Twenty Questions: #10 What Do You Want Me To Do For You? (Mk. 10:51)

Today we reach the halfway point in this series of reflections on great questions from the Bible with the story of blind Bartimaeus’ recovery of sight. I do not believe for a minute that it is mere coincidence that causes Mark to place this account of a blind person having his sight restored immediately after the rather myopic request of James and John to sit at Christ’s right and left in glory, even after He has told them that the kingdom belongs to such as small, needy and vulnerable children. Surely, then, we are to understand from this in the story following that whatever work of healing Christ can do for the body, He can also do for the soul. Leaving Jericho, Jesus and his disciples are attended by a great crowd of people. As they walk, they pass a blind beggar by the side of the main road, with his cloak laid out in front of him to collect donations from any benevolent passers-by. Hearing the commotion and finding out it is Jesus, he cries out to Him, seeking to attract His attention. The crowd shouts him down, “Shut up!” they say, “Be quiet!” But he takes no notice. In fact, he cries out all the louder. Jesus hears, calls him over and asks him the question which He asks us today also, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“What do you want me to do for you?” Arguably this belongs in the ‘Stupid Questions God Asks Us’ category of questions. He’s blind, Jesus. What do you think he wants You to do for him? It’s obvious, isn’t it? A colleague of mine during my time in Yorkshire spoke powerfully on this story. He had spent years in urban ministry, working with many different people with multiple and complex needs. This story meant a lot to him. He pointed out how Jesus doesn’t presume to know what Bartimaeus wants, but empowers him by asking him what he wants. Sometimes, he said, it is so easy for the so-called ‘haves’ in a society to think they know what the so-called ‘have-nots’ want and so they plunge right in without actually finding out for themselves what they want. Perhaps, he suggested, we give people what we hope they want because it is less demanding than actually finding out what they want for ourselves. For Jesus to ask the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” is to make Himself vulnerable; it puts Jesus at Bartimaeus’ service. On the contrary, it is far safer simply to offer something and have the other person say, “That’s not really what I wanted.” That way, we have the moral high ground. “Well I offered,” we can then say. “It’s not my fault if they turned it down.” By asking what He can do for Bartimaeus, Jesus reverses the roles. Blind Bartimaeus is no longer the beggar; but Jesus becomes the servant. What grace is that?! (James and John, are you watching this?)

It is significant, I think, that the blind man in this story is named—Bartimaeus. Perhaps he went on to be a well-known figure in the early Church and that is why he is named when so many other recipients of healing are not. Perhaps, however, the significance may also be that Bartimaeus is given a name in the story because Jesus gives him a voice. Bartimaeus is not just another beggar to throw crumbs of compassion to; Jesus treats him as an individual, as someone whom He may serve. (Again, perhaps there is a lesson in this for how we in the Church should offer charitable assistance?) Jesus hears Bartimaeus among the din and racket of the crowd and listens to him. He is not just a ‘blind beggar’; he is a person with whom Jesus interacts personally. Similarly, Jesus hears also our voice among the noise and commotion of the world. Jesus listens to us just as He did to Bartimaeus and is interested in us enough to ask us, “What do you want me to do for you?” The Lord of heaven and earth is puts Himself at the service of beggars like us!

So, what do we want from Jesus? More generally, what do we want from our relationship with God? Are we just looking for someone to write our cheques and pay our bad debts, or is there more to it than that? Do we, like Bartimaeus, want more than spare change? Do we want to throw away the cloak we used for begging forgiveness and recover our health, free from the disease of our sin? Jesus will do that for us, if we want Him to. Jesus will transform us into our true selves, renewed in Him and changed from glory into glory. Jesus will make us the kind of people who beg to help the beggars. Jesus will make us great, if we will but learn from Him how to serve. The question He asks is simple enough: “What do you want me to do for you?” What are we looking for from Jesus? What expectations do we have from our relationship with Him? What work are we hoping He will do in our lives? Jesus is listening intently. So let’s speak up and tell Him.

