Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Missional: The Journey," 1 Kings 19:1-18 (Proper 7, Ordinary 12)
1 Kings 19:1-18
Missional: The Journey
Today we pop into the Hebrew Scriptures to the book of First Kings. We’re coming in kind of in the middle of a story here, but nonetheless, this reading from the lectionary just grabbed at me as I thought about everything happening in our world and everything happening right here at Apple Valley. We come into the story here in Chapter 19, but things have been unfolding for several chapters already. First and Second Kings chronicle a period in the history of Israel and Judah when a line of kings, starting with King Saul, ruled the people, after they had long clamored for an earthly king - not just God as ruler - so that they could be more like other nations. First and Second Kings testify to the fact that having a king is not all that God’s people hoped it would be. Some kings are faithful servants of God, but others “do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” according to the author. And among those evil kings is King Ahab. In fact, back in Chapter 16, we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” He marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. We know almost nothing about where Elijah came from, who he is, other than that he’s a prophet of God and he seems set on countering Ahab, Jezebel, and the false idol they worship. He starts by causing a drought to come upon Israel. We heard a brief mention of Elijah in our gospel lesson a couple of weeks ago when Jesus was pointing out how it was a widow who was not an Israelite that Elijah stayed with during the drought - this is that occasion. Elijah causes the drought to try to force Ahab to reexamine his life and actions, and while the drought is taking place, Elijah stays with the widow of Zarephath. After three years of this, Elijah presents himself to King Ahab. In the meantime, Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation - he is alone left among the prophets of God, and there are hundreds of prophets of Baal. He tells Ahab he must choose once and for all who he will follow, asking, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” No one answers. So, through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. But Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, and she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today finally begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness, a desert place, and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die, saying, “I’m no better than my ancestors.” Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his 40 days journey to the mount of God.
He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “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 sounds weary, doesn’t he? Forlorn. Exhausted. Out of ideas and out of energy. God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” The particular phrasing - when God passes by like this in the scriptures - it means that God and God’s glory is going to be revealed in a special way. There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
I have to tell you, when I first looked ahead to the lectionary for what I knew would be my last Sunday here, to see if I wanted to use a scheduled text, or choose one of my own, I dismissed the chosen passages immediately, not seeing anything that spoke to our theme of Missional Apple Valley, our own context here in transition, or the broader real-world situation. But last Sunday, early in the morning, a gunman attacked Pulse Orlando, killing 49 people, injuring another 50 beyond that. The victims were primarily people in the LGBT community and their friends. The man who committed the murders was a Muslim man, possibly connected to or at least supportive of the extremist ISIS regime. And the crime was committed with recently purchased semi-automatic weapons that do great damage in an incredibly short amount of time. This horrible tragedy came less than a month after the close of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, where delegates decided to study possible solutions to our seemingly insurmountable conflict over human sexuality and the church and how we will include - or limit - the full participation of all people in the life of The United Methodist Church. I don’t know about you - but the combination of these things, combined with the hateful tenor of our current electoral cycle in the United States, combined with my upcoming move - it has had me feeling pretty weary. Pretty overwhelmed. I know others feel the same. I’ve seen people quoting Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” In the face of tragedy and in the face of injustice upon injustice and in the face of a journey that seems too long and too hard, it is easy to feel like we’re losing ground, not gaining it, when it comes to our mission, our purpose of announcing the good news of God’s vision of love and justice and right relationships for the whole world.
With all this in my heart, suddenly the text from 1 Kings seemed perfectly placed. Elijah is so weary. He’s so weary of fighting against evil and on God’s behalf, of staying faithful to God’s call - so weary that he asks God to let him just give up. He’s done enough, after all. And people are literally chasing after him so they can kill him, like they’ve killed all the other prophets. It’s too much. He sits under a lonely tree, ready to die. But God finds him there, as God always does. Elijah is just one of many folks in the scripture that wind up at their wit’s end under a tree, and God always sends aid. He gets food, strength for the journey. And he makes it up the mountain to talk to God. God is in the fire sometimes, and the earthquake, and the raging wind. But this time God comes after the sound of sheer silence. Elijah repeats his weary woes to God. And God responds. There will be a new king - Ahab and his reign of evil is finite. It seems unending, but he will not be king forever. Elijah will anoint a new prophet. Elijah has worked hard for God, but he is not God’s only prophet. He is one in a line of prophets, working for God, and that line of prophets will continue after Elijah is done. God always raises up people to do God’s work. And finally, God reminds Elijah that no matter how bad it seems, there are many, many people who remain faithful to God. We know what God can do with the smallest amount of things. Imagine what God can build out of seven thousand faithful people. After our reading for today, Elijah is able to finish his work with less fear and more hope in his heart, because God has reminded him that even though we see but a part, God is relentless in working for justice, in spreading love, in offering grace, in cultivating new life.
Friends, that is my prayer for us too, in the world, here at Apple Valley, in our hearts. We are all on a journey, even if I am the one moving away. We’re on a journey of faith and discipleship as we seek to shape our lives to reflect ever more clearly God’s hopes and dreams for us and for the world. And sometimes that journey is so hard. It seems like everything is uphill and parched dry ground and we are so weary. God gives us a gentle reminder, spoken out of the silence: we are not the center of the universe, and that’s a good thing. We are a part of the body of Christ. But we’re a part. We have our place in line in the great cloud of witnesses whom God has raised up before us and who will surely come after us, as we each carry out the call, the task the God has set for us, in our place, in our time. I am so thankful that for this precious time, these two years, our journeys were in sync. You have been like food for my empty stomach, a cold drink for my parched soul, and you have given me strength to follow God on the path that unfolds before us. I know that you will continue to be that - you can’t seem to help but be the loving, grace-filled, open-armed people that you are - even as you set off in new company, on your own new path. Here, and there, God is with us always. Amen.