Scriptures I Kings 19:1-13, John 14:23-29
Given at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on May 5th, 2013
Elijah has a problem. Elijah, a prophet of God, perhaps one of the greatest prophets of God in the Jewish tradition, literally running for his life from a hostile army. You see, immediately before this story of Elijah running for his life, there is the account of Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal. The scripture tells us that Israel had fallen under the rule of a king who was hostile to God and the ways of God. This king, Ahab, sought instead to worship the Baals, that is the false gods in Israel. At the same time, Israel had been suffering a drought for three years, that is three years in which the sky refused to allow one drop of rain to touch the parched Israelite fields, three years since a crop was harvested, three years since food had been produced in Israel and as you can imagine, tensions in the country were running high. And I suppose that many in Israel were doing what anyone would do during those times when it feels that perhaps God has abandoned us. They began to look for other things to put in the place of God. Things that were tangible, things that were visible. Who knew if worshipping the Baals was helping but at least in them you could sit or kneel before an object and see it and touch it; but even while worshipping the Baals, even while looking upon them and touching them, the rains did not come and the people grew increasingly tense as the crops did not produce and the food in their storage bins continued to be depleted as folks just tried to survive.
In the midst of these tense times, Elijah sought an audience with the king. And Elijah, offered words of rebuke, saying to Ahab, “you have forgotten the ways of God, you have stopped following God and instead have followed the Baals.” And Elijah challenged Ahab to have all the prophets of the Baals meet him on the top of Mount Carmel where two altars had been set up. One was for the gods of the prophets and the other for the God of Abraham and Sarah. Elijah and all of Israel gathered on the mountain. Now, following a day of prayer to the false gods of the king’s prophets, in which they were entreated to bring fire down from heaven to consume the ram on the altar, nothing had happened. And so it was Elijah’s turn and following a brief prayer to God, fire poured down from the sky and consumed both of the altars. God had been shown to be God, and the prophets of Baal had been shown to be false. And Elijah, turned to the crowd that had gathered there and said to them, go back and prepare, the rains are a’coming. But, as it would turn out, King Ahab, did not like having egg on his face, having spent all this time worshipping false Gods, having had his whole country turn away from the gods that he worshipped and return to worshipping the God of their ancestors, and so he immediately sent his army to try to do away with Elijah. And this is where the story for today picks up.
As I alluded to in last week’s sermon, when women appear in the Biblical narrative, they are often depicted as mean and vengeful and this week’s womanly encounter is really no different. Jezebel, the name that has become synonymous in contemporary language with being unseemly and ruthless, first appears in the story of Ahab and Elijah as both the one responsible for the King’s turning away from God and towards the Baals but also the primary driving force behind the King’s bloodlust towards Elijah. And it is her words that fill Elijah with fear and set him on the run from the King’s armies. And Elijah runs as fast as he can for as far as he can until he cannot go one step further and you imagine him collapsing to the ground as he pleads with God to take his life. “Take my life, because that is preferable to the end that the King and his wife have waiting for me when I am captured.” But instead, he is ministered to, twice by an angel of God, that he might have strength for the journey to Mount Horeb, the place of God. And we are told that Elijah crawls into a cave in the mountain and he waits. Until he hears the movement of the wind outside the cave. Quiet at first but building, the way you can hear wind starting down in the valley and traveling up the mountain. Until he hears trees falling and boulders being blown down the hill and he rushes out thinking sure this is God coming to me but God was not in the wind. Dejected and somewhat surprised Elijah returns to the cave to wait. And then a rumble, the pebbles in the cave begin to twitch back and forth and then roll away and then the whole of the earth starts to violently shake under his feet perhaps knocking Elijah over and as he gets to his feet once again and makes it out of the cave sure that he will not have an audience with God as the tremors start to dissipate and he is able to survey the damage done by the earthquake he is once again despondent. God was not in the earthquake. Elijah returns to the cave beginning to wonder if God is coming until the crackle of fire, like the embers in a fireplace begin to fill his ears. And then heat as the whole outside of the cave becomes consumed by a torrential fire that burns hotter and brighter than any fire he has ever seen and surely now God will come to Elijah, but God was not in the fire, Then the sheer sound of silence. And I love that word, “sheer,” as if to denote that this is an ear piercing silence, the kind of silence you can only imagine; the kind of silence where all the actions of the world, all the movement of the world, all the hustle and bustle and running around and children crying and music playing, and television blaring, and cellphones buzzing and washing machines running and ceiling fans spinning and air conditioners blowing and candles crackling stops. And there was the spirit of God. Following the threats against the life of Elijah, following the running for his life, following his exhausted collapse and begging to lose his life in peace rather than in violence, following the 40 day and 40 night journey to Horeb, following the wind and the earthquake and the fire, following all that, is the whisper of God. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It is one of the more telling developments in the history of linguistics that in both the Hebrew and Greek language, the word for “spirit” is the same word for “breath” and “wind.” In Hebrew, ruach. In Greek, pneuma. What does it say about the way in which those earliest members of the Jewish and Christian faith conceived of the movement of God, and what does it say about the way in which we are to understand the presence of God, the part of God that drives us back towards reconciliation with the Divine, in our own lives? What does it say when the opening stanza of the Bible tells us, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind, a ruach, a spirit from God swept over the face of the waters.” What does it say when Jesus tells Nicodemus in the darkness that the wind blows where it will and so to does the pneuma, the spirit? What does it say when Jesus, soon after telling his disciples about his impending death, tells them, “but don’t worry, after I am gone, you will know one who will advocate for you, a spirit of truth.”
