Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 23, 2019
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a Commentary
This is one of the great short stories in the Bible, indeed, in all of literature. It has all the elements of a riveting story—a twisting plot, clever symbolism, stylistic devices, unexpected irony, deep pathos, raw humanity, stunning theophanies, and an ending that we don’t see coming. But best of all, it speaks a message of mercy to those who have worked hard for the cause of God’s kingdom and are now completely discouraged at the results of their work.
The story has a peculiar beginning. In the previous chapter, Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a winner-take-all contest. Let’s prove which God is real once and for all by calling on our respective Gods to ignite these sacrifices. Of course, Baal does nothing, because Baal is nothing. And Yahweh sends fire from heaven that not only devours the meat and the wood, but also the stones and the water that Elijah has poured on the sacrifice to up the ante. It was a complete rout of Baal and all the people shout, “Yahweh, he is God. Yahweh, he is God.” Elijah finishes the celebration by having all the priests of Baal slaughtered.
Our story opens with King Ahab reporting the fiasco to his wife, Queen Jezebel, a fanatic follower of Baal. When she hears about the slaughter of the priests, she goes ballistic and puts out a death warrant on Elijah, swearing that he will be dead in a day or the gods will kill her. Here’s where the story gets peculiar. When Elijah receives the message of her threat, he became terrified and ran for his life all the way to Beersheba, the farthest southern town in Israel, some 70 miles away from the scene of Yahweh’s victory on Mt. Carmel.
That is a shocking development. I mean, Yahweh has just won. Elijah and everyone else (except Jezebel) knows that Yahweh and Yahweh alone is God. Yahweh has shown that he has power to do the impossible. In the power of Yahweh, Elijah has just run 17 miles ahead of Ahab’s chariot, demonstrating once again that nothing is too hard for Yahweh. But Jezebel snarls her threat and Elijah runs like a scared cat.
What’s up with that? Well, what’s up is that Elijah is down, way down, completely depressed. Yes, he has seen God win, but then this devotee of Baal, this she devil comes roaring back with this death threat. It was as though God hadn’t won at all, as though all Elijah’s efforts had been for naught. When it was all said and done, this symbol of evil could still pursue him like some early version of The Terminator.
So Elijah ran, and walked, and pouted, and prayed. When he got the edge of the Promised Land, the Land where Yahweh ruled, Elijah left his servant and walked for a day into the desert. Exhausted, he flopped under the only available shade, a scrawny broom tree. There he prayed that he might die. It is the classic prayer of a burned out minister. “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” All of them failed in the struggle with sin and evil, and so have I. It’s all futile. I’m done. Take my life.
But God isn’t done with Elijah yet, not by a long shot. Instead of dying, Elijah falls asleep under the broom tree. He was awakened by the touch of an angel who said, “Get up and eat.” Looking around, he spots a loaf of bread and a jar of water, God’s provisions in the wilderness, invoking memories of Israel’s manna and water from the rock. God has something in mind for his discouraged prophet. We know soon enough, as Elijah falls asleep again, is prodded by the angel again, and is urged to eat again. (This is the first of several doublets in the story: Elijah running ahead of Ahab and from Jezebel, Mount Carmel and Mount Horeb, God’s question before and after the theophany.) In this repetition of the command to get up and eat, the angel adds the reason; “for the journey is too much for you.”
What journey? Well, it seems that God has his own reasons for Elijah’s flight. Elijah is running from the queen of evil who hasn’t given up on the defeated Baal. In God’s plan, Elijah is running to the God on whom he has given up even though Yahweh has defeated evil. God wants Elijah to see something, hear something, experience something that will keep him going in his ministry.
The story changes scenes again; we’ve moved from Mount Carmel to Jezreel to Beersheba to the wilderness and, now, to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God where Moses met with Yahweh to receive the Ten Commandments. Elijah has come back to the place where it all began, the place where God made covenant with the nation of Israel. It took Elijah 40 days and 40 nights to get there, mirroring Moses’ 40 days on the mountain, alerting us to the fact that Elijah is going to meet God here.
And he does. After entering a cave to spend the night (think of Moses hiding in a “cleft in the rock” when Yahweh passed by in Exodus 33), the word of the Lord came to Elijah. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The key word in that question is “here.” You should be somewhere else, Elijah, doing something else, the thing I gave you to do. So, why are you here, on this mountain far away from the Promised Land and your prophetic ministry?
