Born of the Spirit

Nicodemus was a powerful religious leader. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, very successful monetarily speaking, and well educated. Yet his soul felt a longing for something more. Although he was physically alive, spiritually he was without life. His mind was open, but he was not a part of the kingdom of God. Something was missing, so he went to visit Jesus at night with his questions and desires. Jesus said to him directly, “Unless you are born again, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless you’re born of the spirit, you cannot be a part of God’s kingdom.

Now it is true that God, because of His infinite capacities, is always a mystery greater than our ability to understand. Likewise, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus are a mystery. We don’t understand how to be born again or where the power comes from, for we have no capacity to give ourselves new life.

Now when we hear these words Ð a person must be born again, born of the Spirit Ð the danger exists to think that we must have a certain spiritual experience in order to be among the saved and to legitimize the vitality of our faith life.

The second danger might be to take our own spiritual encounter with God, our own spiritual journey of faith or language of faith, and project it as normative for all people. Also to become a judge of others who aren’t just like us. That is not right and it isn’t helpful. We all have a universal need for the Spirit to give birth for us to enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus uses the analogy of birth, which is interesting. Psychologists tell us we might deep in our subconscious remember it, but do you really remember the day of your birth? Weren’t we totally passive? We had no power to conceive life or come forth from the womb. It was all the power of our mother’s body bearing down to bring us into this world. Life is God’s gift.

So it is easy to understand Nicodemus’ bewilderment when he asked Jesus, “How can I be born a second time? Am I supposed to get back in my mommy’s womb to be born?” Yet, Jesus is trying to differentiate for Nicodemus and us the difference between physical and spiritual life, between being in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. He is talking about a spiritual dimension.

Let’s realize that the power for birth into the kingdom of God is all God’s action not ours. Missionary Don Richardson in a book he wrote entitled, Peace Child, told of his mission endeavors in the country of Papua New Guinea. He struggled to find the right language or imagery to convey the gospel to the primitive natives living in the jungles. The people were warring so much that they became weary of the fighting, the blood-shed, the killing, the death, and the loss. So the leadership of tribes proposed to enter into a peace covenant. They mutually decided that to seal the covenant, a young couple of their tribe would offer their newborn son to the enemy tribe or the adversarial tribe to raise as their own. Thus, the child embodied the agreement of peace between the peoples.

The Scriptures tell of God giving the best He had to give Ð His Son Jesus Christ Ð to us that He would become the Prince of Peace, the Peace Child who reconciles sinners everywhere of every age to our heavenly Father. II Corinthians 15 tells us “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” In Ephesians 2, it says, “Jesus is our peace who breaks down the barrier of the dividing wall and unites us all to a relationship with God.” By the blood of Jesus we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5 says, “Justified by faith, we have peace with God in Jesus’ name.”

Jesus also uses the analogy of the wind. We can’t see the wind, but we see how it works, how it moves, how it impacts our created world. Human beings all through history have found creative ways to harness the wind’s power Ð raising sails on majestic ocean sailing ships or constructing wind turbines to utilize the power and turn it into electricity.

We prepare to receive a power outside ourselves from the wind and transition it to our benefit. So it says in John one, “Jesus came to his own people but his own people didn’t receive him. But as many as received him, to them God gave the power to become the children of God who were born not of the flesh or of the will of man, but who are born by the will of God.” So we, like receiving the wind, receive Jesus.

Jesus also used the image of being lifted as the Son of Man as the one we look to. He compared it to Moses and the people journeying through the wilderness. They were in a state of rebellion and grumbling and unbelief, and so God sent a plague. God, then, instructed Moses to put a snake up on the pedestal on a pole that the people may realize their sin and their powerlessness, and turn to that bronze serpent so God could heal them and forgive them, and they would be well.

Jesus says that is His life. He came to hang suspended between heaven and earth on the cross. We can be spiritually graced by God by simply looking at Jesus on the cross.

The other way to talk about it is to simply ask Jesus to come in. Jesus tells us in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” We simply invite Jesus into our hearts and lives asking God to do for us what He has promised.

