The time: October 31, 1517. The place: Wittenberg, Germany. The morning mist obscures the countryside as sunlight has not yet conquered the day. Heavy footsteps move toward the north door of Castle Church, and there is the sound of hammering. Moving closer, one finds Martin Luther, a local professor of biblical studies, nailing ninety-five theses or debating points to the castle’s bulletin board. Moderate in tone and heavily academic, the list was intended to be little more than a call to discuss the state of the church. Yet, word of Luther’s deed spread like wildfire across all of Europe. And today, historians credit that one event as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Who’d have ever thought that nailing a list on a door would stand the church on her feet? Yet such are the ironies of history. Luther’s deed was a spark in the dry wood of discontent with Medievalism’s church and the fire that was kindled then burns even now.
We as Presbyterians are a part of Luther’s tradition. We are Protestants. That is, we are protestors. We protest against a church not in harmony with Scripture. And today is the day that I remind you that reformation is not something we’ve done and so can be done with it. It’s an ongoing process. We are reformed, to be sure. But we are also ever reforming because the church has not arrived yet. She is not yet complete. Luther himself summed up our situation so well when he said,
“This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health but healing, not being but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but is going on, this is not the end, but is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
When you joined the Presbyterian Church you joined the tradition of Luther. You entered the reformed and ever reforming process. One of the vows you took in membership was to “practice the purity and peace of the church.” That means that you will use your power to see that the church is purified or brought into harmony with biblical truth. So in a real sense each of us is a small and local Martin Luther. We’re church reformers, people who settle for no less than a mature church.
And this brings us to our text. “Look,” Isaiah said, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn.” Here is a man who, like Luther was later to do, called his people back to their beginnings. His call, as is the call of all true prophets, was not for innovation but renovation, a call back to the basics. And such is my call to the church today.
The call of the reformer or prophet is nothing new in society. We are not unique in our practice of purity and peace in the church. Nor was Luther unique. We are all part of a long line of prophets who cared enough about their faith to see that it was godly and mature.
Elijah was one such prophet. He lived about 900 B.C. and his story is found in First and Second Kings.
Elijah’s name means “Jehovah is God.” And the prophet’s entire ministry was aimed at calling people to that fact. You see, King Ahab had married a foreign woman named Jezebel. And from her homeland of Lebanon she’d imported her foreign gods. Gradually Israel’s God Jehovah was discarded as a worn relic, and Jezebel’s god Baal was worshiped instead. Elijah rose to protest this turn of faithlessness.
A grim, solitary figure, Elijah’s preaching was marked by angry eloquence. He worked mostly in the desert, a fugitive from the murder plots of Queen Jezebel.
See Elijah announcing God’s judgment on Israel. “Yet three years and there shall be no rain,” he preached. And see him on Mount Carmel dueling with the priests of Baal. “How long will you go limping after two opinions? If God is God, serve Him. If Baal is god, then serve him!” Then came fire from heaven at Elijah’s command and proved that Jehovah is God. And yes, see Elijah, this reformer, this prophet of God, see him slaying with sword the priests of Baal. I tell you Elijah was a firebrand. He was a harsh purifier of the faith.
Yet sometimes harsh tactics are called for to get things done. Consider the typical downtown redevelopment project. For some years now wrecking crews have been tearing down dilapidated and vacant buildings. This summer whole blocks were raised. Why, even a train station was moved! Like Elijah, these workers have a vision. But before they build they must first purify!
John Calvin was a reformer much like Elijah. A lawyer from Paris, Calvin fled to Geneva, Switzerland. There his ideas on Christianity conflicted with the authorities. He was exiled. Later he returned and for the rest of his life was embroiled in controversy, criticism and conflict. Once, like Elijah with the priests of Baal, he was involved in the beheading of a heretic from Spain.
Perhaps God is calling you to a ministry like this. It does have its time and place. Purifiers are always needed. One of our elders told me about a fellow who used to walk to church every Sunday and pass his neighbor rocking on his porch. “Come on and go to church with me, Jake,” he’d call. “Not today. Not today,” his friend would excuse himself. This went on for years when finally one Sunday passing his friend the man said bluntly, “Jake, you’re going to sit there and rock yourself straight into hell.” And the next Sunday when he passed by, Jake was dressed and ready to go to church and worship God.
But Elijah’s style is not the only tradition among the prophets. For there is also Elisha. His name means “God is salvation.” And whereas Elijah was harsh, Elisha was gentle. Whereas Elijah worked alone and in the desert, Elisha worked among a band of prophets and spent his time in the cities. Whereas Elijah was a purifier, Elisha was a peacemaker, a benevolent healer.
Consider Elisha’s miracles in contrast to Elijah’s harshness. He miraculously brought a thirsty army water. He filled a widow’s jars with oil so she’d have something to sell and could stay out of debtors prison. He raised a family’s only son from the dead. He healed the Gentile Naaman of Leprosy. He helped a man fix his broken ax. He healed the Jericho town spring of bitterness. And at Gilgal he miraculously removed poison from a pot of stew.
