A sermon I presented in 2008 at Payson Park Church in Belmont, MA…
Back in the mid 90’s I bought a home in rural Virginia. The house had a huge backyard. I had to keep the grass there under control, but could not afford a rider mower, so I bought three lambs instead. (I figured I’d eventually get a meal or two out of the deal, but did not tell this to the lambs.)
The Bible often compares us to sheep. Frankly, now that I’ve owned a few, that’s a scary thought.
I am not sure that sheep are as dumb as many have said they are, but they sure have a talent for getting themselves into trouble (mostly – I think – out of curiosity). When sheep are frightened, they run. However, if it is their curiosity that gets them into trouble, they often just sit there until someone comes and rescues them, rather then figuring out how to rescue themselves. I think of this behavior as a sort of silent whining.
Sheep love to climb. I remember more than one occasion where they tried to climb onto the two swings hanging from my daughter’s playset in the near corner of the backyard, in the opposite corner from where the sheep’s shed was: I’d come out in the morning and see them standing there, front hooves on the ground, back ends up in the air hanging from the slings, patiently waiting to be rescued. Every so often they’d somehow climb up on the slide – never did figure out how they did that, but I’d find them standing up there in the morning: surveying the back yard, waiting for me to show up and make it all better.
The two ewes, Heidi and Sally were fairly docile, but we were wary of the ram, Fuzzball, because he became more and more aggressive as he approached his first birthday.
One morning, Fuzzball’s curiosity collided with my own carelessness, and so earned his place in history…
We had a number of large pine trees in the back yard. Many of the lower branches of these trees were dead. One weekend, I got out my 6 foot folding stepladder to try and trim them. I leaned it against one of the trees in the near corner of the backyard, and quickly realized that even if I stood as high as I could on the ladder, I had no hope of reaching even the lowest branches. Climbing up the ladder and into the trees, which had been the plan, was simply impossible. It was getting late, so I left the ladder leaning against the tree and went in for the night.
The next morning was Monday. I woke up at my normal time to get ready for work. The window in my bedroom was open a bit, so, as I got dressed, I could hear the sheep making little bleats to each other as they grazed on the grass.
Suddenly, a rather surprised bleat sounded through the window. No big deal – I figured one of them had climbed up on the slide again, and that I would need to help it get down when I went out to feed them before leaving for work.
Just then, I heard a tremendous clattering noise. I ran to the window and looked out just in time to see Fuzzball running at top speed from the near corner of the yard, where the playset was, to the far corner, where his shed was.
He was running like a greyhound – I’ve never seen a farm animal run so fast. He must have been really scared, and it was obvious as to why: he had somehow gotten his head and front feet through the opening between the stepladder’s two center steps, the ladder sticking out on each side of his midesction, like wings. He looked like a low flying fuzzy aluminum-winged airplane streaking across the backyard.
As he prepared for each leap forward, he would scrunch his body, causing the two halves of the ladder around his midsection to slam together with a loud metallic bang. I’m sure that made him even more scared, because he ran faster with each step; and so made an even bigger crash each time. He could not get away from this horrible thing around his middle that made an ever more terrifying noise each time he moved.
I think what happened is that his love of climbing had gotten the better of him. He’d tried to climb the ladder, but had knocked the thing over on top of himself: the opening between the center two steps must have slipped over his head when it fell. The clattering I’d heard was him struggling to get to his feet afterwards.
Anyway, Fuzzball was running as fast as he could to the far corner of the backyard, to his place of ultimate safety, the closest thing we had to a cave: his shed.
A steel shed.
A steel shed with a four foot wide door.
Fuzzball had a six foot aluminum stepladder around his middle
What I heard in the few seconds that it took for all this to transpire was: Clatter Clatter Clatter … wham wham wham Wham Wham WHAM WHAM WHAM-WHAM-WHAM-BOOM!!!
The ladder fell to the ground in front of the door to the shed.
Echoes reverberated through the neighborhood.
The two ewes ran across the yard and leapt over the ladder into the shed – to check on their man, I suppose.
I ran out to check on Fuzzball too. He was hiding in the shed, but was OK, though a bit more skittish than usual. The only damage was to his pride.
I wish I had seen what happened when he entered that shed: I’m sure he made one of the most spectacular somersaults ever performed by a sheep. I also wish I’d had my video camera with me during his run – that tape would have been worth a small fortune on “America’s Funniest Home Videos”.
What I find interesting in Fuzzball’s story is that when the going got tough, Fuzzball’s brain turned off and his feet got moving. He ran. He ran for the safest place he knew. He ran in a blind panic.
