Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 06/23/2019

One of the key points in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” followed by “Who do you say that I am?” In answering the first question, the second name that comes up is Elijah who is the main character in today’s first reading, a prophet who is said to have ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. That’s next week’s reading, but because of that miraculous disappearance, in Judaism there was the expectation that Elijah would return, hence the feeling of some that Jesus was the return of Elijah. Even today though, at certain Jewish celebrations like the Passover seder, an extra chair is set up anticipating the arrival of Elijah.

But who was he? He is a big part of Jewish tradition but I think while most Christians recognize the name, that might be a about it. Looking at the biblical texts though, Elijah was a little bit rough on the edges. It would be easy to conclude that he’s someone you really might not want to have show up for your Passover meal. He never seemed happy, even when things were going well. He was a fierce defender of the Lord, the God of Israel, but he was strange, seeming to have had no past, no roots. As one writer has said, “His life was a dramatic passage from eternity to eternity; he came from legend and returned to legend.”

It’s true; in the Bible, in chapter 17 of the book of First Kings Elijah quite literally comes out of nowhere. He represents an interruption in the narrative that started way back in First Samuel, a narrative focused on Israel’s great and not so great kings so you go through 31 chapters of First Samuel and 24 chapters of Second Samuel and the first 16 chapters of First Kings none of which has any mention of Elijah and then all of a sudden, there he is.

Backing up a little bit though, in chapter 16 Ahab became the king of Israel and he’s one of the bad ones doing evil in the sight of the Lord. Perhaps the worst thing he did was to marry Jezebel who was a worshiper of the god Baal. Ahab too became a Baal worshiper and thus “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”

That’s where Elijah interrupts the narrative but again there’s no back story, there’s no birth narrative or anything like that; he’s just appears and it doesn’t take long for him to be in conflict with Ahab and Jezebel. Chapter 19, from which today’s reading comes, finds Elijah running for his life, fleeing from Queen Jezebel who is out to kill him which is not really a surprising development because in the previous chapter Elijah had humiliated Ahab and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.

Elijah had proposed a contest to see whose god was really God, a contest between himself as a prophet of the Lord against all the prophets of Baal, 450 of them; so it was 450 against one. The challenge was for each side to prepare a bull as a burnt offering. Then, in the presence of the entire community, each side would call on their God to bring down fire to consume the offering with the winner being revealed as the true God.

Try as they might, the prophets of Baal were unsuccessful, but Elijah, after doing a little trash talking, summoned the Lord and the fire of the Lord fell and consumed not just the burnt offering but the wood, the stones and the water around it, thus winning the contest and embarrassing Ahab and Jezebel.

Stories like that of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal were no doubt intended as encouragement for the people of Israel to keep the faith when other gods and other loyalties were competing for their attention. Elijah is portrayed as a hero of the faith, courageously loyal to the Lord despite the attraction of the gods of the empire. You know that those gods are always out there. In our time it’s not Baal that we find attractive, it’s gods called consumerism and militarism and entertainment, all of which we find very attractive. So it’s helpful to have hero stories like this to provide encouragement to remain faithful even though we know that we’re mostly not that heroic, even though we know that we want to and frequently do make accommodations with those other gods.

What we find though, as we continue reading, is that Elijah wasn’t always very heroic either. Like I said, even when he was successful, he wasn’t happy, and that’s where we find him in today’s part of the story, fleeing from Jezebel, hiding in the wilderness, feeling sorry for himself, wishing he would die. What we get is a less inspiring, but much more human and vulnerable Elijah but here’s the good news; God shows up here too. God shows up in situations more like those we might find ourselves in, situations when we’re not at our best. I’ve never been involved in a contest on top of a mountain where God’s glory has been revealed in a consuming ball of fire; but I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve felt sorry for myself and wished I could just go someplace where no one would bother me.

Elijah just wanted to be done with it all but the Lord wasn’t done with him, instead sending an angel who showed Elijah a way when Elijah couldn’t find a way. It shouldn’t really be a surprise though, as a recurring characteristic of Israel’s faith and of our faith is that the presence of the Lord transforms contexts of death into arenas for life. It’s what we call gospel. So, with a bit of angelic intervention, twice Elijah was provided with food and twice he was restored and twice…he continued to feel sorry for himself, finally going into the desert and staying there for forty days and forty nights winding up in a cave on Mount Horeb.

At that point, the word of the Lord came to Elijah saying, “What are you doing here?” and Elijah, still feeling sorry for himself, feeling like despite his efforts Ahab and Jezebel were still in charge, he said to the Lord, “I have fought for you and on your behalf, I’ve punished those who sinned against you and now, here I am, in a cave, alone and in danger.” It’s definitely not Elijah at his best. The text doesn’t tell us what his tone of voice was, but you sense that he’s got an attitude, you get the idea that it’s one part “What have you done for me lately?” and another part, “Poor me,” and another part, “Whose side are you on anyway?” Not very respectful or reverent anyway.

With Elijah’s attitude you might expect the Lord to in effect flex his muscles in a divine rebuke with a “Who do you think you are?” response but that’s not what happens. Actually, there is kind of a flexing of the divine muscles first with a wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks…but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake…but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire…but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally, after the fire, there was a sound of sheer silence.

You could say that it’s another example of God’s grace. Elijah doesn’t get the rebuke he deserves, but instead, by grace, God’s presence is revealed in a different way, in a sound of silence. It’s a counterpoint to the high drama and pyrotechnics of most Old Testament revelations of God, with wind, earthquake and fire being typical of such things; think of Charlton Heston as Moses on Mt. Sinai in the Ten Commandments.

In the previous chapter the Lord was revealed in spectacular fashion to heroic Elijah but this sound of sheer silence revelation to a not very heroic Elijah perhaps has more to say to us because it’s more representative of who we are and, importantly, it’s more representative of who God is as a God of grace. It’s a God who keeps coming back, providing another chance when another chance is in no way deserved.

One of the things about this chapter of the Elijah story is that he comes across as one of those people who seem to enjoy being miserable; you perhaps know such people. The angel feeds Elijah once, and Elijah does nothing. The angel feeds him again and he wanders off winding up in a cave on the mountain. Even after the Lord himself then appears to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence, in the next verse he’s back to, poor me; I’ve been working hard for you and here I am, all alone and in danger.

Such people aren’t much fun to be around, these days we might call them clinically depressed and yet…in one way or another, the presence of God continues to be made known. Today’s psalm very much paralleled the Elijah story. You perhaps noticed that it was quite long but I hope you also noticed that like the Elijah story, with its recurring refrain it went back and forth between despair, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?” and then hope, “Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to the one who is my help and my God,” and then…it’s quickly back to despair until the same refrain is repeated. The third time the refrain is repeated though, there’s no return to despair. Trust in God is the last word.

Elijah wasn’t there yet, not yet at “trust in God” as the last word. Today’s reading ends in the middle of a verse with the Lord telling Elijah to “Go, return to the wilderness of Damascus.” What that tells us though, is that the Lord wasn’t through with Elijah. There was still hope as there always is. Elijah’s story was not over, so stay tuned.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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