1 Kings 19: 9-18; Ms. Deanna Briody
If you’re ever feeling depressed over the state of American politics, I’d encourage you to open up a Bible to Kings or Judges and skim through the history of Israel. My guess is that you’ll be encouraged by the comparison and reassured in the most cheery way that God can and does work in the worst of national circumstances. In fact it’s often amidst idolatry, injustice, tragedy, and division, that God displays his power and goodness in astounding ways. We catch a little glimpse of that in our reading from 1 Kings today, as we dip into the story of the prophet Elijah.
At the time of Elijah’s ministry, Israel is a mess. The king, Ahab, has married a Sidonian woman named Jezebel, a queen who is so infamously wicked over the course of her life that her name becomes a trope—to be a jezebel is to be an impudent, shameful, despicable woman. Together Ahab and Jezebel do great evil in the sight of the Lord, as the history texts of the Old Testament so often record, and yet this couple is given the distinction of doing “more [evil] than all who were before [them]” (16:30). The first thing we find out about Ahab and Jezebel is that they “served Baal and worshipped him” (16:31).
In the Ancient Near East, Baal worship was central to life. In the Canaanite religion, Baal was the fertility god, the god of rain, and if Baal was not worshipped and appeased, the skies dried up, the crops withered, the animals died, and the people starved. Of course, the Israelites were unique in the Ancient Near East because they worshipped not the god of rain or the god of the sea or the god of this territory or that territory, but the one true God, the Lord, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the one who had, in the beginning, made water to cover the earth and life to grow from it, and who still makes the skies open at his wish. Believing in and worshipping the Creator of Heaven and Earth made the worship of any other so-called god ridiculous. There is only one God, the Lord who had made a covenant with Israel, who had freed them from the house of slavery in Egypt, who had given them a good and holy law and a fertile land. More often than not, however, the kings of Israel failed to lead the people in covenant faithfulness. And on the long list of rebellious and wicked leadership in Israel, Ahab and Jezebel are at the top. Instead of leading the people in righteousness and faithfulness to the Lord, they established Baal worship as the state-sponsored religion in Israel, building altars and idols on every street corner and setting up the center of worship in the newly renovated House of Baal in Samaria. Going still further, Jezebel sponsored a mass slaughter of the prophets of the Lord, rounding up all the faithful she could find and killing them by the hundred.
Things are bad in Israel when Elijah appears on the scene. His first prophetic act is an act of judgment: he predicts a three-year drought. According to Elijah, it is not Baal who rules the skies, who direct the weather in its course, it is the Lord God. And as a consequence to Israel’s unfaithfulness, as a testimony to the underlying lie that is Baal worship, Elijah promises that the people would see the power of the one true God: “There shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” And Elijah is right. A horrible drought comes upon the land. Famine spreads and poverty abounds. It seems clear to anyone with eyes to see that Baal is not faithful to his promises, for the people worshipped and served him, they raised altars in his honor and sacrificed their children in his name, and still the rain didn’t come.
But Elijah is not content to let the people think that Baal is merely a fickle or an unsteady god. Elijah wants it known that Baal is no god at all. He confronts King Ahab, accusing him of bringing tragedy and judgment upon Israel by “abandoning the commandments of the Lord and
following [false gods]” (1 Kings 18:18). He tells Ahab to gather the people and the hundreds of false prophets who are regularly invited to eat at the royal table, and to bring them to Mount Carmel to see which god is the real god—Baal or the Lord.
At Mt. Carmel, Elijah stands up among the crowds and lays out a choice before the people: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.” And then he issues a challenge. The prophets of Baal are to prepare a bull and lay it on a heap of wood to be sacrificed. But they are not to light the fire. Instead, they are to call upon the name of their god and see if he answers. The people accept the challenge. They prepare the bull, they lay out the wood, and they call upon the name of Baal “from morning until noon, saying ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice,” the Scripture tells us, “and no one answered. And they limped around the altar they had made” (18:26).
Elijah then sets about his own test. He repairs the altar of the Lord that had been destroyed, stacking twelve stones on top of each other, and he has a great pile of wood arranged on top of it, and a mote dug around it, and water poured over the wood on the altar til the wood is soaked through and the mote is full. At that point, Elijah prays aloud: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the Scripture tells us that immediately after, “The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God” (18:38-40).
The prophets of Baal are rounded up and executed for blasphemy, mirroring the execution of the Lord’s prophets by Jezebel, and King Ahab is astounded to see rain clouds gathering in the sky for the first time in years. But when Jezebel hears of Elijah’s deeds, she’s outraged. She puts a price on his head. According to Jezebel, by the same time the following day, Elijah will be a dead man.
Terrified, Elijah flees the city, walking on foot nearly a hundred miles in his fear, and as he walks, his spirits sink lower and lower. He ends up leaving his servant behind and wandering into the wilderness alone, listless and depressed. After all he has done to fight for Israel’s faithfulness, even after the great victory at Mount Carmel and the Lord’s renewed gift of rain, still he is a hunted man, an outcast, a villain. He’s done. The Scripture tells us that he wants to die. He finds a tree and lies down beneath it to sleep. An angel touches him awake and bids him eat and drink. He eats and drinks and goes back to sleep. If you or someone close to you has ever struggled with depression, this cycle may be familiar to you. Again the angel wakes him and commands him a second time to eat and drink. So Elijah eats and drinks, and the text tells us that on the strength of that meal, he walks forty days and forty nights to Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai, where God had once appeared to Moses to give the law on tablets of stone.
