(Not as early as I had hoped, but...)
Trinity 3 (1 Kings 19:1-15a: Luke 8:26-39)
Is there anybody there? What does it look like when God is at work? How do we know God is with us – how can we be sure we are not just whistling in the dark when we declare our belief in God?
These are natural, recurring human questions and Elijah must have had some of these questions in mind as he fled from the anger of Jezebel, having triumphed over the prophets of Baal. Elijah has had a pretty torrid time – facing up to King Ahab, predicting and then living through the drought, challenging and ultimately slaughtering the prophets of Baal. But now Jezebel has sent Elijah a message not just threatening, but promising, to have him killed: and Elijah flees for his life. Elijah decides that it would be best just to lay down and die, and give up on God’s call to prophecy.
But God hasn’t finished with Elijah yet – he still has work to do, and so sustained by food and drink from angels he goes to the mountain to meet with God.
In a passage which is impossible to forget, Elijah encounters amazing, terrifying and wonderful signs of great power: wind, earthquake and fire. But it is only in the silence – the sheer silence – which follows these, that Elijah hears God speak to him.
On Friday night I happened to be in Cambridge as one of the College Balls was on and I saw an incredible display of fireworks – the noise, the flashes, the colours, the smell of the gunpowder in the air.. it was really breathtaking, and then… it finished. I felt myself willing there to be more – just one more volley of cracks and fizzes – but all was still and I felt quite let down: no more Oohs and Aahs that night.
Elijah is much wiser than me – instead of yearning for more of the grand display of wind, earthquake and fire, he recognises that although God’s power may be displayed in these, if he is to hear what God wants of him he needs to listen in the stillness that follows. So Elijah presents himself, attentive and calm, outside the cave, and listens for God’s quiet call again. And then Elijah is told to go and anoint a new king, find a new disciple and encourage the faithful people of God who are left (despite Elijah’s desperate sense of being alone).
The pyrotechnics are not the whole story – only an occasional reminder that God is there – for there is also the time of stillness and focus and direction from God.
Our gospel passage tells another amazing and dramatic story. Jesus has crossed the sea of Galilee and is met by a wild-eyed, naked man – the others of his city have tried to tame him and even chain him up, but he has broken loose and now lives among the tombs, far away from ordinary life. Jesus heals this man by sending the spirits which have tormented him into a nearby herd of pigs, which immediately rush into the lake and are drowned. No wonder the people of the city come out to see what has happened: and they find the man clothed and in his right mind.
Just before this incident, as they crossed over the lake to get to this region, Jesus has calmed the storm. Now, it seems, Jesus has shown that he can calm the internal storms of the human mind. But the reaction of those who see Jesus’ power is much the same – fear of what they are dealing with, and Jesus is asked to go back to Galilee.
But the man who has been healed wants to go with Jesus – maybe he feels that having seen and felt and experienced Jesus’ amazing power to heal and to calm, he wants to see some more evidence of God in action in Jesus.
Every now and again on the TV there will be an article or documentary about storm-chasers – the extraordinary people who instead of heeding the warning and staying indoors when there is a tornado, jump in the cars and attempt to get amazing pictures, or take scientific measurements, or just experience the awe and power of a natural phenomenon.
“But Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’.”
Jesus send the healed man away. It is as if Jesus is warning the man not to be the spiritual equivalent of a storm-chaser – not to get hooked on the ‘wow’ moment of God’s activity, but to try to be a disciple of Jesus in the ordinary things of life. Changed forever by the healing of Jesus, he is called to use that experience to give power and confidence to his everyday existence.
So where does all this leave our search for a sense of God in our lives?
Maybe these Bible stories teach us that we should not be looking for the big moments – or at least that we should not be looking for them too often.
Sometimes the Christian life is spoken of as if we should be continually feeling that we are at the top of the mountain top – talking with God, walking with Jesus, filled with the Spirit.
But Elijah teaches us not just to talk.. but to listen.
Jesus tells the man he healed that he can walk with Jesus back in his own country, telling his story.
And the Spirit is not our way of tapping into God’s power, but a way of opening ourselves to God’s will.
We may be strengthened by remembering times of great power and great certainty – but we shouldn’t chase after those moments. For faithfully, quietly, in bread and in wine, God is with us, calling us to disipleship in the ordinary.
Thanks be to God. Amen.