Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Shunammite Woman

Before we hear today’s Scripture reading, I want to give you a little bit of backstory. You may remember that as we left off last week, Elisha has just watched the prophet Elijah be taken up into heaven. Elisha has received a double share of Elisha’s spirit and is duly recognized as Elijah’s true prophetic heir. Elisha stands on the brink of greatness, ready to do brave and miraculous deeds like Elijah once did.

Greatness starts now. In 2 Kings 4 we get a whole montage of Elisha’s miraculous works. Here he is making oil flow for a widow deep in debt. Here he is making poisoned food safe for his company of prophets to eat. Here he is multiplying loaves of bread so a crowd can eat and have leftovers.

One such miracle that Elisha performs involves a rich woman from the town of Shunem. She sees him coming and going on his prophetic business and starts inviting him in for meals as he’s passing through. Then because he’s passing through so much she sets up a little room for him so he can stay there whenever he’s in town. He wants to pay her back for her kindness, so he asks what he can do for her in return, and she says, essentially, I have everything I need. So he says to his servant, well, what can we do for her? And his servant says, well, she doesn’t have a son, so Elisha calls her back in and tells her that next year at this time she’s going to have a son. You might note that she never asked, but since as a woman in ancient times your social and economic status was more or less determined by the men in your life, we can take it that this is a welcome gift.

[Scripture: 2 Kings 4:18-37]

Several years, at least, have passed from Elisha’s last conversation with the Shunammite woman. The boy is older now, old enough to find his father in the field and complain that his head hurts. His father has him carried back to his mother; he lays down on her lap, and a few hours later, the miracle child is dead.

I love this story not for its subject matter but for its female protagonist and her no-nonsense approach to tragedy. She lays down her son and she says to herself, that man of God started this, and he’s going to finish it. She waves off her husband’s inane questions with a brusque “Shalom,” saddles up a donkey, and tells the driver not to hit the brakes until they’ve come to Mt. Carmel, where Elisha is.

Elisha’s servant comes out to meet her. He asks politely how the family is. I imagine her putting up her hand as she blows by him (“Shalom.”) She’s here to see the top guy. When she gets to Elisha, the first words out of her mouth are “Did I even ask you for a son?” Again: you started this, man of God, and you’re going to finish it.

To be clear, this isn’t the way people usually ask for a miracle. They say, “Just say the word, and my servant shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” But every once in a while, we meet someone in the Bible who frames their supplication as a challenge instead.

In Bible study last Sunday, we talked a lot about this Shunammite woman’s faith. She knows Elisha has the power to help, and nothing can stop her from getting to him. She knows the story doesn’t have to end in tragedy. This is, indeed, faith! But it’s not a pious kind of faith. It’s not a “Not my will, but thine be done,” kind of faith. It’s faith that says listen up, man of God, this is how it’s going to be. And honestly, I like it.

Pam Lassell shared a story as part of that Bible study discussion, about the birth of her son, Nathan. After a traumatic birth experience with their older son, Dave, everything with Nathan seemed to be going smoothly – until a nurse, also a member of Arlington Temple, came to them from the nursery to tell them there was something wrong. And Pam said that what she prayed at that time was “No, God. You didn’t give me this child just in order to take him away. No.” Not a pious prayer, not even an overtly desperate one, although I’m sure there was some desperation in there, not outwardly angry, although there might have been some of that, there, too; just matter of fact: nope, God, that’s not what’s going to happen here.

I’m not saying this is the right way to pray, or that this kind of prayer is foolproof. There are parents who lose their kids, and it has nothing to do with how they prayed or how hard. I just like the idea that we are allowed to talk to God, and God’s prophets, this way. In the Lassells’ case, thankfully, Nathan lived.

So I like the Shunammite woman, but I admit I find the character of Elisha in this story to be curious. Elisha admits, at first, that he doesn’t know why the woman has come to see him. He can tell she’s upset, he just doesn’t know why. But aren’t prophets supposed to know things like this? Why has God hidden this from him, as he himself puts it?

Even more interesting is the fact that Elisha’s first move is to send Gehazi to Shunem in his place. He tells him to take Elisha’s own staff and put it on the boy’s face. The Shunammite woman gives him some side eye on this one; she’s like, nah, Elisha, you’re coming too; but nevertheless Gehazi rides ahead and follows Elisha’s instructions and touches the staff to the child’s face – and he fails. Nothing happens. The boy doesn’t wake up.

Up to this point in the story, we have seen Elijah and Elisha do a lot of things. They have called down fire from heaven and spoken truth to power and multiplied oil and bread and split the Jordan River in two. They have been called and they have been brave and they have been tired and they have been scared. One thing they have not done, up to this point in the story, is failed.

So what? Is it all part of a bigger plan? In the Gospel of John, when Lazarus is sick, Jesus intentionally waits until he’s dead to go, seemingly to make a point. But Elisha doesn’t really seem to gain anything by waiting here. Has power gone to his head, thinking he can just send his servant on tasks that are rightfully his? Does he forget to pray? It doesn’t say he prays until later. Has he grown complacent?

I don’t know the answer, which is what makes Elisha so interesting here. What I do appreciate, though, is that even for someone like Elisha, sometimes doing God’s work involves a little bit of trial and error.

And I think most of us can relate to that, because honestly I think that doing God’s work and living faithfully probably involves some trial and error for us every day.

We don’t always have all the answers. And the Bible doesn’t always give us clear instructions. And that means we’re sometimes left to figure it out – what is the right thing to do, what is the loving thing to do, what is the faithful thing to do, how do I meet a need in a way that really makes a difference?

In seminary I remember reading an article about a man known as Million Dollar Murray, who lived on the streets of Reno, NV. He was an alcoholic who would go on benders and get arrested, sober up, and do it again. When he was too drunk for jail, he went to the emergency room instead. He’d get in a treatment program, graduate, and end up right back on the streets. This happened for ten years. At one point someone totaled up what Murray had cost the taxpayers of Nevada in medical bills, treatment programs, and other expenses, and it came to over a million dollars. And, at the end of the day, he was still homeless.

It was stories like this that led a couple of cities to try a different approach: instead of waiting for chronically homeless individuals to get their lives together, just give them housing. Having stable housing helps keep people out of the hospital, out of jail; it helps social workers know where to find them so they can keep appointments and receive services, it helps them start to regain the physical and mental health they need to make other lasting changes. And it’s cheaper. It’s not magic, obviously. But since 2006, when this article was written, a housing-first approach has become one of the dominant ways of addressing the reality of chronic homelessness in cities across the country.[1]

Why? Because the first way didn’t work, and sometimes to get it right you have to try again.

How many of us have realized, over time, that our understanding of poverty and how to address it on a personal or social level was wrong? How many of us have realized, over time, that our understanding of racial justice and injustice in this country was wrong or lacking? How many of us have realized over time that our understanding of prayer and what it’s for was wrong or lacking? It’s not that we didn’t care about doing right or getting it right in the first place – sometimes, a prophetic life of faith and service just takes some trial and error.

For the record, I don’t get the impression that Elisha just doesn’t care, either. He tells Gehazi to hurry. He gives him his staff. He has good intentions. He seems to think it’s going to work. It just doesn’t.

Due to the Shunammite woman’s persistence, she and Elisha arrive just after Gehazi, and that means Elisha is there for take 2. Elisha lies down on top of the child, and touches his hands, and prays – this time he prays. The boy’s skin grows warm, and he sputters, and opens his eyes. The tragic story has a happy ending – in the end.

Maybe this is a story Elisha will tell sometimes, to his company of prophets around a fire – the time he got it wrong, and had to try again. And he’ll go on to live a long and fruitful life in God’s service, mostly getting it right, and God’s love and power will continue to be known through him – because God will always let us try again.

The Shunammite woman, for her part, is speechless. She falls once again at Elisha’s feet. Then she gets up and picks her son – her miracle child, the boy who lived.


Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elisha and the Chariot of Fire

Scripture: 2 Kings 2:1-15

Elisha stands on the bank of the river.

That’s the image I want you to have in your mind: Elisha, on the bank of the Jordan River, Elijah’s cloak in hand, thoughts swirling around in his head of everything that has happened and everything the future holds.

