Have you ever gotten so tired and worn out doing the right thing that you felt like running away – or at least staying in bed and pulling the covers up over your head? Sometimes we feel that way when we are taking care of an elderly relative over weeks and months; sometimes just a few nights without sleep, staying up with a sick child, will do it.
Then there are the times at work when, no matter what you do, it feels like you are banging your head against the wall and your supervisor can’t see the truth of what you are suggesting; he or she can’t take “no” or “not yet” or “not in this way” or “not at this price” for an answer. It’s not that you don’t want to work hard or try something different, but that you have a firm grip on reality, and what you are being asked to do is not humanly possible.
And then there are the times when someone you love seems hell-bent on making a mess of his or her life, and your words of wisdom and counsel just fall on deaf ears – and of course the other person says: “Leave me alone; I’m OK, I know what I’m doing; trust me – I can handle it.” Does any of this sound familiar?
John and I used to not-so-jokingly sometimes remind ourselves that Newark Airport is just down the road at the end of Route 78, and we could always hop on a plane to the Bahamas is things got to be too much. Well, that’s where Elijah is today in the reading from 1 Kings.
For the last several weeks we have been hearing Elijah’s story – you might say he is the premier prophet of the Old Testament; but that story has been jumping around a little bit, taken out of order, and so today’s passage comes right after the section we heard three weeks ago. That was the contest that Elijah had had with the prophets of the Canaanite god Ba’al, to see who was really the true, Most High God: Yahweh, the Lord of Israel or Ba’al. The contest took place because Ahab, the king of Israel had not only married a Canaanite woman named Jezebel, but had turned away from the worship of Yahweh and worshiped Ba’al instead, and dedicating the local hill shrines to Ba’al, rather than Yaweh. Elijah, as the Lord’s prophet, was very outspoken in his criticism of both Ahab and Jezebel, and Jezebel was seeking in any way possible to get rid of Elijah. By the time we get to today’s reading, Elijah is worn out, he has done all that he felt God asked him to do, he defeated the prophets of Ba’al, and Jezebel was still after him.
So what does Elijah do? He runs away, he goes into the desert and lies down under a broom tree – a large type of juniper bush, really – and he decides he’s going to die right there, just pack it in, no more working for the Lord, what good is it anyway, put a fork in him, he’s done! Well, maybe not so fast. An angel wakes him, gives him something to eat, and tells him that he must journey on, until he finally crawls into the cave on Mount Horeb, the same mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. And God tells Elijah to go stand at the mouth of the cave, on the precipice of the mountain, and the Lord proceeds to bring about a number of different dramatic natural events: a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire – a great show of power, all three.
But 1 Kings tells us that God was not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. This is a huge contrast with Ba’al, the Canaanite deity, a nature deity; the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses was not to be found only – or even supremely – in nature. After all this great display there was the sound of sheer silence – or in older Bible translations – a still small voice. It was in the silence, in the still small voice that Elijah encountered God, and that God spoke to him.
And really, aren’t we all like that? We look for God in the big dramatic gestures, we fuss and fume, we wear ourselves out, we want God to give us messages that light up the night sky like fireworks, and when that doesn’t happen, we turn away, and if we are paying attention, THEN we will hear what God really has to say to us. We are so used to looking at, and judging by, the outside that we forget to pay attention to the inside, to the heart, to the silence and the still, small voice of God.
Paul had something to say about this in his letter to the Galatian church that we read today. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
What Paul is getting at here is that the fundamental human divisions that were part of life in the Roman empire of the first century - Jew vs. Gentile, slave vs. free, male vs. female - no longer apply when a person has been baptized and has become one with Christ. If Paul were writing his letter today he might expand his list a little: Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, gay nor straight, Republican nor Democrat, black nor white, native-born nor immigrant– and that list is not exhaustive. Paul is saying that at the most fundamental level, in Christ, these dividing lines, these differences fade away in the light of faith and the waters of baptism. That doesn’t means that there aren’t distinctions between people, and a diverse array of what it is to be human; goodness knows, my personality, and my family history, and my spiritual journey are not the same as yours – and that’s a good thing. God has seen fit to make human beings in all colors and sizes and shapes and temperaments; without these distinctions, the human society would be pretty boring.
But the even more fundamental truth is that each one of us has been made in God’s image, and we are each and every one of us a beloved person for whom Christ died and rose to new life. And when we have “put on Christ” or “been clothed with Christ”, to use Paul’s phrase, then we become who we most truly are, and we are in union with one another and with God. That is the truth that underlies all of our physical, and ethnic, and family, and historical, and personal, and social differences; and when we can put aside all the fussing and fuming of our society, when we can turn down the noise of political rhetoric, that is the still, small voice we will hear – like Elijah.
God is our Creator, our Redeemer, the One who makes us holy, and we have all been made in God’s image, and we are all so loved by God that Jesus was willing to die for us – and when we get distracted by the cares of life, or the burdens of service, or just by sheer exhaustion, we can sometimes forget this truth, and we end up listening to the world which has its own agenda. In Christ there is no division, there is no hostility, we are sisters and brothers in the Lord, fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God; and this is the truth that God’s still, small voice will tell us if we only slow down enough, and be quiet enough to listen. In the words of Hymn 529:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church,
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 23, 2013