What We Know in the Silence

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

1 Kings 19:1-18

Nov 5, 2017

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.

Israel has been following false Gods. After Solomon’s rule, the united kingdom of Israel collapses, in part because of the bills from building the temple. 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. 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.

God’s 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 their gods. He even stacks the deck in their favor. And then he mocks them. Then he crushes them. Then he kills them all.

Elijah 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.
And yet.

“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. 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. And 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.

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 sound of our faith.

This story catches Elijah when he feels completely alone. Totally isolated. So cut off from other people and maybe even from God that he feels he alone is left. He had also just killed 850 prophets of Ba’al and Asherah. It is possible to imagine how that could make you feel alone and cut off, no matter how much you felt you had done the right thing. Taking human lives is not a trivial matter.

Jezebel had also killed hundreds of God’s prophets, Elijah’s colleagues, some of them were probably his friends from seminary and presbytery meetings. There is a lot of death in the background of this text, and when we don’t allow our grief and loss to be at the front of our story when it needs to be, we feel isolated, cut off from people who could help.

I alone am left.

In bible study this week, while looking at this passage, my friend and I noticed that when Elijah is feeling alone, he is first sent out into the wilderness for 40 more days of being alone.

I’m a person who prefers being ‘in the mix’, and with people, far more than I want to be alone, with only myself for company. Even when I have to do solitary work, such as writing sermons, I do better in the middle of a loud coffee shop than I do in the sheer silence of my empty house. That is changing some, the older (and wiser?) I get. I’m more inclined to decide a day spent by myself is not some sort of divine punishment, but might be a reward. Either I’m becoming more misanthropic, or, more likely, I’m more comfortable with the sound of my own thoughts.

Even so, the idea of being sent into 40 more days of isolation when I already felt alone? I don’t like that plan.

I wonder what God needed Elijah to know, to come to understand, when he was feeling alone. What was it Elijah needed 40 days and 40 nights by himself in the wilderness to work out?

It gets me twitchy, all of this time in the wilderness, left alone with my own thoughts. In truth, even when I’m by myself, I rarely feel alone. I can text my friends, call someone. I can be distracted by the earthquakes of pending war with North Korea, or the wind of whatever is coming out of Washington, or the fires of personal conflicts or stress.

God draws Elijah away from the tumult and the noise of Jezebel and Ahab and toward the mountain of God. And, after a 40 day journey, he reaches the mountain of God where Moses saw God pass by, and 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.

The text says, “the Lord was not in the earthquake”, or the wind, or the fire.

I don’t think that means God is absent from the earthquakes, wind, and fire that disrupt and trouble our lives. We believe there is nothing in life or in death that could separate us from the love of God.

I wonder if it suggests that if we really want to find God, we can’t get distracted by the actions of politicians and Jezebels, the destruction of human violence, and reach the conclusion that all of the destruction they cause is what God intends.

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. In the Biblical account, when God appears, God is usually in a burning bush, or a pillar of fire by night or pillar of 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—like God had just done in the prophet—off for Elijah in the previous chapter. To be Earth, Wind, and Fire.

For Elijah at his weakest moment, God is in the sheer silence, asking:

“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.”

I’m not convinced Elijah answers God’s question, yet God seems to see the answer that is hidden in Elijah’s reply—I’m isolated and alone and can’t remember the things that are important.

God offers Elijah grace, and gives him the answers he needs. Elijah is given some concrete tasks, he’s 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 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. Because we are walking into that unknown future with a known God. The God who has provided for us in the past, 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.

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