I delivered my first message on Sunday, June 23. And though I veered away from the text that I had written (several times) and you are missing the incredible reenactment of the contest on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal... The following is at least representative of the message I delivered to a gracious audience. Since I was also running about 10 minutes long - even if you were there, you missed about a page of material near the end. Sorry everybody got out of church late! Hope you still made it to lunch before the restaurants all ran out of food!!
Shock And Awe
(that was the sermon title in the bulletin, I ran through at least a dozen different titles during the writing of it)
A man appeared before St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter asked the man if he had done anything of merit in his life. The man said that once when he was traveling in the Black Hills of South Dakota he found a group of bikers threatening a young woman. He told them to leave her alone, but they wouldn't listen. So he grabbed the biggest biker, punched him, kicked over his bike, ripped his nose ring out and threw it on the ground. Then he said, “back off or you'll answer to me!” St. Peter was impressed and asked the man when that had happened. The man said “about 5 minutes ago.”
That has to be a little like what Elijah felt – here he has this huge confrontation with 450 prophets of Baal...and he WINS...but now he is running for his life.
Ahab and Elijah have encountered each other before. They first meet when Elijah comes to tell Ahab that a drought is going to come over the land that will last for a long time. In the third year of the drought the Lord send him back to Ahab and Elijah tells him he needs to straighten up and decide whether he is going to worship the one true God or continue to worship false gods. Ahab is not a good king – in fact 1 Kings 16:33 says that he was a new champion of evil. He has made the God of Israel angrier than all the previous kings of Israel put together! And his wife, the Phoenician princess Jezebel doesn't help the situation. She actually supported the prophets of Baal from the royal treasury!
So when Ahab tells Jezebel what Elijah has done, she is shocked and greatly angered. Her response is: So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow : Jezebel heard about all that Elijah had done, encompassing the great confrontation at Mount Carmel. Yet her response was not to say, "The silence of Baal and the fire from Yahweh proves that I am wrong and Yahweh is God." Instead, she responded with a vow to kill within 24 hours the man who exposed the lie of Baal worship and displayed the glory of Yahweh.
If Elijah thought that the miracle at Mount Carmel would have been the beginning of the conversion of the whole court and of the country, he was mistaken. And now he is greatly discouraged.
Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba. We cannot say for certain if this was led of God or not. It is clear that God wanted to protect Elijah, but we cannot say if God wanted to protect him at Jezreel or protect him by getting him out of Jezreel. Nevertheless, Elijah went about 80 miles south to Beersheba. Maybe Elijah played into Jezebel's hand. After all, had she really wanted Elijah dead, she surely would have seized him without warning and slain him. What she desired was that Elijah and his God be discredited before the new converts what had aided Elijah by executing the prophets of Baal.
Regardless, he does flee and after leaving his servant in Beersheba, he goes another day into the wilderness finally coming to rest under a solitary broom tree. Further into seclusion. There – this mighty prayer warrior of God, the one only recently prayed fire from the skies to prove the power of Yaweh...prays that he might die.
It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors. Elijah is in a serious state of depression. He has had enough. He is saying “I can't do this any more Lord.” The work was stressful, exhausting, and it seemed to have accomplished nothing. The great miracle at Mount Carmel did not result in a lasting national revival or return to the Lord. Elijah probably hoped that the events on Mount Carmel would turn around Ahab and Jezebel and the leadership of Israel. But Elijah forgot that people reject God despite the evidence, not because of the evidence.
He says he is no better than his ancestors. When he looks at the apparent failure of his ministry he instinctively blames his own unworthiness.
I think we can all relate to Elijah's despair. At some point in our lives we've all gotten to the point where we say, “what's the point? I can't go on. I don't want to go on.” If you haven't, then praise the Lord! Because the rest of us have gotten to the end of our rope at some point in our lives. Maybe we were overwhelmed by a family issue or something at work or even felt burned out in our faith or church ministry. Perhaps you or someone you know has even lay under the broom tree and wanted to give up completely. Prayed for death.
God didn't grant Elijah's prayer for death. He gave him something else.
In the midst of this great despair, God sent an angel. Not with a pep talk...he took care of Elijah's physical needs first. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
God first ministered to Elijah's physical needs. This is not always His order, but physical needs are important. Sometimes the most spiritual thing a person can do is get enough rest and replenishment. And he received that repeatedly – one quick nap and one quick meal wasn't enough. Food and rest were the first elements needed to help this poor depressed servant of God.
It was very gracious of God to deal with Elijah in this way. Some of us might have expected a rebuke – but God didn't tell him to “walk it off” or “suck it up” - instead he allowed him respite, rest and renewal. Exactly what he needed before his long journey. And a long journey it was!
God sent Elijah on a 200 mile, 40 day trip to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. God didn't demand an immediate recovery – he allowed his prophet time to recover from his spiritual depression. Although the trip could have been accomplished in about 2 weeks, Elijah spends 40 days traveling to Mount Horeb and upon arrival he spends the night in a cave. Literally, the Hebrew word is definite in describing “the cave.” The cave may well have been the specific “cleft of the rock” where God appeared to Moses rather than the cave-region in general. We do know that this was a sacred mount – perhaps no spot on Earth is more associated with the manifested presence of God.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” How often have we heard that? Sometimes when we think things are starting to smooth out – God says, “What are you doing here?” God knew the answer, but he allowed Elijah to speak freely and unburden his heart:
Elijah answered, “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. He sounds like the despair he felt back in the wilderness near Beersheba isn't completely healed! He protests to God, “I have faithfully served You and now look at the danger I'm in!” To Elijah – and many servants of God since – it seemed unfair that a faithful servant of God should be made to suffer. And strangely, the reasons that Elijah provided for wanting to give up, are actually the critical reasons he should stay alive! If he really was the last prophet or believer alive, should he not seek to live as long as possible? If the enemies of God like Jezebel wanted him dead, shouldn't he seek to defeat her wicked ways? But this is what fear and unbelief will cause in us!
