It’s been a hard week to have the tv on, or listen to the radio, or even to read the morning paper. Each day has carried fresh horror and violence, from religious extremism to the effects of mental illness, from random and tragic natural disaster to carefully planned and executed extinguishing of life.
One of my coping mechanisms when faced with a relentless barrage of bad news is to escape to another world — that is, to Netflix.
This past week, I’ve been in 1950’s Madrid, observing life at a department store, cheering on the seamstresses and delivery boys who work day and night, and shaking my fist at the selfish and scheming minority shareholders in the company who leaks scandals to National Enquirer to hamstring their opponents and make furtive phone calls from the smoky back rooms of bars.
Late in the season, I realized that this series’ power over me had less to do with scintillating dialogue or all-consuming love stories; the real center of this show is the fight between good and evil. A piece of me knows that because it’s a television show, and because it’s the love-lorn-style drama it is, that eventually, good will prevail. It’s a long road, and I know it will take till the very last episode, but somehow, the honest and good will win over the dark, and evil and scheming.
Back in the real world, I wonder, when a child at Disneyworld encounters an alligator — will good really win?
When a member of Parliament loses her life in broad daylight — will good really win?
When yet another friend is diagnosed with cancer — will good really win?
And these are to say nothing of the ache still present in Charleston a year later, and the raw wound in Orlando today. And refugees from Syria, and mothers and babies in South and Central America living at the mercy of Zika.
How on earth will good ever win?
This is the same question that Elijah asks God in our Scripture passage this morning.
Elijah is a holy man living in a time when the Israelites have run away from God; they’re following their own ideas about what makes a good life, what brings happiness, how to be faithful, how to be successful and fulfilled. Their King Ahab and their Queen, Jezebel, are helping them to run away and explore what other philosophies of life might offer them.
Elijah is discouraged because all his faithfulness doesn’t seem to be paying off; it’s not that he’s tempted to defect and join his countrymen in abandoning their God, but that he’s tempted to abandon the people themselves. They’re just too far gone. He tried and he failed to change their hearts and turn their heads toward the living God. So he walks himself into the wilderness to die instead. Good will never really win, there’s no way. “At the very least,” Elijah says, “I haven’t managed to get good to win. The people are so wayward and evil. Just leave me here.”
Though Elijah is suffering from an inflated ego — working under the impression that if he can’t turn the peoples’ hearts and bring redemption to his nation, there’s no other way it’s going to happen — God ministers to him anyway. Like a toddler having a tantrum (or, Jordan might tell you, like a grown-up woman having a tantrum), plain old sleep and food do a lot to help shift Elijah’s perspective, or at the very least, help him to be open to reason.
After a good night’s sleep — a few of them, actually — and some good food, Elijah turns his attention to a place of holiness from ancient times; Mount Horeb where it says that Elijah went, is where Moses went to meet with God, it’s the same mountain that’s sometimes called Sinai. When Elijah couldn’t see his way through, he went back to where others had found God in the past.
When he gets up there, God’s voice is clear and asks him pointedly, “What are you doing here?” Of course, God knows exactly why Elijah has run away, but when we’re forced to articulate, to say out loud, why we’re suffering and how we’ve gotten to where we are, it often helps us remember the reason we’d decided down that road in the first place. We think back through our decisions and through the whole story of our lives and our community — whatever it was that brought us to that point, and when put in the larger context of our whole lives and of the lives of our families and all the people around us, we see how perhaps our perspective was a bit out of focus. God asking “what are you doing here?” is a way that God starts to help Elijah get back into his own mind and heart, as well as his own body. It’s a way that God can show Elijah who he is and who he is called to be.
Elijah, for his part, is still struggling with some pride and stubbornness, he’s not quite healed up from his tantrum yet, and says, essentially, “I’ve been running all around for Jesus. I’ve been fighting the good fight, but nobody’s listening. Worse than that, all of the other faithful people have fallen away, or even worse, they’ve been killed. I’m all alone, and I don’t see any way forward. Good can’t ever really win.”
