Behold the Handmaid of the Lord

Message for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (8/13/2023)

1 Kings 19:9-18


Your name doesn’t have to be in the Bible to be acknowledged as a saint on the church calendar. We’re all saints, in fact, by virtue of God’s gathering us into this communion by God’s grace; regardless of our achievements or renown, we’re all beloved in God’s sight. Occasionally, however, a particular saint practices the faith in such a way or at such a time and place as to be officially venerated by the church. And, it’s not just a ceremonial gesture. On a saint’s feast day, we get the chance to remember their example: What do they have to teach us about faithfulness in our context? Have they made errors we can correct?

Today, August 13th, the church commemorates Florence Nightingale, Renewer of Society (1910). You’ve likely heard of her, or at least of her legend. Nightingale is widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing, having won her fame as a tireless care provider and reformer of sanitary conditions at the British military hospital where she served during the Crimean War of 1853-56. She was well known for roaming the halls late into the night tending to sick and wounded soldiers. “When all the medical officers have retired for the night,” reported The Times newspaper in 1855, “and silence and darkness have settled down upon these miles of prostrate sick, [Nightingale] may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.”[1] Accounts like these spread across Britain, earning her the nicknames “the Lady with the Lamp” and “the Angel of Crimea.”

After the war, Nightingale was surprised to return home to a hero’s welcome, and she went on to found a training school for nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. She was also celebrated for the statistical diagram she developed to convey the link between sanitary conditions and patient outcomes, making crucial healthcare data accessible to a wider audience.

These accomplishments came at a cost, however. Florence Nightingale was permanently hampered by infirmities that she developed as a result of her close contact with sick soldiers, and spent much of her life confined to bed. Even so, she advocated unceasingly for healthcare reform throughout her life. She died on August 13th, 1910, at the age of 90.

Of course, all saints are flawed, and Florence Nightingale was no exception. She was, for instance, an unyielding proponent of British colonialism, and held classically Eurocentric views. The imposition of European culture, to include European Christianity, did untold harm to Indigenous peoples around the world, and we should hold Nightingale and her contemporaries accountable for that harm.[2]

But, if her faith did not liberate her from a racist worldview, it did motivate her work on behalf of the sick. Florence Nightingale didn’t just happen to be a person of Christian faith; her faith was the decisive factor in her vocational discernment. As a child from a family of means and status in 19th-century Britain, she was not encouraged to pursue a career in nursing, which was assumed to be beneath her station. But, Nightingale defied her family’s expectations on account of a spiritual experience she had at age sixteen that she interpreted as a divine “call to service.” “Upon the cornerstone of faith in Jesus Christ,” she later reflected, “there is reared the superstructure of holy life and action; and a holy life is one which, from the impulse of love to God, is occupied with doing good to [humankind].” For Florence Nightingale, nursing would be the manner in which her love of God would find its expression in love of neighbor.

And, since she had responded to the call of God at such a young age, Nightingale felt a special affinity for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who also received such a call. She once wrote, “Mary said [to the Angel Gabriel], ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord,’ and so have I said in my youth.”[3]

In this way, both Mary and Florence Nightingale understood something of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God in our first reading from First Kings today. It’s the conclusion of the famous Hebrew Testament story of Elijah’s flight from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel through the wilderness to Mount Horeb. Elijah has recently won a great victory for God, calling down fire and slaying all the prophets of the false god, Baal, prophets who had curried favor with the queen.[4] But as a result, Jezebel, enraged, has vowed to kill Elijah, so he flees as far as he can, leaving his servant behind before he ventures out into the wilderness alone.[5]

Despairing, Elijah lies down to die, only to be revived by an angelic invitation to eat and rest. Then he makes his way into hiding in a cave on the mountain, which is where God finally meets him to call him back to his prophetic work. There is a rushing wind and a rattling earthquake and a raging fire, but God is not manifest in any of these, as we might expect. Instead, Elijah perceives God in “a sound of sheer silence.” Other translations render that phrase “a still small voice” or “a gentle whisper.” But despite these variations, the meaning is similar. Elijah’s heart is tuned to receive a “silent revelation;”[6] if he hears the voice of God, it’s “an inner voice with which he is already acquainted.”[7] That is to say, God’s call is not a clarion call, but a quiet urging, a soft-spoken yet clear declaration. And in receiving it, Elijah is inspired to meet his future with calm and confidence.

That sounds a lot like the experience of Florence Nightingale. The “still small voice” of God was the catalyst in her discernment, too; her life’s purpose was presented to her from on high, yet also decidedly from within. And, her mysterious encounter with God gave her the audacity to face a life of challenges in an effort to leave the world of healthcare better off than she found it.

Friends, how has God become known to you in your life? Maybe you have a story like Florence Nightingale’s; maybe you cherish the memory of a moment that made all the difference. Or, maybe you’ve relied on little revelations along the way, paying attention to a nudge here and a whisper there. Maybe you’re not sure exactly when or how God has encountered you, if at all. In any case, the promise today is that you don’t have to go it alone. Wherever you go, and whether or not you’re immediately aware of it, God will find ways to love and guide you, so that you continue to become the person God made you to be.


[2] See Natalie Stake-Doucet, “The Racist Lady with the Lamp,”

[3] Lynn McDonald, “Nightingale’s Spiritual Journey,”

[4] 1 Kings 18.

[5] 1 Kings 19:1-3.

[6] Stephanie Y. Mitchem, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 316.

[7] Michael H. Floyd, ibid. 319.

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