1 Kings 19:1-15a
1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. 2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”
3 Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. 4 He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, LORD! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” 5 He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.
Then suddenly a messenger tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!” 6 Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. 7 The LORD’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” 8 Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
The LORD’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”
11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”
15 The LORD said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus (CEB)
Doubts Amid Sustenance
In January of 2014, God called me to write. God argued with me about it. And this argument was a wrestling match—if not an all-out brawl—with my mind, heart, soul, and body. But God won. No amount of refusal, reticence, self-consciousness, or fear was allowed as an excuse. I had stories to tell. I had to write.
I talked to Joy about this strange new call. I didn’t know if I could do it. But she agreed that I should write if I really felt it was something I was called to do. So I got started. I bought a program called Scrivener to help me get organized, and I started writing. I made progress, and my confidence grew. I was sure I had a New York Times Best Seller in the works.
Then, in mid-February of 2014, an incompatibility glitch between the way Scrivener saves files and the way the old Microsoft SkyDrive stored them caused me to lose thousands of words. I lost an incredible amount of progress on my novel; weeks of writing! And I thought, How? How can this be? I thought God wanted me to write this story. After all, it’s a neat, unique concept! I read a lot, and I don’t know of another story like it.
I wondered if God really wanted me to write. I lost all heart for the novel because I could never get those words back. They were simply gone. I was so dismayed that, for a few weeks, I quit. I was done as a writer. I felt like I could go no further. I had poured my heart and soul into writing those words: crafting the scenes, writing the dialogue, painting the characters’ emotions. They were like sacred pieces of me. And suddenly, they were gone.
I think that’s a little bit how Elijah felt in this story from First Kings. In the previous chapter, Elijah had just won this mighty victory over the prophets of Baal. He set up this challenge with King Ahab saying: “‘I am the last of the LORD’s prophets, but Baal’s prophets number four-hundred-fifty. Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers with fire–that’s the real God!’ All the people answered, ‘That’s an excellent idea.’” (1Kings 18:22-24, CEB).
It was 450 prophets to 1, but Elijah showed nothing but confidence. He even mocked the prophets of Baal when their god didn’t answer, saying, Hey guys, maybe you should yell louder! Surely he’s a god! Maybe he’s lost in thought or wandering around somewhere? Or, maybe he fell asleep and you need to wake him up! Yell louder! (1 Kings 18:27). But still, Baal didn’t answer.
Then, Elijah had the people pour water three times on the sacrifice and wood. Elijah called upon the Lord, and fire fell to consume the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust, and it even licked up the water. (1 Kings 18:38). Elijah had the prophets of Baal seized, and he killed all 450 of them. Immediately after this, the rain that had been held back for about three years finally came. The drought ended. It was a sweet victory.
But when Queen Jezebel heard what Elijah had done to her prophets, she sent Elijah a message saying she was going to kill him. Elijah lost all heart for being a prophet. He turned tail and ran away. He even asked God to let him die. He had just won the day against 450 prophets of Baal, but fell apart when the queen sent her messenger with a threat against his life instead of an assassin to actually take his life.
(Bad planning on Jezebel’s part, by the way. It’s like that scene in Despicable Me 2 where Gru shouts, “Freeze ray!” before firing it at Lucy Wilde, which enables her to counter with a fire ray. Then she says, “You know, you really should announce your weapons after you fire them, Mr. Gru. For example…” she tases Gru with a lipstick tube, before saying, “Lipstick taser.” But, I guess killing someone, and then announcing that you’re going to kill them doesn’t quite have the same terror-inducing affect).
Anyway, Elijah ran. In the midst of God’s clear sustaining presence, in the midst of proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Lord is God, Elijah turned into a pansy. He went a day’s journey into the wilderness and asked to die.
I think part of Elijah’s problem was the somewhat deluded view he held of himself and his self-importance. He says over and over, “I alone am left.” He says it twice in this chapter, and once in the chapter before. (1 Kings 18:22; 19:10, 14).
He presents himself as the last of the Lord’s prophets even though he knows full-well that Obadiah saved 100 prophets of the Lord by hiding them in caves. Obadiah, himself, told Elijah about the 100 others earlier on (18:13), and we hear about it even before that in verse 18:4. But Elijah sticks with this self-delusion that he’s the last one. He is God’s last hope. He has to do it all by himself. As if God sent him a message in a R2 unit saying, Help me Obiwan Elijah. You’re my only hope. And now the queen who murdered many of the Lord’s prophets is coming after him.