I suppose, perhaps, the disciples in our second reading for the morning are feeling a little overwhelmed as Jesus is speaking to them. They, who had given up their lives and their livelihood to follow Jesus have just been told that Jesus is going to eventually die at the hands of the oppressive rulers of his day. Rulers that cannot stand to have anyone question their divine right to rule over the land that they are now occupying. And Jesus has never shied away from that charge and so with that boldness and let’s be honest, at times, brashness, comes the constant threat of violent death. And so as he speaks them, Jesus is aware of their concern. Aware of their fear. “Jesus, how will we make it once you are gone?” they must have all been thinking. And so he reminds them again, the only thing that is of any importance in this life is love. Share the love of God from which you were conceived and to which you will return. Share the love of God that flows through all the world, constantly reconciling, constantly redeeming, every moment of everyday. Share the love of God that renders powerless all the struggles of this life, all the oppression of the occupying forces and the inhumanity that we each too often show towards one another. Share the love of God both with one another but more importantly with everyone you meet, everyone you encounter. And once again, the wind, the spirit, the ruach, the pneuma, blew through the place in which they found themselves and Jesus’s words rang out once more. “Peace I leave you. My peace I give to you.”
Often I think it is easier to turn away from the struggles of this life and seek the false security of apathy than it is to peer headlong into the things that plague our world. I think it is easier to want to reach for the comfort of the things that distract us from the messy, broken, heartbreaking, things that go on within creation. Some of the things arise from natural causes, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, violent winds. And it is difficult to see God in those times. Elijah struggled out of the cave three times desperate to see God in the raging machinations of the world unfolding before him. He wanted more than anything to know that God’s presence still dwelt within creation and so he drug himself out time and time again but it was not until everything else had fallen away that God became visible to him. Some of our struggles arise simply because we are brothers and sisters who do horrible, terrible things to one another in an effort to gain our own security on the backs of others. So it was that the disciples faced this when the Roman occupiers decided it was time to end the life of that troublemaker Jesus. And they couldn’t make sense of it until they had sensed the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives once again. “Peace I leave you. My peace I give to you.” So we arrive here at this place. And church is so often the intersection between the brokenness of the world between the gritty messy unpleasantness of the world and the peace of God experienced in the silence of prayer, experienced in the silence of silence, experienced in the movement of the Spirit over this chaos and bringing order out of it. We are the home of those with no other home. We are the place where people come when they need to collapse in the cave and wait for the spirit of God to pass over again. We are the place that flings our doors open every week and says all who enter this place are welcome and loved and cherished and we will stand with you, wherever you are and hold you up and carry you and take care of you and nurse you back to health and help you see the movement of God not just in your life but in the world. We are the place where those who can’t find another place to go come and find community and security and love. We can’t turn away from the messiness of the world, from the hate and violence and struggles. We are called to be at the intersection of all that and God.
In both stories for the morning are folks who wanted more than anything else to run away, to hide from the broken reality that had infected their lives. In both stories was the very real possibility that following God was going to cost each of the individuals in the stories their lives. In both stories is the underlying message, “Oh God, not me. Please, someone else.” But the response is the same, “What are you doing, Elijah?” “My peace I give to you. My peace I leave with you but the kind of peace I give you is not as the world gives you.” Don’t turn away, but look. Don’t turn away, but trust. Don’t turn away but be at peace, the movement of the Spirit still passes over this world and you rest at the intersection of Her movement and the pain of the world. It is what we are called to do. It is what we are all called to do. It is what the church is called to do. Thanks be to God and glory to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.