June 19, 2016 1 Kings 19: 1-15a
Before we read the scripture today we need a little background to get a clearer picture of what is really going on, since most of us probably aren’t that familiar with the story of Elijah in 1st Kings. So let me set the stage:
The people of Israel were flying high during the reign of King David. He’s defeated their enemies, given them bragging rights and consolidated the nation. Then his son, Solomon, took advantage of the peace and prosperity of the day, and did what kings like to do - built a temple - not for himself this time, but for God - the lavish Temple in Jerusalem. From then on it was almost all downhill. There were exceptions, of course, but most of Solomon’s prodigy turned out to be ruthless and corrupt. In time the nation divided. There was Israel to the north and Judah to the south.
Our story takes place under the rule of the evil king Ahab.The year is somewhere in the 9th Century, B.C.E.. Ahab had arranged to be married to the daughter of the king of Phonecia. Her name is Jezebel. What does that name conjure up for you? If this were a melodrama instead of a worship service, you would be booing and hissing her name. Jezebel was bad news.
Understand, the marriage was about politics, not romance. The goal was to cement a commercial and military alliance, giving Israel access to the prosperous port cities of Tyre and Sidon and the Phonecians control of the trade routes to Egypt.
Never mind the fact that the Phonecians were descendants of the Canaanites, who worshiped the false god, Ba-al. So, the marriage took place, and when Jezebel moved to Israel, she brought along her priests and idols and her pagan worship practices. The Jews’ faith in Yahweh, the one true God, meant nothing to her.
She moved into the palace and persuaded Ahab, against his better judgement, to set up worship sites for her god, then went about the business of having the Jewish priests put to death.
Israel was on a fast track to becoming a pagan nation. Ahab managed to make God angrier than all the previous kings of Israel put together.
So along comes the great prophet Elijah, who reminds them of a well known commandment - not to have false gods before you. You can imagine how well that went over with hen pecked Ahab and his pushy wife. But what is he to do? He’s got trade routes to think about and a country to run. What’s an altar here and there in the big scheme of things.
Prior to the scripture I am about to read, Elijah has murdered all the prophets of Baal. That didn’t go over well with Jezebel either, so she is out for revenge.
1 Kings 19:1-15a
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 for 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….”
THE MESSAGE “What are you doing here?”
The phone rang. It was late, but the young Baptist minister picked it up. On call, 24-7, it might be a parishioner in need. On the other end, a voice he did not recognize, threatened his life and hung up. Trembling, he made his way to the kitchen, put on a cup of coffee and sat at the table.
"I was ready to give up’, he later wrote. “With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
"The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. 'I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.'
"At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: 'Stand up for justice, stand up for truth;
and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fear began to go.
My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
The year was 1956. The young minister was Martin Luther King, Jr.. The Montgomery bus boycott had been going on for months, local officials considering it an economic threat. Inside that outwardly confident leader was a reluctant prophet - until that quiet, transformative encounter with God at his kitchen table.
Three days later his house was bombed and his family nearly killed. He later wrote “Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombings calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
After news of the bombings got out, an angry mob seeking revenge showed up at his house, to whom he replied, “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement.”
Two prophets - of monumental stature - living millenniums apart - caught in the midst of the storms of their own realities - both of their lives threatened - ready to give up. “I can’t do this anymore!” they whined. And God replied, “Oh yes you can. Remember, you are not alone. I am with you. And I need you. Now go back to doing what I have called you to do.”
It’s not an easy calling - being a prophet. It’s a dangerous profession, as we see here. Who would want such a job? But now, more than ever, we could use a prophet or two.
It’s not easy being a pastor these days, especially if you feel called to be a prophetic voice in this increasingly misguided secular society. Congregations across the country are shrinking, churches closing, seminaries selling their property and moving, budgets tightening, people warning you, “Be careful what you say - what you preach - don’t get political. You might offend someone. It’s difficult listening to politicians, claiming to be Christians, while spewing hatred and fear. That question to Elijah keeps ringing in your ears: “What are you doing here?” And you can hear yourself whining in reply: “I’m doing my best, but people keep leaving. Church is #27 on their to do list on Sunday mornings. Sometimes I feel like giving up. What do I do? “
And then you turn on the radio driving home from church on a sunny Sunday morning after a joyful service and picnic, to learn that while you were sleeping the night before, 300 people were running for their lives. 49 didn’t make it - innocent people who minutes before had been dancing and partying with their friends in what they thought was a safe environment.
