Trinity, Muscatine — 8:00 & 10:00
1Kings 19:9-18 Ps 27:5-11 2Cor 1:18-22 Mark 9:2-9
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
A verse from a very popular (at least at one time!) old-time hymn, by John Greenleaf Whittier:
[f#] “Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.” [#652, st 5]
It’s all very interior and quiet and retiring and soothing, but I like it anyway, and it always comes to my mind when I hear the story of Elijah at Mount Horeb.
How do we hear the word of God? How does God reveal to us the divine will, the divine self?
In the Old Testament reading today, we hear about Elijah. Elijah was the first great prophet of the Israelite kingdoms, in the 9th century B.C. Elijah’s ministry consisted largely of bringing the word of the Lord against the kings of Israel, who were much prone to idolatry and trying to compromise the worship of the Lord God of Israel with the cult of the local pagan Canaanite nature deities, such as Baal and Ashérah. At this point in the story in the First Book of Kings, Elijah has just recently staged a confrontation between himself and King Ahab and Ahab’s queen, the Phoenician princess Jezebel. Ahab had pretty well sold out to Jezebel’s pagan religion. Perhaps you remember the story: Elijah got Ahab to bring the prophets of Baal up to Mount Carmel, on the Israelite coast, and they played “Whose God is Better,” and the Lord God of Israel won in a flash (as it were, if you recall!), and Elijah and the people killed all the prophets of Baal (no politically correct religious tolerance here!), and Ahab ran home and whined about it to Jezebel, and Jezebel was really miffed off, and she sent a message to Elijah which said in essence, “You’re a dead man,” and Elijah figured that it was probably time to go on vacation—far far away. So he fled to the Sinai desert, southwest of Judah, to Mount Horeb (or Sinai), the mountain of God, where God had given the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law (the Torah) to Moses. And Elijah found a cave and holed up in it. Then the Old Testament reading for today: The word of the Lord comes to Elijah, saying, “Elijah, whatcha doing?” And Elijah starts in whining about how much he’s done for God and see what thanks he gets. “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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire [(1) Mount Horeb is a volcano, though I think it’s mostly dormant now; and (2) all of this power-of-nature, volcanoes and wind and lightning and rain and all that stuff, was what Baal was supposed to be the god of; notice that although the Lord in fact is the one who controls them, it is not in them that the Lord is to be found, but rather:]; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” [Which is closer to what the Hebrew means than “a still small voice.”] Out of which a voice comes to Elijah again, “I said, Elijah, whatcha doing?” And Elijah starts in to whine again about Ain’t It Awful, and the Lord says, “Yes, yes, I know; but go back to Israel, I’ve got some stuff I want you to do for me,” mostly by way of organizing a resistance movement against Ahab and Jezebel. Note both that the word of the Lord comes out of the silence, and also that it sends Elijah back into the world to work for the furtherance of the purposes of the Reign of God.
Second story today: the Gospel reading. Another mountain, this one the mountain of the Transfiguration, as we call it. Jesus takes Peter and James and John up the mountain to pray, and there the three disciples have an impressive and powerful vision of Jesus, shining with the glory of God and consulting with Moses and Elijah—those two great Israelite veterans of mountaintop meetings with God, the paradigmatic representatives of the Law and the Prophets, summing up in themselves the whole of the Israelite religious heritage, conferring with Jesus in whom the Old Covenant is fulfilled. Simon Peter doesn’t get the point. He never does. Peter wants to build shrines, booths like the ones they built every autumn at Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, to celebrate the spiritual “good old days” when Israel was sojourning in tents in the wilderness and receiving the Law. Peter is having a wonderful religious experience, and he doesn’t want to let go of it. (I suppose in some ways like being there while God put on a fireworks display at Mount Horeb). But the experience passes; there is a cloud (itself a manifestation of the presence of God), and a voice (perhaps still and small, perhaps not; it doesn’t say!): “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And Peter and James and John look around, and Moses and Elijah are gone, and the cloud is gone, and nobody’s there with them but Jesus, and Jesus says, “Come on, let’s go back down; and let’s not say anything about this for the time being, okay?”
God continues to speak to us in many ways. Occasionally God speaks to us in flashy, exciting, dramatic ways. But usually not. In fact, on the whole, the dramatic stuff, the “religious experience,” needs to be viewed with a bit of skepticism. Not that God doesn’t use these things; God does, especially to get our attention, or to give us a little reassurance from time to time. But I think that God’s self-disclosure to us comes more often out of silence than out of power, in the midst of the ordinary when the visions have passed and the clouds of glory have cleared away. The definitive word of God has, after all, already been spoken, in Jesus, who is God’s Word made flesh. Listen to him, God says. Listen to Jesus. Only Jesus. He is enough.
And when we listen to God in Jesus, we find (like Peter and James and John, and like Elijah in the desert) that God does not let us linger on our own religious experience, but is sending us back into the world to help build God’s own dominion there.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead