An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Don’t Try This Alone

A sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-15a & Luke 8: 26-39 by Nathan Nettleton

In a few minute time, as we do every year on our Church Anniversary, we are going to ask who will form the church in this place for its next year. Our church’s continuation into its one hundred and fifty seventh year is not a given. If no one, or almost no one is willing to commit themselves to one another to make it happen, then it will not, and this church will close down, more or less immediately. So as we prepare to make that commitment, or not, the question begging for an answer is “why?”. Evidently, less and less people think it is worth doing. Fewer and fewer of them choose to associate themselves with churches, and churches are closing down all over the place. So what if one more closes? Even among people who reckon Jesus is worth a try, more and more of them say they’ll gladly take Jesus, but take a pass on the church thanks. And given the scandals, corruption and abuse that have torn so many churches apart, one can hardly blame them. So what’s the point? Should we go ahead with this, or give it away as an unnecessary and meaningless relic of a bygone era?

The readings we heard tonight were not chosen for an anniversary service — they are the same ones many churches are hearing today — but I think they do shed some light on these questions for us. In particular, they sound a warning about what trying to live out the faith alone really means. The first reading contained one of the best known stories of the prophet Elijah. Normally, if I were to preach on this story, I would probably be speaking of its call to enter into times of prayerful solitude and silence to open ourselves to God’s word in the still small voice, or to translate it more literally, in the sound of thin silence. And indeed there is a line in our covenant that we’ll hear shortly that acknowledges that “we are called to attend to the voice of God in scripture reading and prayerful silence”. But there are many who have chosen to separate the path of prayer and spirituality from the church. Go into most bookshops and you’ll find the books on spirituality in the “self-help” section. It’s seen as a personal thing. And there are “spirituality centres” around offering guidance in prayer and meditation and self-development to plentiful customers who have no involvement in churches.

But Elijah’s encounter with God in the sound of silence was not the whole of what we heard in that story tonight, was it? And in fact, this story is perhaps not such a good advertisement for a do-it-yourself approach to prayer and spirituality at all. In fact, having noticed what I’ve noticed about it this time round, I might have trouble ever preaching on it from that angle again. You see, Elijah, after his huge public vindication in the pray-down-fire-from-heaven competition with the prophets of Baal, has now fled into the desert on his own and is so depressed and afraid that he wants God to euthanise him on the spot. “Everyone else has rejected you, God,” he says. “I am the only one left, and now they’re going to kill me.”

And an angel appears and serves him a meal, and he travels on further into the desert. Now after such a major event of personal spirituality as being fed by an angel, you’d think Elijah would be feeling pretty positive. But what does he say? “Everyone else has rejected you, God. I am the only one left, and now they’re going to kill me.” Maybe he just needs a bit more! So God tells him to go and stand outside the cave and there he has this amazing and justly famous spiritual experience, witnessing the violent fury of a cyclone, an earthquake and a bushfire and realising that God is not in them, and then hearing God in this deeply mysterious sound of thin silence. And what does Elijah have to say about life, the universe and everything after that? “Everyone else has rejected you, God. I am the only one left, and now they’re going to kill me.” At which point God seems to lose patience with Elijah’s personal spiritual quest and tells him to turn around and get back to work! And if we’d read on a few more verses, we’d have heard God let Elijah know that he’s not the only one left at all but that there are seven thousand faithful people left in Israel.

So it seems that that story is rather dubious about the benefits of trying to go it alone when it comes to prayer and spirituality. The profound personal spiritual experiences do nothing to lift Elijah out of his paralysing despair. Seems like he might have done a lot better by seeking out the company of a few of the seven thousand.

The gospel story we heard tonight is perhaps even more emphatic about this. It gives us a picture of a man who has been driven out of the company of others and who now lives alone among the tombs outside the town. He is not an unspiritual man, but the spirits that have gripped him and cut him off from his community are demonic. In fact, while he himself is now isolated from everybody, he has been colonised by a whole company of demons. So, when Jesus expels the demons, what does he tell the man to do? “Go back to your home in the town, and tell everyone how much God has done for you.” The encounter with Jesus does not just bring about an inner cleansing and a deeper personal relationship with God. It reunites him with his community and gives him a share in the ministry of the gospel among them.

My friends, any voice that calls us to a solo spirituality or a lone-ranger discipleship is not the voice of the God made known to us in Jesus. The voices that urge us to practice our faith in privacy, isolated from one another, are exposed by Jesus as demonic. They would lure us into a wilderness of despair and leave us wandering alone among the tombs. The God made known to us in Jesus comes to call us back from the places of death and lead us home, reconciling us to one another and uniting us as one body in Christ with a shared mission in the world.

Why would we commit ourselves to being a church in this coming year and on into the future? Why? Because we cannot go it alone. There are no tables for one in the banqueting room of the Kingdom. There are only group bookings available at the table of the Lord. God has made us for one another and called us to band together in congregations who gather to be nourished and commissioned to carry his life into the world. This particular church is not the only way. There are other faithful congregations of God’s people whose shared faith and discipleship takes different shapes from ours. But one thing they all have in common is that they are called together to follow Jesus in a covenant community.

I can’t stand up here and tell you that church is always wonderful and fun and will never disappoint you, let you down, or betray your trust. Every congregation of the body of Christ is scarred by sin, just as the risen body of Christ is scarred by nails. But I can tell you that there is no other way to join yourself to the Christ than through a congregation of his sin scarred body. That’s why we do what we do tonight. That’s why it matters. And so, as it puts it in the opening line of our covenant, being “called together by God as the body of Christ and a sign of his coming kingdom,” let us “commit ourselves to one another, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to love one another and be a church — a community of grace.”


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