So we find out who holds the power in Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel. Imagine how he must have felt riding home, figuring out how best to tell his powerful, vindictive wife he’d been defeated. He tells her Elijah killed all of her prophets, and she’s filled with rage. She politely sends out a threat to kill Elijah within 24 hours. This was not the “Prophets Welcome” he may have been expecting. Afraid for his life, he flees about 100 miles to Beersheba. He leaves his servant, and walks a days journey into the wilderness…sitting under a broom tree, and asking God to take his life, and falling asleep in his exhaustion.
It’s not a story we hear often, and yet it’s a story many of us can connect with. In times where we feel like we’ve done everything God asks of us, and yet find the world still threatening our very lives. We can easily come to a point where we are tired. We are exhausted in our trying. We aren’t sure if what we’re doing for God is being effective. We know objectively that God is God, just as Elijah still obviously understands. And yet, even in knowing God is God, we look at our circumstances and are discouraged. Sin and the brokenness of our world press in on us from all sides. We feel like we are running away, just to stay alive. We feel like giving up. The burden of living for God has become too heavy, turning the ship around becomes too daunting of a task….the sinful world is much too large for my actions to make any difference in.
But notice God’s response to Elijah. It’s not chastisement, not anger, not sharp words of correction. It’s not a beautiful sunrise and a smiling puppy to say “Chin up, Elijah, good things are coming!”
It’s simply a messenger that touches him and says, “Get up and eat.” Elijah looks and there is freshly baked cake and water. (insert joke about angel food cake here) He eats and drinks, and lays down again. The angel returns and urges him, “get up and eat more, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” In that moment, it seems perhaps something inside Elijah snapped. The sadness, and discouragement he feels doesn’t make sense…why is everything failing….why am I still being fed by an Angel of the Lord in the midst of nothing working out?
He is desperate for God’s renewal, and energized by the meals provided by the angel, his marathon-runner comes out again. This time for 40 days and 40 nights, he covers hundreds of miles south, uphill the whole way. He decides to run back to the root of Gods story among His people…Mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, where God originally met with Moses and gave the law.
He comes to a cave in the Mountain, and decides to spend the night there. The word of the Lord came to Elijah, asking what he’s doing there. Finally, Elijah can say what’s been on his chest for weeks now…
“I’ve been desperate for you, God! For your people have continued to live like you’re not even there. They’ve gotten rid of your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to hunt me down and kill me as well!”
God tells Elijah to go out and stand on the Mountain, as the Lord is about to pass by.
Awesome. This is going to be great, right? So far Elijah has seen miracle after miracle. He’s experienced God’s protection in supernatural ways. He was fed by an angel to give him energy to arrive at just this location…the place where God gave Moses the 10 commandments, the place where a bush was blazing with God’s presence…surely whatever comes next is going to be incredible….
So from the cave, Elijah waits on God to arrive.
There was a great wind, powerful enough to split mountains and breaking rocks into pieces…but the Lord was not in it. Next, there was an earthquake, and even as the ground shook beneath him, Elijah saw that God was not in it either. After the earthquake came a fire, and yet even in the blazes, God was not to be found.
Finally there was a sound. Not like any of the sounds that came before it, but arriving powerfully, poignantly, at the right moment. The sound. Of. Silence.
Some translations say a gentle whisper, or a hushed voice. Stillness. Elijah somehow knew immediately, here was God. He wrapped his face in his mantle, and stood at the entrance of the cave, in the presence of God passing by.
After that, the voice of God comes, asking the same question as before…”What are you doing here, Elijah?”
We expect that repeating the same question after Elijah experiences God’s presence is a set-up to reveal just how powerful the experience has been. Surely at this point Elijah is going to thrust his fist into the air, thank God for the blessing he’s received and the new power upon him, and run off into the sunset to tell King Ahab wassup.
But his response comes, exactly the same as before. A downtrodden and dispirited man. Desperate and at the end of his rope. “I’m desperate for YOU, God…for your people live like you don’t exist, they’ve gotten rid of your altars, and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they want to kill me too.”
