On The Run- Narrative Lectionary, Pentecost 22

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 5, 2017

 

 

Introduction

A few years ago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, held the first annual cat video festival.  They hosted the event in the Sculpture Garden near the museum and for several hours showed nothing but YouTube videos of cats.  Believe it or not, 10,000 people showed up on an August evening to watch these videos.  The whole event event got a write-up in the New York Times.

The winner of that event went a video featuring Henri the cat. Henri is a cat with ennui.

In video, Henri who is a tuxedo cat, look longingly into the camera while depressing piano music plays in the background.  The films are in black and white and Henri speaks in French with subtitles showing up on the bottom of the screen.  Henri asks existential questions on the meaning of life, quoting Camus whenever the need arises.  He drops angst filled phrases like, “The 15 hours a day I sleep have no effect. I awake to the same tedium.”  He learns some important things as he questions his existence: things like the whipped cream in the bathroom isn’t whipped cream and that sometimes the cat door is closed.

It’s funny because the last being that you’d think to have an existential crisis would be a house cat.

Today’s text is also an existential journey.  That said, the person asking the existential question isn’t the main character, Elijah, but God.  

Today, we talk about the prophet Elijah, on the run.

Engaging the Text

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. 2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”

1 Kings 19:1-2

 

A little background here.  We have moved from Solomon to King Ahab.  In between, the kingdom of Israel split into a Northern and a Southern Kingdom.  Today’s text takes place in the Northern Kingdom.

King Ahab is considered one of the worst kings in both kingdoms.  He marries Jezebel,  a Phoenician princess. Ahab had a temple built for Baal and other places were set up for people to worship this new god. Jezebel worked to make sure the prophets of Yahweh were persecuted.

In chapter 18, there is a showdown between the prophets of Baal, and Elijah. Elijah decides to challenge King Ahab to prove whose God is bigger.  First up, the prophets of Baal pray for their god to send fire on their offering.  Nothing happens.  Then it was Elijah’s turn.  He prays to God and God answers, powerfully burning the offering, including the altar. Elijah is then able to persuade the people to capture the false prophets have them killed.  When Jezebel hears of this, she swears vengeance against Elijah. 

Now, after such a dramatic event, one that he won, you would think Elijah would have been confident in God.  He would be able to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel, telling them to do their worse.

Instead, he takes his servant and high tails it out of town.

Why does Elijah run? He won the argument, Baal’s prophets were dead, he was the winner. What made him able to face Ahab, but flee when Jezebel threatens him?

It’s important to note that Jezebel is a true believer.  After all that has happened to shake her faith, she still swears by here gods in 19:2.  Elijah wasn’t prepared for this. He is shocked and instead of thinking theologically, he responds emotionally. In short, Elijah faces a crisis of faith. 

Elijah’s flight is reminiscent of Jonah’s attempt to flee away from God.  There were differences though. Jonah hated the Ninevites, the people he was called by God to preach to.  Elijah basically gets scared.  But in both cases, God has to bring God’s prophets back on the path of faithfulness.

Elijah walks in the desert until he sat under a tree hoping to die.  But instead of death, a messenger comes and tells him to eat some food that had been mysteriously prepared for him. This happens one more time. The gift of food is a reminder of what God had done for the Israelites in the past.  It was a reminder that just as God fed the Israelites in the desert with quail and manna, God would take care of Elijah.  Elijah needed the food not just to fill his belly but to remember who God is and what God has done.  Remembering the past is a way to remember who he was and what he needed to do.

Afterwards Elijah starts on a journey; he keeps walking and walking and walking. When he finally stops, God asks him an odd question: Why are you here, Elijah?

What’s even stranger is that Elijah never answer God’s question.  Instead,  Elijah talks about how vigilant he was and how he is the last prophet and his life is threatened.  Then God tells him that God is about to pass by. He sees an earthquake,wind and fire, but the passage notes that God was not in any of these events. God comes to Elijah in what is called a “slight whispering sound” or “still small voice” (rsv). Why did God come in this way? A number of scholars think that God deliberately rejected storms because it s association with the Baal which happens to be a god of rain. In a time when the Israelites have divided loyalties between Baal and God and the small voice is a way of stating who God is; not in the loud sounds but in the quiet.

It is in the quiet that God asks again: why are you here? Elijah responds by saying the following:

 “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”

-1 Kings 19:14

Elijah thinks he is alone.  All of the other prophets were killed by Jezebel.  But God responds:

15 The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand—all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.”

-1 Kings 19:15-18

Elijah thought he was alone and he feared he would be next.  But God does two things. First, God gives him a task to do: to go and anoint the next king of Israel (Northern Kingdom). He is also to anoint Elisha to be his successor as prophet (which was an unusual thing; prophets anointed kings not prophets).  Finally, God tells Elijah that there are 7,000 prophets that haven’t bowed to Baal.  

Conclusion

Why are you here?  This is a question that is asked again and again in everyone’s life.  You can  hear it when you are laid off from our job.  Or when your baby boy dies after being born premature.  It’s heard when you get the cancer diagnosis or when our loved one decides to leave you.  Why are you here? We hear that question and feel it hanging in midair.  We try to search for an answer, but more often than not, we don’t have an answer.

God sustains God’s saints.  In a time of despair where Elijah just wants to die, God comes to offer food, drink and a new mission. We have to acknowledge and trust that our power comes from God and not from our own work.

To follow God means that you will suffer in some way because life on this side of heaven is always a challenge.  But it is in God that we can keep moving forward. Saints are people who are empowered by God to do God’s work.

Theologian Garrett Galvin shows that God is present for God’s disciples in their time of need:

God sends unexpected help to Elijah during his time of great vulnerability. Elijah is able to overcome his great sadness through the care of the angels and the nourishment of their food. This story invites us to see how the Lord has been present to us in difficult moments. It also invites us to view our problems through a lens able to see God’s divine presence in the world. Just as God is clearly present to Elijah in order to help him overcome his travails, we must have the same confidence that God is present and will be present in our lives. We know the whole of the Elijah story and can see this as just a blip in the story. We must also have the awareness that our travails and troubles are far from the whole of our story. Just as God has been present in our past, we must persevere in the hope that God will be present in our future.2

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

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