Pentecost 2: 23 June 2019
A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15
Galatians 3:10-14, 23-29
This morning we are offered two fascinating and intriguing glimpses into God working in the lives of people. Come with me as we explore something of this in two of today’s readings and the people who are the main characters in them, and then draw on the other two readings for further insights.
The Elijah cycle of stories in 1 Kings tells of a man who believed utterly and implicitly in God – to the extent that he was not afraid to challenge the king himself. 1 Kings 18 pits Elijah on his own against the hundreds of prophets who worship Baal – the god favored by the queen, Jezebel. In a dramatic story beautifully told Elijah lays down an impossible challenge in a contest to prove which god is really God – Baal, the great storm god of the Canaanites, or Yahweh, the desert God of the Hebrews. That story ends with a victory for Elijah and the slaughter of hundreds of the prophets of Baal. (We should acknowledge the difficulty here and that, hopefully, we would not simply destroy those with whom we differ – though I do wonder about that at times.)
But then, despite having gained this great victory for Yahweh, Elijah suddenly loses all his courage and the bravado that was there in the earlier contest. Threatened by Queen Jezebel he flees into the desert. It’s all too much. He can’t take it any more – this championing of Yahweh against everyone else. His own doubts in the cause seem to get the better of him. So deep is he mired in depression, surely a classic case of burnout, that he doesn’t really notice the way in which Yahweh continues to care for him – sending an angel with food and drink. (Sadly these words are left out of today’s lection.) Elijah pushes on to the very limits, travelling on his own for forty days until eventually arriving at Mount Horeb. There he prepares to die.
But God is not finished with him yet. There is questioning to be done. What are you doing here Elijah? To which Elijah replies: What’s the point? I have been zealous for you – but who and what am I, a single voice against so many? And where are you God? Let me just die here quietly on my own.
Mount Horeb, the place where Moses long ago met God, Yahweh, and was given the Ten Commandments. The mountain on which God was manifested in cloud and lightning, storm and earthquake, thunder and rushing wind. The same mountain which Moses had to climb a second time after he destroyed the tablets in the golden calf incident. And the mountain from which Moses and the escaped slaves from Egypt, known to us as the Israelites, set off on a forty year wandering that would eventually take them to the Promised Land and a new life. It was in this new life that they encountered Baal – the storm god who, so it was believed, brought the wind and the rain which watered and caused the crops to grow. Perhaps it was not surprising that the Israelites, who knew God from the desert, should be drawn to this new and powerful god Baal. It was not till much later that the concept of one God who is both creator and savior would come about.
Alone on the mountain top Elijah experiences the wind, the splitting mountains, the breaking of rocks, the earthquake and fire – but unlike Moses, God is not there. God is not where Elijah might have expected to see God. Instead, there is this interesting, and much debated, phrase translated in the NRSV as ‘the sound of sheer silence’. God is not always to be found in the expected places, the predictable ways. Perhaps the voices in our worlds, our minds, our lives, all clamouring for our attention and making impossible unfulfilled promises, need to be silenced before really hearing God. I find myself thinking back to Paul Simon’s song and the lyrics in one of the verses:
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
It’s when the voices around us are stilled – that God speaks – the sound of sheer silence. And what does Elijah hear God say? Go, return … there is work for you to do.
This multitudinous throng of voices, none of them listening to the other, segues nicely into today’s Gospel reading and our second person of interest – the so-called Gerasene demoniac. In his own words he gives his name as Legion, “for many demons had entered him.” Where Elijah had instinctively made his way to the place where God could definitely be encountered – Mount Horeb – everything about the story Luke tells suggests a man far distant from God. Today we might understand a deeply mentally disturbed person. But the Gospel writer is at pains to elaborate just how god-forsaken this man was. Utterly deprived of community he lived among the tombs, unable to be controlled by any human. The demons drove him into the wilds – the places of the demons (think Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness). There are pigs – the uncleanest of all animals, in the place of the Gentiles – those who no good Jew would have anything to do with. The final straw is the mass death of the pigs as they fling themselves into the dark waters of the lake. It would be difficult to better describe a situation further from God’s loving presence.
Into this situation comes Jesus. He speaks – as God spoke over the waters of chaos at creation – and order and calm come about. The reaction of the townspeople is predictable but is actually a distraction to the main point of the story. Jesus touches the life of this poor demon-possessed man, utterly alone, and not only bring healing and peace, but sends him back into his community with a task to do. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Elijah and the Gerasene demoniac – each ‘meets’ God in a unique, and unexpected, unconventional, way. But now consider for a moment another man. He was hugely popular, followed by vast crowds of adoring fans and sycophants who stuck close by him, monitoring his every move. He is on a roll. Nothing can stop him. But it all unravels in the strangest of ways. In an instant the adoring crowds turn to a mob baying for his blood. One of his closest friends betrays him for 30 pieces of silver; another, having boasted never to leave his side, crumbles at the pointing finger of a mere serving wench and denies knowing him. Stripped of his clothes he is beaten and mocked and forced to carry the instrument of his own execution. As if the pain of nails into flesh was not enough the soldiers continue to mock him, his fellow sufferer to taunt him, and the crowd to jeer at his nakedness. There is nowhere to hide and an agonized cry is force from his lips. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is this person that Paul, writing to the Galatians in today’s reading from that Epistle, says took on the curse by becoming a curse. The curse here being the inability to do what God wants and requires, even to get close to knowing and loving God. Stripped of everything the last to go is life itself – and he breathes his last. There follows a period of utter nothingness, of sheer silence, of uncomfortable calmness when everything is the same, and nothing is the same. The silence of the tomb in the garden, the silence of Holy Saturday.
But now, says Paul, faith has come – and in Christ, we are made children of God, baptized into Christ, no longer divided Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female – but all one in Christ Jesus. Belonging to Christ, heirs of the promise, charged with the gloriously impossible task of preaching and teaching the Gospel, the Good News.
One final word and I am done for today. As so often the psalmist has the last word with the ability to capture the very essence of who and what we are. My soul is thirsty for God. My tears have been my food day and night. Where is God? The deep waters crashing around threaten to completely overwhelm me. Why have you forgotten me God? My enemies taunt me saying, Where now is your God? It is at that point when, like Elijah, the Gerasane demoniac, Our Lord on the cross, our soul is at its heaviest, and the unquiet so loud as to hear nothing else, that we hear the whisper breaking through: “O put your trust in God, for I will praise him yet, who is my deliverer and my God.” (Psalm 46:7) “O put your trust in God … who is your deliverer and your God.”