This is our month of mountaintop experiences. Here we have the opportunity to follow the prophet Elijah up the mountain to an ancient place of encounter with the divine. Just like we did with the story of Moses, many generations before Elijah, who went up Mt. Sinai and encountered the Holy I Am, we’re going to be honest that all of these mountaintop stories in scripture are stories about human beings experiencing in-breakings of the Divine in the midst of particularly intense life circumstances. Okay? So, I’m not going to clean this up to seem nice and sweet and tidy like sometimes we do on Sunday. Just fair warning – potentially troubling content ahead. But, God willing, we will through it to a glimpse of the Peace Which Surpasses all Understanding.
When it comes to Elijah, as we follow him up to that mountain, we must know that we are in the midst of an era of violent strife and terrible uncertainty. King Solomon’s reign and its relative peace and unity in Israel are generations in the past. The Hebrew people have torn in two, a bloody, bitter rupture north and south. It’s now two nations – the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Between these two nations there remain strong deep ancestral bonds between them.
As divided nations, they’re not very strong any more. The other minor kingdoms and tribal groups often threatening to invade each other. Things are insecure and often scary. And all these contests over power and turf are understood to be contests between different tribal gods: the gods of the Sidonians and Moabites, the god of the Hebrews, the gods of the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Philistines … they’re all fighting each other. Whose god is most powerful? Whose god can triumph over the others? Whose god controls the weather? Whose priests have the strongest magic?
This contest between the gods is played out by priests and rulers and armies. So, we’ve got Christians preaching hate against Jews and against Muslims; We’ve got Muslims preaching hate against Christians and against Jews; We’ve got Hindus and Buddhists preaching against Muslims, and so on… stoking self-righteous governments to multiply their militaries, as fanatics and soldiers and jailers commit terrible atrocities. And it’s all in the name of who’s got the best god and the most power.
When we follow the prophet Elijah up the mountain to that ancient place of divine encounter, we must know that Elijah is himself locked in such a contest between gods. The king of Elijah’s people, Ahab, has married a woman from a neighboring people, a Sidonian named Jezebel. And Ahab has abandoned Israel’s god, Ywhw, and adopted Ba’al and Asherah, which are the names of the god and the goddess of Jezebel’s people. Maybe we can think of this as the kind of scandal it would be if, I mean, just imagine if the President of the United States wanted, say, to secure a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia and so married a Saudi princess and made a show of converting to Islam. Imagine that? But, look, it looks different from culture to culture throughout history, but powerful people play politics through performances of religious adherence of one kind or another, to demonstrate their tribal affiliation. And the combat between political powers so often has been seen as combat between the spiritual powers of tribal gods. These days it’s not too different.
At any rate, Ahab has married a foreigner and has adopted her gods and abandoned the god of his people. And Jezebel for her part is not some meek wifely prop in this drama. She’s a power player. She’s set on domination. And she sets out killing the followers of Yhwh.
But then, the biblical story tells us, Yhwh himself responds by causing a drought in order to humiliate Ba’al, who’s supposed to be a mighty storm god. Elijah, as a prophet of Yhwh, challenges the priests of Ba’al to a public contest. “Alright, let’s just see who’s got the more powerful god. Let’s just see who’s got the real god.” Elijah brings everybody to the top of Mount Carmel – (this is not the mountaintop experiences we’re leading to, by the way). There, Elijah builds an altar, and then he tells people to slaughter two cows and put them on the altar. Then Elijah challenges the enemy prophets to make the cows spontaneously burst into flame. They pray for hours, crying out to their god, saying, “please burn up these cows.” But nothing happens. So Elijah sneers at them and mocks them – he says, Elijah says, “Maybe Ba’al is can’t hear your prayers ‘cause he’s stuck squatting in the outhouse.” (For real, that’s in the Bible – I’m not cleaning this up, remember?) #biblicalburns Finally, the priests of Ba’al give up. Then it’s Elijah’s turn to work his ritual magic. He prays to his god – and the slaughtered cows burst into fire. The crowds are amazed, and they fall down in worship – “Yhwh! Yhwh! You’re the real god!” Elijah then (I’m not cleaning this up), sees his opening, and tells the people to seize the followers of Ba’al’s prophets. The crowd tears them to shreds – just as Jezebel had killed the prophets of Yhwh. But the triumph is short lived for Elijah. Once Jezebel gets word of what Elijah did to her people, Believe me, Elijah kicks up his heals and runs for his life.
