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Elijah: Prophet of Action

June 24, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

On the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost / Confirmation Sunday, June 23, 2013

1 Kings 19: 1-15a

This morning we have a familiar passage, that of the “still small voice” of God which speaks to the prophet Elijah.  And if we are not careful and if we read this passage out of context, we might walk away thinking that the point of the passage is that God speaks to all of us, quietly, if only we would stop, shut out the world, and listen.  But such an interpretation of this passage, while comforting, runs counter to the entire story of Elijah.  For Elijah did not have trouble hearing God.  Elijah didn’t need to slow down or to quietly find God again.  Nope.  Elijah heard God just fine and he witnessed to God’s covenant in spades.  The problem was, that the consequences of that witness were that Queen Jezebel’s army ran him out of the land and he was holed up in a cave feeling he had no where to go.  No way out.  To really hear what God was saying to Elijah, and through Elijah to us, we need to know more of the story.  And the story starts several generations earlier, with the rise and rule and death of King David.

Mighty King David, under whom all the 12 tribes of Israel were united had a son, named Solomon.  Upon David’s death, Solomon ruled with power for many years.  And Solomon, son of David, had a son himself. And upon Solomon’s death, his son became King, like his father, and his father before him. Solomon’s son was named Rehoboam.

Like many families that perpetuate themselves in political office, Rehoboam the son was not as bright as the father, or his grandfather. When Rehoboam ascended to the throne of Israel he discovered that he had labor problems. Apparently the workers building the temple that would bear his father Solomon’s name and be a symbol of his enduring and timeless wisdom, were making less than a fair wage. In fact, they weren’t making any wage at all. In fact, they said, they felt like slaves, the kind Yahweh had promised they would never be again.

What they wanted to know was: what would Rehoboam do when he took office? Rehoboam recognized the fairness of their demands, not to mention the importance of these workers to his kingdom, but when he went into the back room with his advisors, he was told that if he gave in to these demands, fair though they may be, his rule would be plagued by endless demands from the people. “Show strength,” they said. “Take a hard line. Yield nothing.” So Rehoboam returned to the people and spoke these fateful words, “My little pinky is thicker than my father’s loins. Whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will make it heavier.”

And the leaders of the tribes of Israel, not missing the Freudian implications of their king, returned to their tents. The workers to their homes. The cry went up: “What have we to do with David? We have no inheritance with the sons of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” Their work stoppage began a civil war which divided a nation that was never united again. The northern state of Israel seceded from the southern state of Judah to protest the enslavement of its citizens.  Jereboam, former Secretary of Labor under Solomon, who had quit in protest, went North to lead this new nation. And all the prophets went north with him.  The nation to the north was called Israel and the nation to the south, Judah.

Prophets speak truth to power, and wisdom to the people. Their role is to remind rulers of the basic covenant obligations of justice. Prophets like Amos represented the justice due the poor, Isaiah denounced the wealthy land grabbers, Jeremiah pilloried the war-makers. These three prophets are what scholars call oracular prophets. They speak in oracles, parables and poetry; they plead, they bear the Word of God in difficult situations to those both desperate for it and resistant to it. And they often suffered for it.

But Elijah and Elisha, Elijah’s prophetic heir, were cut from another cloth. They were born at a time when there were no legitimate rulers. They prophesied at a time when the nation was ripped in two and at a time when the army, more often than not, chose the new king. After Jereboam’s line died out, the northern nation, Israel, faced the question of succession. Split in its choice for a new leader, the army backed their leader Omri while the people trusted a man called Tibni. Though it took months before the nation knew who would rule, in the end Omri, commander of the army, was King.  And upon his death, Omri’s son Ahab became king of Israel.  Now we finally come to the time of Elijah the prophet.

Scholars call Elijah and Elisha “action prophets” to distinguish them from the oracular prophets like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah. This was the first and last time the Hebrew people would ever have what could be called “popular ACTION prophets”, or perhaps more clearly “populist prophets.” until the time of Jesus. The people flocked not just to listen to them but to follow them. Elijah actually had disciples, and started a school called the “sons of the prophets.” They were armed. They marched in protests. They staged large public demonstrations pitting God’s policies against the policies of the kings.

But Elijah not only organized his disciples into a school, he mobilized the people as well. Omri’s son Ahab was a particularly bad king, says the Bible. Among other things, he let his Baal-worshiping wife Jezebel murder all but one hundred of the “sons of the prophets” because under Elijah’s leadership they did annoying things like publicly protest the king’s illegal land seizures. Things really came to a head when, after Elijah bested King Ahab’s prophets in a contest on Mt. Carmel, Elijah then started a riot in which all prophets of Baal were killed.  Suddenly realizing what he had done, he took off to the mountains with Queen Jezebel’s army hot on his tail.

FSB-p120_God speaks in a whisper

That’s where we encounter this morning’s passage. Elijah is hidden in the cave of a mountain, and God’s voice comes to him still and small – and relentless: “Go Back!” Elijah was not destined for a contemplative life atop the mountain. Nor was he meant for an ascetic life in the cave. Nor was Elijah to speak God’s word from the sidelines. God called Elijah to a life of action. God compelled him to return to his work of leading and mobilizing the people.

Prophets like Elijah, the populist mobilizer, make us uncomfortable. They don’t speak to our hearts but to our wills. They ask us, “whose side are we on?” They demand not contemplation but commitment – organization in the service of God, mobilization for the cause of justice.

Not until the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark tells us that “ all Jerusalem” went out to listen to John the Baptist do we see such a following for a prophet again. Mark tells us that John is wearing a hair shirt and a leather belt, an outfit associated in Hebrew memory with Elijah. Herod feared that John might be Elijah returned, and so he killed him. But the crowds did not disappear. Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and one response was that he was Elijah come back to lead the people. Jesus, like Elijah and John, was a man of action, the crowds knew it, the religious leaders knew it, the Romans knew it. And so today I ask you – are we people of action in the prophetic tradition of Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus?

As Eloram and Annick make their confirmation today, they are joining a faith tradition whose witness extends beyond the personal to the social and political and economic structures of our world.  God calls us, absolutely calls us, to individual acts of caring for one another and for our neighbor.  But God, just as strenuously, calls us as a church to effectively mobilize for change in our world. And while the call may come to us in the quiet, the implications are deafening.

Where this day, might God’s still, small voice be calling our church to go?

* * *

During the period of announcements later in the service, we noted several opportunities to take action this week. Tuesday will be the 25th of the month, observed as Orange Day to speak our and act to reduce violence against women and girls. We also lifted up an opportunity to write an e-letter to the White House insisting upon transparency in the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement currently being negotiated. Learn more and write a letter HERE. This is part of our growing commitment to Joining Hands – Peru, a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission program impacting human rights and the environment.

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