Thursday, July 18, 2013

Listen Elijah, Get Back to Work!

I Kings 19: 1-19
A few years ago I remember seeing a clip where Steven Colbert of the Colbert Report was interviewing the iconic Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live fame.  Colbert, tongue and check, made the somewhat crude analogy of FOX commentator Glenn Beck to that of a prophet.  And of course, only Fr. Sarducci could put a spin on this.  He said, “Well, yes, he’sa talks a lot, he hear’sa voices and he’sa unstable.” 
 Probably this is a good description of a prophet, he talks a lot, he hears voices and he’s a bit unstable.  That seems to sum up Elijah the prophet of Israel in today’s story. He talks a lot, sometimes rather hyperbolic.  He hears voices, one voice in particular, and he is definitely unstable.  Elijah’s in a heap of trouble, that ‘troubler of Israel’ as King Ahab calls him.  For not only is Elijah in trouble with Jezebel because he killed of some 450 of her beloved Baal’s prophets, now she wants to kill him.  His faith and vocation are in trouble.  Elijah suffers a crisis of faith and if not a crisis of faith at the least a crisis of vocation.

Elijah’s troubles began on Mt. Carmel where he faces off against 450 prophets of the god Baal to determine which deity, YHWY or God or Baal is the god of Israel.  Two pyres, ready to be lit, were set up with a sacrificial piece of meat and Elijah challenges the prophets to have the ‘Baal’ consume the sacrifice with fire.  Nothing happens no matter how long and how hard the people cry out to Baal.  Elijah even mocks them, “Pray louder!” he says.  God on the other hand, tells Elijah to pour water on the pyre and the sacrifice and then it is consumed with flames. YHWY triumphs.  Baal fails.

Right now, at this point, Elijah does not have one shred of fear within him.  He's on top of the Ancient Near East world.  He leads the people gathered at this spectacle to kill those 450 prophets of Baal.  But as we will see beginning at chapter 19, Elijah becomes unraveled like the strands of a threadbare tablecloth and then unhinged like a pythons jaws spotting prey.  This is the unstable part that Fr. Sarducci talked about. 

Ahab told his wife Jezebel what Elijah had done and that he had killed the prophets. She sent a message to Elijah: "You killed my prophets. Now I'm going to kill you! I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don't do it by this time tomorrow."

Elijah was afraid when he got her message, and he ran to the town of Beersheba in Judah. He left his servant there, then walked another whole day into the desert.

Finally, he came to a large bush and sat down in its shade. He begged the LORD, "I've had enough. Just let me die! I'm no better off than my ancestors." Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, "Get up and eat." Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep.   Soon the LORD's angel woke him again and said, "Get up and eat, or else you'll get too tired to travel." So Elijah sat up and ate and drank.  The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, and he spent the night there in a cave. 

While Elijah was on Mount Sinai, the LORD asked, "Elijah, why are you here?" He answered, "LORD God All-Powerful, I've always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!"  "Go out and stand on the mountain," the LORD replied. "I want you to see me when I pass by." 

All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the LORD was not in the wind. 

Next, there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.

Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat.  He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

The LORD asked, "Elijah, why are you here?" Elijah answered, "LORD God All-Powerful, I've always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!"

The LORD said:  Elijah, you can go back to the desert near Damascus. And when you get there, appoint Hazael to be king of Syria. Then appoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat to take your place as my prophet.  Hazael will start killing the people who worship Baal.   Jehu will kill those who escape from Hazael, and Elisha will kill those who escape from Jehu. But seven thousand Israelites have refused to worship Baal, and they will live.   Here ends today’s reading.

Jezebel and her threats! She makes good on them as we saw three weeks ago now, so Elijah has reasonable evidence that she will kill him, her record so far has been good – remember Naboth’s vineyard and his demise?  So, Elijah is probably justified on some level to be afraid.  He runs.  Very far.  From Northern Israel and Mt. Carmel to Beersheba way down south in the deserts of the Negev.

