We’re not singing triplets of alleluias these days as we’re past the season of Easter and many weeks past Easter Sunday. But they’re still there, in our hearts, and we can let them rip when we let the gratitude for all that God has done for us well up in our hearts and overflow through our mouths. I hope we will do that this morning as we sing our faith in the day’s hymns.
More than that, I hope those alleluias sustain us in the weeks and months ahead as the storm clouds gather above us and the deluge worsens. Bad days seem to accumulate like flies do this time of year, but, in truth, good days still abound for many of us, and even a bad day may have its sweet moments. I am reminded of the deathbeds I have attended where laughter accompanies tears as memories are shared of the dying and his or her moments, moments both profound and utterly silly.
But those moments of laughter and joy seem not to be much evident in our Scripture readings this morning, at least not apart from the psalm which is full of a sort of rollicking delight, for the psalmist knows the Lord, assiduously avoids the false gods that are all around him, and follows the Lord’s commandments. The Lord, then, is his refuge, his counsel, his heritage, and his hope.
But none of that is true for the great prophet Elijah, not at the time in his life and his ministry, and even Jesus seems strangely grim in the day’s Gospel reading. Let’s begin with Elijah, and why it is that he is begging the Lord to hear his cry, and to speak to him. If you remember Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel, you might think him exultant after a great triumph. But no, in our reading Elijah is a much-diminished man, afraid for his life and so very tired of running for his life with Ahab’s soldiers and Jezebels homicidal priests at his heels. But let’s backtrack a bit so we are all on the same page.
We know very little of the prophet Elijah, an oddity given how very important he was to God’s work and Israel, and to the Church, grafted, as we are, on Israel’s rootstock. We know he was once a resident of Tishbite in the northern kingdom of Israel in the ninth century bc. The northern kingdom is in blue for those of us who are geographically challenged. I cannot tell you how many times I have said we were going up to Kentucky even though Kentucky is a southern state. The two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, had been united under King David, who made the Canaanite city of Jerusalem his capital. That union was preserved by his son and successor King Solomon. But after Solomon’s death the union broke apart when successive kings who were both unfaithful to their Lord and incompetent rulers could not keep the united kingdom united.
One of those kings was a man by the name of Ahab, who was married by his father Omri to Jezebel, a princess of Phoenicia, likely to cement a treaty between Israel and Phoenicia. Jezebel really is the heavy in this story, for all that she was a woman, for rather than worship the one God of her husband and his country, she continued to worship the idols Baal and Asherah, and, with her husband’s agreement brought many of their priests into Israel and built many a temple to them in land sacred to YHWH. We do need to acknowledge that Jezebel was bad news, but she also basically accelerated something Ahab’s father had already begun, the movement of the people of Israel away from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Temple, towards the fertility gods of the Gentile Canaanites. We should note, Jezebel’s purpose may have been political rather than religious, for Israel and Phoenicia had been locked in war for generations, as Phoenicia had its eye on Israel’s land and ports. Think Russia and Ukraine and you have a feel for it.
This is where Elijah enters the story. Elijah is a prophet of Israel, meaning he speaks to the people on behalf of God, passing on His Word to them. He, also, as a prophet, speaks to God on behalf of his people. Elijah goes on immediate attack after Jezebel is made queen and begins importing priests. He tells Ahab that God has promised a draught, a long period during which there will not be enough water to water the crops or livestock, or even people. Since Baal is supposed to be a rain god and guarantor of the crops in the fields, this is a glove to the face and it understood to be a challenge to Baal by Ahab, Jezebel, and the priests.
When they suggest putting an end to the troublesome prophet, Elijah instead suggests a contest between the God of Israel and Baal. So they build large pyres of stone and lay wood upon it and cut up a bull and lay that upon the altar and then call upon Baal to send a flame while dancing around their altar. After watching all this for some hours, Elijah pours water on the wood of his altar and around it three times until it is thoroughly drenched, and then asks the Lord of Israel to prove that He is God. Which God does, burning not just the bull but also the altar itself. The people had been gathered around to watch this contest, and when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob proves His divinity they declare their commitment to the Lord, and dispatch the prophets of Ashtar.