Just as the church has always needed her Elijahs, so she has always needed her Elishas. And there have been many. John Wesley was such a man. Tired of nominal religion, angry over stale and uninspired preaching, alarmed over social injustice, Wesley began the Methodist movement. His street corner preaching struck fire in the hearts of common people. His writings began to feed and discipline and inform peoples’ faith. An old foundry in London became headquarters for the renewal movement. Concerned with souls, he called for decision. Concerned with peoples bodies, he distributed food, called for social reform and is given credit by historians for helping England avoid a bloody revolution as France had had. Yes, Wesley was an Elisha, a healer, a peacemaker.
Perhaps God is calling you to an Elisha type ministry. Every church needs many of this sort. I’m thinking of Mary Ramsey, a lady in my former parish. Widowed early in life, Mary went to work educating four children. Today they are all useful to society–farmers, teachers, newspaper men. Mary helped ease the racial tensions of 1960’s desegregation by volunteering to be the first white to teach a predominately black class. And in the church body itself Mary was an Elisha. Her gift was showing acts of mercy. Her frequent visits brought comfort, wisdom and listening ears to each and everyone. Why, even when there was conflict Mary was like oil in the machinery of the fellowship. A peacemaker called rightly a daughter of God, Mary was an Elisha to the church.
And you? How do you fit in here among us? Is Elisha’s work your God given work?
Elijah, the purifier, the harsh prophet; Elisha, the healer, benevolent worker of miracles–both have their place in God’s plan. But here’s another–Zerubbabel. You say you’ve never heard of him? An obscure figure, to be sure, yet nonetheless, Zerubbabel has an important place in the affairs of God.
Zerubbabel was a descendant of King Solomon and therefore a prince. Exiled to Babylon, Zerubbabel kept alive the hope for the reestablishment of Israel. And when under King Cyrus, the Jews were allowed to return, Zerubbabel was among the leaders who began to resettle Jerusalem’s rubble. You’ll find some mention of Zerubbabel in 1 Chronicles 3:19 and the book of Ezra, also Matthew 1:12.
Zerubbabel was a prime instigator in the rebuilding of the temple. He began the work with zeal but met with immediate opposition from the Samaritans and other nearby tribes. Afraid of going on with the project, he quit for eighteen years! It was the preaching of prophets Haggai and Zechariah that got things moving again. Timid, cautious, sensitive to criticism, fearful–this was Zerubbabel. But God used him. The temple was rebuilt!
A few years ago an English businessman was visiting a friend in Uganda. The African, an enthusiastic hunter, arm-twisted his reluctant visitor into going hunting with him. The first night out the English visitor was so frightened he scarcely slept. Next morning, quickly, the twosome came upon the fresh tracks of a full grown lion. “Tell you what we’ll do,” said the Englishman brightly, “You go ahead and see where he went, and I’ll go back and see where he came from!” Such is the fear and trembling nature of Zerubbabel–cautious, afraid, feeling that there is no need to rush into things, wanting to wait eighteen years!
Thomas Cranmer fits somewhat into this category. A quiet scholar, timid, cautious, he believed in gradual reform by gentle persuasion. And then King Henry VIII got his divorce and split with Rome by starting the Anglican church. And in 1532 one Thomas Cranmer was summoned to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Things went well under Kings Henry and Edward. But when Mary, Bloody Mary, became queen she determined to make England Catholic again. And Thomas Cranmer was put in prison to suffer a long solitary confinement with brainwashing. It was during this time that Cranmer recanted, denouncing all of the church’s reforms. However, later Cranmer came to himself, denied the recantations he’d signed, and at Oxford in 1556 was burned at the stake as a heretic. Entering the flames, Thomas thrust in first the hand that had once written the recantations.
And yes, God can still use Zerubbabels and Cranmers. The church still needs timid, fearful, cautious souls who are sensitive to criticism, folks who feel there’s no hurry to rebuild, to reassert, folks who take eighteen years to make up their minds and get the job done. Perhaps you fall into this category.
A Little Bit of Each
In preparing this sermon over the years, I’ve discussed this message with my wife. And just this week she startled me by saying, “Who are you? Are you Elijah or Elisha or Zerubbabel?” Well, that set my mind to reeling. And I wonder. Aren’t we all a little bit of each one? I can be as harsh and fiery as Elijah. But there is also Elisha in me–the healer, the benevolent worker. And I’ll vouch for the Zerubbabel in me. How many times I’ve wanted to quit, my knees knocking, sensitive to criticism, afraid to go on. Isn’t that the way with all of us? And yet God can still use us!
A friend of mine bought an old oak table and refinished it recently. She used an acid-like fluid to strip away numerous coats of paint. Then she applied heavy grain sandpaper to the table. There followed a finer sandpaper. And finally came a soft brush and a polish rag. And the table is now restored to its original beauty. This is a kind of parable of the church that has always tended to be covered over with off-color tradition and coated with superstitions and plain bad theology. And it belongs to each of us to “practice the purity and peace of the church,” to, like Isaiah said in the text, get back to the original, the basics. And whether you are an acid-like purifier like Elijah or fine sandpaper like Elisha, or even a soft, slow working polisher like Zerubbabel, God can use you to keep the church honest.
Let’s work together in Christ.
Lord, let there be a new reformation, and let it begin with me. Amen.