Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b;
Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:5-15

In the Genesis thread of the Old Testament readings this season, we now move from the generation of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah to the generation of their children, which focuses around the story of the second-to-youngest son, Joseph. As we are told, Joseph is a favored son, being born of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, and being a son to him in his old age, which most of his older children were grown and working. And while we might find Joseph’s ego at times to be a bit much, he takes after his father, and truly in the end is seeking God’s guidance and making meaning of why bad things have happened to him in his life. We might think at times he gets what he deserves in the ways that he has shared proudly the dreams he has, in which he appears to rule over his brothers, but throughout the ordeal of his life, being sold into slavery, framed into prison, he continues to look for opportunities to show how God can be found even in bad situations, that even in the midst of his darkest times he does not give up on God nor on his belief that God is in relationship with him. Ultimately this small fragment of the larger saga shows us how Jacob’s children ended up in Egypt, setting up the narrative that forms the Exodus, but also sets up the framework of the family of Israel and the twelve tribes. But we only read the first part of the story today–the part where Joseph is abused and betrayed by his brothers. And we only know what the writer tells us–maybe Joseph wasn’t really conceited, maybe the brothers felt they could never live up to their father’s expectations and took it out on Joseph. What we do know is this: despite the abuse and betrayal by members of his own family, Joseph continues to live in faith and succeeds in his life despite all that happens to him. And in the end, he even is able to forgive his brothers.

1 Kings continues our tales of the prophets. We read of Elijah in this familiar passage, where he has faced persecution among the Israelites who now worship Baal and their priests, and he is about ready to give up. We can all identify with Elijah at times–when we face conflict with those around us it can seem that no one is on our side. Elijah certainly felt alone and frustrated and depressed. Where was God, the Creator, the one whom he worshiped and served? Had Elijah been left to die by his God? Then God answers Elijah, telling him to go stand outside, on the mountain, and to wait. There is a wind, but God is not in the mighty wind. There is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There is a fire, but again, God is not in the fire. Then there is the sound of sheer silence, or the still small voice (depending upon your translation).

How often when bad things happen–either betrayal by friends or conflict within our family, or even worse, tsunamis in Japan and earthquakes in Haiti–do we ask “Where are you God?” or we wonder if God exists. Even worse, we may wonder if God has sent the disaster to punish us, or has caused us to fall into a bad situation. Here, God proves to Elijah that God does not send natural disasters as punishment, nor is God present in the chaos that ensues. Rather, God is in the silence–God is in the stillness of the water after the storm. God is in the calming breeze after the tornado has struck. God is at work in the firefighters and first responders and rescue teams and church mission groups. God is at work all around, but not in the things that hurt and destroy. Even after the silence, Elijah repeats himself–he is still persecuted, still alone, still feeling rejected by all around him, so God tells him first to anoint Hazael over Aram–a foreign king over a foreign land–as well as Jehu over Israel–to show that God not only cares about the Israelites but about all people–that there is something larger and deeper going on. And God has told him to anoint Elisha in his place, to show Elijah that he no longer has to bear the burden alone.

In the mainline church we sometimes cringe when people refer to God’s plan. But yet, there is a plan–a plan for life–Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that he came so we might have life abundantly. God’s plan is always Creation–new life. Death cannot stop life, instead, there is resurrection and Re-Creation. Throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, there is a plan for new life, a new heaven and a new earth, and new life here and now. We commemorate this new life by remembering Christ’s death and resurrection in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Joseph trusted that God would continue to be with him and give him life even when it seemed hopeless. Elijah had to be shown by God that there was new hope in the new leaders rising up, and that even in the midst of wind, earthquake and fire, God’s presence will remain in the end, in the stillness, in the silence, in the aftermath. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we fear no evil.

Psalm 85 speaks of the restoration of God’s people, the reconciliation of the relationship between God and Israel. As Elijah waited through the wind, earthquake and fire, until the presence of God arrived in the silence, in the stillness of the voice of God, so the people of Israel have prevailed through the war, the destruction and the exile, and have found that renewed relationship with God, where righteousness and peace kiss each other–where the void between heaven and earth is closed, as faithfulness springs up from the ground and righteousness looks down from the sky. Faithfulness is the key, throughout all the trials and terrors we might face, we know that we will get to the other side.

Psalm 105 retells the story of Joseph in poetry and song, the story of God’s faithfulness in the Abraham and Sarah family that spreads throughout the earth, the promise to bring the people out of Egypt, a promise renewed in the bringing of the people out of Exile. The story is not only of God’s faithfulness, however, but of the people. Despite the fact that the people will continually turn their back on God–they did in the wilderness of Sinai, and they did so again in the homeland along the Jordan–there are always a few that remain faithful, always some that turn back to God, always a prophet speaking out the judgment of God but giving the hope of peace and renewal.