I’ve often reflected that Fuzzball’s experience is not so different from how we react when we have our own over-inflated egos punctured. Perhaps this is another reason we are compared to sheep in the Bible.
Fuzzball’s story reminds me of the Old Testament story of Elijah in chapter 19 of I Kings.
Most of us who attended Sunday School as children know the story found one chapter earlier:
In chapter 18 of I Kings, the Bible says that in punishment for turning away from the Lord, the land of Israel was afflicted with a severe drought, as had been prophesied by Elijah. During that time, the Lord protected Elijah from King Ahab’s wrath. First, God hid Elijah and cared for him in a hidden valley. When the stream dried up, God told Elijah to journey to the home of a widow in another country. Elijah’s miracles and prophecies during these years proved that he was a great Man of God.
After three years of drought, God told Elijah to return to Israel and challenge the prophets of Baal to a match.
The challenge was this: if Baal was a real god, then he should be able to burn his own sacrifice without human help. If Elijah’s God was a real god, then He would be able to light the fire and burn up the sacrifice without human help. The King and people of Israel all came to watch this great contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
Well, the prophets of Baal failed, despite building a huge altar, dancing and worshipping their god for a whole day, and doing all sorts of strange things to try and win Baal’s favor. Elijah looked-on all the while, making fun of them.
Elijah then built his own simple altar, drowned it with water, and said a short prayer: that was it!
Then, lightening came down from the sky, setting the sacrifice and even the stones of the altar on fire: burning it all to ashes. The people of Israel rejoiced, and they and their King turned back to the Lord.
What is omitted from children’s stories at this point is that Elijah then cried out “Seize the prophets of Baal! Let not one of them escape!” and led the people in a great slaughter: killing all 450 of the false prophets in a nearby creek-bed.
Then, the rains came, and the drought was ended.
The scripture then tells us that the hand of the Lord was upon Elijah, such that Elijah ran ahead of King Ahab’s chariot all the way back to the royal city of Jezreel.
And then comes chapter 19…
Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, the daughter of the king of a pagan country to the North of Israel. It was Jezebel who brought the worship of Baal to Israel when she married Ahab; and it was the prophets that she’d brought with her from her homeland that Elijah had slaughtered. She’d stayed behind at the royal palace during the contest, and so did not know what had happened until her husband returned that evening to tell her the story of all that had transpired. She was, understandably, a bit upset!
That night she sent messenger to Elijah, saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one them [that is, her dead prophets] by tomorrow about this time.”
Poor Elijah: here he was, the hero of the hour, champion of Israel, restorer of the faith, honored by the King and all the people, and yet he was about to be murdered for what he had done.
He was scared, and for good reason: Jezebel was a tough, intelligent, and resourceful woman who always got what she wanted. Whatever was crossing his mind, his feet are what did the talking: he ran, just like Fuzzball did – running in a panic. He grabbed his servant and ran out of the gates of the city, heading South through the whole of Israel and then Judah. He did not stop running until he came to Beersheba, near the southern frontier of Judah, about 75 miles away, where he dropped off his servant. (Or, perhaps, the servant just dropped.)
Anyway, Elijah then journeyed on into the desert.
At this point, an interesting thing happens when Elijah stops to rest under a Broom Tree. Despite Elijah having shown to the whole world, through his fleeing, that he was not the great man of faith he had thought himself to be, despite his having failed God, God came to Elijah and provided food, water and rest. God showed Elijah that He still loved and cared-for Elijah, despite Elijah’s failure.
Elijah then journeyed out into the desert, wandering for forty days and nights until he came to “Horeb, the Mount of God” (which is thought to be the mountain known in still more ancient times as Mt. Sinai) near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula – close to 200 miles from the vengeful queen.
Like Fuzzball, when Elijah was up against something he felt he could not overcome, he ran. He ran for a place of safety. He ran to the safest place he knew. He ran to the place where God had revealed himself to the people of Israel. He ran to the place that the People of Yahweh thought-of as God’s home.
I suspect that for every step of that journey, Elijah spoke many hard words in his mind to himself, and to God. I suspect that God’s ministering to Elijah under that tree was forgotten during those 40 days. I think Elijah got angrier and angrier, and more and more depressed, as he journeyed South. I know I would have, if it had been me.
Elijah eventually came to the mountain, climbed it, hid in a cave, and felt sorry for himself. All alone.
