Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: The Prophet With John Wayne Syndrome

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 19, 2022, Pentecost 2C

Psalm 42; 1 Kings 19:1-16; Romans 11:1-6

The Prophet With John Wayne Syndrome

There is a type in American film, particularly but not exclusively found in the genre of the Western. The image is of the lone hero, trusted and revered six-shooter at his hip, who confronts the evil horde all on his own, winning the day in the name of truth or justice or whatever was seemingly under threat. Let’s be honest, many of those lone heroes were played by the likes of John Wayne, or maybe even more Clint Eastwood in later years: tough, taciturn, and unafraid of whatever level of violence was necessary to triumph. 

That type has of course spread out from the Western genre, and is found in cop shows or movies, superhero movies, and many other different kinds of action-adventure movies. Such characters also show up in various types of novels, comic books or graphic novels, and frankly a lot of different types of media consumed by an awful lot of readers or listeners or viewers. Just this weekend the animated feature film Lightyear, the one based on the character from the Toy Story movies, shows that lead character in exactly this light, determined that he is the only one who can “finish the mission” and make things right, and in the process tearing himself away from the community around him.

Though he lived innumerable centuries before anything Hollywood ever produced, the prophet Elijah seems sometimes to fall prey to the mindset of “going it alone.” He first shows up only back in Chapter 17, out of nowhere to announce to King Ahab that a drought would be upon the land for three years. In fact, even there it is not recorded that God spoke to Elijah until verse 2, after the prophet had made his announcement to the king. The drought does indeed come, and Elijah spends time in a remote place with a widow and her son, where a couple of miracles are involved. 

The events of today’s reading have their roots in the events of Chapter 18. Elijah took a simple command from God to announce the end of a drought and drew it out into an elaborate contest with the prophets of the false god Baal, culminating in the spectacular display of fire from heaven coming down and consuming all the waterlogged altars and soaked sacrifices. At the end of that episode Elijah had the 450 prophets of Baal gathered up and slaughtered. Keep in mind here that the only command God has given Elijah in this account at all was to announce the end of the drought to Ahab; even the great contest was not commanded by God as much as this scripture reads, much less killing all those Baal prophets.

Afterwards, as the prophesied rain approached, Elijah (apparently now possessed by the super-speed of the modern superhero The Flash) ran ahead of King Ahab’s fully equipped chariot to the town of Jezreel, serving then as the seat of power in Israel.

And that’s where today’s reading kicks off, with Ahab whining to his wife Jezebel about what Elijah had done, and Jezebel issuing (via messenger) a not too veiled threat to Elijah: what you did to my Baal prophets, I’m gonna do to you.

And Elijah, the man who had been sustained in the wilderness by ravens, who had seen God miraculously extend meal and oil for weeks for the widow and her son, who had challenged the Baal prophets and won, who had slaughtered all those prophets in triumph, humiliated the king … now, Elijah was scared and ran.

You can see the account of Elijah’s flight, falling asleep in despair only to be awakened, fed, and sent on his way (not once, but twice); arriving at Horeb the mount of God (in Exodus, that mountain was called Sinai), and repeating what almost sounds like a rehearsed, pre-packaged answer to God:

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.

Elijah says this two times. He says it first when he comes to the cave on Horeb the mount of God, and again after the progression described in verses 11-12; a great wind, a strong earthquake, and a mighty fire. All of these would have been recognizable signs of the presence of God throughout Hebrew scriptue, dating back as far as the Exodus and Moses’s time with God on this same mountain on which Elijah now stands. These happenings would seem to be a clear set-up, a deliberate echo of the past presence of God in this place. But no, in this case God was in none of those; only in the “sound of sheer silence” did Elijah discern the presence of the Lord.

So somehow, the bombast and tumult of the mountaintop display, not completely unlike the bombast and tumult Elijah himself had initiated back at Mount Carmel, somehow doesn’t seem to get through to Elijah, for afterwards when he is asked a second time “what are you doing here, Elijah?” he responds the exact same way as before:

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.

He doesn’t get it. Elijah doesn’t get it, so God has to hit him over the head with it if Elijah is ever going to get over his severe case of John Wayne Syndrome.

First of all, we the reader know that Elijah has been fundamentally incorrect all along – and this is where that Lightyear movie tracks with Elijah pretty well. Back in the first verses of chapter 18 we read of Obadiah, a servant in Ahab’s court who despite the threats of the royal family had secreted away a hundred prophets loyal to the Lord, hiding them in caves to thwart Jezebel’s plans to kill them. That’s at least a hundred and one examples of how Elijah was wrong when he claimed that “he alone was left,” and Elijah knows this because Obadiah told him to his face in 18:13. God then, in 19:18 just outside our reading, points to seven thousand loyal Israelites who have not bowed the knee to Baal, seven thousand faithful that God would preserve. Elijah had so obsessed on being the only one who could fix things that he had torn himself apart from any community at all.

But maybe the unkindest cut of all comes in verse 16. Not only was Elijah not the lone hero, but he wasn’t even irreplaceable. Another prophet would take his place, and it was Elijah’s job to go anoint him. If that’s not a direct slap in the face against Elijah’s pity party I don’t know what else it could be.

Now God still had work for Elijah to do, but God needed Elijah focused on God’s call to him, and not hung up on his self-obsessed and self-possessed despair or his need to be some kind of superhero or John Wayne or whatever. It’s not hard to extrapolate the lesson for us from such a story: this applies to us too.

It’s not uncommon for us to fall into that pit. Australian biblical scholar and pastor Howard Wallace points out that Elijah needs to be released from the zealousness and self-control that had ruled his previous service and learn that it was the word of the Lord, which sometimes did not speak in the wind or earthquake or fire, to which he needed to submit his prophetic witness. Sometimes it’s the silence that contains the word we await from the Spirit. 

Without that listening, we get crosswise with what God is calling us to do. We’re convinced it’s all up to “me”. No one else is going to step up, it’s all on our shoulders. Yes, it’s easy to slip into that particular quality of despair, but it can often be the worst place for a follower of Christ to end up, It can go either of two different ways, both disastrous and potentially destructive.

Six years ago I preached on this passage in the wake of the horrific murders of forty-nine patrons in a nightclub in Orlando patronized primarily by gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer persons (and primary a Latino/Latina audience on that particular night). That event happened only a few days from the first anniversary of another infamous shooting, of nine members of an African-American congregation in Charleston. It is seemingly impossible to keep up with how many mass shootings have taken place since then, with the shootings in Buffalo supermarket and the murders of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas only the latest and loudest. In the face of such horrific evil, it’s not hard to slip into that despair that no one is faithful anymore, no one will stand up and do what needs to be done. 

Of course, on the flip side of that “I alone am left” mentality is the misguided, vengeful would-be hero who takes up weapons to commit the murders, because he believes blacks are inferior or gets offended by the sight of two men kissing. “I alone am left” is not just a despairing place; it can be a pathway to acts of unspeakable evil. Elijah has already shown himself capable of grotesque violence in the throes of this mindset, commanding the slaughter of all those Baal prophets back in verse 18. Only the silence of God’s speaking seems to finally get through, even if not completely. 

We can’t go there. We (and the plural is important, we)  must not fall into that noisy mindset (which has nothing of God in it) that the problems of the world are ours to fix by any means necessary. We also can’t be the one who is paralyzed by grief and despair, unable to take up the work of God’s kingdom. We need to engage sometimes in the holy act of shutting up and listening and waiting. 

Listen, not just to the earthquake or the whirlwind or the fire. Listen to the silence. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #410, God is Calling Through the Whisper; #169, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

Comments are closed.