They Invited Me to Preach
maybe my last sermon ever?
Hello! My church invited me to preach last week and this is what I had written down- you can also watch it here if that’s your thing (starts around 42 min).
I’d like to set up the scene for our Scripture passage- because it’s important to understand what has brought Elijah to this point of desperation.
The books of 1 & 2 Kings tell the journey of Israel’s split into 2 kingdoms (Israel & Judah), the ways the kings and the people veered from the covenant and Torah, and the prophets who called them back to their covenant with God. As the Bible Project puts it, the prophets “…called out idolatry and injustice among the kings and the people. They were constantly reminding Israel of their calling to be a light to the nations that they should obey the command of the Torah and so the prophets challenged Israel to repent and follow their God.”
Prophet is not a job anyone applies for- it is dangerous business speaking truth to power- and some things never change because that is still true today.
In 1 Kings 18, Elijah is the prophet whose job it is to confront King Ahab and Queen Jezebel about their worship of Baal and the injustices they were committing against vulnerable people.
Elijah says, “okay let’s see whose God is real. We’ll set up altars, place our bulls on the altars and whoever’s offering gets burnt up serves the true God.”
Day and night the prophets of Baal cry out for him to send fire to their altar, but nothing happens. Elijah dumps water all over his altar and prays to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and God answers with fire that burns up the offering and the water. Elijah then has his men strike down 450 prophets of Baal, and Ahab and Jezebel are big mad. Jezebel threatens to kill him, and Elijah runs for his life.
Exhausted, he lays down under a broom tree and asks God to kill him. He had done his job as prophet- called out the idolatry and injustice of Ahab and Jezebel and was now laying under a broom tree with his “I killed the prophets of Baal and all I got was the Queen of Israel mad at me” t-shirt.
But God doesn’t grant Elijah’s request and instead sends a messenger who says, “hey buddy, you seem upset, why don’t you have a snack.” Elijah eats some warm bread, lays back down (which is also what I do after I eat warm bread) and the messenger taps him again and says, “you’re gonna want to eat some more because this journey ain’t over.”
Elijah eats again and is refreshed for the next part of his journey.
I gotta say- this is some of the greatest wisdom in all of Scripture:
Is life really that awful or did you just experience a dip in your blood sugar?
Oh, they’re threatening to kill you?
Okay, well maybe it IS that awful, but being hungry will only make you feel worse, so you should probably drink some water and eat another snack before you make any major life decisions.
THIS IS SOLID LIFE ADVICE, friends. Don’t make big decisions when you’re hungry. Just ask Esau.
So Elijah gets up, and travels to Horeb, God’s mountain, and goes to sleep in a cave.
God asks Elijah why he’s there and Elijah says, “I did what you told me to do and now they want to kill me!”
Don’t you hate when someone asks you a question they already know the answer to? Sometimes people ask questions because they know you need to hear yourself answer it out loud. God is helping Elijah process the trauma of the past few days. (and if you don’t think being a prophet is traumatic- you haven’t been paying attention)
God tells Elijah to go stand at the mountain, because “the Lord is passing by.”
A strong wind tears through, but God was not in the wind.
And then an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. (Add to my list of things I won’t miss about California- earthquakes- they’re very unnerving).
And then a fire- surely God would be in the fire because God was just in the fire burning up the offering like 15 verses ago.
But God wasn’t in the fire.
And then silence. Quiet. A thin space. A Simon and Garfunkel song.
When Elijah hears this, he goes out to the cave’s entrance and God asks him again why he’s there. Again Elijah pleads his case, “I’ve done what you’ve asked and they want to kill me. And now I’m the only one left.”
God does not grant Elijah’s request to die- in fact Scripture says Elijah never dies, later on he just gets taken up into the sky. God doesn’t explain the past or give Elijah assurance of his future- God just tells Elijah to go anoint the next king, go anoint the next prophet. And Elijah does it.
The silence was unexpected. We have seen God speak through a burning bush, plagues of destruction, pillars of cloud and fire, a donkey, all manner of loud theatrics and special effects. And then silence.
Again and again God is showing us, “I am who I am. I will be who I will be.” In other words, don’t be foolish enough to think that I will only speak in this certain way and you can figure me out.
God is not meant to be figure-outable. God is the very mystery of the universe. I know for those of us who like to have all the answers neatly laid out and plan in place that is extremely frustrating.
It is also what protects us from ourselves and the idolatry of certainty. And it prevents us from committing the injustice we’ll justify when we are “certain” we know what God wants.