Anne Graham Lotz, in her book, Just give me Jesus, tells the story of her father Billy Graham, the famous evangelist. Billy Graham was seated at a welcoming dinner in his honor attended by civic, business, religious, and political leaders in an Eastern nation. They had invited him to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. The man seated next to next to him was the Archbishop of the dominant religion in that country. During the course of the dinner conversation Graham asked the Archbishop when he’d become a Christian. The man’s eyes glistened with the emotion. He put down his fork and then proceeded to tell Billy Graham his spiritual story.

He had been installed as the Bishop in his church and was invited to give a lecture in a prominent theological school in Chicago. He accepted the invitation and found himself in the heart of the Windy City one afternoon.

In an effort to do some sightseeing, he boarded a Chicago bus. No sooner had he taken his seat when a long finger tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to look into the full, round, beautiful, ebony face of an obviously poor woman seated behind him. In a wonderfully rich voice, she asked, “Mister, has you been born again?”

He frowned, thinking for sure he’d misunderstood her question since English was his second language. With polite reserve he asked, “Excuse me?”

The deep rolling voice repeated, “I says, ÔHas you been born again?'”

The Archbishop stiffened his back, straightened his shoulders, and replied with the greatest dignity, “Madam, I am the Archbishop of the church in my country. I’m here to give a lecture at a theological seminary.”

Just then the bus rolled to a stop and the woman rose to get off. She looked at this proud, religious man dressed in his flowing robes bearing the bejeweled insignia of his office and persisted bluntly, “Mister, that isn’t what I asked you. I asked you, ÔHas you been born again?'” Then she turned and walked off the bus and out of his life. “But,” the Archbishop told Graham, “her words rang in his ears and burned in his soul. He went back to his hotel room, found the Gideon Bible in the dresser drawer, opened to the Gospel of John and read the familiar story of Nicodemus.” With increasing clarity and conviction, the Archbishop knew that, even with all his religious training, devotion, service, and recognition, he’d never been born again. So he slipped down on his knees, and that night, in a Chicago hotel room thousands of miles from his home, God heard his heart’s cry and Jesus entered his heart.

What a marvelous story of the power of God to honor our simple prayer to receive Jesus to come in! Being born again into the kingdom of God is a mystery. I think of Luther’s special Christmas hymn where lyrics say “O, holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today.” When the Virgin Mary, in Luke chapter 1 was visited by Gabriel and told she would be the mother of our Lord. She asked, “How could this be?”

Gabriel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High God will overshadow you. Therefore the child, the Holy One, will be called the Son of God. For nothing is impossible with God.”

I love Mary’s faith response, which can be our prayer to be born again, born of the spirit, into the kingdom of God. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said. “Let it be done for me just as you have said.” Mary’s heart was a welcome to the Holy Spirit of God to bring new life into her physical body. So we also do the same.

A few years ago, I saw a gripping picture on the front page of a Dallas, Texas newspaper. On the front was a woman. As you read the article, you learned it was a mother who, just a few days ago, had tragically lost her son in a car accident. The picture shows this woman with her head laying against the chest of a strange man she had met just moments before. Why would this woman lay her head on the chest of a stranger? Because that man was the recipient of her son’s donated heart. When she laid her head on the chest of that man, she heard the heartbeat of her son now giving life to this man.

So I ask you, if God in heaven were to lay His head on your chest, would He hear the heartbeat of His Son, Jesus? Have you been born again? Have you been born of the Spirit? It’s as simple as being receptive to the Holy Spirit’s power as He births new life in us. It’s as simple as looking to Jesus on the cross whose bloodshed promises to forgive our sin and grace our lives. It’s as simple as a prayer saying, “Into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”

God will give us new life. He will birth us into His Kingdom. God will keep every promise for us.

Pastor Larsen’s Favorite Text

Many wonderful things have been told about Pastor Homer Larsen since his graduation to heaven on May 17. Here are just a few of them:

¥ He loved people. He loved being with people. He loved listening to people and getting to know them, and he had a great impact on many lives.

