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It's Decision Time

We must not waste time being indecisive; we must step out in faith and make choices.

Some choices feel like confrontation. Some choices are made clear because of confrontation. The moment is suddenly thrust upon us by a person or by circumstances.

Such is the climate of our lesson for the morning. It was a religious shootout on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. A confrontation took place between Ahab and Elijah. The men and the moment merged for a momentous decision.

As far as God was concerned, enough was enough. The worship of idols with the backing of the king and queen had been introduced in the land and was flourishing. The shrines, the temples, the altars could be seen everywhere. The reality of pagan gods was an affront to God, and Elijah was empowered now to act. He'd already said, "There will be no more rain until I say so."

Elijah said to the king, "I have some good news. The rains will come again." Ahab and Elijah met: Elijah was quickly accused of causing the problem. "There is famine and drought in this land, and you, Elijah, are the man who brought this upon Israel."

A confrontation of choice was to be made at Mt. Carmel. Enough was enough; the issue needed to be decided.

We must not picture this in our minds as taking place on the slopes of a majestic mountain like Mt. McKinley, which I saw in Alaska this summer. It wasn't like that at all. It was on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, a plateau where traditionally sacrifices had been offered at a place called "the place of burning," on a flat plateau. But the scene was set. A choice needed to be made.

The terms were agreed upon. Whichever god sent the flash of fire to consume the sacrifice was the true god of Israel. It began early in the morning. The priests of Baal, with growing frustration and frantic frenzy, prayed until three o'clock in the afternoon, and not a word was heard from heaven.

Then Elijah lifted his voice in prayer. Elijah had been taunting all the priests of the pagan gods "Your God is on vacation. He's hard of hearing. Perhaps he needs a hearing aid. He's not listening" all just to increase the anxiety level of these pagan priests.

Then Elijah prayed. Fire flashed. The people who had uttered not a mumbling word were now ready to sign on the dotted line. Who wouldn't have been? They fell to their faces upon the ground, shouting, "Jehovah is God!"

The central question in this story is this: How long are you going to waver between two opinions? The Hebrew behind the words of our text is interesting. The Hebrew word for opinion speaks of branches or forks in a tree limb or a road. The words "falter" or "waver" mean "to limp, to halt, to hop, to dance, or to leap." So the question quite literally is something like this: How long will you keep dancing on one foot and then on the other while trying to straddle a widening branch or to take both forks of a road at the same time? You can't do it. It is yet again one of those moments of truth in the Bible where indecision is not only challenged but condemned.

You will remember that our Lord said no one can serve two masters. You will ultimately feel loyal to one or feel a sense of antipathy if not hostility toward the other. It is decision time on Mt. Carmel. It is decision time in many of our lives.

Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher, expressed a bit of wisdom when he said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

You simply can't take both forks. To put it right down where you and I live, it's a simple question: Why do we waver? Why do we hesitate, procrastinate, delay, avoid, deny in all manner of things, to keep from making the clear choices and commitments that really matter in life?

You see it all the time. First we do this; then we do that. We are never fully in, never fully out. In matters of faith, never really doubting but never really devoted. Wavering between two opinions. Why? Well, if I had the full and final answer for that, someone would write a biography about me. But I have some suggestions.

Mere intentions are not enough.

I remember meeting with a man many years ago at an early morning hour in this church. He was in trouble. His family was falling apart because of his neglect. He was having big trouble facing the consequences of his neglect. He finally shouted, "I meant to do better. Doesn't that count for something?"

I said, "No, not really. Meaning to do something and intending to do something is far different from doing something. You know the old adage, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'"

I frequently run into members of this church who have not been attending with any degree of regularity. We call them BPO members, "burial purposes only." I like these members; they like me. We enjoy becoming reacquainted with one another. Somehow, they just drifted away. Almost invariably they feel compelled to bring it up. And more often than not it goes something like this: "I've been meaning to be in church."

Now, friends, meaning to be in church and being in church are two different things. Don't ever confuse the two as being synonymous. They're not. It's like saying to your wife, "I've been meaning to be married to you." That's not the same as being married to her.

"I've been meaning to be in church." That's not the same thing as being in church. Then they will say, "I've been thinking about you often." Well, I appreciate that, I do. But I generally ask, "Do you think of God often?"

I read a story the other day about a young man. He went to a card shop to find just the right card for his girlfriend. He told the clerk he wanted something special that would express deep sentiment. She quickly selected a card and informed him, "This is our most popular card." He opened it up. The message read, "To the only girl I ever loved." He said, "Give me six of these." He needed to decide, and in this case, I'm not even sure if his intentions were good.

Mere intentions are not enough. A life is built on the foundation of right commitments that lead us to act.

Confucius said, "To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice." We must act; we must do. It takes commitment that leads to action. The commitments that matter are rooted firmly in the inner life that shapes who we are outwardly.

