This sermon started with the painting of Malcolm Jagamarra called bugerigar that is, at the moment, sitting in Andrew Blackburns office and has been brought into Church for our benefit this morning.
I dont know much about the aboriginal meaning of the painting. Bob Randall told me that paintings like this have many layers of meaning and that they picture various aspects of life all at once. They are geographical maps, teaching aboriginal children where to find water and where to find food and many other useful things about the features of their natural environment. They are also a visual reflection of the song lines in which historical, historical, religious and moral knowledge are conveyed in an intricate, multi-layered pattern of meaning that can only be fully understood by those who have been initiated. A process that takes many years to accomplish. There are only a few, senior elders, who are able to read any one of those pictures in full detail, most others will only have fragments or parts of the total picture they will be able to understand. And every picture in itself is only part of the total picture.
Not much different from Bible Stories really: they also consist of a complex of factual knowledge, spiritual meaning and moral implications, rolled into stories that can only be fully understood by people who have studied them in detail. Stories that, even after years of study, will still surprise those who immerse themselves in them with new insights and perspectives they may not have previously understood. Here also more than one person is needed to be able to piece the full picture together, and even then there will always be mystery and depth that cannot be fathomed.
The stories of Elijah are excellent examples of this: The more you study them the more intriguing and complex they become. They can be read and interpreted in many different ways. There is a richness of meaning there and a depth of understanding that is mind boggling and awe inspiring. I played around with 24 verses this week and I think I could have written 24 sermons about them, if not more!
For me the painting and the stories about Elijah connected. They started talking to each other, the story of the man of God finding his way in the wilderness of life and the picture of Jason Jagamarra picturing the location of waterholes in a particular part of the Australian desert. It seemed to me that in the story Elijah, and at a deeper level God, is looking for places of nurture, mapping out the places where the wilderness of the spaces in between gives room to springs and little streams that will sustain the weary traveller and help him to find the way through a life in inhospitable conditions. In a physical sense as well as in a spiritual sense.
We meet Ahab first.
According to historical records outside scripture Ahab was a very successful and powerful King in what was a stable and prosperous time for Israel. He was allied with other, powerful nations in the region by marriage and treaties. He was part of a great alliance that successfully pushed back the Assyrians. He worshipped local gods and followed local custom and fitted in really well with his contemporaries.
However, although he may have been a successful, powerful King in the eyes of most of his contemporaries, he is not regarded as a good king in scripture.
All his power, all the wealth he generates, all the economic and political stability of his reign dont really matter from a biblical perspective if they dont mean that life in all its aspects is guided and inspired by the desire to serve God and follow his commandments. Or to put it more clearly: Where the weak and the vulnerable are neglected, and hospitality not practiced towards the stranger, where prosperity is not shared and the rich and powerful live at the expense of social justice, the bible does not consider the king to be doing a good job. Even if the economy is booming and national security successfully maintained.
And where the king isnt doing a good job and the commandments arent followed and the service of the Lord is neglected, wilderness ensues.
That surely is something for us to reflect. How do we measure up against the standards of the book of Kings? What priority does the service of the Lord and the following of his commandments have in our society? In our life and the political agendas we support? Where does it leave the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, and the stranger seeking hospitality with us?
Scripture says: All the power, wealth and political and economical stability in the world is not going to keep our society from turning into a wilderness if we dont do justice, look after the weak and vulnerable and live our lives according to the commandments God has given us to guide our life.
The verdict on Ahab is harsh: he is considered to be an evil king by the writer of the book of Kings, evil that has disastrous consequences for his people.
"No rain until I say so, says God".
In a country that is in serious drought at the moment that statement might evoke all sorts of wrong ideas. So before we go on Id like to put the record straight on a few things:
NO, I dont think the water problems we have in Australia are a punishment from God because we keep asylum seekers off shore.
I do know however that the way we live, the way I water my garden and wash my car, the way I brush my teeth and shower in the morning has consequences for farmers in country Victoria. I know that getting clean drinkable water is a problem for poor countries and that it wouldnt cost that much to change that. I also know that in countries where environmental laws arent as strict to accommodate the economy and attract businesses from other, more environmentally conscious countries, it is often the poor that suffer and die as a result of the pollution.
In the Bible wilderness ensues where justice and peace are not practiced seriously and the weak and vulnerable arent cared for. Everything dries up, including the natural resources.
When the book of Kings was written people didnt know weather cycles, El ninjos and El ninjas, and they attributed to God what they didnt understand. Their belief that drought, hunger and hardship had some relationship to a lack of a god-fearing life however, may not have been that far off the mark.
No, I dont think God breaks the laws of nature, and no, I dont think Elijah could let it rain at will, although Bob Randall has told me stories that some of his people seem to be able to influence the weather patterns in ways that are beyond us.
In the story the drought is what ensues when God and his ways are forgotten. Wilderness develops and the weakest, most vulnerable in society suffer. That is the important message this story seeks to impart. Compared to that the question as it is posed this month in Crosslight, if God could or would use nature as a tool to punish or give reward is really immaterial.
