Ordinary 12C, June 23, 2013

“The Blessing of Becoming Undone”

Psalm 42
I Kings 19:1-15a
Right before our text today, the prophet Elijah stages one of the greatest public spectacles ever to demonstrate YHWH’s power versus the formidable and popular god, Ba’al.  This scene has it all – smoke, water, fire, blood – all witnessed by a cast of what seems to be thousands.  As you may recall from our text last week, Ba’al is the god that Queen Jezebel brought with her from Phoenicia and it was Ba’al and his adherents that Elijah spends most of his time battling in First Kings.  Two alters are set up on Mt. Carmel, one for the 450 prophets of Ba’al and one for YHWH’s prophet, Eiljah.  At high noon, Ba’al’s prophets begin wailing for Ba’al to bring down fire for the burnt offering.  They cry, they plead, they dance around the alter.  Eventually they become so frenzied, they begin to cut themselves but…nothing.  Ba’al is silent.   Then Elijah calls down YHWH and the whole place goes up in flames, instantly.  YHWH comes through.  It’s not even close.
What follows is quite extraordinary and also kind of horrible.  Everyone in the crowd falls on their faces, and confirms that YHWH is indeed the true God.  As if to put an end to the rivalry once and for all, Elijah tells the crowd to seize the prophets of Ba’al and Elijah then proceeds to slaughter them all with a sword.  All 450.  Every single one of them.   It’s a bloody scene to be sure, but it’s also a triumphant moment for Elijah. 
That disturbing scene of bloody mayhem is the background of our text for today.  Let us now listen for what the Spirit is saying to the Church in these ancient words from 1Kings 19.
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then 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.” 3Then 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. 4But 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.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He 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. 7The 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.” 8He 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.
9At 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?” 10He 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.” 11He 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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When 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?” 14He 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.” 15Then 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.
Let us begin with prayer:  Holy God, guide us by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
So Jezebel gets the word from her husband the king about the blood bath that has taken place up on Mt. Carmel.  After hearing that Elijah has killed 450 of Ba’al’s prophets, Jezebel puts a contract out on this murderous prophet, Elijah.   And once Elijah gets word of the plot, Elijah takes off.  Unlike modern fugitives, Elijah doesn’t have the luxury of going into a witness protection program.  He can’t jump in a car or get on a plane to South America.  Elijah has no choice but to take off on foot.
Elijah runs away as quickly as he can, but after just a couple days, he is tapped out.  Fear and anxiety catch up with him and finally overwhelm him.  And it is no ordinary fear and anxiety that Elijah experiences.  It is a paralyzing kind of fear that convinces him he is completely alone, he has completely failed, and that, all things considered, it is better that Elijah die out there in the wilderness, under that solitary broom tree. 
To put it mildly, Elijah has become unglued.  He is certain that he is the last prophet for YHWH standing.  “I alone am left,” says Elijah, “and they – Jezebel, Ahab, and the rest – are seeking my life to take it away.”  All that’s left for Elijah seems to be pure, unadulterated terror. 
I think it is kind of strange and interesting how Elijah’s demeanor has so utterly changed since he stood up so bravely to all the prophets of Ba’al and confidently called upon YHWH to rein down fire on the alter.  This is a very different Elijah than the one who led the crowd in the slaying of Ba’al’s prophets.  Elijah’s prophetic confidence and resolve are nowhere to be found.   A bigger than life presence has been utterly deflated in the face of Jezebel’s threat and in this wild desert space.
Why the change in Elijah?  I don’t know.  Maybe he was traumatized by the terrible bloody contest on Mount Carmel.  Even when things go exactly as you want them to go and you get exactly the result you want, there can be a terrible vacuum afterward.  All that focus.  All that energy.  Now that the goal is accomplished, what do you do? 
I don’t know why it happened, but Elijah is clearly undone in this text.  And I think it is the “undoneness” of the prophet that invites us into this text. We do not often find ourselves locked in mortal combat with false gods on moutaintops.  But we know wilderness doubts.  How often do all of us stand in a similar place of despair? 
