I shared with 8am folks that I was worried I was preaching more against bad preachers this week than really speaking to the congregation at Advent. It will come as no surprise to you all that have attended the last couple years that some of my colleagues were teasing me this week about me having my own Elijah moment. Colleagues were discussing their insights into the passages, as we are often wont to do, but they were driving me nuts. One colleague is preaching on this passage from 1 Kings as a moralistic sermon: Don’t be like Elijah! Ugh. I tried to remind him that Elijah was on the mountain with a transfigured Christ last week. I don’t know that God wants us to think of Elijah as a failure. But it fell on deaf ears. Here’s hoping that sermon does, too. I had another colleague “discover” that God really only cares about His competition with Ba’al. God does not condemn the worship of Asherah. Really? That whole first commandment thing doesn’t give you pause? That whole shemah thing we read in Rite 1 worship doesn’t suggest that God hates all forms of idolatry? I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts!
Things were further jumbled after the events of Friday night and Saturday in Charlottesville. Most of us believe that we preach best with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper (or the internet nowadays) in the other. Charlottesville looms large over our national context this week, but the events did not happen until yesterday. Most of my colleagues wrote their sermons on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Thursday and Friday were days of editing or fine-tuning. How can one ever preach on such an event with no preparation? What was worse was that some complained our readings did not lend themselves to the events of the weekend! The sense of failure expressed by Elijah or the chaos of the wind and waves were somehow disconnected to those events. And, because I was busy for several hours with June’s funeral, I had missed most of the events. Unlike my brother and sister clergy, I was unable to watch events unfold on television. This was, to their understanding, going to make me ineffectual discussing the tragedy with you.
Of course, 8 o’clockers decided God showed up powerfully this morning in the sermon. Somehow, 1 Kings made sense to everyone in light of our context here at Advent, here in Middle Tennessee, and as an American. And, although it was not the sermon I had in mind at the beginning of the week, I have to admit I found it encouraging as well. So, if you are following along, turn in your Bibles to chapter 19 or turn to the first page in your Order of Worship. . .
Before I speak to the despair of Elijah, I need to speak to the work and deeds of the man. Last week, we read that he appeared on the mountain with Moses and Jesus. In the Jewish tradition, Elijah was the prophet, and Moses was the law-giver. Elijah, it was thought in some circles, might return to rule for God. It makes sense, right? He was carried off to heaven by the chariots of fire before the cohort of prophets and Elisha, his successor. Since he was not dead, he just might return to rule for God, or to advise the Messiah who ruled for God. When people describe Jesus as Elijah in the Gospels, it is with this kind of cultural understanding they have in mind. It’s a compliment.
Elijah, of course, accomplished incredible things for God. Elijah, in the lead up to our passage today, was the prophet of God in the so-called battle of the prophets. Acting on instructions from God, Elijah challenges the priests of Ba’al to a worship contest. He and they will construct an altar, sacrifice a bull, and call down fire upon the sacrifice. Whoever’s god answers will be the god of Israel. Such a competition is possible only because Ahab and Jezebel have led Israel astray from God. They have introduced the worship of idols to Israel.
In a battle worthy of a Hollywood movie, the priests of Ba’al construct their altar, sacrifice their animal, and then call down Ba’al’s fire. Unfortunately for them, Ba’al does not answer. The Hebrew is rather amusing. Elijah mocks them for their god’s inability to answer. He laughs that Ba’al is busy on his throne, as many men like to do in the bathroom, and so incapacitated and kept from answering their prayers. He wonders at another point whether Ba’al is asleep. Again and again he teases the enemy priests. Eventually, they all pass out from exhaustion.
Elijah builds his altar, sacrifices his animal, pours water all over the wood (they are in a three year drought and he wants no one to accuse this of being spontaneous combustion), and calls down Yahweh’s flame. God consumes not only Elijah’s sacrifice but that of the sacrifice to Ba’al. Everyone is stunned. And Elijah uses that stunned time to order the priests of God to kill all the priests of Ba’al. Can you imagine anything more glorious? Elijah certainly could not. Scripture does not tell us what he expected. Maybe he expected all Israel to turn and worship Yahweh after such an answer? Maybe he just expected Ahab and Jezebel to return to the Lord? Maybe he expected idolatry to go the way of the dodo bird after such an impressive display. Whatever he expected, he got something completely different.
And, lest we think this is Elijah’s only supernatural encounter with God, he has all kinds of reasons to know what to expect from God. God has shut the rains at Elijah’s prayer. This is the same Elijah who is sent to the widow in Sidon. It is from her never-ending jar of oil and jar of flour that she, he, and her son are fed during this extreme drought. It is that same son that is raised from the dead at Elijah’s intercession. There are more events in his relationship with God, but you get the idea. Elijah has had quite the walk with our Lord. And it is that same Elijah whom we find groaning, complaining, and giving up today.
