Mark 9: 2-8
1 Kings 19: 1-18
Sermon delivered Sunday, February 19, 2012
by Timon Idema
Well God, here we are. We've come to your house this morning, simply to be here. To be in this community, and to be in your presence. And we simply ask that you will be here too. That when we tell each other your story, it will truly be your story. That you will help us understand what that story has to tell us, and help us to make it our story as well. Open our hearts and our minds, and give us your wisdom and your love.
If you were living in Jerusalem in the year 587 BC, you were not having a good time. For the people there, this year was quite probably the most disruptive and traumatic experience of their life. Their city was besieged by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. When the city fell, Nebuchadnezzar's troops sacked Jerusalem, tore down its walls and burned the beautiful temple, built by the legendary king Solomon, to the ground. More than the loss of a building, for the Jewish people of the time this meant the loss of their direct connection to God. Their religion was centered on the service in the temple, which was now gone. Therefore, they had to completely reinvent their religion. Moreover, they had to do this in a strange place, deported as they were to places far from home. However, even though their temple was destroyed, and they had become strangers in an alien land, one thing could not be taken from them: their stories. So they sat down together and told each other these old stories, their legends about their ancestors and their God. And through this storytelling, they found new ways to connect with God. Some of these people, inspired by all this, wrote the stories down. Others redirected, collected, contributed. In the end they had a whole library, which, if you print it in small font on thin pages, is just about the size of an Old Testament.
Today, I want to tell you one of these stories. You may have heard it before - you may even know it by heart. Still, if you were to tell the story, it would not be the same as the story as I will tell it - because a story, when told, is not just mere words a narrator utters - the narrator inevitably becomes part of the story as well. To emphasize that, I will tell this story from the first person point of view. Forget, if you will, for the moment that we are in the 21st century, and join me in the 9th century BC.
My name is Elijah. I'm from a small town in a small kingdom, called Israel, in the north of the country which you currently call Israel. In my time, the country is ruled by a king named Ahab. Because our country isn't really the strongest in the region, he has to be somewhat of a handy diplomat to survive, and he is quite good at that. Ahab managed to get an alliance with the wealthy city of Sidon, which was sealed by him marrying the daughter of Sidon's king. Although politically this was a smart move, not everyone in Israel was happy with this queen Jezebel. She brought not only military and economic alliances (we were quite all right with those), but also her religion to us. And well, that clashed with ours. You see, we worship a God who is Israel's god. The god of all of Israel - because, as our story goes, we're in the end all descendants of the same man, Jacob, whose twelve sons started the twelve tribes of our nation. Our laws are based on this 'all in one family' idea - giving everyone some basic rights, and guaranteeing everyone at least to have food to eat and a place to live.
Jezebel's gods are different. She brought us two main gods, one for the daytime, and one for the nighttime. The daytime god is a god of plenty - for those who have plenty. It's a fertility god, and people call to him to bless their fields and make their crops grow. The nighttime goddess is a fertility god as well, this one associated with the pleasures of the night, with youth and beauty and lovemaking. All very nice, of course, but not much use when you're starving.
And the people were starving. And our king did nothing. I went to him and told him what I thought about that. Me? Yes, me - I don't know what got in to me either. But I went to the king, and told him that his following his wife's god and forsaking our traditions was bringing him down. I lashed out at him, and told him that he could pray to his fancy gods all he wanted, but rain would not come. Then I ran. And hid away. Angry and fearful, but certain that I was right. First I found refuge at a small stream, and managed to find just enough food together to survive. But when the stream ran out, I had to leave that place, and went abroad.
Abroad, to a place where no one had even heard of the God of Israel, to a place where everyone worshipped other gods. And despite that, in this place I learned something really valuable - though I did not realize it at the time, of course. I arrived at a village, all hungry and thirsty, and pretty exhausted. They had a well, which thankfully had plenty of water. And while I sat there resting, a woman came to me and offered me some food. It wasn't anything fancy - in fact, it was the simplest kind of bread you can make. But she had brought it to me, a stranger, and what's more, brought it despite the fact that she was close to running out of food herself. She and her son took me in, and together we managed to scrape up enough food to stay alive. A miracle had happened, but I was blind to it.
