The beginning of the end

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us.
Trust and Joy in the Midst of Trouble

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk 2:1-3; 3:16-19

This passage speaks to me of hope, of endurance – and of the essence of faith. Not the “faith” which says “I have faith in God and therefore everything will turn out easy and comfortable” but the faith of Christ, who on the cross, having cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then, as He breathes His last, says “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit”.

That is the faith that we read of here, when Habakkuk, who sees no hope humanly speaking, proclaims:
…yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

In this Advent season, no matter how deep our darkness, may God grant us the faith that proclaims with Habakkuk “yet I will rejoice in the Lord”.
And may that faith light us up with the light of Christ, that we might shine as beacons in a dark world.

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Day 13: Not in the fire… #adventbookclub.

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13th December: Still small voice? Liar! #adventbookclub.

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Not in the fire…

[Elijah] came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah Meets God at Horeb

11 He 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

1 Kings 19:9-18

As we reach the end of this particular train of events in Elijah’s life I was particularly struck by the way it shows us how God guides us and deals so, so gently with us.

On Wednesday we heard the story of Mount Carmel and the encounter with the prophets of Baal. Elijah prays as follows: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding.” (my italics and bold). Elijah wasn’t acting in deliberate disobedience when he got it wrong – he genuinely thought God was bidding him to do as he was doing. And God went along with that – and then rescued Elijah from the consequences of burnout, depression and the threat of death! It was only over a month later that Elijah, finally rested just a little and at last able to hear the true voice of God, realises where he went wrong.

It’s so, so easy to hear wrong. To be utterly convinced that we are hearing the voice of God when we’re actually hearing our own Inner Drivers – Work Harder, Be Perfect, Be Pleasing (by implication to everyone). This can lead us to think we are indispensable. The needs of others are so great that we do not feel we can set boundaries, say “no”. Or we take that old saying “God has no hands… feet… lips… other than ours” and warp it and twist it into “God has no hands… feet… lips… other than mine“… Do you see the didfference? It’s crucial. Because we are not meant to walk, to live, to work in isolation. God requires our willingness to step back from a particular task, a particular responsiblity, just as much has He requires our willingness to step up to the mark in the first place. We are members of the body of Christ – not isolated individual clones of Christ. No one of us can do it all.

When Elijah finally heard the voice of God – the still, small voice – and realised at last that God had not been in the earthquake, wind or fire there was no condemnation, no wallowing in guilt. Simply instructions to return to the task to which God had assigned him, and this time to work in partnership with others. Each to their own allotted task – and taking time out to eat, drink, sleep…

May God grant us the grace and the space to hear His still, small voice in the midst of the madness in which we find ourselves.

May we never lose sight of the simplicity of the stable.

May we take His yoke and learn from Him and so find rest for our souls (and bodies and minds)

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Eat, drink, sleep

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

1 Kings 19: 1-9a

Gosh – what a contrast with yesterday’s story.

And how common such a reaction is.

After all, the encounter with the prophets of Baal must have generated immense amounts of adrenaline for Elijah. And after an adrenaline rush we so often experience an adrenaline hangover. What’s more, I’ll be no-one got around to eating or drinking while all that drama was going on, least of all Elijah… and sleep won’t have figured highly either, before or after, what with anxiety and the need to get away fast!!!

Speaking as a teacher, by the end of term (which is fast approaching, praise be…) I’m often utterly drained, struggling to sleep and fighting a tendency to either over- or under-eat. I’m often vaguely aware that I’m actually thirsty – but don’t take time to drink, not even a quick mouthful, thus becoming even more dehydrated. And like Elijah, when I get into that kind of over-drive I have a tendency to think that it all rests on my shoulders – that if I don’t keep on keeping on then somehow the entire universe will fall apart (ah yes – when I indulge in “all-or-nothing” thinking then it really is all!!) So I drive myself to do “just this one more thing” over and over and over again until, one way or another, I crack up. A lot of teachers I know spend the first week of their precious two weeks off being ill… I’ve often wondered whether it’s the same for clergy in the weeks after Christmas and Easter…

Advent is all about God becoming fully human – God incarnate – God clothed in flesh and blood.

