August 12, 2012

 

ON GETTING OUT OF A HOLE

                                                         Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                             at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 12 August 2012       

                                                       Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: I Kings 19: 4-8

 

Have you ever asked yourself, “What on Earth have I done wrong that I am in this mess?”  Or perhaps you phrased it, “What the Hell am I doing here?”  If you have, be assured you are not the first, or probably the last, and you are certainly in some very good company – perhaps even better than you might think.

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, part of the saga of Elijah, describes the prophet at a very low point in his life.  Up to this point he believed he had done everything that the Lord God had asked of him.  In the Lord’s name he had proclaimed that there would be a drought and there was one.  It did not rain for three years.  Then, in the Lord’s name, he had challenged the prophets of Ba’al to a spiritual contest.  They would exhort Ba’al, the Lord of the Thunder and Rain, to send rain.  There were four hundred and fifty of them, and Elijah urged them to conduct their ritual first.  They set up their altar and offered their sacrifice and then they began their ritual of prayer and exhortation, of wild dancing and self-flagellation, and although they went on for hours on end, nothing happened; there was no rain.  Elijah allowed them to carry on with their wild shenanigans, and then he invited the ordinary people to come close, while he rebuilt an altar to the Lord, dug a great ditch around it and sacrificed the bull that had been assigned to the Lord, placing its pieces on the wood for the sacrificial fire.  Then he had ordered the remaining precious water to be poured over the altar, the firewood and the sacrificed bull until it ran down to fill the great ditch.  And he did this three times.  Then he prayed to the Lord for fire to descend from Heaven and what the writer of I Kings calls the fire of the Lord struck the altar, consumed the sacrificial offering and then “licked up” all the water.  Elijah commanded the people to seize the prophets of Ba’al and the people did so and Elijah had them slaughtered.  But still it did not rain, or, at least, not yet.  Six times he sent his servant to see whether there was a cloud in the sky, and six times the servant came back to say there was not a cloud to be seen.  But the seventh time the servant announced that there was a little cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand, way out to the west over the Mediterranean, and so Elijah told the people to flee before they were caught in the downpour. 

It had been a great day, but as so often happens after a great day, Elijah had to face the next day, and the ire of the King of Israel and especially that of Jezebel his wife.  She sent a messenger to him with the threat that she would see to it that he would be assassinated the next day – and so, perhaps, wisely, Elijah skipped town and fled into the wilderness, which is where our reading this morning finds him.  So deserted was the place that there was only a solitary gorse bush under which to shelter, and there he poured out his fears in prayer and then he fell asleep.  As he slept he dreamt and he sensed that the Lord had sent a messenger to him urging him to eat, and he saw a cake made of grain and a flagon of water, and these he consumed and went back to sleep.  He dreamt again and again he sensed the presence of the messenger of the Lord who again urged him to rise and eat as he had a long, long journey, nearly six weeks ahead of him, to Mount Horeb where he found a cave in which he spent the night.

Elijah felt really sorry for himself and when someone called the Word of the Lord approached and asked him what was his problem, Elijah said that although he had been very zealous in the Lord’s cause, he had been a failure.  The people still went after the Ba’alim, they killed the prophets of the Lord, and he was the only one left.  Then the figure told him to go and stand at the entrance to the cave for the Lord was about to pass by, as he had in the time of Moses on the very same mountain.  So Elijah went to the entrance of the cave and beheld a rock-shattering, rock-scattering gale, and after that an earthquake, followed by an almighty fire.  But the Lord was not in all this chaos, but after it had all come to an end, there was utter silence.  The writer calls it “the sound of sheer silence” and when Elijah heard it, like Moses of old, he hid his face in his headcloth and went outside.  And then, against that background of sheer silence, there was a scarcely audible voice asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah replied as he had before.

The Lord chose not to address Elijah’s immediate concern but instead gave him very distinct orders.  He was to stage what we would call two coups d’état, one against the ruler of Syria in Damascus, and the other against the ruler of Israel in Samaria.  And while he was at it, Elijah was to anoint his own successor.  And only after giving Elijah his marching orders does the Lord then address Elijah’s own situation by telling him that there were seven thousand in Israel who were remaining true to the Lord God of their ancestors. 

Assured of all this, Elijah set out on his new mission, but he did not exactly follow orders.  Like many of us, Elijah chose to do the easy thing first, and sought out Elisha and anointed him as his successor.  And then he quit, leaving Elisha to do the two other more difficult tasks. 

We do not know who first told this story or when it was first written down, but the original story-teller and the later scribe both discerned lessons in this story that need to be passed down from generation to generation.  And these lessons are just as relevant in our day as they were when the story was first told and when later it was first written down. 

The first lesson is clearly one of patience.  We need to understand that when God promises to do something he is faithful and will keep his promises.  He might not do things according to our schedule – Elijah had to send his servant seven times before there was even the slightest hint of rain on the horizon – but the promise will be kept in the Lord’s good time.

Secondly, just because some action, dictated by the Lord God, was the right one on one day, it does not necessarily follow that that it is what he wants some other day.  The Lord God might direct that the worship of Ba’al should be abolished, and through what happened on Mount Carmel demonstrated that the Lord of Thunder and Rain was not Ba’al, but Elijah probably overstepped the mark when he destroyed not only the worship of Ba’al but also the worshippers of Ba’al.  The Lord seeks repentance, not genocide. 

Thirdly, when we have got ourselves into a hole, whether through our own actions or those of someone else, the Lord is right there with us.  Jezebel may well threaten to have Elijah assassinated, but the Lord protects his own in his own way, and even the Lord’s own may have to have open minds, eyes and hearts to see what the Lord is doing on their behalf.  And the Lord provides enough to meet the needs we experience in his service, as Elijah discovered in the matter of the bread and water when he was seeking shelter under that gorse bush in the wilderness.

Fourthly, we should not let self-pity blind us to the truth.  We are not alone in the service of the Lord.  There are thousands of others out there whose quiet, undemonstrative service is just as effective as the grandstand plays of a prophet such as Elijah, and often even more effective. 

And finally, we should not consider that we are the only ones who can do the work the Lord requires to have done.  There comes a time when it is right to step aside and move on.  Elijah had to learn that he was not indispensable in what he was doing.  There are times when there needs to be change, and the Lord will choose those he needs to see that change through. 

So, going back to the questions with which we started, if the story of Elijah tells us anything, it is that instead of doing things our way – which can get us into some awful jams – it is wiser to rely on the guidance of the Lord, who has his own ideas as to how things should be done to get us out of the mess we have got ourselves into, and to see to it that what he knows needs to be done is in fact done, even when we do not see how that can be.  And sometimes we might only be able to hear him when we keep so quiet that we can hear the silence, a silence into which God can speak and be heard.

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