Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
12 August 2018, Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.
Today’s collect describes a pathway of obedience to partake in the treasures of heaven. The language here points us in the direction that obedience as a Christian discipline is not only through a specific set of choices, but rather a journey that we walk in grace and mercy toward holiness. It is not to say that there are not particular choices we make to inform that journey, but we are to remember that running in the way of God’s commands is an ongoing work.
Wilderness journeys, I realise, are very often an exercise in obedience. Elijah’s own journey in today’s reading helps us bring to life Paul’s commands in Ephesians concerning the new life of Christ. In putting these texts together we arrive at an interesting juxtaposition, of a God who makes a way for us, who provides bread for the journey and yet still challenging us to this new life.
What happened in today’s reading? Why does Elijah flee to the desert shortly after a dramatic victory against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? Standing alone as the Lord’s prophet, Elijah called down God’s fire onto the altar prompting a massive conversion of the people before defeating an army of pagan prophets. This should be a season of victory and celebration.
The story indicates that a messenger delivers a death threat from the wicked Jezebel, and Elijah just seems to lose it. This isn’t to say a death threat is no reason for fear, but Elijah is a prophet, tasked by God to speak truth to power. Isn’t angering “the power” part of that job description? Given recent victories, why is he brought to such desperation so as to collapse under a tree having lost all hope for both his own future and the future of his people?
Elijah perhaps has fled to the wilderness because in this death threat he has realised that no matter how many altars are consumed in fire, how many false prophets are defeated, how many children are raised to life, how much flour and oil is supplied to starving widows or how long the drought continues, the people of God will continue to turn away again and again.
Elijah’s wilderness is the wilderness of hopelessness.
What does this mean for us? Even in this season of our victory, we too can be overcome with hopelessness. We find just enough shade, lie down and admit secretly to God that he should just end it all. That it’s enough now.
Before, we could handle the wilderness because it was a season of expectation. Like Advent or Lent. We were waiting for God, and as difficult as the wanderings might be, we could see some prophetic light at the end of the tunnel. Some hope of redemption. A promise in the desert. In the pillar of fire.
Now, though, we have been through Advent and Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The dead have been raised, the lame leap, the blind see and we ourselves have been filled with the power of God to go out in obedience, and give God’s hope to the rest of the world. To show the people walking in darkness that a light has dawned. The wilderness was to be a distant memory as we obediently marched forward in truth and righteousness.
But then, we see the war. Some get death threats. Some get death. Abusive leaders molest the innocent. Abusive systems destroy hope. Racists march openly in the streets. Parents must bury their children. People seek freedom from the prison of their own minds. Elections create violence, not peace. We turn away again and again from the Lord.
And suddenly, the plight of Elijah does not feel so distant.
The desolation of hopeless that Elijah experiences alone in the wilderness is not some ancient metaphor, it is our own news cycle. Our own experience. Many interpret this story through the lens of burnout in ministry, but I see it simply as a burnout in the brokenness of humanity when we thought it was supposed to get better.
Elijah thinks he is the good guy in a story when the good guy doesn’t matter.
God’s immediate response, however, to an Elijah who seeks the end of his life is to send him food and drink, the very substance to maintain our life. Jezebel had sent Elijah a messenger bearing death. Now, in the face of death in the wilderness, God sends Elijah a messenger bearing life:
“Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”
Elijah takes and eats the food.
The rest of the chapter then describes Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb. After forty days and forty nights on the sustenance of this meal Elijah ascends this holy mountain, and God asks him, what are you doing here?
It almost seems that Elijah has arrived at this mystical experience, uninvited.
God never takes note of Elijah’s existential, wilderness crisis. Elijah tries to justify his work and explain his plight, and God seems to ignore the struggle. If anything, this experience could be taken as a rebuke. God takes Elijah instead to the mouth of the cave and parades his power before him. But God is not in the great wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still, small voice.
Elijah had grown accustomed to large, dramatic demonstrations of power from the Almighty. Of course God could change the weather. Of course God could raise the dead. Of course God could bring down heavenly fire. But God can also speak in the still, small voice. In the wilderness, he had said to Elijah, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”
Maybe this is a stretch, but I don’t think Elijah was supposed to go to the holy mountain. I think when the angel of the Lord gave Elijah food and water, and said, “the journey is too great for you,” I don’t think it was the journey to Mount Horeb. I think it was the journey of his prophetic ministry. God wasn’t calling Elijah up to the top of the mountain for a mystical experience, he was calling Elijah back into the world, and he knew it was too much to bear.
Of course it is too great for us. We can read the news stories. We know all too well the brokenness and the sadness and the desperation of a people who are lost and found and then lost again. God doesn’t pave over the pain of death.
When the world is crumbling around us, and all our dreams of justice and redemption collapse into the sands of the desert, God is there to give us bread.
“Take and eat,” said Jesus softly.
God knows the journey is too great for us. This is why the wilderness of our desperation is also an exercise in obedience. God doesn’t need us to stand on the mountaintop and explain how much we have been doing for the cause, how we are the only one still fighting for goodness and fleeing for our life.
God gives us the food we need and pushes us down the mountain with a plan. “Go, return on your way . . .” he says, this is what we are going to do. If we are the prophets of God’s redemption, our way out of the wilderness is obedience to his journey.
Paul gives us an idea of what this means. Ephesians calls forth the obedience to bring us out of the wilderness. Feeding on the bread of life, the new life in Christ is simply this: speak truth with your neighbour, be angry without sin, let the thief do honest work, our speaking should impart grace, do not grieve the Spirit who has sealed us for redemption, put aside bitterness, be kind, forgive, imitate God, walk in love.
We can call down all the fire we want, we can even raise the dead. Christ could do these things. But if we are not prepared to eat the bread of life, and listen for that still, small voice teaching us obedience in this new way of life, even all our jealousy for the Lord does not garner a response atop his holy mountain.
This is why we end each service with such a commission:
“Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.”