Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 5, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Why is this story in the Bible? Why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?
For those of you who have studied the story of Jonah, or remember me mentioning him at the AMOS action two weeks ago, there might be something familiar about Elijah’s behavior today. Jonah, having successfully called the nation of Nineveh to repent, retreats to a tree. There he asks God to kill him dead.
It makes no sense: Jonah is successful. Why isn’t he walking around, chest out, grinning, waving his arms at the people? Why isn’t he accepting lauds and honor? Why isn’t he tweeting about how great he is?
Because Jonah knows he is not great. Jonah knows how hard he worked to dodge God’s call. He is ashamed by the contrast between his reticence and the quick and total willingness of this faithless foreign nation to give obedience and praise to God. His request to die is petulant and fueled by shame.
Elijah, on the other hand, is just plain tired.
Elijah suddenly appears in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings with no backstory, no lineage, no character development.
He tells King Ahab, who has married outside of their faith and allowed other religions to be practiced, that such religious promiscuity has condemned Israel to a drought.
Elijah then retreats to the wilderness.
God assures Elijah that he will be safe because God has charged ravens to bring Elijah both meat and bread, both morning and evening. Carrion birds will bring him nourishment in the form that is most natural to them—animals—but also in the form that is so natural to God—bread.
Then Elijah’s water source dries up—whether by God’s doing or not, we do not know—so he has to move on. He comes upon a starving widow and her child who are preparing a final meal before death. When she agrees to include Elijah in that meal, the widow’s supplies of flour and oil remain steady.
Elijah lives like this for some time, even bringing the widow’s son back to life, before returning to King Ahab’s court. When he does, it is not in triumph. Elijah returns to his nation in order to do battle with those other religions. It is a battle of that literally includes fire and brimstone, blood and gore, much of it at Elijah’s own hands.
I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile the actions of those who say they love God so much that they will break the commandment not to kill in order to prove that love. This is particularly confusing to me because of how often people who are not followers of God’s covenant prove to be agents of the divine: The widow was a Phoenician, not an Israelite; ravens have no nationality.
Our scripture does not paint a consistent picture of God, or perhaps it reflects our inconsistent understanding of God.
Regardless, Elijah’s violent actions leave his life under threat. Though he has demonstrated God’s power above all, he is not safe. The community of those Elijah has murdered threaten to come after him. That’s why we find him under a tree today.
Elijah doesn’t have the opportunity that Jonah squandered. He cannot remain in a nation that thanks him for his prophetic message. He has to flee the one that he has torn apart. Elijah retreats to the wilderness that has been his sanctuary. He gets under a tree, asking God to let him die. It’s enough, God, let me go. I have not done any better than those who tried before me.
Again, why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?
Last week when word of our queer-friendly youth Halloween party got blasted out onto the Web and a legion of self-appointed Elijahs came at us, much of the complaint against our church—both for being open and affirming of people who are LGBTQIA and of people who are female—was due to our alleged denial of scripture, or our heretical refusal to take it as the unerring, perfect, divinely dictated, word of God.
Slings and arrows, firebombs and napalm of chapter and verse were lobbed at our faith.
But we didn’t engage. We didn’t engage because we know that there is no winning in a war of chapter and verse. There is nothing that can’t be denied or supported by the Bible. Again, how is Elijah being faithful to the God of the Ten Commandments by murdering people, thus breaking one of the Ten Commandments of that God?
The Bible is not an honest broker because it presents a logically consistent narrative with predictable, formulaic outcomes. It is an honest broker because it refuses to do as much.
And in that refusal, it offers us the hope that we need when we find ourselves weary, sorrowful, and ready to give up.
The God’s honest truth is that there is no person, not even one as faithful to God as Elijah, who can walk in faith without also walking, at times, in sorrow and in weariness.
And it is the God’s honest truth that sometimes we make ourselves sick with anger and jealousy like Jonah when we refuse to take that walk of faith.
When Elijah was at his lowest point, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and heard an offer of food. It was not a feast, but bread baked in the rough and some water. Elijah had enough strength to get those down before needing to rest again. Again, a hand on his shoulder and the encouragement to eat. The angel did not make any promises of glory or ease. It only said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?
So that we do not hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. So that we know God is working with ordinary people like us. So that we remember to allow ourselves to be fed by God.
Truly, faith is not a perfect shield, or a shield that allows us to claim perfection. Faith made corporate—religion—is not a guarantee of happiness or a license for abusive righteousness.
But it is the tree under which we can become aware of angels offering sustenance. It is the tree that we can nurture to such a size that it provides sustenance for all. Because as Jesus—the inheritor of the story of Nineveh, and the story of the ravens, and the story of the Phoenician widow; as Jesus who healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, who healed the Roman soldier’s slave, who ate with the man who betrayed him—teaches us, the protection of God really is for all.