This is ugly stuff. These contests between the gods is bloody business. Which we all well know if we’re sensitive to the pain of the increasing religious violence in our country and our world. And it’s on the rise, which is why I’m preaching this. FBI reports that hate crimes based on religion have risen the past three years, mostly due to an increase in anti-Semitic violence. Globally the situation has been getting worse, violence due to religion, as well as governments being more repressive against members of certain religions.
Alright, so that’s Elijah’s context. When we follow Elijah up that mountain to that summit, that ancient summit, of divine encounter, we have to know he’s fleeing for his life. And we have to know that he has blood on his hands.
At the same time we have to appreciate that all this time, however we may judge, rightly, the actions Elijah has taken, all this time he’s been having these overwhelming experiences of awesome Mystery. This presence, this strange, seductive, awesome presence, has been visiting Elijah.
When he calls out to this awesome Mystery, he becomes filled with this power that allows him to heal the sick and to multiply loaves and fishes to feed the hungry, power even to raise the dead.
He’s overcome with love and devotion for this great awesome Mystery that’s claimed him and that will use him to be a prophet honored by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha’is alike.
Elijah wrestles with the meaning of this awesome Mystery, his heart burning for everyone to know this god, whom he knows only in incomplete glimpses and whispers. As we know, his passion can be a violent passion.
So, when Elijah hears the voice of Yhwh whispering to him to go up to Mt. Horeb/ Mt. Sinai and await an encounter, as his ancestors did, Elijah sets out into the desert, with his heart on fire, with nothing but the sandals on his feet. An angel attends to him so he has food and water, before his forty-day fast through the wilderness. He journeys for days and weeks, without food, before he can see the distant peak against the sky.
It’s days further through the desert until that peak looms directly above him, and he is able to begin the ascent on the rocks, one step higher than the last. After a day of climbing he is high above the desert floor, and he can look out over the vast expanse of plains and mountains.
For once, the brutality and fear that has dominated his life seems far away. It’s as if he is suspended in the sky as it shifts from its dazzling cobalt blue into the smoldering reds of sunset. The air becomes cold as night falls. Elijah finds a cave, and watches from within as the stars unfurl through the sky. He nestles himself into that nest, in the great body of the mountain. And he sleeps.
A whisper in a dream: “Elijah! Wake up! Yhwh is about to pass by.” A rushing sound startles Elijah awake. It rushes and then screams. A terrible wind buffets the mountain. Sheets of sand fly across the mouth of the cave. The wind rises and rises into an impossible pitch. Rocks explode. Elijah cowers, his ears bursting. They’re bursting with the sounds of every word ever spoken and all the language to come, all the names of all the ways the divine has been imagined, all the preaching and praying and every verse of every scripture, every cry of exhortation – all packed into the dense howl of the wind. Elijah shudders. Is this God? No. Be still. The wind drops.
Then, suddenly, the world erupts. The mountain shifts left, then shifts right. Elijah is thrown against the wall of the cave. The entire landscape shakes through its frames. All the plains and all the mountains shudder under the force of every horse in every army, every tank, every cannon, every bullet clip, every bomb to strike the earth, every explosive rending of atoms, the percussive blows of every raging show of human power. Elijah shudders. Is this God? No. Be still. The quaking halts.
Suddenly, the world ignites. A blinding flash tears across the mouth of the cave, as fire roars through every shred of life growing from the earth. Elijah huddles and shields his eyes from the blaze. It is the holocaust of all the hate to have ever burned through human hearts. It is the voracious flames of all the greed to have ever consumed civilizations, consumed human lives, consumed human hearts and human souls. Elijah shudders as God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire. ‘Be still and know … Be still … All is silent … utterly silent… Peace, as still waters before dawn.
The mouth of the cave opens into the infinity of space. And he is pushed out of the body of the earth into the humming stillness. Reborn into that humming stillness, to dissolve out into that silence, sounding and resounding with the presence of the Source, a presence without horizon – beyond words, beyond names, beyond all our powers, beyond all our passions, surpassing all understanding beyond, beyond …