And that’s where our reading for today picks up the story. We don’t know why Elijah goes to Mt. Horeb. As far as we can see from the text, he wasn’t given any divine instruction to do so. When he gets there he doesn’t perform any impressive miracle or set about any special act of
devotion. He finds a cave and sets up camp in its depths, a safe place, tucked away. Maybe depression has overcome him again. The strength of the angel’s meal has at last been spent. Maybe he can’t bear to think of returning to the fight, the long, unending war that is his life as a prophet in Israel. Maybe he’s hoping to meet with God face to face, as Moses once had long ago.
Regardless, as if to confirm that Elijah isn’t at Mt. Horeb on God’s instruction, the word of the Lord comes to Elijah, holed up in his cave: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah’s answer is honest and raw with emotion, but it’s also a bit elusive: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Now, that’s all true, but it isn’t really an answer to the Lord’s question. What is he doing at Mt. Horeb, holed away in a cave? We don’t know. We know only that he is stricken with grief, despondent, lonely, threatened. We know that he’s afraid, and that he has journeyed to the mountain on the borrowed strength of angels.
Now just as Elijah doesn’t respond directly to the Lord’s question, the Lord doesn’t respond directly to Elijah’s complaints. The Lord tells him, instead, to come out of the cave and stand on the mountain before the Lord. Before Elijah moves, though, something spectacular happens. The Lord passes by. In some way or another the special presence of the Lord shows up in a special way at the mouth of the cave, and by the account we get of what happens next, it seems the created world recognizes its Maker. A great wind—think of a tornado or hurricane—rips through the mountain range, taking off chunks of earth from the mountains and bringing down rockslides with its force. Then the ground itself starts to shake beneath Elijah’s feet. The mountains shift and the cave groans as tectonic plates collide beneath the earth’s surface. And then comes the fire, and suddenly the world is all bright, flickering heat and smoke.
But, the Scripture tells us, the Lord was not in any of these things. No doubt these wild occurrences were tied to the Lord passing by the cave, but that doesn’t really seem to be the point: the Lord was not in them. The natural disasters we see here were certainly within God’s providence, clearly tied in some way to God’s movement and presence, but they were not God’s heralds. They were not God’s voice.
But after the wind dies down, and the earth grows still, and the fire reduces to a smolder, there comes a low whisper, a small voice, a quiet word. And though wind, earthquake, and fire had failed to move Elijah, the whisper does not. At last he is brought to act, to obey, to accept the command and the invitation of God. He gets up, wraps his cloak around his head, and walks to the edge of the cave. And at that point the whisper takes shape, and Elijah can hear what it’s saying. It’s the same question as before: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And though everything has changed in the last few moments, though the whole earth has shifted at the presence of the Lord, Elijah gives the same response. He has moved from the recesses of despair to the edge of obedience, but he has not yet arrived at the courage of a clear answer.
What is he doing at Mt. Horeb? What is he looking for? We still don’t know. We can only assume, given his uniform answer, that he has not yet found it in full.
But perhaps he is about to, albeit in an unexpected way. The Word of the Lord comes to Elijah in response to his repeated complaint and gives him another invitation, another command, and it’s kind of startling in its pragmatism, its frank simplicity: “Go, return on your way.” Elijah has traveled for well over a month at this point, and the Word of the Lord to him is “Go back. Go back, Elijah. Go back to life you fled. Go back to the long war, to the daily fight. Go back to being the instrument of my providence in this bizarre and troubled time. Go back to the peril of attempting faithfulness in an unfaithful land. Go, return on your way and follow my instructions.”
In Elijah’s story, God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. He is not in the flashy, the dramatic, what we might call the supernatural. God is in the whisper that invites Elijah out of the cave to behold the Lord. God is in the still, small voice that calls Elijah back to life, that instructs the prophet to return on his way.
Elijah couldn’t articulate why he had walked forty days and forty nights to sleep in a cave at the bottom of Mt. Horeb, but I think he found what he needed there nevertheless. As far as we know, Elijah returns to the heart of Israel to anoint kings and call prophets with the same traumatizing experiences checkering his past, with the same deadly price on his head, with the same weariness in his bones, but he does so clearly as a different man. He returns as one who has eaten the bread of angels, who has met with God on the holy mountain, who has heard the Word of the Lord, the still, small voice of God, and has been sent back. He returns as one who has been empowered by the living Word of God, and so is able to go.
Earlier in Elijah’s ministry, when the people had called upon Baal hour after hour, there was no voice. No one answered. And in that dreadful silence, the only thing the people could do was limp around the altar they had made.
It’s different with the God of Israel. It’s different with the one true God. The one true God is the God who speaks, the God who answers us even when we don’t know what to ask, the God who is found not in the fire or the earthquake, but in the Word, in the quiet invitation to come out of the cave, to make the long trek back to life, and who gives us the power to do just that.
It is this God, the one true God, who reveals himself in Christ Jesus centuries later. It is this God we hear about in the Gospel of Matthew who walks upon the water, who comes to us—again in the midst of terrible wind and a crashing storm—as the still, small voice that has the power to quiet our fears and call us out onto the water, out into the stormy life of faith.
It is this God who comes to us this morning. He comes to us in the Scriptures read and the Gospel preached. Maybe today God is asking you the question he once asked Elijah: What are you doing here? Why did you turn on your livestream, commit to spending yet another hour looking at a screen? What are you doing here? And maybe, like Elijah, you don’t have a straight answer to give. Things are hard. I’m grieving, despondent, lonely, afraid.
Friends, the Word of the Lord comes to you this morning, comes to us. The still, small voice of God finds us where we are and calls us out of our caves, out of our depression, out of our fear, back into the terrible difficulty being God’s instruments in this bizarre and troubled time. He gives us what we need for the journey—food from heaven, his very own flesh and blood, and the whispered Word of life. We’re hearing that Word by God’s grace even now. Amen.