Manuscript for a sermon preached at St. Mark's Church in East Longmeadow, MA
Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the second chapter of the Second Book of Kings. (II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14) It marks the end of on era, as Elijah departs on a chariot of fire - but not before his mantle is passed to his disciple, Elisha. It’s a story about transition.
Every three years around this time of year, our Old Testament readings come from First and Second Kings. First Kings began with the death of King David, who is then succeeded by his son, King Solomon. He starts off wise enough, but before you know it power and money corrupt him. The narrator then plows through his successors until we get to chapter sixteen, which is where it begins to get really interesting. That is when Omri (up to that point dubbed “worst king ever” dies and is succeeded by his son, Ahab, who will reign for twenty-two years. (16:25) It turns out the son is even worse than his old man. Ahab forgets the Lord, his God, the only Lord. He marries Jezebel, a worshiper of Baal.
Baal is a god of fresh water, a rain god. Keep that in mind because in the midst of all this political corruption and business as usual, in chapter seventeen we are finally introduced to the prophet of the Lord, Elijah the Tishbite. He issues a challenge: “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” He is throwing down the gauntlet: Ahab has built an altar to Baal because he wants rain. But Elijah’s response is that it will only rain when YHWH says it will rain!
The problem with a drought is that it affects everybody, not just the bad people. Even Elijah will suffer the consequences of this drought. So if you were in church three weeks ago, then you will recall how Elijah showed up at the home of a widow in Sidon who was down to her last little bit of flour and oil and preparing to die. The prophet invites himself for dinner and, amazingly, she welcomes him to her table. In the midst of a serious economic situation, she chooses hospitality and generosity over fear and scarcity. She shares the little bit she has, which as it miraculously turns out, is enough.
Three years later, with the famine still not getting better, Elijah approaches the people and puts it bluntly, the way prophets are prone to do: How long will you keep limping along between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God! If Baal, then follow Baal. But make up your minds already! (18:21)It is at this point that Elijah takes on 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They get a bull and cut it in half for a sacrifice and set up two wood piles. No matches allowed; just prayer. Elijah allows the prophets of Baal to go first and to pick their wood pile and their bull. From morning until noon they shout: “O Baal, answer us!”
Nothing. So then they perform what one translation calls a “hopping dance.” Elijah is the original trash-talker, because when nothing happens he chimes in: why don’t you shout louder! Maybe Baal is sleeping and you need to wake him up! Maybe he’s deep in conversation with some other god, or maybe he’s detained or maybe he’s away on vacation. Nada. The narrator tells us the 450 prophets of Baal were “still raving;” but still no fire.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn. To make it interesting he fills four jars with water and soaks the whole thing. And then he says: do it again. Actually you know what—do it a third time until water is running even around the trench of the altar! Until the whole thing is so sopping wet it would be impossible to light it up. And then he prays:
O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that you are God in Israel, and I am your servant, and that I have done these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people might know who is God…
And then? Woosh. An all-consuming fire devours the bull, the wood, the stones, the earth, the water—everything goes up in flames! Everybody falls down on their faces and says, “Wow! The Lord alone is God. The Lord alone is God.” (18:39)
But Elijah can’t just let it be. He turns the impressed crowd into a mob and tells them to seize the prophets of Baal and “let not a single one of them get away.” So they seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and there he slaughtered every last one. (18:40) The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
That was what happened two weeks ago. In last weekend’s installment of this saga, Ahab reported to his wife, Jezebel, what had happened on Mount Carmel and at the Wadi Kishon. She responds by issuing his death warrant, saying that he will not get away with what he has done. So Elijah does what most of us would do; he runs away to Beer-sheba, where he leaves his servant to go on another day’s journey into the wilderness. To say that Elijah is tired and scared is probably an understatement. He’s alone and isolated and ministry in the midst of an evil empire is hard work for sure. He prays for death. He is at a mountain that the narrator calls Horeb, but that earlier generations called Mt. Sinai. He’s back, in other words, at the very same place where the story of God’s people began, back where Moses got the Ten Commandments and encountered God in the midst of thunder and lightning. But not this time:
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.
Now Episcopalians love that “sound of sheer silence” (or as the older translations put it, the “still small voice of God.”) We tend to like our worship and our prayer and our spirituality on the quiet side, tending more toward meditation than speaking in tongues or doing any hopping dances around altars. Fair enough. But I’ve heard too many sermons on that “still small voice” that forget this larger context. The point of the story is not to encourage us toward centering prayer and silent retreats, as important as those spiritual practices may be. The larger point being made here is that being faithful is risky because Elijah isn’t on a spiritual retreat, he’s hiding from the law. Think St. Paul or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela - sitting in prison cells. As discouraging and isolating as that must have felt for them, perhaps they took some solace in remembering Elijah. And perhaps, they, too, were comforted by an awareness of God’s presence in the sounds of silence. I think of what those who have gone through (or perhaps even now are going through) what the mystics have called “the dark night of the soul”—when we feel like we are in a cave, like we are lost somewhere in the wilderness and feeling very afraid. Perhaps we, too, are ministered to by angels in those times.
This larger story is instructive for us on how to be the Church in this time and place. Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us. Elijah doesn’t operate in the halls of power and most of us don’t either. His work is done on the edges. I think our world is a lot like the world of First and Second Kings and like Elijah we are called to march to the beat of a very different drummer with different values by putting God and God’s people first, and by living more fully into the Covenant made at Sinai that can be still be summarized in just four words: love God, love neighbor. In doing that—in places like the Dominican Republic and much closer to home—that is what we do: we nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness.
In the sounds of sheer silence, Elijah comes to realize that he is in fact not alone. In that loneliest of places, he knows—not just in his head only but in his heart and in his bones that God is present and gives him the strength to go on. The Word of the Lord that comes to him in the wilderness ultimately reminds him that this work is not all about him and ultimately is not dependent upon him. It is God’s work and the mantle needs to be taken up by each generation anew.
I think that is what is going on, then, in today’s reading—in the midst of this whirlwind and this chariot of fire that passes into the heavenly realms. Elijah’s departure does not mean that God’s work has ended. The story will continue. It's up to his disciple Elisha, and ultimately people like you and me, to take up the mantle and do that work that God has given us to do.
Elijah has vanished from our sight, at least until three years from now when we return to this cycle of readings again. But who knows; maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of him between now and then? Every year at Passover our Jewish friends still set a place at their Seder tables for Elijah, even as they pray for peace “next year in Jerusalem.” And as Christians, we catch a glimpse of Elijah every Advent season when John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Like Elijah, John points beyond himself to a future that belongs to not to the King Ahabs or King Herods of this world, but to the king of kings and lord of lords, the One who comes to bring peace on earth and good will to all. In the meantime, there is work to be done, and no one ever said that work was easy. May each of us learn to listen in the midst of the journey and especially when the road is difficult for that sound of sheer silence, from which God calls us by name - to do the work that God has given us to do, in the name of Jesus the Christ.