Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles

a sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

“My home is in heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.”

Billy Graham is among those to say things like that. It may not surprise you that I dislike this notion, locating faith as bound for far away, not here amid this world, amid creation. As an escape from our reality, not as God’s presence and engagement with us. I believe this world is our home. You’re not destined for someplace else. God created you and put you here, and our faith has its heart and essential vibrancy in that God is traveling through this world with you. Not only is this your home: the home of God is among mortals.

Yet that leaves some explaining to do. Not just for disagreeing with Billy Graham. Much more because this world is obviously so far from perfect and heavenly. We yearn for something much different, something better. That is what this heavenly notion points to—that suffering and worry is temporary, that those who are against you won’t be around forever, that the diseases infecting you and strains pulling at you and sadness drowning you will pass, won’t win, and besides coming to an end, must be replaced by wellbeing and peace and joy. Even if it’s having to wait until this life is over, still, if heaven were your home, then wrongs would by definition be a fluke, with bigger and better intentions for you.

I can’t just rule that out. The tension is that we do hope. We don’t simply resolve ourselves to say this is the best of all possible worlds, as bad as it is. We don’t put up with what’s not right as if pretending there’s nothing better. Our faith needs to say that God does not intend pointless suffering, that God is neither incompetent nor uncaring.* There must be some repair, some refreshing, some restoration and renewal. Whether elsewhere and later or here and now, we want something to hope for, to hope in.

Last week we heard hope with children, in a statement “unto us a child is born,” the possibility of the future, the very existence of a child’s life as a sacrament of God’s good intentions for life, with hope beyond the power of the fiercest empire, the ongoing turning of history, the sense of fresh beginnings.

Yet from Isaiah’s word then at the birth of Hezekiah, from his hopefulness that military might would not remain the determining factor against the people, from his declaration that even if you feared the darkness a light would dawn, as Isaiah’s vision was looking past the terrors of the Assyrian Empire, they ended up staring a short while later directly at another threat. Isaiah may have been right that the Assyrians wouldn’t conquer the southern kingdom of Judah. But the Babylonians did.

That meant the king and queen mother and family, the officials, the elders, the leaders, the priests, those with prestige or power, as well as pretty much anybody with talent or skills or crafting capabilities was deported, exiled to Babylon. They left behind the dregs of society, the poor and least talented, which included Jeremiah as sort of a remnant prophet, seen as not up to par with the others. And they left behind vast destruction. Much of the capital city of Jerusalem got obliterated.

That eventually included the temple, which bears a few extra words. A month ago, we heard about King Solomon building that temple, viewed as the dwelling place of God. Inside the Holy of Holies, seated on the ark of the covenant, was God’s place. That was where to go to get close to God.

Which raised the confounding question for Jeremiah’s people in exile: what happened to God? It wasn’t only a question of where to worship; they had to ask whom to worship. They were far from God’s place, but it may have even been that God was defeated, was gone. So what to make of life then?

Some counseled brief patience, that things would be brighter before long. These so-called false prophets—because they offered false hopes—said that the exiles would be home within two years. It’s a variation on being a stranger here traveling through this world, that you just need to put up with it, grit your teeth, grin and bear it for a little while, because it would soon pass. I read a phrase this week referring to their work as “merchandising nostalgia.”* Whether looking to the past or offering an impossible future, there is this business of trying to convince people of what will be, or could be, or anything other than present reality.

In the church, this it its own cottage industry, harkening back to the good ol’ days, when Sunday School classrooms were full and Wednesday night was church night and theologians had an important voice in shaping society and Christian values helped inform the norms of culture.

Those days aren’t coming back. One parent said this week that her child may be the only one in his class who goes to church. Lives are so fully programmed with activities that Sunday morning serves as another slot for more, or else the only pause during a hectic week. You know well you’re apologizing too often for allegedly “Christian” morality that’s perverse and shameful, like among those who remain vocally supportive of a senate candidate with predatory sexual tendencies. No, none of that points to a very immediate return to glory days of the church in America.

