With the new year, many of us are eager to make changes. We may even seek to enlist some divine help in making those changes. A few months back I gave a series of messages called "Prayer That Changes Things" that I would like to reproduce here over the next few days. Consider them my attempt to help you with your desire to make changes in your life. -- Tod
Let me begin by telling you a story that comes out of Greek Mythology. (The first time I heard it, was not in a high school English class but from singer Jim Cole. And it inspired his wonderful song, Master of My Heart, which I recommend you find immediately.)
The Sirens are cannibalistic demons that sing beautiful music to sailors that pass by their island. The song was so beautiful that it would drive out any other thoughts except for a longing to hear more. The sailors would hear the songs, would fall in love with the Sirens and turn their boats to the shore. The boats would crash on the rocks and the Sirens would devour the foolish and fooled sailors.
When Odysseus sailed around the island, he put molten wax in the sailors’ ears so that they couldn't hear the Siren's song. He told the men to lash him to a pole so tight that he couldn't get loose and no matter what he said to not let him go and left the wax out of his ears, because he just wanted to hear the song. As they sailed around the cape, the sailors couldn't hear the song because of the wax. But Odysseus cried out to them he was so moved by the Sirens song. If he could have gotten free, he too would have sailed the ship to certain death, but strapped to the mast, tormented but safe, he sailed past the Siren Island.
I think that many of us are like Odysseus, dear friends. Sometimes, I am. We want to sail past the islands of destruction, but we still want to hear their song.
We want to be captain of our own fates, willing ourselves through the trials of life, but at the same time we feel tormented by the realization that we are seduced by the very things that could destroy the life we have worked so hard to create. We shudder at the thought of so many people who have ended up wrecked on the shore, and consumed by the very things they thought would bring them happiness. We are like Odysseus, strapping ourselves to the mast and binding ourselves to our busy schedules, our full lives, our attempts to immunize ourselves and especially our children against the seductions of this world. We wish that we could just pour wax in our kids’ ears and be held against our wills to keep from being devoured by that which we secretly desire. We fear that if we ever hear the song of the sirens, the lure of the world, the temptations of the flesh, that we will wreck everything that is good in our lives. And so we live tormented, trapped, strapped, and exhausted.
Oh we may have made it so far, but is this anyway to live?
I have already told you one story from mythology; let me tell you another one, a true story from the Scriptures. It is a classic story of a confrontation between good and evil, between faith and false gods. And let’s see if something about sounds familiar to us. I will narrate it, but if you want to follow along in the Bible, you’ll find it in 1 Kings 18-19.
Some two hundred years after David ruled Israel in its heyday, the kingdom had split in two and Israel was ruled by King Ahab. The Bible makes it clear that Ahab, though a Jew was not faithful to God. He was lured away into worshipping false gods by his wife Jezebel, who wielded her power and influence to corrupt Israel and to lead them to worship the false gods of the Baals, even to the pointing of seeing that the true prophets of God were put to death so that they would not speak against her.
And because of Ahab’s weakness and Jezebel’s faithlessness, the people of God began to worship both the One True God Israel and as well as the false gods of the Baals.
But in Israel at the time was one genuine prophet of God named Elijah. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a kind of Spiritual Heavyweight Ultimate Fighting Match. They would each make an altar of wood and on it lay a butchered bull. But instead of lighting the offering, Elijah all by himself challenges the 450 false prophets of Baal to call out to their gods to light the altar and consume the offering.
The prophets of Baal make their altar with the bull offering on it and all day long from morning until midday, 450 false prophets call out to Baal, “O Baal, answer us!” About noon, Elijah starts talking smack to them. “What’s the problem boys? Is your god meditating somewhere? Has he wandered away? Is he on a trip? Is your god sleeping? You better try harder if you are going to wake him up!” And they did, even cutting themselves and pouring out their own blood. But still the altar lay quiet. No fire, no big powerful god showing up, no matter how much they sacrificed their own flesh.
Then the story really gets interesting… Elijah takes an old altar to Yahweh that Jezebel had thrown down. He picks up twelve stones to represent the tribes of Israel. Out of the stones he makes an altar and around it digs a huge pit. He places the bull on the altar and then he tells the people to fill up four huge jars of water and pour them on the altar, then they do it again, and a third time. He literally drenches the altar, the wood, the stones, and the offering.
