June 19, 2016, Pr. 7 YR C 5th Sunday after Pentecost Doris Payne
“What are you doing here?”
(I Kings 19: 9, 13)
If you were here last week, you heard Fr. Brent tell us that:
“… in Jesus and Elijah’s encounters with the widows and their dead sons, [the] thread is compassion. Feeling, experiencing the suffering of others.”
In contrast to the compassion of Jesus and Elijah, you might have noticed the complete self-serving lack of compassion on the part of Ahab and Jezebel.
Well, Ahab and Jezebel have not changed between last week’s and this week’s readings. Their character traits are pretty persistent, wherever they appear in the books of the Kings.
In today’s story from I Kings there are five main characters. Let’s flesh out their “bios” a little, to enter into the story.
First, there’s Ahab. He was king of Samaria, the Northern part of the divided kingdom of Israel. He had built himself an ivory house. Ivory! Can you imagine? By personality, he was resentful, sullen, and petulant if he didn’t get his way. Last week, we saw his sullen resentment when his poor neighbor, Naboth, didn’t hand over an ancestral plot of land. He was also pliant, subject to manipulation, generally to unfortunate and evil ends. The Old Testament scriptures say “There was no one who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab…”
Our second player is Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife. She was an outrageous piece of work: an ambitious, forceful, conniving manipulator. Heartless. Not an ounce of compassion. Not the kind of person I want to be around or have anything to do with. Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Tyre and Sidon. The name Ethbaal means ‘a man of Baal’. He was a priest of Baal and Astarte, and murdered his predecessor (King Phelles) to become king. So Jezebel had quite a role-model in her father, who killed others to get what he wanted. She was a person of untempered privilege and used to getting what she wanted. As you may remember from last week’s readings, she was the one who the plan and wrote letters in King Ahab’s name to get innocent Naboth killed, to get for Ahab what Ahab wanted. Or, perhaps it was what she wanted.
Now, not only had Ahab married into a family intimately connected with worship of Baal, but he supported about 850 priests of Baal. Worship of Baal was a family affair, and this king and his queen promoted it throughout Israel. Indeed, Jezebel was a persecutor of the priests of YHWH, and saw to it that they were widely killed.
So, Baal and the priests of Baal are another player in our story. Baal was a kind of “sun god”, and thought to be responsible for the weather. Of course, the land and all life in that rather dry desert place on the edge of the eastern Mediterranean Sea depended crucially on the regular cycle of rainfall. The Israelites, migrants and dwellers in this dry region populated by other peoples, periodically flirted with, or full-scale were involved in Baal-worship. It needs to be said that Baal worship included some very cruel and sexually licentious ritual practices, ostensibly to convince Baal to grant favorable weather, but perhaps also to please the desires of wanton priests. Various prophets of YHWH had railed against the idolatry of worshiping any deity other than the God of all being, the “I am” who brought them out of Egypt.
Our fourth player is Elijah. Elijah was a prophet of God. Part of Elijah’s calling was clearly to confront King Ahab’s allegiance to Baal instead of single-heartedly following God. Elijah was a person of remarkable integrity and courage, fearless and dedicated in delivering the LORD’s word to whomever.
Well, for the most-part Elijah was fearless. But he was also a human being, like the rest of us. To understand today’s story in I Kings 19, it is important to understand the lead-up to it. Let me paint that background for you.
Some years before the story in today’s reading, Elijah had come before Ahab and predicted several years of drought. Now that was a challenge to Ahab and Jezebel, as followers of the weather god Baal. Because of Elijah’s stance, Jezebel and Ahab had a price out on his head (remember, Jezebel had most of the other priests of YHWH killed). So Elijah had gone into hiding.
At the end of approximately three years of hiding, Elijah again enters public view and challenges Ahab to assemble all the people and the 850 priests of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel for a remarkable contest. On one level, the contest was about which god was powerful enough to affect the weather. But it was equally, if not more, a test of whether the people would follow the dictates of Jezebel and Ahab, or turn to the God who had brought their ancestors out of Egypt.
Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to sacrifice a bull on an alter of wood, and to call on their diety to set it on fire. Remarkably, the priests engaged in this contest. For perhaps eight hours, those priests danced and marched around their slaughtered animal, calling on Baal to respond. By noon, Elijah started taunting them, in a way that might be considered religiously disrespectful by most people in Eugene today. He suggested that perhaps their deities were asleep, or off on a trip. The prophets of Baal kept at it, and worked themselves into a frenzy − even cutting themselves.
But by evening, no fire. None. Nothing but their own noise.
Late in the day, Elijah takes his turn. He fixes a broken-down alter that had been a place of worship of YHWH, symbolically repairing it with 12 stones representing the tribes of Israel. Over his prepared sacrifice, he pours large jars, and jars, and jars, and jars of WATER – 12 in all, so much water that it fills a ditch dug around the alter. He soaks the whole thing to the core. Unlike the priests calling on Baal, Elijah then prays a pretty short prayer:
O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.
And fire descends, consumes everything, even exhausting the water in the trench.
This contest ends in the triumphant vindication of Jehovah. The people (as people are wont to do) turn their allegiances on a dime against the priests of Baal. Soon after, heavy, heavy rain starts to fall and, on foot, Elijah races Ahab (who was riding in his chariot) back to the city of Jezreel.