If such fears aren’t exactly where we’d set our sights at Advent and MCC anyway, if we’re pleased with Sunday School and using our voice for positive influence in culture and figuring out how to be Christians at this time and to live well, still we know the struggle.

On this day observed as Christ the King Sunday, we remember that this isn’t triumphal success or getting swept up in the endtimes, but is Jesus who loved to death, who told us to see him in the poor and hungry and imprisoned and ill and outcast, who revealed God for us not through visions of the future but within our own lives. We say he’ll come again. But we need him for now.

That’s also what Jeremiah’s talking about. He won’t claim everything will be alright, or same as it ever was, or all glittery and happy. Neither will Jeremiah suggest remorse that puts up with misery for the meantime. In this letter we heard today, he lets these people know they won’t be coming home anytime soon. It will be several generations before the exile is over. Throughout their lifetime, then, God’s word is to go ahead—to plant gardens, to have weddings and celebrations, even to strive for the good among their captors, to seek the good of the city where they didn’t choose to live.

It’s notable within this that Jeremiah doesn’t direct them how they ought to practice religion without the temple, when life won’t allow for weekly worship. Neither is there the standard biblical injunction not to get tied up risking intermarriage with foreigners. Indeed, before the people leave from Babylon they’ll have assimilated enough to take on Babylonian names and adopt some of the language as their own. They’ll have had to deal with the rest of life, like other foods and jobs and changed social standing.

With this, I read plenty this week on society receiving strangers, on what it means to be a refugee or immigrant, how they adapt to new cultures and maintain old identities. Those are important cultural conversations.

But I’m most invested in what God’s word means for your lives, especially those places you’d prefer not to find yourselves, for what’s not going perfectly, for what seems too often boring or frustrating or, indeed, hopeless. I hear dissatisfaction with jobs and worry at how family gatherings play out and the feeling of wasting valuable time that has been given to you, wondering what else may be and where faith fits into it.

I’m not immune from those things, whether with family friction ill-resolved by me or with spending my vacation day working on this sermon with diversions putzing with laundry and ridiculously mowing my lawn after Thanksgiving while distractedly and desperately pondering selfish wishes and seriously speculating on what would be more important, how I could really make a difference, what exactly life is supposed to be.

In that way, there’s a verse in our reading that gets an awful lot of attention. Verse 11 said, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not to harm, to give you a future with hope.” This verse suffers the inspirational merchandising of posters, graduation cards, mugs, blogs, and more. I take that to mean people like to focus on what those future plans of God might be, trying to figure out what is in store, to get geared up for it. It could easily lead to the sense that heaven is your home and this world is only an inconvenient temporary holding area. Or, maybe less supernaturally, that God has big intents and purposes to prosper your life, so you probably should be doing something else, more important and exciting, or even just dreaming about it.

Those reading the Reinhold Niebuhr book might have come across the quote that Christians shouldn’t presume to know too much about the temperature of hell or the furniture arrangements of heaven. It’s the sense that we can’t predict much of any of what is yet to come.

Jeremiah 29:11 says you don’t need to predict it. Your future is entirely secure with God. There is no reason in the world to doubt God’s unfailing goodness and unconditional love for you. God will give peace more than you can possibly understand. You are secure in God’s blessing and promised life. Even if you waste your time or miss the point or blow it completely. Even if you try your hardest and nearly succeed. If you meet everybody’s goals or fail at every last expectation. If you feel comfortably at home or like everything is foreign and you’re far from where you’d prefer to be, still God’s assurance remains with you.

Since you don’t need to be elsewhere or elsewhen, the remaining question is, what do you do for now? One good set of answers: don’t just pass through. Instead, care for the city. Celebrate life. Build your house and cultivate your garden.

* http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=44

* Peterson Run with the Horses p150 (cited by Andy Twiton)Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150

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Isaiah: A Child is Born

sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7

 

“Unto us a child is born.” If I asked you who this is talking about, you would say…? The occasion of remembering this event, then,  is the holiday of…? That sounded like a resoundingly unanimous “Jesus” and “Christmas!”

