Sunday, May 7, 2023

Discouraged but not alone. . .

Reading I Kings 19 is sometimes like looking right into the mirror of your own soul.  Every pastor who is honest has felt the pain of Elijah and found comfort in short supply.  I know that I have.  Elijah was a man of God who live in a culture and a nation that had abandoned the Lord.  Institutions and individuals had forsaken the Lord, forgotten His Word, and rebelled against those who sought to speak that Word and call them to repentance.  Every pastor has like the last man standing in a world which has surrendered to evil and called it good.  Every pastor has, like Elijah, run away in his mind if not in body to salve his wounds and his bitterness.  Alone in a cave, running for his life, and feeling abandoned even by the Lord, Elijah was discouraged -- and with him has stood pastor after pastor at one point or another.

No pastor, just like no Christian, is immune from discouragement.  It is not simply a tool of the devil but also the ordinary doubts and fears of one on whom great responsibility has been conferred and yet with it a Gospel so often dismissed as myth or legend or corrupted in a sea of feelings and emotion devoid of fact or truth.  Discouragement afflicts every shepherd of God’s people at some point or another.  After all, we live and work in a culture absolutely drowning in deception and self-deception.  We are surrounded by churches no longer concerned about offending God and instead, courting the culture and accepting its falsehoods over God's truth.  There is surely no faithful man of God who has not found himself at one point or another identifying with Elijah’s complaint: The sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, pulled down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

With discouragement, there is always loneliness.  Though the folks in the pew see their pastor as deeply embedded in the community, the truth is that loneliness comes with the job.  We all know that we live in an age in which friendship itself is hard to find, hard to enjoy, and even hard to define.  Social media has confused us about what friendship is and who our real friends are.  For the pastor this is an even deeper problem because in order to minister effectively to the people placed in your care, friendship can blur both this responsibility and make it hard to carry it out when we must speak bluntly the hard word to those we have turned to and depended upon as friends.  It is common and even ordinary for pastors to feel isolated as they seek to minister God’s Word faithfully to God’s people.  This is not because they are aloof or because they believe themselves to be more righteous than those within their care.  It is the consequence of being shepherds and not sheep.  The adoption of democratic levers for the running of institutions in America, even the Church, has only heightened this loneliness.  In such times, it is often hard for pastors to see clearly or believe confidently the hope God has hidden in the forest of troubles.

God’s response to Elijah is worth remembering.  He did not say that Elijah's assessment of the times was wrong.  In fact, Elijah was correct in what he saw.  What Elijah did not see was what God saw and this became the hope that God spoke to His weary prophet in such a low moment: You are outnumbered, but you are not alone.  Elijah was absolutely correct in his assessment of the depravity of Israel and that was the problem.  We all see problems clearly but struggle with solutions.  It is our nature since the fall.  We see the world through rose colored glasses that belie the evil or we see the world so evil we cannot see God at all.  Though Elijah was spot on in diagnosing the world's wrongs, he was incorrect in assessing what God was doing in the midst of it all.  God was still doing what He has promised to do, accomplishing His purpose in saving His people, and though the times were bad, the cause was not lost because God was still there at work.  The problem was that Elijah had lost confidence in the resources God was using to do His work.  Maybe that is the analogy for today.  In the days of Elijah, God had still His remnant among the nation of Israel and His Word and Spirit.  Elijah was just like the rest of the people of God throughout history -- people who survey the wrongs and look at the resources of God and fear it is not enough.  What we fail to realize is that God seems outnumbered but the resources of God are always enough to accomplish His purpose.

By every measure of things, Christianity in our nation is on the decline and so are churches.  Not only the culture but churches have surrendered the eternal truth for the lies of the moment.  Churches have replaced the means of grace with gimmicks and adopted worldly tactics and methods to build their kingdoms instead of His.  It is a scandal how churches have compromised Scripture out of fear that the world will either reject them or find them irrelevant.  They have capitulated to a definition of love that cannot include the cross but insists upon tolerating, accepting, and approving whatever sin and evil in fashion with people now.  If it is easy for God's people to become discouraged, it is also easy for a faithful man of God to look at what is happening in the visible church and the surrounding culture and despair for the future.  It would be entirely reasonable and understandable for us to presume by what we see that the church is losing the battle .  There is as little consolation for Elijah as there is for us to admit that we are but a small minority in our world today.  But God never promised that we would win an earthly battle, become a dominant majority, and control the agenda.  Instead, our Lord was pretty blunt about just the opposite.  

Yet amid all of this is the promise.  He who endures to the end shall be saved.  The works that are done in the name of the Lord and according to God's own bidding shall not be forgotten.  We are not charged with watching the markers of our influence or success.  Ours is not the game of statistics.  The calling before us now more than ever is to be faithful, to speak the truth in love, and to be prepared at all times to give answer to the hope in us when questioned or challenged.  We are not the judges of our world but only of ourselves and that personal judgment should lead us to repentance but also to hope.  It was John Knox who said that one man with God is always the majority.  Cliched but truth, none the less.  Luther maybe put it better, Though devils all the world should fill all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.  While the people sing that hymn, the faithful shepherd needs to listen and, hearing, be encouraged.  You are not alone.  That is the hope that rescues me from the caves in which I hide and I pray it rescues you.

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