Saturday, 18 June 2022

Just the Whisper of an Echo

"Elijah" - abstract image, detail of stained glass from All Hallows' Wellingborough

 "and after the fire a sound of sheer silence" (1 Kings 19:12b)

The story so far… Elijah and the Prophets of Baal have had a “who’s got the best god” competition. Elijah has won, by calling down fire from heaven onto a soaking wet altar to burn the soaking wet sacrifice. Having won, he’s had all the Prophets of Baal killed. None of this is part of the training for Christian ministers in England, I notice. They tend more towards pebbles, tea lights and cairns.

But we’ve all done it, haven’t we. Come back from slaughtering our enemies and bringing down fire, and then you hit the wall. OK, so maybe not quite. We’ve all taken part in something really good – maybe organised something that worked really well, and then the adrenalin washes out of you and you think to yourself –  did I achieve anything worthwhile?

I remember Janis Joplin’s words. “Onstage I make love to twenty-five thousand people, then I go home alone” Again, not something Christian ministers are mostly trained for in the UK, though I notice a few in the states have a bash at something like this from time to time.

And let's face it - Elijah's just called fire from heaven. With that firepower at his disposal, he has no need to fear Jezebel's threats. The shortest war in history was in 1896. The self-declared Sultan of the tiny island state of Zanzibar refused to surrender to the British Empire. The war lasted roughly three quarters of an hour. This is roughly where Jezebel is in respect to Elijah. He knows he has the armies of the God of Israel on his side if he wants them.

But Elijah's spent. The adrenalin's gone. If he were an English vicar on a Sunday afternoon, after 3 services and two anonymous letters complaining about assorted issues that people feel VERY ANGRY ABOUT, he'd be asleep on the sofa. And he runs. Which is more than most Anglican vicars can do on a Sunday post-lunch, to be fair.

And he leaves his servant behind. Where's the sense in that? Maybe he thinks he's saving his servant form his own fate, but it's also one thing we can do in similar situations - when feeling low, we can decide we're either a pain or a hindrance to others. And then we lose the moral support we might need. As well as leaving them feeling hurt. But it happens.

And off he goes into the desert. And he asks to die. But he's got the common sense to fall asleep under a broom tree, so he's got some shade.

And when he wakes up, an angel is there.

Now you would think, wouldn't you, that if God's gone to all the trouble to send Elijah one of his supernatural assistants, that the least that could happen is some kind of miracle. But no - or not really - the angel gives him food and drink.

He has another nap. And another gift of food and drink from the angel. Sometimes you can come to the conclusion that you're under spiritual attack - or you're useless or ineffective or can't do anything - and maybe all you really needed was to get a good meal inside you. Remember the advert for Snickers - "you're not yourself when you're hangry." We're spiritual and physical beings. We need to look after both. And when we're suffering in one, the other can be affected.

And he's ready to go. Forty days and nights. That good old reliable number 40. There's parallels all over this passage aren't there? Moses and the people of Israel were in the desert forty years. And while they were there, they were fed with manna and with water from the rock. So Elijah's basically Israel in isolation here. This is the way he feels. He reckons he's the only one fighting the good fight - despite the fact that he manifestly had help in slaying the Prophets of Baal - and he is just little Israel all on his own. Carrying the faith of The LORD all by himself.

And Jesus spent forty days in the desert as well. And he was tended by angels. And he was again the ultimate representative of Israel.

And like Jesus, who stood on a mountain when he was tempted and again when he was transfigured (with Moses and Elijah alongside, remember) - and again on a hill just off Mount Zion when he died - Elijah arrives at a mountain. Mount Horeb, where Moses saw the burning bush. Where he struck water from the rock. Where - according to Deuteronomy - he received the 10 Commandments. This is the mountain of God. And, if it's where it is supposed to be according to tradition, it's conveniently not in Israel. In fact, it's not even in Judah. It's in Egypt. It's a place where he is safe. And so he can relax. And he can listen to God.

And doesn't he moan first? I've done it all on my own - he hadn't. He's the only one left. No he's not. But still, get it off your chest, Elijah.

And he gets these revelations of God's power. The earthquake, the wind and the fire. And yet - though these are God's doing - God is not in there. But they're great reminders of who's on Elijah's side, whatever he claims.

And then the "sound of sheer silence", the "daughter of a voice", the "still small voice", the whisper of an echo. And we don't hear what it says. But the echo of the voice clearly lets him know who's on his side. But it's the voice that stands him up, and turns him round, and sends him back out. But he's had to get out in the silence to hear it.

And now he's up and running. Maybe we all need those wilderness, those mountain-top experiences to hear that whisper of an echo sometimes. And fed, rested, in touch with God - now he knows he's not alone. God is with him. And so are God's faithful people. He's ready to go.

(Stained glass "Elijah" detail from stained glass at All Hallows, Wellingborough)

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