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Elijah: Ancient Israel’s Answer to Johnny Cash

Sunday was spent again at the friendly Local ELCA Parish, and this time, I made sure to get the readings correct. (Take that, lectionary curse!).
This was my second week in a row with Friendly ELCA Parish, and they were again so nice to me. We were scheduled to have a Camping Eucharist (oh, those crazy Lutherans!) but not enough people signed up at the last minute, which was a disappointment, because when I’m talking at length about wilderness, it helps to literally be in the wilderness. But oh well. Being on the side of a giant volcano crater, in a building, gives a similar effect.
Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 10, 2011
Proper 14
1 Kings 19:9-19

One of the biggest changes I had to get used to moving out here from the East coast was the highways. Driving down 95 in the east is a pretty social experience, even if you are by yourself. There are exits every mile, with food, gas and hotels aplenty. And when you get north of the Mason-Dixon line, there are rest stops with Starbucks in them every so often. Running low on gas or caffeine, if you have the money, isn’t really a problem.
This is not the case here, as y’all know. Driving from here to Phoenix is a long stretch of desert, broken up only by Camp Verde. Other than that, you’re out of luck. No people, no food, just wilderness as far as the eye can see (which, out of the high desert, is a pretty far ways). So I’ve gotten pretty good at checking my fuel and making sure I have water. Because we have us some honest to goodness wilderness out here.

In the Old Testament, wilderness is a constant. The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years (or, in biblespeak, a really long time). Moses meets God in the burning bush in the wilderness. Hagar escapes with Ishmael and is saved in the wilderness. Abraham hears God and receives the covenant in the wilderness. Most really important things happen for the people of Israel while in the wilderness.

Which actually sort of bugs them. Because, if you read these stories, they aren’t fans of the wilderness. No one is. And here, I’m not necessarily talking about the relative merits of Starbucks vs camping, or the beach vs the desert or the mountains.

For the ancient people of Israel, the wilderness was the murky undefined place you went when you were on your way somewhere. It was an in-between place. A place of getting lost and being confused and not having a settled home, or roots. Which, for a group like the Israelites, who defined themselves in relation to the Promised Land, was a really unsettling feeling.

But. The wilderness is also always where God shows up. Always.

So today. We meet Elijah as he’s fleeing to the wilderness. Now, understand this about Elijah– it takes a lot to make him flee. He’s the greatest, most confident prophet Israel has ever had. He’s Notorious. He’s intimidating. He calls the shots. To picture him in an ancient near eastern equivalent of a black leather motorcycle jacket would not be far off.
No one messes with Elijah.

Until someone does.

Elijah’s problem begins when King Ahab marries a non-Israelite woman named Jezebel. And I know you’ve all heard of her. Or at least can guess that she was not a model of kindness and decorum.

Right away, she gets on Elijah’s bad side, because she brings her gods and her cultic practices with her. She re starts the worship of Baal in Israel– rebuilds the temples on the mountains to Baal, whole nine yards.

So Elijah, being no shrinking violet, offers her priests a challenge– whose god could call down fire from the sky to burn the offered sacrifices? It doesn’t go great–
This little bet ends with Elijah slaughtering the 450 Baal priests singlehandedly, and Jezebel offering to kill Elijah by the next sundown.

Realizing that perhaps he’s gone a wee bit far, Elijah flees to the wilderness. All the way to the wilderness. He flees from Mt. Carmel in the north (right by Lebanon) to the desert of Beer-Sheba in the south. In today’s terms, that’s about a 4 hour car ride on nice highways with no traffic. Or checkpoints.

Elijah is out of options. He’s convinced that his nice career as a court prophet and an Alive Person has come to an end. But more than that, God seems to have abandoned him. The god who so readily came to his aid and killed this hundreds of Idol worshipping heathens in a blaze of fire from the sky is nowhere to be found.

After all, prophets who are on the good side of God don’t have to flee the kingdom in the dead of night. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

So we meet Elijah today, in a funk. In a cave. In the wilderness. Alone and confused and depressed.

Because what has worked up til now has stopped working. He’s in a cave, towel thrown in.
When something odd happens.

God calls to him, and asks him what he’s doing there. And the whole sad story pours out– and note please, how pitiful and picked on mighty Elijah makes himself sound. It’s great. He’s having a real pity party in that cave.

And then God shows up himself.
But something’s different. Because this God isn’t in the earthquake or the mighty wind that splits the boulders, or the fire that destroys. This is a still, small silent God.

This God who appears to Elijah now is a far cry from the god who threw down fire from the sky and killed all those idol worshippers. This God appears in silence. In peace.

It’s a major attitude adjustment for Elijah. But he hears God again. He refinds his calling. And God sends him back to do what God has been calling him to do. To use his gifts in a different way,

But that’s what happens in the wilderness, in those unsettled places, unrooted places. Places of travel, of transition. You go in one way, you come out another.
Sometimes by conscious choice, and most of the time, not. But the wildernesses of our lives always offer the opportunity to stop and refocus on where we are being called. Who we being called to be. And who is doing the calling. And the voice we hear may not be the same each time we pass through. But it’s there if we listen– often in the most mundane places.

I used to work the overnight shift in a 24 hour gas station and convenience store off the PA turnpike. So around 2-3 am I would get the long haul truckers in to get coffee and snacks. They’d come in looking tired, but always would perk up when I’d hand them coffee. One guy commented to me early one morning that it was just nice to see another person, alive and awake, like he was, and talk to someone not through a radio. It made him feel less alone in the world, he said.

The times we spend in the wilderness, the times we spend uprooted, feeling confused and drifting. These can be scary times. But these are times that God uses to refresh and reorient us as we journey. God calls us to the wilderness– Christ calls us out of the boat– and with God waiting for us, what can we do but follow?

So if you’ve been panicking that I won’t post any more sermons on here now that the summer is ending, fear not! I seem to have been hired by another semi-local ELCA church to preach at them until they can hire a regular pastor. So the sermons, they shall continue.
Also, seriously, the Rob Bell thing is coming. For Real this time.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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