It’s almost like that standard church joke that the answer to every question must be Jesus. I’d say I’m really into Jesus and can hardly stop talking about the guy, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In this section of Isaiah, there are three spots that reference a little child: in chapter 7, here in chapter 9, and again in chapter 11.

Chapter 7 is used about Jesus. That’s where we pick up the term Immanuel, which means “God-with-us,” and which we reiterate in our creed today. I believe that’s exactly what Jesus came to embody, the sense that God is with us from birth to death, to know your joys and laughter and feasting celebrations, and is with you in sickness and weeping and when you’re left out and suffering injustice. All that about Jesus is quickly summarized by that term Immanuel.

So that Isaiah passage on Immanuel is referenced in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew really likes citations of Old Testament passages. He especially gives us the sense that old writings are fulfilled in Jesus, though again and again we reiterate that these weren’t only waiting for Jesus to be true. He may be a special embodiment of these writings, but we’ll also notice the validity they have apart from him.

At any rate, Matthew picks up Isaiah 7:14 and says, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” Now, we’re not going to delve today into discussions of how “virgin” might be a mistranslation of what simply was “young woman,” and what that means about Mary and about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, we’ll move on to Isaiah 11, the third of the passages referring to a child. This one isn’t directly connected to Jesus anyplace in our Bibles, even though it’s nice imagery. It includes what’s typically called the Peaceable Kingdom: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and a little child shall lead them. I may be predisposed to like that one, since all the carnivores convert to become vegetarian, but it is also so beautiful as harmony among creation, that this vision of what God intends isn’t only about humans being nice to each other, much less something that happens up on a heavenly cloud, but involves all God’s creatures.

With one child passage, then, used for Jesus and one not, that brings us back to our own reading. This one is also directly applied by the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus, though probably not in the way you’d expect. It isn’t related to his birth. It has nothing to do with Jesus as the child who is born or naming him as the prince of peace.

The verse of our reading that is picked up actually just locates the start of Jesus’ ministry around the lake of Galilee, an explanation from Matthew for why something important would happen in a Podunk place, and it’s even phrased as if Jesus would go there just because he knew the Bible verse from Isaiah. Plus, it’s not so much that the verse is fulfilled from Jesus as that it is fulfilled for the people who happened to live around him, that they are the people who have sat in darkness and the region and shadow of death. They have been hurting and oppressed and left out, and the message is that God was mindful in saving them.

We’ll return to the importance of that, but let’s also pause with the sense of that “unto us a child is born” as a Christmas message in our minds and hearts and as a shape of our faith. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. It can be right and proper to perceive Jesus here. But it wasn’t what Isaiah intended. He wasn’t picturing Jesus, much less shepherds and oxen and a manger. Not that those don’t fit. That’s entirely correlated with the same God, and Jesus was an ideal (or the ideal?) embodiment of Isaiah’s words.

But Isaiah meant a different baby. It may have been Hezekiah, a future king and son of Ahaz. Maybe Isaiah was envisioning that Hezekiah would eventually be a good ruler and would bring different leadership to the nation. But it may just have been Isaiah was trying to turn faith away from military and human decisions and deficiencies and back to God, back to hope.

The war imagery in this reading is first about that. See, the Assyrian Empire were the baddest dudes around and the most ruthless conquerors of antiquity (Heschel, The Prophets p207). The newborn’s father, King Ahaz, was trying to strategize allegiances to avoid brutal defeat. But instead of the force of armed alliances, Isaiah says hope is in God. That is what will end the reign of terror, what will mean the burdensome yoke of submission and oppressive rod of intimidation will be broken, the stomping boots and bloody clothes destroyed and forgotten.

The shape of this hope is portrayed in the little phrase “as on the day of Midian,” referring to a story from the book of Judges (ch6-7). Midian had troops too many to count plundering the crops and impoverishing the people. The prophetic reminder then was that God is a God of liberation, from Exodus to that day and onward. Just as for Isaiah, that message restricts hope to the work of God, as thousands from the Israelite army were sent home and a small crew of 300 soldiers was all that remained, but they scared off the Midianites simply with trumpets and torches.

Isaiah ups the ante by not even having 300 soldiers left, but merely a baby. How will the Assyrian Empire, the most fearsome army ever, be overcome? Well, unto us a child is born! As the foremost author on the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, tells us:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment. (p83)

We, of course, proclaim something similar in the birth of Jesus. Just as those titles in Isaiah—wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace—were titles stolen away from foreign rulers, so also when an angel announced “to you is born this day a savior,” it was stealing the title from Caesar Augustus in Rome, who called himself lord and savior and bringer of peace. But no longer could the domineering commander of the largest empire be the one seen to control the fate of the world. Our wellbeing, our hope comes from God alone.

That returns us to today. We’ve said the words of the prophets were first for their own time, secondly applied to Jesus, and, third, continue to be alive for us. We, too, are the people who have walked in darkness and dwelt in the shadow of death. We know tramping warriors and roaring F-16s and nuclear threats. We know the rod of oppressors’ yokes that are debts holding us captive. We know garments that are threadbare with hunger and torn from crawling through barbed wire seeking refuge and bloodied from lack of healthcare, and life is never right with much too much sadness. If you don’t know those things, if you’re not seeing them around you, if you identify with the empire, then you’re ignoring the reality of your siblings, and Isaiah won’t stand for that, either. Our lives, our hurting world, the marginalized and imprisoned and outcast, all nations, the vastness of creation needs release from the terrible oppressive might that would seem to be undefeatable.

We need the hope of God who comes not to destroy the destroyer and cause larger fear, but comes persistently, everlastingly, for peace and joy and love. A God who will be made known and change the world even in the finite fragility of a birth.

Yes, of course, we proclaim that in Jesus. We proclaim that the heart of God, the soul of God, the very identity and image of God’s presence in our world was found in a manger, far from fortress might, homeless and surrounded by stink. That hope proved a different path for peace on earth, and even the threatening injustice that tried to execute and bury that hope could not prevail. Death lost its sting.

But we don’t only look back to Jesus. We continue to see that presence of Jesus and the with-us God now. This passage resonates not only for baby prince Hezekiah or newborn Jesus in a barn. With every birth, Isaiah’s message again and again is true. With the miracle of new life, with precious and tender beauty, within your own families, a child born is the hope that prevails beyond any catastrophe of violence. As the cliché reminds us, having a baby changes everything, including your worldview and sense of the future.

And that sacrament of God’s blessing for us in the vision of youth is with us this morning, as we are reminded the very children here in our midst are a sign of hope, surprising us by continuing to proclaim simply in their existence that death and violence are not what is important or definitive or ultimate, because our light and our exultation, liberation and unstoppable life itself come from God. That’s not just a Christmas message. That’s good news we need any day. So thank you, children, for proclaiming it for us today. Amen

 

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Amos: Justice Rolls Down

sermon on Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
Can I suggest this image of justice and flowing waters must apply to the economic policies of President Reagan, even though it may first ring in your ears associated with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement?

Such observations occur for these six weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, that the words of prophets, the word of the Lord continues to speak, to have varied voice. That’s true, though we isolate some of these passages as applying only to one instance—whether the Civil Rights era for today or amid Handel’s Messiah and Christmas Eve services with next week’s reading from Isaiah. We take the impression that the words have a solitary application.

But that misses several layers of their importance. First, we must remain aware that the prophets weren’t just offering future forecasts, making predictions about a Messiah, as if their message had to wait for hundreds of years to make any sense at all, and now we only look back to verify that their prognostications about Jesus were correct.

The prophets were speaking a message from God, of God’s will and purpose, of God’s command and God’s blessing, primarily to the people of their own time, even if the significance became more timeless. Just as it wouldn’t make sense for me to give a sermon that wasn’t for you but was a time capsule communication for 500 years from now, the words of the prophets were meant and had meaning for their own time and place and people.

So Amos was speaking to his culture’s prosperity, but also injustice. His nation was expanding and profiting, but the benefits weren’t equally shared. People were taking bribes and spurning the courts, selling shoddy merchandise at rip-off prices. They built fancy houses with good landscaping. They lounged on beds of ivory, got dolled up in finery, and went all out enjoying feasts to gulp down bowls of wine with entertainment, but weren’t in the least grieved over distress around them. Amos observed these “fat cows” (as he called them) had too much ease, too much luxury, while others went hungry and poor.

