Sunday, November 5, 2017

Wilderness Living

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.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 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 sound of sheer silence. 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.” 1 Kings 19:1-18 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our creator; Jesus Christ, our redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, who calls us and continues to renew and sustain us each and every day. Amen. 

How many of you are baseball fans? If you are a baseball fan--and even if you’re not--it was hard to miss the World Series this year, wasn’t it? What a great series it was--setting records for the most number of home runs, for one of the longest games (maybe even the longest!), plus that fact that the Dodgers and Astros went the full seven games. 

You probably know which team I was rooting for, don’t you? Yeah, having lived in So. California, I’m a diehard Dodgers fan. In that last game, as they were behind 5-0, I kept thinking that once the 6th inning came, they’d get back into the game as they had so many times before.

But, it wasn’t to happen this year, was it? Instead, the Astros won that last game 5-1 and, with it, the series.

I couldn’t really begrudge the Astros for winning it, though. After all that Houston has been through this year, it kind of felt right, didn’t it? That their team would win the Series and bring home the trophy for the first time ever--a win that gave them something to celebrate, even in the midst of all of the difficulty the people of Houston have experienced over these past few months.

It’s been quite a past few months, hasn’t it? Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires. In reading the text for today, and, particularly, when I read vs. 11-12 in The Message, I was struck by the similarity of these past few months with the experience of the prophet Elijah as he stood at Mt. Horeb, or Sinai, as we also know it, waiting to see God. “A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire.”

As the hurricanes ripped through Texas and Louisiana, and Florida and Puerto Rico, and the rest of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean, where was God? As the earthquake shook Mexico, was God to be found? As the fire tore through No. California, destroying thousands of homes, had God abandoned everyone? In the midst of the hurricanes, and earthquakes, and fires, where was God to be found?

Elijah wondered the same thing. Where was God to be found? Had God abandoned him?

Elijah. Just who was Elijah? To understand his story, we have to back up a bit to our lesson from last week, when we heard the story of King Solomon, son of David. Solomon—renowned for his wisdom, his great wealth, his penchant for marrying foreign women, and, particularly last week, his building of the temple--a project that took him 7 years.

What we didn’t hear about Solomon, though, was that he also built a palace for himself. An extravagant project that took 14 years. Hmmm….7 years. Fourteen years. Seven years for the temple for God. Fourteen years for the palace for Solomon. 

Do you begin to see the problem? With all of his wealth. With all of his marriages to foreign women--women who came from different cultures and who worshipped different gods. With all of these distractions, Solomon began to lose sight of God. 

And everything began to fall apart. 

If you remember the story from last week, Solomon used forced labor to build the temple.  In addition, for him to maintain his lavish lifestyle, Solomon taxed the people excessively. There was growing discontent. 

By the end of Solomon’s reign, there was a kind of Tea Party revolt in the 10 northern tribes. “If you lower our taxes and ease our burden, we’ll stay with you and in your kingdom,” they told Solomon. It was his own son, his successor, who said, “No! In fact, I’m going to make it even worse for you,” and then he both increased their workload and their taxes. So, the northern tribes revolted. The kingdom of Israel split in two. The rebels formed a northern kingdom and the remaining tribe formed a southern one. Both continued to be ruled by kings--just different ones.

The prophet Elijah appears in the northern kingdom at the time of King Ahab. We know from archaeology that Ahab was one of the most powerful and successful kings for the northern kingdom. But, we also know from scripture, that he was also one of the most unfaithful.

We know little about Elijah. He first bursts onto the scene when he shows up after Ahab becomes king and predicts a drought. Knowing that the king won’t be happy with his prediction, Elijah flees and goes into hiding. 

God calls him to return. 

And, in what would be the equivalent of a World Wrestling Smackdown, Elijah triumphs over 450 false prophets of Baal, the god who is worshipped by Queen Jezebel, one of Ahab’s wives. At the end of this triumph, although it is not part of God’s command, Elijah slays all of the Baal prophets. Queen Jezebel is furious and sends Elijah a message. That within 24 hours he will be just as dead as the Baal prophets. 

Once again, Elijah is on the run. He flees for dear life to Beersheba, which is far south, near the border between Egypt and the Promised Land. He ends up in the same wilderness that Israel wandered in for 40 years. The same place where Israel cried out to God, “It would have been better if the Lord had killed us in the land of Egypt.” It is in this place—this same wilderness—that Elijah, centuries later, cries out, “Enough of this, God! Take my life--I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!”

How often do we, like Elijah and Israel, say these same words when we are in our own wilderness moments? Or when we witness the wilderness of our world. Where are you, God? How much more must I endure of this life? I have served you and now I am all alone. Take me from this life. Reunite me with those I have loved who are no longer here. How much longer, O God?

As we so often do, Elijah also felt completely alone. And afraid.

Yet, in  the next verses we read that God fed Elijah in the wilderness. That God sustained him for the journey he would take to Mt. Horeb--Mt. Sinai. It was there on the mountain that Elijah would learn that God is not always to be found in the glory and power and majesty we might imagine, or even desire. Sometimes, God is present in the sound of sheer silence. In the smallest of voices.

This week, a friend of mine shared some of her thoughts about All Saints Day in a Facebook post. She wrote about “thin places.” That some people think “thin places” refer to physical locations. But, for her, “thin places” are places of synchronicity of time and place accompanied by heightened awareness and emotional connection. God moments. Moments that are fleeting experiences that can’t be predicted or recreated, but that they stay in the memory as a touchstone, as something for us to hold onto. 

Then she, shared this quote by Mindie Burgoyne: “Thin places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence. They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, the trials and the boredom of our day-to-day life. They probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth--the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace.” Thin places.

In my former church in Pasadena, we had a communion rail that ran in front of the altar from one side of the sanctuary to the other. On one All Saints Sunday, my pastor explained the tradition that these communion rails represented. That they didn’t stop at the walls, but that they continued to extend into infinity, into all time. So that, even in death, we are all connected together. That, when we come to the communion table, we are participating in the meal not only with those here present today, but with all the saints--past, present, and future. With our loved ones who have died. With our loved ones who are here with us. And with our loved ones who are yet to come. 

All of us. Together. At the Eucharistic feast--at this “thin place.” This “thin place,” where we come together in the midst of our wildernesses. Where we come in the midst of our mundane lives. Where we come in the midst of our grief and our trials.  Where, sometimes along the journey, we come like Elijah and Israel and look back and long for the past, simply because we don’t know what the next day will bring. 

It is here, in this “thin place,” where we come and where we experience the Divine Presence. Not in power and glory and majesty so much. But, like Elijah, in a quiet and gentle whisper. In the words we hear. In the water we touch. In the bread and wine we eat. Together, with 
the communion of the saints.

Then, like Elijah, we are reminded once again that God provides sustenance. That God provides strength for the journey and renews our call. And, mostly, mostly, that we are never, ever alone. 

May we cling to these touchstone moments as we travel through the wilderness. 


Preached November 5, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
All Saints Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 19:1-18, John 12:27-19

No comments:

Post a Comment