I learned that the situation back home hadn't changed too much. Still Jezebel and Ahab were pushing people to worship the foreign gods, and still it had not rained. I decided action was needed. So I headed back to Israel.
I arranged a meeting, high up on a mountain. Many people came, including the king, and lots of the priests of the foreign religion. There were no priests of Israel's god - they had all been either killed or fled the country. I stood alone. But I was undaunted, and ready to make a point. I proposed we'd do an experiment, to determine who was the true god of Israel. Both the foreign priests and I would offer a sacrifice to our respective gods, and the one which would be accepted would be considered our god. They agreed.
I let them go first. They built their altar, slaughtered a bull, said some prayers. Nothing happened. They prayed again. Still nothing. They started chanting. Still nothing. The people got impatient. I started mocking them. 'Where's your god now? Has he fallen asleep? You should sing louder, maybe wake him up! Or perhaps he's gone to the bathroom?' They chanted louder, danced around, even carved their skins. By sunset they were all exhausted - and yet nothing had happened.
Then I prepared my sacrifice. I mocked my opponents even more by having mine drenched with water, so that it seemed impossible to kindle a fire under it. And made it work. Fire came down from the heavens and consumed both the sacrifice and the altar. I felt I had worked miracles. And I wouldn't let people off easy either. For starters, I made the people promise to be loyal to the one true god now, and then to underline that point, I had the foreign priest all butchered.
What an ignorant fool I was! I really thought this would work, this would prove a point, this would make all of Israel believe in my god, and all our troubles go away. Of course, none of that actually happened.
What did happen was that not a day later I was on the run again. You see, queen Jezebel had heard that I had had her priests slaughtered, and she'd sent me word that she'd do exactly the same to me. So I fled. And despaired. I had achieved exactly nothing.
I was so desperate that I was even ready to give up. Ready to just lay down in the desert and let death come find me. And that's were God found me again.
Again, God sent me food. And sent me on my way, to go and meet God self, out on God's mountain, far in the desert. I did not want to go. But God persisted. And so I finally got on my way.
They say it took me forty days. They may well be right - it seems fitting. Then I climbed the mountain, and found a cave to sleep in. At sunrise, I was awoken by God calling me, calling me out of the cave into the open. Outside, first there was a storm. But by now I knew better, and knew that though God would be there for people caught in a storm, God would not come to me in one. Then there was an earthquake, and I knew God wouldn't be in that either. Then there was fire, and again I knew not to expect God there. Then there was silence. And I knew God had come.
So I met God. And realized we had met before - many times in fact. God had summoned me to go confront Ahab, to tell him to take care of his people. God had fed me at the stream in the mountains. God had been there when the foreign woman had shared her bread with me, the stranger. God had always come when I was on the run and alone. And God was here with me now. I had to climb a mountain to see it, to learn that you don't actually have to climb a mountain to be in the place where God is.
Nor should you pitch a tent. My visit to the mountaintop, like the one of Peter, John and James, was just a visit, a revealing one, but still just a visit. I had to go back down, back among the people, and go do God's work.
And so I went. I went back to Israel, and realized that God was there too. I had finally learned to see God's presence in the many acts of compassion people showed each other every day. They had not yet completely forgotten my stunt with the experiment, but it hadn't changed them at all. Much more importantly, they had not all forgotten God either - there were still many who kept up the way of compassionate living that our laws taught us. I just had not been willing to see it before.
Sadly, our king was not among these people. Pushed by his wife, he let his greed get the better of him. Example - to get his neighbors land, he had the man falsely accused, and stoned with his entire family. Again, I went to meet him - and this time I knew very well what had gotten into me. I stood up against the king, against oppression, for justice, for compassion. I knew I did not need to be afraid. God is always there, and God is always on the side of the oppressed. Standing up made me realize even more that God is there in every moment of our lives. Every moment is a summit experience.
© Copyright 2012 by Timon Idema