¥ He was a great husband, father, and grandfather, very generous and serving with those in his family.

¥ He was a terrific leader of people, not just in his congregation, but also in his community of Cedar Falls/Waterloo, Iowa.

¥ He was an excellent preacher of the gospel, a good storyteller. He was an outstanding pastor who cared about his people.

¥ He was a loving friend.

The list could go on and on. However, something no one mentioned about him is that he was an extremely well-organized person. Going through his files and correspondence, the family marveled at how organized he really was. People who worked with him found his organizational abilities very impressive.

Homer Larsen was so organized that he even wrote his own funeral service years ago. He showed it to the family and made sure we knew where we could find it when the time came. He chose the hymns we are using today, which were his favorites. The readings were chosen by him, and he arranged for me to preach at his funeral. He even chose the text. How is that for being organized?

The text he chose is not really a standard biblical passage for funerals, but it was his favorite. He preached on this passage more than any other passage in his ministry. It is a story about Zacchaeus, a person who was very far from God.

Zacchaeus was a wee, little man, as the song goes that many of us sang in Sunday school when we were children. However, there is so much more to his story than just being small; he was lost. That is how Jesus described him in this story today.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He was looked upon as the scum of Jewish society. Tax collectors were considered traitors of their own people for they worked for the oppressive Roman government collecting money. They were known as thieves and money gougers who made their living taking advantage of the common folk.

Zacchaeus happened to be very good at tax collecting. He was a chief tax collector. He trained others and was very wealthy. Some might say Zacchaeus was involved in things that would’ve made his mother weep if she knew about them. No one liked him. Yet, in this story we see that Zacchaeus was nevertheless an important and precious individual in God’s sight.

As Jesus passed by, He stopped and looked up at the tree where Zacchaeus had climbed. “I must go to your house, Zacchaeus.” I must. That’s divine necessity speaking. God wants me to get together with you, Zacchaeus. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. No one is beyond hope. And on that day, a personal encounter took place that changed Zacchaeus’ life.

I remember Homer telling this story one time, and he said, “Imagine Zacchaeus bringing his friend, Jesus, home with him and saying to Mrs. Zacchaeus, ÔHoney, I brought a guest home for lunch!’

“She responds, ÔWhy did you bring someone home for lunch without letting me know?’ or ÔI can’t believe that you brought someone with you! No one comes to our house because no one likes us.'”

Homer would go on to jokingly say, “Zacchaeus couldn’t even get someone to even do a twosome out on the golf course in Jericho!”

When Jesus went home with Zacchaeus, it was obvious that they had a heart-to-heart talk about his life, the trajectory it had taken, and where it was headed. Perhaps Jesus explained God’s plan for Zacchaeus’ life and told him about God’s grace. Maybe Jesus really got in his face about his lifestyle. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we do know that it changed the heart of this hardened tax collector. See how the story turns out.

Repentance took place, and Zacchaeus surrendered himself to the care of Jesus. He even calls Him “Lord,” which means master. Zacchaeus was converted, and he declared that he was going to give half of his wealth to the poor and a good share of it back to those he cheated in the first place. We see a repentant spirit hanging on much more loosely to the wealth he so worshiped before he came to know Jesus.

We see, then, Jesus’ response. He gave a little summary statement for His disciples and for the critics who couldn’t believe that Jesus had gone home with this loser. “?Today salvation has come to this house.” Was He talking about Zacchaeus’ salvation? Not necessarily. He was talking about Himself, for salvation lies in Jesus Christ. He is salvation. Salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house, because he was a son of Abraham who needed a saving relationship just like everybody else. Zacchaeus matters!

Then Jesus gave a summary of his mission statement, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That was what had just happened Ð a lost person had been found by Jesus. Mission accomplished. Lost people matter to Jesus.

