1 Kings 19:1-16
Elijah in the Wilderness
Today, in our last Sunday of Lent before we begin our Holy Week journey, we turn our attention to the prophet Elijah and his time in the wilderness. Elijah is kind of an enigmatic figure in the Bible. We don’t know very much about him. He just sort of starts appearing in the story in the midst of 1 Kings, ready to take on Ahab, King of Israel. Ahab is leading Israel astray. In fact, in Chapter 16 of 1 Kings we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him,” which is saying something, since the books of Kings recount a long line of kings who didn’t follow God. Ahab marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. And Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol-god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. Unlike some of the other prophets of the Bible, there is no book of Elijah. We don’t have any of his writings. But it is Elijah to whom Jesus and others refer, along with Moses, to symbolize the law and the prophets. His place in Israel’s history is hugely significant, even though he appears for just these few brief chapters in 1 Kings. Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation – Elijah verses hundreds of prophets of Baal. Through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. When Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die. Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his forty -day journey to the mount of God. He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “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.” God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
If our scripture today reminds you of some of the other texts we’ve been studying this Lent, that’s good – it should! Like Hagar, Elijah is fleeing from danger. Like Hagar, and like Jonah, who we talked about at our midweek Lenten study this week, Elijah ends up sitting under a tree, forlorn, feeling pretty sorry for himself. Like Moses, Elijah has been trying to lead people and be faithful to God and ends up feeling overwhelmed. Like Moses, Elijah heads to a mountain in the wilderness when he is seeking a word from God in the midst of his turmoil. In fact, it is the very same mountain, although we hear it called by different names. Elijah’s Mount Horeb and Moses’ Mount Sinai are one and the same. And for both Moses and Elijah, the mountain in the wilderness is a place where they encounter God, and find strength for the journey. Just as for Moses, the strength Elijah receives comes in the presence of God revealed. For Moses, he got to look on God’s back, to see where God had passed by. For Elijah, God comes in the silence.
Last week, when we celebrated the life of Lucy Brassard, her family asked that we include a period of silence during the burial. I’d never had anyone ask me for that before, but Lucy’s son Matt explained that having silent time with God was an important part of Lucy’s spiritual life. So as we laid Lucy to rest, we spent some time in silence, taking a break from words, quieting our spirits. I still remember with crisp clarity the power of God-filled silence I experienced one year at Camp Aldersgate. My youth group had gone to Aldersgate for a winter retreat weekend. It was a sunny day, and the whole camp was blanketed in snow. Our youth group, junior and senior high kids, we’d all gone for a walk in the woods behind one of the sections of cabins. My friends were goofing around, but I walked just a little farther, to a small boat launch on Brantingham Lake. The Lake was frozen over, covered in snow like everything else, and the sun was shining on the snow. And the silence was palpable. I felt God’s presence deeply, in the silence. I don’t remember a particular message from God, but I remember being filled with a sense of peace that I carried with me.
I sometimes long for that peaceful, God-filled silence. Early in my adult life, I developed a kind of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus. It’s when you hear a pulsing that seems to match your heartbeat in your ear. It is most noticeable at night, when everything is quiet, and suddenly the pulsing seems very, very loud. When it first started, my doctor had me go through all sorts of tests to rule out possible causes, and everything checked out. My hearing was fine, my blood was flowing fine, my brain was fine! Sometimes that happens with tinnitus. No identifiable cause. The solution was pretty simple: Nighttime is usually the only time that the pulsing bothers me, and so now, for years, I always sleep with a fan on. But I really miss being able to enjoy deep silence. It makes my heart a little sad to need some kind of noise. And it feels like a great big metaphor for our world, our lives, our society. It isn’t always easy to do: just be silent. Silence is powerful, and it can make us uncomfortable.
It’s like we can’t function without noise. Like we have to have a constant stream of chatter coming at us otherwise we’ll be left alone with our own thoughts, and we just can’t handle that. I wonder if we can hear God in the midst of the noise. People sometimes lament that God is silent, but Elijah’s experience tells us that God is sometimes speaking in the silence. But if we cover up the silence with our own noise, how will we hear? Part of the reason why we need wilderness time, why we have to intentionally take our spirits to risky, vulnerable places is so that we can find a space for God-laden silence.
