Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 19, 2016
I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a Commentary
Discouragement can be a devastating feeling. A national news magazine once labeled it “the social disease of the 1980s in America.” One biblical commentator suggests “listlessness, despair and resignation are crippling people across the nation in a wave of chronic cynicism.” As evidence, he points to the surging tide of teen suicides and an exploding drug epidemic.
Virtually all preachers, teachers and their hearers have experienced some form of discouragement. Those who preach and teach 1 Kings 19 may want to explore reasons for such discouragement. People become discouraged because they can’t seem to make or keep any close friends. Workers become discouraged because they don’t seem to make any headway or progress in their daily work.
God’s children may even become spiritually discouraged. Some know the disheartening feeling of distance from God. We know the discouragement of feeling in a spiritual rut, with no growth in our walk with the Lord.
As 1 Kings 19 opens, nearly all of Israel has turned away from Baal and toward Yahweh, the living God. Her king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, however, stubbornly cling to their idols. So when Jezebel learns Elijah has ordered the execution of her gods’ prophets, she orders his execution. She brazenly promises to kill the prophet within twenty-four hours.
Perhaps surprisingly, Elijah’s courage seems to melt in the intense heat of the queen’s white-hot rage. In fact, he’s so frightened that he races for his life into the desert. When the prophet finally becomes so exhausted that he can run no farther, he plops down under a tree. There Elijah is clearly a broken, disappointed man. Under the tree, Elijah begs God to do what Ahab and Jezebel for so long have tried to do. “Take my life,” he groans in verse 4, “I am no better than my ancestors.”
God, however, has plans for Elijah. Death isn’t the solution to the prophet’s predicament. The Lord, however, doesn’t dignify the prophet’s death wish with a verbal answer. Instead God just lets him sleep and then, as God earlier did through ravens and a starving widow, God feeds God’s hungry prophet.
This time it’s an angel who apparently somehow provides Elijah with “a cake of bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water.” However, the angel’s visit and gift don’t seem to change anything substantive. Elijah, after all, apparently remains exhausted and discouraged. After the prophet eats and drinks God’s gift, he simply goes back to sleep.
So Elijah seems prepared to sleep away his life. Yahweh, however, still won’t let his prophet die. So the Lord again touches and awakens Elijah through an angel. Again Yahweh gives his prophet food to eat and water to drink, this time enough to fuel a forty-day and forty-night trip to Horeb.
This journey, however, is not like Elijah’s earlier flight from a vengeful tyrant that he planned and carried out himself. This time Elijah’s race is planned and led by God. When, after all, he finally gets to Horeb and settles into perhaps the same cave in which Moses earlier met the Lord, Elijah finds God.
When Yahweh meets the prophet there, God wonders just what he’s doing. This, as one biblical scholar notes, brings into focus the central question of what will define Elijah. Will it be his fear of Jezebel? Or will his faithfulness to God shape the prophet’s life and his mission? Elijah answers the question of his identity by affirming both his faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness that has isolated him. “I am the only one left,” he mourns in verse 10.
The Bible doesn’t often talk much about the psychological health of people. In fact, it’s almost always dangerous to speculate on its characters’ mental well-being. Here, however, the Bible gives a strong sense that Elijah is very discouraged.
Such deep discouragement sometimes prevents people from making accurate observations and good decisions. One noted preacher, in connection with this passage, has written that “Despair is always color-blind; it can only see the dark tints.” So when Elijah claims to be alone in service to God, he forgets Obadiah’s one hundred rescued prophets. The prophet has also clearly forgotten Israel’s mass conversion on Carmel.
Of course, there’s more accuracy in Elijah’s next assertion. He’s right in claiming that those who have already succeeded in murdering the rest of God’s prophets are now trying to kill him. This realization seems to have pushed Elijah past the point of caring anymore. He’s simply ready to die, just as Ahab and Jezebel wish.
