Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Ravens and the Rest of God's Strange Help

Preached Sunday, July 24, 2011

Q&A: How was Elijah fed by ravens in the desert?

Scripture readings: 1 Kings 17:1-9; Mark 2:13-17

Elijah was a prophet in the northern part of Israel. He lived after the great days of King David and King Solomon seemed long past. The kingdom had been divided between the northern and the southern tribes.

Ahab ruled the northern kingdom. He had married the princess Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. It was a lucky match because it gave northern Israel an alliance with the great and wealthy sea power and trading power of the Sidonians.

But it was an unholy match. Jezebel and her parents looked down on Israel’s worship of such a primitive God as the Lord, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses: the God of smelly shepherds and ex-slaves. How hideous!

Jezebel was determined to reform Israel to a civilized faith full of gods and goddesses who seemed designed to serve your every need for listed prices. There was a weather god, and a sex goddess, and a money god, and more. What more could you ask for in a religion?

The prophets and priests who were determined to remain loyal to the Lord had the choice of hiding or being killed. There were people who helped them hide at the risk of their own lives.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, backed by Sidonian money and power seemed to represent the winning side. They were the civilized side, the intelligent side, the side of the future.

As if to confirm this, a peasant dressed in a goat-hair robe (see 2 Kings 1:8) came up to the king and said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there will be neither dew nor rain in the years ahead except by my word.” (1 Kings 17:1) As it was, Queen Jezebel’s people, and her husband Ahab had the god Baal whose specialty was rain and storms. Elijah was defying one of their most impressive gods. Elijah was defying the new order of things.

More than that, Elijah was making himself a specific target. He was claiming to be the Lord’s special agent for rain. The king and queen would have to bargain directly with Elijah, or meet his terms, or else kill him. Knowing them, they would choose the killing option.

We read that it was at this point that, ‘The word of the Lord came to Elijah, “Leave here and hide!” (1 Kings 17:2-3) Elijah hid in one of the best hiding places in Israel, the Kerith Ravine. It was so good a hiding place that we have no idea where it is today. And, “Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening.” 1 Kings 17:6)

These ravens are important. The Lord took care of Elijah by means of the ravens. In fact, this meeting with the king and the command to hide and be fed by ravens was all a part of whatever early training Elijah had as a prophet.

Specifically what we have read, so far, about Elijah is his introductory course in the providence (or the providing-care) of God. What happened to Elijah, especially in the ravine, and especially with the ravens, taught Elijah to trust God’s care. It showed him what God’s care looked like. It showed what God expected of Elijah and the people who followed him; like us.

The ravens tell us that God’s care does not isolate us from the world or from the needs of others. Ravens are carrion eaters. They were labeled as unclean by the Jewish law. They could not be offered to God because, according to the Law of Moses, they were dirty and unfit for the presence of God. They were forbidden as food, and to eat raven meat would make the eater unclean, dirty, and unfit to come into the presence and worship of God. They were birds of weakness, sickness, death, and rot. They reminded Elijah of the starvation and death going on around him, even though he could not see it.

Elijah had been commanded by God to denounce the evil of his world and to speak God’s judgment against it. And then it was the strange help that God gave to Elijah to make him look at the face of the starvation, and sickness, and death of his own people twice a day, when the ravens came.

It is God’s strange help to his people, to us, for us to see the face of the suffering of others every day. The early Christians interpreted the hiding, and the isolation, and the strange feeding of Elijah as God’s way of teaching him compassion and love for others. The ravens are a message from God to say that we, as Christians, need to remember our connection with the needs of the world around us, even when those needs are out of sight, even when we have more than others, or especially when we do have more than others.

Every day Elijah was visited by carrion birds. This reminded him of his own danger, and of his own need for God’s care. Elijah was in trouble over his head for the very reason that he had obeyed God. There was a death sentence upon him, or there was going to be a death sentence on him if he kept listening to God.

Something deep within us tells us it is not quite safe to listen to God. That is why, when I was a kid, I didn’t want to go into the ministry. But even if you don’t become a pastor, or a missionary, or work in an inner city mission, there is a risk in serving God. There is the danger of being misunderstood. There is the danger of a thankless job that everyone has a better idea of than you do. There is the danger of you causing actual harm to others because God has put you in a place where everything you say and do has expectations put on it. People will judge God and judge the gospel by what you say and do.

