1 Kings 19:9-18
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 and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand– all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.” (CEB)
The Sound of Silence
I thought ministry would be easy. Even after a pastor whom I’ve known since my days in Jr. High told me, “If you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead,” I still had this idea in my head that working as a pastor was going to be this wonderful Spiritual journey full of smiles, blissful happiness, and high levels of job satisfaction. I quickly realized that I had been misled by none other than me, myself. People in the church are still people. We all have our flaws. And we—both clergy and laity—don’t always behave the way we ought.
I think most of us probably get Elijah’s dejection here. It’s relatable. There have been moments, even seasons, when I wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits. Last Sunday I mentioned that bullying saga I went through. I almost took a leave of absence from ministry over it. My move away from that situation was a last-minute emergency thing. I hated leaving that congregation because I loved so many people there, but I was relieved to get out of the bullying situation that had led to many an anxiety attack. Joy gave up a job working for a university and the free masters degree they wanted her to earn while working for them.
The next church to which I was appointed had a decades-long track record being hard on pastors. Of course, no one told me about it at the beginning so I walked in blind. Two years into that appointment the district superintendent told me that certain people in that congregation were complainers before I got there, they were complainers before she became the D.S., and they would be complainers long after we were both gone. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my emergency move, that congregation would have been left without a pastor because they treated their previous one so poorly. I got put there because there was nowhere else to go. All the appointments for that year had already been made.
Now some of the issues that came up there weren’t all the congregation’s fault. I was a lot younger then, inexperienced, still hurting from the bullying stuff, and still fairly naïve about a lot of things. But the accusatory letters written to the bishop and district superintendent behind my back, the mean letters written to me without a name on them, the attempts at sabotage, the lack of common manners on the part of some really dysfunctional people, made it a tough appointment. I get Elijah’s story.
It’s not easy to love the people who are making your life a living hell for no other reason than that’s their habit. I’ve discovered that, for some people, complaining is like breathing and, if they stop complaining, they’ll die. While ministry there was often difficult because of certain people, a lot of good things happened. Still, the broad strokes of my memory paint those years as a painful time. It was like being nibbled to death by ducks. But I still keep in touch with a lot of people from that congregation and feel only love for them. Others, not so much. But, the love one develops for good people in the midst of difficult times tends to stick. And mine has. It has been a great joy in my life to be able to remain a part of their lives.
Then, I had two really great church appointments in a row. I was at the first one for three years and the second for four years. The problem was that Joy and I wanted to stay put somewhere. We had children. We wanted a home, and we wanted to put down roots. And the churches wanted us to stay there: they loved and cared for us and we loved and cared for them. But then we got uprooted again and again. And we hurt so badly. We didn’t think the church should treat pastors and their families so flippantly. At the second of those churches, Joy was going to start her masters degree once again. She felt a call to minister to children. She had plans to work with kids who didn’t have a voice. And, due to our being moved, she had to give up her graduate degree for a second time. Our children had to give up beloved friends and activities. And we all had to give up a faith community that had truly become our family.
So, my family and I, we kind of get Elijah’s despondency. We get it that, when a person tries to serve God they’ll have both successes and failures. They’ll be loved and reviled by different people at the same time. They’ll have moments of joy and moments of pain, they’ll find pieces of community and abject loneliness.
This text shows us one of Elijah’s deepest moments of pain. If you look at what happens just prior to it, Elijah was at the height of his prophetic career. He had just won a miraculous victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal—450 of them to one prophet of the Lord! He seemed unstoppable. He was going to bring the people of Israel back into the covenant God made with their ancestors. He was going to teach them how to live faithfully so they would be blessing to other nations, just as God declared in the covenant. Imagine how great he must have felt, the hope he must have had for his people, the joy that must have filled his heart that they were turning back to the Lord!
Then Queen Jezebel sent him a threatening message saying she was after him. And when she got ahold of him, he was a dead man. In that moment, the bottom fell out of the barrel for the Man of God. Elijah didn’t merely come down from the proverbial mountain, he fell off the summit cliff and splattered in the foothills. He was terrified and he ran for his life (1 Kings 19:3). By the time he got to the cave, Elijah was so distraught that he’d had enough of living. Can you relate?
