Sermon #271 St. Martin’s #29 (Big Church) 6/19/22
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."
1 Kings 19:1-15a
The Role of a Prophet
Happy Father’s Day! This is my first Father’s Day, now that we have a six-month-old. I was aware that I was already fitting into the stereotype as I picked out my Father’s Day present at Lowe’s the other day. I don’t know if anyone has ever been so excited about getting a leaf blower.
I would pay a landscaping company to do it, but I’m too cheap—another dad quality of mine. And especially in this heat, I feel for the guys who are out mowing my neighbors’ lawn. I did landscaping one summer in high school, and never again.
I have a great respect for those who do jobs that I can’t imagine doing on a daily basis. You may remember the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs,” none of those seemed appealing. I’ve also never longed to be an accountant—I don’t know if it’s possible to even long for accounting.
Another job I wouldn’t want is the role of a prophet. I mean yeah, you’re in the Bible and all, but at what cost? I don’t think any of the Old Testament prophets went unscathed by the job. It was a heavy load to carry.
The great 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “A prophet's true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought.” It is true greatness, but that is also a lot for one person to bear. I hardly have enough mental capacity to think about my family and myself, let alone God and humanity in a single thought. Maybe that’s the reason I’m a priest and not a prophet.
It should be noted that even though the prophets of the Old Testament held an important role in Israelite society, they didn’t really fit in. Israel’s religious and political power were always divided into three distinct roles: priest, prophet, and king. The king’s role was quite clear: lead the nation politically but be faithful to God. A spiritually corrupt king would inevitably corrupt the entire nation.
The priests, on the other hand, continued the ritual sacrifices that ensured that the people had a way to remain pure and in good standing with God and their neighbor.
The role of a prophet wasn’t as clear. Prophets didn’t have a seat in the king’s court, nor were they welcomed into the most sacred areas of the Temple. They were, more times than not, outsiders.
They were rarely popular with those in power because their job normally required them to speak against the corrupt elite who had forsaken God and the poor in their midst. They were not hailed as saviors or defenders of truth and goodness. Rather they were cast aside and laughed at.
Elijah himself was called “the troubler of Israel” by King Ahab! Not a title you want framed on your wall.
But Heschel’s quote names the tension that a prophet inhabits. They have encountered the God of all creation, either through a vision or some personal experience, and they are utterly changed by it. How could you not be transformed after meeting the God of Hosts?
But God doesn’t allow them to stay in the vision for long. God pushes them back into the world to share the news they have just received. A prophet is God’s mouthpiece to the nation and the world, after all. And because of this, they have the entirely unique role of holding God and humanity in their thoughts—feeling the passion that God feels and yet also the stubbornness of humanity.
Like a dark storm front moving across the horizon, the prophet is leading this heavenly charge. They always seem to be at the very edge; the cutting edge, in fact, of God’s radical message breaking into this world. And they are the first voice of this new thing God has to say, at the forefront of an otherworldly agenda forcing its way into this world.
And that typically leads to tension between the prophet and those who have to hear God’s words.
I don’t know of any peppy prophets. They aren’t cheerleading people to do better—they tell it like it is and because of that, they usually bear the brunt of condemnation from their peers. After all, who wants to repent, and change their ways? Who wants to be told that they aren’t living life the right way and it’s time to shape up?
The prophets are ridiculed and humiliated by society. They are belittled, called crazy or eccentric; anything that will discredit the news they have to share.
Some are thrown into muddy pits and left to die, some are banished, others have their lives threatened. It is no wonder then why the prophets act the way they do.
Jonah would rather jump ship and die in the sea than be God’s prophet in the city of Nineveh. Jeremiah was so worn down by his sacred calling that he was ready to leave God’s people and the land altogether. And in our reading this morning we see the prophet Elijah at the lowest moment of his life.
How God Meets Elijah
In the preceding chapters of 1 Kings, Elijah is doing one mighty work of God after another, but almost in an instant, his life comes crashing down. After a bloody exchange with the prophets of Baal, and a threat from the Queen of Israel, Elijah retreats to Beersheba, the southernmost city in Judah; the very edge of the Promised Land. He is driven by his fright and despair into the Wilderness of Zin, a desolate wasteland, leaving his servant behind in Beersheba.
