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The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Rigby
March 24, 2019
I Kings 19: 1-4; 8-18
A Reading from I Kings
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. 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 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. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
It’s an honor to be invited to the pulpit today to preach as part of UPC’s Lenten series on the 40-day stories. Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, Pastor Matt brought our attention to the story of Noah, asking us to trust. That was the word of the week, to trust that God would be with us in the difficult moments of Lent, in the 40 days ahead. Last Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent, Pastor Matt remined us of our forebearer Moses, and how he led the Israelites to learn about God’s love by studying the 10 commandments. How will we so learn God’s love in these 40 days? How will we learn God’s love so well that we’re prepared to respond to the need and pain that surrounds us?
Today, we turn to what the prophet Elijah teaches us about how to spend our 40 days. Basically, he spent them running away from the angry Queen Jezebel. What could possibly be the take away from this story for our lives of faith?
Just before Elijah’s 40 days of running, he has a mountain top experience. He’s in a contest with the prophets of Ba-al, and he beats them out, and badly, too. Imagine the scene: the prophets of each god have placed sacrifices on an altar, and the heathen prophets, those of Ba-al, are first up in the competition, and they’re trying to get Ba-al to send down fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifices. And so they dance, and they yell, and they pray. But no matter how hard they dance, Ba-al does not respond.
And then comes Elijah’s turn. Elijah stands up, he starts showing off, he pours buckets of water on the animals on the altars, and then he says one prayer. He asks God to send down fire from heaven and God complies, sending down fire from heaven, burning up the sacrifices. The story from the preceding chapter of I Kings says that the fire was so hot that anyone who got near was killed. And Elijah kills all the rest of the soldiers that weren’t killed with his very own sword.
Now, it just so happens that the queen of the land was not at all pleased. You see, Ba-al is her god, and these are her prophets, he loyal citizens. And so she announces that she’s gonna go after Elijah, and get back at him, saying that she will kill him.
Rushing down off the mountain of God’s fire, just like three weeks ago, the disciples came down the mountain of transfiguration, Elijah slips into his running sandals, and heads into a sprint. For 40 days and 40 nights – you sense the theme here – he runs from Queen Jezebel, who’s been depicted since then as a kind of dragon lady, with evilish powers. That’s what happens when you give women too much power, right? Fiery breath, almost dragon-like herself.
Well, Elijah is running in an all-out panic. The text tells us that angels show up to minister to him along the way, whenever he stops to rest. In all that time of his eating and drinking, there’s no particular or special word that God says to Elijah. There is just the running, there is just the fear, there is just the surviving. Oh, and there is just the care of God as Elijah makes his way.
My guess is that all of us have times in our lives like this. Times that we just have to run. That’s all we can do. We just have to get away, we just have to keep going, we just have to survive. There are times when we might have memories of being on top of that mountain sometime long ago. We have memories of maybe sometime long ago being strong and courageous and faithful and loving. But we probably remember it in a disassociated kind of way, as though it were someone else who was once there and not ourselves, when we’re running, when we’re fearful.
We’re funny creatures, aren’t we? One moment we can trust God and love others enough to participate in a major God project. The next moment, we can be too scared away by some dragon in our lives, to remember God’s got us covered. Where are we, even this morning, I wonder? What dragons do you and I fear are chasing us? Do we remember that it was really us on top of that mountain, three weeks ago?
Finally, Elijah’s running comes to a stop. He finds a cave to rest in, and there, he’s in a position to hear what God has to tell him for the first time, in 40 days and 40 nights. But all God does is ask him the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Now, this had to have taken Elijah a bit off guard, to say the least. The last time he talked directly with God, he asked God to send to the fire to those altars, and God more than cooperated, so why isn’t God on board when Elijah gets to the cave? How could God ask Elijah such a stupid question? Maybe Elijah felt a little like James Harden would feel if he were asked by a reporter after scoring 80-plus points in a Rockets game, “But tell me, Harden, what brought you here today?” Thinking of it another way, it would be one thing if Elijah had run into an old friend when he went into the cave. The old friend probably would have said, “Hey, Elijah, old friend, it’s been a long time. What are you doing here?” But God’s question to Elijah is really more of a judgment than a question isn’t it? I picture God saying it the way a parent would ask it of a teenaged child if they ran into her at a night club, “What are you doing here?” meaning, “I really think you should be somewhere else.” And so Elijah is thrown into a defensive panic. He rehearses for God what has brought him to the cave, highlighting his defeat of the prophets of Ba-al, and ending with a dramatic statement that he is the only follower of God that is left.
It’s probably safe to say that any time we feel like we stand utterly alone, we are out of perspective. Often, our sense of loneliness is related somehow to our fear of being scorched by some dragon or another. If we let our guard down, we might be running away from failure or pain or inadequacy, or being misunderstood, or from people who are really out to get us. Or we might fear that there will be a second dip in the economy, the destruction of the environment, the increasing powers of artificial intelligence, the growing number of terrorist attacks. Concerned about these very real threats, we lose our perspective on our way, every now and then. Believing we’re the only ones who care, the only ones who trust, the only ones who are doing work, we forget there are others when we are tired, when we are afraid, after we have been running for 40 days and 40 nights.
