Running for refuge

July 17, 2002

Tallowood Baptist Church, Houston, Texas

As a boy, I remember seeing film footage of the dirigible called the Hindenburg exploding and burning and the shrill voice of the commentator saying, "Oh the humanity!" Those words have come to mind again and again this week. Which image can you not escape? The tragedy leaves the indelible imprint of many memories on our psyches. Who can forget the picture of the plane ... or the implosion of the second tower. Which one haunts you? 
For me, it is that incredible picture of the people running as a billowing, cloudy wall of steel, cement and soot chased them down the street. Hollywood has desensitized us, but this was not Indiana Jones leaving an imaginary cave running from an imaginary ball of rock. The people were real and so was the danger. I have wept with you this week as I have seen wives and children and parents and siblings hold up pictures of their husbands and fathers and children and brothers and sisters begging for some word about their loved ones. We have long been aware of the awful forces of nature to destroy through tornadoes, earthquakes and fire, but this week, we came face to face with the awful pain caused by human nature and sin. It is this loss of innocence, this sense of danger from others, that destroys our trust and makes us want to take flight!
When all of life caves in, what then? Of course we run. But to whom do we run? The spiritual said it well, "Where could we go, where could we go, seeking a refuge for our souls? Where could we go but to the Lord!"

Running for refuge
1 Kings 19:1-18
Where do we go? I know that we run from danger; it is instinctive. We choose flight over fight. But to whom do we run? Where is a refuge? Where is a shelter? We know that Elijah was a runner, because earlier he ran to the battle, but this time he runs without God's command. Bible commentators often see the people portrayed in the Bible as unrealistic, "flat" characters who don't appear to be authentic. Isn't Elijah real in this passage? He goes from the mountain to the valley almost as fast as we do! After Elijah had defeated hundreds of prophets of Baal, his life was threatened by the incarnation of evil, Jezebel, and he ran for his life. Choosing isolation, he left his servant and went to the desert to die. Can you believe it? He even asked the author of life to assist his death. Instead, God strengthened him and sent him on his way to Horeb, the mountain of God. There, he discovered what we must discover -- in the still, small voice of God resides enormous power, and a compelling purpose for life. The theophanies or appearances of God come in many forms: sometimes in the cloud, sometimes in the fire. But this day he came not with the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the whisper. And when Elijah heard the whisper, he found the counsel of God. God invited him to renew his ministry in the most fearful time.
This week, not in Israel or in Palestinian refugee camps, but in the United States, our sense of safety and security was shattered. Parents picked up children from school even though the dangerous threat was hundreds of miles away. Our commentators wondered aloud whether travel and life will ever be the same again. What does the church do in times like this? Of course, we know we need to commune with God in prayer, but we are tempted to cocoon. Sometimes, like Elijah, we would rather die in the desert than go to God. But only in God can we find a refuge and shelter. We must run to him. When we do, he will send us on a mission to find others who are in need and minister to them. The responsibility of the saved is to save others. We who have found refuge in God must become rescuers to take others to refuge.

Identifying our fears
(I Kings 19:1-14)
From the mountaintop of achievement Elijah descended quickly to the valley of despair. Why was he so afraid? Jezebel represented the very incarnation of evil. Already she had killed prophets, according to I Kings 18:4; 13. When Jezebel threatened, we must notice the power she invoked: "May the gods deal with me if I do not take your life." With all deference, may the "who?" Aren't these the same gods whom Elijah had just defeated on Carmel? 
This week we heard one of our nation's religious leaders pray to the God of Abraham, Mohammed and Jesus. Unfortunately, the God of Abraham and Jesus is not the Allah of Islam. The teachings of the Old Testament are completed by the New, but the same New Testament about Jesus refutes the teachings of the Koran. 
When I was in high school, I took a history course called History of Warfare. My teacher took the adamant stance that the god of Islam is the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. He cited the common roots of these religions. I corrected him, and he corrected me. We had a little mutual correction society going on in class until he shouted me down. I was respectful, but he didn't convince me. The God of Islam who demands retribution and rewards killing other people with "everlasting life" may not be confused with God by anybody who actually knows God. I am not afraid of what Allah can do to me, nor do I anticipate what he can do for me. But there is a God who loves the world so much that he came down and died for our sins so that we might live. 
Elijah's fears were real and perhaps justified, humanly speaking. Even though Baal was not real, Jezebel was. Evil is real in our world, isn't it? Not long ago, a jogger was beaten by two carloads of young men in front of the church at 6 in the morning. 
Statistics of violence startle our sensibilities:
• one murder is committed every 22 minutes
• a rape occurs every 5 minutes
• a robbery occurs every 47 seconds
• an assault is committed every 28 seconds
• a burglary occurs every 11 seconds. 
Where do we go to get away from evil? There seemed to be no place on earth for Elijah to hide. He ran to the desert to die. But Jezebel's power was not as great as God's. Elijah could hide from Jezebel but not from God.

