iconProphetElijah2“Prophet Elijah” Icon by Sallie Thayer

This week’s text can be found here

The podcasters at Working Preacher have told us that we are in the midst of a kind of miniseries, and today is its last episode. In my preaching I have named the miniseries: “The Rise and Fall of the Monarchy!” And truly, in this tumultuous relationship between God and God’s covenant people, the fact that this miniseries is bookended with stories of prophets (the call of Samuel and today’s story of Elijah) is vital information. As Stephen Reid reminds us in his commentary, “The story of the state, that is kings, is interpreted through the stories and visions of prophets.”

The miniseries has served to fulfill the oracle presented in 1 Samuel 8: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you…” It isn’t pretty. This king you desire, God tells the people, will take what he wants with ruthless efficiency. Eventually the royal power couple Ahab and Jezebel makes an appearance. Their reputation precedes their narrative: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (I Kings 16:33). The issue: infidelity to the God of Israel. Ahab and Jezebel served both Baal (erecting an altar to the storm-god) and Asherah (erecting a sacred pole in honor of the goddess sometimes known as the “Queen of Heaven”). Though the narrative tells us repeatedly of Ahab’s sinfulness (“Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel…” 1 Kings 21:25), Jezebel’s reputation lives on more robustly in popular imagination as the truly evil monarch. Though we may wonder whether that reputation has been shaped by classic tropes involving highly sexualized renditions of female sinfulness, today’s passage speaks for itself. The oath she swears before her gods places a bounty on Elijah’s head.

Thus, we encounter Elijah following what is perhaps his most vividly memorable moment, in which he has challenged the prophets of Baal to a kind of deity smack-down involving the power to rain fire from heaven. At the end of Chapter 18, the prophet has not only bested the 450 prophets of Baal, he has killed them. Personally.

We find Elijah on the run from Jezebel’s “cursing vow” (Reid): “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2). The prophet first flees to Beer-sheba, which is in Judah and thus out of the jurisdiction of the king and queen of Israel. He leaves his servant behind and continues alone another day, into the wilderness. He sits under a broom tree, and, like the dejected Jonah, asks God that he might die. God’s response is to miraculously provide food for him; this could be interpreted as a rather resounding “no” to his request. After a second meal he travels forty days and forty nights, finally arriving at “Horeb, the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8). The miraculous provision of food, the length of his journey (the number forty, indicating the necessary commitment to the task at hand), and the destination (Mount Horeb is known elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures as Mount Sinai) all point to strong associations with the wilderness wandering of the Israelites following the Exodus. Mount Horeb/ Sinai is known chiefly as the locale in which God reveals Godself to Moses, and presents the covenant/ law to him. The alert reader suspects that a theophany might be imminent.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9). Are we to understand that the God of Israel is ignorant of the plight this servant finds himself in? I think, no; rather, the prophet has undergone one kind of test (the forty-day wilderness wandering on the strength of two meals), and is now ready for God’s self revelation. Elijah presents his credentials/ apologia (zeal for theLord of hosts, as well as the reality of his fear and vulnerability), and receives his instructions: go out on the mountain; the Lord is about to pass by.

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire… 1 Kings 19:11b-12a

The list of meteorological conditions in which the Lord is not reads like a riff on the US Postal Service Creed: neither wind, nor earthquake, nor fire… God is found, though, in silence either impossible to describe, or devilishly hard to translate, or both.

“a gentle whisper”                         New International Version

“a sound. Thin. Quiet.”                 Common English Bible

“a gentle breeze”                          Contemporary English Version

“a still small voice”                      King James Version

“a sound of a gentle blowing”     New American Standard Bible

“a sound of sheer silence”           New Revised Standard Version

“a soft murmuring sound”           Jewish Publication Society

Notice: Elijah’s response to this nearly untranslatable silence is NOT meditation and prayer; it is a further girding up of the spirit for what lies ahead.