Whatever response Elijah expected as a result of that battle of the prophets, he gets a death threat as well. Ahab is blind to the events described in that battle. When he recounts the events to his wife, he claims that Elijah did all of that, not God. In response to her husband’s testimony, Jezebel sends a messenger to tell Elijah that she is going to do to him what he did to her priests of Ba’al. Those of us who are rational might well wonder at the threat and Elijah’s response. If he killed all the Ba’al priests, who is alive to kill him? More to the point, why send a messenger to threaten the prophet of God? Just send the killers.
Whatever Elijah expected, that was not the response. And so he flees south. He flees to the very southern edge of the kingdom. Still, that’s not far enough! He tells his servant to remain at a place while he travels a day into the wilderness, further away. It is there that Elijah finds a bushy tree, collapses, and basically asks God to take his life. If the battle with the prophets or the raising of the widow’s son, or the transfiguration appearance represent the pinnacle of Elijah’s walk with God, this scene represents the nadir, his own Jonah-fleeing moment.
It is at this point in the story that we need to remind ourselves of the character of our Father in heaven. I often have a different parenting outlook. When my kids come whining to me about a booboo or cat scratch, I am the dad that offers to cut off the finger or leg to make that pain go away. It’s ok to laugh. None of them have ever let me do it. It’s terrible parenting, isn’t it? But who has not had it done to them? Who has not offered to do it?
Thankfully, God does not respond like us. Does Elijah get beaten for running away in the “this is gonna hurt me more than it hurt you sense?” Does God ignore Elijah for his lack of faith? Does God condemn or punish Elijah for Elijah’s wrong expectations? Look at what He does to Elijah. He feeds Elijah. He lets Elijah rest. He asks Elijah why he is where he is. And God listens. Think of how petulant Elijah’s answer must sound in God’s ears. “I have done everything you have asked and still they seek to kill me. None have turned to You, Lord! I have wasted my time, my energy, my care, and my concern for them. Take my life, please.” Pathetic, is it not? It’s at these points in our conversations with our kids that we mouth that eternal wisdom, “you think you are hurting? I’ll give you hurt” right? Is that how our Father in heaven tends to Elijah? No!
After feeding and allowing Elijah rest, God sends Elijah to Mount Sinai. There Elijah finds a cave. Some rabbinical scholars claim this is the very same cleft or cave where God hid Moses when His glory passed by. While in that cave, God speaks to Elijah. The miraculous or supernatural happens again. A wind with the strength to split boulders happens. But God is not in that wind. Next an earthquake rumbles. But God is not in the earthquake. A consuming fire falls to earth, and still God is not in the fire. Where does Elijah finally encounter God again? Our translators say the sheer silence. Others have described it as the small whisper. We might as well think of it as the personal, the ordinary, the common.
What Elijah experiences is common to people in their walk with God. Think of the stories of your favorite prophet, or your favorite matriarch , your favorite patriarch, or your favorite Adventer. Is everything they do laudable or praiseworthy? Of course not! And God responds to each as a loving Father. Almost all complain; many are dejected at some point. Some flee Him; some beg Him to punish the enemies. Many take things into their own hands to “fix them” and wind up making an even bigger mess. And each time God is loving and merciful. God knows what each needs and provides it, be it a kick in the pants or a softer life lesson. Elijah needs to know that God is the One rejected. Elijah, and we, need to be reminded that God not only gives meaning to our work, our ministries, but He is the sole arbiter of our success. For American Christians like us, this is a heck of a spiritual wedgie, right?
As I was watching CNN before the funeral yesterday, I watched a modern Elijah. The crew was following a small group of white supremacists after the police had dispersed the crowds from the park. They would try to capture every confrontation on camera and in an interview. They came upon an older, bearded black man with sad face and shaking head. The reporter asked him what had happened to him. In an obviously pained voice, the man expressed failure. Nothing, it turned out, had happened to him. Why was he so sad? “This is not who we are. I don’t know any of these people—on either side! Are we perfect? No. But we aren’t this. Now, it’s our city’s reputation that is getting ruined. Our businesses are being hurt. Our property is being ruined. This is not us.” As he was shaking his head, the crew moved on because there was another verbal confrontation up the street. But I was struck by this man’s sense of failure. He was of an age where I am sure he remembered worse times. He was likely of an age where he thought the worst was behind us. I don’t know how long he has lived in Charlottesville, but it does not have the reputation or feel of a racist divide. It’s a university town snuggled in the foothills of the Appalachians. Their big riots generally involve drunken college students being stupid, wielding kegs or fifths of liquor. Not racist protesters bearing semi-automatic weapons or their counterparts carrying clubs or pepper spray. And had he been a worker for racial equality and justice much of his life, I can only imagine the sense of his futility.