Identify the source of our faith
Thankfully, God pursues us as well. Elijah wasn't just running from Jezebel; he was running from people and from God. He left his servant behind so that he might truly say that he was alone. Some of the best pity parties are solo enterprises. If he got alone, he could claim that nobody cared. But God found him there.
Psalm 139:7-10 says it well: "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast." 
Our hymn says "Oh love that will not let us go!" The time of trouble is not the time to run away from God but to run to him. God pursues us and persists until he finds us.

God alone has the power to protect us and provide for us
Notice God's tenderness in his ministry to Elijah. This week, while all the tragedy filled the news, we officiated at funerals for two of our own. And I was reminded that with all the pain in the world, God was still particularly concerned with our pain. Your particular pain today may have nothing to do with the hijackings and explosions. Still, God knows and God protects us when we are afraid. This is our only ultimate security. Psalm 46:1 says: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble." Where do you find security? 
We all have our security blankets, don't we? A little girl named Fanni lost her "Grandpuhpa" this week. When she entered the hospital room where he had passed away, she said, "This is really scary. I think I'll suck my thumb." We no longer suck our thumbs, so where do we find security and protection?
Ultimately, Elijah went to Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God, and there he saw the great and powerful wind, the earthquake and the fire, but God was not in those. Betsy ten Boom said, "The center of God's will is our only safety." No wonder Paul wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 1:7: "God has not given us the Spirit of fear but of love and power and a sound mind!" 
Not even the popular, How to Survive books help on these occasions. For all of the warnings about leaping from motorcycles into cars and wrestling with alligators, the authors fail to tell us what to do if an airplane collides with our offices while we are in them. We are a nation consumed with security: We have security systems to protect our automobiles and cars. For safety's sake, we drive cars that pass certain standards. At one point this week, it looked like a Suburban would give safety, but the story was not true. Not even a big SUV can keep us safe!
Early on Tuesday, God gave me Psalm 27:1-5: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life -- of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident. One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble, he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock."
So we sing "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, Let me hide myself in thee!" 
We run to the rock of refuge, and we are saved. So tell me, please, why have our lives been spared? Surely God saves us so that we might save the lives of others!

