Sermon for April 7th, 2018
1 Kings 19:4-9, 11-16
4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah? 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for 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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.
Elijah and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
One of my favorite prayers can be found hanging on a framed plaque in the office of Patty Herrera, our church's faithful office administrator. Patty has worked for our church for almost 40 years, and has the patience of a saint. Lord knows sometimes Christians can be difficult people. The prayer goes something like this:
Dear God, so far today I've done all right. I haven't gossiped, haven't lost my temper, haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent. I'm really glad about that. But in a few minutes, Lord, I'm going to get out of bed and from then on I'm probably going to need a lot more help. In Jesus name. Amen
All of us have good days and bad days. Sometimes the bad days happen to us despite our best efforts, and sometimes we create them all by ourselves.
When I was a child, my mother used to read me a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It was about a little boy, Alexander, who woke forgot to spit out his chewing gum one night, and woke up with it stuck in his hair the next day. From there, things get progressively worse for Alexander, as he gets in trouble in school, his best friend disowns him, the dentist tells him he has a cavity, he gets his foot stuck in an elevator, and so on, and so on... Throughout it all, Alexander keeps saying that he wants to move to Australia. At the end of the book, as his mother tucks him into bed, he says he is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And his mother tells him that some days are like that. Even in Australia.
In today's scripture passage, the most famous, most dynamic of all prophets in Ancient Israel, the great prophet Elijah, is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
But it didn't start that way.
In the chapter just before today's scripture reading, Elijah experiences his greatest victory--he challenges the prophets of the God Ba'al to a showdown in front of the people of Israel. All 450 prophets of Ba'al call upon their god to accept their offering. They call upon Ba'al a'all day long with no answer, and then Elijah makes an offering to his God, Yawheh, who answers immediately with fire raining down from heaven. Seeing this, the people of Israel immediately acknowledge that Yahweh is indeed the true God of Israel.
However, one person is not impressed. Israel's queen, Jezebel, a supporter and champion of Ba'al, sends the prophet Elijah a little prophecy of her own--that by this time tomorrow, she'll have his head on a royal platter. And so, on what should have been his best day ever, Elijah is forced instead to run away and hide. Again.
That's where our scripture passage today begins. Elijah's prayer to God? Take away my life. Just let me die here in the wilderness. I am no better than any who came before me.
At this point, it's worth considering a few of Elijah's accomplishments: He has stood in front of the King and by his word, caused the rain to stop, and then start again. He has performed several miracles, and even raised someone from the dead. He has publicly defeated all of his enemies, called down fire from the heavens, and outrun the king's horses and chariot on foot.
In the span of one day, how does one go from all that to, "I'm done. Take away my life"?
I don't really know. But I suspect that most of us have been there at some point or another. We all experience things that send us unexpectedly into the depths of despair. Exhaustion, frustration, loss, stress, a sense of failure...
It's worth noting that God does not address Elijah's depression just yet. First, God lets Elijah sleep. Then, God provides him with food and water. Then more sleep. Then more food and water. Then a 40-day journey with plenty of time to think and reflect. And finally, a nice, safe cave up the side of a mountain. It is here that God at last speaks to Elijah.
What are you doing here, Elijah?
What do you mean, what am I doing here? You told me to come here! I followed you here! I've been faithful, God! I've done everything you've asked. But your people, the Israelites, have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away. The question is not what I'm doing here, Lord...what are YOU doing here? I don't understand.
Then go stand on the mountain, because I'm about to pass by.
We know the rest of the story: The wind howls, the earthquake shatters, the fire roars, but God is not in any of these things. Instead, God comes in the silence. And God says...
What are you doing here, Elijah?
Seriously, God? I already told you. I'm right, and they're wrong. It's not fair. And YOU haven't done anything to fix it. What are YOU doing here, God?
Isn't that pretty much what we all do when we have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?
First, we justify ourselves: I'm right. I'm good. I don't deserve this.
Next we blame everyone else: They're wrong. They did this. It's not fair.
And finally we question God: What are you doing? Or, rather, Why aren't you doing what I want you to do?
Lately, America has had some terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. In the past few months, too many people have lost their lives to senseless, needless violence.
And what troubles me is the familiar pattern that has so quickly emerged in our conversations, our social media, and in our community. It begins with self-justification, and descends into blame. Some blame guns, others blame race, some blame the government or immigrants or law enforcement or Democrats or Republicans or (take your pick here).
But justifying ourselves and blaming others will not get us very far, if peace is truly what we seek. For that matter, neither will sitting in our caves asking God, what are you doing here, and why aren't you doing what I want you to do?
So what does work? What do we do when we (or the world) have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?
Step one: Don't be quick to speak, but instead listen. God listens to Elijah, even when Elijah is upset, angry, and pointing fingers in every direction. Elijah listens, too--past the noisy wind, the earthquake, and the fire to hear God in the silence and stillness.
Step two: Feed the hungry. Give rest to the weary. Provide shelter to the fugitive. Before Elijah can even begin to heal and hear and understand what's going on, God takes care of his most basic needs. He doesn't make a big deal about it. He just does it. We can and should do the same for each other.
Step three: Ask the right question. It's not "What are you doing, God?" It's the other way around. God asks Elijah, "What are YOU doing?" What are YOU doing to fix the problem? Because throughout the scriptures, and down to the present day that's how God has always worked...through the people he calls. Yes, we fall to our knees in prayer, but then we rise to our feet to walk, and extend our hands to help our brothers and sisters.
God says to Elijah, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place." In other words, if you don't want to be alone, seek out others who can work with you and help you.
You are not alone, and we are not alone. We come together, as God's people, around this table. Jesus welcomes all people to his table, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, sinner or saint; whether you are having the best day of your life, or whether you're having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. In fact, if you are having one of those days, there's no better place to eat, drink, rest, and find peace and shelter than in the house of the Lord, at his table, among his people.