Nobody will thrive if hospitality isnt practiced and the life of the poor and vulnerable not made secure. That is the bottom line and that is where Ahab fails dismally. His politics may have benefited him and an upper layer of his people, but they bring drought and hardship to everybody else.
Of course Ahab doesnt want to hear this. I imagine he was quite pleased with himself and didnt really need a man in a coat of camel hair to come and burst his bubble.
There is no place for contradiction in Ahabs kingdom and anybody that speaks up has to fear for his or her life. That alone is a sign of how things stand with Ahab: Agree or die seems to be how things are worked out between him and his citizens.
So Elijah has to flee and he finds a place where there is still some water flowing. His is the experience of many prophets (great or small): After you have found the courage to speak up you find yourself in the wilderness with your life under threat, with nothing to do but to trust that somehow God who made you speak will pull you through and nurture you for the next bit of your journey. Often in scripture these wilderness experiences are pictured as formative events, opening new levels of understanding and deepening the trust and faith of the prophet.
It doesnt make them any easier though!
On the run, with wilderness all around and not being a practiced bushman Elijah must have felt pretty desperate.
Some miracle needs to happen!
And it does. From a very unexpected quarter food is brought in. Tongue in cheek the biblical story teller comes up with an unexpected source of food for the prophet. Ravens were regarded as unclean, unfriendly robbers and thieves at the time. You never know where nurture will come from says the story, and a life with God means keeping the most implausible options open.
It is here where the painting connected to the story for me. As the painting the story is mapping out places of nurture that will make life in the wilderness possible and bearable.
God will not abandon those who will speak up on his behalf.
The episode with the ravens is only a reprieve though. Soon Elijah has to move on. And once again, for me, the story connected with the painting. The pattern suggests movement. It is not only this place where there is water and nurture, there are many others too, waiting to be discovered, waiting to contribute their bit to our wellbeing on the journey.
The stream dries up and Elijah finds himself once more in between. And again he is led to a place of nurture, again it is an unexpected place where hospitality is received and his life sustained.
A widow from Sidon is gathering wood for a last meal with her son. A foreigner, a widow, a single mother, she is at the very bottom of the heap.
"One more meal and well die".
This is what Ahabs politics have brought about, this is what his wealth and prosperity mean for the underclass of widows and orphans: hunger, poverty, and death. It will take another 3 years before Ahab starts feeling the crunch and then it is only his horses and cattle he is worried about. For her the time has already come, and because the commandments that would have protected her are no longer observed, there is nothing but to lay her head down and die.
However, although she is poor and a foreigner, she observes Gods commandments and lives by them. Tired and defeated as she is, she cares for others. She brings Elijah some of the precious water she has still access to and shares her last little bit of oil and flour with the prophet. For her hospitality and care are more important than even her own or her sons well being. It is often like that: through the other, the stranger, the foreigner Israel is shown how it should live and what should be important in their lives.
The prophet finds another place of nurture and the sharing and caring of this poor widow initiates a relationship where food and water flow and the wilderness is changed from a place of death into a place of life. A small oasis.
Then the pattern repeats itself again and for the third time Elijah finds himself confronted with wilderness and death. The son of the widow dies. The life of the small, life giving community is disrupted by wilderness forcing its way into a place where love and care seemed to have put limits on it before.
And wasnt that what the message of the story was? Wasnt that supposed to be the deal? Where people dont live by Gods commandments wilderness and death will ensue. But where people share and care for each other it will be held at bay.
Now Elijah does what only prophets can do: He gets up and confronts the Lord. Livid he is and he shows it! Have you now become like Ahab God? Dont you care? I thought you were the protector and safe keeper of the vulnerable and the poor!
Then he throws himself on the bed on top of the child and starts, as Jean Allison told me last week, the first documented example of mouth to mouth.
I dont know if it was that. I dont know what brought the boy back to life either. I dont know if it ever really, historically happened that way. And again, I dont think it matters that much: what the story tells us is that where people share and face hardship together, where they grow into one and a close relationship with God is maintained, death and despair cant ever win.
It doesnt mean we can go to the hospital and pray someone back to life if we were only as pious and deeply connected to God as Elijah. What it does mean is that where we hold on to each other and to God in the face of death and despair God will not desert us and bread of life and living water will be provided for us to feed on.
This is also what the story about the Samaritan woman is about: Finding nurture on the journey, finding life in the face of death. Both the woman and Jesus are in need and they are able to give to each other what the other needs. Water and life flow because they are prepared to enter into community and share of what they have to offer.
I think that is ultimately what the point of both stories this morning: where people share, where they live a godly life, where they love and care for each other, that is where, on the journey, we find places of nurture and life. That is where Gods presence takes shape. And that is where miracles happen, whatever other powers or forces are at workd, however hopeless and dry the wilderness around may be. Where people know God and live according to his will any wilderness will turn into a place overflowing with life. Amen.