So this brings us to our reading of today. Elijah had triumphed. Well, no, Elijah would be sure say God had triumphed. Ahab, on the other hand, went home and told Jezebel what had transpired. Jezebel became livid and threatened the life of Elijah in no uncertain terms.
Certainly Elijah’s day-long (or perhaps days’ long) confrontation with the priests of Baal and with Ahab had taken tremendous physical energy, stamina, significant courage, and spiritual confidence. But when he heard that Jezebel – not Ahab! – had sworn a new oath to destroy him “by tomorrow this time,” he became filled with fear. The anger of this murderous woman was not to be trifled with. Elijah just fled. Fled for his life. Deep into the desert.
All of a sudden we hear words in the scripture that don’t seem characteristic of Elijah. He sat under a desert tree and prayed to die:
I have had ENOUGH Lord. Take my life. I’m not much good.
He laid down in the desert and went to sleep. This was burn-out.
There is a fifth character in the story: God and the ministering angels of God. Twice during Elijah’s sleep he woke up to miraculously find bread to eat and water to drink. The sleep, food, and drink were acts of God’s grace, mercy, and healing to a burned-out person.
Somewhat strengthened, Elijah journeyed on. (The writer of Kings says he traveled “forty days and forty nights”, which indicates a long and likely difficult time.) He eventually found a cave, and slept again.
In the morning, the word of God came to him:
What are you doing here, Elijah?
Now, let’s think about it. Did God really need to ask Elijah why he was there? What kind of tone it was said in? Sarcastic? Scolding? Or thoughtful and quiet? Why was Elijah confronted with the question, What are you doing here? I’m inclined to think it was so that he, himself, could listen to his own answer:
I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty! The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.
“Goodness, Lord, do you really not see all that I’ve done, and what is being done to me in return? Of course I’m hiding in this cave. I’ve given everything for you, zealously. You’ve been rejected. My work hasn’t accomplished a thing. What’s the point? And now I’m rejected too. I’m gonna be killed.”
Amazingly, after more violent wind, earthquake, and fire, a quiet voice comes, asking the same question a second time:
What are you doing here, Elijah?
Elijah gives exactly the same answer as before. He might as well have been saying:
“I’ve worked a tremendous number of hours, done a quality and faithful job (so faithful, if you want to know the truth, that I oughta get extra merit pay), and it hasn’t accomplished a thing. All to help people who are ungrateful, hard-headed, committed to the wrong ends, who keep going back to their wayward habits, and now are out to get me.”
Was Elijah responding accurately? Clearly he was responding true-to-his-feelings at the time. Maybe it was also true to how he honestly assessed the situation: All the prophets of YHWH besides himself had been killed. The people’s new-found allegiance to the Lord was most probably fickle. Ahab seemed like a lost case. And his life was under threat.
God’s answer to this more-than-faithful, but burned-out prophet is quite thought provoking. God didn’t say “You’re right. You’ve had a rotten deal, your work has been worthless, and these people will never come around.” God didn’t say, “You’ve got it all wrong and I’m shocked you are behaving this way!”
What God did do was to both practically address his needs, and with compassion correct his vision:
- First, God tells him to go back the way he had come, and lists several more things for Elijah to do. I read between the lines here a message of “By my merit scale, you have done your job well. Your work is valuable to my kingdom. Not only am I not firing you, but I don’t want your resignation!”
- Second, God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to eventually succeed him as prophet. This is important. Elisha becomes a companion with him in his work. God was giving him a much-needed ministry partner, a confidant, someone to mentor and who in turn would share the challenges of work.
- Lastly, God says: “There are seven thousand other people in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” This is God’s encouraging word to Elijah that he is not God lets him know there is a community out there in solidarity with him, however lonely his burden of leadership with kings and their villainous accomplices might feel.
So what about you? What about us? Can we hear God coming and quietly asking, What are you doing here?
Are you in a place of discouragement, in your work individually, or about our work as a church for the kingdom of God? Do you feel that little has turned out to any good? That your effort, your training, even your idealistic values, have been pointless, that you might as well quit, or even just lay down and die? Do those you have worked on behalf of – your kids, your boss, your colleagues, your clients, your friends – denigrate or perhaps even just ignore what you have done?
Where is the truth? What are the little or big falsehoods we tell ourselves in our discouragement, or that we earnestly cry out to God with?
You need to sleep, to rest, and you need to eat and drink well. This is healthy self-care. But in addition, what is it that God still calls you to stand up and do – not to pile on more and more to end up in more burnout, but in respecting what you still have to offer?
I have certainly been in places of discouragement − though I can’t say I’ve always worked with consistent zealousness for God’s kingdom. It’s important for us to carefully consider whether our work has been in partnership with God for God’s kingdom (like Paul’s was with the Galatians), or whether it is (wrongly) for some other kind of power and prestige.
If our work is in partnership with God, it will be marked by hungering and thirsting for righteousness, worked out with mercy, compassion, and with striving after peacemaking. And no, God does not promise us freedom from persecution. Rather, Jesus offers us comfort in the midst of mourning, and says: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 3-10).