And in the Gospel accounts we read of Jesus taking time out, withdrawing, despite the endless stream of people in need.

So why do we despise our bodies so?
Why do we drive ourselves into illness and exhaustion?
Why do we fail to meet our basic physical needs for food, water, sleep?
Why do we think that we can do what Jesus couldn’t and didn’t – be available 24/7?

Thinking back to yesterday – whose agenda are we working to? Ours? someone else’s? or God’s?

Because in this story of the aftermath of his Mount Carmel experiences, God comes to Elijah and simply provides him with food, water, sleep… God meets Elijah’s physical needs first, and only then is Elijah in a fit state to hear the still, small voice of God speaking to him.

So who are we, to do less for ourselves than God would do?

God’s agenda for us includes taking proper care of the body He has given us – ensuring that we have the right amount of the right kind of food, plenty of water and enough sleep. And if making that my priority means there isn’t always time to write a daily Advent Book Club blog or the blog is shorter, less well-thought-out, then so be it.

God give us grace to know His priority for us in every moment so that we are able to celebrate the feast of the Nativity in peace and calm.

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Calling down fire: who’s setting the agenda?

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32 with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33 Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

1 Kings 18:20-39

For the sake of completeness I have included in the above what happened when the prophets of Baal called on their gods. Maggi Dawn, in her book, gives only the challenge of Ahab and Elijah’s response.

As ever, I find myself wondering how the people involved felt.

Ahab, having worked long and hard and brutally to build a strong ppolitical power-base must have ben just so frustrated by the lone voice of Elijah continually attempting to call the people back to the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By this time he must have felt sufficently secure to issue his ultimatum to the people – “For goodness sake, make your minds up once and for all!”

Interesting that the people didn’t answer him at all. To me, that suggests that although they’d never dare say so out loud, they were by no means convinced by this new regime and baal-worship.

Oh, Ahab must have begun to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach… Here he was, all-powerful, attempting to whip up a postivie response from the people and all he gets is a sullen silence!

And then Elijah speaks – suggests a prayer-duel between the prophets of Baal and himself, the lone prophet of God. And now the people respond with a resounding “Yes!” Of course, form their point of view, whatever the outcome they were safe as they’d hedged their bets – hadn’t actually said “no” to Ahab, simply welcomed this opportunity for Elijah to take all the flak whould things go awry.

So the prophets of Baal – who, I’m guessing, were feelling more than a tad apprehensive by now as they weren’t calling the shots – get first pick of the bulls, and first attempt to produce fire through prayer alone. We’re told there were 450 of them – that’s a lot of prayers! But by the end of the day, despite all of their attempts to manipulate their gods through self-mutilation and loud cries, the result was one dead but very much un-burnt bull. Zilch. Prophets of Baal nil… Elijah yet to score.

By now Ahab and his prophets must have been seriously worried. But all was not yet lost… after all, if 450 of them had failed, what hope had lone Elijah?

And then Elijah, ever the showman, calls the people closer, as if to prove that no trickery was involved. He then rebuilds the altar of the Lord, and in placing the twelve stones, one for each tribe of Israel, he visibly reminds the people of their roots, of the foundations upon which their faith in the One True God was built. I can imagine a kidn of breathelss anticipation beginning to spread throughout the crowd.

Any minute now… surely Elijah is about tocall down fire… but no! In one final twist he calls for water. Why water, they wonder? is that in case the fire gets out of hand? Apparently not – to their utter amazement, and possibly dismay, he instructs that the bull and wood and altar are thoroughly dowsed with the water.

