Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The prophet Elijah has had a rough month. After hiding for three years in the wilderness to escape the wrath of King Ahab who blames him for a devastating drought in the land of Israel, Elijah comes back into the presence of the king at God’s command with a message: “You want an end to the drought? Call the prophets of the gods you have led Israel to worship. I, in turn, will call upon the name of the Lord. We’ll meet at the top of Mt Carmel. Let your prophets build an altar to their gods. I will build an altar to the Lord. The God who answers by fire is God indeed.” (highly paraphrased). You know the rest of the story. The Lord sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice on Elijah’s altar and ended the drought with a rain storm. Ahab’s gods were no shows. That should have settled once and for all the question of who is Lord in Israel.
Except that it didn’t. No sooner did word of Elijah’s victory reach the royal palace than Queen Jezebel, the true power behind the throne, launched a fresh campaign to rid the world of Elijah and the faith he proclaimed. The prophet finds himself right back where he started: a homeless refugee with a price on his head. No wonder Elijah just wanted to curl up at the back of a cave and die. No wonder he was ready to throw in the towel. His work seems to have accomplished nothing. He has not moved the needle of history a single centimeter.
God’s response to Elijah is anything but encouraging. Among other things, God directs Elijah to anoint a successor to carry on his work, the clear implication being that Elijah will not live to see that work completed. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for Elijah. He must soldier on through the darkness putting one foot in front of the other until his dying day. He must become acquainted with the night.
Seems the same is true for disciples of Jesus. Discipleship is not a job for the faint of heart. If the hardships and stigma of homelessness frighten you; if losing the love and support of your family is too great a price to pay; if your life is too dear to lose; then discipleship is not the profession for you. That’s a hard word for mainline churches such as mine that market to the masses. I cannot imagine ours or any other mainline congregation putting out an ad like that of the Marine Corps, namely, that we are looking for a few good people. To the contrary, my own church’s website proclaims with absolute assurance that “there is a place for you here.”
To be fair, I think the intent is to let the world know that we are an inclusive fellowship open to persons of all cultural and racial backgrounds. That is important, of course. Jesus’ ministry was nothing if not inclusive. Jesus shared his meals with religious leaders and outcasts alike. He never turned away anyone who needed his help; never failed to speak a word of grace and forgiveness when it was needed; never judged anyone unworthy of God’s love and attention. But when it came to selecting his disciples, Jesus seems to have been very intentional and more than a little particular. Only after a full night of prayer did he chose the Twelve. He told all who wanted to follow him that they would need to take up the cross. He warned his disciples that they could expect the same treatment he himself received at the hands of a world in rebellion against its Creator. Jesus loves all, forgives all and heals all, but only a select few are chosen as disciples. That is the witness of the gospels in any event.
Though the theology of the cross is deeply imbedded in my church’s Lutheran theology, our American genetic predisposition toward triumphalism often proves dominant. We are a people addicted to happy endings. Too often, our Easter preaching resembles just that. Jesus died, but then he was raised from death. All’s well that ends well. Preached in that simplistic way, the Easter proclamation fits nicely into our Disney mythology of good always triumphing over evil. Yet, in truth, the resurrection only destroys the last excuse we have for avoiding the cross. It is God’s “yes” to the way of the cross. It is God’s promise to bring to fruition in God’s good time (which likely will not be our own) God’s reign of justice and peace. Eternal life is not the promise of some distant future state, but life lived under the reign of God in a world that does not yet know its God. As such, it takes the shape of the cross. Suffering consequential to eternal life is embraced, not because suffering is good or edifying, but because it is the price of living eternally under the transient reign of the powers that be. This life of discipleship is one of profound joy, but it is joy that cannot be known apart from a deep acquaintance with the night.
Jesus’ call to take up the cross is hard to market to the masses. But maybe discipleship was never intended for the masses. Perhaps it was intended only for those ready to become acquainted with the night. Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such an acquaintance.
Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 255. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The legends of Elijah and Elisha probably pre-existed the composition of I and II Kings which was completed after the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E. They reflect a fierce cultural struggle in the Northern Kingdom of Israel between the religion of Ba’al and the covenant faith of Israel in her God, Yahweh. At the beginning of Elijah’s career, Israel was ruled by Ahab, son of Omri. He was a formidable ruler whose exploits are recorded in other non-biblical texts. Ahab entered into a political marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. This union provided much needed military support for Ahab in his ongoing struggle with Syria (sometimes referred to as Aram). It also facilitated trade between the two nations leading to the rise of a wealthy merchant class having significant political clout with the throne. Along with Jezebel came her religion, worship of the Tyrian Ba’al. Though used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “Ba’al” was an honorific title given to a range of deities. According to the scriptural witness, Jezebel was a fierce proponent of her god and an equally fierce enemy of the worshipers of Israel’s God. Ahab seems to have been ambivalent about the Tyrian Ba’al. Though he built a temple to the deity in Israel’s capital Samaria, probably at the insistence of his wife, he seems to have remained a devotee of Yahweh. All three of his sons have names derived from that divine name. Nevertheless, when it came to matters of state religion, it seems that Jezebel was the power behind the throne. During Ahab’s reign, the priesthood of Ba’al under Jezebel’s patronage increased its hold upon the population as the worship of Yahweh declined as a result of neglect and outright persecution.
Elijah first appears in I Kings 17:1 where he announces a drought that will befall Israel as a result of her apostasy and which does in fact occur. Ahab evidently blames Elijah for this natural disaster and seeks to kill him. The Lord directs Elijah to flee from Ahab and Elijah spends the next three years of the drought as a fugitive, taking refuge first in a wadi and then across the border from Israel at the home of an impoverished widow in the land of Sidon. Finally, Elijah is directed to show himself to Ahab and he does. Elijah then challenges Ahab to assemble the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel for what will turn out to be a showdown between Yahweh and Ba’al. Two altars are erected, one to Yahweh and the other to Ba’al. It is agreed that the god who answers the prayers of his devotees by sending down fire from heaven to consume the offerings on his altar shall be deemed God of Israel. Yahweh answers with fire. Ba’al is a no show. Elijah declares victory and proceeds to execute the prophets of Ba’al. He then invokes Yahweh praying for rain to end the devastating drought. Yahweh provides the rain that Ba’al, the rain god, has been unable to produce for the last three years. If Elijah thought the matter was now settled, he was sorely mistaken. When Jezebel learns of Elijah’s doings, she swears that she will do to him what he has done to the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah is again a fugitive.
Broken and discouraged, Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb. According to the traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this mountain was the one on which God revealed the law to Moses. There Elijah complains that his zeal for God has been unrewarded, that he alone is left among the faithful and that he wishes to die. God directs Elijah to “stand before him” on the mountain. At this point, the prophet witnesses a severe earthquake, a mighty wind and a fierce fire. These are the sort of phenomenon one would expect to encounter on the mountain of the Lord, but Elijah does not find a word from God in any of these events. Only in the sound of sheer silence does he hear God speaking. It is here that Elijah receives the instruction to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as his own successor.
This is but a thumbnail sketch of the colorful, entertaining and sometimes shocking tale of Elijah’s career up to this point. It hardly does the story justice. Nevertheless, I felt this cursory telling necessary for placing Sunday’s lesson in its narrative context. There is no substitute for reading the account in its entirety at I Kings 17:1-II Kings 2:18. The wonderful thing about the scriptures is that its characters are all too human. Despite all the miracles attributed to him, Elijah is no superhuman hero. He becomes discouraged, he loses his temper with God, he gives up in despair and throws a childish snit. In short, he acts exactly as we do when we are overworked, underappreciated and unsuccessful in what we see as our life’s calling.
