A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
August 8, 2021
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu hatishbi, Eliyahu hagiladi. Bimheirah b’yameinu, yavo eileinu, im Mashiach ben David.
Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah of Gilead. May he come, and with him soon, bring the Messiah, the Son of David.
This haunting song about Elijah the Prophet is one of my favorites. In part, that is because it was one of the very first songs which I learned in Hebrew. It is also, because this is a song about my favorite person from the Hebrew Scriptures. As a child, I remember hearing the story of the very mysterious “death” of Elijah, if we can use that term, in Sunday School. And, over the years, I have delighted each time I have found a new image of the fiery chariot taking Elijah up into heaven.
From an early Christian perspective, and from a monastic one, Elijah was the great exemplar of what it means to be a faithful follower of God. He is called “The Man of God,” and it is clear that he served as the model which Pope Saint Gregory the Great used when he told the story of the life of Saint Benedict. There is something about his story which captures our imagination, and which engages us in a very deep way.
We just heard the account of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ this past Thursday. In it, the two greatest prophets of Judaism appeared with him on the mountain—Moses and Elijah. They advised, him, comforted him, encouraged him-as he was transfigured by the Power of His Father’s love—and then left the mountain to begin his final journey to Jerusalem.
In Jewish thought, Elijah will reappear to bring with him the Messiah, the Son of David. The Gospels which include the account of the Transfiguration want to make sure that we understand that this is what is happening on the mountain. Moses and Elijah present our Lord as the Messiah, and welcome in the Messianic Era. It is, thus, not only God’s validation of the essential reality of who Jesus is—it is the endorsement, the ultimate “seal of approval” by the Jewish faith as well.
Rabbinic Judaism, though, did not—and does not—see in Jesus the fulfillment of the Promised “Anointed One” of God. And, thus, to this day, this lovely hymn of longing and expectation continues to be sung at the Sabbath meal at home, and each year at the Seder—when the door is opened to welcome in the Prophet Elijah.
There are a few themes, that I would like to briefly explore with you today, taken from our First Reading today, and from the Scriptural account of the Prophet Elijah.
Elijah turns our expectations of God upside down! We often think that “seeking God,” is something which we have to do. As a result, we expend a great deal of time, energy, and effort, in trying to open ourselves to God’s presence in the world. Now that is not a bad thing, at all, but it ignores an important fact. Long before it ever occurred to us to look for God, God was already looking for us. We are not left on our own on the quest to find God. God lovingly and graciously gives us numerous opportunities to encounter God. Even if we miss most of them, God has a way of finding us—and almost always at the exact time which we most need God. There is a saying which we sometimes here, “God’s timing is perfect.” I think that we can all testify to a healing, loving, and comforting word, presence, or person whom we have received at moments of pain, suffering, confusion, and uncertainty in our lives. At the moment it happened, we may not even have appreciated how significant this was. In looking back, though, we understand how powerful—and even life, changing this encounter was!
Elijah teaches us that God is not so much found in dramatic things—not in tornadoes, not in earthquakes, not in public spaces—but in the terrifying quiet of the silence in the cave. Thus it is, that we are called to lay aside our own prejudices and stereotypes. After all, they can be an obstacle to us. If we believe that only a true encounter with God includes lightning, brilliant and blinding light, thunder, and trumpets—we may well be disappointed. But, if we allow it, God will come to us in unexpected ways. And here, I think that it is important to affirm, that this is something which God intends for each of us—and not just for a few. God wants each of us to encounter God, and to be transformed by God’s love.
As one brief example of this, Vatican II spoke of the various presences of God which we find at the Eucharist. God is present in the community gathered, God is present in the Word—proclaimed, heard and preached. God is present in the Ministry of those who act in the Person of Christ. And God is found in the broken bread and in the chalice of wine-poured-out.
God is found in the Sacrament of Baptism in which persons are washed in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—are marked as Christ’s own forever, and are sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit.
God is found in the other Sacraments (or Sacramental Rites for those who prefer that language) in which we are empowered, healed, forgiven, bless and are blessed, and sent forth as witnesses to Christ.
Elijah reminds us that not only is God mysterious, we are mysterious too! We are each created in the image and likeness of God. We are given unique talents, abilities, and gifts. There is no one else quite like us. We have the opportunity to make a difference in a way that no one else can or will. God wishes to use us to affirm, encourage, love, and invite others into Beloved Community. That means that each interaction we have is fraught with potential. It opens the door for us to encounter God—and for others, through us, to encounter God as well. An important thought here is that everyone is important. No one is insignificant. Every single person has worth, value, beauty, and potential. Each person is needed in God’s community—no one can be excluded or left outside!
Elijah challenges us to celebrate our humanity-and not to dismiss, disparage, or apologize for it. I love the very honest conversations which Elijah has with God. He is not afraid to tell God that he is hungry, that he is tired, that he is frustrated, that he is depressed and unhappy. Things have not worked out for him the way that he hoped, or wanted, or wished. The evil Jezebel has put a contract on his life to anyone who will bring him in “dead or alive.” And at his weakest moment he wonders if he has made any difference at all? He wonders if anything he has done matters? I have no reason to think that this is just wallowing in self-pity. Elijah acknowledges the reality of the human condition. This is often what it is like to be human! Elijah asks the questions which each of us will ask—and perhaps more than once in our lives. And yet, despite all that, Elijah takes a nap, has a meal, and gets up and goes on his way. He perseveres—even when there seems to be no reason to hope. In that way, he is a reminder to us of what faith is all about.
Finally, Elijah inspires us to believe that God is active in ways which we do not understand. God has a plan! We are part of this plan, but it is much greater than each of us individually-or of all of us collectively. We see that fully when we hear our Lord Jesus Christ speak of himself as the Bread which came down from heaven. God’s gift to the human family is far greater than anything we can imagine or anything for which we can long. God’s love can fill every hunger, longing, and desire of the human heart. God wants to transform us, transfigure us, and shape us into being Women and Men of God! We need a Messiah, and God has given us one!
What we can not do on our own efforts and under our own power, God can and will do! Elijah has indeed come again. May he come this day, and every day, and open our eyes to see Jesus Christ—the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, the Bread of Life come down from heaven!