notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
1 Kings 19 - Elijah and being born again
Good Shepherd Morning Prayer 13/8/2006
1 Kings 19.1-8, John 6.35,41-51
Discuss - what does it mean, being born again? Suggest:
- nobody comes to God completely new - we all already have our ideas about God, ways of relating to God, ways of speaking about God:
- a person who is being born again is abandoning their old ideas about God and embracing something totally new;
- a person who is being born again is abandoning their old ways of relating to God and finding new ways of encountering God;
- a person who is being born again is learning to silence their old ways of speaking about God and finding a new vocabulary.
I'd like us to look again at the story of Elijah which we touched on last week - to see how he was born again. And I'd like to share with you my feeling that maybe, just maybe, we aren't living in a godless society as we might sometimes assume, but rather that we're living in a society which (might not realise it but) is in the very early stages of being born again.
Elijah, we remembered last week , personally slaughtered several hundred prophets of a religion he disagreed with. He evidently didn't believe in interfaith dialogue. He did it because he thought that was what his God wanted him to do.
But this act of faith - that's how he saw it - didn't release him, didn't invigorate him, or satisfy him like you'd perhaps expect an act of faith to do. No - first of all it got him into trouble with Jezebel, queen of those he had killed, who threatened him with his life. And that caused him to run away - he rapidly travelled the whole length of the country, crossed the border into the next country, abandoned his servant, and carried on alone into the wilderness, before he stopped.
And when he stopped he was faced with this terrible sense that everything he'd done - which he thought he'd been doing for God - he'd done wrong. But he knew no other way, so the only way out for him, he thought, must be death.
He asked that he might die: 'It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.'
Elijah had just come from what looked like a very successful campaign - in the name of his God Jahweh, beating and completely defeating the prophets of Baal.
And now all he felt was the urge to sit down under a juniper tree and to ask to die.
This desire to end it all overtakes us all occasionally. As with Elijah, it can be the apparent successes that we experience, as much as our failures, that bring on a sense of self-doubt, and bring us close to despair.
That sense of self-doubt is tied up in a sense of what I'll call God-doubt, for if our ideas about God don't seem to be holding up any more, then our world starts to fall apart.
Of course, if Elijah had really wanted to die then he could have stayed where he was in the first place, and let Jezebel's assassins finish him off.
And if Elijah had self-doubts and God-doubts they weren't the end of things - they were the start of a new beginning, however faint and far off that must have seemed to him at the time.
Elijah had always thought that God was a warrior God fighting with and for his people against all the enemies who crossed him. But that didn't seem to be the God he was meeting now, under that solitary tree. A God who responded to his grief by bringing him a piece of cake and a jar of water.
And that wasn't the God who he met a little later, when he was expecting a dynamic, dramatic God to come to him in the wind and the storm - but finding that God didn't speak to him till after the storm had gone and in the calm, a still small voice whispered in his ear.
Elijah's old way of relating to God was to follow him loudly and zealously, through big gestures like organising the contest with the prophets of Baal to see whose God would set fire to the alter of sacrifice. But now he was learning to talk to God in a very different way - in the voice of one humbled by self-doubt, baring his soul before God, telling God what he really felt, not what he thought he ought to say.
Later in the story God asks Elijah what he thought he was doing. And Elijah falls into his old way of talking, telling God that he is zealous for him, and that the people of Israel have forsaken God but he alone, of all of them, has stayed true to God, and they seek to take his life.
In his old way of thinking Elijah might have been expecting God to reward him with a great honour and perhaps to give him the task of taking revenge on this godless people. Instead God tells him that he will find seven thousand faithful people in Israel, and God asks him to pass on the reins to Elisha - who will be prophet in Elijah's place.
God didn't come to Elijah in a big, dramatic way: he came to him in the shape of an angel bearing the simple gift of cake and water;
God didn't speak to Elijah in a big, dramatic way: after the storms had passed God spoke to him in a still small voice;
God didn't ask Elijah to go and do anything dramatic or earth-shattering; he just sent him on a simple errand.
Elijah was faced with a sense that his old world had fallen completely apart - that his old ideas about God and himself weren't any use any more, and they had to be abandoned.
He had to relearn who God was - not a warrior God after all, but a hospitable one; not a loud demonstrative one after all but one who speaks in a still small voice.
And he had to relearn who he himself was and what God wanted him to do... something far simpler and less zealous than he'd ever imagined before. All this was the beginning of Elijah being born again.
I'd like to suggest that our society today has a similar sense of our old world falling completely apart - that our old ideas about God and ourselves aren't any use any more, and have to be abandoned. When we complain that we're living in a godless age maybe what we're really seeing is that the old ideas about God don't hold true any more. And that the old ideas about who we are don't either.
Take for instance the words of this old song:
When Britain first at Heav'n's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain;
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves:
Britons never never never shall be slaves.
The nations not so blest as thee,
Shall in their turns to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! ...
Discuss: what this says about God / what this says about us / whether this holds up today... or tomorrow...
Interesting that Rule Britannia doesn't get sung in public so often these days: that now when England play our sports stadia are more likely to ring out to the sound of Swing low, sweet chariot, which is an African-American spiritual, the song of a people in exile, longing for God to redirect them heavenwards:
I'm sometimes up and sometimes down,
Coming for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound,
Coming for to carry me home.
Perhaps our society today is in a time of questioning and reinvention. This can either be a crisis or an opportunity. It can be a time of beginning to be born again.
The new thing about God that Elijah embraced was that here was not a loud God of war and vengeance, but a God with a still small voice who brings cake.
I think that part of our role as Christians today is to help each other and those around us to start looking for God in the small things; to listen carefully for God's voice which isn't in the storms, but in the stillness...
That was the rationale behind my Thoughts for the Day last week , a series of prayers about the everyday things of life: wheelie bins, bus stops, mobile phones, traffic lights and shopping trolleys.
We may feel a bit lost in today's world, but if we pay close attention to where God might be, in the details of life, then we may just be where Elijah was on that hillside - ready to begin to learn what it means to be born again.
 Last week's sermon was a modified version of Paul Nuechterlein's A downer of a mountaintop experience.
 Thoughts for the Day Common Prayers series here.
 This sermon also owes a little to John Pridmore's commentary on the readings in this week's Church Times.