A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
June 30, 2013
1 Kings 19:1-15
Our text this morning picks up after quite an exciting story. Elijah takes on the prophets of Baal and Asherah, all 850 of them, and challenges them to a scene made for reality TV. Israeli Idol would be a good name for it, in more ways than one.
Because Israel is following false Gods. Remember that after Solomon’s rule, the united kingdom of Israel collapses. The Northern Tribes rebelled against the Davidic line and they become Israel in the divided kingdom. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin, in the South, become the nation of Judah.
Ahab is king of the Northern kingdom of Israel. His wife, Jezebel, is a foreigner. Their marriage was a political alliance to bring peace on the Phoenician border. And she brings with her some false Gods. Who must be appealing, because there are lots of prophets and the people seemed to flock to these false gods.
So the prophet Elijah shows up and is a thorn in the side of Ahab and Jezebel. They don’t like him at all. He’s trying to call the people back to the Lord. They’re trying to keep their political alliance together by promoting the worship of all of the gods.
And they want to kill Elijah. They’ve already killed over a hundred prophets of the Lord.
So, to our reality show, Israeli Idol.
I’ll let you read chapter 18 in your free time, but here are some highlights—Elijah challenges the prophets of the false gods to a show down. His God against them. He even stacks the deck in their favor. And then he mocks them. And then he crushes them. And then he has them all killed.
And then he flees while Ahab goes back and tells Jezebel what happened to all of her prophets, which is where our text today picks up.
Elijah knows all about the power of God. He’s just seen it in full and public display. But did you notice that in this text, he doesn’t seem to believe it? “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
I can’t decide if Elijah’s humanity here is horribly depressing or comforting.
I’d like to think that if only I could see God’s awesome acts of power, as Elijah did on Mt Carmel, that I’d have faith enough to spare. That’s all I really need, I think. Just one big miracle like the showdown with the false prophets and I’ll be good.
But just a few verses after his moment of triumph, when he wins Israeli Idol, Elijah is asking to die because he feels alone. He may not be afraid of false prophets, but he is certainly afraid of Jezebel. And, even though he has just seen God put on a resounding display, it doesn’t occur to him that the God who delivered him then will deliver him now.
We are like that too, of course. We see miracles all around us, even in our own lives. But then something happens, Jezebel comes making her threats, and we go blank. A crisis of confidence, that erases what we know to be true and replaces it with panic.
I don’t know why this happened to Elijah. I don’t know why it happens to us. You’d think that the signs and wonders he had seen would have been enough to sustain him. You’d think they’d be enough to always sustain us.
But, they don’t. Perhaps this text is a reminder to us that signs and wonders, like the show Elijah puts on before the prophets of Baal in the earlier chapter, are not what sustain faith.
Perhaps this text is a reminder to us that the voices of this world, the threats of Jezebel, are more than mere words. They are often scary enough to cause us to forget what we know to be true. They are often loud enough to drown out the cries of our faith.
Perhaps this text is our reminder not to become isolated, or else we’ll end up like Elijah, alone and huddled in a cave, crying “I alone am left”. When I read this passage, I confess that I tend to think Elijah is being a little melodramatic. “I alone am left! Woe is me!”
But maybe he really does feel that alone.
So cut off from other people and even from God that he feels that he alone is left.
One commentator on this passage said, “convinced of his unique status as the last remaining person of faith, Elijah’s primary temptation is to think that he has to go it alone, that it is all up to him. This illusion presents itself to us when our concepts of reality do not include the dynamic presence of God, which empowers us to trust in the resources of divine grace” (Trevor Eppehimer in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 3 , (WJK Press, KY 2010) page 150).
But no matter how alone Elijah feels, notice how God responds to Elijah’s crisis of confidence. After Elijah says, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors,” God’s angel replies with this: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
God does not tell Elijah to get over himself and quit being a whiner. God instead reminds Elijah to take care of himself. “Eat, or else the journey will be too much for you.” Before we can handle our crises of confidence, we have to take care of ourselves.
