“Waiting for Elijah”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Mark 15. 33-41
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
A pastor got a call from a parishioner. She needed him to come over to her house right away. When the pastor arrived, she explained that her husband had just won a large lottery prize, millions. But he didn’t know it yet. She was worried that the shock might give him a heart attack as he was having heart issues. Was there a way, she asked, that he could talk to him and introduce the idea slowly so it would not come as a shock?
When the husband came home, he was surprised to find the pastor there, but took it to be a random visit. After some chit chat the pastor said, “So, do you ever play the lottery?” The husband said, “Crazy you should ask. I did buy my first ticket this week and it has been killing me. There are all these stories about how people who win big prizes end up with ruined lives. The money ruins their families and their friends get greedy. I have even lost sleep over this. I don’t want to ruin my family. So this morning, when I woke up, I had this thought. I made a decision that if by some strange chance I won, I wouldn’t keep the money. I would give it all to the church.”
The pastor was so shocked he had a heart attack and died.
That is not a true story. It’s a funny story, but not a true one. A true story happened many years ago. It was during a stewardship campaign. I invited a fellow Presbyterian pastor to give the keynote talk at a church dinner promoting our annual pledge campaign.
My friend started his talk by asking everyone in the room to take out their wallets. People were seated at round tables of eight. No one reached for their wallets. He said it again, “Really, take out your wallets.” Then he said, “Now, take your wallet and hand it to someone who is not your spouse at the table.” Again, he told the congregation, “I am not joking.”
There was dead silence in the room the type of silence where you hear a mouse pee on cotton. After the wallets were passed, he said, “Now, we are going to take an offering and I want you to give like you always wanted to give.” I will never forget the look on some people’s faces. Some were wild with excitement, other were pale with fear.
Then, he said, “Alright, I am not serious about the offering. You can relax. But I want you to remember that feeling you just had. The euphoria or the fear. I want you remember that and ask, what made you so excited about giving as you always wanted and what is it that made you so afraid about not being in control of money?”
I will never forget that moment. Not sure I would have the bravado to ask a congregation to pass their wallets, but I am convinced we must always be asking about our fear of money. There was something very true in the looks I saw that night. There were a lot of excited people; this was the moment they had been waiting for; or, this was the moment they had worried would come someday.
In our reading today from Mark there are a lot of angles we could explore. There is the great theological question of how and why Jesus could cry out to God as one abandoned and yet be God himself. There is the powerful question of what is it that made the centurion believe. Another angle is the darkness that prevailed upon the land the rending of the temple curtain. There are a lot of sermons here. Today though let’s consider Elijah, waiting for Elijah that is. Elijah is a question of waiting for the best day or waiting for the worst day.
Elijah was the prophet of prophets. He could fly, bring fire from the sky, make it rain. God came and dwelt with him like Moses; God sent a chariot to carry him to heaven so he would not experience death. Elijah is like Superman or a lesser god of mythology. He has power and yet vulnerability. Although unstoppable, he felt the keen weight of being alone, abandoned.
Elijah was carried to the sky and thus a living hope of generations that his return would bring justice, thwart bad kings, rout wicked priests, restore goodness to the land. Elijah was the miracle you hoped for, waited for; he was your last hope when hope was lost.
When Jesus hung upon the cross, dying, the people immediately thought, “Well, it is up to Elijah now. Only Elijah can help him.” So they say, “Give him sour wine”; this is to say, “Keep him alive a little longer and maybe we will see Elijah.”
Growing up in San Diego I know a thing or two about waiting for miracles. Every April began with a deep abiding hope that a miracle would happen this year and the Padres would go to the World Series. And then, the one year it happened, was the one year no one counted the World Series as it was the year of the baseball strike. I know about waiting for miracles.
You would think that with all the hospitals I have visited that I would encounter many pleas, many requests, many hopes for miracles. But such is far from the case. In the hospitals I find a deep sense of acceptance about the limits of life, the reality of life. I don’t hear calls for miracles.
In times of tragedy I believe we all cling to the strange wish that this is all a bad dream, a moment where we will wake up and all the bad is washed away. But that is not a desire for a miracle, simply desperation.
