The 4th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7,) 8-15a
Psalm 42 and 43
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Prophets and apostles encounter hard times, including death-threats, demons, and separate tables.

I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a (The alternate reading is Isaiah 65:1-9.)

The reading from the Prophets is another episode about Elijah. It follows the great battle that Elijah had just fought with the 950 prophets of Baal and Asherah (I Kings 18, see 18:19 for the 950 prophets). God vindicated Elijah against the Baal prophets by sending fire from heaven and by bringing rain. The defeated prophets were slaughtered as the spoils of victory, but, it now turns out, victory is short-lived. Jezebel, the great royal patroness of the Baal and Asherah prophets, vows to have Elijah’s head, and in fear he flees off to the south, to the last main Israelite settlement at Beer-sheba (19:3) – his jumping off place for the wilderness trip to the mountain.

Elijah flees for his life as Moses had fled for his life from Pharaoh (Exodus 2:14-15), and both end up at the same place, the holy mountain of God, called Sinai in most of the Moses traditions, and Horeb in Deuteronomy and the Elijah traditions. At the holy mountain, each is given instructions for the eventual delivery of their people (Exodus 3:7-12 for Moses, I Kings 19:15b-18 for Elijah).

The reading includes the account of Elijah’s wilderness journey and the fireworks of God’s appearance at Mount Horeb. The wilderness journey repeats Israel’s experience there: it is devastating, and Elijah, on his own strength only, despairs and asks to die (verse 4). But as with the Israelites, there is support from heavenly sources: Elijah is given food and water by an angel to sustain him in his forty-day pilgrimage (verses 5-7).

At the mountain God challenges Elijah’s presence and the prophet gives a “poor me” version of how bad things have gotten in Israel (verses 9-10). We then have a little prophetic play with the pyrotechnics of great God-appearances (theophanies). There is a whopping wind that splits rocks (see the mighty wind in Exodus 15:8-10), followed by the laconic comment, “Yahweh was not in the wind.” Then there is an earthquake (see the earthquake in God’s cosmic theophany to save the Davidic king, II Samuel 22:8), followed by the same laconic comment, “Yahweh was not in the earthquake.” Next there is fire, a common feature of mighty appearances of God (at Sinai, Exodus 19:18, at Zion, II Samuel 22:9, and spectacularly in Elijah’s own battle on Mount Carmel, I Kings 18:38), but, of course, Yahweh is not in the fire either (verses 11-12, NRSV modified).

If God’s communication is not in these wild disruptions of nature, where is it? In a qōl demāmāh daqqāh – something like “a calm, soft voice,” traditionally the “still, small voice” (verse 12. The NRSV Zen-like translation suggests a silence you can hear, “a sound of sheer silence.”) This probably means that God’s real mode of communication is through the voice heard by the charismatic prophet, whose whole life may be possessed by the spirit of God (see the Elisha stories in II Kings 3-8).

Being thus in Yahweh’s presence, Elijah repeats his explanation of how all Israel has gone astray and only he is left (verse 14). God more or less ignores this plaintive account of the discouraged prophet and instead tells him to hit the road back toward Damascus. Our reading stops abruptly here, after verse 15a – just before the real punch line of the episode when read as part of the Elijah-Elisha-Jehu Revolution Story. It is in verses 15b-18 that Yahweh gives instructions for the whole revolution: the overthrow of the two opposing dynasties and of Baal worship in Israel. (Yahweh also mentions in passing, in verse 18, that there were 7,000 other Israelites who had remained faithful. Elijah was hardly alone; just isolated.)

The lesson of today’s reading taken alone seems to be: what an onerous labor the prophet has, and how his personal complaints are treated rather cavalierly by an awesome God!

Psalms 42 and 43

(The alternate Psalm is 22:19-28.) The Psalm reading covers two psalms in the traditional numbering, but it’s clear that these two were originally one. The same refrain is repeated at the end of each of three stanzas (42:5, 11; and 43:5). Also, Psalm 43 has no heading, unlike all the surrounding psalms. (The Greek translators, however, gave Psalm 43 the heading, “a psalm belonging to David,” separating the two psalms in their liturgy.)