Twenty Questions: #9 Why Does Your Teacher Eat With Tax Collectors And Sinners? (Matt. 9:11)

It is the most frequent complaint made against Jesus in the Gospels—not that His theology is bad, or that He fails to practice what He preaches, but that He hangs around with the wrong sort of people. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the scandalised Pharisees want to know. Today, as we move from the Old Testament to the New, we are asked a question about Jesus that gets right to the crux of who we think He is and why we think He came. Rabbi Jesus, in his typically gauche and unconventional way, hasn’t been waiting for disciples to come to him (as was the custom of the day), but instead going out and calling them to himself. On this particular occasion, it is Matthew the tax collector trawled in His net. “Follow me,” Jesus said. And he did, inviting Jesus back home to dinner. There at dinner, the Pharisees asked Jesus’ other (presumably more respectable-looking) disciples the question which is the subject of our reflection today: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

This, I believe, is a question every Christian needs to be able to answer. If one of your friends, colleagues or neighbours asked you that question, what would you say? Our answer will surely say an awful lot about our faith. For me, the answer to this question is fundamentally tied up with my answer to yesterday’s question, “Can these bones live?” Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners because He sees value in dry bones. Others may be able to write off the tax collectors and sinners as a lost cause, dead weight and ‘beyond the pale’, but not Jesus. Like the one lost sheep out of a hundred that went astray, God is the shepherd who isn’t prepared to give up on them. Jesus demonstrates that there is nobody beyond the ever expansive reach of God’s grace—even God’s enemies, the most hardened and rebellious sinners. Here in tangible action, Jesus proves beyond all reasonable doubt that our God is a God who raises the dead to life as He goes to those who we have already consigned to the scrapheap and makes them heirs and partakers of His heavenly kingdom. As Jesus Himself says in v. 12, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus’s self-defined mission statement is not to make good people slightly better, but to make dead people (and those as good as dead) alive.

One of the most distressing criticisms I hear of Church from non-believers is that it is for the stereotypical Goody Two Shoes. Similarly, what has surely got to be the most disheartening reason for someone not going to Church is when they say, “I’m not good enough to go to Church.” Where on earth have we given people the impression that they need to be ‘good enough’ to hang out with Jesus? What has the Church been doing (or perhaps, more to the point, not been doing) that has given people such a wrongheaded idea of what the Church is about. Perhaps the question we’re reflecting on today is a question we in the Church don’t give people outside the Church enough cause to ask. After all, if the Church is the Body of Christ, we as the Church must ask ourselves whether we’re putting our Body where Christ put His body—in the midst of tax collectors and sinners, in the midst of those whom everyone else is all too happy to write off.

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Forget for a moment what I said earlier about imagining your friends, colleagues or neighbours asking you this question; instead maybe we should go back a step and ask ourselves whether we give our friends, colleagues or neighbours the occasion to ask this question. The question before us today is a question of ecclesiology, of what we think the Church is. To take up Jesus’ medical analogy, I see the Church as a hospital for sinners. Are we, though, only a hospital who takes in people with a slight tickling cough or a sneeze and turns away those who have been in a major car accident? Indeed, to push the medical analogy a bit further still, do we even bother sending ambulances out to the site of major car accidents, or do we just stay tucked up safe and warm in the comfort of the staff room?

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Because He loves them and because He knows that there is not a dead sinner out there who cannot be quickened with the power of His immeasurable, unquenchable, inestimable love if only they would let Him. Martin Luther answers the question before us today with frightening clarity if we would but heed his words: “The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?” If Jesus is prepared to spend time in close quarters with me, who do I dare to call ‘beyond the pale’?

Twenty Questions: #8 Can These Bones Live? (Ezek. 37:3)

Sometimes God asks us what seem on the surface like some pretty ridiculous questions. Take, for instance, the question he asked 100 year old Abraham when three travellers came to his house and told him his 90 year old barren wife Sarah was going to bear a son, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Well, duh! Why do you think she laughed, God?! Or perhaps take the question Jesus asked to a man at Bethesda who had been an invalid for 38 years, “Do you want to be healed?” Well, you know what Jesus, I’m sure that that had never crossed his mind! And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the rather insensitive question Jesus posed to a heartbroken, grieving Mary at the tomb of her dearly beloved Friend, “Why are you crying?” The question we’re looking at today ranks right up there with those too, doesn’t it? God takes Ezekiel into the midst of a valley of not only dry bones but, as v. 2 is keen to point out, of very dry bones, gives him a tour of the dust heap and then has the audacity to ask, “Can these bones live?” These weren’t warm, fresh bodies on the operating table we’re talking about, these were unburied skeletons laying on the valley floor picked clean by the birds and bleached white by the hot desert sun over many months and years. Can you believe what God is asking?