And then he prays…just prays. No shouting, no wailing, no self-mutilation. Just prays. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
And a fire bolt comes from heaven. The flames consume the offering, consume the wood, consume the stones, the fire licks up the water overflowing out of the trench. And in 1 Kings 18:39 we read, When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
Now I had to tell you that story to tell you this. AFTER this huge victory, do you know what happened to Elijah? Did he go on to confront Ahab and Jezebel? Did he start a revival in Israel? NO.
And this is the most surprising part. The disappointing part. The disturbing part. The part that somewhere within us, we all understand, but we wish we didn’t.
Elijah gets word that Jezebel now wants him dead, and what does he do? Does he say, “Hey lady, bring it on. Have you seen what my God can do?” Does he stand in the middle of the challenge and finish the job by confronting the Heretic Queen? No. He hears that Jezebel is coming after him—and he flees. Something about Jezebel making their spiritual confrontation personal, takes the fight right out of Elijah.
He leaves town, he leaves the country, he leaves the ministry and he sit down under a tree and prays to die.
In 1Kings 19:4-8 we read,
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Notice, that Elijah is discouraged, wants to die and cries out to God and what does God do? First he cares for Elijah. He gives him food and lets him sleep. Now here we are. A man of God is alone with the Lord and God comes to him and hears the prayer of his heart. God listens not only to the words of his lips and the discouragement of his soul, but to the deeper longing that has probably been building in Elijah for years. And in the encounter with God face to face, everything changes.
But what exactly is that? What does change?
But notice what he doesn’t change. Notice what he doesn’t do? Does God solve Elijah’s problem? You know, take out Jezebel? NO. He doesn’t. And this is different than we expect, isn’t it?
We think that if God is going to change anything, he is going to change our circumstances don’t we? Many of us think that that is the primary purpose of prayer: Getting God to change stuff. God, this is your world, so please change it. Please, change my husband, change my kids, change my circumstances. Take care of my boss, give me an extra two hours every day and two days of every week so that I can fit everything in. Multiply my pay check, change the economy, fix the housing market, let me win the lottery. Give me my first college choice, be popular at school, get kids to like me, let me get the perfect job or find the perfect spouse, or have perfect kids. Eliminate all temptations, all trials, all turmoil. Inoculate my family from ever experiencing pain or having problems, God, just change—everything.
My friends, this series is about learning to pray in such a way that things get changed. It could be in the middle of hard, personal circumstances where it seems like some enemy wants to destroy our life as we know it. It could be in the middle of great blessings, of tremendous opportunities, of life in all its complexity, it makes us wonder “where is the life that we have lost in the living.”
Over the next few posts we will look at a myriad of circumstances that are as different as all of our lives, but the one thing they will have in common is that we know that something needs to change. And indeed, sometimes, graciously, almost miraculously God does change our circumstances, but what we will see is that over and over again, we will keep coming back to this reality:
The prayer that changes things is the prayer that changes us.
Verse 9. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Notice that God does come to Elijah, but he doesn’t bring a miracle or offer an answer, but shows up with a question: “What are you doing here…?”
Now, the emphasis in the question is the location. What are you doing here? Elijah, you are the prophet of God that is supposed to be right in the middle of Israel, and so what are you doing here, outside the country, without your servants, giving up? What are you doing here?
Elijah answers defensively, giving God a recap of his circumstances:
“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
God listens, but he doesn’t respond. At least not directly. Instead, he sends him out onto the mountaintop. “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Notice that the God who had just come in fire on another mountain is not in this fire. He is not in the great wind and he is not in an earthquake either. God doesn’t answer Elijah’s complaint, he doesn’t solve Elijah’s problem, but instead reminds Elijah that in every circumstance that Elijah faces, that in every trial, every bit of turmoil, every decision, every challenge, every unknown, that He is in, fact, there. He shows Elijah that he, the God that showed up in power, that rained down fire from heaven in the battle against the baals, is also the God who is present in the moments when he seems most absent. And God’s presence even in the times that feel like absence is what changes things.
Verse 13: When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I believe that God is saying to Elijah then and us today. Sometimes I will be there in the fire, sometimes I will be there in the silence, but I am always there. And you are to be always, in every circumstance, doing what you are called to do.
