Sunday, June 20, 2010

Extreme Makeover: Life Edition

I Kings 19:1-15a

We begin with the story of Elijah. While it is not our primary focus this week, the story does provide some serendipitous points of contact that may help to illumine our reading of the Gospel of Luke. Between the story of Elijah's raising of a dead boy (I Kings 17:8-24, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time) and this story of Elijah's flight from Jezebel toward Mt. Horeb lies a mountain-top experience of another kind (Mt. Carmel, I Kings 18), a conflict between Elijah and the religious establishment of Israel in which Elijah very much enjoyed the upper hand. I Kings 19 begins with a reference to that prior victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but then turns suddenly to the presentation of a contemporary threat. There is a sports cliche that comes to mind here: "you are only as good as your last game." In other words, Carmel is over--it is ancient history now--and Jezebel stands ready to challenge Elijah's freshly won claim that his God, YHWH, is superior to her god, Baal.

You might think that a guy who had recently resuscitated a corpse and called down fire from heaven might exude a little confidence. You might expect him to indulge a little swagger. But not today, not Elijah. His mental game is off. His mind isn't in it. He's not trying; he's stopped looking for a strategy to move ahead in the race. He's not even looking to tie. And he's given up on keeping body and soul (nephesh) together. He hasn't the courage, the strength, the heart, the ________ (you fill in the blank) that is required to keep going. He is ready to sit one out, to warm the bench, maybe to quit the team for good. He has lost the will to win. He is sated with the struggle. He says, "Enough already!" (rab `attah; see 2 Samuel 24:16 // 1 Chronicles 21:15) Elijah just wants to curl up under a broom tree and die. He needs someone who understands what he has been through. He needs someone to care that he's been trying all this time to make a difference, but that the cards seem stacked against him. I think he needs an Extreme Makeover.

You know the show.

It is a "reality show" (a misnomer of a genre if ever there were one). The show's premise is that there are real people in this world who are right now struggling against incredible odds to do the right thing. They may be winning a few battles here and there--they may even seem tragically heroic--but they are obviously losing the war. The whole of life seems hopelessly stacked against them. Without some "miraculous" intervention, without some sort of extraordinary good luck, they are going under. They may as well throw in the towel now unless they get help. And they do not need just a little help. They need a complete reshuffling of the deck. The genius of the show is that it has discovered the perfect symbol for this transformation: it is the demolition and rebuilding of the family's house. Given how we "worship" our homes (at least we did once, before the recent Great Recession), it is somehow deemed appropriate that the complete transformation of a family's life be narrated as the awe-inspiring story of a house transformed. In just a matter of days, in seemingly miraculous fashion, the family's old home is destroyed and a new home is constructed in its place, with the help of friends, neighbors, and community.

The question is whether Elijah gets this sort of transformational help when he calls out to God.

Elijah does get help. He receives a hot meal or two delivered by the deacons. (1 Kings 19:5-6, 7-8) He gets some much needed rest while he is "dropping out" and taking a little spiritual R&R. While on his "vacation" he attends the Mt. Horeb church, the same place where Moses went, for a spiritual retreat. He is hoping for a little revival of the spirit, some encouragement, maybe a burning bush or an eleventh commandment, earthquake, fire and smoke. But instead of allowing him to settle in and take his ease, God asks Elijah point blank what he's doing there. (mah-lekah poh; the only other time such a question is asked of someone seeking a refuge, Isaiah 22:16, it is clearly an unfriendly question: "What right have you to be here? Who gave you permission?")

Why are you here? God asks the question twice. (1 Kings 19:9, 13) Both times, Elijah answers the same.

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.
(I Kings 19:10, 14; NRSV)

After the first answer, YHWH tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain in his presence, because YHWH is crossing over ("going through," `abar; NOT pasach, "passover"; see Exodus 12:23 for the difference). It is not altogether clear whether YHWH's presence is, at the present, a threat of curse or a promise of blessing for Elijah. Does this mean death or life? In the end, we are not sure whether YHWH has even shown up for the appointment. There have been great natural phenomena occurring, wind-shattering of rocks and the like, but YHWH is eerily absent (qol demamah daqqah, "the thinnest whisper of a voice"), as if we were waiting with Elijah for the other shoe to drop.