We rescue the refugees
(I Kings 19:15-18)
God was not finished with Elijah yet. Elijah may have been ready to punch out on the time clock, but God had work for him to do. And the work God wanted to do is notable because it had to do with people. God does not primarily propose to save institutions or civilizations. C.S. Lewis wrote, "Civilization was never jeopardized until we made it the summum bonum of our world. The day we put civilization or anything else on a pedestal above God is the day we run the risk of losing it." Perhaps the quote of the week came from a tourist who had marveled at the beauty of the towers before the tragedy: "I looked up and saw the beautiful towers and said, 'Look what man can build.' Now, they are gone." 
God and the souls of people remain eternally. Civilization, the kingdom of man, does not last, but the Kingdom of God does. 
So God told Elijah, "Go back the way you came --- go to Damascus ..." Why Damascus? That is where the Aramaeans and Syrians lived. Why go to them? God's instructions demonstrate his care for all people: That is why it is wrong to torch Mosques. God invites Elijah to invest in people in his own country and in another: He has kings to anoint and a successor to train. The 7,000 who have never bowed their knees to Baal must be prepared for the future.
It is an immutable principle in scripture that the safe become those who save. The rescued become the rescuers.Who would you help, if you could help? It sometimes takes courage to save someone or something! As you know, the Louvre is one of the most famous museums of art in all of Europe. Once they ran a contest providing a prize to the person who gave the best answer to this question: "If a fire broke out in the Louvre, and you could only save one painting, which one would it be?" Tristan Bernard, a French novelist, won the prize with this reply: "I would save the one nearest to the exit." That is not the courage of which I speak! 
Policemen and firemen went in to the building when others were coming out. They knew their lives were at stake, but those who save lives cannot do so without risking their own. How like our heavenly father! When any lesser god would have given up, he came down into the destruction to save us. He knew that he would have to die to save us, and he did it anyway. 
As believers in Christ we know that "there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) That is why we go into all the world! There is no other hope. Muhammad's writings can teach, but they cannot save. 
Have you been following the fate of the eight foreign aid workers in Afghanistan? Two of them are Baylor alumni. Heather Mercer, 24, and Dana Curry, 29, were caught by the religious police in an Afghan home playing a CD-Rom about the life of Jesus. The Taliban have imprisoned them and are threatening to kill them for teaching that Jesus is more than a prophet -- that he is the Son of God. In fact, the Taliban showed reporters part of the Jesus video in their news conference but turned it off quickly lest it "proselytize" somebody. They are right. That video and the story of Jesus are dangerous. And those who have been rescued by it, must share it with others. Jude verses 22-24 remind us: "Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy mixed with fear, hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh." 
Amazingly, the only tangible way we have found to help is to give blood. Isn't it interesting that when God wanted to save the world, he did precisely the same thing? On the streets of Waco in my more radical days as a teenaged preacher, I entered into a plasma center. The woman at the counter said, "Come in or out, you're letting the air conditioning out." In my zeal, I stepped in and preached, "All of you are giving blood today, aren't you?" "Plasma," one man corrected me. "OK, plasma. And the blood you give will save other people's lives?" They nodded. "And they will pay you for the plasma, right?" "Right!" "Well, Jesus shed his blood to save all of us, but he didn't receive any money for it. Nobody can buy the blood of Jesus: It is free to all who will receive it and it gives eternal life!" Those were radical days in my life. (By the way, be kind to street preachers, they may be somebody's pastor or your future pastor.) That day, two men knelt on the street outside of that blood bank and found the favor and forgiveness of their heavenly father through the blood of Jesus. So we sing, "There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel's veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains."
And again: "The blood that Jesus shed for me, Way back on Calvary, The blood that gives me strength from day to day, Will never lose its power."
We run to God, our refuge, and we rescue the refugees -- not with our blood but with the blood of Jesus!

Before September 11, we spoke of the Cole. Before the Cole was the Stark. In May of 1987, 39 American seamen were killed in the Persian Gulf when an Iraqi pilot hit their ship, the USS Stark, with a missile. Newspapers carried a picture of the son of one of these seamen, a shy 5-year-old boy, John Kiser. He was standing with his hand on his heart as his father's coffin was loaded on a plane to take him back to the United States. His mother said, "I don't have to mourn or wear black, because I know my husband is in heaven. I am happy, because I know he is better off." Later on, she and young John sent a letter and an Arabic New Testament to the pilot of the Iraqi plane, addressed to: "The man who attacked the Stark, dad's ship, in the hope that it will show that even the son and the wife do not hold any grudge and are at the same time praying for the one who took the life of our father."
Sounds absurd, doesn't it. But it is this more than anything else that separates Christianity from the other religions of the world. We can forgive, and we can be forgiven. For God so loved the world -- so loved you and me -- that if we believe in him, we will not perish but have everlasting life. I pray that you run to that refuge -- and that you rescue the refugees. Let's pray!

Statement: On September 11, I arrived at the church after a men's breakfast at a local hotel. Pulling into the church parking lot, I heard the news of the first plane hitting the tower. Later, in disbelief, I watched with my staff as the walls came down. We called a prayer meeting for that evening, and even on such limited and short notice, the members filled the building for a season of prayer. In the weeks that followed, our attendance ballooned. I sensed in those early days that security was a critical issue for people. For two weeks, we abandoned our existing sermon series to deal with these issues. Since that time, our church has continued to grow. The attendance change is especially noticeable on church holidays, such as Christmas Eve and Easter. People seem to be more sensitive to the Lord and to each other. We continue to point them to Christ, our source of security.