Free At Last
Topic: Biblical Verse: 1 Kings 19:9–19:21
A sermon delivered at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
On June 29/30, 2013 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (PENT 6C-13)
By the Rev. Dr. B. F. Nass, Pastor Emeritus
Do any of you remember the movie "Braveheart?" It tells the compelling story of William Wallace, a Scottish freedom fighter, who leads his people in a fight for freedom in the face of tyranny and injustice under the cruel rule of England’s King Longshanks. Longshanks hatred both for Wallace and Scotland grew intense. Wallace is finally captured through intrigue and betrayal. It is Longshanks' plan not to merely kill Wallace but to have him beg for mercy, to finally take away his humanity.
In the final scene, Wallace is brought to the castle courtyard before a jeering crowd. The king's executioner begins to torture him telling him that, if he just begs for mercy, he will make his death quick. King Longshanks, though old and ill in bed, is an ear shot away from Wallace's torture. He yearns to hear his enemy beg for a mercy that will not be given. Wallace struggles to speak one last time. The executioner stills the crowd so all can hear his plea and with one last gasp of air in his lungs, Wallace screams one word – “FREEDOM!” Freedom!
Fighting for freedom fills the annuls of human history. As we Americans prepare to celebrate the signing of our Declaration of Independence this week, we treasure even more our liberty and freedom that came at a price both to achieve and to preserve. We remember the work of the Underground Railroad in the mid1800s that helped slaves achieve their freedom. My wife and I were recently in Istanbul, and share a sympathetic concern about the issues that provoked the rioting among those who see their freedom slipping away. Freedom is more than a principle; it is a commitment to the core of what it means to be completely human.
That being said, I find it amazing that so many remain uncommitted and so willing to give up their freedom and their struggle for it. I pray that is not the case with anyone here today. That’s the issue our scripture lessons address. Elijah gave up and expresses a death wish at the zenith of his prophetic career and Elisha is not immediately committed to serve as his replacement. The foolish people of the Galatia congregations Paul addresses in our Epistle seem willing and ready to don the yoke of slavery to the law instead of fighting for the gospel message which made them free at last. And in today’s Gospel Jesus cautions those who would exchange security for their freedom, and who are unwilling to risk commitment to the one who is able to make them free at last. Because he was a topic during vacation bible school this past week, let’s concentrate on the Elijah account and discover what we can learn to make certain we are and will continue to be free at last.
The tenure of the charismatic prophet Elijah – whose name means “my God is Yahweh” – took place at a critical time in Israel’s history. Ahab was the king whom the biblical chronicler describes as “one who did evil in the sight of the lord.” As it is even today, the northern border of Israel was vulnerable to attack. So Ahab wisely made a peace treaty with his northern neighbor, the king of Syria (which was known as Aram at that time). The methodology followed in those days was for Ahab to marry the daughter of the king of Aram. She then became a chit against attack since you would think that a father would not want to do anything to harm his little girl who was named Jezebel. Since the marriage was political rather than romantic, there were pre-nuptial conditions i., e., you have to provide well for my daughter, build her a nice palace with lots of servants, always treat her as something special, bow to here every wish, etc.
In this case, there was an unusual condition added. For future stability in the geo-political world of Israel to be assured, it came at a cost to their spiritual life. Not only were 420 prophets of the false god Baal added to the government payroll, Baal worship centers were established throughout the land; people were first encouraged, then required to worship Baal, and the prophets of Israel’s God, Yahweh, were cruelly and systematically killed until Elijah declares he is the only prophet left.
But the worship of the fertility gods didn’t work out as planned. Instead of fertility in flock and field three years of severe drought and death ensue. Elijah courageously confronts the king about the idolatry and in doing so becomes for the royal couple what Wallace was to king Longshanks; he becomes a security threat to destabilize the peace accord with Aram. He is declared persona non grata and is forced into hiding and exile.
After three long years, at God’s command, Elijah again courageously confronts the establishment. He challenges them to a contest that might be called “the Super Bowl of the G/gods” – Baal vs. Yahweh, to find out which one is the true one. Mt. Carmel is a promontory that rises 5000 feet above the Mediterranean sea. On that site, Elijah’s God, Yahweh, routs the false god, Baal who was often depicted as holding a lightning bolt in his hand but was unable to provide any fire from heaven as Yahweh did. The people are convinced that Yahweh is the true God, the false prophets are executed, the drought ends, and even King Ahab seems convinced until he consults with jezebel. She is unwilling to concede what had been so conclusively proven at Mt. Carmel. Seething with anger, she vows to make Elijah plead for a mercy that would not be given and die within 24 hours. So forceful was her vendetta Elijah caves in assumed failure and flees to the perceived home of his God to tender his resignation.
Now if you find that action surprising, you are not alone. Even God seems surprised. “What on earth are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks almost incredulously. Depressed Elijah mumbles some memorized mantra about his perceived failures which God flatly rejects. Then, in effect, God says, “Elijah, let me demonstrate my power and how it works.” Examples of all the extreme forces of nature – howling wind, raging fire, destructive earthquakes – commence. Nope! That’s not how God’s power works. I’m grateful translators finally got this right. There follows “the sound of total silence” rather than the earlier “a still small voice.”..God’s work is done silently, forcefully, thoroughly, not through the forces of nature but through those who know him and his desire that everyone be as free at last as they were at first.
For when time began the creative word of God boomed, first shaping the formless cosmos and then filling its void with living things. Atop this hierarchy were human beings whom God placed in charge to run his creation, but they failed miserably. Yet God continued to work silently through Adam, and Noah, and Abraham and his lineage, and now Elijah must become God’s silent voice to change the landscape of history with a new cast of characters – new and different kings for both Aram and Israel and even a replacement for Elijah as well.
Fortunately for us the total silence of God was finally broken when the creative word boomed once again and the new Adam, Jesus, God’s own Son, reshaped the landscape of history in his contest against all our spiritual foes not at Mt. Carmel, but Mt. Golgotha. Then, his empty grave victory filled the void of sin by recreating each of us with the chance to receive his forgiveness, follow him, and be free at last. Now he commissions us his followers just as Elijah to be his committed voice, his active hands, his willing feet to go and make new disciples who will not easily give up their freedom - so expensively achieved - but are willing to risk their security in sure faith in the one who sets us free at last and, putting our hand to the plow, never look back as we repeat those words that have become so familiar in our culture; “Free as last;, free at last; thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”