After YHWH repeats the question and Elijah repeats the answer, it seems that YHWH's "help" with Elijah's transformation comes in the form of an acceptance of Elijah's resignation. (1 Kings 19:16) However, two tell-tale signs contradict that assumption: first, Elijah is told to "go back the way you came" (shub ledarkekah)--in other words, go home, to your old place; and, second, he is commissioned to anoint two kings (Hazael of Damascus, a foreign king; and Jehu, king of Israel). This is perhaps the most significant assignment of his prophetic career; it is hardly a retirement. In fact, the anointing of his successor could be seen as "life insurance" taken out before embarking on hazardous duty. Whatever Elijah was seeking when he came; he received what he needed to continue as a prophet. Sometimes, perhaps, what we need is not an Extreme Makeover, but a swift kick in the pants.

Galatians 3:23-29

According to Paul, the coming of Christ, our faith in Christ and our baptism into Christ, represent an Extreme Makeover. Our lives have been transformed from their former state of slavery and imprisonment to a state of freedom as adopted children and heirs of God's promise. We were sinners under a great debt and in danger of immediate foreclosure and homelessness; but now we are justified, paid up, by faith with a new lease on life. In our new life in the Spirit, there is no prejudice, no distinction, based on the old realities that had things stacked against us: there just isn't a difference now in our family between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. We are all one in Christ. Even our closets have been transformed, even our clothes have changed, to demonstrate this new reality.

Luke 8:26-39

But before we get too comfortable with this new life, we should ask whether there is an example of the aftermath of such a complete life transformation. Have others survived it?

Between last week's table talk (Luke 7) and this week's demoniac comes the parable of the sower (8:4-15) and the comment from Jesus about setting one's light on a lampstand (8:16) and (on hearing that his mother and brothers are looking for him) that his real family is "those who hear the word of God and do it." (Luke 8:21) Then we come to the story of the demoniac, which coincidentally begins with a change of scenery. Jesus and his disciples set out across the lake in a boat and while they are under sail Jesus falls asleep. When a storm blows up and threatens to capsize the boat, the disciples call out for help. ('apollumetha, "we perish"; it is the equivalent of the "demolition" required by an Extreme Makeover.) Jesus quickly comes to their aid, not transforming their lives, but rescuing them from impending death in the storm. The winds and the waves, and their obedience to Jesus, are impressive and clearly connected to the transformational power of faith, but they leave the disciples, like Elijah before them, with more questions than answers. (Luke 8:25)

When they arrive, Luke points out again that they are not at home. They are in the country of the Gerasenes (or Gadarenes), which is the opposite ('antipera) side of the Sea of Galilee. (Luke 8:26) A man comes out to meet them who is in dire straits. Even the Extreme Makeover folks would have difficulty knowing where to start because the man has neither home to demolish nor clothes to throw away. His home is in the tombs. (mnemasin; Luke's only other use of the term in the gospel is for the tomb of Jesus, the sepulcher with the stone across the front, Luke 23:53 and 24:1, and for the tombs of David [Acts 2:29] and Abraham [Acts 7:16]). Having just read I Kings, we cannot avoid hints of Elijah's cave on Mt. Hebron here. But the demoniac in Luke throws us a curve. The demoniac demands of Jesus an answer to the same question God posed to Elijah: "What are you doing here?" More to the point, "What do you want with me?" This is, I think, a clear indicator of the sort of Extreme Makeover Jesus brings, the kind in which he himself participates. The demolition of our old life (crucifixion) and construction of our new life (resurrection) is one in which he has gone before to pave the way, so that we too may experience new life.

See the entry for Mark 5 for a riff on the full story of the demoniac.

A question remains: How does one cope with a total transformation of one's life? Stress, even good stress, can be "bad" for you. It is good that Jesus sends folks "back home" in their "right mind." What's our role in welcoming such folks who have been changed and transformed by God's grace? Going "home" to a new life in Christ has consequences. What should we do to accept and receive someone who's been "born again" and whose life has been redeemed? How often do we invite Jesus to leave and go somewhere else to practice his transforming work?

Just a little nod to Father's Day, note 1 Kings 19:4!

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