RCL Year C, Proper 7
So I’m taking you through a series of sermons about things that aren’t true about God. I’ve talked about how we don’t believe in a God who demands perfect theology from us before we’re welcome; we don’t believe in a God who sends suffering as punishment; and we don’t believe in a God who holds our sin before us and refuses to forgive. All of those have to do with what God does and doesn’t do – and the message in each case, you might notice, is that God doesn’t do as we do. In that vein, today’s message sort of sums it up – though it’s less about what God does and more about who God is. Who God is, is God. And we are not.
We’ve had a narrative about Elijah for several weeks now, but for reasons I don’t understand, the lectionary has skipped around a bit in his story, which makes it hard to follow. And to get my point across, I need to tell you the story to date, so bear with me. Elijah is a prophet during the reign of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, two pretty nasty characters in the history of Israel. Besides all the atrocities they commit against the people, Ahab and Jezebel worship both YHWH and Baal and Asherah, a big no-no for the monotheist historians who wrote 1 Kings. Elijah calls down a drought on the land, and then challenges the prophets of Baal to a sort of showdown on Mt Carmel to prove that Baal is powerless and a false God. Because Baal is supposedly in charge of the weather, part of the point of the narrative is to say that actually YHWH is in charge of that, and everything else besides. We heard the story of that showdown a few weeks ago, a pyrotechnic story with two altars, two sacrifices, lots of drama, and only one enormous fire from heaven. And then, finally, a huge storm brews up and the long-awaited rain begins to fall. Elijah wins, and YHWH’s power is proven.
For all of this, and especially for killing the royal prophets of Baal, Elijah gets in trouble with the king. Ahab and Jezebel are after him, and vow that he will die. So Elijah flees to the southern kingdom of Judah, about 100 miles on foot. He is tired, hungry, and dejected, ready to give up. Everything has fallen apart for him – he had that amazing display of triumph and divine power on Mt Carmel, but now he’s a total wreck. God feeds him in the desert, and then sends him further along until he comes to Mt Horeb. Which is where Moses long before him encountered God in the burning bush, the experience that pretty much started the whole big story of the people of Israel. So we’ve had this experience of fire from heaven on Mt Carmel, and now we’re at Mt Horeb, and if we know our stories, we’re remembering that burning bush, and the fire and cloud and earthquakes on Mt Sinai when God appeared again to Moses and the people and gave them the Law. And here, God promises to show Godself to Elijah.
But it’s a set-up. There’s a rushing powerful wind. There’s a mighty earthquake. There’s a fire. But God is not in any of those, says the story. Instead, there’s a sound of sheer silence, or a still, small voice, or something that the translators can’t quite capture for us. Elijah hears that, and knows it is God. And God sends him back out on mission, and Elijah goes. Commentators have been puzzled ever since.
Coming so soon after the Mt Carmel story, and following on all those Moses stories, it doesn’t seem like the point of this is to say that God doesn’t ever reveal himself in spectacular ways. This one encounter with Elijah isn’t meant to nullify all those previous experiences. And yet for some reason God chooses not to do the big and powerful this time. Which is meant to be a surprise – God being God, we expect something big and extraordinary with his activity in this world. There’s the course of natural events, and then there’s God, separate and above and bigger. That’s usually how the story goes, and that’s what Elijah was expecting when he waited at the entrance to the cave.
And perhaps, really, that’s what we find ourselves expecting when we pray and ask for God’s help. Episcopalians don’t usually admit to expecting miracles from God; we think of ourselves as pretty rational, not inclined to big special effects in our worship and prayer lives. (There was a period in the church when that was different, when the charismatic renewal came through even the tidy liturgical churches and brought along healing and speaking in tongues and other dramatic gifts of the Spirit. But in our tradition today, we’d most of us be surprised and even a little put out if church started feeling too Pentecostal on a Sunday morning.) And yet, underneath that rational façade, we too harbor our own expectations of how God works in the world. If we pray for someone’s healing, we really are hoping that things will radically change and that person will get better, no matter what the doctors say. If we pray for safe travel for someone, we really are hoping that all the car crashes and terrorist plots are put on hold so they can get through safely. We want God to make things better, in the way we ask for it.
In other words, maybe without realizing it, we tend to think of it like this: God is up there, and we are down here. And every now and then if we pray for help or God so chooses, God beams in to our world and rearranges things, stops the train wreck or redirects the hurricane or makes the cancer disappear. The problem with this, of course, is that when the train derails or the hurricane takes out our town or the cancer spreads, we’re left with the uncomfortable explanation that either God didn’t want to save us or there is no God.
That, anyway, is the theological conundrum that Elijah is laboring under. When God asks him what he’s doing there, having traveled all the way back to the source to seek God out, Elijah’s answer is that he’s been zealously fighting for God’s side for ages and now he’s exhausted. It’s time for God to do something to right these wrongs, he’s implying. Beam in, God. God’s response is silence. And only when Elijah hears that and recognizes that as God, does God say, go back on your way – and do the work I’m asking you to do, Elijah. I am God and you are not. I am beyond your expectations and your understanding, and this will all unfold differently than you think. But you have a part to play in it, so go.
Elijah listens to God and anoints a new king of Israel and eventually, after various battles and turns of events, that king overthrows the evil Ahab and Jezebel. There’s no fire from heaven or earthquake, but there is something unfolding in the course of human history that brings about God’s will. All Elijah has to do is listen for his part and do it.
So this is what we don’t believe about God: We don’t believe that God is us, only bigger. We don’t believe that God will come in like a tough big brother and fight our battles for us, or like a mom and make everything better for us, or like a dad and keep away the bad guys. God is not just a better version of ourselves; God is vastly other from us, in ways we will never fully grasp. And yet God is active and involved in the world, in ways that we may only now and then get a glimpse of. Things work out for good in a deep way, even if not our way. And things work out in part because we ourselves play a role in them, listening for and heeding God’s call to act in the world. God is not us and we are not God – but we are part of God’s work in the world. May we learn to recognize God’s holy will at play in our lives and in our world. Amen.