The Elijah story (and that of Elisha which follows) is exceedingly violent. The lectionary people do their best to protect us from all that. I think these folks wish with all their hearts that the Bible had given us a “nice” God. Because it has not, they do their best to deliver one through their relentless butchery of the texts. Try as they may, though, the lectionary folks cannot conceal the obvious: God is not “nice.” God is good, however and loves us too deeply and too passionately to sit up in the heavens ringing his lily white hands over our beastliness while remaining righteously above the fray. God’s hands are soiled with the blood of history within which God is at work turning even our bloodiest deeds toward his own gracious purposes, making room here and there for epiphanies of the new creation. “God so loved the world…” not the ideal world, not the world as we might wish it to be, but the world as it is in all of its cussedness. That is the world God loved enough to get involved with and die for.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.) Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. As we have seen from our lesson in I Kings, this was an ongoing struggle particularly acute in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
Here Paul speaks of freedom. That word “freedom” is problematic because we use it so very differently than does Paul. In our modern context, freedom is all about doing what you want. It means fewer restrictions, more expansive rights and less restraint. Paul would have been altogether mystified by these notions. The greatest tyranny, according to Paul, comes not from governments, laws or moral restraints, but from domination by “the flesh.” Left to do anything we wish, we invariably fall prey to the “desires of the flesh,” namely, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Vss. 19-21. Such conduct is not freedom, but slavery of the worst kind. It leads to our self destruction and robs us of our inheritance under God’s reign.
“Works of the law” cannot set us free from the flesh. Adherence to the rules only breeds resentment against their restrictions and makes the outlawed conduct all the more alluring and desirable. We all know how fanatical devotion to religious observances can lead to hateful and violent acts. According to Paul, that is inevitable where individuals use religious observances and charitable acts (even acts that are beneficial) in order to win favor with God. This kind of religion makes of God a stern disciplinarian. It also takes the focus off the entire purpose of the law-turning us toward service to our neighbors.
According to Paul, freedom resides in being led by the Spirit of God rather than driven by the flesh. Under such leading, we are thankfully free not to do just anything. Paul makes the remarkable statement that we are to use our freedom to be servants of one another! Vs. 13. Freedom through becoming a servant!!! That sounds strange to our ears, but Paul is absolutely serious. Freedom is never found in libertarian communities of self interested individuals. Freedom is found in covenant communities where each person is responsible for and dependent upon his or her neighbor. In such a community, everybody’s child is everybody’s business. Everybody’s marriage is worthy of protection and support. The security of everybody’s home is the concern of the whole community. The whole law is fulfilled in one saying, says Paul: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Vs. 14. That is the only way to be free.
Note well that this love manifested in the “fruits of the Spirit,” is not a product of adherence to any moral code. It is the heartfelt response of the believer whose sins have been freely forgiven by a God who loves without limit or restraint. It is spontaneous, never coerced. Life in the community of faith governed by the Holy Spirit is where we discover the freedom in which Paul would have us walk.
This is the pivotal point in the Gospel of Luke. Up to now, Luke has been roughly following the chronology of the Gospel of Mark, the chief source upon which he relies. If you have been reading Luke attentively, then you know something big is destined to take place in Jerusalem. In verses 28-36, Luke relates his version of the transfiguration story in which Jesus is found discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus” he will soon accomplish in Jerusalem. That Jesus should speak of this upcoming event as an occurrence on a par with Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt tells us that we must focus our attention in that direction as well. Now in verse 51 Luke gives us a sentence loaded with nuanced language telling us where the narrative is taking us next.
“When the days drew near” literally translated reads “when the days were fulfilled.” Similar phrases are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to denote the coming of a decisive moment of judgment, salvation or both.See, e.g., Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 9:1; Jeremiah 23:5 . Commentators are divided over what is meant by Jesus’ being “received up.” It is highly unlikely that this refers to Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of God following his resurrection. Luke uses a different word to describe this event in both his gospel (Luke 24:51) and in Acts (Acts 1:9). As someone traveling to Jerusalem is said to be “going up” to the city regardless of which direction he is coming from, some commentators suggest that this verb only amplifies Jesus’ intention to journey there. I don’t find that interpretation persuasive. In the first place, it comes before Jesus’ express resolution to go to Jerusalem. Secondly, use of the passive voice to express this thought is syntactically clumsy. I believe that the most likely interpretation is that Jesus is to “be received up” by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who will ultimately deliver him to Pontius Pilate for judgment and execution. Jesus has already told his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” Luke 9:44. Now, we are told, this time is near.
Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Though Jesus is to be betrayed, delivered into the hands of the gentiles, judged and crucified, he is no mere passive victim. Jesus is making a conscious and deliberate choice to confront his enemies in the heart of the holy city. His expression of determination echoes that demanded of the prophets called upon to deliver hard words to the people of Israel. In calling Jeremiah, God declares, “I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” Jeremiah 1:18. So also the prophet Ezekiel was told, “I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads.” Ezekiel 3:8. Clearly, Luke is letting us know that we are about to follow Jesus into an epic confrontation with the powers of religious oppression, political domination, illness and demonic possession he has been battling from the inception of his ministry. From here on out, everything that transpires in this gospel will take place under the looming shadow of the cross.
Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem has immediate consequences. He is rejected by the Samaritans for that very reason. Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., more than a century before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Though many Israelites were displaced as a result, a substantial number remained in the land. Recall also that at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., only the upper classes in Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried away into exile. Thus, many and perhaps most of the people constituting the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah remained in Palestine and continued to worship there. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These folks claimed to be a remnant of the Northern Kingdom which had its capital in Samaria (hence, the name “Samaritan”). They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. This mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Needless to say, Jesus’ decision to travel to Jerusalem was interpreted by the Samaritans as a rejection of them and their faith. That Jesus does not see it that way is evidenced by his rebuke to James and John who suggested “nuking” the Samaritans.
At this point, discipleship takes on a new urgency. We the readers know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. That is not public knowledge, however. Furthermore, though Jesus has revealed to the disciples his coming suffering and death, we will soon learn that they have no comprehension of this message yet. Thus, the three “would be” disciples of Jesus in verses 57-62 cannot possibly have any idea about what following Jesus actually entails. The first of the three volunteers to follow Jesus. This is highly unusual in the gospel narratives. In virtually every other case, it is Jesus who chooses his disciples. The disciples never take the initiative in choosing Jesus. Clearly, Jesus does not “take all comers.” Unlike the ads of so many churches that offer elaborate programs, air conditioned sanctuaries, good fellowship and free coffee, Jesus is brutally honest about what discipleship entails. He isn’t interested in wooing the masses or growing his following. Jesus is looking for a few good people.
The next candidate is actually called by Jesus and responds affirmatively, but requests a brief reprieve to “bury his father.” Was this fellow’s father already dead and awaiting burial? In that case, the delay would have been a matter of days. It is possible, however, that the man’s father was not dead, but infirm and dependent upon his son. In that case, the man would not be free to follow Jesus until after the death of his father. If that were the situation, the delay would be indefinite. In either case, delay is not an option. The dawn of God’s reign has arrived and will not accommodate our busy schedules. The Kingdom is now and must be proclaimed today.
The third candidate appears to be asking for no more than what Elisha requested of Elijah before following him: an opportunity to say farewell to his family. Elijah granted Elisha’s request, but Jesus will give no quarter to his newly called disciple. There is at least one important distinction. Elisha’s intent to follow through was made clear by his actions. Recall that he slaughtered his plow oxen and used the wood from their yolks to roast them in a farewell feast. In so doing, he destroyed his means of livelihood and so had nothing to which he could look back. This action on Elisha’s part did not delay his prophetic career. To the contrary, it was a powerful testimony to his new identity as God’s prophet and the successor to Elijah. One might say that Elisha’s farewell gesture was his first prophetic sign. That does not appear to be the case for the man Jesus called.
I suspect that with the last two “would be” disciples the problem boils down to just one word: “first.” “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” “first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ call must always come first. That call may or may not preclude the fulfillment of other obligations, but it cannot ever be deemed secondary to them.