Elijah was not really alone, but that is how he felt. Near the end of chapter 19 (verse 18), God states that there are seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed to Baal. But discouraging times make God's servants feel more isolated and alone than they are.
We all have times like these, don't we? Feeling like we're carrying the whole burden of a task alone? Why don't more people help out with teaching Sunday school? Where are all the volunteers for JIFF? Why doesn't everyone care about what I care about as much as I care about it?
Friends, we're going to have to face it – not everyone wants to work with children, not everyone wants to sing in the choir, not everyone has the skills to paint sets for the Christmas play. But when we look around, we see we're not really alone. Each person has to find their place. And we must learn to respect that.
Make no mistake though – we all have a responsibility as Christians. We are all under the same directive – to go forth and make disciples of Jesus Christ. I'm just saying that we won't all be moved to do that by volunteering in the nursery.
So, what did God do after he let Elijah vent? After Elijah said, “I've served you faithfully but now I'm running for my life and the children of Israel have broken their covenant, torn down your altars and killed your prophets and I'm all that's left...” “I'm really, really good and they're really, really bad. Life isn't fair. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I think I'll eat a worm....”
God says, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Oh man. Get ready. Daddy's home and now you're gonna get it. The last time God manifested himself on this mountain Moses' face glowed so much that people were frightened of him.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
Note that the Lord was NOT in the wind, He was NOT in the earthquake and He was NOT in the fire. That seems to be the place that people expect to see God. In the big shows. In the shock and awe. People expect God to show himself in the big displays of power and might. And truly his power and might can be witnessed in those displays. But those dramatic manifestations are not the same as personal encounters with God. We often forget the lesson, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”
after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Elijah knew. He sensed the presence. He wrapped his face in his mantle and stood at the entrance of the cave. He knew that God was present in the still small voice, the gentle whisper – in a way that He was not in the more dramatic phenomenon. Because of that special presence of God, Elijah humbled himself by covering his face. He was subdued. He was awe-stricken. Full of reverence. Oh, what a wondrous thing. To be humble enough to admit that we are human. Sinners. In need of grace.
And then the voice of God asked again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I'm not sure that after a wind that was breaking rocks or an earthquake or fire...that I would have had the guts to give the same answer as before...but Elijah says again, perhaps more humbly? “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.”
There is nothing wrong with his answer. It is an honest answer. “I've been working for you faithfully, I feel all alone and I fear for my life.” I think we all agree that we have felt this way – maybe we don't have the death threat over our heads from Jezebel. Maybe we fear something else for our lives. Maybe we are afraid that our friends won't understand if we are a prophet for the Lord. Maybe we are afraid that our lives will change if we become zealous about our faith. Maybe there is something that we don't want to give up in our lives.
Perhaps we are feeling all alone in our walk. Perhaps we think nobody cares enough about the ministry of the church that we are most passionate about. Maybe we are still laying under the broom tree hoping for an angel to come and give us hope and encouragement.
God's answer to Elijah was not what I expected. If I were Elijah I would have been hoping for a “well done my good and faithful servant, here's your cushy arm chair and an unlimited supply of snacks.” I might have settled for “you poor thing. Why don't you take a vacation and go contemplate the stars and the vastness of the universe?” I sure wouldn't have wanted God's answer to Elijah.
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram”...and so on, and so on...
A work assignment? Really?
But that is exactly what Elijah needed. Something to do. He needed a task to focus on so he could avoid excessive introspection. He needed to stop looking at himself and his own (admittedly difficult) circumstances. He needed to get on with what God wanted him to do. He sent him off about his Master's business again. I will bet you that when he went back over that road, it was with a different step than what brought him down to Beersheba. He came along terrified and depressed; now he goes back having witnessed majesty. He's not going to be afraid of Jezebel now!
Elijah is like all of us – we can be overwhelmed and burned out. We can feel lost and alone. God provided exactly what Elijah needed. Rest and rejuvenation, time for reflection, a glimpse of his majesty and power – and then the last piece: a kick in the pants.
Get back to work! You're not done yet! He also send him to recruit Elisha, giving him a friend and successor. He informed him that there were 7000 faithful – that Elijah was not alone. That the worship of the true God was still being retained, though Elijah did not know that there was even one beside himself. That the still small voice was still doing for Israel what Elijah could not do alone.
How many of us need to rededicate ourselves to the work of the one true God? Are we feeling Elijah-ish? Maybe we burned out and got stuck in the rest and rejuvenation phase? Still wandering around on the path to Mount Horeb? Or are we sitting in our cave waiting for a big show of God's power? Or have we witnessed God's power and feel unworthy and unsure of what our work assignment is?
Today, start being in prayer about your role in God's church. Be encouraged. God is with us every step of the way. W. Macintosh Mackay wrote in Words of this Life: There are three kinds of Christian workers - canal barges, sailing ships, and Atlantic liners. The canal barges need to be dragged to the work. Often they do wonderfully well, but on the whole one volunteer is better than three pressed into service. The sailing ships make fine going as long as wind and tide are with them, but when things get hard, when 'the winds are contrary,' when the work is discouraging, they turn tail and sail away. But give me the Atlantic-liner type of worker, the person who can fight through wind and tempest, because within there burns the mighty furnace of the love of Christ.
Burn mighty. Fight through the wind and tempest. Spread the love of Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.