Second Sunday after Pentecost
Whose image haunts the mirror? And why
are you still here? What exactly do you hope
to become? When will you begin?
Scott Cairns, from
“Bad Theology: A Quiz”
Looking for signs of God’s reign can get pretty frustrating these days, especially if your looking is restricted to what you see and hear in mass and social media. That’s not to say that there’s no god-talk in the news; there are plenty of people who are not simply talking about God, but who also presume to speak on God’s behalf, loudly and at length to anyone who’ll listen. It’s not clear, though, that the god these folks are talking about is the God who was present to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who came preaching “good news to the poor… release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” which is to say, liberation to those suffering the yoke of every kind of oppression (Luke 4:18).
Readers who find themselves confronting some variation of this problem may take a measure of comfort that it’s not totally unique to our own Sitz em Leben. Several of this week’s lectionary texts resonate quite clearly with the contemporary situation. They speak first, in the case of all three of the Psalms and the story of Elijah from 1 Kings 19, of the pain and uncertainty experienced by those faithful women and men who seek help, comfort, or assurance in difficult times from a seemingly absent God of Israel. The alternative first reading, from Isaiah 65, suggests another side of the aforementioned texts by depicting that same God’s apparent perplexity at the behavior of a people who have rejected him repeatedly in favor of essentially the same ersatz deities Elijah had reckoned with more than a century before. These two themes, of course, are not mutually exclusive.
Elijah’s story is especially poignant in this regard. Readers familiar with 1 Kings know that the previous chapter tells the story of the prophet’s encounter on Mount Carmel with the prophets of the Canaanite deities Ba’al and Asherah, the worship of whom had recently been established as the de facto state religion by King Ahab and his Canaanite wife, Jezebel. The narrator of 1 Kings suggests (18:21) that there were plenty of folks among the Israelites who thought this was just fine, and who worshipped Ba’al and Asherah enthusiastically. The dramatic conflict, which Elijah organized as a head-to-head confrontation between the LORD and Ba’al, featured a spectacular display of the power of the God of Israel over against the impotence of Ba’al, and ended with the massacre of all 450 of the false god’s prophets.
Jezebel responded by upping the ante on her longstanding vendetta against the prophet, sending word that “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of [the slain prophets] by this time tomorrow” (19:2). Elijah, who was understandably terrified, fled into the wilderness, where he sat beneath a broom tree and asked God to take his life. The LORD, however, had other plans for him; after receiving sustenance from an angel, Elijah made the 40-day sojourn to Mount Horeb, where he discovered that God’s presence is only occasionally spectacular, and just as likely to be found in utter silence or a simple question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13, emphasis mine).
There is something of a parallel between the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al and this week’s gospel text, the story from Luke of Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac. Both feature a display of the power of God over against the established false deity of a tyrannical state; there are less-than-subtle clues in the gospel text—perhaps clearer in the Marcan version than the Lucan—that the demon(s) Legion and the swine he (they) entered represent Rome and its violently oppressive rule. It’s no small wonder, then, that the people of the region begged Jesus to leave; they feared being associated with this man who would so openly challenge the authority of the Empire. While Jesus didn’t flee fearing for his life, he did withdraw peacefully to the other side of the lake, content to allow the now-liberated demoniac to declare “how much Jesus had done for him” (8:39), and to let the destruction of the swine speak for itself, not just as a demonstration (similar to the one in 1 Kings) of the power of God’s kingdom over the narcissistic idolatry of Rome, but also as a portent of the ultimate fate of all kingdoms that would dare use god-talk to laud or justify themselves.
One of my teachers, the late historian of Christianity David Steinmetz, often said that Christianity has been “always tempted to go native,” which is to say that Christians are forever prone to twist the faith into a religion of the status quo, a justification for the distributions of power and the allocation and consumption of resources that make possible the ways of life of the dominant classes. Such regimes typically depend on more or less official forms of agitprop, including the declarations of “prophets” who to a greater or lesser extent function as apologists for the way things are. Perhaps then we shouldn’t be terribly surprised when such god-talk as is conspicuously present in mass and social media seems at best not quite right and at worst verging on blasphemy, for it is far from the “good news to the poor” proclaimed by Jesus.
In spite of all this misdirection, God is far from absent from our world for those understand where to look. Our friends associated with the movement known as the New Monasticism have suggested that faithfulness in our time entails “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire,” which they count as the first of twelve “marks” of their movement. Such relocation makes perfect sense for those seeking the God who promised, through Jesus, to remain present to the world, in and among the hungry, unclothed, and homeless poor; immigrants and refugees; the destitute sick; and the incarcerated and detained (Matt 25:31-46). Signs of the kingdom are evident to those who know where to look—not in the halls of power or the machinations of the wealthy, but in the quiet, simple questioning of the God who invites us to the good work of the peaceable kingdom: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”