God then came to Elijah and said: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Now, I doubt that God needed to hear Elijah’s answer – he already knew what it would be. God wanted Elijah to answer this question for himself.
Elijah replied “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
So, what did Elijah’s answer have to do with God’s question?
Elijah was whining. The Great Man of God was WHINING.
What’s worse, he was whining to God. Worse yet, he was accusing God of letting him down. He was accusing God of allowing bad things to happen to him!
I think that, just like Fuzzball, Elijah’s brain was turned off. All he was feeling was fear, and anger.
God then told Elijah to go and stand outside of the cave. Elijah did so, but covered his face with his cloak, because he remembered Moses’ similar encounter with God in the same region, centuries before, where God had told Moses how he, as a mere man, could not look upon the face of God and live.
God then passed by, and a great wind came up, tearing the rocks off the mountain and breaking them, but God was not in the wind. Then a great earthquake came, but God was not in the earthquake. Then came a great fire, but God was not in the fire.
Then came silence.
Finally, a small voice came, and God asked again “What are you doing here Elijah?”
Elijah answered as he had before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Let’s get this straight.
Elijah, was the man who had devoted years of his life to God, and had shown his great faith and courage by using a simple prayer to prove to all the people that there was a God: and that Elijah’s God was a God above all other gods (most especially above the god of the prophets of Baal). He then destroyed all the false prophets that same day.
Yet, the moment things looked less promising, he didn’t pray, he didn’t ask God for guidance. Nope. He ran. He ran nonstop for 75 miles and then journeyed another 125 miles into the desert, all because a single human being had threatened to retaliate against him for his victory.
Ultimately, Elijah’s whole life had been about following the rules and paths that God had set for him: his response to God speaks first of how zealous he was for God, then he accuses God of failing him despite Elijah’s zeal and obedience, and despite God’s ministering to Elijah under the tree.
Elijah thought of God only as a God of rules, no hint exists in the narrative that Elijah thought of God as a God of Love, or as a God of Grace.
Elijah was just like Fuzzball – he ran to a place of safety the second life got a bit tough. His fear was unreasoning: it was a fear that turned off the brain and got the legs moving as fast as they could. Like Fuzzball, he stopped only once he felt he was safe.
Actually, Fuzzball stopped running because he hit an unmoving obstacle. Come to think of it, God wasn’t going to move either: God knows us better than we know ourselves. He listened to Elijah’s whining and told him to go back – no excuses – there was still a lot to be done if he was so zealous, and God wasn’t going to let him lie around and feel sorry for himself. God had plans for Elijah, and told Elijah that despite his fears, he was not the last believer in Israel anyway:
God knew all about tough love, millennia before it was a recognized term.
What can we learn from all this?
To me, it means that life is not always what we expect. The second we finish climbing a mountain and achieve a great victory is the time we are most vulnerable to falling off that mountain. Fuzzball tried to be the big lamb and climb that ladder, and got his comeuppance. Elijah won a great victory on Mt. Carmel, and then learned an even more memorable lesson in humility and reliance upon the Lord: Elijah learned that God was in his corner no matter how badly Elijah failed. Elijah learned the meaning of Grace.
Elijah took that new knowledge with him as he left the Mountain of God and headed back north to do as the Lord had commanded him. God had shown Elijah that He was more than a God of just great miracles and great wrath. God was a god that could be trusted: that He would always Love and care for Elijah. Never again did Elijah doubt God. Never again did Elijah run away from challenges or danger – even though he was threatened many times.
When life gets tough, remember – there is always a valuable lesson to find and learn-from in hard times. We know what Elijah learned. What is it you are learning? What is it that you think you should carry with you into the future from each such experience? How will that experience make you a better and stronger person?
Everyone has hard times – don’t be afraid of them. They are a part of life, they are part of what makes us human, and we will get through them. It is up to you as to whether you will come out of such an experience defeated, or victorious, and what you will learn from it. Finally, the measure of victory is not in what others think of you for what you have (or haven’t) accomplished, but in what that small voice whispers to you, and how you respond to it.
Never forget what Elijah learned: God always loves you. It’s an unconditional love: He’s always there for you, regardless of who or what you are, and regardless of what you’ve done.
Mt. Horeb was literally a life-changing experience for Elijah: as a prophet, he accomplished more after his mountaintop experience then he had before, I think in large part because he never forgot the lesson he learned there about God’s love. He carried that Love with him always.
What ever happened to Fuzzball, you ask?
Well, let’s just say that he also met his Maker: a couple of months after his run ended. …. Yum!!!
Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).