June 20, 2010
Elijah should have been on top of the world. He had just been declared the victor in the “Israel’s Top Prophet: Celebrity Edition.” The finale was a doozy. Elijah on one side; on the other 450 prophets of Baal. Their task was to bring fire from heaven down on an altar on which a bull had been killed. The prophets of Baal had tried to work their magic all day, and failed. And then Elijah came up. To make an even more dramatic impression, he instructed the stage crew to drench the altar with water as well as all of the ground around the altar. And then, in contrast to the dramatic efforts of the prophets of Baal, who danced, and shouted and sang, and even cut themselves, Elijah uttered a simple prayer to God. And the fire came. He proved that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was more powerful than Baal.
But Elijah didn’t get the big payoff. He didn’t get his own show on the Prophecy network; he didn’t win $1,000,000. No, he had to flee for his life. He had aroused the wrath of Jezebel, who was the chief promoter of Baal in Israel and she put a contract out on him. So he flees. He flees all the way across Israel, across Judah, and down into the Negev desert where he finally came to the Mountain of God. Mt. Horeb, it’s called here, but we know it better as Mt. Sinai.
What happens next is one of the richest and most dramatic stories in all of scripture. Elijah, to use our language, is burned out. He has done everything God has asked, but in spite of all of his successes, all of his miracles, he seems to be a failure. To buck him up, God promises to appear to him. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Probably not a very good translation here—the KJV reads: “a still, small voice.”
Just like at Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal, God pulls out all of the special effects. In fact, the special effects are the same as when God appeared to the Israelites when he gave the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai. But for Elijah, God was not present in earthquake, wind and fire. The point of the story seems to be that all of the spectacular events, the natural phenomena that might have been associated with the presence of God, may be nothing compared to the direct, quiet voice of Yahweh.
Both the gospel and the epistle readings involve similar confrontations with the divine. In Galatians, Paul is working with one of the central conflicts in the earliest decades of the new Christian movement, indeed, it was really before Christianity and Judaism had established clear boundaries between each other. The community to whom Paul was writing consisted of Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and Gentiles, non-Jews, who also had come to regard Jesus Christ as the Savior of the World. The question for them, and for Paul, was whether Gentiles who joined the community were required to practice the laws of Judaism. To that question, Paul answered a resounding no; but in Galatians he is also attempting to explain why the law was valid for the Jewish community.
In today’s lesson, Paul probably is quoting a baptismal formula, something that was said when early Christians came out of the waters of baptism: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female.” The point of the statement is that traditional barriers, social, religious, ethnic, and gender, no longer exist. The new community called into being by Christ is a community in which such distinctions do not matter. It was a revolutionary claim, and we see in other Pauline letters some attempt on his part to move away from the radicality of that claim. But for now, let’s stay with the idea that this experience of the Risen Christ was so powerful that it changed everything. It changed the way people related to one another. It broke down barriers that were ensconced in religion, society, and the state. It made everyone equal.
The gospel lesson makes something of the same point. Jesus and his disciples have left Jewish territory, they are now on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in Gentile country. The first person they encounter is doubly, or triply, unclean. He is a demoniac, possessed by evil spirits, and he lives among the tombs. Jesus casts out the demons, and when they complain, he casts them into a herd of swine, again, an unclean animal, and they drown themselves in the sea.
This is one of those stories that may be most puzzling to the contemporary mind. Few of us, outside of the Cineplex, encounter people possessed by demons. We might be tempted to interpret such behavior in the gospels as signs of mental illness; and that may be legitimate. But there is another level to the story. The demons are named “legion” and they ask Jesus to allow them to possess the herd of swine. Now a legion was the standard military unit of the Roman army—6000 men, not including support personnel. And the image of a pig, or a boar was a potent symbol of Rome. Indeed, the legion that was stationed in Syria, and took part in suppressing the Jewish revolt in the 60s, had depicted on its standard, the image of a boar.
Here, Jesus is doing battle not only with the forces of evil. He is also doing battle, at least symbolically, with the forces of Rome. But more than that, the demons, the possessed man living in the tombs, the swine, even the Roman legion, are all profoundly outside the people of God. In the gospel of Luke, this is the only time that Jesus clearly ministers outside the Jewish community and outside Jewish territory.
And what does Jesus do? He restores him to his life, to his community, to the world. He had been living alone, naked, among the tombs, but now he is back in the middle of things, even if the middle of things is a Gentile community, not among Jesus’ closest companions. Still, the message is one of inclusivity. To put this event outside of Jewish territory is to underscore, for the gospel writer, that Jesus came for everyone, Jew and Gentile.
And of course, that’s the message of Paul in Galatians. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male and female, slave or free. But such a community, for Luke and for Paul, is not created only by our efforts and hard work. It is created in our encounter with God in Christ.
The gospel story continues by relating that the residents of the territory to which Jesus had come were seized with great fear and asked him to leave. Having encountered the mighty power of God, having witnessed Jesus power to transform lives, they were having none of it. They didn’t want their world or their lives transformed, they wanted to get on with their old, humdrum lives.
Even Elijah shows something of that same tendency. He expected God to act in certain ways. When he defeated the prophets of Baal, he expected God to make things work out so he could have a successful career in Israel. When he came to Mt. Horeb, when Yahweh said he would appear to him, he expected Yahweh to come to him in earthquake, wind, or fire. Instead, God came to him in a still small voice.
But no matter. The message came with the same power, and the same capacity to transform. What didn’t happen was that Elijah turned his back on God. He didn’t ask God to leave.
That still small voice is around us, calling us. It may often be drowned out by the noise of our world, by our busy lives, by the work we have to do, by our family’s demands, or by TV, music, movies, video games, the cell phone—indeed everything that our culture has created to keep us from being alone with ourselves.
But the still, small voice is around us, calling us, in the emptiness of our hearts at the end of a day, in the needs of the poor and the destitute. It is calling us to be transformed by the power of the Spirit, to live into the community called by Christ.