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Elisha and Derrida

November 25th, 2004 by isaac · No Comments

My friend Drew asked me how Jacques Derrida has affected my theological thinking. Well, there are a lot of things I could say, but I thought it would be more interesting if I posted a sermon I gave this past summer while I was reading a lot of Derrida. I guess the sermon might be a derridian reading of Elisha…maybe. It might be better just to say that I was thinking a lot about Derrida as I read the texts assigned for me to preach. If you think it is a bogus reading of the texts, shoot me an email so we can talk about it (isv2@duke.edu).
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Title: God’s Shattering Silence and Our Desire for Power
Author: Isaac
Date: June, 2004
Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 19:15-21; Luke 9:51-62.

Our story from Kings comes after an incredible account of Elijah and God’s victory over Baal and the prophets at Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs.18:16ff). God proved more powerful than Baal by igniting the offered sacrifice when Baal couldn’t. Then, Elijah commanded the gathered people to massacre all the prophets of Baal. When Jezebel (King Ahab’s wife) hears the news that Elijah killed all her Baal prophets, she threatens his life and Elijah flees to the wilderness, the lonely place outside of the King’s dominion. There he receives food from the Lord’s angel and makes his way to Mount Horeb—also known as Mount Sinai—, a location whose name floods the reader with a rich history of God?s encounters with Israel (think Moses and the 10 commandments). Our text this evening brings us to this mountain where we find the Lord telling Elijah how to continue the battle against Baalism.

Now, what about this Baalism? What does it means to worship Baal, and why is it a threat to fidelity to the God of Israel? In Israel’s scripture, the writers use the title ‘Baal’ to describe the gods of the Canaanites, Philistines, and other neighbors. Baalism involved worship practices intended to manipulate the divine for your own prosperity or security. Baalist religion involved the self-centered management of the gifts of the creator. Worship rituals consisted of ecstatic practices that gave the worshiper a sense of participation in the divine. Baalism offered an entrancing sense of controlling the power of the deity. This religious system people gave people the ability to direct the course of nature. The mystery of life could be controlled by proper technique.

This understanding of deity shook the foundation of Israel’s relationship with the God revealed as the ‘I am,’ the ‘I will be who I will be,’—the God who refuses the people to use the divine name as a possession, a magical word for incantations, as a tool to get what you want (Ex.3:14). Elijah’s arch-enemies king Ahab and his Canaanite wife Jezebel represent the seductive threat of painting faithful Israelite religion in a Baalist hue. Their marriage partnership demonstrates the political power of Baalism; it embodies the wedding together of Canaanite Baal worship with the worship of Israel’s Lord. And this marriage of religions is not separated from powerful political and economic strategies—after all Jezebel is the daughter of the king of Tyre, a major trading city on the coast of the Mediterranean. Baalism also shaped how you treated other human beings. If you could manipulate God for your benefit, what’s to stop you from manipulating your neighbor for your own ends? Ahab and Jezebel turned out to be a ruthless pair, stopping at nothing to get their way. They produce the ultimate state religion: the construction of a god who is at the disposal of their power politics.

But Elijah shows us a radical alternative to Ahab and Jezebel’s Baalist infused Israelite religion. Elijah flees the territory under the kingship’s control and escapes to the wilderness, the wild land where chaos and loneliness reign (I Kgs.19:3-5). That wilderness brings to mind the 40 years of Israel’s wandering, years over which Israel had no control. While Israel wandered in the wilderness, they had no land of their own, no way to feed themselves. Israel would have faded away had not God provided manna from heaven. Elijah goes to this place and abandons himself to the chaos, to the uncontrollability of life. As he faced the possibility of his death in the wilderness—in this moment of total abandonment, of radical dispossession—God sends an angel to feed Elijah. Instead of treating nature and God as objects for his own ends (like Ahab and Jezebel did), Elijah refuses to play god and accepts the reality of his createdness, his utter dependence on God for life.

As Elijah surrenders control of his destiny and opens himself up to the unexpected, he exposes himself to the threatening intrusion of the God who refuses to be controlled. The writer makes it clear that this God, the God of Israel, is not located in the storm—this image of fertility—like Baal is. The passage right before our assigned text reads, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (I Kgs.19:11-12). This God refuses to be located in the storm and manipulated by the worship rituals of Baalism. God speaks in silence, not in thunder—a deafening silence that unsettles us, that leaves us waiting, that teaches us to wait for the unexpected, that explodes our attempt to master communication; it explodes the predictability of language—that is, our ability to use discourse to overpower, to get our way. The silence shatters our illusion of control and teaches us that we are dependent on the Word of God—not the ecstasy of divine experience, but the Holy Spirit who guides us. That silence asks, “Can you approach that frontier of the unexpected, the insecure, the impossible possibility, the place where you can hear the silent word of God?”