By the way, remember where Jesus was headed at this point in Luke’s Gospel. This was the last stretch of His race before Jerusalem and the cross where He would lay down His life to pay for the sins of all of us who are lost. This Zacchaeus-detour is but a last-minute, one-more-soul-to-reach action on the part of Jesus. It holds a message that each of us needs to be reminded of: you are an outcast in the sight of God. However, even though you may be very far from God, you still matter to Him. Jesus came into this world and died on a cross to pay for your sins and open the way for you to have a restored relationship with your Father in heaven who loves you. He made you; He values you; He wants you.

But this story also holds a message for the Church. If lost people matter so much to Jesus, then they should also matter to those of us in His church. That is where Homer Larsen’s passions laid Ð in bringing lost people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. He was always on the lookout for just one more to bring to Christ. Pastor Larsen believed personal, face-to-face witnessing is very important, and he had some great stories he shared with me. I loved listening to him share his witnessing experiences.

One of my favorites was about a time when he sat down with a local person in the community whose life had become a mess. He had gotten into some legal trouble and wanted to meet with Homer, so they had lunch. Homer told the story of Zacchaeus. He said, “Zacchaeus was a crook, and so are you. Zacchaeus needed a Savior, and so do you.” This man asked Christ into his life and was changed by Jesus.

Years ago, Homer knew the importance of evangelism training. He believed with all his heart and soul that laity were the hope of the church. So hundreds were trained to share the gospel message, and as a result many souls came to Christ. Even though some of his peers criticized Him, Homer saw to it that his congregation knew how to tell the story of God’s redemptive love. He made sure that they were able to clearly share the truth Ð that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That the wages of sin is death. That God is loving but also just, so sin must be punished. That God sent His Son, Jesus, to pay for our sins on the cross and purchase a place for the sinner in heaven. That a person can receive this gift by trusting in Jesus Christ.

However, it was also through his preaching in the pulpit at Nazareth and at Christian Crusaders that his Gospel witnessing really came out as well. He always gave a clear presentation of the gospel of what Jesus did for us and then issued an invitation to ask Christ into one’s life. He placed a strong emphasis on developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ with an exhortation to those who already know Jesus to share that message with others.

Actually, it was Homer’s preaching that reached out and brought me back to the faith. In my late teens, I had strayed from my faith. His daughter, Julie, who became my wife, dragged me to church and made sure that I heard her dad. One of Homer’s sermons awakened me in my lostness and helped me see my need for Jesus. That was my wake-up call. I thank God for the faithful preaching of Homer Larsen that nudged me back to following Jesus.

Only one thing is needful for everyone at the center of his or her life, and that is Jesus. Homer had Him at the center of his life, and he believed, as I believe, that everyone needs Jesus.

♪In the morning when I arise,

in the morning when I rise,

in the morning when I rise,

Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus,

give me Jesus.

You can have all this world,

but give me Jesus.

And when I come to die,

and when I come to die,

and when I come to die,

Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus,

give me Jesus.

You can have all this world,

but give me Jesus.

You can have all this world,

but give me Jesus. ♬

Encouragement for the Overwhelmed

Have you ever felt like running away from it all, like throwing in the towel? Have you ever felt like saying, I give up; I quit. The pressures and disappointments are just too much. I know I’ve had those kinds of moments in life.

It is a fact that life has challenges and problems. No one is exempt from them, not even God’s most dedicated servants, such as Elijah. Did you catch the prayer he gave the Lord? It’s too much, Lord! Take away my life. I might as well be dead. I’m no better than my ancestors.

I can identify with Elijah. He’s feeling burned out, broken, and alone, like a loser. We have to wonder what has driven Elijah to this place?

The kingdom of Israel was experiencing some dark times. Led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, the people of God no longer worshiped Him, but Baal and fertility gods instead. They ignored and broke the first Commandment. So God called Elijah to bring the people back to Him alone. However, Elijah faced one difficult challenge after another as he carried out this service to the Lord. He wound up hiding from evil King Ahab for three years as God sent a drought upon the people to teach them that only He could provide for them.

