Sermon, Remembrance Sunday, Nov. 5th, 2016 “He got up and fled for his life” I Kings 19 vs. 1-18
Throughout this past week an American soldier has featured prominently in the news. His is an exceptional story for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deserted his post during his time in the continuing war in Afghanistan. In the midst of the battleground he went off by himself, was captured by the Haqqani terrorist group, and during the five years that his military colleagues sought to find and release him several of those same colleagues suffered horrific wounds that have changed their lives forever. Sgt. Bergdahl claims that he left his post to go to his commanding officer to express his concerns about how the war was being managed. Sgt. Bergdahl has been released, charged and has pled guilty to the charge of “desertion before the enemy.” Psychologists now say he should never have passed the entrance exams for admission to the military in the first place. However, soldiers were in desperate demand as the United States fought both the war on Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. In what I think is an amazing testament to the impact of individual actions on so many, Sgt Bergdahl’s investigating officer, a Lt-General Dahl, and even those who were left maimed as a result of injuries received while trying to rescue him, have, with time, each come to the conclusion that yes, some form of retribution is due, yet what form really makes sense as an outcome of war? One navy seal, who had been shot in the leg, and upon returning home went into depression and suffered through alcohol and drug abuse said: “My need for vengeance has gone from ‘I would like to kill him’ to ‘he should go to jail forever’, to where I’m now at, which is far more peaceful…and ‘having spoken to others who are aware of more of the details of his walking off…his treatment and torture while captured…(and now feel) that to be dishonorably discharged is enough.”
I think it probably takes someone who was there to even begin to understand what causes someone to desert their post and to cause such loss to their fellow combatants. That Bergdahl represents a miniscule part of the members of any armed service is a miracle. I have never been to war and will never be sent to war as a person too young, too unprepared and perhaps even too unfit to find myself alone at night ordered to defend my post in a war that I believed was being mismanaged. The things we ask of our young women and men in military service are unimaginable. It is no wonder that when they return home so many do not wish to speak of their experiences. War is not for the faint of heart and those who wish to glorify war I suspect have never stood at that lonely post in the darkest of nights. Yet there are immense lessons to be learned from war and it begins by honouring those who were there—in the Army’s trenches on the battlefields, in the Navy’s ships on the seas, and in the Air Force’s planes in the air. Nought only did they engage in battle to preserve the freedoms we enjoy, they have continued to bring a perspective on life that the majority of us will never know, namely the ability to stand in the face of overwhelming fear and do what is asked of you.
Elijah, having won his war, according to Scripture “…got up and fled for his life.” There could be no doubt about his bravery having been in conflict with Ahab, Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, each of whom threatened the way of life of for the Hebrew people. Elijah fought the battle, won, and then fled for his life out of fear of the death threat issued by Jezebel. Was he any less a king for fleeing? Was the victory which ensured that his people could continue to worship who they had accepted as their one true God lessened by his action? I think Elijah’s flight offers us some insight into what do we do when the battle is won, lost, or simply just ended. There have always been wars and those who were enemies often become allies and vice versa. War may guarantee us freedom but I am convinced that it is not freedom from but freedom for. Freedom for building, even re-building, a future that has yet to be defined fully. As Christians we believe that it is freedom for ushering in the kingdom of God but to do that we must ask ourselves the same question that was asked of Elijah in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where Moses saw God, and that question was this: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” What are you doing here George? What are you doing here Ruth? What are you and you over there, what are you doing here? Elijah had an extreme zeal for the Lord, but Israel, God’s people, had abandoned God’s covenant, had destroyed God’s altars, and even killed God’s prophets. No wonder the word of the Lord to Elijah was what are you doing here!
God asked that question of Elijah several times…it was not a casual question. God revealed himself to Elijah in the wind, through an earthquake, and even in fire and after all that “a sound of sheer silence”. The Hebrew word says it was a soft and quiet voice or sound, what the older King James version named “the still small voice” of God. After the din of battle and the violence of the elements comes a sound of sheer silence and the soft, quiet voice of God. When it was all over Elijah felt alone and without hope. With our modern media we are more aware than ever of the loneliness of so many who return from our modern wars and that many face lives that are painful and without a sense of direction or hope. God’s not uncaring, but firm, response to Elijah is that there is much work left to be done. Lawrence Farris has written: “Remarkably, it is neither the experience of God’s dramatic nor quiet presence, for which many so long in the midst of such feelings, but in attending to the work at hand and needing to be done through which life is renewed.”
Elijah was asked to do three things: to embark on yet one more risky trip from the extreme south, Mt. Horeb, to the extreme north, Damascus…all the while with Jezebel seeking him out. Secondly, in Damascus he is to anoint a new king over Israel…an Aramean, not a Jew, who will overthrow Baal worship along with Ahab and Jezebel in an incredibly violent and bloody way. Finally, and perhaps most painfully, Elijah is to replace himself with a new prophet, Elisha. After all that Elijah had done his days were over. Elijah was not being punished it was just time for new leadership and a new direction. God had found 7,000 people who had not fallen to the worship of Baal and they would become, under Elisha, the new Israel.
There will always be, thank God, those who continue to worship the God who is faithful to God’s covenant with God’s people even if the people themselves are not faithful to the covenant. There will always be, thank God, those who are willing to defend the freedoms and peace that God offers to God’s people after every time of violence on the battlefield or in nature. There will always be a time of profound silence when without fear or rancour we too can dare to stand before the question: “What are you doing here?” and respond as a person of God, loved unconditionally, called unreservedly one of God’s own. Did any war to end all wars ever achieve such a noble purpose? No. Yet they did achieve, and continue to achieve, over the long arc of history, awareness that peace is possible. Such peace is not the absence of war, sadly wars continue to be fought, but the presence of hope…hope in our loneliness, hope in our anxious moments, hope for our future even in generations still to be born, and hope that in the fullness of time we will, as with Elijah, hear that voice of God calling us ever forward to that more peaceable kingdom.
One of our veterans, Lorne Van Vliet, will help us to put all this in perspective…