Monday, July 1, 2013
A driver losses control of his car and it careens off the road over a 500 foot cliff. Miraculously, he is able to jump free from the falling car and grab hold of a small sapplying growing from the side of the cliff. He holds on for dear life, not being able to climb up and way too high up to survive the fall down. He looks up to the ledge and begins to shout, “Help me! Help me! Is there anybody up there?” At that moment the clouds part and a single ray of light shines on the clinging man. A voice says, “I am here, my child.” “Is that you, God,” asks the man? “It is I,” God answers back. “How can I help you.” “Well,” the man says, “I am hanging on the side of this cliff here and I need you to save me.” “How strong is your faith, my child?” “It is getting stronger by the moment,” the man answers. “Then, my child,” God says, “You must let go of the sappling you are holding, begin to fall, and have faith that my angels will catch you before you crash onto the rocks below.” The man thinks about it for a moment and, uncomfotable with this plan, shouts, “Is there anybody else up there who can help me?”
Needing help is not a comfortable place to be. Perhaps you are deep into a home renovation project and realize either you don’t have the skills necessary to finish it or simply need an extra set of hands. Asking a friend for help may prove a little humbling, but on a scale of 1-10 – 10 being the most difficult – this is a 1 or 2 at best. Say you lost your job and have to ask a family member for a signicant amount of money. Now we are talking about a 9 or 10.
Out of curioisty I conducted a google search of the phrase “I need help” thinking I might get information on local handymen. To my surprise websites came up that offer fast and easy loans or that reach out to alcoholics, those suffering from depression, and people affected with a bipolor disorder. There is a ‘heaviness’ to needing help. Often times it is no small matter. And there is a risk involved too. When we ask for help we become vulnerable to the person who helps us. I did a quote seach for the word “help” and my favorite by far was a quip by Ronald Reagan who loved to say that the two scariest sentences a person can pair together are (1) “I am from the government” and (2) “I am here to help.”
Over the past few weeks our Old Testament lessons have told us the story of the prophet Elijah. Much of his minstry took place during the reign of Ahab, who the bible regards as one of the worst kings ever to sit on the throne in Israel. He married a Canaanite named Jezebeel and she had a strong, forceful personality. The marriage did at least two things: it made for peace between the Israelites and the Canaanites and it introduced Canaanite culture into Israel’s society. For centuries the people of Israel maintained strick distinctions between themselves and the people around them. Nowhere was this more true than religious practices. Israel held that God is one and that God is a jealous God. They were to worship God and God alone. Jezebeel introduced elements and symbols of Canaanite worship into ever sacred place in the land. Baal worship was all the rage. It was what you did to fit in during this new administration.
Elijah challenged all of this by setting up a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal to see whose God could bring down fire from above on a sacrafical altar. After Baal’s prophets failed, Elijah had gallons and gallons of water pour over the altar to make his task even more diffcult. Then he prayed and God sent down fire that consumed not only the sacrifice but also all of the Baal prophets.
We also heard how Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebeel for the murder of Naboth. The king wanted to purchase Naboth’s ancestral land but was rebuffed. Jezebeel then came up with a scheme to have Naboth falsly accused and then stoned to death. Only Elijah had the courage to speak out against this injustice. Well, its funny how the corupt and powerful don’t like people who criticize them. Elijah has to flee into the wilderness to save his own life. He endures hunger and thirst, hot days and cold nights, and the thought that danger could always be just around the corner either in the form of the king’s henchmen or in a confrontation with a wild beast.
He finally makes his way to Mt. Horeb, which is where Moses first encountered God in the burning bush. Here God speaks to Elijah and Elijah speaks to God. Well, it would be more accurate to say Elijah complains to God. He complains that all he has done has made no difference at all. He complains that God’s work has forced him to run for his life. He complains about the hardships he has been forced to endure. Most of all, he complains that he is completely alone – the only person in all of Israel who has not been corupted by Canaanite worship and culture.
God listens patiently and then God says to Elijah, “You need help.” “Go back to Israel,” God says, “and annoint Hazael as king over Aram and Jehu as king of Israel. Then go to Abel-meholah and annoint Elisha as a prophet. Do this and you will have the help you need.” The biblical author of the First Book of Kings does not record if Elijah asked if there was anyone else up there he could talk to.
God recognizes something that Elijah does not. God recognizes that Elijah can not do alone the reforming work God has called him to do. The task is too big, too demanding, too taxing to be born by just one person. Elijah needs help; help that is spiritual and help that is secular; help that is as personal as a companion and as powerful as a ruling authority.
Maybe it was in Elijah’s personality to gut it out and go it alone. Maybe he was afraid to ask for help or perhaps the thought never occurred to him. At this place where I feel a deep connection with the prophet. Several times over the course of my marriage my ex-wife said she wanted us to go to counselling. Each time I resisted, believing that I could change on my own and make things better in our relationship. I also believed that going to counseling for help was a sign of weakness, failure, and shame. I look back on that now and believe my unwillingness to get help was the single biggest thing I did that contributed to the end of my marriage. By the time we went to counseling it was too late.
How about you? Do you find it difficult to ask for help? Have you resisted in the past or even now? If so, why? What is it that holds you back? If you wanted help, to whom would you go? I’ve known people who believe the only help a person should need comes from within. One’s own strengh and fortitude ought to be ennough. I’ve known people who believe faith in God is the only help a person should need. Pray enough and God will show you the way. These folks hold that going to a counsellor, for example, indicates weakness of faith. And I’ve known people who hold that there is no such thing as spiritual help. Going to church, praying, taking communion, and the like have no value for them whatsoever.
The help that God gave to Elijah affirms the value of sacred and secular. When we face a health crisis we need a doctor and we need our faith. When we have a legal problem we need a lawyer and we need our faith. When we have a rodent problem we need an exterminator and we need our faith.
In the Old Testament Elijiah is second only to Moses in working great signs and wonders. God helps Elijah in some fanstastic ways; a quick fire here, raising a child from the dead over there. His prophetic words have immediate impact sending the king and queen into a rage. But there is something different about the help that God offers this time. It is not a quick fix or a short-term solution. Yes, we read today that Elisha takes up the prophetic call, but it will be Elisha, not Elijah, who will annoint Hazael and Jehu as kings, and that will not happen for some time. Help will not look like something immediate and spectular, rather it will unfold over the course of time through ordinary events. The change will be solid and substantive.
When we call a plumber for help hopefully we will get a quick fix and a reasonable bill. Other times we need help that will be with us for the long haul – addressing a problem in the family perhaps, or battling a major health crisis. God knows that we need help from above and God knows that we need help from those around us. God is willing and able to provide both. Perhaps the question is are we willing to accept it, or, for that matter, even to ask for it? Elijah didn’t ask for help. He complained and complained and complained after he had reached the end of his rope. God offers help and to his credit Elijah accepts it. God listens to your prayers too. Never doubt this. Might God’s response to your prayers be “You need help”?