Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
I’ve met a lot of interesting people in my life. Just now I’m recalling a couple whom I knew over thirty years ago. They were part of the first congregation I ever served and I was invited many times to their home to share memorable meals with them. Karol was a gentle, quiet man, while Alida was a wiry, energetic woman who loved to cook for people.
They still spoke with strong accents from their home country of Hungary. They’d come to the United States as refugees, narrowly escaping Soviet forces after being caught up in the national uprising of 1956. It was clear that they had been in a very dangerous position. They still mourned their lost friends and family, and counted liberation as their most precious asset.
The story of Elijah’s escape from an enraged Queen Jezebel is a story of liberation but in a different way. The prophet ran as far as he could in a day and then asked God to take his life. That seems strange. He made it out of Israel into the relative safety of Judah where a different king reigned, and now with liberty nearly at hand he was giving up?
Jezebel, wife of Israelite King Ahab, was a worshipper of Baal and had influenced Ahab to neglect the worship of Israel’s God. Elijah challenged and finally killed her prophets. Not just a few either. He killed hundreds. So many in fact, that the number is only imaginable within the context of sacred story. Specifically within Israel’s history of faith and deliverance.
So the prophet’s remark, “It is enough…take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” is perhaps a clue to what was going on inside his head and heart. That day under the broom tree Elijah’s life seemed unbearable. The prophet counted himself as one who broke the commandments just as his ancestors had done. He was in need of deliverance.
Though Elijah had understood himself to be acting faithfully as God’s prophet, on the other side of such murderous vengeance the cost to his soul was insurmountable. How could he ever be purified again with so much blood on his hands? How could he be liberated from such a burden?
So God sent a messenger. “Get up and eat.” This was not a request. It was a command. Perhaps obedience to God was reflexive for Elijah. He ate. The angel returned with more bread and water from heaven. And a new instruction – you’re going on a journey.
It wasn’t just any journey. Elijah woke up, which is to say he rose from a place of death and re-entered life. And he left there by way of a journey lasting forty days and forty nights. Just like the forty days and nights of flood that his ancestor Noah endured, after which God promised no more utter destruction. And like Israel’s forty year faith walk through the wilderness from captivity to liberty. From the old broken self into a new, redeemed creature.
1 Kings puts liberation into the context of sacred story. Ephesians on the other hand, is real life. The evidence of liberation is the exchange of old habits and practices for new ones. Today’s text is internal guidance on the use of liberty by those who have already embraced faith in Jesus.
But apparently Jesus’s people were going a different direction with their liberation. And the outcome wasn’t good. So this is something like a fresh take on the commandments; a new leader emulating Moses for a new generation. Here is what God requires of you. Let’s review okay?
Falsehood is out, truth-telling is in. Anger is okay but get over it by sundown or it’ll go nuclear on you. Work hard and honestly, knowing that success is having enough to share with people in need. Guard your mouth with diligence so that what you say accomplishes the greatest good, and never, ever, say things that can be put to the ugly uses of the Evil One.
The Holy Spirit is within you both individually and as a community. Therefore resist every divisive kind of energy that injures the body where the Spirit resides. Fight back with kindness, tenderness, and forgiveness.
You know how children imitate their parents? It can be funny, inspiring, or heartbreaking. Your parent is God. So imitate God, whose beloved child Jesus is our example of how to live well and die with grace.
It’s unchanging wisdom, isn’t it? And practical too. Equally as applicable to life under Roman rule as life under a pandemic, in a divided nation, with poverty, injustice, a broken healthcare system and toxic neighbors. There is no contemporary situation that can’t be risen above by way of God’s liberation from sin and death. But we have to desire that liberation.
Perhaps this is why Jesus was so vehement when some Judeans pushed back against his teaching. These were not Jews in the general sense that we assume. These were hard-line traditionalist in the line of Moses who thought that the whole business of God was run from the Jerusalem Temple by properly vetted people.
They were not actually complaining, but arguing about Jesus. Who was Jesus to say that he was bread from heaven? They were no doubt thinking along the lines of Elijah’s heavenly bread. And they were offended that Jesus would take their Torah and claim a place for himself in the story as if he were some kind of holy gift from God.
This was just Jesus after all. Mary and Joseph’s son. An ordinary mortal. Not from heaven.
But Jesus challenged them to speak to him openly about their doubts. It was an invitation to liberation. Let go of tradition and text. See how God might be present and active in Jesus.
As for exclusive rights to God, Jesus said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has truly learned from God is drawn to the Son. And so Jesus offered to liberate the Judeans from slavery to tradition and text to really listen, and know God.
What Jesus liberates us for is eternal life. It isn’t heaven. It’s something more like a way of living within and yet beyond the age. Each age brings its own challenges. Jesus encounters every age with love that cannot be destroyed. This is the love he teaches all whom come to him.
Karol and Alida’s reason for escaping was to find liberation from fear. In the end it wasn’t really to be found in another country. It’s in God’s love, a gift already theirs through faith.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.