When we settle into an understanding of God and the Bible that is “clear” and “undeniable” – we have fooled ourselves. If this whole thing were about a checklist that I could tick off and say “yep! I did all the things, I’m good!” I would not need God, and I’d be drunk on my own power of rightness.
Instead, we are invited into a relationship with a God who shows up in unexpected ways.
Most unexpectedly, God shows up in a tiny helpless baby born to an unmarried, uneducated teenage girl.
God who is mystery is also fully revealed in Jesus. Don’t ask me how that works- I really don’t know. The God who spoke to Elijah on a mountain is also the God who walked among us and whose radical love and inclusion is offensive to all those who’d prefer a system that says who is in and who is out. I’ll be honest, I am guilty of this because there are people I don’t think God should love. There are people I think deserve my wrath. And I think it is a very good thing that I am not God.
The idolatry of certainty is about power. And the love of power is the center of all injustice. When we look at history, when we consider the atrocious acts committed against other humans- it is always a result of a person or group of people who love power, who want power, and are certain their way is the only way and will do anything to keep power. That kind of certainty is dangerous.
Today we celebrate- we remember- Juneteenth, which is the day when word of the Emancipation Proclamation and ratification of the 13th amendment was finally announced in the state of Texas- 2 years AFTER it was issued in other parts of the country. There is a temptation to blame the sin of racism on some far gone way of thinking- but that would not be accurate nor helpful to us today. We saw it in Buffalo last month. We see it in the disparity of maternal mortality rates.
Friends, we must acknowledge the way God and the Bible have been used as tools of oppression.
The enslavers read the Bible to enslaved people to justify their abuse. Missionaries used the Bible to justify the murder of indigenous people to acquire the land we sit on right now. But this is not a thing of the past- the Bible is being used to justify our love of guns and “if Jesus had an AR15 he wouldn’t have been crucified”, it’s used to justify what happened at the Capitol on January 6 and continues to be used to harm the LGBTQIA community in the name of God.
See, this is what happens when we convince ourselves that we alone hold the truth. That we know God’s ways. The certainty of “if I abc then God will xyz” is the idolatry the prophets warned about. No good comes of us believing we have it all figured out.
The prophets of 1 & 2 Kings called out idolatry and injustice. And Jesus called us all into a relationship that defied all cultural and systemic norms.
When Paul writes in Galatians 3, “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female” he is declaring that the systems in place to decide who was in and who was out- who had power and who had none were not helpful to the way of Jesus. I would add a couple more distinctions to make it even more clear, “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female and transgender and nonbinary person, there is no republican nor democrat, no documented nor undocumented, American nor anybody else” for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Hear me very clearly, it’s not that these distinctions no longer exist- or that they don’t matter- because they do exist and OF COURSE they matter…the difference is now, one is not set above the other. The hierarchy and system of power is nothing compared to the love we are called into and invited to share with those around us.
In his book, ‘In the Name of Jesus’ Henri Nouwen wrote, “what makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
Whew. I’ve read this book almost every year since I was 16 years old and those words stop me in my tracks every single time. It is easier to control people than to love people. It is easier for me to watch my children attempt something dangerous and say “listen to me, don’t do that, there is no room for you to figure out what works best for you.” I admit this is my default mode. Except when it comes to God and the Bible. On that subject, I tread very lightly, which is funny given my job here. Except when I tell you, that my number one goal as your Children’s Ministry Director is that our children would not need therapy because of the things they learned in my care.
When I was a kid, I remember asking someone in my church “how do you know that God is real?” and the person said to me, “it’s better to be safe than sorry.” In other words, a grown person told a 9 year old me that it was better to say I believed in something than to risk burning in hell for all eternity. I would later go to therapy to unpack the fear that replaced the sense of wonder I should’ve had about God’s love.
I look back on that interaction now, and I feel a lot of things. But mostly, I feel sad. For my 9 year old self, yes. But also for the person who felt the best thing they could offer in that moment was a warning instead of an invitation.
We are invited to the mountain, to the table, to the border, to wherever it is that Jesus shows up. We are invited to listen and pay attention. We are invited to lay down the idols of power and certainty. We are invited to doubt and question. We are invited to hear the words of prophets who make us uncomfortable and confront our complicity in systems of injustice. We are invited to be open and full of wonder. We are invited to be loved just as we are and we are invited to the hard task of loving each other.
This is the invitation I hope we say yes to, and that one we extend to those around us.