July 30 Sermon

“Wandering Prophet”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower[1]
For July 30, 2017
Based on 1 Kings 19:8-15

Most of the story of Elijah is about his rivalry with the prophets of the rain god, Baal. Elijah has taken on Jezebel, the queen of Israel, a foreign-born wife of king Ahab who has used Ahab’s resources to build a temple to Baal and fill it with prophets and priests. Elijah warns that because the Lord God is upset, a drought will grip the nation of Israel: Baal the rain god will not be able to bring relief. Elijah and Baal’s prophets hold a public contest. Elijah shows God’s power over creation and over history as sacred fire consumes the sacrificial altar. This is a holy war, a jihad, so Elijah called for the execution of the prophets of Baal. King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, hold Elijah responsible, and Jezebel threatens to kill the prophet.

Elijah flees from his homeland of the kingdom of Israel, flees through the southern kingdom of Judah, flees beyond into the desert wilderness. Elijah has been winding his way on the twisting path of a labyrinth of faith. He has had enough of this circular pathway. He wants some resolution, some conclusion. In despair Elijah prays to God that he may die. Instead, God’s angel feeds Elijah – twice –encouraging him to sleep and eat to be strengthened for the journey.

We’re supposed to be hearing echoes of Moses and the exodus from Egypt toward the promised land. Holy food in the wilderness followed by 40 days and nights of wandering – not the same of 40 years, but these are echoes, not mirror images. And the Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, where Moses took off his shoes to speak with a burning bush, where God later gave the children of Israel the Ten Commandments. Elijah returns to the place where Moses encountered God, and God is with Elijah on the journey.

“What are you doing here?” God asks Elijah. The prophet pours out his frustrations. We assume prophets are filled with confidence, that prophets are secure in their sense of calling, unquestioning in their faith. But Elijah’s words show us that prophets, too, doubt. “I’ve tried my best. I am the only one of your prophets left. Now they want to kill me.” During deep down questioning, God is present with Elijah.

God does not directly answer Elijah’s questions or requests. “Watch from your cave.” As Elijah looks outward, there is great rock-splitting wind, an earthquake, and fire. But God is not in any of these. Now Elijah is at the center of the labyrinth, standing in the presence of God. God is greater than our despair. God pursues us, even when we have given up. God is not in the firestorm, the hurricane, the earthquake: even within those, God is a quiet voice, “a sound of sheer silence” – translated in some Bibles as “a still, small voice,” the Common English Bible translates it as “a sound. Thin. Quiet.” Notice Elijah is not at peace, and it is not Elijah’s inner voice that brings calm: God is the peace, the silence, the quiet voice.

Elijah covers his face in awe at this experience. Elijah is beginning the journey out of the labyrinth. He’s still in the presence of God, but he is discerning in new ways. He’s still working on the issues he brought onto this journey, but he’s being prepared to go out into the world in a new way.

God asks the question again, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” I really dislike when I get asked the same question over and over again – especially when God is the questioner, especially when I have already told God what I want, what I want God to do, what I want from life. Stop asking me questions – especially the kind that don’t help me get the answers I want.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah’s answer this second time is almost word-for-word the same as given before. Can we imagine a different tone of voice? If the first time was frustrated, despairing, defiant, what is Elijah’s tone this time? Just as I tire from being asked the same question repeatedly, I tire when the same answer is given again and again. But God listens – and then responds with a new course.

“Go,” God says, “return.” “Take up the work again.” The labyrinth will wind us toward the exit, sending us toward the world to serve in new ways. The work may look similar, but because our spirits have been changed then this work will possess a different urgency, a greater depth, a new representation of God’s grace. We are being sent out – not with a battle cry, not with shouts of acclamation, but with quiet voices heard through discernment. Outward we go to respond to God’s presence in the world.

[1] Portions of this reflection are adapted from Seasons of the Spirit, (ord12C 2007).


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