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Forty Days Hiding in Fear with Elijah

March 12, 2018


“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during the Lenten Season 2018. This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018. Today’s illustration of Jesus seeking out a cave in which to hide himself, just as Elijah did, is by Simon Smith, a British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Our gospel reading this morning is the same one we have shared each Sunday during Lent and which has given us our theme: Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wild. We extend the gospel reading this morning beyond Jesus’s time apart from civilization and among the wild animals to include his return to Galilee, for reasons that I hope will be clear later on.

[Read Mark 1:12-15]

Our reading from the Older Testament this morning comes from 1 Kings 19 – the fearful flight of the prophet Elijah. We pick up the story after Elijah and Yahweh have won a huge, perhaps a decisive, victory over the forces of Baal, against Ahab (the corrupt King of Israel), and against Jezebel (the king’s foreign born wife). Elijah had both proposed and prevailed in a contest between himself and the false prophets, between his God and the foreign god, between the ‘people’s prophet’ and the King who serves the interests of a foreign power. The struggle, however, was not yet finished. Having won the contest, Queen Jezebel proclaims a death sentence for the prophet, and Elijah flees in stark terror.[i]

[Read 1 Kings 19:1-21][ii]

Have you ever been paralyzed with fear? You know, so afraid that you knew that as soon as you could you would run away? Most of my elemental fears have had to do with running into bears or snakes while out hiking. But fear can happen in more intimate settings, like trying to say something honest about ourselves to someone who has hurt us before, or it can happen in more public settings, like being put on the spot to say something perhaps controversial or unpopular (or just self-revealing) when the public space is not necessarily safe.[iii]

When I used to teach outdoor education and do high ropes work with youth groups, hauling kids 40 feet up into the tree line to traverse obstacle courses in the hopes of learning something about themselves and working with others, I would describe our experience as falling within one of three concentric circles. The first and smallest circle I would describe as our comfort zone. This circle contains all that is familiar and routine, it is navigable, it is our ‘home’ space. It is where we encounter our family and closest friends. Here we are safe. Stepping outside our comfort zone brings us to the next circle where we encounter the unfamiliar, where we try new things and have new experience. Here is where we take the risks through which we learn to encounter our world and trust ourselves. This somewhat larger circle I would call the learning zone. Beyond this circle is yet one more that I would call the danger zone. Out here we become preoccupied with personal safety. At this point, where fear takes over, we no longer have the capacity for learning but try everything we can do to retreat. Now, I always wanted my students to be in the learning zone, because I wanted them to learn valuable lessons. That is why we practiced what we called “challenge by choice.” The problem is, faithfulness to God’s call sometimes takes us further to that place not only of risk but also of danger.[iv]

I would like to think that Jesus spent part of his forty days in the wilderness, as he traced the history of his people, contemplating the prophet Elijah and facing his own fears so that when he returned he would be prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

In his book, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire, which we have been studying in our Adult Class during Lent, Rick Ufford-Chase has written that “Fear is the overarching characteristic of the broader culture in the United States today.”

Look just below the belligerences and bravado of our politicians, and it is easy to intuit the deep sense of insecurity in the general population to which they are responding. We feel unsafe about our livelihoods. Many of us feel alienated and disconnected from our neighbors. We are concerned that our kids won’t be able to find secure jobs to care for their families. Too many of us are just a medical crisis away from economic disaster. Many of us are trying to juggle the responsibilities of our own families with the livelihoods of others who work for us in small businesses that never quite make it economic stability.

As citizens, we are anxious about the constant state of a war on terror to which our country has committed itself, fearful as terrorist attacks are replayed endlessly in the media. Our fear of anyone – and perhaps everyone – who is ‘different’ from us is intentionally fueled by public discourse that suggests building walls on our borders, patrolling our neighborhoods, arming ourselves to ‘stand our ground,’ locking up criminals, and refusing entry to all we see as enemies (currently, Muslims). Our growing fear is not accidental – it is the result of a well-funded and ceaseless campaign by the powers and principalities that stand to gain big while our anxiety grows, as we buy into the myth that redemptive violence can make us safer.[v]

Now Rick’s examples of fear remind me that alongside flight, which is my preferred stance when I am afraid, there is also the option to fight. Fight or flight, right? While I like to back away, some people attack that which scares them, or take an aggressive (and therefore distancing) stance in conversation, intimidating others into submission.

But fear, we have said many times before, is only overcome by action. Rick cites 1 John, “perfect love cast out fear.” It is true, but the love that casts out fear is not a thought or a feeling. Rick makes it clear that what love-in-action looks like is solidarity: standing with or walking beside someone else. Fear is not overcome in thought, but through acts of courage – a standing up for, or even better, standing with another.

