Pastor Jon Hughes
Molalla United Methodist Church
Reflection: June 19, 2022
Scripture for today: Psalm 42, 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Reflection: The Voice of the Air
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Before I start I have to share something I ran across yesterday while I was preparing this message. I went to biblegateway.com on the computer – I use this resource all the time because it has the full text of many, many versions of the Bible. It makes it easy to copy the text into the printed sermons that some of you pick up and follow along with. Each time when you first log into the site there’s a verse of the day. Yesterday’s was Ephesians 6:4, which starts, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children…” I ask you…if, as a father, I can’t take a moment each day to exasperate my children, what is there to bring a little joy to my day? (I’m kidding…my children are a joy to me. But it’s still fun to tell at least one “dad joke” a day, and I KNOW that exasperates them.)
Have you ever started watching a TV series half way through its run? Or maybe walked into a movie 30 minutes late? It’s kind of a feeling of disorientation, isn’t it? You don’t know the characters or the storyline, but the drama unfolds in front of you anyway and you just sit there wondering what in the world you’ve gotten yourself into.
That’s where today’s story from First Kings puts us this morning. Most of the time I use the lectionary for our scripture passages, but this one really has me scratching my head. When the lectionary gave us the book of Job it used passages that introduced Job, explored his situation, and then offered the resolution. The book of Ruth introduced Naomi and her daughters-in-law, explained their predicament, and then shared how the whole thing wrapped up.
Today we’re dropped right into the middle of some kind of incredibly stressful situation for the prophet Elijah at the hands of Jezebel and Ahab. We haven’t been introduced to any of the characters at all – we may have heard of the characters from previous church experience…or we may be sitting here for the first time ever and have no idea at all who these people are. So…here’s some background.
First the characters in today’s story. Elijah was a prophet during the rule of King Ahab in the northern kingdom of Israel. So we know if they’re talking Northern Kingdom that this is after Solomon, because the kingdom split into two after him. But Elijah wasn’t just a prophet – he was a superstar prophet. When it comes to prophets in the Hebrew Bible, he is the numero uno. Elijah was such a star that when his life came to its conclusion he didn’t die – he was lifted up into heaven in an ascension a lot like we see in the story of Jesus’s ascension. If you remember the story of the transfiguration, that weird scene where Jesus and a couple of the disciples go up on the mountain and Jesus goes all shiny and glowy and talks to a couple of people – those people were Moses and Elijah.
If there was any reason that Elijah had to be that good it was that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were THAT bad. Seriously – after the kingdom split into two, the northern kingdom, Israel, was ruled by a whole string of really bad guys. Ahab and Jezebel got God’s attention because instead of showing their allegiance to God, they turned the kingdom to the worship of Baal, the pagan god of the non-Hebrew residents of the Holy Land.
Now for the background to today’s story: Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, came from a Baal-worshiping tribe and used her influence in the court to make Baal the deity of choice in Israel. She ordered the purge of the priests and prophets of Yahweh from Israel, setting up a showdown between the last remaining prophet, Elijah, and all of the prophets of Baal. Elijah won the showdown – he was able to show the existence of our one God and the absence of Baal; as a result, he was able to wipe out all of the pagan prophets. This REALLY ticket off Ahab and Jezebel – and that’s why they’re after Elijah at the beginning of today’s story.
That’s a lot of backstory to arrive at our scripture readings for today; I apologize if some of you have been bored to tears up to this point, but I think it’s important to understand why Ahab is so mad at Elijah and why he’s running for his life; he has done his work for God and in return received a note from the queen that she’ll see him dead in the next 24 hours because of it.
I love the way Elijah is described in this passage. He has done a huge thing, proving the might of God and eliminating the prophets of the false god Baal, but even so he’s afraid. He runs. He very nearly gives up. In fear for his life, he has fled from Jezebel, curled up under a bush in the desert and told God to just go ahead and end it for him.
I love this story because I can relate to it. Even the number one star prophet had days that his humanity was so overwhelming he was just ready to give it all up. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that every single person in this room has had the same reaction. That sense that, no matter how hard you work to do what you know is right, to do what you know you were supposed to do, it all just blows up in your face and you just want to say, “Forget it. I’m not good enough for this. I give up.” Am I right? I’ve had those moments. I know my family members who are here today have had moments like that. Do I see others here nodding as well?