So we might expect God to reassure Elijah that God will protect him. You and I might expect God to immediately insist that the prophet isn’t, in fact, God’s only surviving prophet. But what does God command Elijah to do? “Go out and stand on the mountain, in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then God stops talking until after a storm, an earthquake and a fire pass by.
Yet while God seems to somehow send those natural phenomena, God doesn’t directly identify himself with any of them. God doesn’t speak through the storm, earthquake, fire or, later, silence. The Lord isn’t “in” any of them.
Of course, Elijah might never have noticed God anyway. After all, the prophet’s in the exact same emotional and physical place after them as he was before those phenomena. In fact, he doesn’t even obey God by going out to “stand on the mountain” until what verse 12 calls “a gentle whisper” somehow propels him out of his hiding place.
We sometimes link that “gentle whisper” to some kind of “still small voice” of God. But most new translations of the Bible won’t let us do that. According to verse 13, only after he hears the gentle whisper does Elijah hear a voice again ask him what he’s doing there. So instead of speaking to God’s prophet through some dramatic natural phenomenon, the Lord speaks quietly but directly to him.
Elijah certainly needs to hear God. After all, the physical phenomena haven’t changed his understanding of his relationship to God. God’s prophet’s heart and mind remain frozen by fear. So when God asks him again what he’s doing in the cave, Elijah answers in the exact same way he answered God earlier. Clearly he feels just as sorry for himself as he did before those dramatic displays of God’s power.
Elijah, after all, again mourns his isolation. The prophet again says that he fears for his life. Elijah apparently remains skeptical about God’s protection, even after all the pyrotechnics of Carmel and Horeb.
So how does God encourage God’s discouraged prophet? By first, as my colleague Jack Roeda points out in a sermon on this passage, reorienting Elijah’s perspective. Elijah sees himself as all alone, as the only survivor of a vengeful and immoral kind and queen. Yet how does God see Elijah? God knows God is Israel’s kingmaker who has the power to take down rulers and put new ones in their place. God sees his prophet Elijah as God’s faithful kingmaker.
So the living God sends Elijah right back to where he came sprinting for his life from. There, God says, the prophet must anoint a new king, Hazael, over Aram and a new king, Jehu, over Israel. In other words, God creates a new reality for Elijah by enlisting him to create a new reality in Israel.
God’s sons and daughters can always count on God to provide us with every good thing they need in any kind of wilderness. The One who fed both Israel and Elijah in their wildernesses is, after all, the source of every good thing, including food and water, in our various “deserts.”
Sometimes, however, even that wonderful providence isn’t enough to restore courage. Some of the most well-fed and watered people are also the most discouraged ones. Sometimes, as with Elijah, not even the most spectacular displays of God’s presence and power are enough to restore courage.
God essentially sends Elijah right back to his work as prophet in a way not unlike the way the resurrected Christ sent his disciples back to their work after Easter. By refusing to let him quit, God calls Elijah back to his work of subverting Ahab and Jezebel’s wicked, destructive and oppressive regime.
Essentially, then, God restores Elijah’s courage by giving him more work to do. God knows, after all, that one remedy for discouragement is becoming busy. So the Lord basically shrugs off God’s prophet’s complaints and commissions him for more important work.
God’s 21st century discouraged people may not hear God somehow speak directly to us. However, the Lord certainly gives us enough to do, just as he gave Elijah enough to do. After all, there’s enough for all of God’s adopted sons and daughters to do in our churches, homes, communities and workplaces.
God’s remedy for Elijah’s discouragement includes both new jobs and the promise of a future that doesn’t depend on his personal success. In light of God’s coming kingdom, Elijah’s life proves to be worth living after all.
In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa writes, “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .
We must deliberately renounce all desires to see the fruit of our labor, doing all we can as best we can, leaving the rest in the hands of God. What matters is the gift of your self, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions. Do not allow yourself to be disheartened by any failure, as long as you have done your best. Neither glory in your success, but refer all to God in deepest thankfulness.
If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers. Never bother about people’s opinions. Be humble and you will never be disturbed. The Lord has willed me here where I am. He will offer a solution.”
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