As one might guess, when Ahab tells Jezebel what has happened to her prophets she declares war on Elijah. Now, we have no worries for Elijah for he has already escaped from Ahab once before and lived far away in the home of a poor Gentile widow, miraculously feeding the widow, her son, and himself for three years with one jar of flour and another of oil. And, when the child fell ill of a fever and died, Elijah raised him from the dead. But Elijah does not apparently have quite our trust in the Lord, and so he runs from Ahab and Jezebel and takes refuge, finally, in a cave in the wilderness. And he prays as we do when life is falling apart and we cry out for God’s help. The Lord responded to that cry, but not with words of comfort but rather with a question. “Elijah, what are you doing here.” To which Elijah answered, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
The Lord’s response to Elijah’s unhappiness and fear is not what we would expect, for the Lord has Elijah go out of the cave and stand on the mountain. Then a tremendous wind passes by Elijah, and then an
earthquake and finally a fire. The Lord says nothing to Elijah in these demonstrations of His power. It is not until he returns to the cave that Elijah again hears the Lord’s voice, “the still, small voice,” not the voice of rushing wind, crashing rocks, and roaring fire. In that still, smll voice, the Lord asks the same question of Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answers the Lord in the same way as he had previously, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Now, we worship a God of compassion and mercy, so our expectation is that the Lord console Elijah. But God has already done that, sending a ministering angel to him with bread and drink and the command to rest. The Lord’s response makes it clear that He is done here with coddling Elijah, for He does not speak words of comfort to him but rather demands of Elijah that he do his job as God’s prophet. He is to find and anoint two men as kings and find his successor Elisha.
I suppose if we were to paraphrase the Lord’s own words, always a dangerous thing to do, we would say, “Buck up, man, and get on with it.” Or in the bracing words of the English during the blitz of World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.” The Lord will not let Elijah waste his time concentrating on anything other than the Lord’s work, especially when his loss of concentration is a consequence of fear and loss of trust in the Lord.
We see that same divinely single-minded focus in Jesus as He sets His face towards Jerusalem and His coming crucifixion. He will not let His disciples waste time punishing those who are not properly respectful of Him, nor will He let others worry about their nightly lodging, or their duty to their dead, or even setting the minds of their loved ones at ease before they leave to follow Jesus. The demands of discipleship overrule all of those other things, especially now, as the cross and His death on it comes closer and closer. Jesus gives the whole of Himself to save us from sin and death; surely then, we can spend the days of our lives and the work of our hands and tongues serving our neighbor in His name.
St. Paul says in his letter to the church in Galatia that the whole of the Law is summarized in the words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Earlier in this chapter of his book, he told us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ sets us free, free to get out from under all of that which binds us the world of heartbreak and death. He’s not talking like a Buddhist here. Paul knows that God made His creation good; the material world is not an illusion. But neither is it the kingdom of God. So Paul reminds us that unless we open ourselves to the Spirit of God we will lose ourselves in the demands of the flesh, of everyday life, and even of those things which can only hurt us and hamper our relationship with God like Elijah’s fear of Jezebel.
We are called to follow Jesus just as Elijah was called to the Lord’s service as a prophet. God reaches out to us and makes the call; we respond to it. That call will not lead to riches or a certain future on earth. It comes second to no other call, including the call to family life. Nor is that call to follow Jesus conveniently limited to Sunday mornings; it is a call to daily service. We never clock out as disciples, not at night, not at the end of the week, not even after we have left the job to retire. Discipleship is about who we are, not just what we do, and we do not change our being as members of the body of Christ like we change clothes for bed. But it frees us too, from all that would otherwise absorb us, so that we may love one another even as we love the Lord, with our whole heart and soul and body. There will be times when we all cry out to the Lord, for reasons of fear, ill health, an uncertain future. But the Lord has us, and always has had us in His care. And that leaves us free to follow Jesus, and to take joy in life even when life is not all we want to be. Alleluias, after all, are not just for Easter.