Elijah had earlier moved to a faraway land, away from his familiar surroundings, to a place where Baal worship was the norm. He stood alone amongst those kinds of folks. God had taken care of him, but it obviously was wearing on him.

Most recently, Elijah had taken on the priests of the Baal gods in a contest in Mount Carmel, and he won hands down. You can read this wonderful story in I Kings 18. Then, as he was enjoying the victory, Queen Jezebel and King Ahab threatened to kill him, and something inside Elijah just snapped. So he runs away to the wilderness in a panic. He’s feeling tired, emotionally overwhelmed, and lonely, burned out, like a loser. His prayer almost sounds suicidal. Elijah has lost his perspective altogether.

Have you ever had a moment like that? I know I’ve had a few in my own ministry.

However, in the midst of this personal trial, the Lord God calms him and shows His mercy and grace. He doesn’t turn His back on His servant, but comes to him and provides comfort and strength to this broken individual.

Elijah ran into the wilderness as far away as he could from Queen Jezebel. After his prayer, he fell asleep under a broom tree, and the Lord let him sleep.

Isn’t it interesting that God first lets Elijah rest? We sometimes get so exhausted that everything looks impossible. We need to have some sleep. God knew that about Elijah, so He let him rest first.

Then God sent an angel to awaken Elijah. “Get up and eat.” The angel had prepared some cakes (probably angel food cakes ☺), and then He let him go back to sleep again. Later on, the angel awakens Elijah and feeds him again, then tells him to go to Mount Horeb, the mount of God. So Elijah ate and went forty days and nights on that nourishment from the Lord. He found the mountain and entered the darkness of a cave.

God begins a counseling session in the midst of that darkness with Elijah. First He asks, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Then God listens to Elijah’s complaint.

“Lord, I have been zealous for you. I have been working so hard for you, but your people have broken the covenant, the first Commandment. They have torn down the altars to you, and they have begun worshiping the Baals. They’ve killed the prophets, and I am the only one left.”

After hearing him out, God says, It is time to get out of that dark cave you are sitting in. You need some light. Come out, stand before me, and be encouraged. Get your eyes off Jezebel and Ahab and onto Me. I am here for you, Elijah.

So Elijah came out of the cave and experienced a great fireworks show Ð wind that ripped mountains apart, an earthquake, and a fire Ð but God was not in any of these. It was as if He was showing Elijah that He had great power in order to encourage him.

When it was all done and the show was over, there was sheer silence. In some versions of Scripture it says there was a sound of gentle blowing silence. In the silence, God asks again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah responds with the same prayer complaint, and then God clarifies things for him by restoring his perspective. Be confident; you are still my man for the job. Now go! Get back in this game. You might feel alone, but I am with you. I am working quietly in the political processes through Hazael and Jehu. I am always at work, and I am in charge. I have selected an assistant, Elisha, to be your successor. He will assist you and minister to you. You do not have to feel alone. I have reserved seven thousand who are still on my side. They have not bowed to the Baals. Be of good confidence. Quite the counsel from the Word of the Lord!

So, comforted and counseled, Elijah got back into the game. Everything God promised came to pass. God’s word is always true. Elijah found Elisha. In fact, he outlived both Jezebel and Ahab. God had the last word.

This story is a good one for those of us who are feeling tired and depressed, burned out, and wanting to just runaway. Maybe you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one. Maybe you are a frustrated parent as you try to keep your children on the straight and narrow, following the Lord, and it’s just not working out.

Maybe you are a caregiver. Things seem to be getting worse instead of better. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel Ð and you are wearing out. God is speaking to us today through the working of His Holy Spirit in His Word as He points us to Elijah and says, See, I took a tired, depressed individual and comforted and strengthened him. I was there for him, and I am here for you. I want you to turn to me.

