Elvis, Charlie’s Angels & Elijah
(Heroes of Faith Series: 6)
Holy Communion Rev. Vincent Gardner 25/7/10
Over the last six weeks we have enjoyed listening to a variety of speakers sharing with us their heroes of faith. I wonder if, as we were listening we have reflected on who we would choose as our hero of faith? Would it be a famous Christian we have come to know through a biography we have read, or maybe someone who isn’t well known but a person who has played an important part in our life, or maybe it is someone who is not a Christian but who has been an example to us, sharing insights of the world around us, directing us to a clear picture of who we are, maybe a family member, a parent, or son or daughter. I am sure at this moment your mind is flooding with pictures of the people who influenced and directed us in our life (or not…).
As someone who loves history and has many other interests, it has been very hard to narrow the field down to one figure. Also I am fully aware that the figures that have the greatest effect on one’s understanding of one’s place in the world are actually chosen by the era one grows up in. Popular culture endlessly promotes heroes and icons. Indeed icon no longer refers to pictures of Mary and the Christ child, but the pop culture Madonna, or maybe Amy Winehouse and definitely Sir David Beckham.
Growing up in the late sixties early-seventies meant wearing a suit and tie to church but this also had the advantage of being able to role play, as James Bond or at least the Saint (if not a Saint yet). Roger Moore, George Best, Steve Ovett or if you could afford the costume changes Jason King were our role models. Of course Sunday school told us about role models too, and I continue to this day to re-read accounts of their devotional life for encouragement. Many life-stories of figures who, because of their faith, were provided by God with the courage and strength to change things for the good. Bishop Richard Hooker, Clare of Assisi, Hudson Taylor, Fr’s. Lowther’s heroic work against chlora in the East End slums. Barth and Bonhoeffer’s stand against Hitler. Catherine Booth’s work with prostitutes, Fr. Borrelli’s work in Naples with street kids after the war. Of course Mother Theresa and still vivid in my memory is the news images of Martin Luther King’s march across through Montgomery. All of these figures life story has fascinated and encouraged my faith at different times, and undoubtedly be worthy of a sermon or two. But. How do we relate? How can I compare?
The problem that when we use the word hero or icon today it tends to refer to success, and even these faith stories have in their conclusion heroic success against the odds. Extraordinary acts by extraordinary people.
And therefore the idea of Christian exemplars of faith can actually become a demoralizing pressure rather than the spiritual encouragement their biographies are meant to be. God always seems to be speaking clearly to these figures, they eventually understand what God’s voices wants them to do. How can I compare?
Much more encouraging has been the living example of Jason King, Elvis and Charlie’s Angels. With the right clothes and soundtrack behind you, you to could lead a life of adventure.
When I was a student at London Bible College I had a great worry about my faith: why didn’t God seem to speak to me in the way he spoke to others?
Everyone else seemed to have great religious experiences. They would come back from Emmanuel, Northwood on a Sunday night and recount stories of people who’d have been speaking in tongues and ‘slain in the spirit’. Others would return from All Souls, Langham place and say how during an evangelistic address they’d felt Jesus enter their hearts and convince them of the direction their life should I go.
And these reports, which of course at the time I would greet with a smile and say ‘great, yes, that’s wonderful’, would leave me feeling depressed. Did it mean my faith wasn’t real? Perhaps God didn’t like me? Why didn’t I have any extreme feelings like these? Why didn’t I hear a voice? What was I doing wrong?
Well, of course, I discovered I wasn’t alone in all this. Lots of us don’t have these great religious experiences. The problem is that we begin to associate God with the out of the ordinary. We imagine him to be ‘out there’ or ‘up there’, a God who is without, zapping and commanding in a big booming voice.
And we do that because at heart we make the mistake of thinking that God is, basically, a very, very big thing; another object in the universe, albeit one infinitely larger.
However God is not an object or a thing. Big theological point coming up: God is other; indeed he is so utterly other, so completely beyond our comprehension, that in fact he can draw exceptionally close and we may not recognise him: it is his transcendence that makes his immanence possible. His difference makes his closeness possible. But in drawing close we can miss Him, rather like someone who’s been stood next to us for so long that we’ve forgotten they’re there. For God is, as St. Augustine put it, ‘nearer to me than I am to myself’.
