Sunday 23rd June 2019
A common theme of our readings is God rescuing people from desperate situations and giving them new life. For Elijah escaping from Jezebel, he came to a deeper experience of God on the holy mountain. For the man with many demons, living in the country of the Gerasenes, it was of new life freed from demonic possession. For Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, salvation by faith in Christ, frees us all from the oppressive weight of the law and the difficulty of meeting its demands and offers salvation to all.
1 Kings 19:1-15 a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram
we reflect on:
- the way God provided for Elijah through an angel
- how we have experienced God providing for us, either through an angel or in some other way.
- The significance of Elijah fleeing to Horeb, the mountain of God; the place where Moses received the law, indicating another moment of revelation.
- the significance of the great wind, the earthquake, the fire and then the sheer silence, sometimes described as the ‘still small voice’.
- Our experience of the ‘still small voice’.
Elijah lived in the 9th century BC, in the northern Kingdom of Israel – the southern kingdom being called the kingdom of Judah. There is no background given to Elijah except that he was a Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead. His name in Hebrew means ‘My God is Yahweh’. It may be a title that was applied to him because of his challenge to the worship of Baal. It is important to note that ‘Yahweh’ is the personal name of God revealed to Moses; translated as Lord God in English translations and not spoken by the Jewish people but rather called ‘the Name’ (Hashem).
There is debate as to whether Israel, before this time, was united as one kingdom under Solomon.
Omri, Ahab’s father, arranged for Ahab to be married to Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the King of Sidon in Phoenicia and through this marriage alliance giving greater security to the northern kingdom. Orme had continued policies dating from the reign of Jeroboam that were contrary to the Mosaic law. The policies were intended to reorient a religious focus away from Jerusalem by encouraging the building of local temple altars for sacrifices and appointing priests from outside the family of the Levites. He also allowed and possibly encouraged temples dedicated to Baal, an important Canaanite deity, associated with storm and fertility.
Elijah provokes Ahab and Jezebel’s wrath by challenging Baal. He prophesied to Ahab ‘As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word’ (1 Kings 17:1). A drought was a direct challenge to Baal.
During the drought, Elijah experienced and performed a number of miracles. He was fed by ravens; stayed with a widow of Zarephath, and after she fed him from what little she had, her supply of food was renewed until the rains came. He then revived the widow’s son, after the son had died. (1 Kings 17)
When the drought was breaking, there was then the famous dual at Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 18) After Elijah’s sacrifice was successful, the prophets of Baal were put to death. This is the context for today’s reading.
As at the beginning of the drought, Elijah is miraculously fed. Significantly, he journeys for 40 days and 40 nights; paralleling the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness; to travel to Horeb, the Mount of God and prefiguring Jesus 40 days in the desert. There he dwells in a cave which can be representative of the heart.
The symbolic revelation at Horeb is profound for two reasons:
- it is an explicit statement that God is not in the elemental powers that are attributed to Baal.
- That although these elemental powers were manifest when Moses was given the Law on this holy mountain, God’s deepest power is gentle like a soft voice.
This 2nd aspect is truly profound, for not only does it signify a new and deeper revelation of God to Israel, but it prefigures or is what is often called a typological revelation of what is to come. Typology is identifying early events in Scripture that prefigure later events. For example, when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, Isaac; despite its implications being very complex, this points to or prefigures the sacrifice of Christ.
The typology in today’s story is in `the still small voice’ as a revelation of God.
It is a profound importance to note that the Hebrew word for the still small voice, is an onomatopoeic word, that is it means as it sounds, demamah. Thus depicting a soft murmuring sound. The 19th-century German linguistic scholar, Gesenius, suggested that the word was related to the Sanskrit word, Ohm. Ohm, in both Hinduism, its yogic expressions and Buddhism, is the primal sound of the universe. From a Christian perspective, those meditating on Ohm, are in fact experiencing the eternal Word of God, revealed in Jesus Christ and very succinctly articulated in the prologue to John’s gospel, although they might not know it is Jesus.
There is a Jewish Midrash, that says that when God appeared to Elijah, in the same cave that he had appeared to Moses, revealing himself as gracious and merciful, that this should have impacted on Elijah as well. But instead he continued as Israel’s accuser, so God commanded him to appoint his successor.
There is also a Midrash that says that this vision in which God revealed himself to Elijah, gave Elijah a picture of the destinies of man, who has to pass through ‘4 worlds’. This world was shown to the prophet by God through symbolism: in the form of the wind, since the world disappears as the wind; storm is the day of death, before which man trembles; fire is the judgement in Gehenna; and stillness is the last day.
The significance of this revelation should not be underestimated as we explore the role of Elijah in the revelation of Jesus Christ as the son of God, the Word of God.
