This is the homily preached at Grace Anglican Church on Sunday 23 June (Proper 7 Year C).
Our Old Testament lesson this morning, taken from 1 Kings 19:1-18, brings us to yet another well-known and well-loved story: Elijah run for his life, God supernaturally provides for him, and then Elijah hears God’s small still voice after some big mighty signs that one would normally expect to be the awesome voice of God: thunder and wind and fire and such. There is plenty in this story worth commenting on, but I want to focus chiefly on the miraculous self-revelation of God to Elijah. Though let’s first quickly work our way through the story to that point.
Why was the lectionary out of order this month?
June 2nd: 1 Kings 18 – Elijah vs. the Priests of Baal
June 9th: 1 Kings 17 + Luke 7:11-17 = both have resurrection miracles
June 16th: 1 Kings 21 – Ahab & Naboth’s Vineyard + Luke 7:36-8:3 = both have sinners forgiven
June 23rd: 1 Kings 19 – Elijah flees into the wilderness
The first two readings from 1 Kings this season are swapped in order to better match the sequential Gospel readings. As for why we’re reading chapter 19 after chapter 21, scholars differ in opinions regarding the exact chronology of the latter half of 1 Kings, as nearly each chapter is a self-contained story easily spanning a long period of time. If the books of Kings are compilations from multiple authors, then it’s very possible that the chronology is slightly overlapping in places. Thus, it is possible to assume that what happens in chapter 19 takes place after chapter 21. After all, it might make more sense for God to order Elijah to anoint Jehu king of Israel after declaring Ahab’s judgment.
Elijah’s flight takes him on a familiar pilgrimage.
Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb. This is the same mountain in Sinai where Moses received the Law. Even better, many scholars through history have posited that the cave in which Elijah rested may well have been the same “cleft of the rock” where Moses was placed in order to see God’s glory from behind. Additionally, by fasting for 40 days & 40 nights, Elijah matched the key moments in the lives of Moses and Jesus as they fasted in preparation for great moments – especially Moses as he fasted while staying atop this same mountain with the Lord. And finally, centuries later, Elijah and Moses and Jesus would finally meet on top of another mountain!
God’s revelation on the mountain is surprising.
Mountaintop experiences in the Bible tend to be pretty awesome: Jesus was transfigured, Moses saw God’s “back,” Elijah saw God’s power. Old Jewish teaching asserted that the wind and earthquake and fire here in 1 Kings 19 were the heavenly hosts – God’s angels in action. Although these were divine demonstrations of power which God sometimes used to communicate himself, these were not God’s true glory. That was reserved for the stillness of a moment: God spoke softly to Elijah’s troubled spirit. The smoke by day and fire by night was an appropriate revelation for suspicious and rebellious Israel, but Elijah had already seen the power and might of God on Mount Carmel in defeating the Priests of Baal. Elijah didn’t need proof of God, or a shocking wake-up call; he needed encouragement and a new direction.
Elijah’s encouragement was that “7,000 people” in Israel were still faithful to God even though Elijah didn’t know them. Elijah’s new direction was a group of new leaders to anoint: a king of Syria to punish Israel from without, a king of Israel to punish them from within, and the next prophet to point them back to God after.
How does God reveal himself today?
Revelation is a tricky thing. The pattern in the Bible seems to be that the flashiest manifestations of God go to the most faithless people, leaving God’s faithful followers the more subtle appearances. Think about people like Judas Iscariot and Caiaphas the High Priest – they saw God in the flesh and still missed him. The suspicious and rebellious Exodus generation saw God’s smoke and fire over the Tabernacle and ate manna in the wilderness for forty years. The nervous Prophet, Moses, saw God’s “back.” The faithful Prophet, Elijah, heard God’s “small still voice.” The Messiah, Jesus, cried out “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
In that spirit, it’s important to observe that the two chief ways God has ordained to reveal himself to his people in the New Covenant age are through his Word and Sacraments. The Church has always had a very high view of both of these. The Bible is – or contains – the living word of God. It is such a perfectly sufficient account of God’s identity and work in the person of Jesus Christ that it contains “all things necessary for salvation.” Its human authors were so divinely inspired that consider it a sort of ‘living document’ which continues to speak afresh to God’s people to this very day. That’s why it’s critically important not to neglect “the public reading of Scripture,” as St. Paul warned Timothy.
So that’s the Word; also there’s the Sacraments. Especially in Baptism and in the Eucharist, God reveals himself “in spirit and in truth.” The power of God is at work in them, bringing about new life through Baptism and sustaining that new life through the Eucharist. In much the same way we assert that God speaks through the Bible, we also assert that God acts through the Sacraments. Incidentally, this is also partly why both the preaching of the Word and the administering of the Sacraments have been tied to the ordained ministry: the communication and action of God are not to be taken lightly.
What about signs and wonders?
Perhaps the biggest objection to the classic “Word and Sacrament” model of God’s self-revelation in the New Covenant age is the question of miracles. Throughout the ministry of Jesus and of the Apostles we read story after story of miraculous events and accomplishments. The lame are made to walk, the blind regain their sight, the dead are raised! There are two key responses to this.
The first point is that signs and wonders – miracles – are usually wrought to confirm those who are weak in faith. Not necessarily for those who are utterly faithless; the Gospel books do point out that Jesus did few miracles in Galilee because of the many people who seriously doubted him. But when people were seeking God, he took their mustard seed of faith and grew it into an enormous tree through the working of a miracle. Throughout the history of the Church, most of the miracles we read about God performing through his Saints take place in the midst of evangelism. Also, there are many stories of Eucharistic miracles – drops of blood coming from the consecrated host – these miracles reportedly take place when the Priest or someone else receiving it has a moment of doubt. Whether you believe all these miracle stories or not, the pattern is the same as in Scripture: God’s primary purpose in these flashier manifestations is to raise up the weak of faith, helping “spiritual babes” to become more mature.
This leads me to the second point – with spiritual maturity comes not only the greater responsibility to exercise our spiritual gifts and fulfill our various callings in Christ, but also the expectation that we “learn to be content in any situation.” I don’t mean to say that once you become a mature Christian you’ll never see any miracles again, but that God expects you not to rely on them anymore. Instead we’re called to behold the greater mysteries of the Gospel. Instead of seeing the miraculous physical healing from cancer in a previously-terminally-ill patient, we are to see the miraculous spiritual healing when a sinner repents and believes and is baptized. Instead of seeing the miraculous provision of physical sustenance in bread and water, we are to see the miraculous provision of spiritual sustenance in the Body and Blood of Christ. These mysteries and miracles are no less miraculous than the first – indeed they are even more so! It is only the visible aspect that has become more subtle.
We all long for this.
As this today’s Psalms say, our souls long after God like a hunted deer pants for water. We all desire to be with God and to see him with our own eyes. We all cry out, silently or noisily, when we’re in distress and feel like God is far away. But as we collect ourselves, we remember that God is our help and our strength; “I will yet give thanks to him… the help of my countenance, and my God.” In his mercy, God brings us to “his holy hill… his dwelling,” and depending on the state of our walk with him, that means different things. The Israelites who left Egypt literally came to a mountain and saw God’s stormy fiery presence. Elijah literally came to a mountain and saw God’s subtle presence. We come “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” All this, and more, we are about to encounter in Holy Eucharist. Let us behold him with the eyes of faith, and so worship and adore him that our hearts overflow with thanksgiving until the world around us cannot help but see the miraculous love of God with us.
And so let us pray:
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.