A couple of moths ago, when a small group in the church was discussing responses to gun violence that would involve action by our congregation beyond lobbying for changes in legislation, we identified fear as our chief problem. Guns make us afraid. That is their point. And in a debate over gun control, one side is armed. Well, since then, the high school students of Parkland have shown us what courage looks like, haven’t they. Once one has been shot at, I suppose there is little left to fear.

As the prophet Elijah reflect in Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Fifth Mountain, “fear exists until the moment when the unavoidable happens. After that, we must waste none of our energy on it.”[vi]

During our small group discussion, I shared a story that I have been asked to share with the congregation. It comes from the time I spent (along with Rev. Sarah Henkel and Will Summers) in Standing Rock, North Dakota, as part of the clergy gathering of solidarity in November 2016. You will recall that the Standing Rock Sioux, joined by representatives of nearly every North American tribal body with support from non-indigenous people across the country, were occupying a portion of their own un-ceded land through which Dakota Access Pipeline was being laid to carry oil for export from the Bakkan shale oil fields in North Dakota all the way to ports in Louisiana. At issue was both indigenous sovereignty, which the United States has never respected, and clean water, on which the Standing Rock Sioux, and all of us, depend. By protecting their own watershed, the “water protectors” were protecting all of us.

The frontline of protest was the pipeline path, but while we were there a decision was made to take the protest to the governor in the capitol city of Bismarck. We gathered at the capitol building and a small group occupied the lobby. This group was told that the governor has already left the building – whether he was hiding or had fled we don’t know – and when they insisted the governor either come down or come back this first group was arrested and bussed away to jail. Those of us outside were then ordered to disburse. Instead, we marched three-blocks to the governor’s mansion and gathered on the sidewalk across the street from his home. The governor came out to watch us, but refused to meet with the indigenous leaders who wanted, among other things, a stop to the intense police violence at the protest site. That, after all, was the reason over 1000 clergy had come – to stand in solidarity beside indigenous leaders who were daily being beaten up, gassed, shot, infiltrated and chased by dogs. When the governor chose to watch rather than talk, standing behind the line of perhaps twenty armed police officers, four persons from our group crossed the street, stepped onto the governor’s property, and knelt down to pray for the meeting to take place.

At this point nearly a hundred militarized police appeared in full riot gear with masked helmets, shields, clubs, and assault weapons. They appeared from where they had been waiting around the corner for just this moment. They came from every direction. A young Sioux was snatched from our line and taken hostage by the police. With each order for our immediate dispersal, the line of police would advance toward us across the street. Our leadership was negotiating the release of the prisoner. And the weapons kept getting closer. We were offered a “free speech zone” several blocks away where we could continue our protest – out of sight of the governor, out of sight of the neighbors, and most importantly out of sight of the commuters now returning home from work. One very smart and experienced organizer suggested we walk back and forth on the sidewalk, moving but staying on public property, continuing to exercise our first amendment rights, and removing any legal basis for arresting us.

Now here is my point. I’ve been to enough protests and marches to know this was smart move. I leapt on the opportunity to start moving rather than simply standing in front of the advancing police line. And I experience no small amount of relief from the fact that we were, for the moment, marching away form the weapons. Back and forth we went, I went, weighing my relief with my fear and a sense of cowardice, not feeling good about myself, but also not wanting to be hit. But when it became clear that the indigenous leadership was not moving, that one them was still a prisoner, that negotiations were continuing … when it became clear that they were staying, then it became really clear where I belonged, come what may. At that point my sense fear evaporated, I had a sense of resolve instead, and I took my place again on the line.

Knowing where to stand, or who to stand with: this is the key. This is love, not as thought or feeling, but as solidarity. And this love casts out fear.

I would like to think Jesus spent part of his time in the wilderness wrestling with his own personal fears, including arrest, torture and execution under Roman occupation. Having confronted his people’s legacy of violence, and the theologies used to justify it (Forty Days with Noah); having decided to take sides in the conflicts of his day, to side with the oppressed against the oppressors (Forty Days with Moses); he now had to face the implications of those choices – actual conflict with the rulers of the age. His companion was Elijah, the prophet who fled in fear from the consequences of his words and action, but who was also most decidedly sent back to continue his work, come what may. Interestingly, I learned this week that “within the history of the Elijah tradition, “fear” was subtly changed to “awareness” – a simple alliteration in vowels in Hebrew – so that the mighty prophet is represented as running away not because he is frightened but because he “sees”; he is prudently aware of Jezebel’s implicit threat.” Perhaps, but he also returned with eyes wide open. I said earlier that I would tell you why we read the extended gospel reading. It was to include that Jesus emerged from the wilderness precisely when John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus stepped in, and stepped up, to continue John’s work of denouncing injustice and calling for repentance, even after John had been jailed for that very message. Only Jesus’ message was strengthened and enriched by his testing in the wild.[vii]

