Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/M7aOGmN1ygQ.
Pentecost 5 C 2016
1Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a
Psalm 42, 43
Galatians 3:10-14; 23-29
This week’s passages are a rich field for us as we consider who we are as a congregation and as individuals and what it might be that God is calling us to.
Poor old Elijah has had enough- life has been too difficult for him, he has been battling Ahab and particularly Jezebel and the latest death threat has finished him- he no longer wants to be God’s messenger to his society. Now, I don’t know that any of us has had quite as much difficulty as Elijah but just the same we can feel tired, or even embattled. I certainly feel like that sometimes as I struggle to raise awareness about the treatment of refugees. And while I haven’t actually received any death threats, people certainly offer aggression, dislike and opposition over it. Let me ask you, as you offer a prophetic ministry to people around you are there moments when you feel, like Elijah, that you have had enough?
Elijah is right at the point of giving up- even to the extent that he asks God if he can die. The despair he clearly feels is partly I think about his society and partly personal and that is the kind of combination that does drive people right to the edge. However, Elijah is not allowed to give up, is he? An angel comes to him and encourages him to eat and drink to be ready for a journey and off he goes again. And the cave in Horeb God asks Elijah a question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” Elijah answers, “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.” This sums up his whole situation, doesn’t it? He has been trying to do what God has asked of him, nothing is going well and the death threat is the last straw that breaks the camels back. Elijah is fed up and just wants to die, but God is not going to let him do that- he still has work to do for God, so God provides him with a change of heart. And you know what happens, God sends a wind, an earthquake and a fire- all terrible experiences- but God is not “in” any of them. And then God is present in the silence that is the cessation of noise. There are a couple of things that we can learn from this- the first is that it is not through the disasters that God speaks to us- we have often had a feeling that a natural disaster is a message from God about repentance, and it might be in regard to our treatment of the created world. Cyclones like those we have just experienced might remind us about the danger to our society from climate change, but it is not a personal message from God. The second is that it was, at least in this instance, in the silence that Elijah was conscious of God’s presence. He has been complaining and thinking about his own situation, anxious and filling his attention with the things that are of this world- he needs to be still and listen to the silence before he can be transformed by God. So let me encourage us to be people who allow ourselves enough silence to hear God speaking to us.
In this encounter with God, God asks Elijah the same question as God did before. Now the thing that is striking here is that Elijah gives God exactly the same answer as he did before. Indeed Elijah’s situation hasn’t changed. God has asked him to be the prophet to his people, he has seen some very bad things happen, and regardless of whether or not he has seen God, people are still after him to kill him. So what has changed? Well, something has changed inside Elijah that will enable him to do what God is asking of him, even though the situation is still as bad, and in fact the job is about to get harder. And so off he goes. God has provided an answer to Elijah’s prayer, in the form of a companion, that is Elisha, and we will hear more about that next week. And so it is for us- praying to God, listening to God may not materially alter the things that we are facing, however, in hearing God’s voice, and understanding God’s will for us we are equipped to do what we are called to do.
Now Elijah is a great prophet, but Luke is very keen for us to understand that Jesus is even greater, as he is both prophet and God God’s-self in one bundle. We have recently read the story of the raising of the widow’s son, with all its immediate parallels with Elijah. If we had read the pericope, or little chunk, just before today’s passage we would have seen another example of Jesus’ great power, this time over nature. So a terrible wind, like that Elijah experiences, buffets the boat that the disciples and Jesus are travelling in. However, rather than God speaking, or not speaking, out of the storm God speaks to the storm and it is stilled. Then Jesus and his disciples arrive in the area of Gerasa, a place that is associated with destruction- it having been sacked in the disciples’ lifetime. The whole of this story about the demoniac is an example of all that is wrong for human beings. This man, is so possessed that he cannot live a normal life, but lives with the dead in the tombs. He is unclothed, bound sometimes by chains, and yelling. I don’t know about you but I have seen people like this on the streets from time to time. And whether the demons that possessed him were those of drugs or alcohol, mental illness or a more supernatural kind, he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged him not to torment him. I have to say, that this story always awakes a response with me, as I have lived with a person who behaved in many of these ways. This kind of personal disintegration is not just a story from long ago, but a present reality, graphically told, and of course for us personally, it may be true in different degrees. In this case Jesus deals with the demons and restores the man to his full humanity. We see the beautiful picture of him clothed and in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus. He becomes a person who God is going to use for God’s purposes. Just like Elijah he is being sent back into a hostile situation to witness to God’s truth, to be a prophet in his world.
But do you notice the reaction of the crowd? This is a story as much about them as it is about the man who has been healed. When Jesus performs this mighty act of restoration, the response of those around to this transformation is not, as you might expect, one of joy. No, they are afraid and beg Jesus to leave. And this is so often the response in our society as well. People do not like the status quo to change. I get this kind of response when I attempt to bring change and transform life for people seeking refuge. People don’t want them living happily in the community, they prefer them to be chained up on an island. Change produces fear, the unknown produces fear, difference produces fear. We are called to be people who can accept those things, people who can be prophetic voices, people who bring change for the good of others. And we are like Elijah sent back, over and over again, into the hostile world. We are sent back like this healed man, back into his community, to proclaim how much God has done for us. Jesus is the saviour of the world. Jesus is the one who brings healing and wholeness, who can cast out the demon of fear and the demon of indifference. We are called to be people, who like Jesus bring healing and wholeness to our world.
Paul in his letter to the Galatians talks about the imprisonment of fear- that is specifically the fear produced by trying to keep the law. He tells us that now we are clothed with Christ and that we are a transformed people. Just think of that in terms of the demoniac for a moment- he is reclothed as well and it is a symbol of change and of healing for him. We have been clothed in Christ, in other words we put him on- we, like Elisha who puts on Elijah’s mantle- take on a likeness to Christ. And, just as for the original readers of this letter, all difference is eliminated. The difference that we fear has been transformed in the new creation so that there are no longer racial differences, no Jews and Greeks. There are no longer differences of status, no slaves and free people. There are no longer differences produced by gender, there is no longer male and female. All the differences that set people apart from one another are gone in the new creation for we are all one, in Christ Jesus. This transforming power of God is what makes us able to be people who, like Elijah can speak into our world, who like Jesus can be agents of transformation for our society. We are people who live in God’s promise because we are God’s beloved children. So children, go out like Elijah, to speak God’s words of transforming love.