August 29, 2010
I Kings 19:1-18
The Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
When we left Elijah last week, he was completing a victory lap of sorts. In the aftermath of his victory over the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, Elijah ran all the way to Jezreel. The text says that “the hand of the Lord was on Elijah” that “he girded up his loins and ran in front of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.” Ahab was traveling by chariot. It was about a 17 mile trip. And remember, Elijah would have been running through rain. A heavy rain. He ran all the way to Jezreel, where Ahab and Jezebel kept a little summer palace.
I Kings 19:1-18
There’s something about the cave; the cave at Mt. Horeb, the Mount of God. Something about how Elijah could go from that adrenaline-pumping, fisting pumping, legs-pumping, enjoy-through-the-rain, celebrating life, loving life run to a cave on Mt Horeb in just a few verses. The specifics of the journey are there for the taking. A hundred miles or so to Beersheba, a day’s journey into the wilderness, forty days and forty nights after being fed by angels, another couple hundred miles or so to Horeb, to that cave. The details are there when it comes to how Elijah got to Horeb; enough details to pretty much “mapquest it”. But that’s not the “how” that is so intriguing when it comes to Elijah and the cave, how it all turned so quickly, how he was afraid and fled for his life, how he went from a prophet’s mountaintop to a long tumultuous night in a cave.
The accent mark on the story of Elijah at Mt Horeb usually falls on the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the sound of sheer silence. It reads so beautifully. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind and earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (Notice there was no rain. Something to think about after last week) Elijah was a prophet. A prophet knows about the voice of the Lord. A prophet knows about theophanies; when God appears. A prophet knows the tradition. Elijah would have expected God in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. He stayed inside to avoid God. There’s no reception in the cave, no service, no bars. It was the silence that grabbed him, the sound of sheer silence that drew him out. There in the aftermath, on the backside of the storm, God was waiting for Elijah in all that silence. The unexpected voice of God.
But what about the cave? “What are doing here, Elijah?” What are you doing HERE. It would appear that there aren’t all that many caves in the bible. I would have thought there would have been more caves in scripture, a lot more caves, a lot more described back in the day. Most the time, when one comes upon a reference to a cave it is a reference to a burial ground; like when Abraham was looking to bury Sarah or when Jesus came to the cave where Lazarus was buried. Caves were intended for the dead, so perhaps Elijah’s destination there at Mt. Horeb is a logical one after he sat down under the broom tree asking the Lord to take away his life.
But there are a few other caves, most notably here in the Old Testament. After Lot had fled from Sodom and Gomorrah, after his wife had looked back, Lot lived in a cave with his two daughters because he was afraid. There is a story that tells of the five kings of the Amorites who fled to a cave in fear after Joshua and his forces had defeated their coalition. It was a poor decision, the result of which is described in brutal detail in the 10th chapter of the Book of Joshua. Perhaps the most famous biblical cave not intended for burial was the cave where David went to hide as Saul was trying kill him. David went to the cave fearing for his life. The cave was actually the site where David and Saul were reconciled to one another after Saul accidently found David as he stepped into the cave “to relieve himself”. Hiding in fear. Fearing for your life. When it comes to the biblical cave, you either go there to be buried or because you are scared to death.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” The question didn’t come right when Elijah hit the road fearing for his life. The question didn’t come from the Lord when Elijah tells the Lord that he has had enough and admits he would rather die. The question didn’t come under the broom tree. The question came when Elijah goes to the cave. The question came before Elijah’s plea; “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” The question came before the wind and the earthquake and the fire and the silence. The question came before and it came after. “What are you doing here. HERE. Here in a fortress of fear and death? What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Earlier this month I was preaching at the annual Bible and Music Conference at the Presbyterian Conference Center in Massanetta Springs, VA. The bible hour teacher all week was Mark Achtemeier who teaches at the University of Dubuque Seminary. His topic was “the generosity of God.” The last session Mark spoke for a time on the verse in John’s Gospel where Jesus says “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” At one point he brought up conversations with non-believers and people of other faiths. He suggested that way too often Christians approach such dialogue out of fear (fear of talking about faith, fear that the other person would lump you in with all sorts of Christians you yourself would rather avoid, fear that comes from not understanding the other and a lack of knowledge of the other, fear of the other period.) Achtemeier then went on to talk about this collective and pervasive fear in the church today. He called it “a siege mentality”. That with shifting demographics and rising populations of other faith groups and increasing globalization and the public voice of new atheism and transitions in culture and practice and the decline of the mainline protestant church and no protestant vote on the Supreme Court, that the church too easily succumbs to, hunkers down with, is overrun with this “siege mentality” characterized by fear and feeling sorry for itself. What I have called from this pulpit “the chronic victimization of the church.” Or to put it another way, the church opts for some kind of cave. Professor Achtemeier’s conclusion, of course, was to