This was a long haul; I saw a thread connecting these two scriptures that spoke well to where we are as churches today. But it proved to be a tangled thread! Thanks for the expressions of appreciation from the Center Church folks who are joining us this month. Some asked about reading it online, and I hope they can find the blog. (And comment at the bottom!)
Scriptures: Matthew 16:1-2a, 4; 1st Kings 19:9-18
A Warning: This is going to get complicated, and a little long. I’m going to weave between these two texts, both of which are weird and difficult. Stay with me. It might help if I give you the simple message right up front: our churches are in trouble; we may be dying, we may continue to live. What I hear these texts saying is that we need to take this time of worship before God very seriously; it is essential to who we are. But the God we encounter here might be mysterious and puzzling to us. Let’s open ourselves to that. Worship can lead, sometimes, to an encounter with the God who is brings more questions than answers, more trouble than comfort. That’s who God is, and we need to deal with it. But I think the place to find our comfort and assurance, our rock of purpose and meaning, if not always in worship, is in our work with and for others to establish God’s reign of justice and love.
We’re reading the Old Testament this August. It’s vital to understand that the Old Testament was compiled in such a way that it contains a big, messy disagreement about whether we are to blame for our sorry lot. Is the suffering that we experience a punishment from God, or are we simply victims of senseless suffering?
We’ve known nothing as severe as the sufferings of Israel. With the exile to Babylon in 587 BC, they lost the temple, the kingship, the land, many lives—everything that was to them a sign of divine blessing. Much of the Old Testament, but not all of it, looks back at this loss and declares, it was God’s punishment because we worshipped the Canaanite gods and failed to practice justice. It’s both troubling and admirable that they could so completely blame themselves.
We’ve never had to reckon with such devastation. If anything, we are like the Israelites of Elijah’s time, before the dreadful exile occurred. Then, the Israelites still enjoyed much wealth and power, although the glory days were in the past, and an ominous cloud already hung over the future. And so it is that we mainline Christians (and the UCC is classic mainline), still remembering our bygone glory days, wonder whether we are heading into exile, whether our temples will be torn down, our leadership lost—and if this catastrophe is indeed coming upon us, we wonder why. Like our Old Testament, I want us to wrestle with that question today, recognizing that there might be more than one answer.
Let’s begin, though, with Jesus’ strange words. The Pharisees and Sadducees together come and ask Jesus for a sign. Now they already asked him once before for a sign, in chapter 12. So despite Jesus’ performing exorcisms, healings, and feeding 4000 with seven loaves and fish, which he just did, the Pharisees and Sadducees still don’t believe. They want “A sign from heaven.” They won’t be satisfied with the amazing humanitarian, earthly signs of Jesus’ compassionate power; they want fire, and wind, and earthquakes, and great supernatural displays of power that would point right to God. Jesus answers tersely, calling them “an evil and adulterous generation” and saying they will receive no sign but the sign of Jonah, whatever that is, and then he leaves them with silence, having nothing more to do with them for the rest of the Gospel. But they plot to kill him.
It’s a troubling little text that is distinctive to Matthew’s gospel. You see, Matthew has arranged his gospel so that pretty much all the Jews get blamed for Jesus’ death, because in Matthew’s place and day—probably 45 years or so after Jesus’ death—things were getting really nasty between traditional Jews and the upstart Christian movement. So Matthew reads his contemporary breakdown of relations back into the original story of Jesus. That’s why Matthew presents two groups who in Jesus’ day were enemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, as acting together to challenge Jesus. Historically, that seems unlikely. This hostility that Matthew has toward ‘all those other Jews’ is understandable, but sadly it played into a long history of Christian anti-Judaism; and it took the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany, and let’s not forget, the complicity of many others, for the church finally to reckon with this ugly history. We can never read these anti-Jewish texts the same way again.
Instead, I think today we should read this text in a much more uncomfortable way, by asking, are we now the Pharisees and Sadducees? They represent the empowered, established religion of Jesus’ time. The Sadducees were very old-school, and they put their trust in the old traditions and in the glory of the Jerusalem Temple which they controlled. The Pharisees, for their part, were very bookish and well-educated, claiming ownership of Scriptures, priding themselves in sophisticated argument and new ideas. But both groups had a hard time letting go of the privileges they enjoyed to embrace this new vision of Jesus. Neither party was ready to accept the humanitarian faith Jesus revealed to them, and soon they will find themselves in a terrible crisis, and it will become clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ will not be contained in just Israel, but must break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t imagine God embracing these unfamiliar, unclean people.
