Conclusion: The Many Faces of Elijah
June 19, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7):
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
The many faces of Elijah…
We’ve seen Elijah the fearless. Three weeks ago there he was, on top of Mt. Carmel, challenging and mocking and eventually killing the prophets of the Phoenician weather god Baal. That’s where our story today opens. The image of anyone slaughtering hundreds of people is horrific at any time, but especially in these days following the desecration of life that occurred last week in Orlando. This face of Elijah today becomes a kind of awful, black mirror of what extremism—what too much zealotry—looks like. Which is why I emphasized in the sermon three weeks ago that story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is not really history; it’s mythology—in the most positive sense of that term. It’s a fantastic story that helps us understand a deeper truth. It may or may not be descriptive of anything that actually happened; it certainly is not prescriptive of any action that anyone who follows God should take. It is much less about rival religions battling for dominance the way the tribal monarchs do in Game of Thrones, it much more about hyperbolically reminding the Israelite hearers and readers that there is only one God.
And maybe the most hopeful nugget we can take from that story today is the potent reminder that violence begets violence. Elijah acts in violence, and Jezebel threatens to responds in kind. If we are to ever get out from under the crushing wheel of violence, we have to stop responding violently ourselves.
That’s one Elijah. But we’ve also seen Elijah the merciful. Elijah the miracle worker. Elijah who goes and lives in enemy territory—the ancestral land of Jezebel—and settles there with the most marginalized…a widow. And who, through his close contact with God becomes a conduit for God’s healing and sustaining actions. He and this little family, live on a miraculous jar of meal and oil for years, and Elijah restores the widow’s son to health…resurrects him. This is the Elijah who lives on in Jewish folklore; who cures the sick, enriches the poor, and promotes social welfare.
It’s easy to see why it’s this Elijah that people hold on to. Instead of the terrifying one, the one who has “been very zealous for the Lord,” but they’re both part of his character—essential to who he is. They’re both windows into the light and shadow that make him human. The light and shadow that inhabit all of us. The light of our zeal can always flip into the shadow of violence, if we let it. The light of compassion—wanting to see goodness and light in everyone—can become a shadow if it blinds us to the very real dangers we face. We all have light and shadow within us. And a large part of our Christian journey is learning how to acknowledge and embrace them both in ways that generates life for all. It is a lifetime process.
But today we encounter an Elijah who is not fearsome, or miraculous. Today, we see an Elijah who is very, very human. Elijah today is revealed as a mix of fear and pride. Still powerful but also doubtful. He is a mixed blessing…like all of us. A mixture of dark, and light, conviction and hesitation.
He experiences not one but two epiphanies—experiences of the Divine—in this story: one under the broom tree, and one at the cave. And yet, at the end he still doesn’t seem to get it.
Remember where we are in the cycle. He has notified King Ahab that there will be a drought, run off into hostile territory to live with a widow for three years, retuned to announce the end of the drought with an amazing pyrotechnical display on top of Mt. Carmel, and instead of being happy that the drought has ended, Jezebel threatens his life and he flees again, this time clearly ready to be done with the whole business of being a prophet. “That’s it,” he says…“I’ve had it. Kill me now, Lord.”
But God is clearly not done with him. Angels come to feed him in the wilderness. And he embarks on a 40 day journey—we’re to catch the echoes of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness here—to Mt. Horeb, which is another name for Sinai, the Mountain of God.
And here he stands, in a cave, just as Moses did generations before, and God asks, “What are you doing here?”
It’s always tempting for me to read this as, “why are you here instead of back in Israel where you belong, doing what you’re supposed to be doing?” but I know I’m reading that into the text, there is no critique of Elijah in God’s question.
