Text: 1 Kings 19:1-13
Good morning. Our family has been anticipating this day for quite some time now and it’s very good to be with you. I have to tell just one story from the April candidating weekend. I appreciated all the opportunities to meet with different ones of you personally along with Commissions and Council and had a positive feeling about things as the Sunday service was coming to a close. We knew we wanted to come here, but had to wait to make sure that the feeling was mutual. Knowing there was going to be a vote that evening, Stella B. wrote on one of the unused name tags, and gave it to me as our family was walking out into the lobby after the service. It said, “Me for pastor,” and she instructed me to stick it to my shirt. With Stella as our campaign manager, I was pretty sure at that point things were going to work out well.
The prophethood of all believers.
You are most likely familiar with the idea of the priesthood of all believers, that marvelous humanizing notion that came out of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The priesthood of all believers is this great equalizer which teaches that each and every one of us – old, young; female, male; installed, not installed; members of any of the many vocational paths one might take – we all have access to the Divine, and the Divine is uniquely represented in each one of us as ministering persons. It’s as simple as that. The priesthood of all believers was first taught by Martin Luther and has been embraced by Anabaptists. From what I have come to know of CMC so far, this is a value you whole-heartedly embrace.
The Old Testament lectionary reading for today comes from 1 Kings 19, and it involves Elijah, fleeing for his life, and encountering God in an unexpected way on top of Mt. Horeb. Elijah is not a priest, but a prophet, so I thought we might ponder if there might be such a thing as a prophethood of all believers and what that might look like. Might the prophethood of all believers be as pertinent for the 21st century as the priesthood of all believers was for the 16th century?
When we meet up with Elijah in this text he has just come off a rather intense encounter with the prophets of Baal, the storm god of the Canaanites. Intense as in he was outnumbered 450 to 1, and still managed to win the battle of the prophets contest by invoking Yahweh to send down fire on his sacrifice after the prophets of Baal had whooped and hollered at Baal for a good part of the day with nothing to show for it. Elijah had done some prophetic trash talking at them saying that perhaps Baal was sleeping, or on vacation, or perhaps deep in meditation unable to hear their cries. Perhaps if they would shout louder. But they get nothing from Baal but silence.
When it’s Elijah’s turn he barely finishes his prayer when fire falls from heaven and burns up his sacrifice and everything else around it. Yahweh 1, Baal 0. For good measure, now with the people on his side after witnessing such an awesome spectacle, Elijah has all 450 prophets of Baal taken down to a valley and slaughtered. Intense. Elijah was apparently not an Anabaptist. Now it’s Yahweh 451, Baal 0 – a run spread.
When we pick things up in chapter 19, where Marlene began reading, the king’s wife Jezebel, who is no fan of Yahweh or Elijah, has just caught wind of what Elijah has done and vows to carry out some symmetrical justice on him – doing to him what he did to all those Baal prophets. So Elijah flees the scene, and heads south. So far south that he ends up at the same place associated with an earlier prophet of Israel – Mt Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, out in the desert, where Moses had received the Torah on behalf of the children of Israel. Now, centuries later, Elijah stands on that same spot. It’s a formative location for both of those members of the prophethood.
Back in May I sat down with Gordon to hear from him about his interim experience here in the last year. At one point he mentioned three words that he thought summarized life at CMC that he said I would do well to keep in mind. His advice was to collaborate, listen, and laugh. I had two main thoughts when he said this. My second thought was how wonderful a summary this is of life in the church, and how much it represents the kind of church I want to be a part of. A church that collaborates, and listens to one another and the Spirit, and laughs. Beautiful. That was my second thought.
My first thought was Wow, if you put laugh first on that list rather than last – laugh, collarborate, and listen – it sounds amazingly close to the opening line of Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice. Which begins “Stop, collaborate, and listen, Ice is back with my brand new invention.” And goes on to say, “If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it, check out the hook while my DJ revolves it. Ice ice baby. Ice ice baby.” I spent the next couple minutes of the conversation trying to resist visualizing Gordon rapping this song.
If you did not go to middle school in the early nineties and have no idea what I’m talking about, you are missing nothing.
To belabor this digression, here’s something else: When Vanilla Ice wrote that song he did something that was controversial and pretty new for mainstream music at the time, although it had already been happening in hip-hop for a couple decades. Rather than come up with his own bass line, he sampled, borrowed, the bass line from the 1981 song by the band Queen, “Under Pressure.” The line repeats throughout the whole song and goes like this. Dun dun dun dun da dun dun. If you went to Middle School in the early 80’s, or are a fan of classic rock, you may recognize that. Sampling has since become more common, and involves one song borrowing, adapting, mimicking one feature of another song, mixing the old in with the new, giving the familiar a new context. While some still see it as a form of copying or plagiarism, sampling can also be a way whereby different artists and genres of music are in conversation with one another. It’s a way that the past is re-presented in the present through a new voice adding its own interpretation and unique flavor and thereby creating something entirely fresh. This has no doubt been going on for musicians and artists from the very beginning as one generation borrows from one and inspires another, which in turn keeps happening through the ages. Sampling just makes it explicitly clear what is happening.