So far, the story hasn’t really been about Elisha. We were introduced to him in passing a few weeks ago, when YHWH told Elijah at Mount Horeb to anoint a prophet to succeed him. The part we didn’t read comes just after that, when Elijah carries out God’s instructions: Elijah goes and finds Elisha, the son of Shaphat, plowing a field, and he throws his mantle, or cloak, over his shoulders. Elisha kisses his parents goodbye, slaughters his oxen, cooks them over a fire made with wood from their yoke, distributes the food, and follows.

It’s a call story that might remind us of another one, a story of fishermen leaving their nets on the shore to follow a traveling preacher. Ties with the old life are cut: with no warning and no idea what lies ahead, it’s time for a new adventure. There is no going back.

From now on, this is Elisha’s story too.

Oddly, though, after this scene, Elisha disappears from the story. We read several stories in the intervening chapters about Ahab going to war, and Elijah confronting the king over his role in the murder of a local vineyard owner, and Ahab going to war again, and Elijah predicting the death of Ahab’s son Ahaziah. In all these events, it seems, Elisha is standing somewhere on the sidelines, watching and learning and serving his mentor – but we don’t hear anything about it.

Now, however, it’s time for Elijah’s part in the story to be over. It’s not that his prophetic work of making God’s will known in the world and especially to the powerful is done – far from it. It’s just that there comes a time in all of our lives, at least for those of us who work in service of something bigger than ourselves, to pass that work on for someone else to pick up.

As we come to today’s Scripture, Elijah and Elisha are walking along, and they both know it’s time. Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here, let me go, I need to go on without you now.” And Elisha says no, I’ll never leave you. This happens three times, and you have to wonder: is this simply Elisha’s expression of loyalty and commitment – or is he scared? He’s already slaughtered his oxen to follow Elijah; what’s he going to do now when Elijah is gone?

The prophets from the surrounding towns keep reminding Elisha that Elijah is going. Elisha keeps telling them not to talk about it. I can’t say for sure how Elisha is feeling here, but I know how I would be.

When I first became a pastor, as many of you know, I served as an associate at a multi-staff church. I did all the things that pastors do, but for the most part, I didn’t have to do them alone. Bill, the senior pastor, was the one who made the big decisions, and when I had questions about how things worked, I could always go knock on his door and find out what he thought. Not every pastor gets appointed as an associate for their first appointment, but this arrangement worked out pretty well for me.

Eventually, though, it was time to move on in the story. I was excited to move to Arlington Temple and I felt called to serve here, where I as solo pastor would be the one who was supposed to know what was going on. And, on the morning of my very first worship service here, just about eight years ago, I wanted to throw up. My friend texted me to say good luck and I texted her back that I was so nervous I thought I just might not go. That’s how I imagine Elisha here: knowing he’s called to this work, completely committed, and also kind of wanting to throw up.

For better or for worse, Elijah lets him come along. They come to the Jordan, and as the local prophets look on, Elijah rolls up his cloak like a staff and plunges it Moses-style into the river. The waters part, because Elijah is that kind of Moses-style prophet, and Elijah and Elisha both cross over on dry ground. When they get to the other side and can’t put things off any longer, Elijah says to Elisha, “Any last requests?” And Elisha says, “Yes – give me a double share of your spirit.” What he’s asking here is to be the primary heir, like an oldest son who would get two inheritance portions of his father’s land. This is interesting to me because, of course, we’ve already read the call story, Elijah has already told Elisha to come with him, Elisha’s already slaughtered the oxen, I kind of thought we were all clear that he was the main guy, but again, knowing you’re called for the work and feeling equipped to actually do it are sometimes two different things. Elisha is the one, but he also knows he can’t take over Elijah’s work without that same prophetic spirit that has propelled Elijah all this time.

Elijah says it’s a difficult thing that he’s asked. What he means is that this request is not actually Elijah’s to grant:[1] only God appoints and anoints prophets. But, Elijah says, if you see me as I’m taken into heaven, that will be your sign: then you’ll know that you’re on and that you’ve given what you need.

With that, a chariot of fire driven by fiery horses appears out of heaven and separates the two of them, and the wind begins to blow and blow, and it picks up Elijah, and just like that, he’s gone, and Elisha cries out and tears his clothes because it’s all too much.

And then he picks up Elijah’s cloak, which has fallen, and I wonder if as he does, his mind flashes back to the first time he felt that cloak around his shoulders.

And there Elisha is, standing on the bank of the Jordan River. He’s all alone, his clothes are torn, and he’s just seen more than any mortal can be expected to process. And I can only guess at everything that’s going through his mind: the overwhelming glory of God, his equally overwhelming sense of impostor syndrome, and the call he already said yes to long ago. He stands there and he cries out “Are you there, the God of Elijah?” Because after all this, Elisha still isn’t sure; after all this, he still needs to know that God is going to be there with him on all the adventures to come – not just the God of Elijah, but the God of Elisha too.

I don’t know what God might be calling you, in particular to, right now, or how you’ve experienced God calling you in the past, but perhaps at some point in your life, you’ve had some of these same thoughts: just like fishermen who have left their nets on the shore and suddenly realize they have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.

This image of Elisha standing on the bank of the river resonates with me as we stand on the precipice of a new adventure as God’s people at Arlington Temple UMC. I’m thinking not just of our transition into post-Covid life or some semblance thereof, though that too; I’m thinking of the future we face within the next year, when this building that has been our home base for so long comes down and a new one begins to be built, and we find ourselves figuring out new ways of living as God’s people in this particular place for a time. I believe that we are being called into this new adventure, I believe in our mission to live like Jesus and share his love and mercy and justice and welcome as God’s people in the world, and yet sometimes, to be honest, I have from time to time asked all the questions I’ve just here projected onto Elisha: Can we really do this? Are you really going to give us what we need to follow this call? Does your spirit rest on us as we do this new thing? You’ve been with us in the past, God, but are you with us now?

It’s normal to be scared and to ask those kinds of questions.

Sometimes, though, we can only get the answers we seek by going ahead and doing the thing we’re called to do – that call we said yes to, maybe, a long time ago.

Elisha lifts his rolled-up cloak and plunges it, Elijah-style, into the river.

The waters part, and Elisha crosses back over on dry ground.

[1] CEB Study Bible notes on this verse

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Stolen Vineyard

Scripture: 1 Kings 21:1-19

Last week I was in the car listening to the radio, and the historian Michael Dobbs was on NPR giving an interview about his new book on President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Dobbs had listened to hundreds of hours worth of newly released White House tapes from that era and he was talking about all the different people in Nixon’s orbit who were involved in the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, and how the truth came out little by little as one person pointed to another who pointed to another, all the way up to Nixon himself.

I was born well after Nixon was president, so I never had the benefit of watching that news unfold step by step. In fact, the first memory I have of knowing anything about Richard Nixon was when he died, in 1994, when I was 10. By that time, history had long since judged Nixon guilty. But Michael Dobbs said something that I thought was interesting: he said, “For the most part…the president is surrounded by flatterers, surrounded by people whose role in life is to please the president….So you have all these people trying to carry out the wishes of the president as best they could. And sometimes those wishes were, you know, not expressed in a direct way….And those wishes sort of were translated into action that nobody really understood why this happened. You know, the president hadn’t actually given an order to break into the Watergate. It was just a wish of his that his subordinates fulfilled.”[1]

Richard Nixon surely wasn’t innocent in this whole Watergate affair, but it was interesting to me to think that as one thing led to another, maybe he ended up being more guilty than he meant to be.

I read the Scripture for this week and wondered if we might say something similar about King Ahab in this story. Who is the true guilty party in the scandal of Naboth and his vineyard? You be the judge.

You might remember that as we left off last week in the adventures of Elijah and Elisha, Elijah has been hiding out in the wilderness, on the run from Ahab’s wife Jezebel. Elijah encounters YHWH there at Mt. Horeb, in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows the wind and earthquake and fire. And once Elijah realizes that God is there, God has a message for him: God tells him that his work isn’t over, there are new kings to anoint. So once again, Elijah gets going, ready to be become not just an annoyance to the throne, but a major player in the power politics of ancient Israel. And that is just what’s about to happen.