Elijah’s answers drips with self-defense and self-pity and manifests a skewed view of reality. “I have been very zealous for Yahweh God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me too.” Many scholars point out that although Israel had, indeed, broken covenant, that altar breaking accusation wasn’t true and few if any prophets had been killed. And, as God will tell Elijah in a few moments, he wasn’t the only one left; there were at least 7000 just like him. But then depression does tend to make things look worse than they really are, even when they are really bad. Elijah feels defeated, alone, and beleaguered.
How does God respond? With a “slap upside the head?” With a stiff rebuke to his self-pity? With a stern command to get back to work? No, God responds as he did with Job—with a theophany, a surprising theophany. “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (Note the reversal of the command to Moses as the Lord was about to pass by.) God wants Elijah to have a direct, full frontal encounter with himself.
Which is exactly what happened, but not in the way Elijah wanted. Elijah was used to spectacular revelations of God, as he had received on Mount Carmel. That’s what Israel needed in this moment, another overwhelming display of Yahweh as God, or so Elijah may have thought. But that’s not what Elijah needed. So a powerful wind tore the mountain apart, but Yahweh wasn’t in the wind. And a mighty earthquake shook the mountain, but Yahweh wasn’t in the earthquake. Finally a fire blazed on the mountain, but Yahweh wasn’t in the fire.
Elijah thought that Israel needed to be blown around, shook up, and burned by the fire of God. But what Israel needed was a prophet who would speak the word of the Lord into deaf ears. So, God spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper, “a still small voice,” or as one scholar puts it, “the sound of fine silence.” When Elijah heard that tiny sound, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Terrified at the prospect of meeting God face to face, he covered his face. Now that he knew God would speak softly to him, he dares to obey God and emerge from the cave.
That’s when God actually speaks to Elijah. What does Yahweh say? He simply repeats the question with which he began. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Same question. Same implication. And same response from Elijah. He repeats verbatim his reply to God’s question. Apparently, the wind and earthquake and fire and silence haven’t changed Elijah one bit. He is still wallowing in self-pity, gazing at the world through the dark distortion of depression, and looking for God to blast his wicked people.
We might expect God to say, “You have got to be kidding me! Have you learned nothing from your encounter with me? When are you going to snap out of it?” But instead of rebuke and harshness, God quietly tells Elijah to “Go back the way you came and go to the desert of Damascus….” “What are you are doing here” when I want you over there? Instead of stern correction, God simply sends Elijah back to work, now that he has met with God, again.
Elijah and other discouraged prophets might want God to do something miraculous, something spectacular that will interrupt the flow of history and individual lives. That’s what it will take to change the world. But that is not how the kingdom comes into this world. It comes by means of Incarnation, in human actions and words within history. As the old hymn puts it, “By deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”
In our story, it wasn’t so much love and mercy; it was anointing. The Lectionary ends our reading before we get to that anointing, but we need to point that out to people. God’s work continues when Elijah anoints a foreign king to discipline Israel, a new Israelite king to finish the foreigner’s work, and a prophet named Elisha to carry on Elijah’s ministry. God’s work will continue in spite of the continued power of evil. Evil is not in control. Elijah does not, in fact, die at Jezebel’s hand. Indeed, he doesn’t die at all, but is instead taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. Talk about your miraculous ending!
This is a great story for Christians who have just celebrated the mighty acts of God by observing the major feasts of the church year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. But now as we enter Ordinary Time, we are faced once again with the continued existence and power of sin and evil. As we begin the long journey of discipleship, living out the victory of God in Christ, we may feel discouraged and depressed.
God comes to us today with this simple question. “What are you doing here?” God’s work isn’t done, so go back to it. God is real. We’ve seen that in Christ. We felt the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion. We heard the wind at Pentecost. And we will see the fire at Christ’s return. But Christ’s work is done by ordinary people who are anointed to be prophets, priests, and kings.
As I read the story, the opening lines of a beloved old hymn came floating into my mind.
“Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my Savior? My constant friend is he:
His Eye is on the Sparrow, and I know he watches me.” **
If that’s a bit too blithe for you, here’s a version of Psalm 130 more in keeping with Elijah’s mood under the broom tree.
Out of the depths I cry to you on high; Lord, hear my call.
Bend down your ear and listen to my sigh, forgiving all.
If you should mark our sins, who then could stand?
But grace and mercy dwell at your right hand.
I wait for God, I trust his holy word; he hears my sighs.
My soul still waits and looks unto the Lord; my prayers arise.
I look for him to drive away my night—
Yes, more than those who watch for morning light.
Hope in the Lord; unfailing is his love; in him confide.
Mercy and full redemption from above he does provide.
From sin and evil, mighty though they seem,
His arm almighty will his saints redeem.”
**These lyrics are from the Public Domain.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!