notre dame montreal

Sermon for Ordinary 12 Year C

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman. Seeking God in Holy Places

The reading from Kings continues our readings about Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah the traveller. Elijah seems to appear out of nowhere. As Ahab succeeds his father Omri to the throne of the Northern Kingdom of Israel Elijah appears on the horizon, speaking out for his God, Yahweh. With Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel orthodox religious life was at an all time low. Encouraged by Jezebel, Ahab had led to the movement to worship the pagan weather god Baal and encouraged the elimination of the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Elijah, whose very name means ‘Yahweh is God’ (as opposed to Baal is God) confronts Ahab and says that he and his followers may worship the so called weather god Baal but there will be no rain until his God, Yahweh declares so Israel then enter a drought until Elijah meets up with another prophet Obadah who (although worried about Elijah scarpering) fixes a meeting with Ahab. They challenge the priests of Baal to a bonfire contest, which of course Elijah and Yahweh win, and many prophets of Baal are slaughtered. Not only can Baal not produce rain, he can’t produce fire either. Elijah a man not only of words, but he’s a man of action too, a person with the courage of his convictions.

Ahab then goes back to his wife Jezebel and tells her what has happened to which she swears she will kill Elijah. Jezebel is not a nice lady – you would not want to introduce her to your granny, and to have her after you is not a good idea. Not surprisingly therefore, Elijah runs away. He runs a long way away.

But its not just anywhere he runs to, he flees to Horeb, the Mountain of God, or Mt Sinai as it’s also known. He flees to a holy place where God has made himself known in the past. He may be running away from Jezebel; but he’s running to a place of sanctity, a place where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, a place where the Mosaic covenant was ratified and the commandments were given. A place which is holy. As we see Horeb as a holy and special place we see Elijah not so much fleeing as a coward but a loyal prophet returning to the source of the faith which he is defending.

If it was in the Middle Ages it would almost be like someone claiming sanctuary by hiding in a church or monastery Elijah was under threat because he stood up for God at a time when it was not fashionable (or safe) to do so. He stood up for the strong ethical and moral code of the Mosaic faith so lacking in the cult of Baal and for God Himself. Elijah has many links and parallels with John the Baptist. At the end of the Old Testament Malachi prophesised that God would ‘… send the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes’. Jesus Himself indicated of John the Baptist that ‘he is the Elijah to come’ and said that he was the last and greatest member of the prophetic succession.

There are also parallels in their ministry. When John came into the world the religious state of the nation was at a very low ebb, just as it had been in the time of Elijah some 850 years earlier. For John, the religious authorities needed challenging and a loyal remnant needed to be called out. John would baptise with water but one who came after him would baptise with fire and would be the one to lead Israel and all the earth to their salvation.

John too, seemingly comes from nowhere. His father was a priest in the division of Abijah. There were 24 divisions of priests so each division served at the temple only twice a year. When they did, they drew lots to offer incense. This year the lot had fallen to Zechariah as a once in a lifetime experience and he had gone into the temple and had the revelation from Gabriel regarding his son, who was now to be called John. Gabriel even uses the same words as Malachi, ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children’

Because his father was a priest we may have expected John to go into the priesthood too, but he didn’t, he eventually took himself off into the desert to come back as a prophet, speaking out to the Jews of what was to come. John too went back to a holy place, he baptised in the river Jordan where centuries earlier the Israelites has come into the Promised Land. John too was a man of words and of action. Like Sinai in the past Jordan too was a gentile place which had become holy because God had chosen to reveal His presence and His promise there. In both Elijah and John we see a God who speaks to His people in the holy places and the not so holy. For Elijah it was in the unholy Northern Kingdom of Israel surrounded by Baal worshippers and at Horeb. For John it was in the wilderness from where he came and at Jordan. God spoke to them both through the ‘sound of sheer silence’, spoken to in ways they did not perhaps expect.

Both of them spoke out to reclaim the people and the community for God when it was neither fashionable nor safe to do so in a manner which surprised those in their communities. They were radical fundamentalists who stood up
and spoke out for what they believed.

It’s all well and good standing up and speaking out if you’re one of the great prophetic line, but what about us? But if we look at why Elijah and John the Baptist were able to speak and act as they did we can see that perhaps we’re not so different. Elijah and John were able to stand up and speak out because they had spent time listening to God, even in the sheer silence at Horeb or in the dessert. Even when it seemed that all the world was against them they spent time listening to God, and being open to letting Him speak to them. Perhaps Elijah was running away from Jezebel, to the end of the world as he knew it, but once there he was able to recognise the voice of God in the silence.

For some of us it seems like we can never find silence, for others it seems that in the loneliness that’s all we hear every day. Elijah and John found God is in the silence. We need to spend time listening to God in the silence, and perhaps in the noise listening to Him too.

Elijah and John spent time in places that had been made holy by the presence of God and because of that we can see God in them. For Elijah it was Horeb, for John it was the area around the Jordan. Places that had been touched by
God. Holy places that they found were also places of challenge, Elijah, John and even John’s father Zechariah when he went into the Holy of Holies to offer the incense. Elijah was challenged at Horeb, John in the wilderness around Jordan, Zechariah in the Temple. Holy places and yet places of personal refreshment, vision and challenge.

We too need to spend time in places that have been made holy by the presence of God, that’s one of the reasons coming to church is a good thing. But there are other places too. Places that for each one of us is special, where we can look back and say God has met with us. Perhaps a cliff top in Devon, standing on a mountain somewhere, on a deserted beach, a retreat somewhere, perhaps somewhere abroad, a hotel room where we did not expect it, perhaps its time take time out in a holy place, to go back so we can hear God again, to be in tune with Him and to be challenged by Him. Do we long to hear the voice of God; do we long to be challenged by Him?

It’s important for us to be in tune with God and to be challenged by Him because as Christians we are called be the mouthpiece that God sometimes chooses to communicate His will to the world. Either in a very public way,
like Elijah or John, or in a quiet way, as we speak a word of encouragement or compassion to someone over a cup of tea or coffee. He also wants to use us to be His hands. People of words and people of action.

And as Christians He sometimes uses us too to be that holy place that people are drawn to because as Christians we ourselves have been made holy by the presence of God. Somewhere where people can find God and be challenged by Him. Just like John the Baptist or Elijah, God can use us in ways that we or the world might not expect, speaking out His word in a way they do not expect, being His presence, making the most of unlikely of places holy challenging
the world with the reality, truth and presence of God.

Just as if it was out of nowhere. Do we hear and obey Him in the ‘sound of sheer silence’?