And again, the question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Which perhaps needs to be read/ heard, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The work ahead of him is spelled out: the anointing of two kings, and another prophet, Elisha, to take his place. The work God has for Elijah includes the sobering task of lifting up his own successor. As I read once, long ago, in a book on religious orders: the only work worth doing is that which is bigger than our own little lives.

Some Starting Points for Preachers:

·      “What are you doing here?” God’s question to Elijah continues to challenge every person of faith, in all situations and contexts. How does this question resonate for you? For the congregation you serve? Can you play that game with this question in which you stress a different word with each reading? (“What are you doing here? What are you doing here?” etc.)

·      How does God reveal Godself to us today? I heard a wonderful preacher not long ago describe a Pentecostal church as one in which the congregation showed up every Sunday fully confident that God would show up as well. What would it mean for our congregations to show up in church fully confident that they would have an experience of God there? What does that mean for us as preachers?

sandra-bullock-gravity-drifting-movie

         A wonderful article in today’s Boston Globe begins: “A man lost at sea. A woman marooned in space. A ship’s captain torn from his crew, and a family man torn from his freedom, humanity, even identity… Our movies are telling us we’re on our own now. The cavalry isn’t coming and Houston has other problems to deal with. If some cultural seasons celebrate teamwork — good people coming together, easily or not, to work toward a common goal — we seem to be in a moment obsessed with the isolated hero.” How does or doesn’t Elijah embody this hero-on-his-own? What is the church’s response to a society that increasingly isolates and polarizes people? What can the church offer in such a cultural moment, we who tell a story of belonging to a covenant people?

I’ll see you in the comments… blessings this week as you listen for the ineffable silence in which God speaks.

8 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Ineffable Silence (1 Kings 19:1-18)

  1. Thanks Pat. Good queries. It has been one of those Mondays but a little bit of exegesis completed. It would be natural for me to focus in on silence but I am wondering if the end of the story is what the Spirit is pushing me to explore.

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    1. Michael Kirby commented on the RevGals’ Facebook page, linking the reading and the issues around silence to All Saints: “The silence speaks so powerfully to those who mourn on this Sunday when many of us celebrate All-Saints. Ask any long term married spouse who is widowed. Almost all I have pastored in that setting speak of the silence of their homes…after the casseroles stop coming and the condolence cards are tucked away…it is then that God is both needed and (hopefully) accessible in ways we never knew before…but God doesn’t merely comfort Elijah in his fragile state…God send Elijah to rehearse the time when the people thought God had abandoned them…and then back to work in a way that is now focused on the future…not necessarily Elijah’s future, but the future of the community. It’s perhaps too easy to say it is a road map of faithfulness for the golden years…and perhaps too easy to say “start thinking about your legacy”…but there is certainly something there in that general area.”

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      1. Lots to think about in this paragraph. My very short sermon (we have a lot going on) is entitled Saints and Silence, and so far I have gotten as far as the silence of a cemetery, and listening for God there, where the saints have been laid to rest and the future echoes with stillness . . .

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    1. I have yet to see any of those films, but I am a huge film afficionado, and am really looking forward to catching up with them! Thanks for being here!

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    2. I thought the reference to the film ‘Gravity’ was brilliant because (at least for those who’ve seen it) there’s an agonizing awareness of just how far from home the astronauts are when chaos rakes their little islands in the sky. That said, there were only three people in the theater when I saw it. While I think LOTS of people have seen the trailers (heavy rotation before other films and in TV commercials), the sense of absolute alone-ness the film conveys (and which Elijah experiences in his lonely cave) are probably lost for those who haven’t seen the whole movie. But it’s still an EXCELLENT reflection point for those of us who have.

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  2. Good thought on the challenge of connecting the alone-ness with something in our culture. It’s probably been too long since folks saw Castaway to be able to tap into that one, but it is what came to mind.

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    1. Kathryn, that is a great connection– even though it’s out there in pop culture, I’m not sure how many people have actually seen Gravity at this point.

      + + +

      Rev. Pat Raube

      While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.

      ~ St. Francis of Assisi

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