijah mocked them saying “Maybe he’s deep in thought, or gone to the bathroom (that’s a likely meaning of the Hebrew), taken a trip, or taking a nap.” Of course, nothing happened though the prophets cut themselves and continued their rave.
Then it was Elijah’s turn. He laid out the wood and then in a final theatrical flourish had servants douse the burnt offering with water. Three times. The wood and the animal were drenched and water filled a trench Elijah dug around the altar. Then he prayed, and fire came down from heaven and consumed “the animal, the wood, the stones, the dust, and the water in the trench.” (1 Kings 18:20-40).
This is a great biblical story with a dash of Vince McMahon. Elijah won the day, slew the prophets (which is what they did in those less tolerant days), was greatly acclaimed, and lauded by the king. This was his high point.
And in the next chapter he comes off looking kind of like a pansy. Queen Jezebel, who was a fan of Baal, promised to kill him. He ran for his life into the wilderness. He felt like a failure (I am no better than my fathers), and wished for death.
Think about this. He had just set up and witnessed a stunning demonstration of God’s presence and power. Yet now his heart melted because of some threats.
You likely remember the next scene in this story where God caused a strong wind to break the rocks in front of Elijah’s cave, then a earthquake to rattle the land, then a fire to blaze through the valley. Then the still small voice of God.
Elijah’s reaction? The same. He tells God he’s a failure and no one listens, and he’s the only faithful man left in the land and everyone is trying to kill him. God’s reaction? “I’ve got 7000 worshipers still, and you need to get back to work” (1 Kings 19:15-18).
I’ve spent quite a bit of space with this story because I want you to see the contrast. Elijah’s lowest point spiritually came soon after his highest point. Elijah was not a capital s sinner, but he sure was capable of some capital s self-pity. And God had grace for that too. He never abandoned him or even appeared to lose patience. God just kept being God, no matter what mood Elijah was in or what struggle he went through.
God’s grace is for my self-centered worst, and for my elegant best and for the times when I’m just slogging through life with a kind of dull faith. He’s with me when I’m at my best, my very worst, or when I’m just kind of grumpy and full of low level complaints.
I need grace not only to build the walls and foundations of my life, but to fill in the cracks. I need grace to get into heaven, but I also need grace to give me a little bit of heaven moment by moment. I need grace when I’m really, really bad, and I need grace when I’m just in a bad mood. I need grace when I’m a wretch, and I need grace when I’m just having a bad day. God lovingly offers grace for both polarities and every point in between.
So this week I trust the vast majority of us will avoid the headline-making sins. But each of us is likely to have many moments when we’re just not at our best. The good news God has grace for every moment and every mood.
Dr. Terry Ellis
February 18, 2016