God next tells Elijah to go to the mouth of the cave, and God speaks to him, not out of the earthquake or the wind or the fire. God is showing Elijah that God has a wide-ranging repertoire. With the prophet of Ba-al, God uses the fancy stuff. Here in the cave, God speaks out of utter silence. And what God does is ask him the same darn question that God has asked him already, almost as though to give him a shot at offering a better response. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” But Elijah only repeats the same agitated response he’s already given. And so, God sighs. At least that’s how I imagine it. And finally, God gives Elijah overly specific instructions, telling him to go back the way he came. “Here’s your assignment, Elijah, and by the way, you are not the last one left. There are yet 7,000 faithful ones in Israel. Go back the way you came.”
Well, of course, this is exactly what Elijah needed to hear, but he couldn’t have been happy about it. Going back is a very hard thing for us to do when we’ve been trying our best to move it along, to move forward. Even when we know we’ve taken the wrong path, we’re not much into turning and going back. I don’t think we would even want to go back to the Garden of Eden if we were given the option. Even if we were given another shot at doing it right the next time around. Sure, we want to get sin fixed up in the world, but mainly by pushing ahead, right? Not by backtracking. Besides, we like having knowledge of good and evil, don’t we? Even if that knowledge gets us into trouble. Which means that if we are Elijah, we’d rather have found an alternative route home than retrace all those steps.
Now, maybe if God had offered Elijah a plane ticket, or even a Greyhound bus ticket back, maybe he could have gotten away with not turning and walking down the same path the way he came from, trudging back through 40 days and 40 nights’ worth of running, which when he was despondent and a little less scared, probably would have taken him 60 days, who knows?
One reason we resist turning around, I think, is because it fills us with shame to admit we’ve gone on the wrong path. We feel especially ashamed when someone with authority over us tells us to go back, to go back and do it right this time. Because that means that there might be witnesses to our mistakes. A silly example is something I remember from my childhood. When I would go shopping with my mom, I would try to sneak things into the grocery cart. And she would let me get away with it as long as I wasn’t going over budget and wasn’t being unreasonably unhealthy. But sometimes, if I overdid it too much, or got something too weird from the cereal aisle, she’d pick it out from the cart and hand it to me with those dreaded three words, “Cindy, put that back.” Then, I’d have to take box of, let’s just say, cream-filled chocolate Pop Tarts — my favorite, then. Maybe now, I haven’t had one in a while. But I’d have to go over to aisle 6 and figure out where it fit. And I would always watch and try to put it back when no one was looking because I thought they’d be able to tell I was a little kid getting scolded by my mom, and I hated that.
It can also make us mad to be sent back, not only ashamed, but angry. When we’ve given our best effort to getting to where we think we should be, and it doesn’t work out. Or maybe to be sent back will make us so discouraged, we want to give up. Somewhere in our heads, there seems to be the idea that if we do our best, God should take care of the rest, right? I saw that on a coffee mug once. But the story of Elijah reminds us that that’s not how God works. God isn’t our personal assistant. God is not a notary whose job it is to rubber stamp our agendas. God’s not a caddy who chooses the best club for us so we can get a better score playing golf. God’s not a mentor who empowers us to be mentors. God’s not a maid, cleaning up our messes. God is the one who command us, demanding that we be full fledged players in God’s own work, the God who is so serious about us being genuine partners and not window dressing for the divine project, that God waits for the chance to get us turned around when we get off track.
All this this time, Elijah has worried about getting scorched by Jezebel, when really it is God who winds up taking him out, at least the him that feels all alone and persecuted. The rage of the wicked queen is a small thing when compared to the unrelenting pursuit of the graceful God who cares whether or not we are heading in the right direction.
What if we thought about Lent as a time to listen for God’s reorienting voice? What if we thought of it creating a space for us to turn around and head back to the life and work God desires for us? Jesus, right now, here in the middle of Lent, is spending a lot of his time trying to get those around him to turn around and even to return to where they came from. Turning is the language in the new testament that is associated with repentance and conversion, metanoia in Greek, a complete changing of heart and actions. And the point of metanoia for Jesus is never to shame, and always to restore. When he commands Zacchaeus to go back and offer restitution to those he has cheated, Jesus is trying to restore him to right relationship. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must go back and be born again in order to be at peace with his eternal destiny, when he tells the rich young ruler to go back and sell his possessions and give his money to the poor, Jesus is trying to restore him to discipleship.
The rich young ruler cannot get himself to turn. We’re not sure whether Nicodemus ever makes it to turning. Turning doesn’t come easy to any of us. Zacchaeus does make the journey back, and any shame he feels dissolves immediately into joy. This seems to be true of Elijah as well, who turns, returns, and is restored and is able to finish out his ministry.
How about us? Are there ways we are being commanded by God to turn around on this day? How would we know if there were? We might want to try taking a break from our running now and then, finding a space to sit with Elijah in the cave. We might want to work on refining our listening skills, so we can hear God speaking in the silence, and in whispers, as well as in fire and fanfare. And finally, we will want to prepare for the sacrifices we may, we will, be asked to make. Laying aside our egos, admitting we have gotten off track, and retying our hiking boots for a potential long trek back to where we belong.
What we are returning to will be worth it, I trust. It will probably have more color to it than when we ran away, the faces of our forgotten brothers and sisters who stand with us, the marvelous complexities of the texts that have formed us, the beauty of the liturgies that surround us, the importance of the work that calls us. And so our charge this Lent is to turn as God commands us to, against all the forces that push us to keep moving forward. To turn and return to God’s calling for us to the things that matter most. And God promises to be with us every step of the way, sending angels to minister to us, and even better, entering into the journey with us and feeding us from his very body. With Jesus at our side, we can see where to turn on our way back and on the way forward. In him is the promise that all will be restored, for he himself is the restoration.
And let the people of God say Amen.