Evensong 11th February 2018
What are you doing here, Elijah?
OT Reading: 1 Kings 19.1-16
NT Reading: 2 Peter 1.16-end
In our Old Testament reading we joined Elijah as he fled for his life. After years of drought and famine, he had challenged the wicked queen Jezebel’s prophets of Baal to a great contest on Mount Carmel, to see whether Baal or Jehovah would answer the prayers of his people with fire. As a weather god, Baal could be expected to bring rain upon the parched land, but fire would be a dramatic sign of power. The prophets of Baal had the first choice of the bull to be sacrificed, and although they danced around their altar all morning in a frenzy of imprecation, cutting themselves till the blood gushed from their veins, the only answer they received was an empty silence. Try again, Elijah urged, perhaps he’s asleep or on a journey, so they danced again till they collapsed in exhaustion. When it was his turn, Elijah laid his bull on the altar, pouring buckets of water over it till the wood and the sacrifice were soaked and the surrounding trench full of water. Only then did he bow his head, praying that God would show his power. God answered with the fire that Baal could not command, the people responded: The Lord indeed is God. Then they chased the false prophets of Baal down the mountain and put them to the sword beside the Wadi Kishon.
Meanwhile, Elijah went to the very top of the mountain to pray for rain. Seven times he had to ask his servant to scan the horizon, but he didn’t give up, he knew that God would at last have mercy on his people, and when the first tiny cloud appeared – no bigger than a man’s hand – he turned to King Ahab and advised him to hurry down the mountain in his chariot ahead of the rain, which would fall in torrents. Baal defeated, drought sorted, job done, you might think. But not so. When Jezebel heard that her prophets had been slaughtered, she sent a messenger to Elijah promising to do the same to him within 24 hours. That’s where we came into the story tonight. Elijah knew that she meant it. Frightened for his life, physically and emotionally exhausted by the high drama of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on the mountain, and now utterly deflated, he has fled south into the wilderness beyond Beer-Sheba. There were angels to help him on his way, but when he got to Mount Sinai, where Moses had met with God and received the ten commandments, he faced a stern examination: What are you doing here, Elijah?
We can sympathise with his response. He had stood up for God, time and again, but the people had turned against Him. ‘They have forsaken your covenant, they have thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.’ (v 10) (There are times when I can’t resist falling back on the language of the Authorized Version). The triumph of the great contest on Mount Carmel has given way to the fear and depression prompted by the fury of Queen Jezebel and his own ignominious flight. There is no immediate answer, but now Elijah is called to the front of the cave to witness the glory and majesty of the Lord God, whose presence is felt not in the wind, not in the earthquake, nor yet in the fire, but in what my more modern translation calls ‘the sound of sheer silence’. Not the empty silence that mocked the passionate exertions of the prophets of Baal, but an awesome silence in which the old translations detected ‘a still, small voice’. What are you doing here, Elijah? He answers as before – I have been very zealous ,,, and now I only am left’ (v 14), but somehow the anger is less and his complaint doesn’t sound quite so convincing any more. Perhaps his words tailed away, as the silence which was filled with the presence of God calmed his protesting spirit, leaving him open to a new word from God – two new kings to anoint, and a successor for himself.
Is the story about Elijah true, or is it some kind of folk memory devised to explain in narrative form the definitive turning away from the worship of primitive weather gods to a deepening perception of the nature of the one true god who cares for Elijah, and for Elijah’s people? Whatever really happened on Mount Carmel, is not his experience of the god who is present in the still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence, a true insight into the steady, loving faithfulness of the god who will lead his people through all the vicissitudes of their tumultuous history to establish the context of faith within which the final and definitive revelation of his nature could take place?
Those of us who believe in God will always be open to the charge that we are guilty of peddling what our new testament reading calls ‘cleverly devised myths’ (2 Peter 1.16). As it happens, one might very well question a good deal of what we read in 2 Peter. For starters, despite the claim to have been written by an eye-witness to the Transfiguration it is nowadays considered extremely unlikely that the letter was written or even dictated by the apostle Peter. Moreover the letter reflects the conviction of the early church that Christ would very soon return, in power and great glory, to bring history to a close in a great and final act of judgment. The Old Testament Scriptures, not least the Psalm which was sung tonight, seemed to point towards just such an outcome, and Jesus himself seems to have warned his followers to prepare for the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. But it didn’t happen then, and it still hasn’t happened now. What then are we to make of these colourful readings? Is there any solid ground here on which we can stand with any confidence?
I believe there is, but to find it we do have to take seriously St Paul’s advice about being grown-up in our thinking, and not least in our grasp of the nature of Biblical truth (1 Cor 14.20). Elijah’s great showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel may or may not be historically true, but his experience of finding God in the ‘sound of sheer silence’ which calms the troubled but faithful soul when all the drama of triumph and tragedy is over and our weeping has subsided – that rings true to me. After all the highs and lows, life goes on, God still has work for us to do, and if we continue to put our trust in him, we will be given the strength to do it.
As for the message of 2 Peter, we do not have to believe with the lunatic fringe that the end of the world is nigh. It probably isn’t. But we are still required to live as if it might be – as indeed it may be for any one of us individually at any time. Moreover there is a theological position, known as realized eschatology, which maintains that the kingdom of heaven was indeed ushered in with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all believers. We are living in the new age now, and we should behave accordingly.
For my part I do not believe in a degree of divine meddling which would undermine the precious gift of free will, but I do believe that in Jesus’ life and death, and in the outpouring of His Holy Spirit, the kingdom of heaven did finally and definitively break into our world. As Elijah discovered when he stood humbly in the presence of God, experiencing the sound of sheer silence, there is still work to be done. The Spirit which gave him new strength and new purpose is now mightily abroad, so that despite the ups and downs which we observe in others and experience in ourselves, both personally and politically, the outcome in God’s good time is not in doubt. The decisive battle has been won. The Lamb of God has triumphed. Our cries and prayers do not echo back at us off the blank wall of empty silence which met the frenzied cries of the prophets of Baal. Our cries and prayers are absorbed into that sound of sheer silence in which we may hear the still, small voice of God’s presence, stilling our fears, granting us the reassurance of his loving concern for us and for our world, setting us on our path.
What are you doing here, Elijah? That’s what God was doing for Elijah – and perhaps for us too.
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