And Amos declared God was against that.

That may seem second-nature to us, but Amos is an entirely new voice within biblical history. It hadn’t addressed God’s concern about economic injustice. Amos speaking of God’s displeasure and opposition for having too much at the neighbor’s expense, and that detrimentally affecting relationships with God—that was a new insistence.

Although Amos was addressing inequality in his own time, these words aren’t isolated to that period. We apply them in other ways, as well. So a central aspect and second layer of importance is in how we understand Jesus as the embodiment of God’s presence partly because he embodies the words of the prophets. From the emphasis of Amos, we recognize Jesus as living out God’s justice, striving for a religion that connects to the wellbeing of the poor, not simply paying lip service to relationships with God and with society. Jesus portrays that living rightly for the marginalized is inherent and vital in relating to God. In our Gospel window today, Jesus says he himself is the living, flowing water to quench the thirst of those who long for justice. Amos had no way of knowing about Jesus, but if he had lived three quarters of a millennium later, Amos would’ve seen Jesus personifying his message.

So the words of Amos were first spoken to his own time. But they are not left as ancient and dead words from 2700 years ago. We also find their fulfillment in Jesus. And the third layer of importance is in other situations and settings where these words keep resonating, as a living message, empowered by the Spirit of God.

So Martin Luther King could take this message, could tweak the wording, and could speak the voice of a long gone biblical sheep owner and dresser of sycamore trees, then to confront racism. This “mighty stream” Martin Luther King proclaimed became one of his favorite images, including in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where in part he said:

We can never be satisfied as long as African Americans are the victims of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity. We cannot be satisfied as long as some cannot vote and others believe they have nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

There it is, Amos again talking through the most famous speech of the 20th Century, not with the old historical moment of ignorant luxury, but a new moment of voting rights and segregation and white supremacy, yet maintaining Amos’s impatience and dissatisfaction at how domineering injustices linger.

Moving to our time, and because Amos was part of shaping this awareness of and resistance to injustice, I want to share a few sentences of a modern instance about elites, echoing the old injustice, in a new book by Naomi Klein. She writes:

What matters is that not one of them appears to be worried about climate change. The early catastrophic events are playing out mostly in poor parts of the world, where the people are not white. And when disasters do strike…, there are growing numbers of ways for the wealthy to buy their relative safety…They will lose some beachfront property, sure, but nothing that can’t be replaced with a new mansion in the mountains…Almost every one of them is catastrophically unconcerned…In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity.*

That condemnation strikes me as a fairly exact parallel of Amos’s critique of those who lie on beds of ivory and neglect the poor at the edge of town. And that’s not only a rebuke from Naomi Klein and Amos, but from God. God is against this elitism that would wall ourselves off from the problems others are having at our expense. That is evil, says the Lord.

Now, all of that might make us question effect. Was God’s message received in Amos’s time? Was it effective in changing the attitudes or behavior of the rich people in oblivious leisure? We don’t know. Martin Luther King’s message still needs to be repeated for our white ears. Naomi Klein may not be speaking directly to the situation of us in this room as climate denying elites, but it’s a message that resonates in our lives anyway and at the very least needs to be spoken.

Finally, however, I’m also aware that in a few minutes we will be offering our pledges of how we use our time and our skills and our financial resources. Almost certainly, Amos’s message of economic justice is relevant and should affect our consideration for those decisions and dedications.

That realization that this matters for what we do brings me back around to President Reagan. For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about Amos’s vision of justice as ever-flowing waters, and Martin Luther King’s take on it as a mighty stream, which seems to contrast starkly with the term “trickle-down economics.” President Reagan claimed the top having more would drip down to everyone else. While things have gotten significantly better for those few, by some measures it has actually worsened for many and by all measures income equality is more disparate. The pool for the rich is growing, while the trickle to other 90% of us is drying up.**

Now, obviously that has much broader policy implications. It goes with the conversations about reforming the tax code. And the voice of Amos—indeed, the voice of God—should be part of that discussion, and it may be for us to offer that prophetic voice.