This scandal with the vineyard – Vineyardgate, let’s call it – happens sometime later. Ahab and Jezebel are wintering at their palace in the Jezreel Valley, where the climate is warmer than in the capital. Ahab decides that he’d really like to turn his neighbor Naboth’s palace-adjacent vineyard into a nice vegetable garden for himself. There’s nothing really wrong with this: Ahab offers Naboth a different vineyard, or a fair price in silver – think of it as eminent domain – but this is Naboth’s family land, and he’s not budging. So King Ahab does what King Ahab does best: he goes off and sulks.

Throughout the Bible’s account of Ahab’s reign, it’s clear that even though he’s the king, he’s never really the one calling the shots. Someone else wears the royal pants in this family, and that’s Jezebel. Ahab is the sulker, Jezebel is the go-getter. I honestly have a little bit of respect for her for this, but obviously she doesn’t use her power for good. In this case, when she notices Ahab sulking, she asks what’s wrong, and when he tells her, she says, “Oh, for Baal’s sake, who’s the king of this country anyway? If you’re not going to get Naboth’s vineyard then I’ll get it for you.”

We may note that she doesn’t get into specifics, and Ahab, for his part, doesn’t ask.

Jezebel writes some official letters and seals them with Ahab’s royal seal. She sends them to the elders of Naboth’s town and tells them to bring two witnesses to testify against Naboth, saying he committed treason and blasphemy. And the elders follow the royal command, and Naboth is accused and convicted of this capital offense, and once convicted he is taken outside and stoned.

His vineyard, now, is free for the taking.

Again, you have to wonder how much Ahab knew. He never gave an order to Jezebel to have Naboth killed – at least not directly. But when you’re the king you’re surrounded by people whose job it is to carry out your wishes, even when they’re expressed indirectly, and sometimes those wishes just get translated into action. Is Ahab guilty? You be the judge.

Well, of course, in the end it’s God who’s the judge, and God, here, sends Elijah to deliver the verdict: “You’ve committed murder and seized Naboth’s property. Now, in the same place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will do the same to you. And even more than that, God is going to bring an end to your dynasty.”

Ahab may or may not have ordered Naboth’s killing, he may or may not have known all the details – but as far as God is concerned, Ahab doesn’t have any excuse.

To be sure, Jezebel doesn’t fare much better: “And as for Jezebel,” Elijah says, “YHWH says this: Dogs will devour Jezebel in the region of Jezreel.”

This kind of gruesome punishment that we might think of as characteristically Old Testament can be hard for us to hear. After all, isn’t God a God of mercy? And God is – we’ll hear about that in a bit – but I think it’s also important for us to hear that God won’t let Naboth’s unjust killing stand. I think this is especially important to realize in an era where we as a society are beginning to come to grips with a lot of unjust killings, both recent and not so recent, and often racially motivated – explicitly or not so explicitly. God won’t let it stand. And as for Elijah, God’s prophet, it’s his job to let Ahab know. The job of a prophet almost always involves speaking truth to power, just as Jesus did to the corrupt and exclusionary religious leadership of his day. God has spoken, and Ahab and Jezebel are guilty.

But at the same time it’s easy, isn’t it, to always blame the people at the top? The kings, the politicians, the CEOs?

Ahab and Jezebel are guilty. But what about the elders of Naboth’s town? What about the people who neither directly nor indirectly gave the orders, but simply carried them out? The ones who set up and carried out this sham trial that ended in Naboth’s death? Who would probably have suffered the consequences themselves otherwise?

These are the people who represent what political theorist Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” She coined that term while she was writing about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official who was in charge of the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. She said that when she went to this trial, held in Jerusalem after World War II, she expected to see someone “monstrous.” Instead, what she saw was “someone who was following orders, someone who was perhaps trying to impress his superiors at work and someone who perhaps didn’t realize fully what he was doing.[2]

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to me that we hear no more about these town elders after Naboth is dead. The story is, after all, about Ahab and Jezebel. Maybe when your investigation automatically leads you to the top, you don’t need to spend your time tracing the thread from one lower-level official to another.

Yet I have to admit that if I see myself in the place of anyone in this story, it’s probably them. Not because I’ve ever been low-level involved in some kind of evil political scheme. But simply because I recognize that I am someone who is neither powerful nor powerless, and because sometimes it’s easier to just go along with the way things are and what people expect of you than to pay the consequences of asking questions.

That’s true when it comes to police violence and the treatment of people of color in our country, it’s true when it comes to what’s happening at the border it’s true when it comes to the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the church. It’s true that we may not always agree on right and wrong in the specifics of these situations, but it’s also true that sometimes we know something is wrong, but it’s easier just to blame the people in charge and more or less keep on going with the program.

So, you be the judge – who is really guilty, here?

These town elders may never find a prophet on their front steps confronting them about what they’ve done. They may not die a violent and undignified death. Instead, they may go on quietly living their lives as upstanding citizens whose families will maintain their good name in the community long after they’re gone. Evil isn’t always met with grotesque punishment, even in the Old Testament.

And still, they will suffer consequences for what they’ve done. Ahab’s death will mean political upheaval and bloodshed for Israel. The whole culture of corruption and idolatry will eventually mean the loss of the land to a foreign power. No one will escape unscathed.

I told you God was merciful. And God is. At the end of this story, Ahab repents of what he’s done, and God agrees to put these events off for a while – until after Ahab has died. And in the end I believe God has mercy on us too, all of us going through our days trying hard to make the right decisions, hearing conflicting things about what’s right and what’s wrong, trying to figure it out and be good citizens and stand up for what is right. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes, and yes, we may feel the collective consequences, but I think it’s never too late to try again to get it right.

Much later in the story the Bible tells, another man faces a sham trial and is sentenced to death. On the cross, he had mercy on those who killed him. God’s response was to show that the powers that put him there would never have the last word – just as God’s prophets had said all along.

May we speak and live that truth in the midst of power as well.



Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Sound of Silence

Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-13

A couple months ago I was in the car with my daughter Evelyn, on our way back from visiting some friends, and I don’t remember how exactly the conversation got there, but one way or another we started to talk about God. She asked where God is and I did my best to talk about heaven: how it’s not just higher than the sky but a completely other place, but also God is with us here. (I’m finding how much being a parent challenges my own theology sometimes as I have to explain it!)

At one point in this conversation Evelyn said to me, “I think God has a loud voice.”

I wondered where that idea came from. I didn’t remember making God talk with a loud voice in any of our Bible stories, but maybe I did. Or was it something else she had seen or heard? Or was she reasoning that God must speak loudly if we’re going to be able to hear God from far away? It’s hard to say, because I think this is one of those ideas that’s present enough in our culture that it’s instinctive, almost, to think about God speaking with a big booming male voice from the sky. That’s how it always happens in the movies – whether or not the movies get it right.

I wonder what the prophet Elijah would tell us if we asked him what kind of voice God has. God has spoken to Elijah multiple times already since he made his entrance into the story in 1 Kings, and for the most part, we haven’t been privy to how those words actually sounded. What we do know is the most recent way God has made Godself known to Elijah and others in the story, and that is with fire falling from heaven in Elijah’s challenge against the prophets of Baal. Not exactly a booming voice, perhaps, but honestly it doesn’t get any louder and clearer than that.

You might remember that as of last week, Elijah had just returned to the Israelite capital of Samaria to confront King Ahab. Elijah had been on the run for more than two years after announcing the coming of a drought: a judgment on Ahab’s worship of the storm god Baal. Back in Samaria, Elijah told Ahab to gather the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel on the coast and he challenged those prophets to produce fire for a burnt offering, which of course they could not do – but Elijah could. Elijah proved to them and everyone watching that YHWH was the real God – much to the chagrin of Ahab and his wife Jezebel.

After that, Elijah took those prophets and killed them. Gruesome, yes, but it’s part of the story.

After that, it started to rain.

Today, Elijah is on the run again – from Jezebel, who is understandably miffed about this whole incident with the prophets of Baal. She vows to make his life like one of theirs – i.e., over. Elijah is terrified. This whole time, on the run, returning to Ahab, Elijah has shown no sign of fear, but in this part of the story we learn more about what’s going on under the surface. He’s terrified. So he runs into the wilderness, and he sits under a bush and tells God it’s enough, he wants to die.