I wonder whether at this point the prophets of Baal and Ahab began at least to hope for a goal-less draw, for surely Elijah had finally lost the plot…

Then at last Elijah, “at the time of the offering of the oblation”, came near and prayed what was, in comparison with the antics all day of the prophets of Baal, a very low-key, matter-of-fact prayer. He simply asks that God will be God in this situation and reveal Himself to the people in order that they might turn back to Him.

And God did just that – the fire that came consumed not just the bull, not just the wood, but also the stones, the dust and the water in the trence.

Wow – what an outcome.

For me, the account of the failure of the proophets of Baal is an integral part of the story as it throws into sharp contrast their approach and that of Elijah.

The prophets of Baal believed that by much crying out, long pleading, self-mutilation and self-punishment, they could somehow get the attention of their gods and persuade them to co-operate with the prophet’s (and Ahab’s) agenda.

Elijah, on the other hand, pretty much did the reverse. He dowsed the offering with water, making it very, very clear that no human intervention could possibly achieve the desired result. And the wordsof his prayer indicate that his actions sprang out of a sense that God Himself was bidding him to behave in this way. He then offered his obedience back to God and trusted Him for the outcome. A brief prayer, succinct and to the point. A prayer of faith – not that God would act according to Elijah’s agenda, but that God is God and could be trusted.

I wonder which we are more like in our praying…

Do we, albeit rather more subtly than the prophets of Baal, attempt to manipulate, to persuade God?

Or do we trust Him and ask simply for what we believe is in accordance with His will? “Thy kingdom come, They will be done”…

May God open our hearts and minds this Advent to a deeper realisation of His power and presence at work in us and in our world. May He increase our faith in Him as we deepen our relationship with Him. And may we always work to His agenda, not our own.

Lord, teach us to pray.

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Redigging the wells: Advent Book Club 2013

Isaac …….. camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek (contention),because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah (enmity).He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth (borad places, room), saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

From there he went up to Beer-sheba. And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.” So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.

Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!” He called it Shibah (oath); therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba well of the oath) to this day.

Genesis 26:17-33

Maggi Dawn makes two interesting points. First, that Isaac didn’t find it necessary to fight the Philistines for his right to use the wells of his father but trusted God for the fulfilment of the promis, and in so doing eventually the promise becamse his as well as Abraham’s. Second, that in our post-Christian era it might not be necessary to completely reinvent church, but that we can find new refreshment in old traditions and learn how these can sustain us in a very different world.

Another point also struck me – that in this nomadic society without, I presume – correct me if I’m wrong – , written records, naming the wells as he did gave a way of preserving the memory of these exchanges. Indeed, we are told in Genesis 21:31 that Beer-Sheba was given it’s name by Abraham, Isaac’s father, following a similar oath sworn between Abimilech, Phicol and Abraham. So it’s possible that in sending Isaac away from the first two wells Abimilech was testing him – and when he realised that God was blessing Isaac just as He had blessed Abraham, decided that it’d be best to go with the flow and make peace before Isaac lost patience.
It’s important to remember. The central form of worship for Christians is the Eucharist – an act of remembrance, of re-enactment of a key moment which enables us, also, to experience the blessing of personal relationship with Jesus which was known by the first disciples who shared that Passover meal with HIm. And of course that Passover meal was itself an act of remembrance, of re-enactment of another pivotal moment of deliverance. This is making me wonder whether it would be good to find ways of marking – of remembering – pivotal moments in my personal faith journey. I’ll give that some thought…
And one last point – Isaac had to follow on from Abraham. It is a difficult thing to pick up the reins from a charismatic father – or indeed, from any charismatic person into whose shoes you step, whether related or not. I’m sure a lot of clergy experience this… a constant harking back to the way the previous incumbent did things (with a convenient forgetting of the way that previous incumbent was given the smae treatment in his/her early days!). Maybe we could consider whether we ever behave (in any context – not just church) more like the Philistines than like Isaac – needling the newcomer to see whether we get a reaction, treating the incomer with suspicion, greeting the new kid on the block with defensiveness rather than welcome.  Just a thought…
 
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