Instead of the slow trickle of justice, God calls us to open the floodgates, to un-dam the river, to gush with goodness. And though the implications can be much broader, still as we gather for worship, we have the chance to practice. We can practice speaking and hearing the truth. We practice envisioning new realities. We live into the justice God calls us to. And our pledges and offerings are a vital part of that. It is the practice of not holding back the floodgates, not keeping dammed up what we either consider our own or have failed to notice we retain at the expense of others who need more. Our worship is an opening for the outpouring of justice.

I confess I don’t suggest this devotional practice lightly, knowing that the largest chunk of what you give here goes to fund me. So I will say, thank you. And with that realization, know that I am swimming eagerly in these waters with you, responding to the invitation to let it flow abundantly and give freely, again increasing by an additional 6% what flows from my hands—or, better, through my hands—for God’s work. Thank you for hearing this prophetic message anew and letting it work on you today, because that is how God comes to quench your thirst also.

 

 

 

* No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, p180

** http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/jan/13/elizabeth-warren/warren-average-family-bottom-90-percent-made-more-/

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All Saints Sunday / God Speaks to Elijah

sermon on 1st Kings 19:1-18
It’s hard to feel alone and have to carry on.

That is my first feeling on this All Saints Sunday, not to give thanks, not of celebration or praise, not of hope or blessing. I first feel the hardness, the lament at being left alone, the clear preference for it not to be this way.

Those people who have left me behind, those from our congregation who died, especially Eileen, John, and Lynne, those other funerals, the deaths we’re remembering today, parents and grandparents, siblings and sons, aunts and nephews, old friends, and at least one classmate, and dogs and cats, the broken community, and all the other losses we continue to bear with us—even when it wasn’t totally tragic and we might admit that the end was a relief, that suffering was over, that the wait had been too long, still I’m not ready to call that my preference. Even when the routines were difficult and existence itself uncertain, still mostly I could keep going in those relationships. In no case am I ready to be done being with the person, sharing life with them. I would rather it not be over. Even when it was a good goodbye, I don’t like goodbyes.

While we talk about a hello on the other side of this, about reunion, about being together again, while we confess our hope in life to come, in resurrection, and I cling to that hope, sometimes desperately, sometimes tenuously, mostly enthusiastically…I believe, and I believe it will be so unbelievably good…but still for this moment that later promise doesn’t sweep me into eternal joy, but feels like a shabby consolation prize. Even expecting God’s ultimate love and goodness, when confronting loss and grief and sorrow and death, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to believe when we’re feeling lonely, and hard to carry on. What we’ve known and trusted and loved about life is missing, and our lives are so dependent on relationships that when those are gone, it’s tough to know how to proceed, what to do next, even how to get up and get going in the morning.

In a way, this is what we hear of the prophet Elijah. Not exactly because of the death of loved ones, but still he is feeling alone, abandoned, diminished, with that accompanying uncertainty of how to proceed.

In Elijah’s case, he tries not carrying on. He’s reasonably running away. This is a veteran prophet, seen even by Jesus as the greatest in the Bible, and yet he’s ready to give up. He’s afraid and frustrated and is just trying to get away from it all. But, of course, a change in scenery doesn’t help, since it’s the nagging self-doubt and internal questions that hound after him. He’s so done he even asks to die. “I’m no better than my ancestors,” he says.

That points to earlier weeks in the Narrative Lectionary, of Elijah’s ancestors wandering in that wilderness. They were freed from slavery in Egypt, but didn’t find the readiness to live into their purpose. They still doubted God’s goodness for them. They kept looking back, as if there were no forward.