The same God who took care of Elijah is here for you and me. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. You are not alone. God is always with you. He loves you. In fact, He is heavily invested in you. Look at what He did for us through His Son, Jesus Christ. When we were lost from Him in our sin, He gave us Jesus, who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. He took away the stain of our sinfulness and made us clean in God’s sight. Then He rose from the grave so that we might have the gift of eternal life. All this He did to make you His own child.

God is encouraging us today, through the story of Elijah, to remember: If you are in a cave, come out of the darkness. Stand before Him and look up! When you don’t like the “out look,” try the “up look.” Turn to Him. Let Him help you face the difficulties and challenges in your life that are getting the best of you. He is a big God, and He has a big love for you. Isaiah tells us He is a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have His promise: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This promise is for His servants, like you and me, who trust in Him. Like Elijah, you can run to Him. You can come into His presence in solitude and silence and sit with Him in His word.

He has a word for you: “Be still and know that I am God.” I love you, and nothing Ð I mean NOTHING Ð can ever separate you from my love in Christ Jesus.

My dear son and daughter, you are not alone. I am here for you, just like I was there for Elijah

You Can Count on Him, So Count on Him

I recently attended a graduation ceremony at a university. It was a very impressive experience. They had a wonderful brass band and a powerful speaker. However, something happened in the ceremony that bothered me quite a bit.

The festivities began with a prayer led by an Islamic chaplain and a Catholic nun. The message of that prayer was basically that God is a God of all religions; It really doesn’t matter which one you follow. It broke my heart as I heard people around me say in affirmation, “Amen,” for I know many of them were probably from church backgrounds. Yet I do think it represents the world and the mind set in which we live.

It’s all too easy for us to get off track in our walk with God as we strive to fit into the society around us. We see evidence of that in today’s Old Testament narrative about Israel and Elijah and God, which I read for you from I Kings 17. Israel was in the midst of dark times as the story begins. God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt many years before. Moses had led them through the wilderness. Then, before they entered the promised land, Moses gave one last sermon, which we find in Deuteronomy. As he takes them through the Ten Commandments, he reminds them, of how important the First Commandment is. He says,

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not make for yourself an idol whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

The people of Israel had thrown that one out. It had fallen by the wayside. They had become syncretistic, which means they combined various belief systems with their own. They mixed the idol worship of their neighbors with their worship of the One True God. The Canaanites in the Promised Land worshiped Baal gods: ancient gods of fertility, which they believed would make the crops grow and provide life to the people.

The Israelites had spent a long time in the wilderness depending on God. They did not know much about farming. Wanting to fit in and put food on the table, they started giving in to the beliefs of the culture around them. They began counting on the fertility gods to take care of them as a kind of supplement to their belief in the God of Israel.

In addition, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel insisted that the people of Israel worship the Baals. It was a dark time in the spiritual life of that country. An ever widening gap developed between God and his people.

In our story for the day, God is reacting to all of this. He sends a spokesman named Elijah whose name means literally, “My God is Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel.” God sends Elijah to bring a word from the Lord to the king.

What’s interesting to note is that Elijah is an outsider from Tishbe, a no-name town east of Jordan. Basically, he’s a hick from the sticks. And yet God calls this hick from the sticks to approach the evil King Ahab and tell him what God wants him to know. How is that for faith?

God’s message to Ahab is this: “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” That means no crops and no food on the table until God says so. God is telling Ahab who is really in charge of this world, and it’s not the Baals.

Suddenly they are in the midst of a drought. So God tells Elijah to hide in the wilderness where He will take care of him and keep him safe from Ahab. God sends him to the Wadi Cherith, which is a seasonal stream in the wilderness. God then sent ravens to feed Elijah, and it saved his life. Twice each day the raven catering service brought extravagant meals (bread and meat, an extravagance in those days) to Elijah.

Then one day, the stream dried up for lack of rain, so God sent Elijah to Zarephath, part of Sidon, the capital of Baal worship. God commanded a widow to feed him and take care of him. Elijah must have scratched his head as he considered that. How could a no-name widow in a land filled with Baal worshipers, who would most likely not like having him around, be able to take care of him?

