1 KINGS 19:14-21
THE CHURCH SHALL NEVER PERISH.
In the name + of Jesus.
This reading begins at the lowest point of Elijah's ministry and life. It comes immediately after one of the highest points. Elijah had been preaching in the northern tribes of Israel where the people were vacillating between worshiping the Lord and the Canaanite god Baal. They saw no conflicts in bouncing back and forth between them. I guess it seemed unloving to say that not everything is true. Elijah had challenged the prophets of Baal, and this challenge resulted in the Lord proving himself to be the only true God and the false god Baal to live only in men's fantasies. The prophets of Baal were put to death for leading God's people astray. It was a day of great victory.
But that victory lasted only about 24 hours. Queen Jezebel pronounced a death sentence on Elijah. The people who had rallied to the Lord just as quickly wandered away from him. Elijah traveled from Israel all the way down to Mt. Sinai to tender his resignation. In fact, he asked to be put to death. To paraphrase, Elijah said, “Lord, they don't care. I don't care. All have forsaken you. Just kill me off and be done with it. Your promise has failed. The Church is dead.”
Perhaps this is not shaping up to be the kind of pep talk you would expect for a church anniversary. Granted, things are not as bad as they were for Elijah, but that does not mean they are glorious. Take a look at the Christian Church today. It is fractured. There are schisms between church bodies and in-fighting within them. Churches mean in convention to formally reject portions of God's word, and pastors overthrow Commandments in the name of “love.” The world cheers when Christians forsake God's word—either by neglecting the hearing of it or rejecting the content of it. The Bride of Christ is not very pretty in this world, and she has not been very faithful.
Elijah thought that the Bride of Christ was dead. He asked to be relieved of his duties. Instead, the Lord gave Elijah work to do. “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.... and Jehu ... to be king over Israel, and Elisha ... to be prophet in your place.” (1 Kings 19:15-16) The Lord would not ignore those who had led his people astray. Justice would come—either at the sword point of kings or at the condemning word of God's prophets. And Elijah would not be the last prophet. God's word would continue to be preached, and the Church would not perish.
Even though Elijah could not see any evidence of it, the Church had not perished. The Lord told him, “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18) Among the scores of people who lived in and around the northern tribes of Israel, God had graciously and amazingly preserved 7,000 in the true faith. They were certainly a minority, and the likely felt like it—alone, helpless, and defeated. So the Lord sent Elijah back, because they needed a pastor. The Church would not perish. Elijah was even commissioned to ordain their next pastor, Elisha. Elijah's ministry would not end until God's say-so, and Elisha would still be there to preach and teach, to comfort and encourage, to console and to strengthen God's faithful people. The Church would not perish.
The Lord Jesus Christ does the same for us today. If we assess our own lives, we do not live up to the standard God sets for us. We go through streaks in our Christian life—sometimes determined to live godly lives and devoted to God's word, other times giving in to temptation because we are tired of fighting it and dismissing God's word for other pleasures. We grow weary of doing good and being faithful because many are not and seem none the worse for it.
For 35 years, Good Shepherd has gathered as a Christian congregation for the same reason the Lord sent Elijah back to Israel—because sinners need God's mercy. When you are giving into your sinful nature, you need to be called to repent. Sin has no place in the life of a Christian. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians about such sins: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21) Our sins need to be rooted out and put to death. To let them live or to live with them will eventually destroy faith. We confess that our lives are not pretty, either. But the Lord Jesus Christ still loves us. He continues to summon us to come to him. And when we come, Jesus is not angry with us. He does not regret his sacrifice for us. Instead, he continues to bless and to soothe and to save.
This is why the Church shall never perish. Just as the Lord was able to sustain 7,000 Israelites in the true faith when unfaithfulness was common, popular, and even celebrated, so the Lord is able to sustain his flock today. The Church shall never perish because the Lord Jesus does not tire of declaring his love for us. That love is proclaimed from this pulpit. It is applied to individuals at the baptismal font. It is proclaimed and participated in as we eat and drink the Lord's Supper. Through these, the Lord Jesus continues to cleanse us from our unrighteousness by his holy, precious blood. Jesus shed that blood as the payment for our sins, and he supplies its benefits through his ministers who administer God's blessings in the word and the sacraments.
That is why the Lord sent Elijah back to Israel and anointed Elisha as the next prophet for Israel. The word of the Lord needed to be proclaimed to people who were faithful but weary; who sought God's righteousness but were only seeing most people mock it; who needed to know that even though the majority was not faithful to the Lord, the Lord was certainly faithful and merciful to them. And the Lord would carry out his will through material means—whether it would be with the sword of Hazael and Jehu, or with the mouths of Elijah and Elisha. The Lord had not abandoned his post. The Lord had not gone on sabbatical from his reign. His mercy endures forever, and therefore so does his Church. The Church shall never perish.
For 35 years, God has been pleased to preserve this congregation and to have the pure gospel preached and the sacraments rightly administered. But we are not gathered this day to congratulate ourselves for it. We are only here because the Holy Spirit has been pleased to gather a small group of Christians who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Therefore, we delight in the word where his mercy is revealed and delivered. We flock to the sacraments where he satisfies our thirst and feeds us with the righteousness we need. And we beg others to join us, because we know that they need it too.
I do not know if God will bless us so that we will grow into a mammoth congregation or if we will remain a small group of believers. I suppose anniversary Sundays are supposed to be filled with visions of grandeur where we envision ourselves becoming the largest church in town. But that sounds more like a political stump speech than the word of God. The Lord did not tell Elijah to grow the church, only to preach the word. And 7,000 people who craved it would weep for joy that they would get to hear it. That is all God has given us to do. If this congregation should perish for some reason (for, others have), let it not be because we were afraid to declare God's praise or because we got bored with God's grace. And if this congregation does perish, God's word will not. He will protect and preserve his people. The Church shall never perish.
The Bride of Christ may not be pretty to people who look at her, but the Lord Jesus has cleansed his Church. He washes you clean, wipes away every spot and blemish of sin, and dresses you in garments of salvation. Jesus has taken from you all that is corrupt in you, and he has bestowed upon you all that is good in him. The world may despise the Church because she will only be faithful to her betrothed. But there is no need to flirt with the world; for, Jesus alone saves you. He is devoted to you and enamored with you. That is all that matters. The Church is his Bride. Jesus presents her to himself as one who is beautiful and blameless. And just as the Lord's mercy endures forever, so does his Church. The Church will never perish and, therefore, neither will you. You are his, both now and forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.