In (or near) the year 850 bc, Elijah, the prophet, stood against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. He alone stood against 450. The enemy prophets called on Baal to bring fire. Baal did not. But Yahweh did, at Elijah’s imprecation. Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing. Or he is inside. Or he is on a journey. Or he is asleep—he needs to wake up. Maybe he does not hear well. Try again. Elijah also announced the end of a great drought. On the way to the river Jordan.
In the year 820, Elijah went up a high mountain, not unlike that on which Jesus stood some weeks ago in Mark, and listened for God. He heard God. Not in fire, or smoke, or whirlwind, or techno wizardry, or techno frenzy. For God was not there. But in a still small voice. In silence, the silence before hearing and speech. In conscience. In mind and will. The Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks 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; and after the fire—a still, small voice. On the way to the river Jordan.
In the year 800bc Elijah, the troubler of Israel, saw King Ahab, through his wife, Jezebel, take the garden of a poor man, Naboth, and kill Naboth in the process. I will give you a better vineyard for it. But Naboth did not want another, but his own. And Ahab sulked, vexed and sullen, and lay down on his bed, and turned his face, and would eat no food. But Naboth held onto his vineyard. But Jezebel said, ‘Do you govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful. I will get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite. But Naboth resisted her, too. So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. And Jezebel said, go and take Naboth’s vineyard, for he is dead. But Elijah confronted the king. Have you killed and taken? Then I tell you—In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood. Elijah, the troubler of Israel. It is one thing to desire another’s property, and another to take it by force. Elijah held a mirror before the country that wanted such a king, and the influence of such a queen. On the way to the river Jordan.
In the year 30ad, Elijah’s spirit awakened Peter, who went up a high mountain, with Jesus, to see Him changed. Elijah brought reason and morality to the religion Moses founded. Lent is meant to remind us of the priority of worship. Find a way to get to worship. Worship brings the insight of personal need, lifted in prayer. Worship brings the insight of another’s hurt, lifted in communal, singing, four part harmonic hymns. Worship brings the insight of clarity, a word fitly spoken, lifted in the sermon. Worship brings the insight of choosing, the choice of faith, not thrill but will, lifted in the invitations, to devotion, discipline, dedication. Worship brings the insight of loyalty, of heart, lifted every Sunday in the offering of gifts and tithes. Elijah brought hope, prophetic hope, into the tradition and minds of his people. On the way from the river Jordan.
In the year 1735, the spirit of Elijah rested on the New England community of North Hampton, and the ministry of a Puritan divine, Jonathan Edwards, our Calvinist interlocutor this Lent. Edwards saw the divine light shining in the human soul. Edwards saw that the material universe exists in God’s mind. Edwards saw faith in the willingness of saints to be damned for the glory of God. Edwards saw religious affections, inclinations, dispositions, all gifts of God in faith, the love of God that kindles joy, hope, trust, peace and ‘a sense of the heart’. Edwards saw the centrality of the experience of faith: a person may know that honey is sweet, but no one can know what sweet means until they taste the honey. Edwards saw that ‘God delights properly in the devotions, graces, and good works of his saints.’ Jonathan Elijah Edwards, our New England precursor, walked along the Connecticut River, on the way from the river Jordan.
In the year 1865, in our nation’s capital, the spirit of Elijah touched the tongue of Abraham Lincoln. Months and days before Lincoln died, Lincoln cried out, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in. Real cost, real costs, occasion our very freedom to gather in community for worship this morning. The same spirit, of 850bc, that presence, that quickened consciousness, that affection, that devotion, that inclination were present with Lincoln, and are with us today. You have the brute fact of the brute creation. You have too the spirit.
In the year 1951, the spirit of Elijah rested in the mind of Ray Bradbury. He wrote a book, Fahrenheit 451 (this is the temperature at which paper burns), an eschatological prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading, the end of memory. The novel ends along a river. Montag finds himself with hoboes around a campfire, along the river bank. He is surprised to find that fire, the mode of book destruction he has resisted, can ‘give as well as take, warm and well as burn’. He waits in the shadows. The men around the fire summon him out of the dark, and take him in. He learns that each one of them has committed some book to memory. One is living Plato’s Republic. One is the work of Thomas Hardy. One has memorized several of the plays of Shakespeare. Byron, Machiavelli, Tom Paine, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—all these are carried in the minds of hoboes, walking libraries, the remaining memory of the art of the race. “What have you to offer?” they ask Montag. “Parts of Ecclesiastes and of the Revelation to St. John”, he replies. In 2015, an age that has eschewed reading for scanning, books for blogs, google for memory, and earning for knowing, Elijah Bradbury’s word resonates. On the way out from the river Jordan.