It is a futility that no doubt touches us. I am loathe to put words in their mouth, so you should ask them and thank them afterwards, but think how Billy and George must feel doing the work of the anti-racism taskforce. We are trying to do the right things, I think, as a diocese. If we screw up, it’s well meant intentions. Heck, we began with a corporate, public repentance, just as many experts suggest. We acknowledged that our churches did not stand up with the innocent for justice when it mattered most. Our silence led to their deaths. It was a powerful service, a powerful beginning, Naomi was able to speak to racism as a South African who finds herself for a season planted firmly in Nashville . . . and very few showed up. Was it the timing, a weekday morning? Was it the location? Rush hour makes Fisk a longer trip than normal for those of us living on the south side of Nashville. But where were the people from north Nashville, or East Nashville, or West Nashville? Where was the press? Never mind the CNN’s or Fox News or major outlets of the nation, where were our press members? Why weren’t the cameras following everyone as we processed to St. Anselm’s to reveal the new marker? And for all the good beginning that our task force has done, how quickly would it all had been unraveled if those protesters and counter-protesters had chosen to duke it out in Nashville rather than a small university town in Virginia? For those who have fought racism, today is likely an emotionally exhausting day. Sometimes we like to think we have made such a difference. Then the world kicks us in the teeth and reminds us that our life’s work was a failure or worthless. Is it any wonder we, like Elijah, rail at God, flee from God, or wonder whether He really cares?
Such a feeling likely hangs over two more Adventers this morning. I hear it was shared in Bible Study, so I will share it as well. Unbeknownst to many of you, Tina and Robert have been teaching English as a Second Language classes as one of our nearby churches. Tina and Robert have taken it upon themselves to welcome immigrants and refugees in Christ’s name. Their chief contribution is a willingness to teach English to any who come to the classes. It is hard work, exhausting work. Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts of lives in other countries. Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts of incredible journeys to get to the United States. Through translators they get to hear first hand the accounts and stories of living in this land as a foreigner, an alien. Many in power try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Christ claiming this is a Christian nation. Tina and Robert can tell you we sure don’t seem that way to “those people.”
Up until this point, of course, Tina and Robert could claim a distinction between the country and the Church. The country may get things wrong and only say what is necessary to remain in power, but the Church knows better—the Church follows Jesus. Their eyes will water as they share the story, but that distinction ended this week. The church that was hosting the classes stopped them this week with no warning, with no hint of any problem. It turns out that the idea of teaching foreigners how to read and write English was divisive in the church. Let me say that again: the idea of hosting adult foreigners to teach them our language was divisive in a church. People were threatening to leave the church of those people, and take their pledges with them, so the pastor stopped the classes. Somehow, I doubt the Jesus who supported Peter on the waves today was proud of His disciples. Could we blame Tina and Robert if they gave up? Could we blame them if they gave up on the Church and on God in the midst of such hardened hearts and stiff necks? Would we be surprised if they found themselves, like Elijah, ready to throw in the towel?
I have already spoken of a couple pastors’ failure this morning, but it is worth reminding you I think that we are human. I’m sure by the time today is over I will have heard of many more. Heck, some of you may lump me in with that group. But I was reminded of clergy failures earlier this week by a visitor. I won’t share all the details as I invited her to church, but she recounted how a priest had really screwed up in her past. The result was that she and her family walked out of this church and the Church for many years. When she dropped in this week, she said she had attended the irregular wedding or funeral, but had not been to weekly services in decades now.
On one hand, we might be tempted to dismiss her claims. Why give up on God because a priest is human? But we clergy understand it. Our mistakes, we quickly learn, have far-reaching consequences. We are stewards of God’s holy mysteries. Our mis-stewarding has far-reaching and eternal consequences. Was the priest trying to do what he thought was best? I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Was what he was doing unquestionably wrong? Yes. As I talked with her this week, Elijah was, naturally, on my mind, but I had also had a few conversations with less experienced clergy on my mind. Somebody had suggested that each reach out to me. I learned again that I am a rare sighting in our beloved church. I’m not yet fifty years of age and I have double digit years’ worth of ordained experience. We laughed as I shared that with her, but hers was the nervous laugh of “why is he telling me this?” I told her that clergy make a lot of mistakes right out of seminary. It’s no wonder. We have people and clergy at our sending parish telling us we should be ordained. We have imposing figures we call bishops concurring. We go through committees of strangers called Commissions on Ministry and Standing Committees with the same result. Once through all them, we find ourselves at seminary, surrounded by ordained professors whose jobs depend upon them preparing us and encouraging us for the days that lay ahead. Is it any wonder our expectations get out of whack? Who does not want to be the next great thing? Who does not want to be the one who grows the next super church? Who begins the next revival? Who earns that “saint” title in the next iteration of Holy Women Holy Men?
