In God's Presence

In God's Presence

June 20, 2016
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, June 19
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
In God's Presence

Weekly Prayer
God our refuge and hope, when race, status, or gender divide us, when despondency and despair haunt and afflict us, when community lies shattered: comfort and convict us with the stillness of your presence, that we may confess all you have done, through Christ to whom we belong and in whom we are one. Amen.

Focus Reading
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "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." Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But 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." [Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He 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. The 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."] He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At 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?" He 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."

He said, "Go 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When 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?" He 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." Then the Lord said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus...."

All Readings For This Sunday
1 Kings 19:1-4,(5-7),8-15a with Psalm 42 and 43 or
Isaiah 65:1-9 with Psalm 22:19-28 and
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Focus Questions

1. Who are the Jezebels and the Baals of our present culture?

2. When has your future, or the future of your church, been "radically redefined," as Brueggemann says, by an encounter with God?

3. Who are the people around you whom you might not "count" when you're feeling alone in your ministry?

4. When have you been tempted to complain to God about your calling?

5. Are you "where God needs you to be"?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

For many of us, a vocation or calling is just for "some folks," like pastors and missionaries, and maybe doctors, nurses, and teachers. We think the voice of God, whether it's loud and clear or a still, small one, is reserved for people who are anointed (literally and/or figuratively) to do something "special" that serves God and humankind in a distinctive way.

And yet even ordained pastors may steer clear of the call to be a prophet; who would want such a job? There's just too much risk and too little reward in speaking truth to power or in traveling the long hard road between one mountaintop experience and another. Elijah can certainly testify to that.

A hunted man, on the run

His troubles started on one mountain, Mount Carmel, when he virtually eliminated the power of the Baal priesthood, making them look ridiculous before the power of Yahweh, the One True God. Ahab's foreign-born, pagan wife, Jezebel, chased Elijah out of town with her threats. Elijah became a hunted man, and since he was only human, he did a very human thing: he ran.

When it seemed like Elijah had run out of steam, when he was run dry and run down, he prayed to God from out of his depths: "God, please, just let me die. I'm through. I can't measure up to the prophets that came before me." As he fell asleep, he must have hoped that he wouldn't wake up and have to face any more challenges. Instead, he awakened to an angel sent by God, who tenderly provided for him the things he needed to make his way for the always-significant forty days and forty nights (that means a really long way), deeper into the lonely wilderness but never alone, up onto another mountaintop, and open to what would happen next.

From one mountaintop to another

Like the "forty days and forty nights," this mountaintop setting had significance, too: Horeb is another name for Sinai, where God gave Moses the Law, and just as significantly, appeared to Moses. Lawrence Farris says that "[n]othing unimportant happens on mountains in ScriptureÖ.What begins as flight from a tyrant soon becomes a journey to God led by God." In other words, Elijah isn't just running from Jezebel; he's running from his vocation, from where God wants him to be, and from what God wants him to do. Farris continues: "The tension in the narrative is between whether Elijah will be defined by his fear of Jezebel or by his faithfulness to God." God cares for Elijah in his flight, through the ministrations of the angel, but challenges him as well, asking the prophet why he is fleeing: in Farris' words, "How can you fulfill my purposes if you are not where I need you to be?"

That seems to be a question for all of us, even today. How many of us have found ourselves in similar situations? Perhaps not on the mountain where Moses trod, but certainly on the run from what God is calling us to do and to be. When God asks Elijah ñ twice ñ why he's there. and not where he should be, Elijah answers both times with the same words, a response that might be heard as a self-righteous whine: "I have been working SO HARD and trying to do the right thing, and those people have totally abandoned you, and I'm the only one left who's faithful, and I'm all alone, so just kill me now."

We can only do what we decide to do, whatever we feel

There's a lot of "I" action going on there, isn't there, and a bit of catastrophizing, too. When are we more likely to find ourselves alone and self-justifying than when we've run away from the tasks before us? Lawrence Farris suggests that the theophany in this story, which seems to grab everyone's attention, including and especially preachers, is not the main point. It's not about God being an easily summoned presence to be with us up in the caves of avoidance. "Remarkably," he writes, "it is neither the experience of God's dramatic nor quiet presence, for which many so long in the midst of such feelings, but in attending to the work at hand and needing to be done through which life is renewed." Farris notes that we can only choose what we will do, not what we feel, and "Elijah is called back to action, to the fight into which God has enlisted him, not because he feels like it but because it is what needs doing that he can do."

What does God's presence mean here?

So much for scholars' arguments over the translation of "sheer silence" or "still small voice"! The message is the same: "Listen, Elijah, you need to get back to work; I have things I want to accomplish, and you're the instrument for getting them done!" Walter Brueggemann does find significance in the manifestation of God's presence, however brief, in this passage because such an experience can change lives dramatically.

Ironically, though, the things God tells Elijah to do don't get done exactly that way; however, Terence E. Fretheim suggests that Elijah was not disobeying God but simply adapting to "new circumstances," for "prophets are given freedom in the shaping of the divine word." One could say that in another way: God was still speaking throughout the ministry of Elijah, just as God is still speaking today.

We are never really alone in this

Elijah looked around in his desolation and presumed to think that he was the last faithful man left standing, and yet the text goes on to speak of 7,000 more faithful ones, and before long, Elisha becomes his companion and understudy. How often do we think we're alone when there's a whole community out there, waiting for us, if we go on to the rest of the story? Farris points to Jesus, no solitary prophet himself, who from the beginning gathered his disciples around him, and traveled around in their company.

If anyone could have tried to "go it alone," you might expect Jesus to do so. But he surrounded himself with a community, the same community to which we are called as his followers today. Each of us, as a disciple, a follower of Jesus, has a vocation, a calling, and there are things that we need to do in this world, and gifts that we have been given in order to do them, no matter what great challenges we face. If Elijah got discouraged at one point and even gave up, it's not surprising that we might do the same thing. It's a blessing, then, that other voices intervene, however powerful, however small, and call us back to who we are, whose we are, and what we are to be about.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 20th century
"Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am."
and
"Each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up."
and
"We listen for guidance everywhere except from within."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"Vocation does not come from a voice 'out there' calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice 'in here' calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God."
and
"Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to [God], being attentive to [God], requires a lot of courage and know-how."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it."

Vincent van Gogh, 19th century
"In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing."

Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat, Pray, Love," 21st century
"There's a reason they call God a presence - because God is right here, right now."

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"We need to find God, and [God] cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence....We need silence to be able to touch souls."

St. John of the Cross (16th c. Spanish monk)
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way."

John Keats, 19th century
"I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top."

Haruki Murakami, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," 20th century
"Sometimes, when one is moving silently through such an utterly desolate landscape, an overwhelming hallucination can make one feel that oneself, as an individual human being, is slowly being unraveled. The surrounding space is so vast that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep a balanced grip on one's own being. The mind swells out to fill the entire landscape, becoming so diffuse in the process that one loses the ability to keep it fastened to the physical self. The sun would rise from the eastern horizon, and cut its way across the empty sky, and sink below the western horizon. This was the only perceptible change in our surroundings. And in the movement of the sun, I felt something I hardly know how to name: some huge, cosmic love."

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