In the year 1959, down in the southern third of Alabama, the spirit of Elijah rested on the mind of Harper Lee. She wrote a book, a great book, a book great because it changed people’s minds and hearts. Like Augustine’s Confessions. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like The Diary of Anne Frank. Like Elie Wiesel’s Night. Like what Tom Hanks tried to do with Philadelphia. The prophet’s magic mantel, which divides the river Jordan, pierces the heart. Lee’s pastor, our friend, Thomas Lane Butts, spoke of her to me some years ago. All on the way from the river Jordan.
In the year 1965, in early March, the spirit of Elijah walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. John Lewis was there, ‘not angry, but full of righteous indignation’, as he said. Through the history, offices and gifts of Boston University we sat next to him over dinner three years ago. He wanted to be a preacher, growing up: I would come home and preach to the chickens, he remembered. If nothing else, perhaps 50 years hence we could remember that real change is real hard but comes in real time when people really work at it, on the ground, in personal conversation, then in small groups, with gifted leadership. Down on the way from the River Jordan.
In the winter of the year 2015, Elijah, the spirit of Elijah brooded over the face of New England snow fields. The sore muscles of a shoveling people, the tired torsos of a commuting community, the undaunted willingness still to help a neighbor, the gritty determination to get through the blizzard, the awareness of needs for investment in the communal forms of transport, the gladness of children and the extra time of adults, the same spirit visited. But also. The sore memory muscles wrestling with the horror and mayhem—needless and cruel—of Marathon 2013. The blizzard of feeling and thought inevitably brought by a current courtroom trial to the surface. The rush of anger alongside the search for the better angels of one’s nature. You may not daily recognize Elijah. But he is present. Morning in reading. Mealtime in prayer. Evening in quiet. Sunday in worship. (People have such odd reasons for avoiding worship.) On the way forward from the river Jordan. Elijah: elusive spirit, mysterious ghost, the divine present absence, personified.
On March 8 of 2015, the spirit of prophet Elijah hovered in the nave of Marsh Chapel, Boston University. The chapel has given, to you and others, over many decades—beauty, grace, preachment, music, recollection. Some here have found God, and some here have been found by God. Marsh—a gift. And so you have responded. By listening on the radio—good. By joining us one Sunday—good. By giving to and through this ministry—good. By inviting someone to listen, too. By inviting someone to come with you. Good. By dreaming of an even more permanent place, and even stronger witness, and even more vibrant voice at Marsh. One of you may choose to endow the deanship of this chapel. Good. Elijah awaits us. On the way from the river Jordan.
In the year 20??, I apologize, I have mislaid the exact date, the prophet Elijah will be on my doorstep, and knocking on your door. Perhaps at midnight. Maybe at noon day. Possibly at dawn. Or in the wee hours of the morning. The eschatological prophet, the prophet of the last things, the one invited by Peter to a booth with Jesus, Elijah, the prophet of God, will make a pastoral visit. In the last hour of my life, and yours. There will be the river Jordan. There will be a mantel slapped on the water. There will be a parting of the ways. There will be a step forward. There will be a chariot, a sweet chariot, a swinging sweet chariot, a firey, swinging, sweet chariot. There will be a presence. Could it be that the weeks of cascade, the days of Nevada, the snow and snow and snow of our 2015 New England winter of discontent should carry an evocation, a query, a reminder, a call, premonition, a measuring, a warning, a promise? Most of what we spend our time on, and our money, doesn’t matter at all. It is the spirit that giveth life.
In the year to come, sometime, going back a half step, an Elijah spirit will usher us toward only the book of Harper Lee, a surprise and an adventure. In this newly discovered book, I understand, Scout is grown up, and Atticus Finch is old, and the setting is not the depression but the early civil rights movement. We know whence Scout emerged. Maybe we will re-read Mockingbird. One of my predecessors in Rochester was a southerner, Andrew Turnipseeed, a friend of Dr King’s. At Turnipseed’s funeral TL Butts preached:
“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene. Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man. She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people. The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered. It is over. Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door. Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?” She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing ups as her father walks down the aisle. Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.” Can you hear that? It begs to be heard.
Here is one way to live. Elijah’s way. The spirit way. The way of confidence born of obedience. The way of the journey of faith, the obedience of faith. In this way, we live with the trust to see things through. To cross over. To cross the river. To trust our past. To trust our experience. To trust the spirit. To trust our Elisha’s, our friends and successors. To trust that in some way spiritually similar to Elijah at Jordan, a sweet chariot awaits.
A chariot of promise. A chariot of freedom. A chariot of hope. A chariot of deliverance. A chariot of salvation. A chariot of heaven. A chariot to carry us home.
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