You see where I am going with this? Are we the old guard, the perverse generation? I don’t think we are, simply so, but it might be a good idea to try it on and see if it fits even a little. In our own ways, we have a hard time accepting this Jesus, except in the faded form of a sentimental tradition, or as just an emblem of our respectable status—everybody who is anybody is a Christian. But can we accept Jesus as the one who leads us into and through death and on to new life? Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we have a hard time hearing his words as something new, radical, and life-changing.
And if the shoe does fit, if we are at least a little bit like the Pharisees and Sadducees, what is this sign of Jonah? Now Jonah preached repentance like Jesus; but Jonah was barely faithful, and yet he was successful. Jesus was totally faithful but unsuccessful. On the other hand, Jonah was swallowed by the whale for three days, and for Christians this is a symbolic precedent for Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day. But in this passage of Matthew, the sign of Jonah is left enigmatic. That’s the point, in fact; for those who cannot hear Jesus, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, an enigma is all that is left to them. Has Jesus become an enigma to us? We want to say, “Surely not I, Lord?”//
Well, if we don’t identify perfectly with the bold and fearless original followers of Jesus, but neither again with the enemies of Jesus, perhaps Elijah is a closer fit for us. He is one of the greatest of the prophets, to be sure; and that seems a bit beyond us. But in this passage he reveals himself to be unsure; he’s even feeling sorry for himself—I can identify with that!—and he is dissatisfied with the predicament God has given him. And in this passage he does not receive a clear answer from God—something that can elude us also. But in his faithful vulnerability before God, he does encounter God in a new way that might prove instructive for us.
Elijah has just come off of a great victory. The king and the people had all abandoned their faith in the one God, for they had become entranced by Canaanite gods, above all Baal. Baal promised them everything they wanted—fertility and good crops—and they lost interest in being a unique people who serve God. So, in the midst of a long drought, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel and won. Each party prepared a sacrifice and called upon their god to bring fire down on it. No fire comes from Baal. But God utterly consumes Elijah’s sacrifice with—note—fire. The people repent, and then God brought the rains.
But then Queen Jezebel, who favored the Baal prophets, sent Elijah an icy message, vowing to kill him. So he flees into the wilderness, and tells God that he might as well just die on the spot. God then provides him with food, and sends him on a journey to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Moses and the Israelites first met and made a covenant with God. And that brings us to our passage.
I submit to you that, even if we are a little like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we also bear at least a faint resemblance to Elijah. With Elijah, we also look back on our faithful work. Once our churches were powerful, and confident. We offered a way to be Christian that was reasonable, open to science and learning, never dogmatic, but friendly to other ways of being Christian as well as other faiths; shouldn’t that have carried the day? And we could boast of impressive deeds done on behalf of our communities and the world, as well as proud institutions of higher learning. But now we wonder why we seem to be losing ground. The great mainline heyday in the 50s and 60s seems so far gone. Now, like Elijah, our lives are on the line.
And our opponents have the upper hand. They include the fundamentalist Christians who seem to make an idol out of having absolute truth and can’t seem to distinguish Christian faith from a very conservative, patriarchal politics and narrow, Victorian morality. And yet they seem to get all the attention of our media kings and queens; how many times do you hear about evangelicals in the news as compared with the UCC and other mainline churches? These Christians, whom we barely know and can hardly understand, seem to have much in common with other religious zealots and fundamentalists around the world; those who can’t abide by democracy and pluralism, and sometimes even resort to unspeakable violence. It seems the most powerful forms of religion today are those most against who we are.
So it is that our other opponent, secularism, hits closer to home. Secularism just means accepting the limits of religious authority, and accepting that our public realm is religiously neutral. In many ways we have worked hard to embrace and adapt to this secularism, but it turned against us. We did so much to show that Christian faith understands its own limits and can be very this-worldly and humanitarian; but now it seems so many people see no reason to step out of the secular and go to church (unless they attend the previously mentioned fanatical churches). Not only our neighbors but even our own children seem skeptical that the church has anything to offer them that isn’t already provided by aspirations toward career and family, by the endless, flashy output of our media and internet, by all of the personal challenge and fulfillment offered through athletics, or being in touch with nature, or being spiritual-but-not-religious. Who needs the church? My life is full.
In all of this, we feel quite a bit like Elijah. We feel like we are fighting a losing battle to preserve the faith. Baal is too strong for us.