And you know, despite his status as God’s right hand man in Israel, Elijah isn’t greeted with a booming voice and a pillar of flame and a mighty, Godly smiting of his enemies, is he? Instead, God’s response to Elijah’s despair is the same response we get.
First, Elijah is told to eat and drink. Such basic advice – “Sit up, Elijah. Eat something. Drink something. Things will look better if you take care of your own needs first.”
There’s a term we like to use in our family – “hangry”. It’s that state when your nutritional reserves are at such a low point that you feel an irrational rage. You’re hungry, and because you’re hungry you’re angry. You’re HANGRY! Having our reserves go low, either because we forgot to take care of ourselves or because we’re stressed and have no appetite or because we’re so sad we just can’t think about eating? All of those reasons just make it harder to see the solutions to our problems, don’t they? Historians and Bible scholars have figured that the reign of King Ahab – and Elijah’s prophecy – happened around the middle of the 8th century, BC. So that means that God was telling Elijah to take care of his body’s nutritional needs about 2,800 years ago! This isn’t a new remedy, my friends!
The next thing God did was give Elijah time. He took 40 days to hike from his little spot under the bush in the desert to Mount Horeb, one of the holy places of God. (Notice there’s that number 40 again – we talked about the importance of it last week and how it symbolizes a time of trial and renewal.) How often, when we are at our breaking point, do we let ourselves take the time we need to ponder our problems and explore solutions before we feel compelled to act on them? How often do we just keep ramping up our own stress because we keep the pressure on ourselves to perform, even when we’re at a loss for how to succeed in the midst of our despair? God sent Elijah on a trip to Mount Horeb, but the Bible doesn’t tell us that along with that trip Elijah was expected to be ready to do battle with Jezebel’s army when he arrived. God gifted Elijah with time without pressure; it’s a practice that can help us, too!
In the past few months the leaders of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference have really been stressing the practice of taking time to reduce stress and anxiety. Our District Superintendents have reminded us to take our vacations and our study leave so we can return from them refreshed and renewed; it’s something we all should be doing!
Finally, when Elijah arrived at Mount Horeb and found a place to hang out, God came to him. We hear a list of things he witnesses, amazing, awe-inspiring events in which we can envision God making a grand entrance. There’s a roaring gale that’s strong enough to break rocks, an earthquake that shakes the whole territory, and fires that rage. But instead of appearing in the glory of these spectacular events, God comes to Elijah as a whisper in the air. One translation refers to the voice Elijah hears as that “still, small voice.”
Have any of you ever heard God’s voice booming out of a tornado or raging up from the ground in an earthquake or screaming out of the depths of a roaring fire? Mind you – I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, nor am I saying the Bible never records it that way. But God comes to Elijah as a whisper, a voice on the air, and I think that’s how I’ve heard God’s messages for me. I’ve spoken often of my call to ministry and my years of resistance. But never, ever did God call me from the core of a spectacular phenomenon. God called with the faintest of voices, a whisper in my soul. A hint in my heart. A voice on the air. Like Elijah, God asked me a simple question: “why are you here?”
When I’ve been in a panic, running from a job I hated or a life circumstance that was leaving me desperate – well, I couldn’t hear that small voice. But when I got the nourishment I needed – whether nutrition for my body or food for my soul – and when I took the time to be still with my thoughts and to contemplate God’s call for me, I could hear that small voice on the air.
In the last two years there has been a lot to panic about, hasn’t there? The story of Elijah has given me a lot to think about. How can we nourish the body and soul of our church? I’m excited to see the people coming back for the community meal in the past weeks. I’ll admit that a couple weeks ago when just one person showed up I was a little panicky – but the weeks after that were great with terrific turn outs. It just took a little time… And now – well, we have the gift of time ahead of us if we’ll use it. Time to reflect on the things we did that worked in our past, to reflect on the things our community needs from us in the future. But more than anything, we have that voice on the air asking us, “why are you here?”
God left Elijah to answer that question after he was nourished and had time to collect his thoughts and soothe his anxieties. I believe God’s asking us, too – why are we here? What do we have to offer this community that nobody else is offering it? I think God’s gifts of nourishment, time, and contemplation that were given to Elijah are there for us as well.