If, by the way, this makes it sound like I know much of anything about music I want to dispel that notion right away. I just happen to know Ice, Ice, Baby and Under Pressure, a pretty narrow selection.
I admit I have never before thought of the prophet Elijah as a hip hop artist, or Moses as a rock star, but in this passage from Kings we have a shining example of ancient Hebrew sampling, which, when you’re looking for it, actually happens all the time throughout scripture. Bible scholars call it “intertextuality.” Here, on Mt. Horeb, this prophet Elijah story is sampling, in conversation with the founding Hebrew prophet, Moses. The mountain is that bass line, that connecting theme, that runs through both stories. The latter is meant to evoke for former, only now there is a new context, a different prophet at a different time, and as we hear the story, we notice this conversation happening between the way these two prophets encounter God.
There are actually echoes all over this passage of Israel’s original and great prophet, Moses. Elijah’s flight from Jezebel takes him on a path that basically retraces, in reverse, the path the Israelites took with Moses through the wilderness to the land of promise. Here Elijah goes from the land back into the wilderness. In case we miss the allusion, we are told that after receiving the miraculous gift of food and drink in the desert (think manna), Elijah travels forty days and forty nights (think 40 years). Elijah’s destination is the same spot which was the place of origination for people of Israel. The place where they received the gift of Torah which made them into an alternative community from the oppressive regime of Egypt, from which they were fleeing. Slaves now freed to live under a law of justice, mercy, and Sabbath rest. In Exodus it is called Mt. Sinai, and in Deuteronomy, a different strand of tradition, it is called Mt. Horeb. Elijah the prophet, the one like, and unlike Moses, finds himself atop the storied Mt. Horeb seeking refuge, seeking a word of guidance from the Holy One. It’s a case of heavy Hebrew sampling.
But the story’s not done yet. The familiar bass line and rhythm we’re hearing is about to get a fresh twist.
For the prophet Moses, the encounter with the Holy One involved thunder and lightning, thick clouds of smoke, and an earthquake which shook the entire mountain. Moses encounters God as utter power, almost lethal, yet just approachable enough to give words intended to shape a holy community.
But with Elijah, we have now a different genre of encounter. The text says this: “The Lord 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” The King James translates that as a “still, small voice.” In studying the passage again I noticed that this phrase could also be more literally translated as a “thin whisper.” Elijah perceives the silence, the still small voice, the thin whisper. This is his prophetic encounter with God.
Not only does it have a very different flavor than the Moses story, but it also presents its own commentary on the previous story, where fire falling from heaven was the sure sign of Yahweh’s dominating presence. But now the Lord was not in the fire. Silence had been a sign of the weakness of Baal, but now silence is presented as an opportunity of profound divine encounter. More intertextuality. Conversation and re-interpretation across stories and texts. Re-presenting familiar themes with fresh meaning.
A prophet has been a speaker of powerful words and the doer of marvelous deeds. The slightly brash, confrontational voice who speaks truth to power. But what do we do with the prophet as the listener to silence? The prophet as the hearer of that which cannot be detected by any audio recording device. The prophet as the one attuned to that which is barely audible. That’s what ultimately makes Elijah pull his cloak over his face, as if to protect himself from the sheer force of this thin whisper he has encountered. Prophetic speech is one thing. Prophetic listening is quite another.
In the 21st century prophethood of all believers, what is the task of the prophet? What is the steady bass line that we sample from the past, which keeps us in rhythm with the movement of the Spirit through the ages, and what is the fresh melody which addresses the needs of the moment?
In our time of polarized shouting matches, prophetic speech has its place, but also has its limits. Put the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Yahweh in the same room and its bound to get ugly. Shout louder, winks Elijah.
I suggest that along with the tried and true bass line of mercy, justice, shalom, and Sabbath rest which the prophets have carried through the ages, that there’s also a much needed role for a prophethood of all believers which involves listening. Prophetic listening. Deep listening. Listening to one another, listening to the other, listening below the surface to the thin whisper of the Spirit, or, the sound of sheer silence.
And – to sample another prophet so recently in your midst – not only listen, but laugh, collaborate and listen.
I have heard that there are no less than four bands represented in this congregation. So…if any of these bands, or other musicians, poets, youth, whoever, want to have a little fun, here’s a challenge for you. Rewrite the lyrics of Ice, Ice, Baby describing life at Columbus Mennonite Church, add your own instrumentation in the style of your choice, and present it at the church fall retreat up at Camp Luz in September. In the spirit of collaboration, I did check with Ruth M, chair of Community Life, and she gave the OK for this. Here’s the opening line for the song: Laugh, collaborate and listen, CMC is here with a holy mission. You take it from there. Anyone who also does the Vanilla Ice dance, gets bonus points.
If you have an ear for irony, and are finding it ironic that the new pastor is highlighting the importance of silence in our listening for God and one another, all the while using words and more words to try and illustrate the point, then I don’t have much of a comeback to that. Except to stop talking, and to invite us into a time of silence in which we practice being present to the still small voice, to welcoming the prophethood that the Spirit has for each one of us and for this congregation as a whole, and listening.