Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Elijah's Death Wish and the Promise of Christ - homily for 12 August

"This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

These lines from the Prophet Elijah in the First Reading are startling.

“O Lord, just let me die!” 

What could possibly have given Elijah cause to want to die?
Yet the Lord answers his prayer – not with what he wants – but with what he needs – hearth cake and water. Taste and see the Goodness of the Lord! Great, right? 
Elijah eats and drinks, but then he goes back to sleep and waits for death.
What on earth would make Elijah pray for death?!  What happened to bring him down so low that he didn’t want to live any longer? For the answer, we need to go back a few chapters in 1 Kings 17-19 to see what happened.
Elijah lived under the miserable reign of the Jewish king Ahab. Ahab referred to Elijah as "the trouble-maker of Israel". King Ahab worshiped Baal and even built a temple to Baal in the heart of Jerusalem. That would be like the Pope installing a statue of Zeus in the middle of Saint Peter’s square.
King Ahab was also married to Jezebel (the original Jezebel) and together they worshiped the god Baal, the god of fertility and agriculture.
            Well, Elijah challenged the 450 priests of Baal to a religious duel on Mount Carmel. Elijah and the priest of Baal would sacrifice a young bull on an altar and then the prophets would call upon their god to send down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. The god who answered with the fire would be recognized as the true God. Elijah even pours water all over his altar and the wood to make it even more difficult for the fire to ignite. Finally, the LORD YHWH sends fire from heaven while the false prophets of Baal are humiliated.  Elijah was victorious against Baal. Game over, right?
No, that’s when things got bloody. Elijah ordered that all 450 prophets of Baal be put to death. Every single one of their throats are slit. Yes, it is one of the bloodiest events in the Old Testament.
Jezebel then threatens to kill Elijah, so Elijah flees for his life.
What was going on in Elijah’s heart? This is the same prophet who raised the widow of Zarephath’s son from death!
In the aftermath of the bloodbath, Elijah the prophet wants to die. Elijah doesn’t turn to God for life, but begs for death.
Elijah wanted to die because he had come to the conclusion that he was a failure.
He is so depressed, but God supplies his need with an angel and bread and water. But Elijah cannot see the Divine presence.
            The showdown with the prophets of Baal should have been the high point of Elijah’s ministry and the story should read: “and he lived happily ever after,” right? 
No.  The story does not end there. 
Whatever his personal struggle, he prayed for death. Perhaps his asking for death was more of a request for union with God.
The despair of Elijah is very interesting.  It appears to give a glimpse into his humanity.  Being a prophet is not easy. Elijah didn’t believe the people of Israel had heard God’s message.
Or perhaps it was remorse for the death of the false prophets. The violence seems to have left him empty. Was Elijah suffering from post-tramatic stress? I mean if you have just killed 450 men wouldn’t that affect you? It certainly seems to have spiraled Elijah into the vortex of death.
Did Elijah think that killing off the prophets of Baal would eliminate idolatry from the land?  It did not.  Killing others and oneself will never solve the problem of human suffering.
And there is a movement away from violence as we reach later prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah who condemn even animal sacrifice. We, of course, have our ultimate movement away from violence in Christ. We no longer take our enemy down to the water to slit their throats, but to baptize them. We no longer stone people to death but pray over them and their victims. 
As for Elijah, God refused to answer his prayer for death. Instead, the Lord provided physical nourishment and spiritual encouragement that he needed for life.  Why?
The LORD has a plan for him – a journey of faith.
Who said anything about a journey? He is on a journey. Really? Up until now we have only heard that Elijah is on the run, fleeing from Jezebel and her minions who have vowed to slay Elijah in retaliation. But now the LORD is preparing to restore Elijah’s faith and spirit.
            God has a plan for him – and it wasn’t Elijah’s plan. In his mind he was finished with ministry. But God thought otherwise. The nourishment sustains him for 40 days and nights as he made his way to the mountain of God.
Once Elijah gets to Mount Horeb or Sinai, he expects God to reveal himself as he did to Moses in a violent wind, earthquake, fire, smoke, and flame, but it was in the tiny whispering wind that God’s presence was revealed.
God revealed Himself to Elijah as the God of the silent whispering wind; the god of love and peace and mercy, not violence and the sword. Taste and see the Goodness of the Lord!
We are to be imitators of the God of Love. Our lives should be overflowing with kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mercy – the same kind of mercy Christ showed to us as he died and rose to set us free.
We may be tempted to give up in the face of our many difficulties and struggles or we can choose to come to Jesus Christ.
Our struggles might be a battle with cancer; a spouse’s continual decline in health; a difficult work situation; or betrayal by a friend where we know bear the ugly sting of murmuring tongues.
It could be an unfaithful or abusive spouse, or a marriage where the couple merely live in the same house and barely co-exist.
What of the parents who are helping their children deal with a broken friendship due to a friend’s involvement in drugs and alcohol? Or the parents who in agony struggle with a child suffering from anorexia or bulimia, chemical dependency, or depression?
There are many, many other examples – but whatever sadness that weighs on our hearts and makes us cry out: “Enough, Lord! Take my life! Just let me die!” - whatever the cross we bear, Jesus calls for us to follow him and be nourished with his body and blood. His very Life!
He calls us from the grasp of death and into life; out of darkness into the light!
Unlike Elijah who only had a hearth-cake and a jug of water, we have the bread of life and the chalice of Salvation! Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. We are not alone.
So, when we think we would be better off dead, or if we have ever prayed for death, then let’s take a step back and realize that we’re not alone.
Christ is with us. Taste and see the Goodness of the Lord!  Christ is with us. Christ is with us. Always. 

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