The God who intervenes

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 8 August 2021. Here it is again for you.

I remember a few years ago when I went to America for the first time we landed in California and went to get a meal at the airport before travelling to our destination. I was surprised to find a card on the table explaining that a glass of water was no longer routinely served with food. There was a drought, and water could only be supplied on request. It was a serious situation, and throughout our stay we realised how concerned people were. This year it is even worse. Areas that normally have rain every few weeks have not seen any for several months, a situation that is expected to last throughout the summer. It is the most severe drought in 50 years. Reservoir levels are low, farmers have restricted access to water, fish are dying. Wildfires are sweeping across the region and the air is contaminated by smoke. In the town of Greenville, the gas station, church, hotel, museum and well over 100 homes have all been destroyed by a raging fire.

Turn the clock back 2 and a half thousand years to the tiny country of Israel. King Ahab is on the throne. He is introduced in the Bible as, “doing evil in the sight of the Lord, more so than any king before him”. He is married to Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who brought with her the worship of the pagan god Baal along with 850 cult priests. The prophet Elijah appears on the scene and declares that God’s response to this wickedness is to send a drought for an indefinite length of time. The crops fail, the cattle die, and drinking water is hard to find. The people pray both to God and Baal, hoping that one of them will hear. After 3 years Elijah tells the people they cannot keep hedging their bets. They must choose whether they worship the God of Israel or the foreign god Baal. He arranges the famous contest on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal prepare a sacrifice and call down fire from heaven. They wail and cut themselves with swords in the hope of attracting Baal’s attention. Nothing happens. Then it is Elijah’s turn. He asks the sacrifice to be drenched with water, so confident is he that water will soon be no longer in short supply. He calmly prays to God to show his power, and fire does come down from heaven and ignites the sacrifice even in its waterlogged state. It is clear which God has power in Israel. The people seize the prophets of Baal, and they are killed. And then it begins to rain. Elijah is on a high. He is the prophet of the victorious God; he has won his duel against the now dead false prophets and God has honoured his promise and rain has come. Surely now Ahab and all the people will worship the one true God. Then he receives a letter from Jezebel threatening to seek him out and end his life. He flees into neighbouring Judah and goes alone into the wilderness. He is utterly exhausted and demoralised. He prays that he will die. He crawls under a tree and falls asleep. Suddenly he is woken by an angel. There is food and water. He eats and drinks and falls asleep again. The angel once more wakes him up to eat and drink – this time telling him that God wants to speak to him, and he must travel for 40 days to the Holy Mountain of Horeb. And that is where we must leave him today.

He was really at rock bottom. After a resounding victory, the climax of 3 difficult years resolutely believing that God was in control, there was the inevitable anti-climax. Expecting gratitude, he encountered hostility and threats. If this was success, he had really had enough. He was exhausted, hungry and dehydrated. He felt helpless, deflated, depressed and confused. He feared for his life and saw no future. He prayed that he would die, now, on his own terms, not ignominiously at the hands of Jezebel’s soldiers. He lay down in the shade of the tree in the wilderness wondering whether he would wake up or not, and not much caring. And God intervened.

A mysterious visitor woke Elijah up, and showed him the food and water, lest in his disorientated state he failed to see it. There was no question of reasoning with him. In his current state the needs of his body came first. Elijah was allowed to eat and drink, to sleep some more and to eat again before the angel sent him on his next journey to encounter the Living God in a new way.

In the gospel reading we hear once again that Jesus is the bread of life. He is present in the Eucharist. However much we feel at the end of our tether, however little we are able to think, to reason, to pray or to love, the bread which is Christ is offered to us as a loving gift to nourish and sustain us. God cares for us in our deepest need, just as he cared for Elijah, and he gives us his own self as our spiritual food.

As one writer1 puts it:

Today Mass will be celebrated in cathedrals and in prisons, in hospitals and in universities, in shantytowns and in quiet country churches. The people entering into communion will come from almost every imaginable human circumstance.

Christ comes among people:

in their joy and in their sorrow,

to children and to the elderly,

to criminals, police officers and lawyers;

to rich people and poor people,

to joyous couples getting married

and to frail people whose life is ebbing away,

to soldiers and refugees.

We are the eucharistic people and we come from every nation and language – we all stretch out our hands to the bread of life.

What was true for Elijah – is true for us today. God intervenes in our lives. Some years ago, a well-known American evangelist was visiting a community of monks in England. They assembled to hear him speak. His first words to them were a question: ‘Tell me, what great things is God doing for you today?’ There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the elderly monks spoke up. ‘It’s been a quiet week, actually.’ It was, you might say, a moment of deflation.

It was, perhaps, as much as anything a clash of personalities. The evangelist had a burning passion to preach the good news of Jesus and was hoping for enthusiasm. The monks, too, lived out the gospel, but theirs was a life of quiet austerity. Their monastery was a place of welcome where all could come, those with or without a belief in God, and find a listening ear, wise advice, and a place to rest.

What would you say if someone asked you “what is God doing for you?” Most of us would probably find the question embarrassing. We might also be wisely tentative in discerning God’s hand amidst the seemingly random happenings of our lives.  But nevertheless, the question is a valid one for us to answer in our own hearts. For God does intervene. He intervened in the story of Elijah, and his greatest intervention of all was in coming into our world and sharing our mortal lives in the person of Jesus. And he intervenes by meeting us week by week in the Eucharist.

The Bible leaves us in no doubt that the drought that Elijah prophesied was not a random happening but was caused by the disobedience of King Ahab and the people of Israel. We no longer view events as being a punishment imposed by God, but we now know that droughts such as the one in California are the result of our abuse of the planet causing the climate to change. Elijah’s response was to call the people to repentance and to abandon the false gods. In our case the idol is the belief that because we have the technology to do something we have the right to go ahead and do it. Intensive farming, fast cars and unnecessary air flights, for example. But things are beginning to change. This week I read that in Berkeley, California the council has committed to exploring the possibility of providing only vegan meals at summer camps, retirement homes, jails, and the city’s council buildings. That sounds, perhaps, like an extreme response, but desperate times need desperate measures, and in California climate change is not a future fear – it is wreaking havoc now.

When God needed to intervene in Elijah’s life he sent an angel, a messenger to provide the food and water to nourish him. When human behaviour needs to change, God rarely intervenes directly. He relies on his messengers to spread the word. And that would be us.

In a few minutes we will receive the body of Christ, the bread of life which will strengthen and nourish our souls by the grace of God alone. Then we will pray “Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory”. How might your life reflect God’s praise and glory this week?

  1. Fr Terry Tastard

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