Of course if he wanted to die he could have presumably stayed in Samaria, but the point is clear: Elijah is exhausted, physically and emotionally depleted. He’s spent two plus years on the run and now here is he again, back where he started. He just can’t do it anymore. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

Elijah goes to sleep and wakes up to an angel telling him to get up and eat something. There by his head is some flatbread baking over coals and a jug of water. The angel tells him to eat, because he still has a long way to go. Elijah does – and he’s fed this way for the next 40 days until he reaches Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai.

At Horeb, God’s word comes to him and says, “Why are you here, Elijah?” It’s an interesting question, because honestly, I assume God knows; but God is going to give Elijah a chance to talk about it, because sometimes we need that. So Elijah answers: “God, I’ve been doing all this work on your behalf, fighting for your honor against all the Baal worshipers, and I’ve been doing everything right, and this is what I get for it? They’re trying to kill me.”

God says to Elijah – just like God once said to Moses in another wilderness period – “Go out and stand in this cleft in the mountain, because I’m about to pass by.”

Elijah does.

First, there’s a whirlwind, strong enough to break rocks in two. But, we read, the Lord wasn’t in the wind.

Then there’s an earthquake – but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then, a fire – but the Lord wasn’t in the fire.

Then: a “sound of sheer silence.”

Your translation might say “a still small voice” (KJV) or a “gentle whisper” (NIV). It’s one of those phrases that it’s hard to translate exactly, but what’s clear is that God is present here not in all the big, loud things, but in the quiet and stillness that comes after.

I’ve heard this passage preached before on the value of silence in our spiritual lives: the necessity of tuning out all the earthquakes and whirlwinds and fires of our lives in order to be able to truly listen to God. And there’s nothing wrong with that – I’m pretty sure I’ve preached that sermon, too. Even Jesus took time apart from the crowds to spend time in silence alone with God and pray.

But what I hear most in this passage this time isn’t just about the value of silence itself – it’s about God showing up and speaking in ways we don’t expect.

The theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote of an experience he had as a priest in a L’Arche community for developmentally disabled adults. He had been invited to speak to a group of priests in DC, and he invited Bill, one of the L’Arche residents, to accompany him. Before they left, Bill kept saying to Nouwen, “We’re doing this together.” To which Nouwen, the famous scholar, kept replying, “Yes, yes, we’re doing this together.”

At the end of Nouwen’s speech, Bill stood up and said, “Can I say something now?”

This moment had not been planned. Now – I’m sure that Henri Nouwen would never have said that God was incapable of speaking through someone like Bill. And yet we’ve all been there, right – not necessarily in this exact situation, but in some sort of situation that makes us uncomfortable and forces us to confront our implicit bias. Nouwen says that his first reaction was, “Oh, no, how am I going to handle this?” But then, he says, “I caught myself in the presumption that he had nothing of importance to say, and said to the audience, will you please sit down? Bill would like to say a few words to you.” And Bill took the microphone and said to the audience, in a few words, how glad he was to be there with him that evening. Nouwen admitted later that he often wondered when he gave talks such as this if anyone remembered anything he said. But this time, with him and Bill doing it together, the word of God had surely been heard.[1]

Sometimes, God does speak in wind and fire. That’s what God did last week in the challenge with the prophets of Baal. That’s the story we read on Pentecost just a few weeks ago, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit in that upper room in Jerusalem. Sometimes God shows up and it’s loud, dangerous, hard to miss. But sometimes, God speaks through other means: through a Canaanite women who challenges Jesus’ own cultural biases (Matthew 15), through a Gentile who knocks on Peter’s door and ends up getting baptized (Acts 10-11), through ordinary people in completely ordinary daily tasks when you don’t expect it and you aren’t even looking for anything holy – or even the wrong people altogether. The question is, are we able to hear God in one way when the whole time we’ve been listening for something else?

What does God say out loud to Elijah once Elijah realizes that God is there? “Elijah, why are you here?” It’s the exact same question as before, and what does Elijah say? He says, “God, I’ve been doing all this work on your behalf, fighting for your honor against all the Baal worshipers, and I’ve been doing everything right, and this is what I get for it? They’re trying to kill me.”

The exact same answer as before.

But God isn’t done. This time God tells Elijah what his next tasks will be: to anoint a new king, and to anoint a new prophet who will succeed him. It’s here that we first hear the name of Elijah’s prophetic counterpart – Elisha. You see, God tells him, there’s still work to do, but also you don’t have to do it all on your own.

And so Elijah goes, off to face the adventures that await him next, reminded once again that the God who speaks in whirlwinds and earthquakes and fire and silence is with him still.

[1] Nouwen, Henri J. M. (1989). In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad.

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

Scripture: 1 Kings 18:17-39

One year when I lived in Atlanta, there was a drought that affected a good chunk of the Southeast. My friends and I stepped up to do our part to use less water. We didn’t have lawns to water in our seminary housing, but we all pledged to do things like take shorter showers and only flush the toilet when it was really necessary, if you know what I mean. I also remember from that time that the state of Georgia tried to take things into its own hands by annexing the southern part of Tennessee to gain access to part of one of its rivers. Apparently this is one of those historical border disputes that crops up every time Georgia suddenly finds itself in need of more water.[1]

We’re generally lucky enough in this part of the country that a drought is the kind of thing that happens only every once in while, at least so far. I know out west it’s already become an every year kind of thing. In any case, if you’ve ever lived through a drought, you have at least a small glimpse into the beginning of Elijah’s prophetic career.

We first met Elijah a few weeks ago when he announced to Israel’s idolatrous King Ahab that a drought was coming. Since then, he’s been on the run – since you don’t call divine judgment upon a king without expecting some sort of consequences. He’s been taken care of by ravens in the wilderness and by a poor widow in the land of Sidon. By this point the drought has gotten bad, far beyond the point of worrying about how often to flush the toilet. Drought has led to famine, and already by last week’s reading Elijah’s Sidonian hostess and her son are on the verge of starving to death.

But now, after more than two years without rain, God announces that the drought is about to end. And that means it’s time for Elijah’s next adventure – because before the rain comes, he has to go back to face Ahab once again.

Ahab has been looking for Elijah all this time. When they finally find each other, though, all Ahab has for Elijah is some angry words. “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” he asks – to which Elijah responds, “I’m not a troubler of Israel, you’re a troubler of Israel! You’re the one who’s deserted YHWH to worship Baal instead.”

Baal, you may remember, was the Canaanite storm god – the god whose job it was, in the cultures surrounding Israel, to make it rain. In one ancient Ugaritic myth – from the area just northwest of Israel – we read this:

      “Let the heavens rain oil,

      The wadis run with honey,

      Then I will know that the mightiest Baal lives,

      The Prince, Lord of the earth is alive.”[2]

 It was Ahab’s worship of Baal that presumably brought this drought on in the first place, but you can imagine that anyone who was inclined to worship Baal in the first place has probably been worshiping him more and more desperately in these past few years. That includes not just Ahab, but all the people over whom he is king as well.

Elijah tells Ahab to gather all the prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah at Mount Carmel, by the sea, and to gather all the people of Israel as well. Elijah stands in front of this crowd of people and he accuses them: “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If you’re going to follow Baal, follow Baal. But if you’re going to follow YHWH, follow YHWH.”

It’s kind of like in the book of Revelation, when God tells John of Patmos to write to the church at Laodicea and say, “I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm…I’m about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16). Know where you stand, God says – make your choice, and stake your life on it.

But of course, this story of Elijah and Ahab and the prophets of Baal is an old story. I don’t think anyone alive worships Baal anymore, and we are probably in little danger of being tempted to today. We may have to decide between church and brunch, but when it comes to YHWH vs. Baal, at least that one is pretty much settled. We’re here, we’ve made our choice, we don’t worship Baal.

Except that we worship so many Baals. We worship the Baals of success, of celebrity, of youth; the Baals of financial security, the Baals of civil religion where God is made equivalent to America. We worship our history and our institutions. We worship our own privilege and the ideologies we adopt to make sure we maintain it. We worship ourselves, our dreams, our rightness. As John Calvin once put it, “The human mind is a perpetual factory of idols.” We worship these things because we choose them, we put them first, give them highest priority in our lives, we worship these things because they promise to give us what we need, and yet we claim to worship YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

It’s like what Jesus was talking about when he told people in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. No one can serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

How long, O people of God, will we hobble back and forth between worshiping God, and worshiping all that threatens to pull us away?