In so doing, one commentator reckons that Elijah has no intention of ever coming back. Elijah even asks God to take his life. By leaving his servant, he is leaving his ministry behind him, and by leaving the boundaries of Judah and the Promised Land, he is abandoning the covenant people all together.
He feels defeated, isolated, and alone. He could hold neither God nor humanity in his mind any longer, and he has gone to the desert to die.
But our story tells us that an angel pushes him onward to Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai, where Moses met God all those years ago. Elijah’s journey is not over, he must travel further: physically and spiritually until he reaches the mountain of God.
And it is on that mountain, and in that state of utter despair that God meets Elijah like never before. Not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the gentle little breeze, the sheer silence, the still small voice.
Elijah had been on the very edge for so long, being the first in line like a drum major leading the way for God’s prophetic word, but now he was on the edge of something new. He was learning even at the limits and edges of a mountain and life itself God would meet him there.
How God Met St. James the Less
Honestly, that is a very vulnerable place to be, whether you are a prophet or not. To be at your limit, and ready to walk away from everything, and wonder if God is even there…that’s a terrifying feeling.
I’ve been here ten months now, so I think it’s time to tell you a little bit about my story. Right out of seminary I was called to be the priest of St. James the Less Episcopal Church right outside of Nashville. As a 25-year-old straight out of seminary it was a daunting task, but there was something that made the situation even more complex.
Father Rob, my predecessor, had served the parish for a decade, and he was beloved. I knew him, and I distinctly remember having a conversation with him when he began serving that parish all those years ago. He was a bit quirky, but the congregation embraced him, quirks and all.
But unbeknownst to the congregation, Rob was battling depression, something he had dealt with most of his life. He was able to mask his pain through telling stories and jokes, many times at his expense.
They would have never imagined what came next. One late October day, the Senior Warden of the parish had the awful responsibility of calling as many of the parishioners as he could and informing them that their beloved priest had just taken his own life. They were understandably shocked and heartbroken.
I showed up only seven months later, and most of that original shock was still there. In each conversation I saw deep pain in the eyes of those parishioners. Many tears were shed, there lots of questions raised, but for some strange reason most of the people kept coming to church.
Over time we got to a place where each person could talk about their pain and even their anger at what happened (most of the time with me, sometimes with the larger group), but it took a lot of time. I threw out all the conventional wisdom of how to start in a new parish because it was useless in this situation. Church growth was even further down my priority list.
That fall we participated in a suicide prevention walk, and met fellow-grievers, many of them parents and friends who lost a loved one. As we walked together you could see hearts being slowly mended back together as we shared our stories.
We then had a service to commemorate the first anniversary of Rob’s death, and from that, we began to ask what it would be like to be known as the church that has a heart for those affected by suicide.
Time and again I was awestruck how God was working in that church. The parishioners had been on the verge of despair, they had walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and yet, they met God amid their pain and sorrow. God didn’t cause their pain, but they did allow him to come and restore their wearied souls.
Rob’s passing then became a part of the church’s story, tragic as it was, but we knew it was not the end for him or for the congregation. Very slowly the church began to flourish in new ways, but only once they had allowed God to do the hard work of healing and making them whole. I kept telling them that they were an Easter story, in and of themselves.
After witnessing that, and being a part of their resurrection story, I’m convinced God wants to meet each of us where we are, even if that is on the very edge of pain or fear or sorrow… To not only know that God will meet us there, but to come to the realization that he is not done with us yet.
He wasn’t done with the prophet Elijah, and he wasn’t done with St. James the Less Church.
As the story goes, God met Elijah and commanded him to go back to the land of Israel, back among his people and start doing the role of a prophet afresh. Elijah had orders from God to begin anointing the next generation of prophets and kings who would take up the Lord’s work. God was telling Elijah that he was not alone; God handed him a list of names of who he should invite into ministry with him.
And God is not done with you. Whatever you are going through, wherever you are, God wants to meet you in that place. If we’ve learned anything from Elijah, it’s that God may not meet us in the way we expect, but he will meet us, nonetheless.
Prophet or no prophet, we all have access to the same God who restores our wearied souls and calls us into deeper and fuller communion with him…even at the edges of life itself.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost. Track II. Year C. 1 Kings 19:1-15a. 1 Kings: Word Biblical Commentary S. DeVries. Photo here.