proclaim in an incredibly moving way, that there is no place for such fear for those who know themselves to be the people of God; that nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A prophet knows about the voice of the Lord. A prophet knows the tradition. Do you think Elijah was expecting the voice of the Lord to say “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not”? That’s not just a New Testament thing, you know! Elijah had to be expecting God to do something about all that fear and the exclamation point on fear that comes with the cave. But the voice of the Lord, the accent on the divine rhetoric comes with the repetition. “What are you doing…here.” And then in a rather understated way, the Lord tells the mighty prophet to go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. Go…get out of here. Then comes the practical stuff about who is to be anointed, and who is going to kill whom, and about the 7,000 left who have not bowed a knee to Baal. But there is no acknowledgement of the fear, not much compassion, no heavenly host comfort here because there is no place for such fear, no hunkering down, no siege like mentality, no caves for those who know themselves to be the people of God; the people of the living, life-giving, life-sustaining, death-stomping, resurrecting, grace defining, salvation authoring God. When it comes to one of those first commandment, tablet smashing, golden calf burning, how long will you go limping between two opinions, your god or my God, choose this day whom you will serve, you can’t serve two gods, the first will be last and the last first, what are doing here kind of encounter with the Lord God Almighty, you can’t stick your head in a cave.
At our denomination’s General Assembly in July, I sat and watched the moderator election. The Assembly elected elder Cynthia Bolbach from National Capital Presbytery. There were 6 candidates and during the question and answer I was struck by how often some of the candidates talked about what was wrong with the church, the dire problems, how they would address them. I found myself wondering why someone wanted to lead a church about which they didn’t have much positive to say. The very next night I attended a dinner of former moderators. It is something of a tradition where they gather and reflect on the larger church and tell of what they have been doing. The terms represent dated back to just about when I was ordained. The collective ministry represented; from parish ministry, to ministry at the border in Arizona, to leading a small Presbyterian college, to working in international relations on issues related to North and South Korea, to continuing to teach and write and train new pastors, to organizing congregations all over the country in hosting international students who can’t travel home for the holiday. It was like being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. When you stop the hand-wringing, sky is falling, the end of the church as we know it lament, you begin to hear again a witness to the call of God on our lives. I’m not naïve about the numbers, the challenges facing the denomination but I am weary of the cave like fear as if we’re expecting God to feel sorry for us. Frankly, the trend started about when I was born and God still calls out to congregations, and pastors, and leaders, and you and me, “go, out to the wilderness, get out of here.”
I told the adult class last week how discouraged I was, disappointed that more than 60% of Americans polled don’t think the Muslim community center and worship space should be built. The politicians can make their hay. I wouldn’t choose to speak for families of victims. Elected leaders and lawyers can argue about the Constitution. But from a faith perspective, when you hear a church in Florida wants to burn Korans on Sept 11, and you read about unstable people lashing out in violence against Muslims, when you don’t have to have a degree to know that fear and hatred aren’t all that far apart, from a faith perspective, when it comes to living the gospel as servants of Jesus Christ, as the people of the life-giving God, you have to turn from the cave of fear and death and offer a witness to the call of God. God, who must be asking, “what are you doing….here.”
Imagine what would happen if the church gave up on that siege mentality when it came to non-believers and other faith groups and chose to live out the Apostles’ words, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Imagine what would happen if the church, instead of joining the collective fret about the economy, what if the church continued to pray while working all the harder to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and welcome the stranger and care for sick, choosing to live out Jesus’ words and seeing his face in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner. Imagine what would happen if the church left the debate and the worry about global warming to those who want to argue about it and in praise of the Creator, set its collective effort on a clean water supply for all of God’s suffering children, daring to redefine and live out the prophet’s words: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Imagine what would happen if the church stopped claiming the Judeo-Christian heritage as some sort of privileged state now threatened and chose to reclaim the invitation of the preacher in Hebrews that when you show radical hospitality you may just be entertaining angels unaware. Imagine what would happen if the church stopped predicting its own doom because the next generation isn’t like the last one, and chose to live in grace-filled, life-giving, joy overflowing congregations that embodied the prophet’s counter cultural, fear denying vision that “you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hand.” Imagine what would happen if the church stopped feeling sorry for itself and glorifying the past and yearning for the way things used to be, and chose to live like God makes all things new, and in the promise of God our best days are yet to come, joyfully reflecting the word of the Lord in the Apocalypse to John, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Of course there aren’t many caves in scripture. Why would the people of God go there?
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