Well, the people gathered on Mount Carmel that day are about to find out exactly what power their idols have. Elijah tells the people to bring him two bulls. The 450 prophets of Baal will choose one bull and prepare it for sacrifice, and Elijah will do the same with the other, but neither of them will light the fire for the burnt offering. Instead the prophets of Baal will call on Baal and Elijah will call on YHWH and everyone will get to see which god answers with fire. Essentially, here, YHWH has challenged Baal to a duel.

The prophets of Baal go first. They prepare the bull for sacrifice and they call on Baal’s name and they dance and they keep going from morning till noon. Nothing. Elijah tells them to talk louder. “What’s wrong?” he asks them? “Your god isn’t answering? Maybe he just stepped out to lunch.” I imagine him leaning back sipping a glass of lemonade, throwing shade as their rituals reach fever pitch. Still Baal doesn’t answer.

Then it’s Elijah’s turn. He begins by repairing an altar of YHWH that was presumably knocked down by worshipers of Baal. He digs a trench around the altar, and he asks someone to bring him water. Remember, we’re in a drought: this is not among the acceptable limited uses of water, but that’s not Elijah’s concern right now. Elijah pours the water all over the bull and the wood until it overflows into the trenches. His point is clear: it’s going to take an act of God to set this thing on fire.

That is, of course, exactly what occurs. Elijah prays to God and fire falls from heaven, and it burns up the sacrifice, and the altar, and the dirt, and even the water in the trenches. At this all the people fall on their faces and say “YHWH is God!”

They worshiped Baal because everyone was doing it, because they thought he could give them what they needed, but in the end, our Baals never do. Now the people see that.

Does it count if you only say it after witnessing some sort of fiery miracle from heaven? Are the people forgiven for doubting YHWH in the first place? If we’re honest, I think we can have some sympathy for them. As someone pointed out in Bible study last week, we all come to believe in God not just because someone says the right words or argues the point well enough, but because we experience who God is. It might be a mystical experience or the example of someone who truly lives differently as a Christian in a way that makes us say, “There’s something there;” in this case, it was fire from heaven. Even Doubting Thomas needed to be able to put his hands in Jesus’ wounds before he could proclaim “My Lord and my God,” and Jesus’ response was to let him.

What I wonder, though, is how long does it last? How long will these people who fall on their faces and proclaim that YHWH is God? How long will they worship YHWH alone? Spoiler alert: this is hardly the end of Baal worship in Israel. So what happens next time when push comes to shove, when you need the promise of someone who can end the drought, when choosing one means sacrificing the other, when you really have to make the choice of who and what you’re going to worship? What happens next time when everyone around you is turning to Baal and promising that this, this is where you can find security; this, this is where you can find abundance; this, this, is where you can find eternal life?

Then we hear the call once again: make your choice, and stake your life on it, because it’s life itself that is at stake.

Elijah’s work is done – at least for now. YHWH is God, and YHWH alone. In the distance, over the sea, rain clouds begin to gather.


[2] Choon-Leong Seow, The First and Second Books of Kings: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, p. 126

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-24

As we left off with Elijah last week, he was hiding from the idolatrous King Ahab across the Jordan River. The prophet had arrived unceremoniously on the scene to that a drought was coming – presumably directly related to Ahab’s worship of the Canaanite storm god, Baal. After that, God told Elijah to run, and so for two years he lived by the Wadi Cherith, and drank from the stream, and ravens brought him breakfast and dinner.

It’s a beautiful story of divine provision for someone who stuck his neck out to deliver God’s word, but Elijah has announced a drought, and eventually that drought reaches his own water source as well.

As I said last week, though, all is not lost. This is simply the beginning of Elijah’s next adventure.

When the stream dries up, God tells Elijah to go to a town called Zarephath, which is in Sidon – an interesting fact if we remember that Ahab’s wife Jezebel is a princess of Sidon. Nevertheless, God tells Elijah to go and that he will find a woman there, a widow, who God has appointed to feed him, just like the ravens did by the Wadi Cherith.

So Elijah goes.

As he reaches the town, he sees the woman in question, gathering wood. He calls out to her and asks for a cup of water, and she goes to get some. The story doesn’t say, but considering the general state of things, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has gone to get Elijah some of the last of the water available to her.

As she’s going, Elijah calls out after her, “How about a bite to eat?”

At this the widow turns around and says – and this is paraphrase – “For God’s sake, man, can’t you tell there’s a drought? I don’t have any food for you. No one has food. I’m here gathering sticks so I can make bread from the last flour we have and then my son and I will just wait to die.”

And Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid. Go prepare some food for me first, and then there will be plenty for you and your son as well.”

You can imagine how the widow must be feeling at this point. Here is this random man who’s just showed up telling her that if she just gives him the last she has, everything will be OK. I wouldn’t blame her for telling him to get lost. Elijah must come off here as a sleazy TV preacher, telling her to send in her rent money for the month so that God can bless her through him.

But on the other hand, what does she have to lose?

So she does what he says. And, as promised, the flour doesn’t run out and the oil doesn’t run out and the widow and her son and Elijah eat their fill the whole time that he stays with them.

It’s a wonderful story of God’s abundance, like others we know: it’s the feeding of the five thousand, where a few people give their paltry loaves and fish and the masses eat and twelve baskets of scraps are picked up at the end. It’s the rededication of the Temple, the story of Hanukkah, where the oil that keeps the sacred lamp burning doesn’t run out for eight days.

The author Jana Riess tells a story about a summer she worked at a Christian camp, not making a lot of money, and how as she prepared to return for her senior year of college in Massachusetts, she realized she didn’t have a coat. She had also been promising herself that she was going to take tithing more seriously, but as she sat down to figure out her budget, she realized she could either tithe on her camp stipend or she could buy a coat.

She divided her last $100 between two global mission organizations.

When Jana did find a coat, which cost $85, her mom then said she would pay for it, which was a surprise because Jana had been buying her own clothes for years.

“That’s my one tithing miracle story,” she writes. “I’m sure that many experienced Christians will have a problem with the tidiness of it. I know, I’ve never liked the mentality of ‘if you only give, God will make you prosper,’ or ‘God will pay you back a hundredfold.’ I don’t think that God works that way…except for this one time when God did.”[1]

Look, I’m not telling anyone to give up the last of your rent money or winter coat money to a sleazy TV preacher (or to me.) And I know not everyone has a mom to help out at the last minute. I, also, don’t think God works that way…except that maybe once in a while God does.

However, just when our story has turned from abundance to scarcity to abundance, it turns to scarcity again. After ALL this poor widow has been through, her son gets sick and dies, or depending on how we read the text, at least he is right at death’s door.

The widow says to Elijah, “Man of God, what did I do to you? Why have you brought this upon us? Why have you made God remember my sin?” Never mind that Elijah has kept them in flour and oil since he’s been staying with them; never mind that we don’t have any indication from the text that Elijah has anything to do with this or even that it’s a direct act of God – this woman has been through hell, and she’s grieving, and she’s blaming Elijah, and she’s blaming herself, and none of it needs to make any sense.

Elijah, for his part, could get defensive. He could tell her that this has nothing to do with him, that all he’s done is help. He’s the one who SAVED her son, who was about to starve: he has no interest in killing him. But Elijah doesn’t say that. Instead he says, “Give him to me.” He takes him up to the room where he is staying. And then, before he does anything else, what does he do? He looks up to heaven and says, “God, what are you doing? Why would you let this happen to this poor widow?”

Then he stretches himself out over the boy’s body, and prays for God to restore his life, and God does.

I’m sure that to the widow, waiting downstairs, the important part of this story is that she gets her son back. To the author of the biblical text, the important part of the story is God works through Elijah, that we have confirmation that, as the widow says, “The word of the Lord truly is in your mouth.” To me, though, the important part of the story is instead of fighting back against this widow’s grief and desperation, Elijah takes it to God.

I am no Elijah, with the power to make food multiply or raise people from the dead, but I know that there are times when I am confronted with some sort of terrible pain that is not directly my own. That’s the case sometimes when I read stories in the news of migrant boats capsizing in the Mediterranean or children drowning in the Rio Grande trying to make their way across the border to the US; or when something senselessly tragic happens to a friend, or when someone comes to me for prayer who is suffering in a way that I don’t have any answer or fix for. The truth is that anything I pray in those situations feels kind of paltry, and sometimes all that I have is something along the lines of “God, what are you doing, here?”