When God asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” the prophet’s response is that he has worked so hard for the Lord. But the Israelites have done terrible things. They’ve forsaken the covenant, torn down the Lord’s altars, and killed the lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and now they’re going to kill him. In that moment, Elijah could only see his fear, failure, and forlornness. There was nothing left for him to give. What more could he possibly do?
God told him to go stand on the mountain before the Lord because the Lord is about to pass by. A strong wind tore through the mountains: a wind so powerful it shattered stones. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. Then, the earth shook, surely ripping more of the mountain apart, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then, fire scorched the land and seared the air, but the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire “there was a sound. Thin. Quiet” (1 Kings 19:12 CEB). Another translation calls it “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV).
When Elijah heard the sound of silence, he went out to speak to the Lord. God asked him the same question, and a still dejected Elijah gave the same answer. He’s worked hard. The peoples refuse God’s covenant. They’ve destroyed the Lord’s altars and killed the Lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and they’re after him.
At first glance, the Lord’s response almost feels insensitive. “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:15-16 CEB). But, when you look at what God provides for Elijah, it’s incredibly compassionate. For one, God doesn’t give up on Elijah, even though Elijah has given up on himself. Instead, God gave him a plan. Elijah was given three tasks but he only got one of them done. He designated Elisha as his successor, and it’s Elisha who does the other two. Elisha encouraged Hazael to assassinate the king of Aram and usurp the throne. It was also Elisha who instigated the rebellion of Jehu against King Joram of Israel.
One thing we can take away from this is that we don’t have to accomplish everything ourselves. We do what we can. We accomplish that which can be accomplished and trust that neither the world, nor the church, rests on our shoulders alone. God will prevail.
For another, God lets Elijah know that, despite how lonely he feels, he is most certainly not alone. This is the part that assuaged Elijah’s deepest fear. The Lord has left seven-thousand in Israel who have not knelt down to Baal or kissed Baal’s image. There are people of faith in the congregation of Israel. There are those who hold fast to the covenant. All is not lost. God will continue to be with the faithful.
If we had read verse 19, we would have discovered that Elijah left the cave and found Elisha. It took a moment of quiet, a time of prayer, for Elijah to hear the Lord’s voice and find his way forward. That’s something we need, too. I once heard a pastor joke that, if you want to make your congregation uncomfortable, let silence linger in worship for more than 10 seconds. We are so used to noise—both literal and metaphorical—that silence is scary. We aren’t used to quiet. We’re used to the wind, earthquake, and fire. If we don’t have some kind of audio stimulation going on, we get uneasy, even scared. People leave their TV on when they aren’t even watching it because silence is uncomfortable.
I dare you to turn off all the noise, find a quiet place, and spend 10 minutes in absolute silence. Don’t even talk to yourself. Turn the voice in your head off and just be silent. It’ll take some practice before you’re able to do it successfully. Use those minutes of quiet as preparation for prayer. And, when you pray, try listening for God’s voice as much as you speak.
Prayer is where we find God. Sometimes, we need to shut everything else off so we can hear when God speaks. I’ve begun to seek those moments of quiet again. It’s not easy to shut off the noise or set aside my worries, or the weight of my responsibilities, or the need to get the things on my to-do list checked off. Simon and Garfunkel were right about the sound of silence. We need to set aside the distractions of the world—the flashing neon lights, the babel of people talking without speaking, the pretense of people hearing without listening—so we can see and hear rightly.
No matter who we are or how passionate we are for God, we’re going to have ups and downs. We’ll have days when we’re on the mountain and unstoppable, and we’ll have days where we’re hiding in a cave, utterly dejected. We’ll have times when our faith feels unbreakable, and times when our faith feels like it’s been shattered to pieces. Yet, no matter where we are on any given day, some things are certain.
We are not alone. God is with us and we have a community of people who love us and will choose to walk beside us and hold us up when we stumble or fall.
There is always more to do for God’s kingdom, but we do it best by working together.
God will never give up on us no matter what we think of ourselves. God’s love for us is simply too great, too unbreakable, too much for God to let go of us.