Benediction Online

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Prophetic Burnout

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Psalm 42 and 43
Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39

Elijah the great prophet is on the run. It’s not characteristic of him to avoid difficult situations but Jezebel has him rattled. Elijah is perhaps the archetypal prophet, the one who lurks on the edge of society and comes forward when necessary to challenge the king. In the reading set for last week, when Elijah came to confront King Ahab, who had a guilty conscience, the king greeted him with “Have you found me, O my enemy?” Elijah is the one who always shows up to speak truth to power. But it is not easy and it is at great personal cost.

In today’s reading he has just orchestrated a great demonstration - a wonderful piece of street theater which proved beyond a shadow of doubt that our God is powerful. In typical 8th century fashion he then slaughtered those he had humiliated, the prophets of Baal. Now Jezebel the wicked Queen is after him for killing her prophets and Elijah is running scared. He’s forgotten that God is powerful and answers his prayer. He just can’t do it anymore. It’s a clear case of prophetic burnout.

None of us are prophets like Elijah. We don’t show up at the White House and get shown into the Oval Office. But each of us attempts to do our bit in our own way. We sign the internet petitions; from time to time we write letters to Congress; and some of us even show up for demonstrations. But it seems it isn’t making any difference. Things just get worse and worse. The situations that call for our compassion, the issues we need to speak up about keep multiplying and getting bigger and bigger. It’s like Legion. There are so many demons we can’t keep track of them all and we begin to feel like we’re sitting in a graveyard without any hope. It’s prophetic burnout.

So what does Elijah do? He heads into the wilderness and tells God to let him die because he’s had enough. Instead of which God gives him something to eat and drink which sustains him for the long journey to Mount Horeb, the mount of the Lord. So when he can’t take it any more, Elijah takes refuge in God. Mount Horeb is the place where Moses met God in the burning bush. It is a holy place, a place where God can be found and refuge taken.

Where or what is your Mount Horeb? Where do you go to find sustenance when you are tired and discouraged? It may be in poetry or music, it may be in nature or it may be in the silence of the empty church or in the midst of the liturgy. If you think back over the times when you have felt nurtured and sustained by the Holy Spirit, can you see a common thread? Perhaps you have taken times of retreat which have enlivened and refreshed you – these may have been in the wilderness like Elijah or in a monastery or retreat center.

Having reached Mount Horeb, Elijah spends the night in a cave and there he hears God’s voice, ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’ and Elijah responds with his tale of woe. He pours out his troubles and anger to God. I think that sometimes when we get overwhelmed by the Legion problems of the world we disconnect. We say, “we’ve been here before, it’s just the same old problem, the same old horror, the same old mistakes”, and we change the channel in our mind. We don’t want to think about Legion among the tombs and we turn away. We disconnect. Elijah didn’t do that. Jesus didn’t do that. Even when Jesus was faced with this crazy man stumbling naked and screaming at the top of his voice, Jesus stayed connected. When we disconnect we don’t have anything to say to God because we’re not in touch with what we need to talk about.

So the first thing to do when we are experiencing overwhelm with all the things in the world that are going wrong, all the legion disasters that need a response, all the injustice that needs to be confronted, the first thing we do is to go to Mount Horeb or at least to the foothills if we can’t get all the way to the mount itself.

The second thing is to pour out our hearts to God, to allow ourselves to feel the feelings and to connect with them and with God at the same time. In Elijah’s case the feelings seem to have been of indignation. “I have been steadfast for you God, I have done what you wanted and now they are going to kill me. What are you doing about it?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one here who looks at the tragedy in the Gulf and wonders, “God, what are you doing about it?” God’s response to Elijah reminds me of God’s response to Job. You’ll remember that Job fell on terrible times – all his children were killed at a party when the roof caved in, all his livestock died of plague and he ended up with a nasty skin condition so all he could do was scratch. His friends keep saying that he must have done something to deserve this, but he says not so and wants an explanation from God. When God revealed Godself to Job he didn’t answer the question. Instead he said “where were you when I was hanging the heavens and filling the ocean? Do you even know how to measure the depths or the breadth of the universe?” and for Job this is enough.

In today’s story, God reveals Godself to Elijah. God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire… but in the sound of sheer silence afterwards.

And Elijah wrapped his face in his cloak and went and stood outside. He covered his face because he knew he was in the immediate presence of God. And that was enough for him.

Again God asks the question ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’ and again Elijah tells him but now God gives him a new mission, and Elijah goes, without question. He is sent back to Syria to anoint kings – not for Israel but for the surrounding nations, so God is demonstrating that God is powerful over the nations.

God has promised that if we seek God, God will respond. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no response, just silence. We may go to our own Mount Horeb and find that God seems to have left. Other times we are overwhelmed by the joy and comfort of her presence. Whether we experience good feelings or just the sound of sheer silence, God is present. It seems that for Elijah and Job just the revelation of God was enough to answer their questions. It filled their souls. They were renewed.

When Legion was healed he sat at the feet of Jesus and then begged to be allowed to come with him. There is no satisfactory answer to why God allows oil to continue to flow into the Gulf. There is no satisfactory answer to why God can allow the state to take away from those who are most in need rather than raise taxes. Our minds grapple with the horrors of the death penalty, of torture, of war, of famine and we find no answer.

Jill tells me that when she’s worried about something and prays about it often she hears a voice with a Jewish accent say, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing”. I think perhaps that was what Elijah and Job experienced. When they were confronted with the immediate presence of the all-compassionate and almighty God they were humbled. They realized that their complaints were petty in the presence of this incredible power who loved them and loves the whole world and says “Trust me, I know what I’m doing”.

It is only the Spirit of God working in us who can give us the strength and courage to go on. As we cultivate in ourselves the willingness to make the journey to Mount Horeb, to seek the face of God as we know God and to plead our case, then and only then will our strength be renewed, and we shall mount up on eagles’ wings and be ready to take on new challenges.

As the last two verses of this morning’s psalms say:

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *
and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.


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