I don’t think it’s a very good prayer…except that sometimes, maybe it is. Maybe Elijah’s job is not just to speak God’s word to people but to speak on behalf of people to God. To help God hear their pain and grief, even if God already knows. Isn’t that what Jesus did, when he cried at the death of Lazarus, seeing the pain of Mary and Martha? Isn’t that the same kind of honesty with which he spoke when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from him?

In this story, God responds, and the widow’s son lives. I know that’s not always how it works. I know not all prayers, even prayers lifted by holy people, get the response they seek. But maybe once in a while they do.

But even when that’s not the case, it helps to know that someone is willing to take our pain up to God for us, that someone is willing to advocate for us with the divine, and maybe that can even be where healing begins.

Sometimes, God makes God’s abundance known to us through ravens, divine gifts from heaven. Sometimes God shows us abundance through flour and oil, the basic staples of our lives, that don’t run out even though we fear they will. And sometimes, God shows us abundance even in times of grief and pain and scarcity, through those who are willing to walk and pray and feel and hurt along with us. Sometimes we are called to share that gift with others. And it’s possible – because maybe, just maybe, it works like this – that healing even begins there.

Elijah is on the move and God is at work, with him and through him. He’ll do well to keep these miraculous days in mind as he heads back now to Samaria to face King Ahab once again.

[1] Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, p. 160-161.

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Ravens

Scripture: 1 Kings 17:1-7

Summer is, traditionally, a time for adventures.

I actually don’t know if that’s the case this year. Probably some of us are still being cautious, being slow and intentional about our reentry into human society. Others of us may truly be ready to live it up after 15 months or so of relative isolation. Or maybe last summer we discovered some new adventures closer to home, new hiking trails or uncrowded beaches or other Covid-safe getaways, and we’re looking forward to revisiting some of those this year.

No matter what adventures your summer may or may not hold this year, we’re going to follow two Old Testament prophets, the confusingly-named Elijah and Elisha, on some of theirs.

Elijah and Elisha are more than just guys who tell the future. They are intricately involved in the complicated, dangerous politics of ancient Israel. You may remember from your Hebrew Bible history that after the death of Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms, northern and southern. At this point the Bible begins telling two parallel histories. You probably skipped over a lot of these parts in Sunday School, because it’s a lot of kings (and even a few queens) coming to power and dying and sometimes intermarrying and sometimes going to war with each other, and it’s generally just a lot to keep track of. The Northern Kingdom, especially, has a Game of Thrones kind of vibe with some very bloody stories of would-be kings fighting it out. Of course, it’s worth it to keep in mind that all these stories are told, at least in the form we now have them, from a Southern Kingdom perspective.

It’s into this Northern Kingdom chaos that the prophet Elijah enters the scene, during the reign of a king named Ahab.

Ahab is the son of Omri, who killed the previous king Zimri, who killed the previous king Elah – and he is not remembered fondly in the text of the Bible. He married a foreign princess, Jezebel of Sidon, and he began to build altars to Jezebel’s god, the Canaanite storm god Baal. We read in 1 Kings 16 that Ahab “did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than anyone who preceded him.”

Elijah slips onto the scene relatively quietly. He doesn’t get a dramatic prophetic call story: no burning bush, no word from the Lord. Instead, the first thing we read about Elijah are his words to Ahab: “As the Lord lives, there will be neither dew nor rain until I say so.”

There’s no explanation, no threat, but we can make an educated guess that this proclamation is related to Ahab’s idolatry, and specifically his worship of a god known for making rain.[1] My guess is that Ahab is capable of making this connection too. But of course, as far as he knows, Elijah is no one. He’s just a cranky constituent. He’s like someone standing alone with a protest sign in front of the White House – there to make a point, but presumably without much power to actually change things.

But ancient Israel is not a democracy, and its kings don’t tend to take kindly to cranky constituents.

Ahab doesn’t even respond before the Lord tells Elijah to run away – confirming for us that Elijah is, in fact, speaking for God here. God tells him to go east and hide in the Wadi Cherith, wadi being like a brook or stream. God says he can drink from the stream and that God has commanded ravens to bring him food. And Elijah does, and they do. This is Elijah’s own manna in the wilderness experience.

Maybe you’ve experienced a time like this, when you’ve been in trouble and God has provided for you and cared for you in unexpected ways. I think of the time I traveled to Korea for the World Methodist Conference – one of my summer adventures years ago. I had just graduated from college and it was my first time traveling alone, let alone to a completely unfamiliar place. It was already growing dark as I got off the plane in Incheon and took a bus to Seoul, and when I got off at my stop, I realized I was totally lost. Most of the shops were boarded up for the night, and if they’d been open I didn’t speak the right language to ask for help anyway, and to make matters worse it was starting to rain.

God didn’t send birds to help, but God did send me the one remaining shopkeeper on that street who hadn’t gone home. I showed her my guidebook and pointed to where I was supposed to be going. And since I couldn’t understand anything she said, she ended up walking with me to my hostel, holding her umbrella over my suitcase as we went.

That is a story of providence that I’m sure was divine, yet I’m not sure it completely captures what is happening for Elijah here. I decided to go on my adventure. But Elijah isn’t on an adventure for adventure’s sake. Instead, Elijah has taken a giant risk in doing what he believes God needed him to do – no matter that we never hear God explicitly telling Elijah to confront Ahab in the first place. This story isn’t just about God sustaining us in the wilderness, but about God giving us what we need when God’s work is hard and risky but we agree to do it anyway.

Maybe you’ve never had ravens serve you bread, but maybe somehow you’ve stepped out in faith before to follow God’s call not sure you were going to make it but somehow you did. Maybe it involved a big life change or a significant financial risk. Maybe it involved opening up your life to someone you believed God put in it when you weren’t sure where that would lead. Maybe, like for Elijah, it involved speaking truth to power, and all the danger that comes along with that.  And then maybe you had enough when you didn’t know if you would have enough, and maybe you were safe when you didn’t know if you would be safe, and maybe God simply gave you strength and people to help along the way.

I think of the disciples, who left their homes and their fishing nets to follow Jesus, who called them unconditionally but also told would-be followers to count the cost before they made any rash decisions. I think of how those disciples went out two by two to share the Gospel and they weren’t even allowed to pack a bag. They didn’t know where they would sleep that night or what was going to be for dinner. It was a risk, but it was God’s risk, and they had enough.

I think of the story of Mother Pollard, which Martin Luther King Jr. told in his speech at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Mother Pollard was an elder at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. King had been the pastor.  When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, 70-year-old Mother Pollard walked. And she kept walking. At one point someone stopped and asked her, didn’t she want to give up and ride? And she said, “I’m gonna walk just as long as everybody else walks. I’m gonna walk till it’s over.” And they said, “But aren’t your feet tired?” And she said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”[2]

I imagine that’s the way Elijah might have felt there in the Wadi Cherith – tired, lonely, uncertain about the future – but with a soul that was at rest, because he had done what God needed him to do.

I don’t mean to promise that these things always just work out for the best. Surely there are many stories of people who step out in faith to follow God’s call and do pay the ultimate price. Jesus himself, of course, was one of them, and yet God was faithful then too.

Elijah isn’t magically protected from all consequences. He has set a drought in motion, and eventually even his own stream dries up. And yet, even this is not the end of Elijah’s story. The jig is not up! As we’ll hear about next week, this is simply the beginning of Elijah’s next adventure, another opportunity for God to show God’s faithfulness. Because when you step out in faith to do God’s work, not much is promised, except that in one way or another, through ravens or neighbors, full stomachs or rest for weary souls or the promise of life that undefeated by death, God is bound to show up.

[1] Choon-Leong Seow, The First and Second Books of Kings: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, p. 126.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our God Is Marching On!” Montgomery, AL, March 25, 1965.

Come, Holy Spirit: God Among Us

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

A few years ago – maybe a little more than that by now – some of us sat down over brunch around tables in the Fellowship Hall to come up with our new Arlington Temple UMC mission statement.  We talked about what we do here, and what gifts God has given us, and what are the most crucial aspects of who we are as a community of faith.