And Elijah gives a classic human response, completely overestimating his own role in events. I’ve done everything you asked, and now, “I alone am left.” I’m the only one trying to do the right thing. I’m the only one who understands what to do. I’m the only one who can get the job done. How many of you have fallen into this kind of functional atheism—“Guess, it’s all up to me.” And the flip side of that “Why is this all up to me?” I know I have. We’ve all been there. And just like Elijah, every time I’ve fallen into that…I forget that it’s demonstrably false. We’re not alone, in any of our tasks, and neither is Elijah. Just a chapter before this Obidiah tells him that there 100 prophets of God hidden in caves, throughout Israel, and at the end of this chapter God reminds him that there are still “7,000 in Israel who have not bowed to Baal.” He’s not alone…but in the moment of despair, none of that matters. “I alone am left!”
Interesting that God doesn’t correct him. God simply gives him one clear instruction “Go out and stand on the mountain, for I am about to pass by.” A gift of God’s full presence revealed just for Elijah.
And then we have this really well known passage, and it is difficult to understand exactly what’s going on. And you’ve probably heard sermons that focus on God being in this odd silence, not the big dramatic events.
I agree with, although I think God is in both the big earth-shaking events and the silence, but what I think is really interesting is that given this very clear, simply instruction from God “Go out and stand on the mountain,” Elijah doesn’t doesn’t do it. He resists. God says: Go out, but he doesn’t, he stays in. Then AFTER God has passed by, he only goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.
Now maybe it’s perfectly sensible to stay in a cave in the midst of wind, and fire…maybe not an earthquake…But that’s not what God told him to do. And it seems like Elijah misses something important because he has the exact same word-for-word conversation with God at the mouth of the cave that he had earlier. Maybe this is a framing device, and maybe it’s a scribal error, but maybe it’s a telling piece of theatre. Has Elijah missed an opportunity to learn something? How often does God speak clearly and simply to us, in the big events of our day, and in our silences, encouraging us to do something, to reach out, to take action, and we dismiss it, or ignore it, or simply pretend we don’t hear it?
Elijah (willfully or not, we don’t know) ignores God’s instructions, and God says Ok, “return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.” Now if we end the passage here, this might be read as a story about Elijah being worn out, taking a break, and God listening and then saying, “OK, now go back.” But God isn’t sending him back. Damascus is in the opposite direction of where Elijah came from. God is not sending him back to deal with Jezebel and Ahab, but on to something else.
In the rest of the passage God tells him to go to Syria and anoint Hazael king. Hazael will be the one who will eventually conquer Israel and Judah. Then he’s told to anoint Jehu as king of Israel. Jehu is the one who will ultimately bring about Jezebel’s death. And finally he’s told to anoint Elisha as prophet in Elijah’s place. Elijah doesn’t do any of it, but it still gets done. Elijah never actually anoints Elisha, and it’s Elisha who anoints Hazael and Jehu.
I don’t see this as Elijah taking a break and being refortified for another confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel. I see this as Elijah attempting to renounce his prophetic calling, and God refuses to accept his resignation, and instead reconfiguring the task ahead.
I love this part of the Elijah story because here he is so human. He reminds me that none us of ever have the full picture of what’s really going on. None of us can really chart a course purely by our own internal guidance system. We need to be open to both the dramatic and the infinitesimal nudging of God, and the counsel of our fellows. And maybe more importantly none of us can renounce our baptismal ministries. We have been called to work with God on bringing about just and peaceful reign of God. The reign that Elijah announces, the reign that Jesus embodies and lives out. We might get frustrated and fed up, but we can’t actually quit. After last week, I know I had a thought of “I’ve had it.” “That’s enough now, Lord.” It’s all too hard, and nothing is going to change…But God won’t accept that resignation. We are not alone, there are allies out there, and God’s work will be accomplished.
The theme that I mentioned several weeks ago…way back in Easter…echoes again this morning: “we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to abandon it.” (see homily from Easter 6). This is the lesson I take from this Elijah, a reminder that God uses imperfect, stubborn, mixed blessing people like him, and you and me, all the time, and it is through us that God continues, slowly, and patiently, and lovingly to draw all things into whole, generative, reconciled relationships. So let us go on our way, listening for what God would have us do in the face of the great and troubling issues of our day.