1 Kings 19:1-14
Last Sunday while we were at worship, a terrible tragedy was unfolding in Orlando, Florida. In what is being called the largest mass shooting in modern American history, a gunman entered a crowded night- club and slaughtered 49 people, before being shot to death by the authorities.
Since then, in an attempt to make some sense out of that which is completely senseless, newscasters have described the shooter as an insane person with deep-seated hatreds who had also pledged allegiance to a radical Islamic group. And all of these descriptions may very well apply. Anyone who can take the life of another human being in cold blood is certainly insane. Hatred of any kind toward another human being is the absolute antithesis of the teachings of the Scriptures, and it exhibits the singular character trait of the devil. The devil is hatred and hatred only. And it surely does seem that most of the terror activity around the world is perpetrated by radical Islamic groups.
But beyond all of this lies the unimpeachable fact that we live in a sin-filled, broken and severely damaged world. And this has been true since the day that Adam deliberately sinned against God. Adam’s sin led quickly to Cain rising up in anger against his brother Abel. If we have ever struggled with dysfunctional family issues in our lives, there is some comfort in knowing that the first family was extremely dysfunctional. They had a murder. After Cain killed Abel, the pattern of death and destruction and hatred was firmly established, and it continues to this day.
Elijah, the prophet, whom we encountered a couple of weeks ago, also lived in a broken and damaged world, and the condition of God’s chosen people, called by covenant to be faithful and obedient people in the midst of a broken world, can only be described as an absolute mess. They were ruled by a murderous, evil king named Ahab, who happened to be married to a Gentile woman who was an absolute witch. Together, they perpetrated more evil in God’s sight than any royal couple who had ever preceded them.
But far worse than this despicable, evil pair, was the state of God’s people themselves. They had wandered far from their covenant obligations. They had abandoned the one true God in favor of worthless idols. And into the midst of all of this deep and profound faithlessness, God called the prophet Elijah to speak truth into the hearts of his people. The problem was though, that nobody wanted to hear this truth. Faithlessness had become so deeply entrenched that Elijah’s words seemed stupid and irrelevant. And as a result, he soon found himself on Ahab and and Jezebel’s hit list. They wanted him dead. He was a troublesome interference to the success of their evil-doings.
A couple of weeks ago, when we encountered Elijah, he had gone into hiding, because he was afraid for his life. And this week, in our passage, he’s gone into hiding again. But this time, he’s also become extremely discouraged. It seems to him that his ministry is having no effect whatsoever. And about that, he is completely correct. He is a voice crying out in a wilderness of people who have turned a deaf ear to the truth. In fact, he is so discouraged that in verse four of this passage he asks God to kill him. He just can’t go on this way. He is grieved by the faithlessness of God’s people to the point of death. He’s tired, he’s lonely, there’s nothing positive going on in his ministry, and he’s sick and tired of the world going to pieces all around him. He’s lost all hope. And so, feeling completely sorry for himself, he’s stuck himself in a cave. He feels safe there. Perhaps he’ll just wait things out. There’s nothing he can do anyway, he’s already tried.
But while he’s there in the cave, the word of the Lord comes to him. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” You wanna know the answer to that question God? The world is broken beyond repair. I’m done. I quit. “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.” That’s what the problem is, God! I don’t even know if you’re around any more.
And so God said, yes, I am around, and I’m about to show up. Get ready, I’m about to pass by.
And suddenly there was a great and powerful wind. A wind such as has never blown; far greater and infinitely more powerful than a hurricane. This wind split mountains and broke rocks. Throughout the Scriptures, wind is a symbol of God’s presence. It was one of the confirming signs of God’s power and presence on the day of Pentecost, when the Christian Church was given birth. But as much as Elijah may have hoped, God was not in the wind.
And then there was an earthquake. The Psalmists speak of the mountains shaking in the presence of God. But as much as Elijah may have hoped, God was not in the earthquake.
And then there was a fire. Fire is a frequent symbol of God’s presence. Moses encountered God in the burning bush. A pillar of fire led the Israelites through the wilderness by night. Elijah was ultimately carried away into heaven in a chariot of fire. And once again, on the day of Pentecost, tongues of fire settled on the gathered followers of Jesus as a symbol of God’s abiding presence in their lives. But as much as Elijah may have hoped, God was not in the wind.
You see, Elijah believed with all of his heart, that the desperate situation of his world demanded a spectacular appearance of God’s power and presence. His ministry had been ineffective; God’s people were still persisting in their evil ways. Perhaps something spectacular from God would turn their hearts toward repentance and faithfulness. Elijah himself needed that same kind of assurance and encouragement. And so do we. We yearn for a spectacular appearance of God. Like Elijah, we are discouraged. We feel as though we are a voice crying out in a wilderness of ears that are deaf to the good news of the Gospel. We see evil everywhere. We feel that our world is so broken that we can’t do anything about it. We feel as though the Christian faith has been set aside, and it has. Won’t you please just show up somehow, in some spectacular way and vindicate us, O Lord? Won’t you bring righteousness to the land; we’re all alone in this evil world, and there aren’t many of us left. We can’t change this world by ourselves, the evil is too over-whelming, our ministry seems so ineffective!
After the fire, there was nothing. No, it wasn’t quite nothing, it was a sound of sheer silence. I kinda like that. Many of us grew up understanding this as a still, small voice. But a sound of sheer silence also intrigues me. It is a sound, but it is a sound that we have to listen for. It is not a sound that comes raging into our lives like earthquake, wind and fire. Instead, its a sound that speaks quietly and directly into our hearts. For all intents and purposes, it bypasses our ears. It is gentle, but it is strong. And unlike earthquake, wind and fire, God is in it. It is the voice of God, calling us to repentance, faithfulness, and ministry. In the still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence, Elijah’s life was transformed. He had some stuff that he needed to repent of, he certainly had some faithfulness issues that he needed to sort out, and he definitely needed to get back to his ministry. And so do we.
Twice in this passage, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Why are you hiding out when I’ve given you a calling? This morning, God is asking us the same question, what are you doing here, people, when you’ve been given a calling? Are you still waiting for me to show up in some spectacular way, or can you respond to the sound of sheer silence that is speaking directly into your hearts? When Elijah answered that question, he responded with the same pathetic, helpless words both times. But thanks be to God, Elijah got over that, and he got back to work.
I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if the Orlando killer had met some kind, gentle, loving Christian who carefully and sensitively led him to the Lord. Might there have been a caring congregation who could have helped him find the mental health support that he needed to work through his anger and hatred issues? Could his life have been transformed by the power of the Gospel? We’ll never know. But this we do know: our lives have been transformed by the power of the Gospel, and they are still being transformed. The still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence still speaks to us, and it still speaks directly into our hearts. And we must hear it and we must respond to it with repentance, and faithfulness and ministry for there is much work that remains to be done. But the question from God also remains: what are you doing here, people? How will we answer that?