Like Elijah, our expectations get out of whack. God needs us to further His kingdom is the lie we tell ourselves. And then the honeymoon at the first parish ends. We screw up. We offend rather than scandalize. We discover that people do not like us. Every decision costs the parish income which, in turn, increases the stress on the Vestry? Some clergy run away to another parish, and some parishes go looking for another clergy. Some clergy go looking for that perfect parish, and some parishes go looking for that perfect clergy. Somewhere along the way, bishops hope that the new clergy and the vestries learn to work with each other. If the call is mutually discerned, bishops hope clergy and parishes look for God in the ordinary, the mundane, the boring, and each other. My ministry with this woman this week was rather boring. I don’t think she walked out of the office thinking “that guy is brilliant.” She may have been scandalized by a couple of my questions or statements. Time will tell. She had been wrestling with God for a few months. She found herself on Franklin Pike and noticing the sign rather than flying past us on the interstate yet again. We talked. I apologized for my predecessor’s failure. We spoke of some of you; she threatened to give us a try. Miraculous? Yes. Supernatural? By no means.
How this all relates to us individually, I hope, is obvious. It is understandable if our individual ministries to which He has called us result in disappointment and sense of failure. How it relates to us corporately, I think, is less obvious. When Bishop John visited with us in June, he made a point of encouraging me to thank the vestry members repeatedly for their work of adaptive change or discernment or whatever we want to call it. What God and the bishop and Holly and I are asking them and you to do is hard work. There is a temptation, a strong temptation, to want to give up, to quit working, to quit doing the hard stuff. Heck, in this day and age of consumer Christianity in America, it is easy to want to give up and run away and hide, just like Elijah! Those feelings that we sense or understand in our individual efforts can even be magnified in corporate settings. That’s why I find it more than comforting that on a day when our country is struggling with the institutional sin of racism and when members are struggling with their own sense of failure or inadequacy and when we as members of a parish may be experiencing similar feelings of failure and wasted effort, we are reminded the week after the Transfiguration of Elijah.
Like us, Elijah was called to walk in the path of God, the path of righteousness. Like us, Elijah was called to draw others into God’s saving embrace. Like us, Elijah was given incredible power and incredible signs that he was doing what God asked of him. And like us, Elijah found himself in a world full of people who had no idea they were in darkness, who had no idea they were walking in valleys that led to death, who had no idea they were blind. And like us, Elijah took their rejection of God as a rejection of himself and as an evidence of his failure.
Like us, Elijah had a Christ like ministry. His ministry was not of his own doing. He went and did where and what God commanded. Like God’s Son who came centuries later, Elijah’s ministry seemed a failure. Like Jesus, Elijah’s ministry seemed to be pointless and leading to death.
It would have been within God’s right to smite Elijah or yell at him for his pity party; it would not, however, been within His character. Like He does so often for each of us, God needed to remind Elijah where He was to be found. Like us, Elijah needed to be reminded that God only requires obedience. Like us, Elijah needed only to be reminded that nothing God does is without purpose. We may not understand the purpose, but He always has at least one! And like us, Elijah needed to be reminded that God is the judge of our efforts. He is the determiner of the success of our labors. Not us. Not the world. To us and to those in the world we can appear as abject failures, as impotent human beings not up to the grand tasks assigned us by Him. Nevertheless, He determines the success. He has the power to redeem all things, even our seeming failures. Elijah felt a complete failure, yet God reminds him that 7000 heard his words! 7000 were rescued out of Elijah’s self-evaluated disappointment or failure! How successful would we view ourselves if we each rescued 7000? You and I share in that promise and that hope—that He will give meaning to our lives, that He will redeem our failures, that He will give us a share of His glory for all eternity. Just as He redeemed this nadir of faith of His prophet Elijah, He will redeem our nadirs, both individually and collectively. Heck, just as He redeemed the death of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, He will redeem us, even if our seeming failure seems to lead to our own deaths! And, because He is a Father who loves us more deeply than we can ever understand or appreciate, He has even more than redemption in store for us! Just as He demonstrated in His Son’s Ascension and Transfiguration, you and I, like Elijah, will one day share in His glory! What a promise! What a hope! What an incredible God and Father!
Why are you here, Adventers? Let’s eat and get back out there, toiling in the mundane and the ordinary, reminded of that wonderful promise and reward He has in store for all those who call upon Him!
In Christ’s Peace,