The Prophet’s Song
Pentecost II – May 29, 2016
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, May 29, 2016
I love the image, or better yet, the sound of an orchestra warming up… especially the strings. Just before the arrival of the conductor the concertmaster, the leader of the first violin section, plays a single note. Bows are drawn across strings and gradually the notes of many violins come into alignment with the one note of the concertmaster. The music of an orchestra is not a comingled mass performance of individual musical expressions. The music of the orchestra is a group effort to perform the music of the composer… under the direction of a conductor, and with the leadership of the concert master who seeks to align the group… to gather them onto a common frequency, a single note, out of which the art and beauty of the performance will emerge.
When I think of prophets and prophecy, I think of them as concertmasters for God… they live out their callings by uttering God’s notes… in calls for faithfulness, in calls for justice, in calls for peace… For the next four Sundays, in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures, we are going to encounter some of the adventures of the prophet Elijah. This out-of-the-mold prophet is described in the book of 2nd Kings as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” Elijah appears in the New Testament on a mountain where Peter, James and John witness Jesus “transfigured before them… his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” Elijah is also the foreshadowing of the eccentric John the Baptist, the locust and honey eating man of the wilderness clothed in a camel’s hair garment belted with leather… the one who prepares the way for Jesus. The name “Elijah” actually means “Lord of the hairy ones.”
There is a thread of continuity through the long history of our recorded scriptures. We are the recipients of stories that have been handed down through the centuries… stories filled with human struggles to be faithful … to be vessels of God’s healing and voices of God’s justice. Prophets of old were all flawed human beings… some seemingly crazier than others, some actually quietly obscure, but all whose work was to utter a prophetic note that resonates with God’s call to us.
Let us, for a moment consider the meaning of prophecy in scripture. Prophecy is not simply a ranting, loyal cry that was often mocked by the people of the day. Oftentimes prophets were revered and consulted by kings. We know about the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea, all who have books named after them. But there are many, many prophets, some without names, who are included in the old stories. There were female prophets. Miriam, the sister of Moses is considered a prophetess as well as Deborah the warrior. Their prophetic songs are recorded in scripture1. There were many different kinds of prophets with one or more specialties. Prophets have commanded military forces, performed miracles and healings, advised monarchs, mediated disputes, performed musical compositions, been weavers, interpreted dreams, asked questions of God, and proclaimed the word of the God whose name is not to be uttered, but known by some as YHWH. Of the prophets who do not have books names after them, Elijah has the most stories recorded. Elisha, Elijah’s protégé, comes in second.
Elijah lived in a time of great religious turmoil when the kingdoms of the north and south were divided. The kingdom of the north had slipped back into a polytheistic religion that included the gods of Baal, the feminine god Ashera and others. The kingdom of the south was clearly monotheistic, loyal to one god, whose name is spelled out only in the consonants Y H W H. Even today, God’s name is too holy to be uttered out loud by our devout Jewish sisters and brothers. The southern kingdom was clearly in the Yaweh camp while the north was polytheistic.
Elijah arrives abruptly on the scene in verse one of chapter 17 of the first book of Kings. Our lesson takes place in chapter 18. The order from God is to have all of Israel assemble in his name at Mount Carmel, on the coast, with the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah… those “who eat at Jezebel’s table.” Elijah is Yaweh’s representative. Amidst those gathered from both camps Elijah offers the question, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions.” … how long the division… how long the cacophony… There is silence. The people are polytheistic and it is Elijah’s task to bring them home to One God. An altar was erected and two bulls chosen for sacrifice, one by the Baalists, and one by Elijah. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal who performed their ecstatic dances and rituals, and who called upon the name of their god “Baal,” but received no answer. To put a finishing flair on this contest Elijah said, “then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” This challenge was received well by all. Elijah built his altar with stones, dug a trench around it, laid down wood, laid the cut bull on the wood, poured jars of water on top of the altar and the bull, and them poured some more, until the altar was drenched and the trench around the altar was filled with water. At the time of the offering Elijah offered a prayer:
“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1Kings 18:36-37)
The Lord responded. Fire fell and consumed everything, all of it, even the water in the trench. A gruesome postscript is that Elijah then killed all the prophets. (That is another sermon!)
The lesson… handed through… time is that God, known in a single call to all of humanity, in a single note that has resonated through time… is the One God who calls us to come into alignment with a divine and eternal harmony that outshines all lesser notions and meanings. In our day and age, we do not show our strength through battle and physical sacrifice as was done in the ancient world, though it still happens. In our day and age, in our faith, we know God through the gift of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the gift and workings of the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection we now more clearly understand the divine harmony to be one of peace, compassion and justice. The God we know calls us to life that neither death, nor empire, can contain.
Elijah is a flawed and complicated character sometimes prone to wander off course, and to utter his own note rather than God’s. The broken vessel was, nonetheless, a prophet of our powerful and passionate God.
When we think of prophets of our time we may quickly envision the big names… Gandhi, Dorothy Day, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many more who have lived out their prophetic callings in words and actions large and small. The prophetic call in our time and place is to care well for God’s good creation and to work for peace and unity in recognizing and championing the dignity of all human beings, especially in the current political climate in our country.
This past week the G7 Summit, a gathering of leaders of seven industrial nations, took place in Japan. At its summit in Germany a few years back, the group was addressed by Desmond Tutu. Tutu has joined other religious leaders and globalization critics in sending an anti-poverty message to economic power leaders. He said to this group, “We can survive only together, we can be free only together, we can be prosperous only together, we can be human only together… I want to say to the leaders of the G8, ‘I am an African, I am a man, I am a human being… I am not an object of pity, I am not an object of charity, ….I am an African, I am your brother.”
The summit of national leaders takes place every two years. Protesters gather at these meetings to send their message to the industrial powers-that-be. At this meeting protesters gathered nearby for an anti-poverty concert… to send their prophetic message… They say: “The message… is clear; We say: Pull down the barriers between those who decide and those who are affected by the decision. We say: Do not put your efforts into growth that violates the dignity of people.” Agnes Abuom of the World Council of Churches Executive Committee from Kenya added her voice, “Dignity for all human beings must never be sacrificed on the altar of the market.” The modern day prophetic rally, amidst industrial globalization in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, is: dignity, dignity, dignity. It is like a sacred rhythm that is sounding louder and louder as the imbalances of the global economy are moving through the lives of every country in the world, affecting nearly every culture, benefitting the few, diluting local economies and cultures, and indeed ignoring the basic dignity of individual human beings for the sake of false economic gods. The prophetic voices are calling us back to the sacred responsibility of caring… …for God’s good creation that includes the planet, all that lives in and on it, and all of God’s beloved people. The lack of caring may well be the most sinful, irresponsible act of all. Dignity, dignity, dignity… holy words from a divine source being spoken prophetically at this critical time in history.
May we align our lives with this sacred rhythm in the name our God known in Christ Jesus. May we join in the holy chorus that seeks to live out God’s will in caring for an awesome and vast creation that has been given into our care.
God’s song, spoken through the prophets… holiness, known in the rhythm of our heartbeats and in the sacred rhythm of Christ’s love for us. May we go forth and teach this music that it may be known to our children, and to our children’s children… May we live bravely and abundantly making holy music with our voices and with our lives.
Let us pray:
O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Song of Miriam: Exodus 15; Song of Deborah: Judges 5
Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39 Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10