In that moment of Elijah’s openness to the unexpected, the edge of the possible, he receives the command of the Lord: the hope of the future of Israel is God’s provision of a faithful remnant of 7,000 and a plan to wipe out the followers of Baal (I Kgs.19:16-18). God speaks to Elijah, “you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram and Jehu as king over Israel and Elisha as prophet in your place; and they will weed out Baalism in the land.” This divine plan involves risky politics?from the perspective of the Kingship, terrorist politics. Anointing new kings quickly makes enemies with the old ones who still have the armies.

Elisha accepts the invitation into this battle against Baal. Elijah assaults him with his mantle, and Elisha sacrifices his wealth of livestock and follows in the path of Elijah. In our passage from Luke, Jesus similarly invites others to abandon all they have to follow him and participate in his nomadic proclamation of the Kingdom of God. One difference between Elijah and Jesus is that Elijah tells Elisha to go home and take care of his business, while Jesus tells a possible follower to forget about his family responsibility (like burying a dead father, or even stopping at home to say goodbye?Lk.9:59-62). Jesus tells them to abandon everything and participate in his kingdom. Jesus seems always to up the ante. We learn from Elijah and Jesus that following the will of God requires giving up on self-provision (remember, “the son of man has nowhere to lie his head”—Lk.9:58) and utter reliance on the divine Word for our guidance, a vulnerable openness to the new paths of the Spirit spoken in the silence—the silence, remember, that shatters the limits of our expectations and delusions of control. Nobody knows where the Spirit will lead.

There seems to be another kind of danger when we talk about the power of God to unsettle us and invite us to participate in the unpredictable life of the kingdom of God. The text in Kings opens us up to consider the ambiguities of power when we read of Elijah’s strange behavior. Elijah unexpectedly assaults Elisha with his mantle. Then, it seems, he tries to take of (maybe to escape the consequences of his actions?). When Elisha catches up to him—he had to run, mind you—, Elijah says something quite bizarre. He says, “Go back. What have I done to you?” (I Kgs.19:20). Go back, What have I done to you? This doesn?t make any sense. What an absurd comment. Elijah knows full well what he did to him. He just invited Elisha to join him in his ministry. From this statement and peculiar behavior, it seems that Elijah thinks twice about anointing Elisha to take his prophetic place and wield the power of God’s word. What have I done to you, Elijah asks. I have fulfilled the command of God, but what have I done to you? You will have this power, and I know what this power is like. This power is dangerous because it can corrupt you. This power, which God wants you to use for his battle against Baal can easily shift from that end. Your selfishness and vengeful heart can easily use this power for ill. Even we, the prophets of God, are tempted by the seduction of Baalism. Even we want to use the power of God for our own ends. Even we desire to manipulate God for our desires. What have I done to you, Elijah asks. Have I given you a burden, a mantle, a calling, a sword, that you are not able to wield?

Those disciples in Luke who gave up all in order to walk with Jesus and participate in his kingdom-work show us most clearly this danger that God’s power poses. After the Samaritans refuse to show Jesus and his crew hospitality, James and John ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk.9:54). Just before this vengeful attempt to fire-bomb the Samaritan village, the disciples get in an argument over who among them is the greatest (who possesses the most kingdom power—Lk.9:46), then John gets upset over others (outsiders) who are using Jesus’ power to cast out demons (9:49); he doesn’t want to share his special access to power—the flow of Jesus’ power must be guarded by and for the insiders. It appears that those closest to Jesus, those who have access to the most divine power, are quick to use the power for revenge and violence—to use the power for the creation of insiders and outsiders, even creating an upper echelon of insiders among those on the inside (“who is the greatest?” they ask). They are quick to build boundaries for the flow of God?s power, human boundaries to direct the hand of God. Sadly, they seem to fall into the same temptation that Baalism offers: they try to manipulate the divine Spirit. That spirit-power is something they want to possess and use for their own ends.