We spend so long looking outside ourselves, waiting for some great crash of thunder, and when it doesn’t come we imagine that either God doesn’t exist or that he’s not interested in me. Whereas in fact God is within, absolutely close, the very source of our life and breath, nurturing us and sustaining our existence every moment of our life. After all we are made in His image.
And all of this is brought out wonderfully in the ninetieth chapter of the first book of Kings. Elijah the prophet is depressed. Things are going badly and he thinks he’s a spiritual failure: ‘it’s enough,’ he says, ‘take away my life; I’m no better than my father’s. But then he is told to hide in a cave on the mountain because God is about to pass by. And there was wind, and earthquake and fire, and as the reading says, clearly, again and again-‘the Lord was not in the wind, the Lord was not in the earthquake, the Lord was not in the fire.’ So where, then, does Elijah find God?
After the fire, there is ‘the still small voice’, literally in the originally Hebrew the ‘sound of sheer silence’. And it is only then, after all the excitements and fireworks art past, that Elijah covers himself in the mantle (his cloak) and makes a tentative step to the entrance of the cave. It’s from the silence that Elijah hears a voice. There is plenty of banging and crashing, but these revel nothing. Elijah knows, this: he stays in the cave, his cloak dangling round his neck, and he waits.
And of course Elijah isn’t just any old chap. He’s the greatest of the great prophets. He is ‘jealous’ for the Lord, holding out even when all the other prophets have been killed and the altars and the covenant destroyed. This jealous servant of the Lord, one who has known a fair amount of earthquake, wind and fire in his career, who is no stranger to religious pyrotechnics-it is this man who knows that he is going to find God in the sound of sheer silence; in the still, small voice.
For those of us, who feel rather second rate that we’ve not had some great performances from God in our lives, who feel that we might be spiritual failures, therefore, Elijah is a fantastic comfort. For he reminds us not only that encounter with God often comes out of apparent failure and depression, but even more he points us to the silence and the quiet as the places for meeting the divine.
But he does even more than that-because notice that as he goes out to meet God, he edges to the entrance cave and then he covers himself with his cloak. He’s not staring out and about to find God, waiting for some great appearance in the sky. If God did appear in the sky, Elijah would miss him anyway, because his face is covered by his cloak. And, what’s more the text says-‘then there came a voice to him’- ‘not a voice boomed out’, indeed it’s not even made explicit that it is’ God’s voice: ‘a voice came to him’. Notice the subtlety, the understatement. But even more than that, notice what happens next. Elijah is not given some great display of divine power. He is asked simply to tell his story, how he came to be in this place and then he’s given a job to do. This ‘religious experience’- doesn’t even begin to border on American tele-evangelist stuff does it?-this encounter with God is not given to make Elijah feel warm inside. It’s given for a practical purpose. There are things that need doing-there are new kings and a prophet to anoint.
For God is terribly practical; and of course, for us as Christians how could we think of him in any other way? For the Incarnation is immensely practical-it is God taking ordinary flesh and living a human life, with its round of eating and drinking, and meetings and events. The incidence of what we would misguidedly call ‘religious experience’ in the gospels is very small: there’s the transfiguration, which Peter alludes to, and at the other ultimate religious experience, the resurrection, it should not be forgotten that Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener.
Now of course, the out of the ordinary does happen to people, great miracles do occur, it should not be denied. Generally speaking, however, it seems to happen to those to whom God can’t get through any other way. It’s frequently God’s last resort; because, actually, it is ‘out of the ordinary’ for God too-for an incarnated God, for Jesus Christ, it is the fleshly and human and humdrum that are the channels of grace, of divine presence-a touch of the hand, a splash of water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine, some oil. A shared meal the night before death, a meeting in a garden early in the morning. So God is within, not without; closer to me than I am to myself.
So let us follow God’s words to Elijah: ‘go into the wildernesses. And that wilderness is in fact our everyday lives. And in the wilderness of the ordinary, let us, with Elijah, attend to the silence. To our neighbours. To the mystery within ourselves. And if we do, we also can be confident that we will hear the quiet divine voice, and that God might just have a job for us to do too
One of my favourite Far Side cartoons is captioned ‘Superman in later years’. It shows the elderly Man of Steel perched on a window ledge, ready to leap, as he looks back and says, ‘Now where was I going?’ Amen.