Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Elijah: A Troubler of Israel

Here is Sunday's sermon. We are making our way through the Bible. Today we visit Elijah. We played the Joni Mitchell song, "Shine" for our meditation.

Elijah: A Troubler of Israel
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 24, 2008

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

11 He 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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When 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… I Kings 19:9-13

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

by Joni Mitchell

Oh let your little light shine

Let your little light shine
Shine on Vegas and Wall Street
Place your bets
Shine on the fishermen
With nothing in their nets
Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas
Shine on our Frankenstein technologies
Shine on science
With its tunnel vision
Shine on fertile farmland
Buried under subdivisions

Let your little light shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on the dazzling darkness
That restores us in deep sleep
Shine on what we throw away
And what we keep

Shine on Reverend Pearson
Who threw away
The vain old God
kept Dickens and Rembrandt and Beethoven
And fresh plowed sod
Shine on good earth, good air, good water
And a safe place
For kids to play
Shine on bombs exploding
Half a mile away

Let your little light shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on world-wide traffic jams
Honking day and night
Shine on another asshole
Passing on the right!
Shine on the red light runners
Busy talking on their cell phones
Shine on the Catholic Church
And the prisons that it owns
Shine on all the Churches
They all love less and less
Shine on a hopeful girl
In a dreamy dress

Let your little light shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on good humor
Shine on good will
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God's name!
Shine on the pioneers
Those seekers of mental health
Craving simplicity
They traveled inward
Past themselves...
May all their little lights shine

May your little light shine.

May your little light shine.

In Joni Mitchell’s song, Shine, she makes a reference to Rev. Pearson. The line goes:

Shine on Reverend Pearson
Who threw away
The vain old God
kept Dickens and Rembrandt and Beethoven
And fresh plowed sod

I didn’t know who this Rev. Pearson was. With the magic of the internet

Shine on the internet, by the way…
May it be a vehicle of liberation
…not exploitation.

Anyway, with the magic of the internet, I discovered that Rev. Carlton Pearson is a minister in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is from an NPR interview:

Carlton Pearson's church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in the city, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the reverend. He didn't have an affair. He didn't embezzle lots of money. His sin was something that to a lot of people is far worse: He stopped believing in Hell.

He was a Pentecostal preacher. His pals included Oral Roberts. He was on TV, visited the White House. Then he began to have second thoughts about what he was preaching. He wondered if a loving God would really condemn most of the human race to Hell. He decided no. Once he started preaching that, his church left him.

But then new folks started showing up, curious about his beliefs. So he has renamed his church, New Dimensions. He now pastors a much more inclusive church.

I find it curious how we can read the same book and come up with such different ideas about God. I can see how. The Bible is a mixed bag. In it you can find justification, or at least people have, for Crusades, Hell, slavery, the oppression of women, gays, and anyone who is foreign, creationism, the “End Times,” and snake handling.

Also, in this same collection of writings, you can find justification, or at least people have, for abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, women’s equality, gay rights, non-violence, justice for the poor, for the environment, and an inclusive, loving God.

I guess it depends upon the light we bring to the Bible.

May your little light shine.

I find myself feeling gratitude for teachers who have not given up on the Bible. They focused their little lights on these complex texts and found something powerful, beautiful, and life-affirming in them.

One such teacher who has been a helpful guide for me in reading the Hebrew scriptures is Walter Brueggemann. I have mentioned him before. I have not had him personally as a teacher. He taught at Columbia Theological Seminary near Atlanta. I did have his brother-in-law though, Patrick Miller, of Princeton. Both are excellent teachers.

Dr. Brueggemann has written and taught extensively on the Hebrew scriptures. He brings a light of liberation to these texts. He finds in these texts a devastating critique of systems of domination. His light doesn’t blind the text. He doesn’t blot out the dark stuff that is there. His light respects the complexity and the ambiguity of the texts and the God revealed there. His light comes at an angle to bring out what we could easily miss.

My sermon is not about Dr. Brueggemann. But I do need to acknowledge his influence in my thinking. He has helped me understand the role of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. One of his books I find myself re-reading is The Prophetic Imagination. I first read this book in seminary. It is a book about prophetic ministry. He writes:

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

I want to share a bit more about that from the conclusion of this book, The Prophetic Imagination:

“I have tried to say that prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and [God’s] will for justice. The issues of God’s freedom and [God’s] will for justice are not always and need not be expressed primarily in the big issues of the day. They can be discerned wherever people try to live together and worry about their future and their identity.

“The task of prophetic ministry is to evoke an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways….Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate the numbness to face the body of death in which we are caught. Clearly, the numbness sometimes evokes from us rage and anger, but the numbness is more likely to be penetrated by grief and lament. Death, and that is our state, does not require indignation as much as it requires anguish and the sharing in the pain. The public sharing of pain is one way to let the reality sink in and let the death go.

Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate despair so that new features can be believed in and embraced by us. There is a yearning for energy in a world grown weary. And we do know that the only act that energizes is a word, a gesture, an act that believes in our future and affirms it to us….” (pp. 110-1)

That is Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination.

Let’s turn to the story of Elijah. The documents I and II Kings are not about the Kings of Israel and Judah. They are about the prophetic imagination. The documents, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are called in the Hebrew Scriptures the Former Prophets. They are not history. They are written from a prophetic point of view.

You will read along and come to something like this: “Are not all of his deeds recorded in the annals of something or other.” The author knows that you can go and look up the official, royal history. Those documents are lost to us now. Then, presumably, they would have known about them.