Some unknown writer penned this sentence: "Silence is not always golden. Sometimes it's just plain yellow." We fail to decide because we succumb to the false comfort of good intentions.

We put things off.

We put things off. "There will be another day. There will be a better timenot here, not now, not me, not us. It must feel just right or we shouldn't do it. Let's wait."

The spiritual of many is impaired and never becomes what it could be or should be because we have convinced ourselves there's plenty of time.

In Milan, Italy, a city famous for its art, there's a great cathedral. The central door of the cathedral is surrounded by inscriptions. To the right of the door underneath a sculptured wreath of roses, we read, "All that pleases us is only for a moment."

On the left side of the door is a sculptured cross of thorns, and the words underneath it read, "All that troubles us is only for a moment."

But over the top of the door, we read, "Nothing is important but that which is eternal."

Yet it is those lasting values, those eternal things that we are always postponing in our lives. There will be, we think, a more convenient season.

Read the Book of James. In the fourth chapter you will find this startling sentence: "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." I'm not trying to frighten anybody, but the reality is we should live each day as if it would be our last, for it could be.

Augustine said, "God has promised forgiveness to our repentance. But he has not promised tomorrow to our procrastination." Do not delay. Act now upon the challenges of life and faith.

Not long ago at a high school, three military recruiters showed up to address some high school seniors. Graduation was only a few months away, and the military men were there for the obviousto articulate to these graduating young men and women some of the options that military service would provide them. The meeting was to last 45 minutes. Each recruiterrepresenting Army, Navy, and Marine Corpswas to have 15 minutes. Well, the Army and Navy recruiters got carried away.

When it came time for the Marine to speak, he had two minutes. So he walked up with two minutes to make his pitch. He stood utterly silent for a full 60 secondshalf of his time. Then he said this:

"I doubt whether there are two or three of you in this room who could even cut it in the Marine Corps. I want to see those two or three immediately in the dining hall when we are dismissed." He turned smartly and sat down. When he arrived in the dining hall, those students interested in the Marines were a mob. They acted without delay. He appealed to the heroic dimension in every heart.

Most of us know what we should do. Then why not do it today? We know what we should be. Why not start being that person today? Why postpone your life in faith through procrastination?

We hop from one foot to the other because we are caught up in the false comfort of good intentions, procrastination, and in "denial/avoidance syndrome"a combination of simply refusing to face reality or trying to avoid reality.

We are caught up in "denial / avoidance syndrome."

Where you see this in stark, realistic terms is when a person is caught up in the throes of alcoholism or drug addiction. The persons caught up in this tend to minimize the problem of their drinking and the quantity of their drinking. They maximize their capacity to stop any time they want to.

I cannot tell you the number of men and women I have known and sought to help who have told me, "I don't drink very much, Preacher, just a nip here and a nip there." Or they say, "I can quit drinking any time I want to." Now, those two sentences are actual quotes.

The first, "I don't drink very much, Preacher, just a nip here and a nip there," came from a man 18 years ago who locked himself in a room and sat there and drank for seven dayshis family disintegrating around him. I was called to his home with a physician, and I can close my eyes and recall the scene in living color. "Just a little nip here and there"avoidance/denial syndrome.

"I can quit drinking any time I want to." The man who told me that he had been living in his mother's basement for seven years. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of one of the great eastern Ivy League universities. And before the summer was out I held his funeral. The avoidance/denial syndrome.

We've all done it in one way or another. I did it for years. I ate too much. I kept buying pinstripe suits with the stripes running vertically. I looked like a striped bowling ball.

I don't want to make light of anybody struggling with an eating disorder. Every day of my life I have to watch my diet. Everything I eat turns to fat. I could gain weight on a PDoh diet. I understand those people who are struggling with something like that.

The people of Israel were caught between their faithfulness to God and the powers of state. They should worship God and God alone. But who would dare oppose the king and queen? So if the royal decree went out, "Build a pagan altar to Baal," well, so be it. Build a few here. Avoid confronting the king and queen. Kings and queens come and go. Tell yourself that in your heart you're really worshipping the one true God. You know the old saying: "To get along you go along." That's the motto of the avoidance/denial syndrome.

The avoidance/denial reality is rooted in the mistaken belief that we do not have to decide anything today for sure. Nothing could be further from the truth. No decision is a decision. By not practicing our faith, we contribute to those forces that would, in fact, deny the faith. By not participating in the church of your choice, supporting it with your time and your substance, you really contribute to those forces that would weaken the church, those forces that are becoming more overtly hostile toward the church.

We must fully and finally choose.

How does one become, in the New Testament meaning, a saint? I can tell you. It comes by clinging through good times and bad times, through happiness and heartbreak, through success and sadness to the foundational conviction that God is our hope and trust.

It is placing our hopes in something that we believe will endure while the world around us is going to hell, when the pain and the violence and chaos of our time occupy center stage, dominate the news, disturb the sleep. It is acting upon the conviction that God will ultimately prevail and keep us keeping on. Even if we have to tie a knot in the rope and hold on, we have decided that we are going to keep the faith.