Once more you turn on the television and sit in disbelief at what you are seeing and hearing. The tears well up with grief and anger and frustration. Then you sit in silence, and the answer comes: “I called you for a purpose. There is more work to be done. Listen to your grief. Listen to your anger. Listen to your frustration. Listen to your heart, and put it all to work.”
Elijah thought he was all alone, but as we learn in later verses, God had saved 7,000 faithful ones, and before long, Elisha becomes his companion and understudy. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt all alone sitting at that table. He knew he couldn’t lead this movement alone. He needed the masses to march with him, undeterred by the police and water hoses, dogs, jeering crowds and death threats.
Pastors today can’t do it all alone. They need all of you, and more.
Prophets are the conveyers of hope in what at times feels like a hopeless world. They are the voices unafraid to speak truth to power. They give strength to the masses in their struggle for justice. No, they can’t do it alone.
Last Sunday evening, Frank Langella, picking up his Tony for best actor in a play on Broadway, spoke these words: “When something bad happens, we have three choices: We let it define us. We let it destroy us, or we let it strengthen us.” How will we respond to the horrific events in Orlando?
The Muslim community will not let the acts of a deranged, misguided, fellow Muslim define them or their religion. Islam is a religion of peace, not violence. As Dr. Khan, President of the Islamic Center, Wayland, wrote in his letter after the massacre, “This cold blooded slaughter of innocent people ought to be unreservedly recognized, and condemned, as a heinous and vile act of hatred and bigotry. Such actions violate those very fundamental and basic values which have historically been shared by all decent people, of every creed and color, at all times, and in every place on the surface of the earth…The Islamic faith categorically rejects the taking of innocent lives.”
The GLBTQ community will not let the murder of their innocent people destroy them. They are not going to run away. They are not going back in the closet. Just look at the thousands standing in solidarity at vigils across the country. The actor and LGBTQ activist George Takei this week is calling on their community to help lead the nation to a safe gun policy. They’ve had more than a little experience over the last 50 years organizing the masses in their struggles for justice. Could they be the ones to lead the rest of us?
Will these events strengthen us as a society in our resolve to make this a nation where all of us can live peacefully together? Do we really believe this is a nation where “all men (and women) are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
What gives us strength as Christians? I can only answer for myself, but for me it’s my faith.
Who guides us in our actions? Jesus
The operative question then is: What would Jesus have me do?
I’ve been getting a lot of wisdom from the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister lately. Last night I read, “Between life and death it is for all of us to do one blazing act of good --however small it may seem at the time. Life is the opportunity to speak one great truth in the face of one great lie. It may seem that no one hears it. It may seem that nothing changes. But not to speak --that is the real sin. Then, smallness is the lot even of the great. Only the doing of justice is a good enough excuse to be born.”
Lighting candles, prayers, moments of silence are all needed and good. They remind us that we are not alone. But are they sufficient in God’s eyes? Not according to God’s message to Elijah and Martin Luther King Jr.. “Go back. Confront the evils of your time. Stand up for justice.”
Remember that old adage: Never talk about politics and religion? It doesn’t work for me. My religion is an integral part of my life’s calling, of who I am. And Jesus’ called me to be political, just like he was.
We need voices to counter those “so called pastors” out there claiming to be followers of Christ while applauding the massacre of innocent LGBTQ folks, and wishing more had been killed.
We need voices to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are now getting death threats, afraid to attend their mosque in Orlando to pray with their community.
We need voices to shout from the rooftops at our legislators in congress, who have stuck their heads in the sand since the the murders of innocent children in Newtown, and refused to pull them out and legislate commonsense gun control in a country gone insane over their love of guns. Like Elijah, they are afraid - held hostage by the NRA and their fear of not being re-elected.
We need voices to shout down politicians who spread hatred and fear, and want to build walls instead of bridges, who threaten the very fabric of our nation.
God needs each and everyone of us to raise our voices. God needs each and everyone of us to be a prophet at this time in our history. And we need to listen and learn from the prophets who have gone before: “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement.”
What are you doing here? It’s time to start another movement.