The joy of not being God 

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 19.1-15

Psalm 42

Galatians 3.10-14, 23-29

Luke 8.26-39

19 June 2022

The joy of not being God                                                              ©Suzanne Grimmett

“It’s not necessary that you believe in God.

What’s necessary is that you know you are not God.”

This is a quote from an unknown pastor to an Alcoholics Anonymous group. It strikes me as a powerful and foundational statement, deceptive in its simplicity. So much so that I was tempted to simply sit down again after delivering it, but I probably do need to trace the connections to this morning’s readings, and why I think it is not a controversial statement but a lifegiving one.

It would be hard to find a character in scripture who appears to be have more god-like powers than Elijah. The passage we have today really needs the context of what has gone before if we are to understand the main point. In the previous chapter, Elijah has brought religious tensions to a showdown between YHWH, the God of Israel, and the storm god, Baal. Faced with 450 prophets of Baal who fail to invoke any action from their deity, Elijah calls on the Lord who sends fire from heaven, consuming the offering on the altar in a spectacular display of divine power. Elijah then calls the people to seize the prophets of Baal and kill them all.

Given the power the prophet has accessed, and the violent victory enacted, it seems strange then that the story we hear today of Queen Jezebel’s threats of revenge is enough to send Elijah fleeing to the wilderness. Elijah the mighty is now afraid. We can conjecture as to why that is, but the outcome seems to be a feeling of great aloneness and a sense that the future of Israel is all down to him.  He flees to the wilderness, apparently convinced that he is the only one left standing from Israel. In this narrative, the faithlessness of Israel has led to the failure of Elijah’s mission, despite his zealotry for the Lord. Elijah, however, has at no time been left alone, with angels visiting to care for him not once but twice in his need. He arrives at Horeb, ‘the mount of God’, more commonly known as Mt Sinai, and before him there is a display of the cataclysmic kind that had been visited upon the prophets of Baal; wind, earthquake and fire. God is associated with such acts of might and fear of what is most powerful comes naturally to us. But this time, the awe-inspiring display of power around the cave is not the visitation of God. When God does appear, it is in the sound of sheer silence.

Perhaps Elijah can be forgiven for overestimating his importance in the scheme of things. He answers the question that arises from the divine silence with a repetition of his conviction that of all the faithful, he alone is left. Our own concerns can wrap us up so entirely that we cannot see outside them to imagine a different way. In our self-sufficiency, we exclude the possibilities of the presence and action of a God of grace who would rescue us from the loneliness of our own self-importance. Elijah is to learn that he is not alone with the enormity of the task, as God works also through historic and political processes and through other human lives surrendered to the mercy of God.

Of course, it isn’t our self, but the identities which we attach to ourselves which can keep us playing God. St Paul would tell us that all of these other attachments to identity- whether they be cultural or race or class or gender- are as nothing before the identity which we now have hidden in Christ and through whom we are reconciled to one another. While we cling to identities that separate us from one another, we are imprisoned by the spirit which would judge and divide. The Holy Spirit will ever prompt us into becoming a community of lived-out grace.

The challenge is to live into the truth that it is no longer the self that lives -with all its political and ideological loyalties and desire for the safety of likeminded groups- but Christ who lives in us. It is this same Christ in whom there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but in whom we are all one through the mercy of God. This is as critical for how we be together as family, or as parish community as it will be for those of us attending Brisbane synod next weekend. We would do well before drawing up walls of exclusion and seeking out only people who look like us and think like us, to attend closely to the God who is revealed in Jesus; the one who ‘though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….’(Philippians 2:6-7a) This same Jesus, who warned us not to judge, himself proclaimed that he came not to judge but to save.

For there is great danger in creating outcasts and proclaiming judgement where there is no relationship. Judgement belongs to God because God’s judgement and God’s mercy are the same; God only and ever acts through relationship. Our objective judgements place us in the precarious position of putting ideology before people and playing at being the kind of god who would desert or punish, rather than the God revealed in Christ as humble, crucified love.

And anyway, how could we judge? Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes his growing awareness that the line separating good from evil passes not through states or classes or political parties or any of the other divisions humans are prone to make. He says;

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.[1]

This truth has not stopped humankind throughout history avoiding the darkness in their own hearts by seeking out an individual or group on whom to project evil and hidden malice. This scapegoating mechanism manifests in different ways, but serves the purposes of creating peace and unity within a community by projecting fear, evil and violence on to the other. It is the mechanism at work wherever belonging is created at the expense of another who is in any way different.

In today’s Gospel story we hear of the man possessed by demons who has been cast out by his community and kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles. He is fearsome, wild figure whose demons go by the name of Legion; a title that suggests the spirit of oppression present in the brutal occupation of this territory by Roman soldiers. This man represents in tortured behaviour, all that the community seeks to repress. When Jesus allows the demons to be sent into the herd of pigs who disappear over the cliff, the man is returned to wholeness, clothed and in his right mind sitting before Jesus.

The text tells us that rather than reacting with joy at the healing, the people are “seized with great fear”. Instead of being filled with awe and praise of God, they want Jesus out.

The wild demon-possessed man was the ‘other’ on to whom they could project all their fear and violence, anger and guilt. When their scapegoat is seen sitting clothed and healed at the feet of Jesus, the crowds are left facing their own demons. The social order has been disturbed by the restoration of this man to community, and the people are afraid. Scapegoating is a way of avoiding facing the evil of which we are all capable and resisting vulnerability to remain in control and self-sufficient. It is another mechanism for excluding the Spirit and playing God. If we think this is all hypothetical, we need only look at the way refugees who arrive by boat are demonized and the action of driving them away, celebrated. The divine answer to these patterns of violence is found in the peace of Jesus who willingly became the scapegoat, becoming as Paul says, ‘a curse for us’, that in Christ all may be healed and reconciled.

Anyone can believe in God, yet still be trying to ‘go it alone’. Many profess belief, but never risk the kind of vulnerability that would give up the power to judge and exclude. It takes a lot more to wake up every day and remind ourselves that we are not God and that our achievements, abilities, right judgements, or the success of our particular tribe are not what will save and heal us. It takes more still to humble ourselves to admit that we need the mercy of God and commit to living each day from this place of grace.

So may we know the healing of the Christ who liberates us from the need to be God that we may become the joyful children of God, resting in love and belonging and sent into our communities to offer that same freedom of forgiveness and peace.                                                              +Amen.

[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956