I encourage you to reflect this week, our fourth in Lent, on your own fears; to join a rich conversation with others here about the kinds of fears that hold you back from doing what you know God is calling you to do. Elijah, by the way, never had trouble hearing God. Many preachers have used this passage to tell us that God was not in all the noise – of earthquake, wind or fire – but instead needed Elijah to be still and quiet enough to hear God whisper. But the passage does not locate God in a “still small voice,” but as a clear voice that came after an expectant silence. My favorite translation of moment comes from a French Bible that describes this as “the sound of a vanishing silence.” In other words, a moment of anticipation in which silence passes away, or is about to pass away, into speech – a moment of expectancy. I take this to mean that God is found in the readiness to hear, and to respond.[viii]

Thich Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, has written that “We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future.” Joy, however, is found in the present. Or as Jesus said, “The time is now. Now, is the acceptable, or accepting, time. Believe the good news. The kingdom is near.” [ix]




[i] Adapted from Walter Brueggemann. 1 & 2 Kings: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. (Smyth and Helwys, 2000). For an analysis of what was probably the original Elijah narrative, and the differences between it and our present text, see Davie Napier, The Best of Davie Napier: Come Sweet Death; Time of Burning; Word of God Word of Earth. (Abingdon, 1970, 1976, 1981 respectively. Collection, 1991). I was sorely tempted to use the reconstructed original text in worship, as it reads so well, but the ’40 days’ motif would have disappeared, being a later addition to further correlate Elijah with Moses, Horeb with Sinai.

[ii] Ahab was remembered for having practiced both idolatry and injustice. Wes Howard-Brook is particularly clear, however, that “the ‘religious’ charge of worshipping false gods is never separate from the socioeconomic charge of practicing injustice. Scholars who have attempted to separate ‘cultic’ from ‘social justice’ questions in the prophets have radically misunderstood the integrated perspective that the prophets proclaim.” On Ahab serving as a vassal of the Assyrian Empire, see Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010). Pp. 161-165.

[iii] There was a particularly pertinent article about fear in this morning’s Washington Post that I wish I had incorporated into this sermon. Called, provocatively, “At Yale, We Conducted an Experiment to Turn Conservatives into Liberals,” the authors describe not only a wealth of research but a recent experiment that demonstrated that a subjects sense of personal safety significantly altered their answers to questions on a range of divisive social issues. “All of us believe,” they write

that our social and political attitudes are based on good reasons and reflect our important values. But we also need to recognize how much they can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know this already and attempt to manipulate our votes and party allegiances by appealing to these potent feelings of fear and of safety.

Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.

[iv] Fascinating article in The Washington Post this morning about how our personal experience of safety and security shapes the way we interpret and respond to the world, and how fear affects out political judgments. The substance is neither new nor surprising. We all understand how easily fear can be manipulated, but the experiment was able to produce a sense of safety significant enough to affect political judgment by simply asking participants to imagine themselves with superpowers, one of which was invulnerability. The affect was immediate.

[v] Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire. (UnShelved, 2016). p. 167. Wrestling with the myth of redemptive violence, I imagined earlier, was part of Jesus wilderness experience. I examined this through the story of Noah’s forty days on Ararat. On Solidarity, see in particular the reflection by Aric Clark in chapter 9.

[vi] Paulo Coelho, The Fifth Mountain. (HarperCollins, 1998). p. 142. The words are actually spoken by the governor of Zaraphath, but the paragraph continues, “Elijah felt the same way, though he was ashamed to recognize it.” This is why I has changed the quote to “Elijah echoed” rather than “He said to Elijah.”

[vii] On fear and prudent awareness, see Davie Napier, The Best of Davie Napier: Come Sweet Death; Time of Burning; Word of God Word of Earth. (Abingdon, 1991) p. 150. See also Brueggemann. 1 & 2 Kings, for a description of how this silence, “whatever is was,” served to get Elijah’s attention.

[viii] A. Chouraqui, cited in Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity. (Wipf and Stock, French 1988, English 1991). p. 34.

[ix] Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting through the Storm. (HarperOne, 2012).

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