sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B, August 12, 2018
Someone reminded me this week of an acronym used by Alcoholics Anonymous. The acronym is HALT, and it’s meant to come to your aid when you’re tempted to take a drink. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If you are craving a drink, you are probably one or more of these things. And recognizing this fact gives you an opportunity to analyze your feelings and make a decision, instead of just giving in to a momentary compulsion.
HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It struck me that this acronym is versatile. It may be useful in combating any compulsive or self-destructive behavior. We all get hungry, angry, lonely, and tired—and sometimes all of them at once. What behaviors grab hold of you in these situations? Would it help to recognize the cause? This simple tool can be a path through which God’s grace can help us to think and to do those things that are right, instead of those things that we do automatically.
The ancient stories of our faith are meant to be played with, explored, turned over and over and looked at from different angles, allowing different facets of the story to catch the light. Let’s take this acronym, HALT, and apply it to today’s story about Elijah.
After going one day into the wilderness, I’m sure that Elijah was hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. But why? If you go back a bit and read the larger story, you’ll find that it was for rather complex reasons. Elijah had just scored a major victory for God’s people, besting the followers of the Canaanite fertility god Baal in a one-on-one liturgical smackdown. When you get home today, open your Bible to the First Book of Kings, chapter 18, and read this thrilling adventure story.
After the Hebrew God unmistakably demonstrated the most divine power—that is, a great show of it as opposed to literally none from the imaginary god Baal—Elijah ordered the killing of all the prophets of Baal who were present, hundreds of them. Yikes! And then, suddenly, rain came—the end of the drought that had wracked the countryside for over two years. Take that, you worthless heathens!
It sounds like the finale, doesn’t it? It sounds like the credits are about to roll. But the story isn’t over yet. Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, sends a message to Elijah that she’s going to kill him. Elijah has won, and the rain is falling, but now he must flee for his life. He’s exhausted. He feels alone. He’s angry at his nation’s horrible leadership. And, of course, after a day of fleeing, Elijah is extremely hungry. No doubt some self-destructive behavior will rear its head. And that behavior is despair. Elijah gives up, throws himself on the ground, and begs for God to kill him. Despite what appears to have been a huge success, the prophet of God feels like a complete failure.
If you were God, what would you do for Elijah in this situation? Would you say, “Are you kidding me?” Or, “There, there—buck up, little camper”? No, you’d feed him! We can’t think clearly without basic sustenance. One thing at a time.
So God arranges, through an angel, for food and water to appear for Elijah in the wilderness. And only after Elijah has eaten, taken another long nap, and eaten again does he find that he has enough strength to continue toward his destination.
That destination is Mount Horeb, the traditional place where, many centuries before, Moses had met with God face to face. In times of trouble, have you ever felt the urge to make pilgrimage to a place that has been significant to you in the past, or significant to your people? Elijah finds a cave on the mountain and hides out there. It may, in fact, be the very cleft in the rock from which Moses was allowed to catch just a glimpse of God’s glory fully revealed.
Inside the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah complains that he is a complete failure. God says, “Go stand at the entrance to the cave; I’m going to pass by.”
There is a huge wind! Is God in the wind? No.
There is a huge earthquake! Is God in the earthquake? No.
There is a huge fire! Is God in the fire? No.
Finally, there is silence—a silence so loud Elijah can hear it, or a noise so soft that he can’t. Only now does Elijah recognize God’s true presence, in what some translators call “a still small voice.” And it’s whispering into Elijah’s ear: “halt.”
When I’m at the end of my rope and someone calls me up short, my first reaction is to shout, “Oh, you just don’t understand!” It’s the same with Elijah, who comes out of the cave and repeats to God the same words as before, an antiphon of his failure. But God ignores this and instead responds with very specific instructions: “Go anoint a new king of Israel, and also a new king of the neighboring kingdom of Aram. Go anoint Elisha to be your prophetic successor. Go on, now—get you gone.”
Well, now I’ve gone way beyond the little bit of the story we heard this morning, because I think the context of it is so crucial. We need to know why Elijah is so depressed, and we need to know what happens next, in order to fully appreciate God’s action in the story. We are playing, exploring, turning this story over and looking at it from different angles. And here’s what I notice from where I’m standing: Elijah wins an emphatic victory for his team through force. He solidifies this victory through violence against the other side. And then he finds that he has knocked down the hornet’s nest of royal authority. Violence begets violence. Could this be why Elijah’s victory feels so hollow?
In the cave, there is a violent wind, a violent earthquake, a violent fire. God is not in any of these violent things. Does Elijah get the point yet? Do we?
Strangely, though, God’s next instructions to Elijah imply a continuation of violence—more efforts on the part of the Israelites to utterly destroy the followers of Baal. The people aren’t ready yet to learn who God really is: the one to be found in the silence, in the peace. God is also to be found in patience. God hurts when we hurt, to be sure, and no doubt God longs for us to finally “get it” and understand what God is like. But God cannot and will not force us. God is playing the long game, and none of us—whether we worship YHWH or Baal—not one of us is disposable. God will not give up on any of us.
Many centuries later, in the Letter to the Ephesians, we find another set of specific instructions: here’s how to live in love in your own situation. These instructions include truth-telling, as much self-sufficiency as we can muster, giving away our wealth, and speaking constructively. We also hear, “Be angry but do not sin.” Or, to put it into the words of modern psychology and behavior sciences: feel the feelings, but don’t act on them blindly. Why are you striking out against your neighbor? Could it be because you’re angry—or hungry, or lonely, or tired? What will you do about it, so that your neighbor doesn’t pay the price for your feelings? Your neighbor matters and is not to be stepped on just because you’re having a bad day.
Jesus taught us that the field of our neighbors is much broader than we had ever understood before. Elijah couldn’t have imagined that the prophets of Baal were also his neighbors and were also to be loved. They were just The Enemy, to be eliminated as efficiently as possible, in full sight of all the people, so that fear would bring the Israelites back to the Living God. So why did this victory lead only to Elijah’s despair? Because God cannot be found in violence. God doesn’t work through fear and manipulation. God’s loving purposes cannot be accomplished through bitterness, wrath, slander, or malice. Violence grieves God’s Holy Spirit. And if we can still deny this—if we still think there’s such a thing as redemptive violence—then God’s not done teaching us yet.
But God is patient. We will come to God when God draws us. We Christians understand that to happen through baptism: God beckons through that still, small voice to think bigger, to feel more compassionately, to hold out hope for God’s action in the world, in our communities, and in our nations. The baptized are those who take on this project, and when we do, God keeps feeding us. But there’s bread, and then there’s bread.
The living bread comes down from heaven in human form and shows us God’s very face. “Come to me,” he beckons. “HALT your flailing around and come to me—all you who are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I will feed your bodies and soothe your anger. I will give you companions and refresh you. Walk alongside me into the conflict, bearing only love, and together we’ll stand with dignity in the presence of your enemies—because they, too, are a part of the one flock under one good shepherd.” Amen.