Matthew 14:22-33 is another story of faith, as Jesus walks on the water. The disciples are in the boat, afraid, thinking they are seeing a ghost, but Jesus says to them as he says throughout the Gospels, “Do not be afraid.” Peter questions whether it is really him, but when Jesus calls out to him, Peter responds in faith by walking out of the boat and walking on the water! His faith holds until a strong wind comes and he gets nervous, and he starts to sink, calling out to Jesus to save him. I imagine Jesus shakes his head at Peter once again: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In our lives, God calls us out into the world to share the Good News. God gives us extraordinary gifts and talents to do it–preaching and teaching, healing and serving. But when we start to doubt ourselves–start to think maybe we’re not good enough, maybe we’re not cut out for what we are doing–our confidence slips away, our trust of ourselves and others around us weakens, and we begin to lose hope. When we preach a sermon and it flops, we may question whether we are cut out to be in ministry. When we plan a lesson and it fails, we question our call to teaching. When we work hard to save a patient’s life and they still die on the table, we may question whether we are a good doctor or medical professional. But we know that God does not make things perfect–God gives us the gifts to do what we can and the strength and courage to keep going when we fall short, when things don’t work our way. When we are faithful, through the wind, earthquake and fire, we realize that God has been faithful to us every step of the way.

Romans 10:5-15 reminds us that it isn’t our role to determine who is faithful enough to go to heaven or not–that when we ask those questions we are playing God rather than allowing Jesus to be our Savior. Rather, we live by faith–and our words should match what we believe in our hearts. Many people have taken these words in Romans to claim that there is a specific prayer that must be prayed in order to get into heaven, that there must be a public confession of faith that Jesus is Lord in a certain formula. There is no magic formula anywhere in the Bible, nor is there any specific written prayer. Rather, Paul is telling the church in Rome, where there are both Jewish and Gentile Christians, that faith is the key. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek. It isn’t about following the law to the letter or about worshiping in a certain formulaic way, but rather it is about faith of the heart, and confessing to the community of faith publicly that one believes in Christ and that he was raised from the dead. In the Baptist tradition of which I was raised, our most public expression of faith is in our baptism. It is our confession to the world that Christ died and rose again and that we, too, die and live anew in Christ. It is something that we first come to believe in our heart, and then we must share it with the world, for, as Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah, “No one who believes in God shall be put to shame.” We are called to bring the Good News–in word and deed, and it begins with our public declaration of faith in Christ Jesus. We don’t do this to boast, or to think of ourselves as better than others–but rather to be open, honest and free in Christ to do the work Christ has called us to do in sharing the Good News of God’s love for the world.

For we know God’s faithfulness, and we know we will go through storms and disasters, and there will be times when we will question and doubt, but we know that God will see us on the other side, if we are willing to go through that dark valley, in the hopes of sharing God’s love with the world in our lifetime.

Call to Worship:
Leader: We’ve walked through the darkest valley,
People: We have felt the presence of Christ with us.
Leader: We’ve experienced the earthquake and the tornado,
People: We know God has given us the courage to help others.
Leader: We’ve known pain and suffering,
People: We have known love and healing.
Leader: Faith, hope, and love abide, these three:
People: and the greatest of these is love.
Leader: Come, let us worship the God of love.

Prayer of Confession:
Faithful One, we confess that at times we have turned astray to other gods and have been faithless. We have followed the gods of success and fortune. We have practiced greed over sharing, have held grudges instead of offering forgiveness, and have denied justice instead of acknowledging our common sins. Forgive us, O God, for our lack of faithfulness to Your Gospel. Restore in us the call to justice, the passion of peace, the pursuit of hope for the sake of our brothers and sisters in our world. In the name of Christ, who remains faithful even when we fail, we pray. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Paul wrote those words of assurance long ago, and we share them today, knowing that God has seen through our sin and knows our hearts, forgiving us and restoring us to that love we were created in, the image of God that still lies within us. Go and share the good news with the world. Amen.

Dearest Savior, we come to You this day mindful of the burdens so many bear. We pray for all those who are struggling in this economy, especially the poor and the sick, the homeless and the jobless. Many people carry these burdens in their hearts, even in our church family, and we do not always know what others are going through. Loving Jesus, help us to reach out to one another in this time to be Your hope in this world, to bring Your healing, and to share Your goodness and compassion to each other. We lift up all the burdens of this congregation and the surrounding community, that we may begin here and now building up Your kingdom. Help us to bear each other’s burdens and fulfill the Gospel message by sharing Your love in our community, and out to the world. In the name of our Savior, who lived and died and lives again, Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.

Music Suggestions:
“Dear Lord and Father Of Mankind” has that great line “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm” that goes perfectly with the 1 Kings passage. The Taize song “I am sure I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” is another song of faith through difficult times. The praise song “All in All” also comes to mind with the line “You are my strength when I am weak, You are the treasure that I seek, You are my all in all.” Music along the themes of strength and courage, and speaking to the suffering of the world are all appropriate for this day.

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