Next week, our old Testament reading is the account of Elijah being taken up to heaven. There is speculation in Christian tradition as to whether Elijah was taken up to heaven or to Paradise, but there was the prophecy of Malachi, the last book of the old Testament in the Christian arrangement of it, that says:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes (Malachi 4:5)
Hence there was speculation, when Jesus lived that he might be Elijah. Jesus states that John the Baptist is Elijah who is to come
and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. (Matthew 11:14)
Thus, in John the Baptist, being Elijah, the prophecy was fulfilled that Elijah would come again before the Messiah.
The profoundness of the revelation that Elijah experienced in today’s reading, is deepened by this but even more so by the fact that when Jesus was transfigured on a high mountain, possibly Mount Tabor, Moses and Elijah were seen with him. Thus revealing that he was the fulfilment of God’s revelation in each one of them and that he, Jesus, was the Word Elijah heard on the Holy Mountain.
Galatians 3:10 – 14, 23 – 29
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” 12 But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
We reflect on:
- Paul’s understanding of the law of Moses
- Paul’s experience of the significance of Jesus death
- Paul’s appeal to an earlier covenant than that with Moses, that is God’s covenant with Abraham, which he sees as a covenant of faith.
- Whether we see ourselves as saved by faith in Christ alone or whether we still see good works, although important in our life of faith, are still in some way essential for our salvation.
- The equality of everyone before God
It is not easy for many modern Christians to understand the lifestyle of the Jewish people who strictly follow the law. There are some 613 rules that have to be kept. Having some understanding of life under the law, would help us to realise how radical Jesus was and Paul was, in following his example. The impact of the early church coming to realise that the revelation of God in Christ, was for the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, is of amazing significance. It was a huge break from the past. We might dare to say a revolution; a revolution of faith and love.
Paul, being the devout rabbi, that he was, understood the law well. His appeal to the covenantal promises of God made to Abraham, is profound. For Paul and in the witness of the old Testament, Abraham lived by faith and trusted to God, not always knowing what would be the outcome.
It is important to note that there are two other covenants in a sense, the one with Noah and the one with Adam. Elijah’s encounter with God in today’s old Testament reading, in some ways is deeper, than a covenant relationship.
Luke 8:26 – 39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
We reflect on
- what it would have been like to have encountered this man who had demons or unclean spirit
- in our experience, would we say that we have come across somebody who had demonic possession or unclean spirit or have we ever felt afflicted in this way?
- In describing people as having demons or unclean spirits, is that an understanding of the culture of that time, whereas we talk about physical and mental illnesses.
- The capacity of the demons to recognise who Jesus is, yet many religious people of the time could not.
- The significance of Jesus asking the demon what its name is
- the significance of Jesus encouraging the man, once he was healed, to stay with his community, rather than joining him as one of his travelling disciples.
- The significance of Jesus letting the demons go into the heard of swine
- Why did the demons want to go into the herd of swine and were they destroyed when the swine drowned?
One of the critical issues raised in the Gospels and as illustrated in today’s Gospel passage, is the influence of demons or unclean spirits in human life.
In describing Jesus healing ministry Luke says how ‘Demons also came out of many….. At the beginning of chapter 8, Luke says
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, , (Luke 8:1 – 2)
Soon after this time, Jesus sent the 12 out, then another 70 with power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.
“The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)
Luke as a physician, seems to acknowledge both physical and spiritual causes of affliction.
Do some cultures, such as scientific Western culture, not have demons and unclean spirits and others do? Does medical science better explain the various phenomena of human affliction through its various categories of diseases including mental health diagnosis?
These are complex questions that I can only touch on briefly in this commentary. It needs to be noted, as in today’s gospel passage, that the demons recognise Jesus:
“demons also came out of many, shouting ‘you are the son of God!’ But he rebuked them and will not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. (Luke 4:41)
The presence of Jesus seems to highlight the presence of demons and unclean spirits in some people, causing afflictions. Even in our scientific culture, we would do well to acknowledge these possibilities, realising that the presence of an unclean spirit or demon and the healing of a person from it; is not always dramatic. This is particularly so with unclean spirits. The various diagnoses that we have in Western medicine as to the cause of affliction, might well involve some dark spirit that a person can be healed from through prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus why they could not heal the sick boy, Jesus replied ‘this kind can come out only through prayer’.
For us in the church today, prayer is the foundation of us growing spiritually so that we can at least do some of the things that Jesus did. The spiritual healing ministry is a complex, yet vital aspect of the church.
It is safe to say that whatever the cause, the man in today’s story was in a bad place and the Jesus healed him. Jesus probably told the man to stay in his community so that they would know that the healing was permanent.