1 Kings 19:1-14
I was pondering five dollar a gallon gas the other day. Part of my pondering involved feeling sorry for myself, mostly, but also kind of self-righteously feeling sorry for others, less fortunate than me. And then my ponderings evolved into whom I might blame for this horrible situation, and at whom I could be righteously angry. People who feel sorry for themselves can often justify anger and even violence at someone else, especially if they can think of someone to blame. And we will see this in our friend Elijah, very soon. But I could think of no one to blame, other than the usual suspects, and one thing I have discovered in my advancing age, is that, in spite of it all, the usual suspects are almost never to blame. Life is usually far more complicated than just pointing fingers. And then God spoke to me, and said, you poor, poor dear. Would you rather have a dead child, shot to death by some maniac in her own third grade classroom? Who, then would you blame? Wow!
And beyond all of this, lies the unimpeachable fact that we live in a sin-filled world that is broken and severely damaged. And this has been true since the day that Adam deliberately sinned against God. Adam’s sin led quickly to Cain raising up in anger and with violence against his brother Abel. Many of us have struggled with dysfunctional family issues in our own lives, and 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 unabated to this day.
Elijah the prophet, whom we encountered last Sunday, also lived in a broken and damaged world, and the condition of God’s chosen people, called by covenant, to be a faithful and obedient people in the midst of a broken world, can only be described as being an absolute mess. They were ruled by a murdering, 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 evil, despicable 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 profound and deep faithlessness, God called the prophet Elijah to speak truth to the hearts of his people.
The problem was, though, that nobody wanted to hear the truth. Faithlessness had become so deeply entrenched that Elijah’s words seemed untimely, stupid and irrelevant. Nobody seemed to care what Elijah had to say, except perhaps for Ahab and Jezebel, and Elijah soon found himself on their hit list. They wanted him dead. They wanted him gone. He was a troublesome interference to the success of their evil doings. He always seemed to know what they had been up to.
Last week, when we encountered Elijah, he had gone into hiding, on account that he was afraid for his life. And this week in our passage, he has gone into hiding again. But this time, he has become extremely depressed. And he is feeling very sorry for himself. 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? Well, I’ll tell you! 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. It was a wind such as no one has ever seen. This is no mere hurricane. This wind split mountains and broke rocks. In all of the Scriptures, wind is a symbol of God’s powerful presence. On the day of Pentecost, wind was one of the confirming signs of God’s power and presence that blew through the place where the disciples were gathered. 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 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 fire. 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. Like Elijah, we feel that our world is so broken that we can’t do anything about it. We just want to live out our lives as best as we can in the caves into which we have retreated.
We yearn for God to just show up. Do something spectacular, God, wake this world up! Or at least vindicate us, O Lord. We are all alone in this evil world, and we are tired, and there aren’t many of us left, and we are convinced that we can’t change this by ourselves. The evil around us is too strong.
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 deeply intrigues me. It is a sound, but it is a sound that we must listen for. It is not a sound that comes raging into our lives like earthquake, wind and fire. Instead, it is a sound that speaks quietly and directly into our hearts. For all intents and purposes, it bypasses our ears completely. 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 first to repentance, faithfulness, and then to ministry. In the still, small voice, or in the sound of sheer silence, Elijah’s life was transformed. He had some stuff that he needed to repent of; he certainly had some faithlessness 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. He was re-energized and transformed by the power of the sound of sheer silence. He responded to God’s direction and leading once again.
Our lives can also be transformed by the power of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence still speaks to us, and it still speaks directly into our hearts. But we must be open to hearing it, and we must be willing to repent of all that contributes to our faithlessness and powerlessness. And then we will do ministry together, for there is much work that remains to be done. But the question from God always remains, and demands an answer: What are you doing, here, people? Let’s give a better answer to that question than did Elijah.