Sermon preached on August 12, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: 1 Kings 19:4-8 (Proper 14B)
In our first reading this morning, the prophet Elijah is running away. Whatever he is running from is so bad that he asks God to take away his life. He is better off dead. What has prompted this despair?
Elijah is running away from one of the most notorious figures in the Hebrew Scriptures: Jezebel, whose name no little girls have ever received because it is synonymous with false prophets, idolatry and “fallen” or “loose” women. Behind the story of Elijah and Jezebel can be found a massive struggle over religious and political control of the northern kingdom of Israel. There also can be found a world where violence was accepted as the God-ordained most expedient way to gain control and hold on to power. But as Elijah asks to be relieved of his life under the broom tree, he is shown an alternative vision.
All of this is, of course, from the murky history of nearly 3,000 years ago, the 9th century bc. The story does not easily parallel our own lives, and yet, here we are in 2012 ad and massive religious and political struggle and commonplace violence are significant parts of our world. And we desperately need an alternative vision as we sit bewildered, if not despairing, under our solitary broom tree.
Ahab was the seventh king of Israel after the death of Solomon and the division of Israel into two kingdoms—Israel in the north and Judah in the south. It sounds like a long time should have passed, but Ahab became king only 62 years or so after the death of Solomon. During that time religious chaos ensued and the faithful followers of Yahweh were few in number.
Ahab married a foreigner, a Phoenician princess named Jezebel. She became the power behind the throne and she was largely responsible for two things: the open establishment of the religion of Baal, and a reign of economic terror in which those in power were felt to have no responsibility to those of modest means or those who lived in poverty. Jezebel may have been the original practitioner of the philosophy, “Greed is good.” Baalism as a religious tradition simply reinforced this, as well legitimating the maintenance of power by violence.
The prophet Elijah was the great thorn in Ahab and Jezebel’s side. At one point in the story when Elijah and Ahab meet, Ahab greets Elijah, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah was the leader of a large number of prophets of Yahweh. Prophets in this context does not necessarily mean predictors of the future, but rather holy men and women who were determined to keep the religion of Yahweh alive, and that meant, among other things, denouncing the queen and her religion. Queen Jezebel, in turn, murdered as many of them as she could.
There came a point when Elijah could take no more and decided to provoke a public confrontation. He challenged the prophets of Baal to a test of the strength of their respective gods. It’s a long story, but suffice to say that Yahweh performed marvelously and Baal didn’t show up. Unfortunately Elijah fell into the same pattern of Jezebel and led the slaughter of all the prophets of Baal—some 850. When she learned of the slaughter, Jezebel sent word to Elijah, “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.” He flees, which brings us to this morning’s reading.
Certain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures are full of this kind of violence. Baal, or some other god of the nations, legitimizes violent solutions to conflict, but then Yahweh seems to do so as well. Hideously, violence in the Bible seems to be morally neutral. The use of violence is neither good nor bad, it depends on why you use it.
Even those of us who are horrified at the ease with which blood is shed—mass destruction, we would say still tend to think this way. Violence is sometimes necessary, so it is sometimes good. It is behind what is known as “Just War” theory, and it is even behind the constitutional protection of gun ownership, and it is surely behind the interpretation of that constitutional protection which makes the worst kind of assault weapons—that could only be described as weapons intended for mass destruction almost completely freely available.
So the Bible seems to legitimate violence and seems to portray Yahweh as his people’s most important weapon of mass destruction. Or does it?
One of the most important things about the Hebrew Scriptures is that very little is as it seems. An alternative, subversive truth can be found throughout the text, often subversive even of the dominant views of God that the rest of the text seems to support.
Our reading this morning is one of those texts. God appears in the story as the rescuer of Elijah, but not by means of any kind of violent vindication. The God who speaks to Elijah through an angel is not the warrior God, but the bread-making God, who desires not to defend him from his enemies, but feed him so that he might have strength for the journey.
The story tells us that Elijah ate and on the strength of that food he continued forty days and forty nights. The number forty is very important in the Bible. It is a symbol of a time of trial and transformation. People always emerge renewed from forty days or 40 years, even if the time has been difficult.
At the end of these forty days, sustained by God’s bread of strength, Elijah arrives at the Mount of God, Mount Horeb, and there he has an encounter with God. It is a familiar story. On the mountain there was a great storm, a great earthquake and a fire, but God was not to be found in those naturally violent things. Instead, Elijah finds God in silence.
This does not resolve the troubling question of God and violence, but it does provide an alternative path.
Jezebel never could grasp this alternative path, because in her political and religious worldview it was simply impossible. It was the natural order of things that the powerful exercise power and it did not matter how or why. The worship of Baal was ultimately the worship of power.
Elijah tries to fight fire with fire and seems to succeed although in the end he clearly does not. He learns that God is more interested in feeding his friends than in destroying his enemies.
I think a metaphor for what we do when we come here week by week is this: we enter this place on the run from Jezebel. That means seeking refuge, safety from a world where power is the only name of the game, and we are, for the most part, on the short end of that stick. We come weary from the fight, and sometimes in despair, wondering, like Elijah, if it has all been worth it, if it is all worth it.
What does God have for us? Bread. I could easily say instead of “The gifts of Gods for the people of God,” “Rise and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.”
Because in the end we have to go back out there, where Jezebel is still alive and well and is likely to be so until Jesus comes again. But in the strength of this food we can continue our journey, not to the house of Jezebel, but to the mountain of God.