“Can these bones live?” I admire Ezekiel’s restraint. If God had asked me that question, I probably would have wanted to reply, “Yeah, right! Can pigs fly? Is the Pope Hindu? Do bears have picnics in the woods?” Only, the thing is, God does ask me this question. God asks all of us this question. “Can these bones live?” In other words, can what is dead be made alive? Is there hope with God for the things we call hopeless? The question drives to the very heart of who we think God is. Do we truly believe that all things are possible with God? Do we know God as a God of resurrection, a God of the living not of the dead? Do we trust that God’s power extends beyond the grave, His jurisdiction beyond the tomb? “Can these bones live?” Well, what do you think? Can they? When faced, as Ezekiel was, with a landscape which looks so bleak, a situation which looks so desperate, a feeling which seems so debilitating, or a relationship which feels so deadening, do we look to God and have confidence that even there He may bring life? Faith like that is a gift and I’m quite sure it is something only cultivated by much time spent in close company with the Lord.

“Can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s answer is literally to say, “God knows!” And though we often hear people say those words in a rather flippant, irreverent way, what Ezekiel is saying is exactly right. If those bones are going to live, if life is going to be restored to them, it’s going to have to be down to God to do it. If new life is going to come upon dry bones it’s not going to be because of anything we do, rather it’s going to have to be an act of divine grace. Ezekiel rightly sees that to fix what is wrong on earth, to bring life where things are so lifeless, is going to take heavenly intervention. What a fundamental truth this is. Life, all life, is a gift of grace. That is why my Church, the Church of England, expects its clergy to say Morning Prayer every day; because it knows that we need God’s grace to bring life to anything that that day may hold. If dry bones are going to live, we need to remember that if anyone is going to give them life, it’s God. We can’t fix what is wrong in our lives by ourselves, we need God’s grace. The same goes for our sin, as well. Our sin is simply too great to just roll up our sleeves, try harder, do better and work our way out of it. That is why Jesus came to save us. That is what makes the Cross so offensive to us, because it declares loud and clear, “You need help. And I’m here to help you.” Now for independent, grown-up and self-sufficient people like us, that’s hard to hear.

“Can these bones live?” Yes, but only if God breathes new life into them, only if God’s Spirit quickens them. Bone can come together with bone, sinews can join them, skin can cover them—there can be all the outward vesture and appearance of life, but until the living breath of God enters them, they are not truly alive. So it is with us. We may look pretty healthy on the surface, but unless God’s Spirit is the breath within us, we are not yet alive. It is the Spirit which gives life, just as it brooded with life-giving intent over the primordial waters of creation. But do we really know that we only live because God makes us alive? Surely if we did, we would never stop praying for more of His Holy Spirit. People who believe that all life comes from God will pray at all times. Conversely, people who believe that they generally have it within themselves to do most things and to fix the problems they face will only pray when they feel particularly up against it. Which camp do we fit in, I wonder? We must learn to pray as the needy children of God we are.

“Can these bones live?” For me as I prepare to enter ordination training, ministerial formation for the priesthood, this is a particularly pertinent question in a whole number of different ways. It challenges me on my prayer life. It challenges me on my view of who God is. It challenges me also on my hopes and expectations for the future. If, God-willing, I am ordained there is a good chance that I will not always serve large, vibrant, active and Spirit-filled churches from the start. But the question is whether I would be prepared to go and serve a church or an area whose vital signs seem particularly weak (even, non-existent) in the hope that our God is a God who raises the dead, who brings life where there wasn’t life before? I hope and pray that over the next couple of years, God might give me that kind of faith. And perhaps God is challenging you with this question this today also. Is there something in your life which feels dead, lifeless and beyond hope? If so, perhaps you need to reassess whether you have written off that situation too soon in view of the grace of a God who brings life to even the most brittle of dry bones.

Take a look around. Look at what’s dead—in your life, in the lives of family and friends, in the life of your community, in the life of the world at large. God has a question for you: “Can these bones live?” God knows, but do you? Can what is dead be made alive? The answer, of course, is “Yes”; but only if God’s Spirit lives in and among us, creating in us a new heart with both the will and the wherewithal to live as God wants us to. If that’s the case, then what’s stopping us praying this most simple of all Christian prayers: “Come, Holy Spirit, come”?