The author is telling us, “Yeah, you can go visit the Reagan museum. You can get the dates of his activities and pronouncements and read about his conquests and his dashing personality. But here is the story you won’t find there. This is what his policies did to these people over here. This is his story in light of the God who proclaims justice for the widow and the orphan.”

I am not picking exclusively on Reagan. The prophets would have a devastating critique of the Clinton museum as well. The Books of Kings are commentary on the kings in light of the prophetic imagination. That commentary is rarely favorable.

Elijah the Tishbite enters the scene in chapter 17 of I Kings. He confronts Ahab, the king. “There will be no rain,” announces Elijah. The point for us is not to worry about what causes rain. We don’t need to go the way of the wacko television evangelists who claim that weather patterns are God’s judgment.

The storytellers want us to know that Ahab’s policies and personality will not make it rain, either. Ahab is not going to be able to care for the widows and orphans. The well-being of the people is not dependent on Ahab’s charm.

Ahab tells Elijah that he is a ‘troubler of Israel.’ We have heard that before, haven’t we. We were all just fine, before you troublemakers came in upsetting things. Elijah stands up straight and says, “No, you are the troubler of Israel. Your injustice has not gone unnoticed.”

After Elijah makes his pronouncement, the Word of YHWH comes to him and tells him to go to a creek. There he is fed by a raven. Elijah, the prophet, must be vulnerable and needy. You can imagine what food a raven might bring. It is less than appetizing.

Then the Word of YHWH tells Elijah to visit a widow and get food from her. She has nothing left but a little oil, a little meal, and after it is used up, she and her son plan to die of starvation. That is the reality. Ahab is not going to die of starvation. He is not going to die of thirst. Those who have learned how to manipulate production and consumption for their benefit will do fine in the drought.

YHWH instructs Elijah to go to the widow and to be vulnerable. He is to accept her hospitality. Elijah learns her story. Elijah tells her that the oil and the meal will not run out. It doesn’t. The storyteller wants us to know that YHWH hears the widow. YHWH knows her story whereas Ahab does not. The prophet needs to learn her story, too. If the prophet is going to shine any light worthy of trust, the prophet needs to experience the vulnerability.

Elijah returns and challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest. Who can bring down fire on the altar? The prophets of Baal cannot. Elijah mocks them. These prophets who have controlled the king need a good mocking. The voice of the prophet of YHWH is the voice of ridicule of the status quo.

Elijah is outside the king’s house. Elijah is not in the inner circle. The prophets of Baal have the king’s ear. They are the ones who lead the prayer breakfasts at the White House. They are the ones who say the most important issues are abortion and banning gay marriage. They are the ones who encourage the king in all of his military exploits.

Elijah mocks these folks and their god. There is nothing that exposes the charade of false prophets like a good ridicule. Elijah laughs at them. “Maybe Baal is out for a walk. Maybe he is relieving himself!” Elijah taunts them.

Then Elijah calls down the fire and the altar is consumed. Then for good measure he has all the prophets of Baal killed. That may sound a little harsh. It’s only a story! The storyteller wants us to know that YHWH is cleaning house of the false prophets. Ahab and his policies of death and his prophets of Baal are no longer welcome. This is not a justification for killing people in God’s name. We have had enough of that.

In response to Elijah’s defeat of the king’s prophets, Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, declares a fatwah on Elijah. Elijah is on the run. Elijah gets depressed. Elijah complains to YHWH that he is trying his best and now his life is threatened and he would just as soon die before he gets killed. This is a good story for tired activists.

This is the story for the activists who work and work for the environment or for justice for the poor or against militarism or whatever. They feel that no one cares. No one is listening. The world is going to hell and I am all alone and everyone hates me. Waah, waah, waah.

Throughout the scriptures, the prophets need to be humbled again and again. They need to be told and shown that it is not about them. So Elijah is told to go and wait in a cave. Just sit there and shut up, says YHWH. Elijah sits there. There is an earthquake and a fire, and a great wind, but YHWH is in none of these things. Then there is the sound of sheer silence. Then Elijah is ready to hear the voice of YHWH.

YHWH gives him an assignment. He tells him that he is not alone. There will be others who will join him as he offers his prophetic message. After Elijah is gone, others will take his mantle, Elisha is one.

Elijah’s story ends with a chariot that swings low and carries him to heaven. That image is the reminder that the prophet is still alive. Elijah, the prophetic archetype, is still present.

The message of YHWH’s justice, the little flicker of candle light for human dignity will not go out completely. There will be dark times. The forces of oppression and ignorance will seem powerful beyond measure. The drums for war and destruction will beat louder and louder. The prophets of Baal will return again to the White House and to all the seats of power.

And YHWH will again call for a voice of compassion from a prophet just like you. This prophet, like you, will be called to care for those who are hurting. This prophet will be called to let her light shine in some way that may seem small, but is not.

That prophet will be called to feel the pain and anguish of suffering people. That prophet will be called to lament. That prophet will be called to cry with those who are crying. That prophet will be called to be vulnerable so that she will know that it is not up to her but to the light within her. That prophet will be called in his daily life to dream of another way to live, not to lose hope, but to let that little light shine.

May your little light shine.

May your little light shine.


  1. What a fine sermon! Thanks, John.

    Hearing Carlton Pearson's story last year inspired me to read "If God is Love" by two Quaker ministers who also hold that God's grace saves us all.
    (available partly online here: )
    These two encountered some of the same resistance in their congregations that Pearson found in his. Like the members of Pearson's former church, even some Quakers don't like the idea of God not sending the deserving to hell. It's a hard notion to surrender.

  2. Thanks Rastus! Hell is a barbaric notion that is for sure.