June 23, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalm 42
Luke 8:26-39

“I Shall Again Praise God”

Over the last several weeks, today, and next Sunday, the Old Testament readings in the lectionary have been the great stories of the prophet Elijah. We heard about Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal to a contest between the gods, and demonstrating powerfully that the God of Israel is the one true God.

Then we had the story about Elijah’s visit to a poor widow in Zarephath. He invited her to share the few resources she had in the midst of a drought, and with God’s help he multiplied her grain and her oil so that she and her family were fed for many days. Then when the widow’s son died, God gave Elijah the power to raise him back to life, and he did.

We skipped over last week’s reading about Elijah in order to celebrate Christian Family Sunday, but it was the one in which King Ahab and his wife Jezebel get a man killed in order to take possession of his vineyard. God sends Elijah to challenge the king and accuse him of his wrongdoing. Elijah serves as the prophet of truth and justice, assuring the king that he will suffer the consequences of his own evil deeds.

Next week’s story will be the final one about Elijah. We’ll hear about the end of his life – not his death, but the day that he is taken up directly into heaven to be with God – giving power and authority to his successor, Elisha, to continue his prophetic work.

Elijah’s name itself means “Yahweh is my God.” He was a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, and his life and work was all about proclaiming the sovereignty and power of the one God of Israel. Elijah is portrayed as an individual of remarkable strength and energy who was active during the 9th century BCE reign of King Ahab, politically one of the great rulers of the northern kingdom.

Having come from Gilead, east of the Jordan, where Yahwism had most likely preserved its separation from other religions, Elijah was appalled by the syncretism (the mixing and mixing up of religions) that he encountered in Israel. Ahab’s wife Jezebel, a princess of Tyre, was a devotee of the Phoenician god Baal. To make her feel at home, Ahab erected “a temple of Baal” in Samaria. The Canaanite fertility cult, ever a threat to Yahweh worship, now had a fanatical evangelist in Jezebel who imported a large number of Baal prophets from Phoenicia, supported them out of state funds, and began an enthusiastic campaign to make the Phoenician Baal the only deity of Israel.

Although King Ahab “served Baal a little” he did not intend to reject Yahweh completely. Ahab just wanted to be tolerant of his wife’s religion. Elijah, on the other hand, was clear that you couldn’t just mix the two religions together; Yahweh claimed exclusive allegiance, and Elijah accused the king and his court of “limping with two different opinions.” This was the prelude to a general persecution in which altars of Yahweh were torn down, prophets were killed, and loyal adherents were driven underground.

Elijah was a prophet of God who took up the call to challenge the powers that be and to call them to faithfulness to the one true God. When you read most of the stories about him, you notice how courageous and bold and successful he was with Yahweh’s help. And since he didn’t actually die, the expectation of his return as a kind of Messiah figure grew. That’s why the Gospels note that some people thought that Jesus was the prophet Elijah come back again.

But in today’s text, we hear about Elijah’s crisis of faith. Or at least, if it isn’t a crisis of faith, Elijah is certainly having a bad day. He’s scared; He’s tired; He’s feeling abandoned and alone. Although he’s been quite successful at demonstrating the power and sovereignty of Yahweh, Queen Jezebel is not giving up her crusade. She has vowed to have Elijah killed, and he is afraid. He flees into the wilderness, not to get away to a safe place and re-group, but because he’s ready to give up. He says, “I’ve had enough of all this, God. Just let me die here. I don’t want to go on.”

Likely none of us here today have had our lives threatened because of our religious or political speech, but most of us can probably identify times in our lives when we’ve felt something like Elijah did that day…

When we’ve been trying and trying to succeed in school, or to find work, or to make progress within our occupation, and nothing we do seems to pay off…

When we’ve been working on a broken relationship and every time we feel like we’ve taken one step forward, we find ourselves two steps back…

When after undergoing appointment after appointment, and test after test, the medical system seems to provide no help or hope for the ailments of our loved one or ourselves…

When we’ve been struggling with an addiction and fallen back into the destructive choices we most wanted to avoid…

When our efforts to share the good news of Jesus Christ, or to improve the lives of the hungry and poor, or to change the world for the better seem to be always overshadowed by the continuing violence and hatred and indifference of the world…

Like the Gerasene man who was tormented by a Legion of demons, we know what it feels like to be pushed and pulled in so many directions, haunted by worries and anxieties, overwhelmed to the point of losing sight of our identity as beloved children of God. Like Elijah, we know what it’s like to be pushed to our limit and to crash. We know what it’s like to be tempted to run away from the challenges that are before us, preferring to lie down under a broom tree, or to curl up in our beds because we just want to give up.

What is so striking to me about Elijah’s story is how he so quickly moves from such confidence and trust in God’s power and sovereignty over all gods and kings, to seemingly forgetting that God is with him at all. How often have we done something similar as we praised and worshipped God on Sunday morning, and then forgot about God altogether on Monday when we were faced with a work crisis, or a health crisis, or a relationship crisis, or a financial crisis?

But even when Elijah was deciding to give up, God was still there with him. Even when he was curling up on the ground and asking to die, God was sending messengers to minister to him. They fed him, and they gave him water, and then they sent him on his way to a place where he might meet and remember about God. In that place, on Horeb, the mountain of God, Elijah listened and listened until he heard God speaking to him. He poured out his complaint and his concern to God, and he found the strength to get up again and to return to the important mission that God had called him to do.

Sometimes I think that we can start to think of our Christian faith as something that takes place right here in the church. We worship, we pray, we learn about God, we live out our faith within these walls. But I think that it might be more accurate and more helpful to think about this place as something like the place that Elijah went off to – like Horeb, the mountain of God.

This is the place where we come to rest, to listen, to meet God, and to be encouraged. Because it’s when we go out from this place that we are called to live out our Christian lives – in work, in service, in relationships, in sharing our faith in word and deed, seeking goodness and justice and peace for all people.

And we should never stay away from this place because we don’t have it all together. We should never stay away because we’re not feeling happy or joyful. We should never stay away because we’re feeling like the psalmist, or like Elijah in the wilderness. This is the place to come… just as we are… and to listen for the sound of God’s voice in scripture, in song, in prayer, in silence, and in the people who gather with us as the family of God.

The author of Psalm 42 sang:
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?…

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival…

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you…
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

Like the psalmist, and like Elijah, we can remember some good days too… when we were filled with hope and joy. We’ve witnessed the birth of children, rejoiced with couples in love, celebrated graduations and wonderful accomplishments, shared fellowship and friendship with good people, experienced healing of body, mind, and spirit, and enjoyed the fruits of our labour, our love, and our determination to love God by loving and serving our neighbours.

Let this be a place where we can come on our not-so-good days, where we can minister to each other, and listen together for God’s Word of hope and encouragement. Let this be a place where we can remember our days of joy and gladness in the presence of God and God’s people. Let this be a place where we can place our hope in God once again, knowing that we will again praise God, who is our help and our God.

Because God, in Jesus Christ, has the power to help us and to heal us from even the legions of troubles and trials that plague us, so that we can go out from this place with joy in our hearts and praise on our lips to declare to the world what God has done.