The miracles I encounter, or the hopes for a miracle I see most often, are two. One is like the Padres in the World Series. Only it is not about baseball. It is the new start, the new job, the new spouse, the new chapter of life. Somehow, miraculously, all the mistakes and limitations of life will no longer apply. All of sudden you will have abilities you didn’t have before, gifts unseen will be revealed, people will like you more. This is not a bad hope, a bad wish. And sometimes it comes true.
There is a legend about Thomas Edison. You’ve probably heard it. The story goes that the night his factory burnt to the ground Edison was nowhere to be found. People frantically looked for him. Finally his son found him wandering the smoldering ruins of his life’s work. Edison was quite old at this point and his son was very afraid what this loss would do to him. According to the legend, all Edison said to his son was this: “there are gone; all our mistakes are gone; we don’t need to make them anymore.”
There is a deep seeded need for the fresh start, the new day. Like the members of the church who greeted the arrival of their neighbor’s wallet as a moment of excitement. Now I can give how I always wanted to give. This is the moment when the ship comes in, the lottery win, the big break, the new day. There is a deep desire for this miracle in most people I meet.
The second desire for a miracle is about fear. The prayer here is that the bad day will not come; the danger will pass you by; the good you have will remain. So often this is seen in regard to money, or the potential lack thereof. We guard against the bad day with fear and caution and a need to control.
One of the great cruelties of our society is that before someone goes into skilled care like a nursing home, they must be bankrupt. All of a person’s assets must be depleted before Medicaid will pay for care. I can’t tell you how many people I have seen who grew up in the depression, lived with the looming fear of bankruptcy all their life, lived making sure it never happened, and then be told, the last portion of your life must be defined by poverty.
Like the members of the church when they saw their wallet in someone else’s hand and felt grave fear, so it is for many. And it is not just money, it’s control, and a sense of security, and deep need to feel there will always be more than enough. In this need for control, waiting for Elijah is waiting with the hope he never has to come. The idea of Elijah coming is the greatest fear because that means all is lost, the end has come. You never want to be down to your last hope.
Jesus told his disciples that Elijah had already come. He returned to the people as John the Baptist. Yet, like Jesus being the messiah, the return of Elijah did not match the hopes or fears of the people. Elijah didn’t fix all the problems, rescue all the people; he was not the end. Life was still life.
I believe this is why Elijah, and the hope or fear of him, is a part of the crucifixion. There is a part of us that can look at the cross as the fixing of all the problems. Jesus is our savior, our redeemer, our crucified Lord who rises from the dead and gives us eternal life. All problems are solved on the cross.
And there is a part of us that hopes Jesus died for us and now we don’t have to, Jesus sacrificed for us and now we are safe from that misery. His end is not the end.
What if your life, the life you hope for, has already begun? A life of freedom and generosity, what if this life is already at hand? That was the point my friend made so many years ago. You don’t need someone else’s wallet to live a generous life, to give as you always wanted to give. The fresh start, the new day, what if that is always today? Jesus told the crowd, don’t worry about tomorrow; don’t worry about what you will eat or wear. Don’t worry. The life of freedom from fear is here.
What if the control we seek is the misery we create? The fear about what will happen or having enough, what if this is the storm that destroys what is best in life?
I was given a great piece of advice from a friend who spent a large portion of his life raising money for a community foundation. He helped them raise many, many millions. He told me once, you need to understand, what I do is not about money. I am not asking people for money, I am asking them to be generous. He went on to explain the amount people give is not determined by their net worth; the amount people give is determined by their generosity. And then he said, there is no point in asking people to give money. Ask them to be generous, to live a generous life, the money will take care of itself.
Waiting for Elijah as the day the ship comes in, what if that is waiting for the moment when you can live a generous life? Finally having more than enough will allow you to give how you always wanted to give. Someday we will be generous. What if you don’t need to wait to be a generous person?
Waiting for Elijah as the day you dread, when you are down to your last hope, what if the fear of that day keeps us from generosity? Clinging tightly to money or control or stuff or people or a position, what if this control keeps freedom from us, robbing life of value?
I have heard many pastors say they dread the annual stewardship campaign and the sermons that go with it. They hate the idea of asking for money. I wish my friend was still alive and he could sit down with them like he did with me and explain, it’s not about money; it’s about generosity, opening the heart to life, a life lived in the freedom of graciousness, giving freely without fear.
What if that day, the new day, is today? What if Elijah has already come? Amen.
- Mark 8:27 - 32
- Mark 15:33 - 41