Encountering God – experiencing the holy in everyday life

1 Kings 19:6-17

This summer we are exploring together how we discern what it is that God calls us to do, each of us individually and all of us together. The word for this is “vocation,” from the Latin word “vocare” which literally means “to call.”  Vocation: God calls us to live our lives on purpose for the common good.

Our vocations are personal to each individual but they are discerned and lived out in community. We have multiple vocations throughout our life, and multiple vocations at the same time. We are not created for production value, but we are created so we find joy and fulfillment doing some things and not others.

The first week we talked about how discerning our vocation begins with listening to our longings, paying attention to what lights us up and also what breaks our hearts. The second week we talked about openness: discerning our vocation includes being open to what can happen in the future, what has happened in the past, and what is happening right now. Last week we talked about naming and living into our values. This week we are going to talk about experiencing God’s presence in everyday life.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor has this great quote in her book An Altar in the World. She says, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” Which is a lovely sentiment. But I suspect that a lot of us don’t go through our normal days feeling like we are cracking our shins on altars. Why not?

I think it’s because Jesus is pretty clear that the Kingdom of God shows up in sneaky, small unexpected ways. We really love the stories of God doing big dramatic obvious things, but let’s be honest, that’s not how God typically works. Which means we have to train ourselves to pay attention differently, which we will talk about next week. Experiencing the holy in everyday life is a spiritual discipline. If we choose to be deliberate about it, we will grow in it. We will have more experiences of God’s presence when we actually look for it and think about it, and not just sit around waiting for it to smack us in the face. 

Because, dear ones, I think the Bible is clear that God wants to be found. If God is hidden it’s because there’s something for us in the seeking. We like the end results, the finding. But God says that what really matters for us, what helps us grow, is the experience, the process of seeking. So if you don’t feel like you see a lot of God or experience a lot of God in the world, don’t worry. If that is something you want, you can grow in that. 

Let’s read a little story from the Old Testament that illustrates this point. It is in the book of First Kings chapter 19, and I want to set the stage a little bit. This is during the time when the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah were divided, in the time after King Solomon died. Both kingdoms were falling further and further into greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy, specifically including idolatry, or worshipping the gods of the people around them. God continued to send prophets to warn the people and one of those prophets was Elijah. He was speaking truth to power during the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel when many people in the country were worshipping the god called Baal, which was a Canaanite god. 

The story we are going to read happens right after Elijah has had a great triumph, but that results in Jezebel threatening to kill him, so he goes on the run. At this point he’s been hiding out in the desert and has made his way to the Mountain of Horeb, which is another name for Sinai, which is where God gave the 10 Commandments. We’ll pick up the story in verse 9. 

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence <some translations say “a still small voice”>. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. 

Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel, and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.”

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

There’s so much we could say about this story this morning, but what I want to point out as we think about experiencing God’s presence, is that before and after the encounter, God asks Elijah a vocation question: “What are you doing here?” And both times Elijah gives exactly the same answer. Exactly. Verbatim. At the end though, God gives Elijah a new vocation, or a renewed one. Elijah gets instructions about what’s next for him.

But that begs the question of what happened on the mountain? And I’ll tell you: I’m not sure. The story is weird, and frankly not quite clear. Here’s what I think is clear:

First, God wants to be found. God invites Elijah to be present to God’s presence: God is going to pass by. God wants to be found.

Second, God does not show up in the ways that are expected. God does not show up in the dramatic ways. We expect, as the original hearers of this story would have expected, for God to be in wind or earthquake or fire. But that’s not where God was not in those things. If we are going to find the God who wants to be found, we are going to need to let go of some of our expectations of how and when and where that’s going to happen. 

Finally, whatever happens in this encounter with God, it is a prelude to God speaking about Elijah’s vocation. God wants to communicate to us about what we are called to do, but those communications may not come in the ways we expect.

So how do you experience God in everyday life? You personally? This morning I’m going to push you a little bit on that. I’m going to push you to think deeper than just, “Where do I feel good? or Where do I feel peace?” I bet that most of you would say that you feel peace or connection with God’s presence when you are in a natural setting, which is great. But we’re talking about something else this morning. You should be in spaces where you feel good and peaceful. But that’s not all there is to experiencing God’s presence. Let me explain: for those of you who do ministry, do you feel God’s presence there? Yes. Do you feel good? No. Or at least not all the time. Experiencing God’s presence is more than feeling good. Sometimes it doesn’t feel peaceful. Sometimes it feels like a fire shut up in your bones, as the prophet Jeremiah said. When we are thinking about where we experience God’s presence in a way that helps us discern our vocations, we want to move past the easy answer of where we feel good, and push to think about where we feel significant, what feels weighty, or meaningful, even and I would say especially if that’s in places and situations that are hard and uncomfortable for us. 

Now I’m not saying that the place you least want to be is where God calls you. That’s an over-exaggerated statement that has been used in harmful ways in some churches. But I am saying that God does not just call us to do things that are easy. God calls us to do things that are hard because they matter to the world and because doing them is actually going to bring us tremendous fulfillment as we live into being who we are created to be. 

So dig deeper, past the easy and obvious answers. It’s not just where do you experience God, but what is it that you are experiencing and why is it in that place in particular. It’s not just that you see God in a tree. It’s that you see God’s creativity and power. What is it that this particular place or situation shows you about what God has created or provided or done or revealed to you? Dig deeper, past your generic good feelings. 

Finally, as we come to the Communion table this morning, we remember that this sacrament is one of the places we expect to always experience God’s presence. The real presence of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — the Source, the Word, and the Holy Breath — is with us in the incredibly ordinary everyday elements of bread and cup. The real presence of God is manifested not in the most expensive gourmet meal we can make but in the plain food that is available to everyone everywhere.

When we dig deeper we acknowledge that we experience God here not just because the elements taste good to us, but because they remind us that God came to live in a body like ours, one that got hungry and thirsty and tired. And not in the body of a world leader or a multi-billionaire, but in the body of someone who made living from the work of his hands, who was on the underside of society, whose skin color and heritage made him vulnerable to the power structure. 

This is what we experience when we come to the Communion table. God’s table, not our table. God issues to the invitation to all and it is simply our privilege to pass the dishes to each other. We insist, as have our ancestors before us, that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and gather at this table with the Risen Christ, who is the host at all our tables. Amen.

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