And today we learn from Elijah that:
Theme: The prayer that changes us responds to the call of God in the care-full stillness.
It is the prayer that is anchored in God’s call and God’s care. It is the prayer that comes from the place where we can hear God’s call and experience God’s care.
What are you doing here, God asks? It is time to get back to work Go anoint a new king, go anoint another prophet, go do what I have called you to do. Get back to where you belong, doing the thing you are supposed to do.
My friends, this is a key point that so many of us miss. Very often we come to church, we cultivate a spiritual life because we want God to care for us. And that is good. God does care. He cared for Elijah by hearing his prayer and showing up in power in his battle with the baals. He cared for Elijah by feeding him and giving him rest. But he also care for Elijah by reminding him of his calling in life.
God’s care is always accompanied by God’s call. We who receive the care of God must constantly respond to the call of God, if we truly want the life God has promised us.
In every circumstance, our first priority is to be fulfilling God’s call on our lives. That is the centering focus. That is what makes sense and holds all of life together. Doing the will of God, be obedient to the world of God, fulfilling the call of God, being the man or woman, child or teenager that is faithful to God as the first priority of everything else in life.
Before being successful, having the good life, before getting into a good college, getting good grades, winning accolades, or being popular, before our personal security, our national security, our economic security, before anything else, our first priority in every circumstance is obedience to God’s call on our lives.
And when we take our eyes off of that, when we somehow forget that, when we put anything else above that, we will find ourselves despairing, discouraged and feeling very, very alone.
But this is where so many of us get stumped. How do I hear God’s voice? How do I know that this pull on my life is God’s call on my life? How can I know what I am supposed to do? We’ll talk more about that in the next few weeks, but today, let me have you center on this:
Both God’s call and God’s care come to us most clearly in moments of stillness.
God’s call and God’s care are experienced most powerfully by cultivating times of inner quiet, by regularly and faithfully focusing our attention more on the voice of God then on voices that come from our Ipods and TVs and fearful friends, demanding powers and fretting neighbors. And let’s face it, stillness, inner quiet, centeredness is the first thing that most of us sacrifice. And God’s call on our life, the leading of his voice, the centering of his Spirit is what most of us are most missing.
I know some of you are going to be so bugged by this. You will say to me. “I am too busy! My life is too filled with responsibilities. I have carpools, and planes to catch and kids who are doing two sports teams. There is homework and housework and bills to pay and clients to please and so many pressures and demands. I am too busy.”
Right. Let me humbly suggest that you are right. You are too busy. The demands of the voices of this world are crowding out the voice of God and you wonder why you can’t hear him.
My friends, I started this post and this series by telling you the story of Odysseus lashed the mast, tormented but safe, but let me offer you another story from the same mythology. Instead of being like the sailors, or like Odysseus, we could be like Jason.
For when Jason and the Argonauts sailed around the Sirens' Island, they didn't put wax in their ears or get lashed to the mast. Instead as they turned the ship to toward the cursed shore, Jason told Orpheus, the musician to play the music of home. So Orpheus picked up his lyre and sang a song so sweet and clear that the men instead turned away from the siren's song and stayed the course that took them safely home. The pure and good song drowned out the Siren’s song and by their own free decision, they avoided that which would have destroyed them.
My friends, today, in the name of Christ, I want to offer you a chance to sail safely home. To live in a place of peace. To respond to the challenges and voices of this world, not lashed to a mast in turmoil and torment but with the song of God’s voice that comes to us in the stillness.
It is the music that reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It is the song that comes to us softly in the silence, when we have stilled our hearts and covered our faces, and been reminded that God is always with us. It is the song that comes to us when we are tempted to sail toward destruction and asks us, “What are you doing here?”
It is the music that we hum in our hearts that calls us back to where we are supposed to be, to what we are supposed to be doing in every circumstance. It is song of home, of safety, of centeredness, of calling.
Which song are you listening to my friends? This morning, I want to say to those of us who are strapped to the mast, who hope that the wax in our ears will keep out the lure of the world, that there is another song, there is other music, it the call of a caring God, and it comes to us in the stillness, if we will only make time to seek it.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam…
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (from Psalm 46)