When Elijah arrived in Zarephath, he learned that this area was also experiencing a drought, thus showing us God has control over all the world, not just the Promised Land! He found the widow looking for sticks to make a fire and said to her, “Could you give me some water and bread?”

She replied, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: ÔThe jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ But Elijah promised her on behalf of God, the meal will never empty, and the jar of oil will continue to remain full according to the word of the Lord.”

So she took him home and fed him. Her bucket of meal never was empty and the jar of oil continued to be full. He settled in with them.

One day, however, the boy died. The widow was very upset, of course, with Elijah and with God. He took the body of the boy to the upper chamber of the house and talked to God. (He was upset with God). “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he did a healing ritual that was done in those days. He stretched himself over the boy with his own body and pleaded for the child’s life in prayer. The child came back to life! Elijah took the boy to his mother, “See, your son is alive!” And so she became a believer in Elijah as a man of God, who brought the Word of God. She also became a believer in the God of Israel, even in the center of this Baal-worshiping capital as He showed Himself able to give life.

These Elijah stories in the Bible are there so that we may witness the power and faithfulness of God. They call the people of God back to the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods but me (Count on Me alone for life.)” God’s rescued people, as we see it, had fallen prey to the belief that they could build their security elsewhere and find life elsewhere. They could experience the good life and believe in the fertility gods of the day, adding them on like good luck charms to their existence.

However, God challenged that belief and these so-called gods that people considered able to control life-and-death whether in the human or the natural order. He showed that He alone makes life possible. God refuses to compete with other gods because they do not exist! I am it! was the message here. I am it! I, and I alone, am the giver of life. I am not number one among many; I am the only One! There are no others. I own and operate this universe. I am the one who designed life and the only one who knows how to make it work. I am the only one who could help you, direct you, satisfy you, save you, and give you life. PERIOD!

That was then, we reason. We don’t worship idols now, do we, people might ask. If it’s one commandment I haven’t broken, it’s making an idol. I haven’t been whittling any pieces of wood and putting them on an altar in my living room.

While it may be true that we have not built any physical idols of worship, we still may look to other things as our God. Martin Luther wrote on the First Commandment in his catechism: “What is it to have a god? A god is that to which we look for all good in which we find refuge in time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.” In other words, a god is anything that we look to for security. Anything can become a god or an idol when it becomes a substitute for the Lord God in our lives. Maybe it is money, possessions, status, popularity, prestige, fame, family, and, yes, even yourself. Any of these can become gods that we worship and trust for life. They need to be dethroned. Anything that diverts attention from our affection for God or our reliance on Him is something that has become an idol, another god in our life.

Through these stories, God is saying to those of us who have been rescued by Jesus, Let Me alone be your God. Never seek another. Whatever good thing you lack, look to Me for it. Seek it from Me. Whenever you suffer misfortune or distress, cling to Me alone. Let your heart cling to no one else.

You see, dear friends, our God is the only God. He created us, and He revealed himself to us in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. He rescued and redeemed us from sin and death and the devil through Christ’s death and resurrection so that we might be His own and belong to Him.

The message is as clear and relevant for us today as it was in the story of Elijah. I am the Lord, your God. You can count on me, so count on me. Trust Me, and Me alone, with your life. Are you counting on Him alone as the source of your life? Martin Luther said, “Therefore, let everyone take care to magnify and exalt this commandment about all things and not make light of it.” Search and examine your heart thoroughly to find whether or not it clings to God alone.

Do you have the kind of heart that expects nothing but good from God, especially in distress and want? Do you renounce and forsake all that is not God? Then you have the one true God.

Or does your heart cling to something else from which it hopes to receive more good and help than from God? Does it flee, not to God, but from Him when things go wrong? Then you have an idol, another god in your life. What are we to do if that is the case?

I believe this story is telling those who have chased off after other gods to repent. He loves you. He is a God of grace. Repent and come home to Him. Surrender your life to His care. Count on Him, and Him alone, for God knows what is best for your life. You can count on Him, so why not count on Him.