Those were the questions we asked as we talked and scribbled our answers on newsprint and whiteboards. But really, the conversation was about something bigger than that: what does it mean to be the church? How about particularly now, and particularly here? And how do we live into that?

You may know the end result of that meeting, or maybe not: The mission of Arlington Temple United Methodist Church, we decided, is to be a welcoming community, called by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and equipped to go out as God’s people in the world. The most familiar part of that for many of you will be the words “go out as God’s people in the world,” which echoes the charge we hear and accept at the end of worship each week, words we were saying and which were already shaping our identity before they were part of any official mission statement.

But I want to go up a line now, because this group of church members and leaders decided that day that one of the most fundamental parts of who we are as a church is that we are a community empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is something we proclaim and believe about ourselves – that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be not just any people, but God’s people – and that to be God’s people in the world is not just something we can decide all on our own.

Today is Pentecost, the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire to disciples waiting in Jerusalem for their next instructions. As we read last week on Ascension Sunday, Jesus has just ascended into heaven and he’s told the disciples they will be witnesses – not just in Jerusalem but also in all of Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth. They will be witnesses, but not right away. They need to wait to be “clothed with power from on high.” They can’t just decide to do it all on their own, either.

The story of Pentecost is the story of a group of people who become God’s people. Maybe that sounds strange to say, because after all, they are already created by and beloved of God; they have already been following Jesus; they are already poised and waiting for their next steps; still, it takes the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to both make this group of waiting people into something called the church, and to send them out into the world to begin their mission.

As we’ve talked about the Holy Spirit over these last few weeks we’ve talked about the Holy Spirit as God For Us, our helper and advocate; as God In Us, who challenges us and helps us grow, and as God Around Us, who “incites fresh visions of God’s new world” and brings those visions of love and justice to fruition. And, today, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is God Among Us, who makes people into God’s people, the church.

What will this church do and be? It will worship and pray, and share meals together, and pool its resources so no one has too little and no one has too much. Its leaders will perform signs and wonders, and its people will go out into new places, and they’ll tell and show people who Jesus is, and they’ll get in good trouble (as John Lewis would say), and when they’re at a loss for words the Holy Spirit will give them words to say.

They’ll go to prison and they’ll risk their lives and they’ll meet new people and they’ll reconsider everything they knew about who’s in and who’s out, and in all of it, the Holy Spirit will be at work, calling and strengthening and sending them and reminding them who they are.

Most of the people who do these things are not otherwise impressive or extraordinary people. The vast majority aren’t even named – they’re just the crowds who come and listen and find that what they hear is life-changing, who see the church being the church and know instinctively that this is what it means for God’s kingdom to come on earth. And the ones who are named, the disciples who first received that fire from the Holy Spirit, are the same ones who just seven weeks earlier had run away in the face of danger, who fought over who was the greatest, who just never seemed to quite get it. But armed with the good news of the resurrection and the power of the Spirit, these ordinary people are sent out of the world as God’s people.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel like fire. John has his own, quieter version of Pentecost that he tells in his Gospel. In John, it’s still the day of Easter, and the disciples are not waiting but hiding behind closed doors, not yet believing Jesus is alive and not knowing what happens next. Jesus comes and stands among them, offers them peace, shows them his hands and his side. Then he says, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” He breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel like fire. Sometimes she feels like breath, enlivening tired and worn-out bodies, calming the fears that keep us huddled inside closed doors. But in this story, too, the disciples are sent. Jesus doesn’t say where, and he doesn’t say for what. Maybe that’s because it could be anywhere, and maybe that’s because they know – as the Father sent him, he sends them; everything that he was for them, they are to be for the world. And they are empowered – even to forgive sins. In John’s story, too, the disciples receive the Spirit and become the church.

What does it mean to be the church? It’s worship and prayer, study and growth. It’s sharing life together, around tables in the Fellowship Hall or over Zoom. It’s comforting and helping and challenging each other. It’s feeding our homeless neighbors and loading up baskets with detergent and paper towels for folks moving in up the street. It’s sharing with each other how God is working in our lives and learning how to share that with other people, too, to not be so scared. It’s inviting people in – and, it’s going out, to be God’s people in the world, every day, wherever our lives take us, wherever the wind of the Spirit blows, in Rosslyn and all of Arlington and the DC area and to the ends of the earth.

In the past fourteen months we’ve learned how to be the church in new ways. In the next few years we’ll learn how to be the church in new ways again, as we hopefully move back into our building at some point, adjust to our new post-Covid world, move back out, find a new home base in this community as we prepare for this space to be redeveloped, and discern what God wants us to be for the future. In all of it, we wait for our next instructions. In all of it, we trust that the Spirit will show up, that she will bring us together, remind us who we are, and send us out into the world near and far – making people into God’s people, over and over.

Come, Holy Spirit: God Around Us

Scripture: Ephesians 2:14-22

The past six or so weeks have been a whirlwind journey for Jesus’ disciples: first their teacher was killed, then he rose from the dead; now, 40 days later, it’s time to say goodbye again. This is Ascension Sunday, when the resurrected Jesus returns to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father.

Before he goes, Jesus has some final words for his disciples. He interprets Scripture for them, helping them to understand how everything that has happened fits in to the story God has been telling from the beginning of time. He tells them they are witnesses of these things. And then, he tells them to wait – the time will come for them to go off and do their witnessing, but for now, they should stay in Jerusalem “until they have been clothed with power from on high.”

What they’re waiting for is the Holy Spirit. They’re waiting for God to come and be with them in a new and powerful way now that Jesus is gone in an earthly sense. This 10 days of waiting leads us into Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next week, when the Spirit does come in wind and fire to commission the disciples for their mission as the church.

So far in our series on the Holy Spirit we have talked about the Spirit as God For Us – our helper, comforter, and advocate – and God In Us – the one who gives us new birth and shapes our hearts and lives in the image of God.  The “Power from on high” that the disciples wait for in Jerusalem, though, is not just a power that changes individual hearts and lives. This is a Spirit who is bigger than us, who comes to shake up and transform the world.

You may remember that way back at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went to synagogue, and he got up to read and opened the scroll to Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he read, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus’ life and ministry ushered in a new age through this anointing of the Spirit, and now that he is gone, the Spirit is about to usher in a new age again. With this anointing of the Spirit comes liberation, and healing, and radical reversal, and life after death: all things that often seem impossible by human standards.

When I was in seminary, I heard a sermon by Bishop Peter Storey of the Methodist Church of South Africa, who had been part of the anti-apartheid struggle alongside people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I don’t remember a lot about the sermon except that it was at a conference on peace, and he began it by quoting from the classic book Alice in Wonderland. Alice has just met the Queen of Hearts and asked her how old she is. The Queen replies that she is a hundred and five. Alice laughs at that. “One can’t believe impossible things,” she says. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Bishop Storey preached that peace was, in fact, possible – even when it seems like it’s not. This is the work of the Holy Spirit: making the impossible possible, giving us the potential to imagine, and the courage to proclaim impossible things like release of captives and freedom for the oppressed and resurrection of the dead.

After the arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost, Christian communities beginning to form in new places as the disciples go out and witness like Jesus said.  And one of the things that seemed impossible is that this body newly made up of both Jews and Gentiles could ever be one unified group. That’s what we read about in Ephesians, a letter to a Gentile church or churches that struggled to fully understand their place in a Jewish story. Paul writes that Christ has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” that once divided Jew from Gentile, to make them into one group, and announced the “good news of peace” to both alike.

As Paul writes on he says that this church made up of Jews and Gentiles is being built into a house, resting on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. “Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit,” he says. In other words, the Holy Spirit is at work here, creating something that is bigger than individual holy people: the reconciliation of two ethnic groups brought together by Christ. The Spirit is at work, creating something that otherwise might not have been, something that might never have been envisioned or thought possible – creating peace where there had been hostility.

Daniel Migliore, who wrote my seminary theology textbook, wrote that the Holy Spirit “incites fresh visions of God’s new world.” I always loved that – the Spirit gives us new visions of what might be and is at work bringing those things to fruition. It’s kind of like the prophet Joel writes: In those days God’s Spirit will be poured out upon all people. … Your sons and your daughter shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. When Peter gets up to preach on the day of Pentecost, it’s Joel he quotes; it’s this prophecy he sees coming to pass. It’s not just about speaking in tongues, it’s about the beginning of something new and impossible in this world.