And God’s response to Elijah?
Get back out there. Go, return to what you were doing, and here’s a few more things I need you to do while you’re at it. The actions of Elijah from here on begin a new movement of God bringing judgment and correction to His people. Many more awesome things happened, and Elijah was ultimately taken into heaven without dying.
And so we find ourselves reading this passage at an important time in our lives, and in the movement of God through His Church. Many of us can connect well with the story of Elijah in these words. We want to live for God, we may have even lived a life that we can look at and say, “Look, God….I’ve been faithful…where are you???”
We live in a world where sin seems to have free-reign. Like Elijah, we are desperate for God. We are desperate not just for God, but for the name Elijah uses, “Elohim Tsaba”, “The Lord of Armies”…God almighty. We want to see the power of God made manifest in some sort of large visible victory. We feel like seeing God show up in the way we want Him to show up will give us what we need, and we will march forward into whatever may come.
In the midst of all the ways we tell God we want him to show up, comes His response. A silent stillness. For anyone willing to wait on Him to arrive. To not be distracted by the noise and activity that may seem impressive, but does not contain the presence of God.
There are no words of explanation. No wisdom for us to get distracted by in parsing the vocabulary being used. Simply God. Here. In a silent whisper.
And after the whisper? Even when Elijah seems to have missed out on any obvious transformation or encouragement from that moment…we hear God’s response:
God is asking us a question also, through these words. Will you allow the quiet presence of God to be enough for you?
God is calling each of us, just as he called Elijah long ago. To go into our lives, living faithfully even when we may be the only ones. I believe God called Elijah to come and meet him at Mount Sinai. That’s why the angel came and gave him food and energy for the long journey ahead. God used the 40 days and 40 nights, and the climb up the mountain of God….to remind Elijah he was part of something much larger than himself. There has been a story of God bringing about His Lordship, and living out of his covenant love for many generations before….and that story will continue for many more generations to come.
It’s one of the reasons we gather in worship together each week. To be reminded that we’re not alone. Looking around the sanctuary, and rubbing shoulders in the hallways, we remember that there are others serving God along-side us. The pictures of saints that have passed, and the stories we share about friends and family that have come and gone, connect us to the story God has been crafting since the very beginning. These reminders don’t require fanfare. There is no need for fire to fall from heaven, or trumpets to blast in order that we might remember.
God is whispering to us in these moments…I am with you. I have been with you. I will be with you. I. Love. You.
And with that, we are not starry-eyed. We don’t automatically forget all about our struggles, and head blindly into whatever may come when we leave worship. But we go back into our worlds having been reminded of the presence of God. The presence of God that doesn’t have to flex. Doesn’t have to crank up the volume to 11. Doesn’t have to prove itself. Because God is not just a really really strong force similar to all the other forces in our world. God is God. In His stillness there is more power and divine presence than in any forceful revival or emotional altar-call in any tent-meeting in the history of God’s people.
Likewise, as we receive the elements of communion, we are struck once again by the simplicity of God’s presence. These are not giant steaming cakes of elaborate recipes passed down for thousands of years. These are simple pieces of white bread. This is not juice from delicate grapes grown only on the western side of a hill in a distant realm of Rome…this is probably Welch’s. Grapes grown in the Eastern US and Canada.
But as we receive the bread, and drink from the cup, we are connected to something much larger than these elements. Something much larger than this moment and place. Along with Elijah, God’s presence becomes evident in our moment of stillness. We may not feel remarkably different when we finish the eucharist. But the words of God arrive to our ears just the same…Go.
His presence was enough to send Elijah back into a land he was wanted dead. To continue the work of God bravely, and passing on his mantle to Elisha to finish the work he began. As you leave worship next week, God probably won’t ask you to travel hundreds of miles on foot…but if you go into the world quietly but powerfully understanding that you’ve met with God….there is no limit to how the Kingdom may come….