I know that many of you would say that you know too well what it feels like to stand in the place where Elijah is standing.  You have been in the wilderness far too often and for far too long.  You have been in that dark, frightening place where it is so tempting to just shrivel up and give up.  Like Elijah, it may be difficult for us to see the sense in even trying anymore.
 After all, Elijah had pulled off this spectacular demonstration of YHWH’s power and knocked off a significant number of Ba’al’s army and where did it get Elijah?  Ahab is still king, Jezebel is still scheming and Elijah is on the run, all alone, the last faithful prophet standing.  At least that is how it feels to Elijah.  And very often that is how life feels for us.  How awful it is to feel that despite our best efforts, we are complete failures.  And worst of all is the absolute conviction that we are absolutely alone.
Elijah is exhausted as he crumples into a heap under that broom tree.  Within moments, he falls asleep but just as quickly as he nods off there is a tap-tap-tap on his shoulder.  It is the tap of someone – an angel — waking him up and telling him to eat.  It isn’t much of a meal – just a small cake and a jar of water.  But.  It is enough.  Enough to live on.  Enough not to die. 
But Elijah is so tired, he falls back to sleep again.  But the angel won’t let him continue sleeping.  Tap-tap-tap.  Another small cake and another small jar of water.  Again, not very much.  But it is enough.  Enough to get Elijah back on his feet and send him on a forty day and forty night journey to Horeb – also known as Mt. Sinai – where another prophet prone to discouragement and undoneness encountered YHWH.  Like Elijah, Moses also was prone to despair.  Like Elijah, Moses was depressed enough by what seemed to be a useless futile endeavor that Moses also asked God to let him die.  Like Elijah, Moses frequently felt like a failure and he felt alone.
But it is at Mt. Horab that Elijah that hears the voice of God.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 
And in response, Elijah tells God how hard he has worked, how faithful he had been, and how somehow it has all gone wrong.  That no matter what Elijah does, the royal leadership in Israel is still corrupt, the people still prone to idol worship and the work of YHWH is incomplete. 
God listens to all of that, then tells Elijah to go up to the top of the mountain.  And wait for the Lord to pass by.
And then we have this wonderfully poetic vision of what Elijah experiences on the mountaintop:
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but despite Elijah’s expectations…the Lord was not in the wind…
And after the wind an earthquake, but despite Elijah’s expectations… the Lord was not in the earthquake;
And after the earthquake a fire, but despite Elijah’s expectations, the Lord was not in the fire
And after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 
And that is the sound of YHWH.  And that kind of silence is, I think, what undoes all of us.  Not the wilderness, but the silence in the wilderness.  “The sheer silence” as it is translated in the NRSV.  “The still small voice” is how the King James version translates it.  And the original Hebrew translates “a sound of fine silence.”  
Whatever way in which you experience wilderness in your own life, I can tell you three things about it:
1.  It wasn’t your idea to go there. 
2.  You are not in control there; control is an illusion.
3.  Whatever scary noises you hear in the wilderness, there is one sound that always seems to be missing and that is the voice of God.  Which makes sense.  It wouldn’t seem like wilderness, would it, if only you could hear something like a holy voice telling you that everything is going to be all right.  A holy voice telling you that you are not alone.  A holy voice telling you that you are here for a reason and exactly what that reason is.  It is the silence that undoes us. [1]
The hardest thing to believe about our wilderness experiences is that they have anything to do with God at all.  It always feels like God has vanished.  But as much as we would like to avoid it, the wilderness is very often where we find God.  In fact, according to scripture, it is in the wilderness where God does some of God’s best work. 