It's not hopping on this foot for a while and that foot a little while, in church every once in a while, there for the high holy days. It takes something that we are committed to every day.

Frederick Buechner said, "Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, you shall love him."

The question that Elijah addressed to the people on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, "How long are you going to waver between two opinions?" is a relevant question. If God is God, then serve him. If Baal is God, then serve him. Which will it be?

So we come to the crux of the matter. We must fully and finally choose. Our English word neutral comes from two roots, "na" and "uta," meaning "not either." "No one," said Jesus, "can serve two masters." A choice must be made. It is never easy to choose. So many voices are calling for our attention.

In the heat of business, there is a chance for a sale, but to get it, your integrity has to be adjusted. One voice says, "go," the other says, "no." You have to make a choice.

You're dating someone. The attraction is strong. You're moving toward some kind of permanent commitment. The question is raised: "Shall we just live together to see how things work out?" Your body is saying yes. A voice inside is calling to you, "How can anything that feels so right be so wrong?" The world about you says, "go"; God says "no."

A gifted Christian writer described what he saw one day on Wall Street: Grown men and women barking in a frenzied effort to get all they can before the market runs out. Buy, sell, trade, swap, but whatever you do, do it fast. They're on the phonetwo phones to their ears. A carnival in gray flannel suits where no one smiles, everyone dashes, an endless chorus of voices, some offering, some taking, all screaming. What do we do with these voices?

I can tell you what we do. We choose. We must choose. We cannot waver forever between two opinions.

T.S. Eliot put it this way, "In a world of fugitives the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away." It appears that way because when you choose God you're often standing apart, separated from the hurt of things about us and beyond. The moment of choice comes to us all.

I can pinpoint the matter both for you and for me now with a question. Here it is: When you think about your life, how are you spending your time, your talent, and your treasure?

The most precious thing we have is time. We cannot recycle it. Once it passes, it's gone and gone forever. We cannot call back yesterday, nor can we hasten the arrival of tomorrow. All we have is today. So treat it carefully. Does Christ have any claim on your time?

Your talent. Does he have any claim upon your talents? A talent, to be helpful, must be made available. Opportunities are lost because people of talent and capacity are standing on the sidelines. I hope and pray that I live long enough to see the talent of this church unleashed for Jesus Christ.

I think it is often the fault of the church that many are not challenged to give their time and talent. We so often expect so little. And that is what we get, a little. Someone asked this disturbing question: "From what you know of Christianity, would it ever occur to you that it was to kindle a fire?" The founder of Christianity came into this world to light a fire, and we've made it into a fizzle. We have come to say, "What can the church do for me?" when we should be asking, "What can I do for Jesus Christ?" If the church is to meaningfully engage the challenges of our timeand there are manywe shall have to appeal to the heroic in the human heart.

Do you think the church of Jesus Christ will make any impact on this world with a low budget and a approach? Can it be that American Christians have fallen into the trap of our time that we really want a vital church, but at discount prices?

Peter Marshall, whose life ended in his late forties and who literally burned out for Christ, said near the end of his life, "The measure of life, after all, is not its duration but its donation."

Since that day, when the lightning flashed and the people fell on their faces, there has always been a moment of choice. Elijah reminds us anew that life is rooted in the choices that we make. We must choose. We cannot make it without him.

H.G. Wells, the English novelist and historian, made it plain to the whole world that he believed in nothing because he did not know for sure. But one day he wrote this, "At times in the silence of the night and in rare lonely moments I experience a sort of communion with something great that is not myself." He had arrived at a moment of choice and did not know it.

We shall never find Christ or choose him if at some point we do not stop running and waveringand face him, seek him, and respond to him.

It is time to choose.

W. Frank Harrington has been senior pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church, in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, since 1971.

(c) W. Frank Harrington

Preaching Today Tape #162


A resource of Christianity Today International

W. Frank Harrington pastored Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and wrote several books, including First Comes Faith: Proclaiming the Gospel in the Church (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1998).

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Sermon Outline:


I. The story of Ahab and Elijah's confrontation on Mount Carmel challenges us to choose between two opinions.

II. Mere intentions are not enough.

III. A well-lived life is built on the foundation of right commitments that lead to action.

IV. We put things off.

V. We should live each day as if it may be our last.

VI. - Illustration

In this detailed illustration, Harrington tells of a high school recruiting meeting attended by the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, during which the Marine tells the students that most of them won't be able to cut it. After he finishes his 10-second speech, the majority of the students take action as we should do, crowding excitedly around the Marine to learn more about the Corps.

VII. We are caught up in "denial / avoidance syndrome."

VIII. We use the excuse, "I can do / start / stop _______ any time I want to."

IX. We must fully and finally choose.

X. We must act upon the conviction that God will ultimately prevail and keep us keeping on.


The point is when you think about your life, how are you spending your time, talent and treasure?