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9:30AM - Stepping Out of the Cave

Date:6/26/22

Category: Sunday Services

Passage: 1 Kings 19:9-16

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Randy Bush

What happened to Elijah? How did this mighty prophet end up hiding in a cave? One chapter before this, Elijah was boldly facing off against 450 prophets serving Baal, the false fertility god of that part of the world. Elijah won that contest, but when Ahab and Jezebel heard about his victory, a death sentence was pronounced against him. So he panicked. Eventually Elijah made it all the way to the far south, climbed a mountain and hid out in a cave. That’s where we find him in today’s passage.

Elijah felt he was all alone – that he was the only follower of God left in the land. As he saw things, everyone in the northern kingdom of Israel had forgotten God’s promises, torn down God’s altars, and chased away or killed every other prophet but him. He was ready to give up. He’d lost hope and basically said that when God asked, “What are you doing here?”

At Austin Presbyterian seminary, one of their professors recently retired – a man named David Johnson. Dr. Johnson was a funny guy. One of his sayings was, “When life hands you lemons, make margaritas. Then your only question will be what to do with all those darn lemons.” But in a more serious moment, he was asked, “What is the opposite of faith?” Johnson paused for a bit and replied, “I don't think it's denial or doubt. It might well be despair, as Kierkegaard suggests. But I am beginning to think that the opposite of faith is self-involvement.”[1] If faith is outward-looking, loving God and loving our neighbor, then perhaps the opposite is when our gaze becomes hopelessly inward-looking, self-absorbed. Maybe this type of self-involvement feels as if you are hiding from the world in a cave – like Elijah. If so, then the next question is: What do we do about it?

Twice in that cave God spoke to the prophet; “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah listed off all the reasons why he was so distraught and troubled. But instead of trying to talk him out of his despair, God simply said, “Come out of the cave, for I’m going to pass by before you.” Now, I need to give you a little bible background information to help understand what happened next. The mountain Elijah had chosen to hide in wasn’t just any mountain; it was Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Remember how God appeared to Moses and the Israelites when they were fleeing Egypt? God’s power was seen in a mighty wind that parted the Red Sea waters, in a pillar of fire that led them through the wilderness, and in a rumbling earthquake that shook Mt. Sinai before Moses ascended it.[2] So it’s no surprise that once again on Mt. Sinai, Elijah witnessed the power of God in wind, fire, and earthquakes. But after all those special effects, there came something totally different.

No one quite knows how to translate the Hebrew in verse 12. In the King James Version, it says that after the fire Elijah heard a “still, small voice.” The New Revised Standard Version describes it as the “sound of sheer silence.” The Common English Bible breaks it down into three words “a sound – thin – quiet.” It is almost impossible to find a place of absolute silence. I tried it while I was writing this sermon. But even when I sat perfectly still, I could hear the computer running next to me, the air-conditioner cycling on to cool the house, and a bird outside in the garden. If you’ve ever gone deep into a cave, you can experience absolute darkness and deep stillness. It’s funny but there is almost a weight to such darkness and silence. You see and hear nothing, but you can feel its reality.

Elijah felt something in that sheer silence. It is like he felt the very reality of God, the nearness of the One who is the Creator and Sustainer of all life...a voice, a sound, a thinness in which heaven and earth came together around him. Words fail here, but it was enough to shake him out of his funk and get him to stand up and step out of his cave at last. God was calling him to step into the world again, and as God’s prophet to help change the world for the good.

Years ago Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book called The Social Construction of Reality.[3] They wrote about how our life together is daily shaped by “common sense knowledge,” the knowledge we share with one another that helps us get through our days as best we can. A good example of this is traffic lights. There are not enough police officers in the world to ensure that every car stops at every red light. As drivers, all of us (well, maybe not drivers from New Jersey) know that red lights mean stop and green lights mean go. Common sense means we all agree to accept these rules and our reward is that we can usually get home safe despite dealing with crowded roadways.

Every society depends on this common knowledge. So when things happen to challenge this communal wisdom, it sends a shock wave through the core of our being. It’s like people everywhere suddenly start running red lights and we don’t know what to do about it. The past couple weeks have had several examples of these shock waves challenging what it means to live in American society, and it is right for us, as people of faith, to reflect together on these things. 1) The common wisdom is that you are able to walk into a public space, and if there’s a problem, only a police officer has a weapon to keep everyone safe. But the Supreme Court, in striking down New York’s 100 year old law restricting the carrying of concealed weapons now has called into question all our safety in public places. It puts police at risk as they try to quickly sort out which person with a gun in their hand is the real threat. It’s like running red lights with firearms.

In the same way, 2) the common knowledge in this country is that there is to be an orderly transition of power from one democratically elected leader to another. But the January 6th hearings have exposed willful attempts to run that red light, to break that 200 year old precedent as one man tried to hold onto power at any cost. And 3) the overturning of Roe v. Wade ran over a 50 year precedent that acknowledged a woman’s inherent ability to make decisions about her own body. The recent ruling made it seem like abortions are just impetuous matters of convenience, when nothing could be farther from the truth. It tried to legislate that all life begins at conception, when many people of faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims – do not all hold that belief. It took a complex issue and drove full speed through a red light of mutual forbearance, dividing our country further and literally putting thousands of women’s health at risk.

I know these are complicated topics and we may not all agree on the details. But in times like this you don’t need pablum from the pulpit. We need to find ways to talk faithfully about what’s going on in our world. My fear is that all these current events, plus concerns about Covid and a possible recession, may prompt us to want to join Elijah hiding in his cave. My fear is that we too will lose faith, grow discouraged, and give up. So my prayer is that Elijah’s story becomes our story – that we quiet down our troubled spirits and sense the reality of our loving God. This reality is like a deep silence that speaks words of comfort. It is like quietness in a place where heaven and earth come together. It is the reassurance that we stand on solid ground, on the rock of our salvation.

Elijah realized exactly that. He stepped out of his cave. God then gave him instructions to go back north, to anoint a new king to replace Ahab and Jezebel, and anoint a new prophet Elisha who would continue God’s work in the years to come. God had him step out so that a common faith might be restored; so that a common commitment to love and justice might rule the land;  so that there would be no reason to hide in caves or be afraid any more. This same message would later be echoed by Jesus when he too went up on a mountain, when he too stood beside Moses and Elijah. The disciples were overcome with fear and wanted to build booths on that Mount of Transfiguration and just stay where they were. But Jesus told them not to be afraid and to follow him back down that mountain and to proclaim his gospel to all the world.

What does it look like to step out of our caves? It looks like being ordained an elder or deacon, accepting the responsibility to share one’s gifts for the sake of the church now and the church coming to be. It looks like building a house in Kittanning with WoodsWork or teaching a Sunday School class for children or praying for someone who is sad, depressed or grieving. It means not running red lights but working for a society in which we value the common good and humbly recognize that our laws must protect all of us or they risk protecting none of us. Step out of your caves. That is the call to us Presbyterians, us modern-day prophets, us people of faith and followers of Christ this very day. AMEN

[1] Insights, Austin Theological Seminary, Spring 2022.
[2] Cf. Exodus 14:21; Exodus 13:21; Exodus 19:18
[3] Material in this section comes from an article by Shoshana Zuboff, “The Coup We Are Not Talking About,” New York Times, January 29, 2021.