Twenty Questions: #7 Whom Shall I Send? (Is. 6:8)

Like so many of the questions that we have and will be looking at in this series of reflections, this one says a lot about the character of the one asking it. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I’m sure it’s a question we’ve heard many times before in many different guises (and not just from the pulpit, either)—in the workplace, in the school, in the clubs and societies we’re part of. “The annual staff Christmas party needs organising. Is there anyone willing to take on the job for us this year?” “I need a couple of people to stay back after class to move some furniture around. Can anybody help me?” “Our treasurer has had to step down unexpectedly. Is there someone else who would be prepared to step in and do this for us?” A call for volunteers is, then, not something particularly remarkable. What is so remarkable about this call for volunteers, however, is the one doing the calling—the Lord of heaven and earth. Our God is a God of invitation, a God who calls us to be part of His mission in the world, a God who asks us to work with Him in the world and not merely for Him.

In the mythical creation stories of Israel’s neighbours, it is common to hear tales of how the great gods, burdened with the responsibility of governing the universe, created lesser gods to relieve the workload. In turn, when even that did not do the trick, these lesser gods complained that they were overworked and so humans we made to do the hard, heavy labour the gods found too tiring. Humans, according to this narrative, were therefore to serve as slaves for the gods. The Judeo-Christian understanding, however, is quite different. Humans are made in the divine image. They are granted (indeed, commanded) leisure—a prerogative usually reserved for kings and deities. Moreover, as we read later in the book of Isaiah, this God “does not faint or grow weary” (Is. 40:28), and therefore has no need for an army of servants to help Him out with the chores of running the universe. As Paul tells the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). God does not ask, “Whom shall I send?” because He is too lazy to do it, or because He has any kind of lack which we can provide; He asks because (as was His plan in the beginning), He wants us to be fully involved in the running of His world.

“Whom shall I send?” It is a question asked by a God who is Himself on a mission. We catch a glimpse of God’s mission, I believe, in Jesus’ parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). God is like the master of the house who, all through the day, keeps going out to bring more and more workers into his vineyard. By the eleventh hour, surely the workers who are left in town are there for a reason—they’re the ones nobody else wanted to hire because they’re layabouts and skivers. And yet still the master hires them. The question, surely, is: why does the master keep going back and forth into town to hire more people? Does he just keep miscalculating the work that there is to be done and the number of people he’ll need to get it done, or is it rather that he sees the workers standing idle waiting to be hired and wants to give them something meaningful to do in his vineyard? God’s mission is to keep bringing people like us into the work He is doing in the world. God has always wanted humans made in His image to govern the world under Him. God’s mission is to reach out and pull us into the role for which we were made.

“Whom shall I send?” It’s a dangerous question that God asks us. Will Willimon jokes that we ought to put a warning on the doors to our churches saying, “Don’t come in here if you don’t want to be sent out again with an assignment.” God may not need our help, but He does ask for our help in order that we may learn the family business from Him. God seeks people who will get involved with Him in His work, people who will raise their hand and say, “I’ll go.” God is looking for volunteers, people who will willingly offer themselves to God’s service. And as the story of Isaiah’s commissioning demonstrates, such an offering is a response to our experience of forgiveness and cleansing at God’s hands. Isaiah offers himself to God’s service, even though (as we find out in the verses which follow) it is a pretty thankless task to which he is called. Still, though, he goes. As the words of bidding before the Methodist Covenant service says: “Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. … Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.”

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Are we prepared to be sent by God, to become participants with Him in the work of bringing His rule to earth as it is in heaven? Are we willing to let God send us into our homes, our schools, our workplaces, clubs and communities to speak, act and live for Him wherever He would put us? Are we ready to put our hand up with Isaiah and say, “I’ll go” in response to the gracious invitation of a God who wants to use and involve us in the work of filling the world with His love and truth and power? The Book of Common Prayer offers us these words to make our own if we do:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you most humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And give us, we pray, such a sense of all your mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we might show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Twenty Questions: #6 How Shall We Sing The Lord’s Song In A Foreign Land? (Ps. 137:4)

With its mournful lament and white hot rage offering a benediction to anyone who gives Babylon its comeuppance by dashing their babies against the rocks, it is probably fair to say that Psalm 137 will probably not be winning the Favourite Psalm competition any time soon. It is hard for most of us in the relative comfort of the Western world to fathom the scale of the loss which had befallen the psalmist and his generation. Jerusalem lies in ruins. The Temple, the sign and symbol of God’s presence among his people, is razed to the ground. Its treasures are gone, now trophies among the spoils of war. Family and friends are dead (including many Jewish children, it seems). What’s more, many who are left are uprooted and deported hundreds of miles away from their ancestral homes to live in an unknown land among people who do not speak their language.

Is it any wonder, then, that when their captors wanted them to put on a show with a medley of their joyful songs from home, they asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The question God gives us to ask for ourselves today is a question for exiles. It is a question for those who know that they live in a “foreign land”. How do we sing God’s praises where we are, even when we are far from where we want to be with God? As Christians and citizens of God’s kingdom, we are not at home in this world. We know that the kingdom of heaven has broken in among us, but still God’s rule is far from being fully realised on earth as in heaven. The psalmist says, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.” A few years ago when I visited Jerusalem, I picked up an engraving of this verse on stone. Now it sits by my desk as a reminder of where my true home is—the new Jerusalem, the City of God, that place where God’s rule is reality.

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” For us, here and now, I suggest it means singing in the knowledge that there is a still more beautiful song waiting to be sung. At church, in worship, word and sacrament, the Spirit peels back the veil which separates us from heaven and grants us a glimpse of that wonderful City where God’s throne is front and centre. When Christians come together into God’s presence as a church and sing His praises, then we begin to experience what heaven shall be like. Now we rehearse the overture which contains all the main themes of the piece, but the symphony waits to be heard and sung in full. Though no eye has seen or ear heard the things God has planned for us, the Bible teaches us to expect plenty of singing when we are gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb in the fullness of the kingdom. Our lives now are one long choir rehearsal. All the time, we are being prepared to sing the eternal song of love.

We are not home yet. True worship should make us homesick. Like an amuse bouche to a meal, it should whet our appetite but not satisfy our craving. We must learn to sing with Jerusalem in our hearts and minds, knowing full well that there is no song we could sing here to compare with that song we will sing with the multitude on the day when God’s rule and reign is established over all the earth. Isaiah 11:9 gives us the vision of the day we are looking towards, a day when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” One day no land will be foreign to God’s presence and power, but until that day we have got to sing with longing. We must learn to sing in the hope and anticipation of the veil which separates heaven and earth being stretched so thin it breaks. Just as Jews at the Seder meal of Passover, perhaps so do we also need to learn to say about our songs of praise, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Twenty Questions: #5 My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Ps. 22:1)

Because of the way Jesus takes up this question from the cross, this is probably one of the best known (if not the best known) question asked in the entire Bible. And it seems appropriate that we should reflect on this question today especially, Friday—the day of the crucifixion. Although we do not know the precise circumstances surrounding the psalmist’s impassioned complaint to God, it probably doesn’t take much for us to imagine the kind of feelings which prompted him to utter this most anguished of petitions. Where are you, God? Why have you turned your back on me? Have you gone and left me for dead? I’m sure many of us have had occasion to ask God this question at one time or another in our lives. It is a question which doesn’t go away. It penetrates right to the heart of one of the most pressing things we want to know: where is God in our pain and suffering? This question, then, not only articulates what many of us will have already felt or thought, but it also offers encouragement for where we may take our feelings of God-forsakenness.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This Cry of Dereliction expresses the emotional turmoil we feel in our distress when it seems that God is both silent and absent. The psalmist continues, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Perhaps a better translation than ‘groaning’ is ‘roaring’. The Hebrew word used is that used of a lion’s roar or the roar of thunder in a storm. ‘Groaning’ makes it sound so polite, so civilised (and so very British): “I’m terribly sorry God, but I wonder, if it’s not too much trouble, at your earliest convenience, if you could possibly see your way to telling me why you seem so far off? There’s probably a perfectly good explanation for it, but if you could tell me, I’d be much obliged. Yours truly, the psalmist.” No. In the midst of his afflictions, he rages to God. And it’s instructive that even though the psalmist feels like he’s getting the divine cold shoulder, he still keeps raging, he still keeps crying out to God. Why? Because he knows who God is. Even though he’s going through the mill, even though he doesn’t understand why what’s happening is happening, he takes comfort in the memory of God’s past faithfulness to those who have trusted in Him. In the meantime, he takes his feelings of God-forsakenness to God and challenges Him on it. Perhaps, there’s a lesson in there for us when we’re feeling similarly abandoned.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s interesting that the question is not, “Why have you let this happen to me?” so much as it is, “Why have you left me?” The difference, though subtle, is important. Of course, there could be the implication (as with Mary and Martha in the story of the raising of Lazarus), that if He was there, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place; however, the former says that the situation itself is the problem, whereas the latter says that the lack of God’s presence in the situation is the problem. The pain the psalmist feels most is not the particular pain of his sufferings, but the pain of being so far-removed from God. Perhaps the situation would be more bearable if only he knew God’s presence in it. And it is as Christ utters this Cry of Dereliction from the Cross, He shows us the heart of a God who comes near to us in our God-forsakenness. As G. K. Chesterton has so masterfully put it, Christ’s cry from the cross “confessed that God was forsaken of God.” God’s answer to our question is the voice of His own Son crying out our very same cry.