But if Elijah is feeling a little too sorry for himself, surely we have even less of an excuse. Remember, we are also a little like the Pharisees and Sadducees. We are at least a little to blame for our loss of power and faithfulness. We can debate exactly why the mainline church has received its comeuppance. Did we become too secular, too American, too blended into middle-class American life? Did we become too wealthy, too white, and too complacent? Did we water down the Holy One of Israel into a milquetoast source of middle class self-affirmation and our much-sought self-esteem? Did we stop taking sin seriously? All of these might be true. But no doubt, in general we can say that we liked being the establishment church, too much. We still prefer to cling on to the trappings of being the center of town life, rather than submitting ourselves afresh to the commands of our Holy God. Maybe the problem boils down to this: we establishment churches worship an anti-establishment God, a God who more often than not takes the side of the wild prophets and the hungry people of the land rather than the self-satisfied kings and respectable Pharisees and Sadducees.
In a way, our problem has turned the corner for us. We have already lost most of our establishment power and prestige. What remains are our gorgeous and grand buildings, and we are left wondering if we can ever again fill them with real spiritual power—perhaps like they used to be, or perhaps like they never have been filled—perhaps more faithfully, more honestly, freed from our Pharisaical past that was always prone to hypocrisy. Perhaps only in the future can we become true churches of faithfulness to God, rather than to small town, middle-class, white Americana. /
Elijah’s journey likewise takes him back to Mt. Horeb, to the original roots of the Jewish faith, before the corruption set in, but did you notice that what he finds when he gets there is also quite new and unprecedented? He’s in a cave at Horeb, and “the word of the Lord” comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Although God sent him there, the question implies that Elijah ought to be somewhere else, namely, carrying out his mission as a prophet. Elijah unloads his sorry state on God. The story continues: “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’” Who said? It may seem like this was God speaking, but the voice doesn’t say, ‘I am about to pass by,’ but “The Lord is about to pass by.” So was it an angel? Or Elijah’s own thoughts? Hmm.
Then the traditional mighty signs of God’s presence pass by, the wind and earthquake and fire like the original Israelites saw at Sinai, all signs from heaven like the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for from Jesus. But the Lord was not in these. And then sheer silence. Only then does Elijah cover his face and go out to meet God in this silent and still presence. And in what follows, the passage doesn’t say, “Then God said…” It says, “A voice came to him and said,”—oddly, the same question again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah repeats his lament to the letter. /
I wish I could make all of this perfectly clear. But to me it looks like in this silence, God’s voice and Elijah’s own voice merge into one, just so, when Elijah honestly and freely pours out his heart to God, but also while questioning why he is doing so. We lament before God our sorry and uncertain state as God’s servant, the church; but we don’t really expect a grand answer. We receive the sheer silence, and hear in that the question to ourselves, what are we doing here? And we live with that question. We might not experience the God we traditionally expected, who has all the answers and does mighty acts, the god the fundamentalists cling to and the secularists long ago dismissed as a fairytale. But in the honesty of our lament and self-questioning, there is a profound new experience of the mystery of God in this old place.
And then, and only then, after this uncomfortable silence, Elijah gets a perfectly clear message. “Then the Lord said to him,” and God basically tells him to get back to work. Go anoint these kings and the prophet Elisha, who will succeed you. Do your work and pass it on. And God reminds Elijah that he’s not really left alone and feeling sorry for himself. God has a remnant, 7000 in Israel, who are faithful, though Elijah doesn’t know who they are. Now Elijah isn’t to seek them out or prophesy to them, he’s to do his own work; but he should realize that there’s a remnant out there. Whatever becomes of Elijah’s work, God’s got plenty of accomplices.
So Elijah goes. Curiously enough, he doesn’t accomplish all those tasks that God told him. The work we are called to do is not set in stone, even though it comes from God. But Elijah was reminded that it’s in doing the work of God, out there, not here in the temple, our Mt. Horeb, that we are closest with God and best experience God. Maybe all we do here is to be quietly honest with ourselves, laying our burdens before God, not sure why or what to expect. It may not be for us to experience the flashy spiritual fireworks of wind, earthquakes, and fire. It doesn’t mean God is not in the silence. But let us also remember that God has other servants; there are people foreign to us, like the Gentiles were to the Jews, whom God will call and be present to in different ways, maybe with all the spirit and fire of our Pentecostal sisters and brothers, whether in Africa or South America or Holyoke. Let us not be so small to think the Gospel is not now theirs, perhaps more than it is still ours.
But let us continue to return to our own roots, seeking God in this our Mt. Horeb, meeting God where our honest questions and self-doubt intersect with mystery and silence, and readying ourselves to encounter God in the ordinary miracles of humanitarian service that we do together in a secular world.
Maybe this is the sign of Jonah for us repentant old Pharisees and Sadducees. Jonah was not that faithful; he was not confident in what God told him to do, and he did it begrudgingly. In fact, God had to bring Jonah into the very jaws of death to get him to do his job. But Jonah did it, and it worked, and God was glorified in a way no one expected was possible.