We have missed all the drama that led to this place in Elijah’s story. Ahab, king of Israel, had married Jezebel, a Phoenician…who had brought her own religious beliefs with her. She had grown up worshipping Baal…and so she instituted the prophets of Baal as the religious leaders of the kingdom…and Ahab went along, giving up his belief in the God of Israel…the God of Abraham and Sarah…the God of Moses and Miriam.
Elijah, the prophet of God, sought to bring them back to faith in Yahweh….and had just had a showdown on the mountain with the prophets of Baal. They had both offered sacrifices to God on the mountain…with the understanding that the one consumed with fire would indicate the true God. The prophets of Baal got no response after a day of prayer and pleading. No fire came. But then, Elijah goes and douses his sacrifice with water, and after a short prayer, fire engulfs it. Declaring victory…Elijah in his righteous zeal…in his religious fervor..decides it’s a good idea to kill all the prophets of Baal.
And this, not surprisingly, fuels Jezebel’s religious fervor to get revenge. And so Elijah heads for the hills, in fear for his life.
On this Sunday, when we celebrate All Saints Day…I couldn’t help but think about the people we sometimes consider “saints”…the individuals that the church has often placed on pedestals and admired as “holy”. They are often marked with religious fervor…people willing to die…or sometimes willing others to die…for their beliefs. Jezebel and her prophets that fervor….Elijah had that fervor. Different God, but the same zealous righteous faith.
Honestly, This is the fervor of suicide bombers. This is the fervor of Christian nationalists. This is the fervor of fundamentalists of all stripes who will gladly destroy others’ lives, for the sake of their righteous cause. And I can’t help but wonder….reading this story of Elijah — Is this truly what God wants? Is Elijah a model for us…willing to slaughter the prophets who he believes lead people astray? Is this how we are supposed to bring God’s word into the world…with a scorched earth mentality?
There are many Christians who believe this is the case.
And like Elijah — they believe they alone are carrying the torch. That no one else is fighting God’s battles. What does Elijah say? …”I alone am left’. He has a bit of a Messiah complex .. or a “saint” complex? He alone has the truth. Everything depends on him. Israel’s future depends on him. God’s future depends on him and his righteous witness to the faith. His zeal for the faith.
But, I can’t help but think that the point of this story is that Elijah is wrong. God doesn’t need Elijah’s zealotry. God is big enough to handle things, and we are arrogant when we think we are alone doing God’s work. God’s got people all over the place. At the end of our reading, God sends Elijah to anoint a king in a foreign country. Here Elijah is, so focused on Israel and Ahab and Jezebel…but he is reminded that God’s picture is so much wider. God’s doing things in other nations, too….Israel isn’t the whole story. And then God also sends Elijah to anoint a new king over Israel…reminding Elijah that life moves on. So often, we fight our battles, thinking they are everything, but they’re’ just a small blip in history. And then, God also sends Elijah to anoint his own successor…Elijah …. reminding Elijah that he is replaceable…he isn’t the sole owner of God’s word. There are others who are faithful. In fact, God tells Elijah there are at least 7000 faithful left.
But, the sad thing is…even as Elijah learns that he is not alone…the story then still returns to the cycle of violence and bloodshed that began the story….saying that ‘ Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.’ Elijah can’t escape it. He is enmeshed in the fabric of our human story…where we use violence as the answer to every problem. If we don’t agree…if we don’t approve…we lash out. We use force to get what we want. It’s the way we create nations…it’s the way we establish religions. We see that here in Scripture. We see it in our own world today.
But…does that mean this is the way of God? Is this righteous zealotry what it means to be holy? To be faithful? Is that what saints are made of?
If we look to Jesus… we have to answer “no”. To be faithful is not to force others to follow our righteous ideals. It is not a religious fervor that uses might to make right. No in Jesus…we find that faithfulness is lived out in humility and service. Jesus’ holiness is demonstrated by seeking out those who are desperate and searching…and offering them love and forgiveness and new beginnings. To be faithful is not being willing to destroy others for the sake of God’s word….but it is the work of restoring others…bringing them back to life….and offering them bread and wine for their journey.
God’s way is found in the angel who comes to Elijah under the broom tree…when Elijah is just wishing he was dead, just wanting to be done….and the angel gives him water and cake. I love that.
In Scripture… angels are God’s messengers…and usually they are depicted as warriors…fearsome. But this angel simply offers Elijah rest and a snack. That is what restores Elijah. That is how God shows up. You know what? The saints in my life aren’t the righteous zealots and faithful warriors. Most of those folks turn me off, to be honest. But the folks who let me rest and gently encouraged me when I was exhausted and feeling lost….the ones who sat beside me when I was hurting and reminded me that I was not alone? They are the saints…the holy ones who revealed God’s presence in my life.
This morning we will light candles as we remember those folks who have died…those dear ones who have touched our lives with love and grace and given us a glimpse of God’s faithfulness. And then, we will receive communion. Jesus will give us bread and wine for our journey….knowing our weariness. Knowing what we are going through. Knowing how enmeshed we are in our human tendencies towards violence and force and vengeance and righteous anger. That’s exactly where the disciples were at, if you remember, on that last night before Jesus was crucified. When Jesus offered them bread and wine. Forgiveness and love. Jesus encouraged them when they were exhausted and feeling at a loss. And reminded them that they were not alone when they were hurting.
That is what Jesus offers you.
Today, we will eat at Jesus’ table…and we will do so with the whole communion of saints….with all those who went before us…from Abraham and Sarah…to my mom and dad….and your beloved ones.
Together, we will receive grace and strength for the journey. Together we will step away from the chaos and cacophony of the world… the chaos and cacophony whirlwinds and earthquakes and fires.. the chaos and cacophony of our phones and computers and televisions and radios….and let our souls rest in God. Tonday, under your broom tree..rest and eat…and know you are not alone. Amen.