Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2019

In the Old Testament there’s a story of the prophet Elijah that seems relevant to me as we start our Lenten journey.

Elijah lived in the time of King Ahab of Israel, who was married to Jezebel, a foreign princess and worshipper of the Sidonian god Baal. Elijah had several confrontations with Ahab and Jezebel. One of his most famous confrontations came at the end of three years of drought, which he had predicted as a judgement on the idolatry of Israel.

At the end of the three year period, Elijah appeared on the scene and challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel. They would build an altar and offer a sacrifice, he would build an altar and offer a sacrifice, and then they would each call on their god to send fire to burn up the sacrifice.

Elijah invited the prophets of Baal to go first, since there were so many of them. So they built their altar, killed the sacrificial animal, and then for several hours prayed and danced and sang and cut themselves, all in an effort to get Baal’s attention. But nothing happened.

Eventually it was Elijah’s turn. He built an altar, killed the sacrificial animal, and poured several gallons of water over it to make it difficult for Yahweh. Then he prayed and called on the name of Yahweh, and the fire of heaven fell and burned up the sacrifice. The people all bowed down to Yahweh, and Elijah told them to execute the prophets of Baal, which they did.

This seemed like a tremendous victory, but it got Elijah into big trouble. When Queen Jezebel heard he had killed her prophets, she sent him a message: “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be dead.” Of course Elijah was afraid, and he ran for his life.

Let’s not forget that the confrontation on Mount Carmel had taken place after the three years of drought. During that time Elijah had lived in hiding, for fear that Ahab and Jezebel would arrest him and have him executed. So for three years he’d been on the run. He was probably in a state of emotional exhaustion.

We can imagine how he felt. “I can’t win with this woman. At the end of the day, she’s got all the power. Even when Yahweh shows unmistakably that he’s the true God and Baal isn’t, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. It’s only a matter of time before she tracks me down and kills me.” So, despite the fact that he had just won a great victory, Elijah was overcome with fear and depression.

So he ran away again and headed south, out into the desert, journeying toward Mount Sinai where Moses had met God and received the Ten Commandments. After his first day’s journey he lay down to sleep, and this was his prayer: “It is enough; now, O Yahweh, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19.4) Here’s what happened next:

‘Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of Yahweh came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God’. (1 Kings 19.5-8)

I find this a very telling paragraph. Let me explain why.

When we think about Lenten disciplines, we tend to think about what we do with our souls. We think of things like prayer and Bible reading, meditation, fasting, almsgiving and that sort of stuff. And none of that is wrong.

But it’s possible that what we really need is something more basic. We aren’t disembodied spirits. We’re physical creatures. Our souls depend on our bodies. Years ago many people believed the soul is a spiritual part of us that exists inside us, and the body is a sort of clothing for the soul. But nowadays we know from science that what we call ‘the soul’ depends on the body: specifically, on the brain. Our thoughts and feelings, our morals and character, our habits and virtues and vices—all these things depend on physical things happening in the brain.

And our brains are very dependent on the health of the rest of the body. Alzheimer’s is a physical disease, but it has a huge effect on the personality, because it affects the chemistry of the brain. And it’s not just really serious stuff like that. If we’ve eaten too much, the blood is busy digesting food in the stomach and the brain feels foggy. If we’re tired, we can’t concentrate. And it’s been shown over and over again that going for a walk can sometimes have a miraculous effect on the clarity of our thinking!

God was planning on meeting with Elijah, but he knew there was something Elijah needed first: a good night’s sleep, and something to eat. Maybe that tells us something about our needs too. Maybe the first question we should ask ourselves in Lent is, “How are we doing in looking after the bodies God has given us?”

Are we getting enough sleep? Electric light has played havoc with people’s sleep patterns. We stare at screens all evening, and the blue light inhibits the natural sleep inducers in our bodies. Also, when we’re watching TV or playing on the computer we tend to snack, and this can affect our sleep. Someone calculated that we’re getting on average an hour and a half less sleep a night than our grandparents got.

What about exercise? Years ago people walked more and worked with their hands more, and even their relaxations tended to involve more physical activity. Nowadays most of us spend a huge percentage of our day sitting down and doing things with our brains. God didn’t design us for this huge imbalance between physical and mental activity. Maybe a daily walk or some other kind of exercise might be a huge step toward spiritual health for us.

And of course we need to think about diet too. In medieval times in Europe only the rich ate meat regularly; the poor couldn’t afford it. Many people around the world live on much less food than we take for granted. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not my intention to point fingers. I spent about twenty-five years seriously overweight, and I think a forty-day journey in the desert from Israel to Mount Sinai might well have killed me!