Elijah makes his complaint to God twice. He says both before and after God’s revealing in the sheer silence: “I have been very zealous for you God, very passionate in my service to you. The Israelites have all turned away from you, and killed your prophets. And I’m the only prophet left, and they want to kill me too.” And from the silence, God answers Elijah. We hear the first part of God’s response in our reading today, but the sum of it is basically this: God says, “You don’t have it quite right, Elijah. There are in fact still thousands of faithful Israelites, who have never worshiped other Gods. And also, you aren’t the only prophet. There is a prophet named Elisha that you will name as the prophet in your place. And also, I still have work for you to do. Go, and appoint a new king in the place of Ahab.” I really love God’s response, and all the things God manages to say in a few short sentences. God lets Elijah know that in his fear, he’s not seeing things quite clearly. The situation seems completely bleak to Elijah, but God knows that it is not. God also doesn’t let Elijah off the hook. Even though Elijah says he’s done, God says, “Yes, but I’m not done with you.” And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone. I think this is both an encouragement to Elijah and a gentle chastisement. Sometimes when we’re trying so hard to follow God, and we feel discouraged and face setbacks, we become convinced that we are the only ones who are trying to do what is right in God’s eyes. God reminds Elijah, and reminds us, that there are others – both Israelites, and prophets like Elisha, who serve God too. Elijah isn’t alone, and if he can remember that, he won’t feel like he has nowhere left to turn, no hope. Elijah isn’t the only one in the wilderness. Neither are we.
I’ve mentioned before that I took a sabbatical year from pastoral ministry. Pastors are able to take time away from an appointment to a local church periodically for study, renewal, training, and reflection. I was finishing up a particularly challenging appointment to a local church, and I decided to apply for a sabbatical year. The thought of immediately heading to a new congregation to be the pastor, connecting to a new congregation, mustering the energy it would take to start fresh – it was overwhelming. I couldn’t do it. So I applied for a sabbatical year, intending to do some research, and explore the themes of charity and justice that are so important to me. But I will confess: I didn’t think I’d go back to a local church, to being a church pastor, after my year off. I felt like I had been worn down to nothing. I felt like I had nothing left to give as a pastor. I felt for the first time like maybe I was no longer called to ministry, or like the season of my call had ended. I’d had tough times before, but I’d never felt like that: like I was done being a pastor. But that’s how I was feeling when I applied for sabbatical. I don’t want to be overdramatic: everywhere I’ve served I’ve been blessed by wonderful parishioners. But something about this appointment just seemed to drain me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and I felt done. And I tried, really hard, with a lot of energy and dedication in the year that followed, to figure out a different way to serve God with my life other than being a pastor.
But the answer I got from God? Nope: You can serve me by being a pastor, just like I said. While I was on sabbatical, I kept serving as a pastor, which seems a little crazy. But I served there quarter time – just enough time to preach and do some pastoral care, really. But enough time to never really stop being a pastor. And in that time, that time when I insisted I didn’t have it in me to be a pastor anymore, God reminded me that I’d never stopped being one, and that my call was still my call, and that God wasn’t done with me yet. God set me in a congregation that I couldn’t help but grow to love, and I found myself as part of a meaningful covenant group of pastors who strengthened and encouraged me. God built up my spirit again during that time when I had a different rhythm of life and ministry, and helped me emerge from the wilderness refreshed and restored. God wasn’t done, I wasn’t done, and God had not left me alone.
Elijah says he’s done with being a prophet. Done, in fact, with living in the world altogether if it is a world where he’s going to be hunted down by angry rulers. But God comes to Elijah in the wilderness, not without compassion, but nonetheless, what God basically tells Elijah is: “Nope, you’re not done. But I will give you some bread for the journey, some life, some hope, so that you can make it through. And so Elijah finds himself with a full stomach, with a plan of action, with another prophet in Elisha who will become like a son to him, and with hope for the future.
When have you felt “done”? Maybe you feel like that right now! Like you can’t possibly continue on from here. Like everything hard that has come your way is just too much. I do believe that sometimes God is leading us in new directions, leading us to new things. But I promise this: God is not done with you, and God is not done with the work, the call, the mission, the journey that God has for you. So, get up and eat! Nourish your spirit, or the journey will be too much. Make sure you are letting God feed your soul. Make sure you aren’t ignoring what God sets before you to strengthen you. From the silence, God is speaking to you. Amen.