Saints…In Spite of Everything
Rev. Christa Fuller Burns
Faith Presbyterian Church
1 Kings 19:1-18 – 5 November 2017
I don’t know about you but I am somewhat ambivalent about Day Light Savings Time! When I walk in the mornings lately, it has been dark. With the change, it will be dark when I head home at the end of the day. The choice is: do we want our dark in the morning or at night?
We are entering the dark time of the year. The days are shorter. Winter looms. Advent is right around the corner. This is a difficult time for many people – this time when the world darkens. If we are sad or grieving or in despair over the state of our world, this darkening season can be difficult as it seems to accentuate our moods. A poet reminds us that we should take this season slowly. She urges us to:
if you can.
More slowly still.
this is no place to break your neck
by crashing into
what you cannot see. (Jan Richardson)
The story of the prophet Elijah is, in a way, a story about facing darkness. The prophet appears rather abruptly on the scene. We don’t learn too much about him. He simply appears one day in order to deliver bad news: “Now Elijah the Tishbite of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”. (1 Kings 17:1)
Elijah shows up to deliver bad news – there will be a drought…a devastating drought, as it turns out. To end the drought, Elijah arranges for a contest between the God of Israel and Baal, the god of Ahab’s queen – Jezebel. One day, up on the top of Mt. Carmel, a giant bonfire is built and sacrifices are prepared. The god who delivers the fire will be the true god. The prophets of Baal try and try. They cry and cry to their god. Nothing happens. Finally, the prophet Elijah calls to his God: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” (18:36-37)
At that moment, the fire of God falls and burns up everything. The prophets of Baal are annihilated. Elijah should feel pretty efficacious, right? Elijah should feel successful. Elijah should feel powerful. We should all be able to do something so dramatically victorious in our lives!
I will admit it: I do not like to feel ineffective. I am not good at asking for help. Yesterday was not a good day for me. The downstairs toilet was running. After consulting my son in law, I bought a new flapper, thought I had installed it correctly only to have the toilet run worse. When I went to get ready to go out, I discovered I had no hot water and I do not know how to fix that. The chimney repair people told me I had a dead animal in the basement coal shoot. I simply do not want to fix that by myself. I do not like to feel like I can’t do things so yesterday was a bad day. I figure Elijah, man, didn’t he have a great day up there on Mt. Carmel? Shouldn’t he have felt proud of his accomplishments?
However, when Elijah learns that Queen Jezebel is not only unhappy about what has happened, but out to get Elijah, he runs away. He is afraid. He gets up and runs for his life. In fact, he seeks refuge in Judah – to the south – where he comes to a broom tree and sits down and prays: “It’s enough God. It’s enough. Take away my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” (19:4) Elijah goes to sleep, which is what many of us do when we are depressed and sad, right? We get in bed and pull the covers up and we sleep.
An angel shows up and shakes Elijah awake and says: “Get up and eat.” Maybe this angel looks a little bit like our mothers – just a little bit like our Italian or Jewish or wherever they are from – are not our mothers all the same – standing their shaking us – saying “you gotta eat! You gotta get up! Look I made chicken noodle soup”! And, so to humor the angel mother, Elijah eats what is provided and goes right back to sleep! The angel shakes him again. She tells him, again, to eat some more. You gotta eat if you are going to keep going. This time Elijah figures there is no way around this so he eats and he gets up and he starts walking. Forty days and forty nights he walks. Forty days and forty nights is code, by the way, for wilderness. Elijah is in the wilderness. Elijah is in the dark night of his soul. Elijah is facing the dark.
Finally, he comes to a cave where he spends the night. No broom trees this time. Maybe angels don’t like the dark. Maybe angels can’t bother him if he is hiding out in a cave.
Guess what? The word of God comes to Elijah…even in a cave, even where no one can find him. The word of God shows up and says: What are you doing here, Elijah?
Elijah, God Bless him, points out that he’s been a good prophet, darn it! He’s been very zealous for God. He’s preached the best he can. He prayed and you answered and showed those Baal worshippers a thing or two. But despite everything he’s done, he is alone. The people – they don’t care. Now, if I am honest, every preacher, recognizes Elijah’s complaint: “We visited them when they were sick. We preached our hearts out. We started a praise band. We knocked ourselves out on Sunday mornings. Still they don’t show up. Giving is down. Attendance is down. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do. The church is dying.”
God doesn’t have it. That is how I read this passage. God ain’t gonna listen to Elijah’s pity party. Get up God says, get out of the cave because I am going to pass by!
It does not seem that Elijah moves from his dark hiding place. There is a great wind outside – so strong it splits the mountains and the rocks. There is a earthquake. There is a fire. However, it doesn’t prompt Elijah to come out of his cave.
After all the pyrotechnics, there is nothing but silence whereupon Elijah wraps his cloak around him and goes out and stands in front of the cave. He hears the voice again asking him: What the heck are you doing here Elijah? And once again, Elijah answers: I’ve done my best. I’ve done it all for you. And still they are out to get me. I am alone in this business.
This time God responds by telling Elijah to get up and go – you gotta leave the cave. You gotta go to the wilderness. The wilderness, it seems, is where it all happens. In the wilderness, you will find partners. In the wilderness, the faithful are waiting. In the wilderness…that’s where the church is!
Saints, I want to say, are those who somehow find their way out of the dark times, and simply keep on keeping on. Yes, Elijah lived in a dark time. His people were fickle. They came to church occasionally and then flocked right back to Baal. The country was corrupt. Ahab would never amount to much of anything. Why, it is enough to make you want to crawl right in that cave!
And, there…precisely in the cave, in the dark places of our lives, is where we hear God. Not in the earthquakes or in the fire, or in those moments in our lives when we feel victorious and great. No. God is there in the silence. In the darkness. When we try to run away. Despite everything. God is there. Telling us what to do – get up. Go. Face the wilderness. You won’t be alone.
I am thinking that there are a lot of people these days who feel alone. I think there are a lot of people in our country who feel despair. I think there are a lot of people who just want to crawl in a cave and hide there until it is all over.
When I remember the saints we celebrate today, I remember the stories they told me and I remember the stories especially about the dark times in their lives – when their husband died, when they had to face illness, when they struggled with loneliness, in one case, when their child wasn’t there for them, when they grew up orphaned, when they realized that they were dying and questioned their faith. Edith and Luckye and Russ and Marge and Peg and Audrey – all had times in their lives when they felt like they were hiding out in a dark cave. However, I would suggest that all of them are examples to us of perseverance and of going where God asked them to go…despite everything. Luckye – who had more lives than a cat and who could laugh right up to the end. Edith whose own setbacks only made her more considerate of others. Peg who lived with fierce determination to dance at every wedding. Marge who knew she was dying but who courageously asked questions about what happens when we die and whose grace never faded. Audrey who was ever the capable one and who made wherever she was home. Russ – the caring brother who faced lengthy illnesses with humor and gentle endurance.
So. Maybe it isn’t so much the miracles we perform, or our spectacularly brave accomplishments or the fact that our hit won the World Series. Maybe it is simply daring to get up, to go, to walk out of the cave and to always listen for God’s direction in our lives. Maybe that is what makes saints out of us…despite everything!