How much do we need the Holy Spirit now, to come and incite fresh visions of God’s new world in us, to create things that we never thought could be.

I’ve been thinking of this lately especially in the wake of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd last summer. It seems like many of us – though of course this is controversial – are coming to an understanding in the wake of incidents like these that policing needs to somehow look different. For some people that means better training and greater accountability – rooting out the few bad apples who show up in the news, and giving the good ones better tools. Others have been talking about defunding the police, and instead paying other professionals to do some of the things that have come to be under the law enforcement umbrella – people like social workers and mental health professionals and trained crisis responders. And some have called for abolishing the police altogether, arguing that the institution of policing in the US has its origins in the purpose of catching runaway slaves, and therefore is inherently and irredeemably racist.[1]

I know we probably have all sorts of views and experiences when it comes to police here, both in this country and elsewhere in the world, and I’m not equipped to advocate any particular policy position today. What I have realized in the midst of all this discussion is that, as a white person who grew up in this country with a certain positive view of police and their role in society, I sometimes find myself getting stuck when it comes to the ability to envision anything different than what is.  I think, “Well, of course we need police to do such-and-such, how else would this get done?” or “Of course we need to be able to call police in such-and-such a situation, how else would I be safe?” I say this as someone who has called on and been helped by police in various situations, including here at Arlington Temple – and as someone who is still learning that not everyone grew up learning that the police were there to help and protect them. I am realizing that something needs to change that is perhaps beyond what I am able to envision, and so one thing that I have been praying for recently is imagination – the holy imagination to believe that things don’t have to be a certain way just because they are now.

This is hardly just a matter of one issue, of course. Can we imagine that things could be different when it comes to climate change, and the parts of our lives and society and infrastructure that play a role in it? Can we imagine that things could be different when it comes to gun violence in our country – that we don’t actually have to accept the status quo of mass shootings every day; that something else is possible? When it comes to the church (not just our church), can we imagine something less beholden to outdated institution, new ways of being that will allow us to take the good news of God’s love into the present and the future?

Do we believe the Holy Spirit can incite fresh visions of God’s new world?

Do we believe that she is already at work transforming and creating it?

Not in a vacuum, of course. The transformation of the world means the transformation of people – and yet it is so much bigger than us, so much bigger than our individual comfort and happiness, so much bigger than our individual purity and holiness.

This is the work of the Holy Spirit: to help us see the possibilities of God’s future in the impossibilities of the present, to give us the power to both believe and proclaim impossible things, and to join the work of the Spirit in bringing them to fruition. God’s Spirit, God’s future, justice, peace, and liberation: so much holy possibility.


Come, Holy Spirit: God In Us

Scripture: Mark 1:9-13; Galatians 5:22-23; John 3:1-8

There’s a page I follow on Facebook – it’s called Unvirtuous Abbey,[1] and it’s a good place for theologically sound yet slightly irreverent Christian humor. One of the things that the people who run this page have done is a series of “Actual photos of the Holy Spirit,” using bird pictures, because one way the Holy Spirit is depicted in the Bible is as a bird, a dove.

For example:

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit on Her way to comfort someone in need.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit carrying your burdens for a little while so you can rest.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit telling you not to give up even though She knows it’s really hard right now.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit standing in solidarity with your pandemic hairstyle and fashion.

Some of them are a little harder hitting:

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit wondering why you just said that.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Oh no you didn’t’ when you just did.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit. She’s on Her way. You know what you did.

You might remember that last week, we talked about the Holy Spirit as parakletos, our comforter, encourager, and advocate, who I called God For Us. And the Holy Spirit is all of these things. But it’s not the Holy Spirit’s only job to comfort us and affirm us. That sounds nice, to some extent, but also ultimately lacking. Just like a good friend who is always there to listen but you know is also going to tell you the truth, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to be God For Us but also to work in us to challenge, transform, and renew us.

At the beginning of this service we heard the passage from Mark’s Gospel where the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (like a dove), and then – did you catch what happens after that? We read that immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Not gently led him into the wilderness, which is what Matthew and Luke say, but drove him there. The Spirit is driving Jesus into this place where it’s going to be really hard for a while and he’s going to be spiritually prepared for his ministry and all that lies before him. It’s not so warm and fuzzy, but it is, presumably, something Jesus needs to do – something he might not choose to do on his own.

John doesn’t tell us about Jesus in the wilderness – probably from John’s perspective, Jesus is born prepared. But John does tell us a story about a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus under the cover of night. He seems to know there is something special about Jesus, and he wants to be able to figure it out, to try to put his finger on what it is. He says no one can do the things Jesus does unless they are from God.  And even though Nicodemus hasn’t really asked, Jesus tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above – or, depending on your translation, born anew or born again.

Nicodemus says, “How is that possible?” and Jesus says to him, “Truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In other words, this is of course not a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one, one in which the Spirit herself is at work and that is affirmed and ritualized in our baptism.

Some of us may think of spiritual rebirth as like a gentle, meditative, finding-enlightenment kind of process, but I’m going to tell you that if that’s the kind of process we’re talking about, I don’t think “birth” is a good image. You know what’s not a gentle, meditative process? Birth. Birth is, in fact, not only hard and painful but dangerous, both for the one giving it and the one being birthed. AND it’s also the only way for new life to emerge. I see no reason for being born of the Spirit to be different. Not an easy or comfortable process, but a life-giving one.

Sometimes that might mean keeping our mouths shut when we really want to say something – or finding the courage to speak up when we might have remained silent.

Sometimes it might mean going through the pain of giving up on a toxic relationship in order to move forward, or letting go of a long-held grudge and moving toward reconciliation.

Sometimes it might mean repenting, and beginning to walk down a more faithful path.

Some of you may have seen the actor Hank Azaria in the news last month. Hank Azaria was the voice of the character Apu on The Simpsons for thirty years. He’s white, and Apu was the Indian shopkeeper rife formulated largely on racial stereotypes. It was the kind of thing that not many white people thought twice about in the era when The Simpsons was first popular.

In 2017 the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called “The Problem with Apu,” where he talked about the harm that was done through the depiction of this character with his fake accent and stereotypes. Kondabolu had grown up watching The Simpsons, but he was also aware of the effect Apu had on him and how others saw him.

Azaria said that when he first heard about this documentary, he felt “hurt and defensive.” After all, he hadn’t set out to hurt anyone, and it was comedy, right, and maybe the people who were offended were just “17 hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn.”

So Azaria didn’t stop being the voice of Apu. Not right away. But what he did do was start to learn. He talked to Indian people. He learned more about racism. He read. He educated himself and sought opportunities for others to help educate him. And, after several years of doing this work, he stopped voicing Apu, and he started working with an anti-racism group to help educate others. In April, he publicly apologized for the role he played in perpetuating these stereotypes.[2]

I don’t want to make too much of a hero of a white person who realized that he was participating in something racist. Obviously Hari Kondabolu is important to this story, too, and all the other people who helped Azaria understand the harm that had been done.  But I do think there’s a lot we can learn from Hank Azaria, when it comes to racism and beyond. Because it would have been easy to dismiss people who were offended by something he had invested a good part of his career in, to call them snowflakes, to feel like they were attacking his life’s work or even his identity. But instead he recognized his own defensiveness, and went down that hard, uncomfortable path of learning and repentance. And while I have no idea how Azaria would characterize his own spiritual life, I would call that spiritual growth, and that is the kind of work that the Holy Spirit can do in us  – if we let her, and if we work with her.

Paul tells us in Galatians what new life in the Spirit is supposed to look like: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the qualities that are born of that process. Not all of them may come naturally to us, certainly not all the time, but all of them are part of the Spirit’s work to reform and reshape and rebirth us into the image of God who is Love.

And in the end, this idea of the Holy Spirit working in us isn’t so different from the Holy Spirit as our helper, encourager, and advocate. In all of it, God is for us. All of it is grace – whether it’s the kind that wraps us in a warm hug or drives us into the wilderness.

As the write Anne Lamott likes to say, “God loves you just the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” Thanks be to God for new life, and for the one who brings that new life into being.