If we read the psalm, as the Lectionary invites us to do, as Elijah’s prayer during his abandonment in the wilderness, it is very fitting. He longs for the services in God’s sanctuary as he knew them in normal conditions (verses 1-4), and in the refrain he dialogues with his soul, summoning her to have hope for good days yet to return (verse 5). Up in the mountain country west of Damascus (where the upper Jordan and Mount Hermon, 42:6, are located), he is reminded of God, his “rock,” by the waterfalls and the pools, which speak to him of God’s loyalty. But this reminds him also of his current abandonment: “Why must I walk about mournfully / because the enemy oppresses me?” He smarts with the taunts of these enemies, “Where is your God?” (verses 6-10, NRSV).

These two stanzas lead to the third, which is the direct prayer, an urgent request to God to act to vindicate this abused prophet. When that vindication happens, he will follow God’s “light” and “truth” to the sanctuary on the hill, approaching the altar and singing God’s praise (43:1-4). “Why are you cast down, O my soul,…? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him” (43:5, repeating 42:5 and 11).

So could Elijah have prayed after being sent from Horeb to wait on the Lord.

Galatians 3:23-29

In the Epistle reading continuing in Galatians, Paul discusses the role of “the law” in relation to faith. This discussion follows a very important explanation about Abraham given earlier in chapter 3. In Galatians 3:6, Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 how Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (NRSV). This being reckoned “as righteous” is what the faith of Christ made possible for all later believers. These later believers, Jewish or non-Jewish as they may be, can be placed by faith in Christ back into the kind of relation to God that Abraham had. Paul says the promise was made to Abraham that “all the nations [NRSV “Gentiles”] shall be blessed in you.” This promise, Paul says, was fulfilled in Christ. Through faith in Christ, and finally only through faith in Christ, can all people be made righteous again in their standing with God, as was promised to Abraham.

Now, about the law. The law came in between Abraham and Christ. It came through Moses, “four hundred and thirty years” after Abraham (3:17, referring to Exodus 12:40). Paul now explains, in our reading, that the purpose of the law during this interim period was to be a “disciplinarian” (NRSV), a “custodian” (RSV; the Greek is paidagogos, a live-in tutor and trainer to advantaged young men). The law put the elect people through a lot of exercises as they were growing up, to condition them to a mature life of faith. That mature life comes with the arrival of the true heir of Abraham’s promise, Jesus Christ. Christ’s faithfulness unto death opened for all who unite with him, “have clothed themselves” with him in baptism (verse 27), a new life in the Spirit. When, through the faithfulness of Christ that re-establishes the righteousness by faith that Abraham had already received, believers are now included in Christ, they are no longer under the law, whether they were previously observant or not. Now “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (verse 28).

This gospel of Paul’s had an eschatological background, and much of the subsequent struggle of early Christian churches and traditions was how to implement such an eschatological vision in specific social and eventually institutional forms. The one point that seems clear is that Paul’s gospel would always insist on subordinating human traditions and exclusionary boundaries to the divine summons to compassion and care for brothers and sisters, such as those left away from the common tables in Antioch (2:11-14).

Luke 8:26-39

The Gospel reading from Luke is about an encounter of Jesus with demonic powers in non-Jewish territory. The story is skillfully presented and need not be retold here. Let us note that this is “foreign” territory, over on the east side of the “Lake” (as Luke correctly calls this body of water, verse 33). The spelling of the name of the place and its precise location are uncertain but its foreignness is not. In that country there were herds of hogs, clearly not a Jewish commercial enterprise or a Jewish market.

The story highlights the dialogue between Jesus and the demons that possess this unfortunate wild man. That Jesus asks the possessed man his name, meaning the name of the demonic power, implicates him a little in the practice of magic arts, according to which the name must be learned in order to exercise power over the force. The demon, presumably forced to tell the truth by Jesus’ superior authority, says his/their name is Legion. The demons then beg Jesus not to send them “back into the abyss” – anywhere but back to hell! Unfortunately for the local pig farmers, the demons are allowed to run amuck with one of the pig herds, which is destroyed in the lake.

At a somewhat leisurely pace, for typical Gospel stories, we hear how the local population comes out, learns the details of things, are struck with profound awe, and urge Jesus to take his vast powers elsewhere – even if there is some good wrought by them. One has to suppose that there was a certain light note to this story, even as it was repeated around early Christian circles in the second generation of Christian teachers and readers. In the lands of the (demon-infested) nations [Gentiles], the true implications of Jesus’ power could not be grasped, much less the meaning of his whole mission.

Still, the former demoniac, now in good health, stayed around and kept telling his story all over the city-state (verse 39).

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