Sermon for August 12th, 2018
Elijah was one of the greatest prophets that the Israelites had ever known. Throughout the ages he has been revered by the Jewish people. Even today if you attend a Jewish Seder on Passover, you will likely find a chair and a cup reserved for Elijah. Elijah was so famous and important in Jesus’s day, that many people thought that Jesus was Elijah come again; some others thought that John the Baptist was Elijah come again. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, when Jesus’s appearance miraculously changes before the eye of Peter, James and John, It is Moses and Elijah that appear on either side of our Lord. So I don’t think that we can underestimate how important Elijah is to the history of our faith.
In the first Book of Kings, Elijah bursts onto the scene. We know very little about where he comes from or his background. What we know is that at that time the Kingdom of David had been split into two rival kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the North, where Elijah is working, and the Kingdom of Judah in the South. And the Kingdom of Israel, where Elijah is, was being led by a King named Ahab. Ahab had married a foreign princess named Jezebel, and instead of being faithful to his own God, the God of Israel, he had started to worship her God Baal. The prophets and priests of Baal were brought into the kingdom. Altars and shrines to Baal were setup, and the people began turning away from the God of Israel.
This troubles Elijah greatly, so he challenges the prophets of Baal to a public duel. He invites them to make a sacrifice to their God, Baal, to lay an animal on a pile of wood, but not to set fire to it. They should then call upon their God to ignite the offering. Elijah would do the same with his God, the God of Israel. The God that was able to send fire down upon the offering would indeed be the true God. Just to make sure there was no accusation of trickery, Elijah had water poured all over his sacrifice. The prophets of Baal tried their hardest, but alas, nothing happened to their offering. Elijah then cried out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and his sacrifice burst into flames. His God was proven to be the true God. The people were amazed and the prophets of Baal were put to death.
You could say that Elijah was amazingly successful. He had done a great thing for his God. He had made a name for himself as well, but his success would be short lived. Because Elijah had also made for himself a very powerful enemy. The Queen Jezebel did not take kindly to her prophets being bested and killed. She vowed to have Elijah killed. So Elijah has to go on the run. And this is where we find him in our reading this morning.
After a day’s journey in the wilderness, Elijah, who had just experienced a powerful miracle; saw the power of his God; had his ministry publicly affirmed, this same Elijah succumbs to one of the most painful human emotions: despair. Elijah is experiencing a setback. He had been victorious, now he is on the run. Perhaps he thought that his victory over the prophets of Baal would move him up the corporate ladder. Perhaps he thought that King Ahab would be grateful for his correction and would promote him to chief prophet. Perhaps he thought that once people witnessed the power of the God of Israel that they would be unlikely to backslide again. But now all of these dreams of Elijah came crashing down around him. His brief moment of victory had turned into a failure. He wants to die.
He says to God: “take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Think about what Elijah is really saying there: “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” In order for life to have meaning for Elijah, he needs to be better, or better off, than those that came before him; Elijah wants to be making continual, uninterrupted progress in his life. He wants to see his fame, and his ministry, and his 401k grow. He should be moving up the ladder, not running for his life. He shouldn’t be worse off than his ancestors. Elijah sees God’s blessing in progress. If he is not progressing, then he just doesn’t want to go on. God might as well take away his life.
And then an angel visits him, touches him and simply says: “Get up and eat.” And there was food. Elijah ate and went back to sleep. The angel touched him again: “Get up and eat. You are going to need food for this journey.” So Elijah eats again. And the food gives him the strength to keep wandering in the desert for forty days. And eventually Elijah comes to Mount Horeb, the mount of God, and he hears God speak to him: “What are you doing here Elijah?”
And Elijah says to God: “I have tried to serve you, but I have failed. The people just won’t listen, and now they are seeking my life.” And God says to him: “Go, stand on the mountain, and wait for me to pass by.” And Elijah goes and stands on the mountain. First there comes a great wind, but God was not in the wind. Then there was a great earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there came a great fire, but God was not in the fire. Then after the fire, a still small voice, almost like a profound silence. And Elijah knew that God was in that small voice, that silence, and he covered his face. And God asked him again: What are you doing here Elijah?”
And Elijah again said: “I have failed. I have tried to get your people to serve you, but they won’t listen and now they want to kill me.” And God says to him: “Go. Go back to the work you have been called to do, and on your way you are going to anoint new kings, and you are going to anoint a prophet to take your place when your time is over. I will take care of the rest.”
So Elijah goes back to his ministry, and back to calling people to faithfulness to the God of Israel, until the day that the Lord takes him home in glory. Then his junior Prophet, Elisha, picks up his mantle and carries on his work.
I have so much sympathy for Elijah sitting under that broom tree. It is so easy to get caught up in the idea of progress. It’s a great idea: if we work hard and do the right things that our lives will just get better and better. For some people that is what hope is all about: things just getting continually better.
The 20thcentury loved the idea of progress. One of the most popular pavilions at the 1964 World’s Fair was Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, where you go from one decade to the next in the 20thcentury and see how much better things kept getting. In between each scene they sing the song: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” I admit I love that ride, it’s still at Disney World and it is a classic, but I would be lying if I told you that I thought that’s what the world is like: things just getting better all the time. Perhaps that ride would be better suited to Fantasyland than Tomorrowland. No one can look at the 20thcentury and claim that it was a time of continual and uninterrupted progress, and I doubt that many of us could look at our own lives that way either. Life comes with ups and downs; it comes with successes and failures; progress is often followed by setback. If we think that God is only present in progress, then we are setting ourselves up for despair. Where was God when Elijah was running for his life? He was there feeding him in the desert; giving him the strength to endure his temporary exile. When Elijah’s efforts resulted in failure, what did God instruct him to do? Start over and make arrangements for the work to go on when your time is through.
Elijah’s ministry began with a tremendous success, and God showing himself in a spectacular public display of fire, but Elijah quickly learned afterwards that God is also present in the still, small voice, in the silence that can be found in the desert of despair.
Our hope as people of faith; our hope as Christians, is not that things are just going to keep getting better all the time; our hope is that even when times are bad, that God will feed us and sustain us; our hope is that even when we feel like we have failed, God will give us the grace to start again.