But is it entirely their fault? I don’t think so. They learned it from reading their own Bible. They learned it from our friend Elisha. As I prepared for this sermon I read through some of the passages in 2 Kings that tell us the story of Elisha’s prophetic ministry. I found a certain ambiguity or ambivalence in the texts regarding the ministry of Elisha. We do find him doing some good work—like tying up loose ends that Elijah left undone—he anointed Jehu as king (2 Kgs.9:12-13). And we find him doing nice miracles like providing enough olive oil for a widow to live on (4:1-7). But the passage from Luke where the disciples desire to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans points me to a similar story from early in Elisha’s ministry. At the end of 2nd Kings 2, we read about some small boys who insult Elisha by calling him “baldy.” Now that he has the power of Elijah all to himself, he uses it to call 2 bears from the woods to kill 42 of the boys. The text ends there, abruptly, without any judgment or explanation. The story lies there inviting the readers, us, to make a call, to say something.

The disciples from Luke also know this story, and they make a call. They know that everyone is talking about their master Jesus like he is the new Elisha—if John the Baptist was the new Elijah, then Jesus was the new Elisha, or that’s at least how the people were talking. So that story from 2nd Kings provides them with a justifiable response to the Samaritans’ insult. Just like Elisha used the divine power to defend his honor against those kids who called him baldy, Jesus’ disciples want to defend their honor, and the honor of their Master, against the inhospitable Samaritans.

But Jesus rebukes them (and Elisha?), and I think invites us to question Elisha’s use (or, I should say, misuse) of the divine power. So here are some lessons I learned from questioning the disciples and Elisha with Jesus:

1) Power, even that power that comes from God, can be abstracted from the purpose for which it was given. Elisha is to take the place of Elijah in his battle against Baalism. Well, I find it odd that Elisha never confronts followers of Baal in his public ministry. I couldn’t find a single passage that attempts to make any connection between Baal and Elisha. Instead of using the divine power to battle Baal, he kills some kids when they make fun of him. Does Elisha fall into the same trap of Baalism?—the use of the divine power for his own ends? And if so—if the disciples and Elisha fall to Baalism—how do we know if we are immune?

I am reminded of our friend Peter’s experience in Ethiopia with the Mennonite church. He went to Ethiopia to study his heroes. Those Mennonites endured hardship, despite all odds, and sustained a viable church community that glorified God. But when he went over there he was disappointed to see that they had fallen for their desire for power—to be “the greatest in the Kingdom” over against insiders and outsiders. They wanted to possess the power and they did, and it ultimately killed their witness. How do we resist this danger, this temptation? How do we live in the power of the Holy Spirit without trying to control it? How do we live in the truth that we don’t possess God, God possesses us?

2) Given our tendency, as those same disciples in Luke, and that same Elisha, to use the power of God gives for our purposes, how can we resist? How can we resist our tendency to selfishly possess the Spirit of God to the exclusion of others? How can we resist our predisposition to predetermine where others fall on our demarcated grid—the lines that distinguish the “insiders” from the “outsiders,” those who are allowed to use the power of God and those who aren’t? How can we resist the tendency of power to consume us and make us into ruthless, power hungry disciples (or worse, Ahabs and Jezebels)? What kind of practices do we need in order to resist our tendency to close off the possibility that God can work through the outsider—this unexpected possibility that confronts us at the frontier of our imagination when we permit the sheer silence of God’s speech to shatter our conceptions of the possible? And how do we encounter strangers without consuming them with “holy” fire or trying to distill from them their difference so they can fit in with us? (I think the Samaritans are a perfect example here. They make explicit the implicit fact that all of us are not “pure” [monogeneous]; they are, after all, ethno-religious half breeds. Through them, God presents us with our own “otherness.”) How do we create space in which the Holy Spirit can work to show us possibilities that we cannot see on our own?

These are important questions that we must ask in order to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as “good” and “news”—that is, those who hear it must hear it as “good” and “news.” But, we can’t let the weight of these questions keep us from doing our job—that is, witnessing to the life of the kingdom of the Son in which we participate. Despite our fumbling around trying to figure out how to be faithful, we must not stop witnessing. The disciples in Luke look like quite the batch of fumblers. But what is remarkable to me is that right after Jesus rebukes them for completely missing what the Kingdom is all about by asking to destroy the Samaritans, he “sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he intended to go” (Lk.10:1). Jesus entrusts these blundering followers with the proclamation of the Gospel. He puts his mission on the line by sending these disciples ahead of him to prepare the way for the Son. Our Christ risks his very identity by commissioning us as his body.

As we try to be faithful in our discipleship of the Lamb that was slain, we must live at that tenuous position where the confidence that comes with knowing God?s commission (our “chosenness”) intersects with the fear and trembling that comes with realizing our fallibility and corruptibility. That place of fragility may be the place where we can hear the shattering silence of God’s voice, the voice we may hear when we approach to frontier of our possibilities—our radical dispossession of human predeterminations.

Tags: sermons