Church of Christ Wembley Downs 19th June 2022
Today we have two stories to mull over.
We are in the Season of the Spirit so we might expect our texts to say something about that.
One is from the Hebrew tradition, speaking of the incident in the life of Elijah that transformed his perception of how God works with us. (See 1 Kings 19:1-15)
The next story comes 1000 years later. Luke’s gospel records how Jesus and his band entered foreign territory and caused a stir, healing a madman and producing an effect in the supply and demand of the local swine economy. (See Luke 8:26-39)
Is there a link between these two stories? Both speak of interaction between the Divine and human beings going through crisis.
Is Elijah experiencing a challenge to his faith? He seems to be experiencing a dark depression despite some spectacular victories. Is Luke’s demoniac a modern-day psychiatrist’s challenge, defying all the mental health diagnostic handbook’s categories? The outcome invites further pondering of the process of the transformative ways of the Spirit.
How do we read the Bible in a way that the Bible at the same time reads us?
May the written Word now brought to us through the spoken Word bring us into fresh encounter with the living Word.
When unravelling a passage through background reading, sifting commentaries, and considering various translations, I often find it helpful to let the story speak for itself. To do this and to get out of the analytical party of my brain I give reign to some poor bush poetry. Hence, I try to enter the experience of Elijah by imagining his voice:
Old Queen Jez, she was mad at me
As mad as mad could be
She summoned all her hitmen
To force silence for a hefty fee!
Scared, I became a fugitive
And fled into the outback
The black dog kept me company
my fears my soul did rack.
The horrors of those forty days
Defy words to describe
All that I had relied upon
Mocked with scorn and jibe
From somewhere within a strength came through
I could not name nor muster
I found myself at God’s Mountain side
E’en though I was full of bluster.
For might is great when all’s on show
In earthquake wind and fire
But YHWH laughed when I complained
That no longer did these inspire
“Your authentic self no longer needs
These crutches to perform your action
My still small voice joined deep within
Is all you require for traction.”
God’s voice with mine joined deep within
Began to sound fair dinkum
To Damascus, then, did I return
To set up Hazael’s kingdom.
It seems that something of an evolutionary moment in humankind’s spiritual perception occurs in this account of Elijah’s experience. Divinity was habitually encountered as something out there, encountered in spectacular natural phenomena. The shamans and prophets who could manipulate such awareness could hold contests of power. “Anything your god can do, mine can do better!”
Elijah had outwitted the priests of Jezebel and now she sought to conquer him with her political might. I suspect, however, that this is not what drove Elijah out into the wilderness in deep depression. I think it had more to do with the awareness that, as spectacular as the displays of YHWH’s power proved to be, Elijah felt empty, wasted, and abandoned.
The true power of YHWH was yet to be revealed in something that seemed to be small and inconsequential – the still small voice within.
It was revealed because Elijah was now ready. He carried the wounds of success – and he carried the wounds of failure. His voice had found a new authenticity. In it he discovered the voice of YHWH – quiet, intimate, and full of peaceful assurance. And with YHWH’s still small voice comes a new commission – Elijah is sent back to Damascus to attend to affairs of state.
In the same manner, my muse had me enter Luke’s so-called demoniac of Gerasene:
Elijah had his black dog; I had my demons
One thousand of them partying, in fact,
Inside my tortured mind.
Not to say they didn’t entertain me,
Like a thousand TV channels
But to select one was beyond what I could find.
Their voices drove me crazy, my mind collapsed all hazy
The demons focused on a voice without.
That commanding voice outside became a quiet voice within
Heard through the demons’ cacophony and shout.
The demons fled away and my mind began to stay
In a place of peaceful calm and poise
As I focus on the Teacher; behold I am a brand new creature
My still small voice within he now employs.
For my people were afraid in spite of how it played
Now that I had returned to my right mind
So he told me to go home and spend time with them alone
Maybe then their still small voice will find.
In my mind, a theme emerges. Elijah and the Gerasene demoniac, separated by a millennium, one a Jew, the other a Gentile, one a devoted servant of God, the other a deranged pagan, have something in common.
Both make the journey from control by some outside external source of authority to discovery and claiming of an inner authority from deep within – “clothed and in their right mind” – an inner authenticity.
Can this be the work of the Spirit?
This question enlivens me.
It takes me back to a time early in my ministry when my temperament was focused on “doing the right thing.” I was a people-pleaser, constantly looking over my shoulder to ensure I hadn’t stepped on someone’s toes.
One day a mentor, stood up, looked me in the eye, pounded his fist on the desk, and shouted “Claim your authority.”
I had been lamenting a season of conflict with one or two of my church board members who had been critical of some of my actions.
“Why do you have to please your bishops?” he said.
“They aren’t bishops, we don’t have those,” I protested.
“You have made them your bishops! Claim your authority!”
That day began the journey from external to internal authenticity.
Elijah had been relying on spectacular shows to reclaim the faith of an errant Israel. Mt Horeb was a transition to inner authority that transformed him into the great prophet of note.
Luke’s demoniac of Gerasa was captive to outer chaotic forces that drove him insane. It took the presence and compassion of Christ to orientate and anchor him to the place where he, not the demonic force, was in control. Such was the claim to his inner authority and authenticity that Jesus commissioned him to stay and help transform his community through his story.
In these days following the celebration of Pentecost, these two stories perhaps provide insight into the way God, the Holy Spirit, continues to be at large amongst us. They invite us to see our life’s journey as a movement towards claiming our authentic selves in union with others and the universe of which we are part. For both Elijah and our Gerasene friend, the transformation was not just for their personal benefit, but for their respective communities.
Elijah had a big job a head of him. Israel was going to take some convincing to return to its covenant obligations.
The good citizens of Gerasa, faced with too much to comprehend and embrace in one day, begged Jesus and his band to leave them. Jesus obliged but left behind the restored man who wanted to go with him. He was restored well enough to carry Jesus’ voice to his own people. Some commentators name him the first Apostle to the Gentiles. As we ourselves come to terms with the authenticity joined to us by the still small voice, apprehended by comprehension of our creaturehood in God as Father/Creator, clarified through the teaching and example of Jesus as God’s Son, and enlivened within us by the Holy Spirit, so we too discern our daily commission in this world.
The task is just as great.
How shall we live in a world caught in insecurity and fear?
How shall we serve?
How shall we build?
We can only answer by first listening for the still small voice within.