That the Narrative Lectionary brings us to this story about Elijah on the day that we remember loved ones who have entered the Church Triumphant in the past year seems absolutely perfect to me. Because it seems to me that a large part of what causes Elijah to withdraw from Mt. Carmel in northern Israel to Mt. Horeb in southern Israel is the experience of grief. Fear is right up there, too, but today I want to address the aspect of grief.
Here is the backstory. Elijah was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel when Ahab was king. Ahab had married Jezebel, who was the daughter of the king of Sidon, just north of Israel. She worshiped Ba’al, and convinced Ahab to worship Ba’al and to build an altar for Ba’al in Samaria. This didn’t sit well with God, so he sent Elijah to tell Ahab that it wasn’t going to rain for a long time, until he gave the word. Then he told Elijah to go hide out for a while.
First he had Elijah hide in a stream bed on the eastern side of the Jordan, and he was fed by ravens bringing him food. Then he sent him to a town called Zarephath which was ironically in Sidon where Jezebel was from, to a widow’s house, and miraculously provided them with food through the rest of the drought. Then he told Elijah to go tell Ahab that he was about to send rain. That’s a pretty straightforward task, but God is not always a micromanager about how people go about doing the things he calls them to do, and Elijah has his own idea how this ought to go down. He challenges Ahab to a contest. He tells Ahab to bring the 450 prophets of Ba’al to Mt. Carmel to have a contest over who is really God, and to have all the people gather to watch.
The contest is for the Ba’al prophets and Elijah each to sacrifice a bull and put it on wood laid out for a fire, then see whose God will light the fire. He lets the Ba’al prophets go first, and he taunts them as they pray and call and dance with no fire coming. Then he douses his wood with water three times to make it even harder to start a fire, then he calls on God and fire consumes the wood and sacrifice. Then he orders the people to seize and kill the prophets of Ba’al, and they do. Only then does he tell Ahab that it is about to rain.
Elijah is drunk with success, and with adrenaline coursing through his veins he runs the seventeen miles to Jezreel in order to be standing at the gates in triumph when Ahab arrives home to break all this news to Jezebel. But this all comes crashing down when a messenger comes out from Jezebel announcing that she plans to see him as dead as the Ba’al prophets by the end of the next day. The silence from God at this point is deafening. God, who has sent him to a stream bed and to a small town in Sidon for safety and provision in the past, who answered his prayer on Mt. Carmel whether it was what he wanted or not, is going to let Elijah face the consequences of his actions.
This is not the way most people interpret this passage – most would say Elijah was following God’s instructions all the way through. Maybe I just want to read the passage from a New Testament point of view. But I believe Elijah was standing there before the gates of Jezreel running what they call in football a “naked bootleg.” He didn’t have anybody blocking for him and the defense had not been fooled. So he ran for his life, probably to the furthest place he knew of and a place where God had been known to appear, to Moses himself.
So in “my version,” Elijah is demonstrating all those classic symptoms of grief. He is angry that God has abandoned him, as he sees it. He believes nobody else cares about him. He is depressed. He stops eating. He beats himself up for his shortcomings. He stops near Beersheba and prays that God will take his life because he is no better than his fathers. He goes to sleep, and he hears an angel tell him to get up and eat, and finds that food and water is there for him. Sustained in this way, he completes the journey to Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God.
I Kings says that when he when he arrived he went to “the cave,” not “a cave,” so I think we are to suppose that Elijah went to the same cave in which God instructed Moses to stand in as he passed by him. The word of the Lord came to him there. Ordinarily this formula leads to God telling the prophet that he is calling him to service and what he is to do. In this case God has a question for his prophet: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Like Jonah trying to jump a ship to anywhere but Nineveh, Elijah is far from where he is supposed to be.
Elijah’s answer is a lot of complaining. “I’ve worked hard, I’ve tried. Your people have all turned against you and have killed all the prophets. I’m the only one left and they are trying to get me now.” God tells him to go stand out on the mountain before him. There was enormous wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by fire, but the Lord was not in any of them.
Then came something very different. The King James Version calls it a “still small voice.” The New Revised Standard Version calls it “a sound of sheer silence.” The Common English Bible says, “After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.” The New International Version says, “After the fire came a gentle whisper.” The Jerusalem Bible says, “After the fire came the sound of a gentle breeze.”
