Oh Elijah. What have we done? What have you done? And how are we supposed to preach about it?
So where do we begin with our great Prophet Elijah -the one we leave an empty chair for at our dinner table, the one in whom Christ was supposed to be the second coming of- what do we do with this text where he comes across as mocking, a somewhat arrogant prophet?
It is tempting in the narrative lectionary readings to cut out the “optional” portions of the readings because they are already so long, but it might be prudent this week to leave them in, for Elijah gets his autobiography title, “Elijah: The Troubler of Israel.”
What does it mean to be a troubler of Israel? An Israel that has gone deeply astray.
Last week’s reading ended with two golden calves and a dagger in God’s heart with the words that echoed Aaron at Mt. Siani. After weeks of skipping books and centuries, this week we move only 6 chapters to hear how bad things have really gotten.
A prophet’s job is to be a “troubler” or agitator of whatever time and place they are in. They are called to move beyond not only the status quo but refuse to see even minor injustices as okay. Where the majority of people conform and see something as “not that bad” the prophet sees it as dire. Where the conformed world sees something as bad, the prophet sees this as life-threatening.
It is not lost on me that our Narrative Lectionary this week is about God reigning fire down from heaven all while in our day the state of California burns and millions live without power. If this is a topic you feel called to take up, it might be worth mentioning the painful rhetoric that has been used in years past by the radical right to blame natural disasters on LGBTQ persons. However, we are called to understand climate change as not caring for creation as we ought, which is sinful, and while we (the world) have sat around for decades ignoring the problem the prophets have been screaming at the top of their lungs the dire, and yes life-threateningness of the situation.
Or maybe, the sin is that when these fires occur, we still force the “least of these” to labor in harsh conditions to feed the bottomless pit of consumerist society? Or perhaps using prison workers as first responders, instead of those who feel called to such a heroic profession.
Which begs the question: Does God call us to a life of extremes? Are these the only two ways?
While the false god gives no answer to the 450 false prophets, Elijah makes a show of building his altar for the Lord. It’s excessive, and as I read it, unnecessary. Especially given the fact that he’s going to show them this great and powerful God, not for the purpose of converting them, but so he can kill every last one of them (not in our reading, but maybe worth mentioning…). Thing is though, God does answer Elijah. God sends, what sounds like a conflagration which must have been seen for miles around. And that “unnecessary show” is full of past images of the faithful.
12 stones for the 12 tribes, is reminiscent of Joshua 4, marking the place the people crossed into the Promise Land. Elijah honors the past and builds the future of God in this pyre. The water of life is poured on the wood to show this is not a magic trick, it is important to know this. Elijah does the work of rebuilding the destruction caused by the false prophets at this moment.
God indeed is powerful, and the story shows that Elijah may not have been so arrogant after all, but just… right.
Maybe being a “troubler of Israel” is exactly what God called Elijah to be because that is what the people who had wandered so far astray needed. I would never advocate violence in any form, but what would it look like today to be a “troubler”? Who are those people in our midst? How can we safely move away from the status quo of “this is just the way it is”, and become the prophets needed today?
A few references that may be helpful when looking for sermon inspiration:
Richard Rohr uses this quote in his book “Falling Upward” to express that he believes we are all sitting around in the “muddled middle”.
“the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” —William Butler Yates
MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” might be helpful for an illustration:
“I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist? — “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
Where will you, dear preacher, find good news in this text? Please share in the comments any and all questions, ideas, or discussions.
The Reverend Shannon Meacham (@revmeach) currently serves Ashland Presbyterian Church in the Baltimore suburbs. She lives there with her husband Derrick Weston and together they raise their four children. You can find her musings about any and all subjects on her personal blog, Pulpit Shenanigans, or listen to Pub Theology Live podcast, of which she is a co-host.
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