Scripture: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62; Psalm 16 or 16:5-11
Title: Where are your Oxen?
I thought it would be appropriate to begin today by just introducing myself to you briefly, as a congregation.
So who am I?
My name is Joseph B. Howard, a name that I share with my dad, JB, who happens to be here today visiting with us—though I’ve always been called Jody. I was born and raised in Asheville North Carolina and I attended the University of North Carolina, Asheville, after which I went to the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee TN where I graduated in 2006.
While in seminary I met my lovely wife Anna who was a teaching assistant at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and we got married shortly after I graduated from Sewanee. For the past year I served as a “Curate” and assistant at Trinity Church in Winchester TN.
That of course only tells part of the story. I’m going to leave out a lot of details that I’m sure I’ll share at some point along the way, but I want to hit some of the highlights.
I was raised a Southern Baptist though my family fell out of Church attendance when I was fairly young. Growing up in that environment I heard a lot of sermons about the importance of accepting Jesus into your heart as the means of salvation.
I know that I didn’t really understand everything behind it, but when I was around 7 or 8 I remember being in bed one night saying my prayers and it came to my mind that I had never specifically asked Jesus into my heart and I suddenly felt this overwhelming need and desire to do so. The thing is, I had never really felt like Jesus wasn’t there, but I felt like I needed “more” so I prayed a prayer asking Jesus to come and live in my heart, and I believe that he did, because all of the anxiety I remember having felt at that moment was gone and replaced by the sort of feeling of wellbeing and care.
That’s one major turning point…
My family still wasn’t attending church regularly as I grew up, and by the time I reached High School I started to feel a real need and desire to find a church home. I had gotten involved in a young-life group at that point and felt a real need to go deeper, so I started to look around at different churches.
It wasn’t really until my first year of college that I found a church where I felt like God was really present for me in worship.
And it was at the same time, during those first years of college that several things came to a head.
I was looking for a church
I had some teenage angst
I saw things in PI work…
All of this worked together to bring me to a point of recognition that I am not good, it is Jesus in me who is good.
I couldn’t avoid any of the things I’d been so judgmental about on my own—in fact, I’d probably jump into them with both feet if not for Jesus…
“Where but for the grace of God go I…”
So now you know a little bit more about me and where I am coming from… and I pray that over the next several weeks I’ll have the opportunity to hear more of your stories and how you’ve come to call St. Francis home.
You should know that I’ve been thinking all week—longer than that actually—about what I should say to you all this morning.
About how much time I should spend on introducing myself to you and giving you an idea of where I am coming from, telling you about my background, and how much time I should spend digging into our scripture lessons this morning.
And, as often happens when I first read the lectionary text, I thought to myself—“Oh boy, what do any of these readings have to do with this being the first day of a new ministry… how can I work these in…” and “what could God possibly have to say to St. Francis from his word this morning, how do I know without knowing them better, what’s in this for a community like St. Francis’?”
And then it hit me…like a ton of spiritual bricks…
I’m sitting here wondering what our readings have to do with the start of a new ministry…and our Old Testament reading is about Elijah calling Elisha…
I was wondering how I could see the way the readings might connect with what you have been going through at St. Francis when I haven’t been here to experience it with you…and our Gospel reading is about how we as disciples are to follow Jesus—something that we all need to hear and be reminded of again and again.
So then it occurred to me that the Holy Spirit is at work, and there is indeed a message here for us this morning wherever we are in our walk with Christ.
If I had to pick one word to summarize all of our readings this morning, it would have to be “faithfulness…”
Each one of these lessons screams out this one word, this one concept: faithfulness.
More than that, they teach us what faithfulness looks like.
We have a tendency to limit the concept of faithfulness, of faith, to a sort of murky concept of believing.
But I want to focus on three other aspects of faithfulness—of being full of faith—that sometimes receive less attention: submission, perseverance and hope.