Now there are two important things to note in this story: in just the chapter before, Scripture mentions not once, but twice, that another faithful prophet, Obadiah, has saved more than a hundred people from persecution or death, they still follow and worship the living God. And in that same chapter, Elijah himself won a resounding defeat over the false prophets — God in his goodness had a big win that same week, and Elijah himself had had a front-row seat.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a tendency to exaggerate. Sometimes I make stories bigger when they’re good, and sometimes I make stories bigger when they’re bad. “The fish I caught was *this big*!” Or “Everything’s gone wrong today.”
It can be hard to be accurate when violence and darkness continually assaults us like it has this week; like it did for Elijah, and so his answer to God’s question, “Why are you here?” Is simply, “Everything’s wrong. Good will never really win.”
There’s a concept in yoga called “drishti” — it’s often invoked during balance poses, when you’re on one foot or another and trying to do something impressive with your arms and other leg. Maybe you’re just trying to not-fall — that’s plenty impressive. The challenge is to keep your eyes focused on one spot the whole time that you’re balancing; fixing your eyes on something stationary and having the discipline to not let your gaze wander is one of the keys to maintaining balance and letting your body develop the muscles and inner strength to keep standing while your normal balance is all thrown off. It’s the same kind of thing that ballet dancers do when they pirouette — you might notice they snap their heads around as they turn; they’ve been trained to keep their focus on that one spot as long as possible before quickly turning their heads to snap back to that same spot.
It is keeping your eyes from wandering that allows yogis and ballerinas to maintain their balance, to stay in control of their bodies and keep from tipping over during their practice. It takes discipline to not look all around at the other ballerinas dancing or at the other yogis wobbling, but in both situations, it’s actually the fact that each person focuses on her own body and her own practice and gifts that enables everybody to do what they’re there to do — to dance, to practice yoga, to fulfill the call that God has for their lives.
If you’ll bear with me a step further with this metaphor, it’s not that each ballerina or yoga student retreats into her own world, goes up onto her own mountain, away from everybody else, but that she’s standing and practicing and dancing with everybody else, that her peripheral vision allows her to know exactly what’s going on around her and to respond to things that happen, but a wobbly neighbor doesn’t capture her attention in such a way that it causes her to fall, and another ballerina spinning out of control doesn’t make her another whirling dirvish.
So God undertakes to remind Elijah where his attention belongs. Up on that holy mountain, God comes near to Elijah; not in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire that came by the mouth of the cave, but in the silence that followed. Despite his tantrums, Elijah was wise enough to know that there was nothing for him to gain from sticking himself in the center of a windstorm or in the middle of an earthquake, or any reason for him gawk at a fire. These big events were a distraction and Elijah knew it. He knew that focusing on those disasters, letting them fill up all of his vision and his imagination, would not help him to heal and to do the work that God had called him to.
It was in silence that God came.
It was quiet and unrelenting peace that God got near.
It was the lack of sound, the heavy stillness that makes you feel in your bones that you’re not alone, this was where God met Elijah. This was where God revealed himself to Elijah, and gave him the inner attention Elijah needed to face the darkness in the world.
Brothers and sisters, we’re given the same gift in Jesus; God gives us his Son as our focal point, someone we can look at with our eyes, someone we can sense with our spirits, someone we can call out to and remind ourselves has promised always to be near. Of course, that’s not all that Jesus is, or all that God in three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means to us. God came to the world in the person of Jesus to answer once and for all the question that plagues our hearts: will good really win?
When Jesus stretched wide his arms upon the cross, things didn’t look good. When darkness covered the earth on Good Friday afternoon, it did not seem like good would ever really win. On Holy Saturday, when all creation waited with bated breath for what might happen — or not happen — next, we didn’t know if good would ever really win.
Praise God, on Sunday morning, the stone was rolled away, and in the quiet of a garden, Jesus Christ walked alive again.
This morning may not feel like that Sunday morning to you. You may be back with Elijah wandering in the wilderness, or sitting in the darkness of Good Friday. You might feel a lot more like the confusion of Holy Saturday, or the despair of Elijah — how on earth could this mess end well?
This is the good news, my friends: God is good. Good will prevail. We don’t know the plotline of all the episodes that will take us to the series finale, but because God has told us and even more, because God has shown us, in the cross and resurrection, our good and living God will win.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.