The problem I think we often have in the wilderness is that we are so anxious to get out of it, so unnerved by the sheer silence, that we forget that the same Spirit that drove us there is the only Spirit that will get us out.  Our strongest temptation is to think we have to figure the way out ourselves, that it is all up to us.  We frantically try to create our own resources of grace – an idol here, a self-help book there, a golden calf, take your pick, any psychic salve will do.  We grow impatient waiting for the resources of divine grace which specialize in making the impossible possible.  We think we have to go it alone, just like Elijah.[2]
I will tell you this right now.  I hate feeling helpless.  It is difficult for me to accept the fact that the scripture shows us time and time again that it is in our very helplessness that we are most powerful.  Because when we are helpless – I mean really-up-to-our-eyeballs-back-against-the-wall-helpless — that is when we have no choice but to accept God’s care instead of imagining we have to do it on our own.  I hate it, but I also know it’s the greatest blessing of our lives to receive God’s grace.   It is a blessing to become as undone as Elijah in the wilderness and really have to wrestle with that question YHWH asks Elijah that I think is really the central point in this text:
“What are you doing here?”
Sometimes I think I know exactly where I am going and I welcome the fire, the earthquake, and the wind.  But when I am frightened, tired and uncertain about everything except the fact I have failed miserably – that’s when I need the silence, the small cake, the jug of water.  I need the sheer silence to realize that this isn’t my work to do alone, but God’s work for me to share.   It is in that silence, God provides what we need.  
I’ve spoken of my friend and colleague, Rev. Eugene Blackwell before.  Eugene entered ministry in 2005 as pastor of the Bethesda U.P. Church in Homewood, a struggling African American congregation in one of Pittsburgh poorest neighborhoods.  When I graduated from seminary, I still had a year of candidacy before I could receive a call so, at the suggestion of my pastor, I began working with Eugene.  On the first day I met Eugene, he spoke of his sense of call to the neighborhood, to this wilderness of gang bangers and drug dealers, to the families of young men who had been murdered and to the brothers and sisters who hung out on street corners with nothing to do, and no hope for the future in the boarded up storefronts and abandoned houses.  For more than a year, he and I struggled together to articulate his vision for grant proposals and presentations that finally resulted in a new church development – House of Manna. 
But Eugene’s vision for Homewood wasn’t only about a new church.  Eugene’s vision was to participate in God’s work of life-giving transformation in a community riddled with the false idols of poverty, drugs and despair. 
This week, Eugene’s vision from God finally came one giant step closer to realization in the groundbreaking of a center in Homewood that will be home to a non-profit group called Homewood Renaissance.  An abandoned Family Dollar store in the neighborhood will be refashioned into a community center, a 300-seat sanctuary for House of Manna, offices, classrooms, meeting space, a kitchen and four storefronts, one of which will be a business incubator that will help Homewood’s young people learn to start their own small businesses.   Dollar Bank, who owned the foreclosed Family Dollar building worth $2 million donated it outright to Eugene’s group.  The Heinz Endowments are kicking in another $700,000 for the renovation of the building.
All of this just blows me away because I know this is exactly the prophetic vision Eugene received from God more than 7 years ago.  Getting to this point took Eugene and his family a lot longer than 40 days.  It took forever.  Eugene endured a lot of silence and doubt as he struggled to launch House of Manna.
But Eugene and his wife Dina and their kids stuck it out in a wilderness otherwise known as Homewood.  They raised their young family in the midst of the people God called them to live among and minister to in the community.  They kept the faith in a neighborhood that just seems to scream God-forsaken when you look at it.  God kept Eugene and his family fed, kept them sustained, and sent more laborers to the vineyard over the years than I think even Eugene ever imagined.
Trusting the slow work of God is never an easy or pain-free experience.  Leaning into the sheer silence of God tests our patience and challenges our faith like nothing else.  We may prefer that God’s transformation happen in awe-inspiring events like Mt. Carmel – I know I wish that sometimes.  But transformation happens over time, sometimes a long time, through the inter-workings of many individuals performing small acts of kindness and love.
Can we trust that? Can we trust that God will not only provide sustenance for the journey, but also exceed our expectations on the way?  How has God already exceeded expectations – in this church, in this community, in your life?  I am certain that when we share those stories with one another, we are feeding each other.  Our testimonies of God’s grace are like manna from heaven.  Enough to sustain and encourage us right here, where we are, even in the wilderness.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Taylor, Barbara Brown.  “Four Stops in the Wilderness.”  Journal for Preachers.
[2] Eppehimer, Tevor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p.150.