And Elijah heard the voice again, asking the same gentle question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah repeated his former complaints. God listened. He did not condemn him for the complaints nor did he apologize for his hardships. He just told him where he was supposed to be. “I need you to go to Damascus to anoint a new king there. Then I need you to go anoint a new king who will take Ahab’s place in Israel. Then you need to anoint a prophet I have called to take your place. And by the way, there are still 7,000 people in Israel who have not bowed to Ba’al.”
Do you remember the movie where Indiana Jones and his father are on a quest to find the Holy Grail? After one harrowing escape they are sitting in the blimp waiting to leave Germany and Indiana starts pouring out his complaints to his father about how he was never there for him, never talked with him about anything other than thousands of years old artifacts and mysteries, and all of his shortcomings as a father. When he finishes his complaints, his father closes his book and says, “All right. What would you like to talk about?” Indiana suddenly looks lost as he tries to think of something. The question comes again, and still he has no response. Finally he says, “I can’t think of a thing, Dad.” So his Dad slaps him on the back and says, “Good! So let’s get back to work on these clues.” God gives Elijah two chances to get anything of real substance off his chest, then slaps him on the back and says, “Okay! Here’s what’s up next.”
I think this is a good description of what happens in our lives when we go through profound grief – which can be when we experience the death of a very close loved one or the death of a marriage or the loss of a job or a difficult crisis with our children or many other things. We experience anger, denial, isolation, depression. We withdraw from other people and from our normal activities. We lose our appetite and even our desire to live sometimes.
Eventually, though, we get tired of wallowing in self pity and we realize things aren’t going to get any better there, in what Pilgrim’s Progress calls “the slough of despond.” In some way a still, small voice begins to speak to us. “What are you doing here?” And when the question has come often enough and we have tired of the self-pitying, whiny responses, then we become open to being called back to life, back to the human race. We may not have kings and prophets to anoint and world affairs to influence, but we have family to care for and communities to make better places and churches to serve God in, and we can still make a difference and discover that we have a desire to do so.
Grief has been a persistent and unwelcome visitor for us this past year, individually and as a church family. In a minute I am going to read eighteen names of people in our congregation who have entered the Church Triumphant in the past year. In addition, many of you have experienced the deaths of people very near and dear to you who were not members of this church and are not listed here but whom you will hold in your hearts as we enter this time of remembrance. We try to celebrate with them as they begin a new life with God, but we inevitably experience the grief that comes from loss.
As the Psalmist expressed so eloquently in the reading earlier, we can’t sleep at night. We think about the good old days all the time and just mourn our loss. We wonder if God has forgotten us, no longer loves us, has shut off the spigot of grace and compassion. “It is my grief,” laments the Psalmist, “that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” Our lives are utterly disoriented and we wonder if we have been naïve in believing that God is good and loving and just. If so, how could this have happened and how could I hurt so bad.
Only after time does grief allow us to move to the stage of acceptance. Memories of despair begin to give way to memories of gratitude. The fear of God’s absence begins to be replaced by remembrance of the many, many times when God’s presence and goodness have been clear and wondrous in our lives. The eyes which have turned only inward to see the pain and heartache of our own lives begin to look around again, to notice the pain of others and the kindness and goodness of others. Then we are able to recognize the gentle voice calling us to the present: “Why are you here? Why do you stay in the darkness, paralyzed by sadness and fear? Come back into the light and rediscover the joy of relationships, of laughter, of service, of life itself. I have yet more for you to do.”
In Psalm 30 the Psalmist has gone through an extended period of darkness and recognizes that God has lifted him out of that darkness. In reflecting on this experience he writes, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” It is not to be taken literally that overnight all sadness and grief can be overcome, but the understanding that over time it happens. The Psalmist continues, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
With gratitude to the God who is able to turn our weeping into joy, our despair into hope; who does not leave us to grieve as people who have no hope, but to grieve as people who have a new and living hope through Jesus Christ our Lord, I invite you to join me in a time of remembrance now in gratitude for those from our church and from our lives who have entered the Church Triumphant in the past year. I will read the names on the front of the bulletin, then give a time of silence to remember others who are important to you, then I will lead us in prayer and we will sing the hymn “For All the Saints.”
David J. Bailey
November 5, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church