Like for those ancestors, then, God’s most basic work is in ongoing sustenance. God provided manna to the hungry complaining travelers in the wilderness. God provides a cake or maybe Palestinian taboon flatbread to Elijah to give him strength for the journey. God sustains you, even as you confront your doubts and feeling lost and not knowing where you need to go next or even if you can take the first step. As you gather at this table this morning, you are assured in the smallest bite of bread of God’s presence with you, God’s blessing for you, God’s life within you. And as you go out from this table to all the other morsels and meals, the bites of food and the breaths of fresh air, the places you sleep and the encounters when you awake, in all of that, you have a never-failing reminder of God sustaining you.

And yet that still may not be enough. The wilderness wanderers groused about manna. Elijah didn’t want to go on, so why would he want strength for the journey? It may not offer you any certainty, either.

So Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, where God had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush to reveal God’s identity and purpose for liberation. In parts of the story the lectionary bypassed, it also says this was the mountain where God spoke amid smoke and lightning with thundering sounds, to give Moses the 10 Commandments so the people could live together well. Also on that mountain, Moses asked to see God directly, and God tucked Moses’ face into a cave and passed by, so Moses could turn to see the back side of God.

Well, that’s the cave where Elijah goes. He’s sustained for the journey by the food, but still isn’t sure why or what. He keeps feeling desperate loneliness and lack of direction. Maybe he has circled back to Mount Horeb to seek some assurance of purpose, to rediscover who God is and what that means. Maybe he needs a burning bush. Maybe he would like a clear command. Maybe he wants to see God. Maybe he longs for a Moses moment. And maybe you, too. For clear revelation. For something that makes a difference. To know that God is on the scene and doing something about it.

That is apparently about to happen in the story. At Mount Horeb, Elijah’s in the right spot for a big vision, for God to show up miraculously. Then come what the insurance industry still tries to convince us are “acts of God”—the earthquakes and hurricanes and lightning and raging fire. Certainly God didn’t avoid such phenomena in other places in the Bible. But just as those have at best an ambiguous message for us—more of destructive power than divine power—here, the cataclysmic events don’t reveal God. They don’t help Elijah.

Instead, finally, after the bombast and spectacle, comes nothing. A sound of sheer silence. Or a still small voice, a gentle whisper, calm and subdued, thin and quiet, a soft murmuring sound. These are all translations of this little phrase. This is God’s presence in a non-obvious way, and with it the question: “What’re you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah, still stuck in his fearful uncertainty repeats his feeling of loneliness. “I alone am left.”

God contradicts Elijah. It’s an odd consolation, perhaps. It isn’t dismissive that everything is going to be okay. Neither does it overturn the problem, for miracles to reverse Elijah’s fortunes. It’s a deeper, quieter, more lasting assurance that Elijah isn’t alone, that he can take the next steps, and, beyond that, God’s work will continue.

Admittedly, Elijah is sent to anoint not only his own successor to carry on the work, but with planned nastiness of regime change and brutal international politics against a tyrant ruler. But even amid those large scale words of war, the more important word—the quieter, again less obviously visible, but more lasting assurance—is that Elijah is far from alone; there are 7000 around him also going ahead with God’s goodness.

This communion of saints is why we gather here today, a brief pause, expecting God to whisper the reminder that you are not alone. As isolating and tragic as grief is, as desolating and difficult as confronting death can be, as much as only you know your loss and how that cannot be restored, and the solitary feeling of abandonment inflicted on you, still you are not alone. You are with this gathering of others, these also who are blessed and sustained by God to keep going.

And not just your own losses, but in larger tragedies and ugliness of violence and politics, you can continue striving, knowing that others—far more than the 7000—also carry on with this quiet, deep, sometimes fearful and often unspectacular blessedness.

Then there’s the still bigger picture of generations. As important as your work is, others were before and will come after us. The church of Jesus, this community of God, the work of God’s blessing and against tyrants in the world, this will persist. It does not stand or fall in our lives, in our dedication or lack of passion. God’s work will continue. That is good news, too.

And, finally, though without the obvious ways you’re told God could appear, nevertheless in your moments of sheer silence and deep, lonely, longing, God quietly is present for you in life now and forever. This isn’t a fantasy of miracles, not a dismissive faith that everything is okay because heaven is waiting. This today, amid grief and confronting the hardness, is the whispered presence to sustain you and give you strength for the journey.

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