God will engage Elijah in a conversation, but not until he’s ready for it. “eat, or the journey will be too much for you”.
How does that look for you?
What does it look like, in your life, to eat so that you can be ready for the journey? I invite you to consider that question this week.
Because we have to eat, to feed ourselves, to nurture our bodies and souls before we can journey through the wilderness to listen for God. And some of you, I know, are very good at feeding others—providing either physical or spiritual nurture for your family, friends, and congregation. But I wonder more about our ability to feed ourselves. To accept help when it is offered, perhaps. To allow ourselves permission to feed ourselves before we offer food to others.
After Elijah eats, twice, he journeys for 40 days and nights and comes to a cave at Mt. Horeb.
And then God asks Elijah a question. It will be asked twice, just as Elijah is told to eat twice.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I love this question. It can mean so many things.
Why are you here as my prophet, Elijah?
Why are you here—40 days into the wilderness—and not somewhere else?
Why are you here feeling sorry for yourself?
Why are you alone and so far from others who could help you?
Why are you here—on this earth?
Elijah gives the same answer both times the question is asked. Here it is:
“I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Do you think he answers God’s question?
I’m not so sure he does. He reminds God, as if it is God who needs the reminder, that he has been very zealous on God’s behalf. He reminds God that the Israelites have been very naughty. And then he reminds God that he alone is left and people want to kill him.
But God seems to see the answer that is in Elijah’s reply—I’m isolated and alone and can’t remember the things that are important.
So then the Earth, Wind and Fire appear. Elijah is told to stand on the mountain as God passes by. But God wasn’t in the noise, destruction, chaos, tumult or flames. God was in the sheer silence that followed.
Elijah, despite his crisis of confidence, is able to recognize God when God appears. And, it seems likely to me, that the silence was not the place Elijah would have first been seeking God.
Because in the Biblical account, when God appears, God is in a burning bush, or a pillar of fire by night or dust by day. The word for God’s Spirit is the same word for wind. And perhaps we expect God to be flashy. To put on a show. To wow us with displays of grandeur. To be Earth, Wind, and Fire.
But here, for Elijah at his weakest moment, God is in the sheer silence.
Even in the midst of God’s sheer silence, however, Elijah can’t see his way out of the cave of isolation and fear. He gives God the same answer to God’s question of “why are you here?” But God offers Elijah grace, and gives him the answers he needs. Elijah is told to appoint Jehu king, and Jehu will clean up the political mess. And he is told to appoint Elisha as his successor. Elijah is not alone—on either the political or the spiritual front.
Through sheer silence, God calls him back to his purpose, answers the question God was asking him, and sends him back to work—fed, nourished, and equipped for the journey.
Thinking about this text has called to mind for me a quote by Corrie Ten Boom (Bome), a Dutch Christian and Holocaust survivor, who said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God”. I think that was what God was trying to get Elijah to see during the midst of his crisis of confidence.
As it was for Elijah, the future we can’t imagine can also be a scary place. We don’t know what the future holds.
There are voices all around us telling us to be afraid of just about everything, but the Queen Jezebels of this world are just speculating. The sounds of chaos, tumult, and fear are nothing compared to the sound of God’s sheer silence.
By definition, we can’t really know what our unknown futures will hold. But I invite you to spend some time this week pondering what feels unknown and uncertain for you right now. Might there be changes ahead at work or at school? Are there health issues leaving you feeling exhausted and alone?
I don’t know what it is for you, but I do know that the cacophony of earthquake, wind, and fire can sound authoritative. We want to believe the loudest or flashiest answer is the right one.
And silence can be scary, at least to this extrovert. There can be a distracting comfort in the noise around us. But perhaps we have to be willing to be in silence in order to find God.
One of the big gifts of this community, for me, is to know we are walking into that unknown future with a known God, and doing it together.
The God who has provided for us in the past, who is reminding us to eat and be fed right now, and who is laying out the plans that will guide us through the future. May we learn to be comfortable listening for God—whether it is in the chaos and tumult or in the sheer silence.
Friends, never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God. Amen.