Each of our lessons today is in some way about submission to the will of God, perseverance through struggles and doubts, and the hope that keeps us going despite the hardships.
Our Old Testament lesson begins with God giving a command to Elijah: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…” but before we can understand the gravity of that command, we need to know that the first half of chapter 19 is totally taken up with Elijah trying to escape from death at the hands of Jezebel, the pagan queen of Israel at the time.
And it helps us to know Elijah’s state of mind when we consider his words to God, right before God commanded him to go:
“I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away.”
These don’t exactly seem to be the words of someone who’s ready to make a move, to go confront his enemies, but God commands it and Elijah goes, whatever his misgivings may have been.
Elijah submitted his will to God’s and persevered in the midst of his hardships in large part because he had the hope provided by his faith: that even though he felt like he was the only faithful one left, God wasn’t going to leave him alone…
I’ve always thought the particular pairing of Old Testament and Gospel lessons for today was ironic. When we look at the example of Elisha, it might seem that our Old Testament reading is conflicting with our Gospel lesson.
In our Old Testament lesson, after Elijah has placed his mantle on Elisha and called him from plowing his fields, Elisha asks to go back to kiss his father and his mother, to which Elijah replies, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” In other words, “how am I preventing you?”
Yet in our gospel lesson we have two examples of people with similar requests being told to “let the dead bury their dead” or that “no one who puts hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God…”
And yet, really our readings are saying the same thing: persevere, have hope and don’t get distracted or bogged down in your trials or in what others might say. Be faithful to God.
You see, a person who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is someone who is not totally committed, and their work shows it…
Has anyone here ever plowed a field or seen it done? Especially with a horse or a mule? How is it done? (with the reigns around your neck and shoulders ets…)
Well, you can imagine that someone looking back over their shoulder at something while they’re plowing isn’t going to be able to direct their plow animals very well, whether they’re oxen, or mules or horses.
Now compare that to what Elisha did. Yes he went back—and though we’re not told we can assume he told his father and mother goodbye—and yet, he didn’t only do that, he also sacrificed his Oxen.
Plow animals were important, and when Elisha sacrificed them he was making a statement about his commitments—he wasn’t maintaining farming as a fall-back option, he was all-in for God and he sacrificed his oxen to prove it.
Elisha was committed—he’d submitted himself to God and was ready to persevere because of his hope…
Finally, consider Jesus…Luke tells us at the beginning of our reading “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem…”
Jesus knew where he was going, and he knew it was time—rather than linger where he was, he submitted himself to the will of the Father and “set his face” toward Jerusalem—toward the Cross and Easter—because of the hope that he carried with him.
Jesus knew he needed to get to Jerusalem, that his purpose at that moment was there…that God wanted him to go to the city that killed the prophets to fulfill the prophets.
So he set his face…
Luke describes him as a picture of determination, never going off track.
When he went to the Samaritan village and they did not receive him because he was going to Jerusalem while they worshipped on the hill of Samaria, he couldn’t be bothered to respond to their rejection…
Why waste time, he knew where he was headed.
That’s why he rebuked James and John for their offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the village.
Jesus knew where he was headed and if one village wouldn’t receive him, they’d move on to the next because the time was getting short.
The two questions I want to hold up before us this morning, as individuals and as a community here at St. Francis, are these:
In thinking about the story of Elijah and Elisha, what are the oxen that we need to slaughter and bring to God? What are the things that are holding us back, the things that we keep looking over our shoulders at so that we’re having a hard time moving forward, a hard time fully submitting to God’s will in our lives?
And in considering our Lord Jesus, and the days when he drew near to Jerusalem, going toward the city and the cross with such purpose—what is our Jerusalem? Where is it that we’re to set our sites? Where is God calling us to sacrifice and new life in him?
If we can answer those questions for ourselves and as a Church, then we’ll be well on our way to where God wants us to be, living out of faithfulness and completely commited to him. Amen.