Trinity 2 – The cost of service
It seems that there is a right and a wrong time for everything. There are two major similarities between our two readings but each has a different outcome. We could ask if God’s will changes – or if God himself does. In fact, we need to remember that what seems to us to be the right time is not always God’s time.
What are you doing here? A strange question – what would we answer?
Elijah has been through a tough time – he has prophesied several years of drought and famine to king Ahab, who then blamed him when it happened. He was forced to flee to a different country while the queen, Jezebel tried to kill all the prophets who were faithful to God – we read in an earlier chapter of how 100 of them had to be hidden in caves and fed by Obadiah who was in Ahab’s service in charge of the palace but was faithful to God. This must have placed him in some personal danger, but sometimes God has placed the right person for a specific job in the right place at the right time, and Obadiah recognised that this was his time.
Elijah then challenged the prophets of Baal and Asherah to prove whose God was real – taking on in total 850 false prophets. The challenge was to meet on Mount Carmel, prepare an altar and sacrifice, and call to their god and to see which God sent down fire for the offering. As Elijah put it: ‘The God who answers by fire, He is God’. After they had called on their gods all morning Elijah begins to taunt them: ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud…. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.’ (1 Kings 18: 27-35).
Elijah then rebuilt the altar of God, put the sacrifice on it and then completely drenched the sacrifice and altar with water so that it was completely soaked. Then he prayed to God – ‘Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.’ (1 Kings 18: 38). The full story is in 1 Kings chapters 17 and 18 and is well worth reading when you have a moment.
Elijah was then warned that Jezebel the queen again wanted to have him killed and so again he fled. The story of what happened next is a well-known one, but is worth looking at again – ‘He (God) said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord 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 of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah? (I Kings 19: 11-13)’ Twice he is asked the same question – What are you doing here? It seems that Elijah had been expecting something from God – maybe a pat on the back after his epic time, but God seems to be telling him that this is all in a day’s work – and he needs to get on with the next thing.
There is a well-known saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This is particularly illustrated by both our readings today. One of the tasks given to Elijah is to find the person God has chosen to be his successor, and he is guided to Elisha. There is no question from Elisha as to whether he should follow – he simply asks for a bit of time to take leave of his parents, and then gives away to his colleagues what is possibly his most valuable possession – there is always a cost involved. If you read on, you will find that the succession actually took place some years later as far as we can tell, but Elisha followed his master from then onwards.
This rather raises the question as to why Jesus seemed to have less patience with the people who wanted to follow him and with his disciples who wanted to emulate Elijah and call down fire from heaven. Possibly it was just not in God’s timeline. Perhaps the fact that Jesus knew what was to come in Jerusalem also showed to him that the people who wanted to follow him were not prepared for the events that were to come. I wonder if I would have been either.
There is a cost involved in following God – for Elisha, his family and possessions. For the would-be disciples, family duties and home life. Nowadays the cost is more likely to be in the region of the respect of others. When comedian Frank Skinner ‘outed’ himself as a believing catholic, he said something to the effect that nowadays, to identify with the Christian church is to announce to the world that you are some kind of crank. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1 v18: ‘the preaching of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom of God’. Could this be part of the cost for us nowadays – in what is sometimes called the post Christian age? Are we prepared to stand up and be counted? Calling down fire from heaven is a much more exciting proposition, but what is God actually asking us to do at this time – in his time?
Copyright acknowledgement: The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995