Come home to Calvary
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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, a prophet-off, if you will. 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. Miracles are 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 us. There is a lot of grief and loss in our world too. We’ve now passed 750,000 dead from Covid in this country, plus the ones we loved who’ve died from cancer, disease, and other causes. When we don’t allow our grief and loss to be at the front of our story, we feel isolated, cut off from people who could help us. I alone am left.
This week, I received some sad news a few minutes before I was to lead a session meeting. And I thought, in typical Marci fashion, “I’ll be fine. I’ll just power through. I don’t have time to be sad right now. I’ll feel sad later.” Those who were on the zoom call know that’s not how it worked. I started to cry and then told people what had happened. And they were able to care for me as I led a very mediocre meeting. But at the end of the meeting, as I closed us in prayer, and could barely find the words to pray, it occurred to me as I was praying, that there were 20 other people on the call who could and would have prayed, if I had just asked them. And it would have been a coherent prayer. I alone am left. I really am feeling personally attacked by this scripture passage. I like it a lot better when it convicts you than when it convicts me.
In bible study this week, while looking at this passage, my friend and I noticed that when Elijah tells God he is feeling alone, God sends him 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. Pandemic shutdown was hard on the extroverts. It’s changing a little for me as I get older. I’m more inclined to decide a day spent by myself is not some sort of divine punishment, but might be a reward. Even so, the idea of being sent into 40 more days of isolation when I already felt alone? I don’t like that plan. And I think many people are afraid of the silence of their own thoughts because maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll find there. Will the inner critic be so loud we can’t drown them out? Will our fears be revealed to be true?
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 covid disruption, 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 Ahabs 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 laser light shows and displays of grandeur—like God had just done in the prophet—off for Elijah in the previous chapter. We want God to be Earth, Wind, and Fire. For Elijah at his weakest moment, God is in the absence of noise, 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, God gives Elijah answers to the question God was asking him, and sends him back to work—fed, nourished, and equipped for the journey. It occurred to me this week that even though the answers are the same words, I wonder if the subtext under the words is different at the beginning than it is at the end. If I were directing Elijah in a play, I would have him read the first answer in his most whiny and pathetic voice. “I alone am left. Woe is me” But the second time, after 40 days and nights of being alone, I’d direct him to answer it with the weight of it. “I. Alone. Am. Left”. Elijah had been doing it all himself. He didn’t take a committee to battle the false prophets. And hadn’t been taking care of himself. And he was distracted by the noise of earthquakes, wind, and fire. And he forgot who he was, and whose he was. At first he was whining because he was alone and scared and jangly, in need of a nap and a snack. The second time he answers God, I think he was aware that he had isolated himself in the wrong ways, aware the sounds and distractions of the world had gotten in his way.
Thinking about this text has called to mind for me a quote by Corrie Ten Boom, 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 Ahabs and 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. How is it with your soul these days? As I’ve already confessed, I am more like Elijah at the beginning of this story than I wish I were. I tend to go it alone, and power through until I collapse in a pathetic heap, desperate for a cookie and a hug. One thing I do that helps me is to sit in the morning when I wake up, for 20 minutes of contemplative, centering prayer. Sometimes that 20 minutes feels like it is 4 hours long and some days I struggle to let my thoughts go through my mind without having to latch on to every single one of them. But I find that when I give myself that time each day, where I leave my to do list and the earthquakes, wind, and fires of my email inbox and the distractions of my phone, then I am more likely to find the absence of noise where God’s presence is. We’re told that Elijah ‘heard’ the silence, which seems an odd way to describe it. He heard an absence of sound. It made me think of going back home after my father died and realizing, because of his absence, how big of a presence he was in my life and in our family’s life. It felt like a film negative, seeing him more clearly when he wasn’t there, the empty space where he had been.
Centering prayer helps me “hear” the silence where God might speak. It slows my life and my brain down enough to filter out the noise and chaos and hear the silence. It’s not that God speaks to me during that time in a voice I can hear, but when I take the time to sit in silence, I hear God’s voice throughout the rest of my day in my interactions with people, and by noticing the beauty of God’s created world, all because it slows me down enough to be able to be present enough to notice all those things. And we’re going to try it. Right now. Not for 20 minutes. But for a few minutes. I invite you to uncross and unclench whatever you’re holding on to. Get as comfortable as you can be in 150 year old church pews. Close your eyes and in the silence, observe your thoughts without latching on to them. I like to picture myself standing on a bridge and my thoughts are the river rushing by. I can’t stop myself from having the thoughts, but when I catch one of the shiny thoughts as they go past, I release it back into the stream. Don’t judge yourself or your thoughts or the noises you may hear around you. Just observe. Notice your breath. Breathe in God’s love. Breathe out God’s love for the world. I promise I won’t leave you in silence forever. We’ll start now.
What did you notice in the silence? That’s your assignment this week. I noticed how much support and love I felt from a room of silent people. We are walking into an 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.
1 Kings 19:1-18
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”