Sometimes we suffer from the same delusions. I know, from personal experience early on in my ministry, that pastors tend to easily fall into this mode of thinking about their congregation. If we aren’t there, the whole thing might fall apart. Mothers and fathers can feel that way about their families, whether it’s providing an income for their family or keeping the household together. It’s easy to get disheartened when we think it all depends on us.
But I’ve since learned that it isn’t all about me. The church won’t rise or fall based on me. I may do good things, I may fall short. People might like what I do, people might think I don’t meet their expectations. But it takes a community of people to do ministry together. More than that, it takes God’s sustaining power working in and through a community to do ministry for God’s kingdom. That’s the part Elijah seems to have forgotten here. It wasn’t about him. It wasn’t up to him alone. It never was. There were 101 prophets in Israel, not Elijah alone. And later on we learn that God preserved 7,000 in Israel who never knelt before Baal (19:18). God was doing work far beyond Elijah. But Elijah could only see himself. And he thought he was a failure.
Thankfully, God sustains us even in the midst of our doubts, fears, and worries. God provided even more sustenance for the prophet. God provided food and water, and an angel to encourage the pitiful Elijah. He gave him direction, and power to walk in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to a cave at Mount Horeb. He spent the night there. Then, God’s word came to Elijah and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:9, CEB). The prophet then gives his sob story.
“I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!” (19:10, CEB).
In response, Elijah is told to go stand on the mountain before the Lord who is about to pass by. The wind blows so strongly that mountains split and rocks broke. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. Then came an earthquake, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then came a fire, but the Lord wasn’t in the fire.
Keep in mind that these were all signs of God’s presence and power that people had seen in the past and came to expect. “When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud blast of a horn. All the people in the camp shook with fear. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD had come down on it with lightning. The smoke went up like the smoke of a hot furnace, while the whole mountain shook violently. The blasts of the horn grew louder and louder. Moses would speak, and God would answer him with thunder.” (Exodus 19:16-19, CEB). Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal was won when God answered by fire so hot it consumed even the dust and stones.
After the wind, earthquake, and fire, Elijah heard the calm after the storm. The words in Hebrew which describe this moment have multiple meanings: a still, small voice; a gentle whisper; a sound of a great calm; a sound. Thin. Quiet; the sound of sheer silence. Any way you put it, it makes me want to break out into a Simon and Garfunkel song.
Now, some want to use this text as a way to say, you need to sit in the stillness and be quiet. That’s where you’ll find God. But that’s not really what this is about. We can’t force God’s presence by manufacturing a specific situation or circumstance. God will be where God will be, and God’s presence was everywhere before we sat down in the quiet. God has been present in wind, fire, smoke, clouds, earthquakes, and other phenomena in the past. And God may well be present in those things again.
I think the message of the sound of sheer silence for Elijah is that God also works in ways that are beyond the obvious. It isn’t always the wind, earthquake, and fire that reveal God’s abiding presence. Sometimes, in fact probably most of the time, it’s in the less obvious ways. God is a subtle, patient God. We don’t see all the things God does. We don’t know or even have the ability to recognize all the ways God sustains us. Elijah needed to understand that reality just as much as we do.
God didn’t seem pleased to find Elijah there. But God listens to Elijah’s sob story one more time before saying, Go back. We’ve got work to do, you and I, along with all of these others—this whole community of faithful people—that you keep forgetting about. A community I am sustaining. You’re not alone. My work is bigger than you realize.
Sometimes we forget that God is the one who sustains our every breath. We wear ourselves out thinking the foundation of the world depends upon us. But we need to remember that God is even in the little things. Even in the sheer silence of our lives when we feel all alone, completely abandoned, and running scared.
I haven’t written a New York Times Best Seller. But I started writing again. I rewrote the original rough draft of my first novel in two and a half months. In fact, I’m in the midst of revising that same book for probably the hundredth time, and I’ll keep revising it until it’s right. The thing I know without a doubt is that God called me to write. And sometimes my best lessons come in the form of apparent failures.
It has taken a whole community of people to make me a better writer. As solitary as writing might sound, it’s something I could never do alone. And thankfully, I don’t have to. I write because God called me to write. God sustains me through it. That’s what it’s really about. It isn’t about me.
Besides, God didn’t call me to write a best-selling novel. He called me to write. We’re all called to serve God and neighbor in varying ways. Whether it’s easy or difficult will depend on the day. Our responsibility is to follow the call.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!