So here’s where God started with Elijah: have a good sleep, have a good meal, go for a long walk. And then, when that’s all been taken care of, Elijah came to the mountain. He spent the night in a cave, and the next day God spoke to him and asked him why he was there. He said, “I’ve worked hard for you, even though your people have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they’re after me, too.”

God told him to go out onto the mountain, because he was about to pass by. Then there was an amazing display of pyrotechnics. Here’s how the Bible describes it:

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”’ (1 Kings 19.11b-13)

The Hebrew phrase for ‘a sound of sheer silence’ is difficult to translate into English. The King James Version says, ‘a still, small voice’. NIV says ‘a gentle whisper’, and REB has ‘a faint murmuring sound.’ But we get the point. Israelites were used to stories of God’s mighty acts in storms and earthquakes, but that’s not how God came to Elijah. God was in the calm afterthe storm, the ‘sound of sheer silence.’ And Elijah had no doubt about it; it says he ‘wrapped his face in his mantle,’ because he knew it was a dangerous thing for a human to look at God.

Today we’re surrounded by the earthquake, wind, and fire. Noise is all around us. The city never sleeps. Cars drive all night long, the police helicopter never sleeps, and if we can’t sleep, the Internet is there to welcome us back. Very few people go on long car drives without listening to the radio or the music system. In that respect, of course, we’re very different from our ancestors, who travelled across this land on horseback for weeks at a time in silence.

Silence is a skill we have to learn. Our Christian ancestors knew that sitting in silence before God is a very important part of prayer. Those who love each other don’t always need to be talking to each other. Sometimes they just sit together, knowing each other so well that they know what the other person is thinking and feeling.

It’s like that with God, too. Yes, we’re invited to speak to God, but we’re also invited to be silent before him. Psalm 62.5 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.’ Elijah heard God speaking to him out of the silence. Sometimes that’s the way with us, too. And even if it isn’t, there’s immense peace to be found in learning to spend significant amounts of time in silence and stillness before God.

Let’s sum up where we’ve come so far. I’m reflecting on how this story fits into Jesus’ great commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Get a good night’s sleep, get your eating sorted out, go for a walk as often as you can—those are all ways of loving ourselves appropriately. Learning to be silent before God, enjoying his presence, and listening to him—that’s about loving God with all our heart. If we really love someone, we don’t just want to talk to them. We want to listen carefully, without interrupting, so we can pick up everything they’re saying to us.

But of course the other command is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. That comes at the end of this story of Elijah. He complains to God again that he’s the only believer left, but God corrects him. “Actually,” he says, “there are at least seven thousand others in Israel who’ve never worshipped Baal.” I suspect Yahweh is gently nudging Elijah out of his pity-party! And then he gives him a job to do, to go back to speaking to others on his behalf, and he sends him on his way home. And Elijah obeys. Apparently his encounter with God in the desert and on the mountain has given him what he needs to carry on.

Some of the words God told Elijah to speak were hard words, and the people in power weren’t going to like them. Sometimes God calls us to speak hard words, too. To be loving doesn’t always mean being nice. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to speak the truth to someone. At other times, of course, the loving thing is to listen to what the other person is saying. Very few people these days have the experience of being reallylistened to. I don’t know whether or not Elijah was a good listener, but I’m absolutely sure it’s important.

This last command calls us out of Lenten self-absorption. Sometimes Lent can be a selfish time. The church invites us to examine ourselves and take on new disciplines and spiritual practices, but sometimes those practices can be all about what we might call a ‘bipartite spirituality’: ‘me and God’, forgetting about the neighbour. But Jesus didn’t just call us to ‘me and God’; he called us to ‘God, neighbour, self’. This ‘tripartite spirituality’ is what Christianity is all about, and what Lent is all about.

So let’s sum up.

Our bodies are a gift from God and they have a huge impact on our spiritual health too. Proper sleep, sensible eating, good exercise—this is all common sense, except it’s becoming less common. What’s one practice we could take on this Lent to take better care of our bodies?

Listening to God in silence can be a powerful experience. Most of us pray from time to time, and some of us pray every day. But do we do all the talking? Can we start to add silence to our regular prayers? Can we start with maybe one ten minute period a week, and then build on from there?

And finally, our neighbours are all around us. They aren’t a distraction from our spiritual lives. Many of us are already involved in serving. But perhaps some of us need to give more attention to this. Is there a simple opportunity sitting in front of us, an opportunity to serve a neighbour in a meaningful way? How can we take advantage of it?

Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself. Elijah’s story shows us the way. As we follow, let’s commit ourselves to a good and holy Lent.

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