Now, therefore, when our lives seem to be unravelling at the seams and we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we can look to the Cross and know that God has not forsaken us at all. When we feel so horribly isolated and God so terribly far away, we can look to the Cross and know that He, in His amazing grace, has come towards us. Christ enters into our God-forsakenness so that we may never know ourselves God-forsaken. Why particular trials or sufferings come upon us, we still don’t know; but what we can know beyond all doubt is that it is not because God doesn’t care. And so, to quote Chesterton once more: “Let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we ask. Never again can we ask that question without hearing Christ echo it from His Cross and knowing that He hasn’t. Thanks be to God!

Twenty Questions: #4 How Long Will You Go Limping Between Two Different Opinions? (1 Ki. 18:21)

Now we skip a few hundred years and a few hundred pages in our Bibles from stories about the world and Israel’s origins to a story about Israel’s place in the world. The question God asks us today (through his servant) comes from the account of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. It’s a story which many will have heard in Sunday School, I’m sure. After the high-point of the united monarchy under King David, the nation has split into two distinct countries—Judah to the south and Israel to the north. Since David’s reign, things have been going steadily downhill, with ruler after ruler turning their backs on the covenant with God to worship foreign deities. King Ahab’s rule in the northern kingdom is probably about as bad as they come. Under the influence of Queen Jezebel, the prophets of the Lord are persecuted and worship of the Philistine fertility god Baal becomes commonplace. At God’s command, Elijah (not a welcome figure in the royal court, as I’m sure you can imagine) seeks out Ahab to settle things once and for all. He proposes a challenge. The prophets of Baal and Elijah will each set up offerings on an altar and the God who answers by consuming the offering with fire, he is the true God.

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” In other words, “How much longer are you going to sit on the fence? Make up your mind who is the true God and worship them.” In the Hebrew, it’s even more colourful, literally: “How long will you flit around like a bird from one branch to another?” The phrasing of the question only becomes more ironic as the prophets of Baal “limp around” (i.e. jumping up and down, backwards and forwards) their altar in some kind of religious dance intended to induce Baal to action (v. 26). As questions go, this one is pretty blunt. Clearly, God isn’t afraid to ask us searching questions in what may sometimes seem a rather harsh and uncompromising way. Indeed, it seems that that was exactly what was needed in this situation, with the people of Israel wandering so aimlessly away from Him. The point of Elijah’s question is simple: there’s no place for half-heartedness or distraction in our worship of God; if he is the one true God, we need to jump into following him with both feet.

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” It is a timeless question. If we believe that God is indeed God, then the fact is there’s no room for sitting on the fence. As Søren Kierkegaard so wonderfully once put it, Christ seeks followers not admirers. There can be no such thing as a casual Christian. If Jesus Christ is Lord, we need to take up our cross and follow Him; but if he’s not, it doesn’t matter. Tim Keller, in his book The Reason for God, gets it spot on when he says, “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but on whether or not he rose from the dead.” If we believe that Jesus is alive and the loving ruler of all, then we need to come down quickly from our perch and start living in accordance with that reality. If Jesus is alive, risen from the dead and exalted at God’s right hand, then he is Lord and we need to start treating him as the Lord of our lives instead of all the other things we put there instead.

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” If all the money in the world will give you an extra hour of life when you’re dead and buried, then chase after money and trample everyone in your way to get it. If sex or romance will give you the unfailing, unconditional love that you crave deep down, then build your life on it. If a job or a career will give meaning to your life even if you fail at it or can’t do it any more, then pursue it with all your might. If physical health will stop the ageing process and keep death at bay for ever, then get your fill of goji berries and run a marathon every day. But if Jesus will die for our sins, love us when we’re unlovable, forgive us eternally when we fail him consistently, and fulfil us completely by showing us and making us who God made us to be, then surely we have to leave everything else behind and follow him. We all have to live for something, and whatever that something is will be our God. So who or what will it be? “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” Let us, therefore, fly like little birds and make our nest in the Tree of Life—the Cross of our Saviour.