One perfect spring day, I was taking my long walk out by the Snake and Palouse rivers and I found a nice place to sit down. There was some grass and a place to lean back. It was perfect. I drifted into contemplation and from there into sleep.

All of a sudden, I woke to the sound of the flapping of big wings. I jumped out of sleep and saw a big black bird take off, just as startled as I was. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird flew off, but I think I was visited by a curious buzzard.

It is God’s strange help to remind us that we are at some kind of risk when we follow the steps where the Lord’s love and goodness lead us. Elijah read this good and helpful advice from God in the face of those ravens, every day.

If you have livestock out grazing somewhere and you drive or ride out to see them, and you see big black birds circling and descending, you want to see what they are up to, or you know you need to go and see what there is to see, whether you will like it or not. For the rest of us, we drive along the highway and see the same big dark birds in formation, and then we see the red spot on the road. If we were like Elijah and saw the ravens come to us with gifts of food in their talons, how would we feel about that food?

The bread and meat in the raven’s claws were not raven food. They were people food. Still we would know where else those claws had been. We would feel a little sick. We would feel a little rising in our own craw, to put their meal in our mouths.

In Elijah’s world, only rich people ate meat every day. Only the richest people ate meat twice a day. Something in me wonders if the ravens flew very far indeed, twice each day, to the royal palace in Samaria where they stole the king’s and queen’s food and brought it back to Elijah. I don’t know. Only it seems that Elijah ate like a king while he was in hiding deep in Kerith Ravine.

We don’t know where the ravens got those meals for Elijah. Elijah didn’t know either.

Even if angels prepared those meals, they were delivered in those awful, stinking claws. Elijah had been raised to hate the sight of ravens but, in the course of time, they became like angels to him; messengers of God and God’s care for him.

Imagine there are people in your world who are like the ravens. Imagine there are people you don’t want to see, or talk to, or have anything to do with. Those may be ravens.

There are some very odd people who become ravens. They are innocent people, yet others avoid the very sight of them. People in nursing homes become ravens, especially if they have dementia or Alzheimer’s. People with cancer become ravens. People who have lost their life’s work or even their home become ravens. People in the depth of grief become ravens. Old friends, and even family, avoid them.

Jesus told a parable about how those people we might try to avoid are somehow representatives of him. He will say to the people who claimed to have loved him (if they were among those people who avoided the ravens), “Depart from me….For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me….I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

If you read the story of what happened after the brook of Kerith dried up you will see how Elijah learned this lesson. He went, as the Lord commanded, to the land of Sidon, the land of Queen Jezebel. He found there a widow and her son who were starving. The famine and death in Israel had spread to the people of Jezebel the Terrible. This was news that would have made Elijah glad. The widow and her son were people who worshiped Jezebel’s gods and knew nothing better.

Elijah moved into their home and took care of them in miraculous ways. (1 Kings 17:7-24) They would have been nothing but ravens to him, and here he found himself becoming part of their family for a while. Elijah, in his coat of goat-hair, became a raven for them and brought them gifts from God that kept them alive and when the boy got sick and died Elijah even raised the boy from the dead. (1 Kings 17:17-23)

We really are ravens ourselves. Surely there are people who aren’t glad to see us coming. Let’s pray to be ravens sent by God for them, in spite of ourselves.

Jesus was, and is, the ultimate raven. He was feared and hated by the best people in the world, by the best of the people of God. They crucified him because they found him offensive, and his cross just made him look all the more black and sinister to them. Jesus became dead meat to save a world that is full of decay.

The good people, the religious people didn’t want to get too close to Jesus. They didn’t want to listen to him because Jesus attracted the wrong kind of people. Jesus attracted the people they spoke ill of and wanted to avoid. It was as if he drew flies, or crows and ravens.

The truth was that Jesus drew to himself the people who knew their own tremendous need. He drew the people who saw how much they desperately needed him. I hope that includes us.

Through the awful things of his humility, and his suffering and death, grace comes to us in our desert and our drought. The inner and invisible healing of Jesus that we ache for comes to us in our isolation and our hiding places. Through his life, and his cross, and his resurrection Jesus brings us healing, and mercy, and a new life every day.

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