Elijah ran away from Jezebel afraid and would rather just die than be sought and killed by this female antagonist.  But that was not to be the case.  God, in those divine and redemptive ways sends food and water twice so that Elijah could gain strength and courage.  

God had a plan in place for an ally, a king, a new prophet, and a way to get rid of those nagging Baal worshippers. Elijah, the prophet, was the one to carry God’s plan forward and eventually the mantle of prophecy would have to be passed on.  But for now where was Elijah??  He was in a cave, folks.  Hiding!  How convenient it must have been for him to just drop out of sight, to disappear from the scene, to take a break from the action, to disengage from responsibilities.  To hide. 

I've heard this cave that Elijah fled to referred to as the 'cave of avoidance'. Because it was in this cave that he thought he could hide and not be found.  It’s in this cave that Elijah could comfortably live with his fear or anger and not have to deal with anything.  He’s a man on the run trying to desperately avoid his murder, but also his work and vocation.  Fear leads to avoidance and Elijah is avoiding God.  But God won’t let Elijah hide.  God finds Elijah and says, Elijah what are you doing?  Get back to work.  I’ve got a few things for you to accomplish here, you’re not done just yet!

It’s at this very moment that our scripture ends and leaves us hanging asking the question; will Elijah be defined by his fear or his faith?  Will he stay or will he come out?  Will Elijah avoid the difficult tasks ahead of him or will he confront them with the confidence and knowledge that God is with him and won’t fail him?  Good questions, don’t you think?

The same is true of church and of you as a church right now.  Orange Congregational has taken a bold step; you have poked your head out of the cave of avoidance, the years of living with a deficit budget and stagnant growth.  I sincerely commend you for taking that very brave move into your future.  But now what?  How will we organize ourselves to live into a prosperous future?  I am not talking dollars and cents because we can do the math and restructure the budget to make it all work.   I am talking about a prosperous spiritual future because if we lose our spiritual center we will lose it all.

God has balled us out of the cave and into our faith and our future.  Many people have asked me, ‘how are you going to do it?’  Well I’ve got news for you, it’s not about me doing it all, it’s about you!  The church is the people doing for others living in love and kindness towards one another.  It’s about expressing your faith, maybe even without using words.  St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

Believe this and know that God will supply all that we need to become a beacon of hope for all people in Orange, know that God will sharpen the tools of witness that we have to go out and witness to others what we have here.  We are a place of caring individuals grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We have a strong faith in God the one who heals, comforts, and sustains us.  How can we share that with one another and with others?

A new model for Church School is a great start. This isn’t the 1950’s and the other Sunday School model isn’t compatible with the way in which children learn any longer.  The workshop rotation model is. 

How about a lay care giving ministry?  I know that you care about one another, let’s do it in some formalized way.  Church Council brainstormed some exciting ways in which we could expand our ministry and it was wonderful to see the excitement that it generated.

Now we, like Elijah are out of the cave, just barely, but we are out.  God met us at the threshold and issued a plan that OCC will thrive in her ministries.  Let us proceed with faith that new things will emerge and that all will be fed and nourished.

Because, as Rabbi Hillel once said, “If not now, when?”



Reader Wil said...

I wish you luck with your projects.
Elijah is still a very important prophet in Israel. In every synagogue
there is the chair of Elijah to symbolize his present at the circumcision of the little boys. I wrote about it last year after my visit to Israel.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Wil, ABCW Team.

Reader Wil said...


"At every circumcision Elijah, "the angel of the covenant," as he is called in Malachi (iii. 1), is supposed to be seated at the right hand of the sandek, upon a chair richly carved and ornamented with embroideries . Even in the salutation to the child to be circumcised is read the invitation to Elijah .

When, under the influence of Jezebel, circumcision in the northern kingdom was about to be abolished, Elijah is said to have retired to a cave. There he prayed to God (I Kings xix. 10), and complained that Israel had forsaken the covenant of the Lord; whereupon God ordained that no circumcision should take place except in the presence of Elijah."

Suzanne said...

Thank you Reader Will for sharing.