11th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon
The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is one of the great stories of the Old Testament. It’s what took place immediately before the Old Testament lesson we heard this morning.
In a nutshell: Ahab is the King of Israel, and he’s a mess. But even messier is his foreign wife, Jezebel. And following their lead, Israel’s gone totally apostate. They’ve totally forsaken obedience to God and are worshiping Baal and the various gods Jezebel’s brought with her. And at this point in the story they’ve been in a drought for years as divine punishment for their infidelity.
Then God sends the prophet Elijah – faithful, wise, courageous Elijah – and he challenges the prophets of Baal to a competition: they’re each to sacrifice a bull to their god and to call down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Well, the prophets of Baal do their thing – they pray and chant and cut themselves with knives for hours. But nothing works. And Elijah starts mocking them: Where’s your God now, huh? Maybe he’s asleep; (or as some scholars translate it) maybe he’s out on the toilet taking a leak.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn, and he douses the carcass of his bull with water (to make it super challenging to burn), then calls out to God, Let it be known this day that you are God in Israel! and fire comes whooshing down from heaven. It consumes the bull. It consumes the wood and the rocks and even the dust and everyone was like, Oh my God! And they were not taking the Lord’s name in vain, right?! It was real. Oh my God!
And then Elijah calls out to the people, Seize the prophets of Baal! which they do and they slaughter them all. And then clouds come rushing in from over the sea and burst open and deluge the land: a total triumph for the God of Israel, and for Elijah, God’s faithful prophet.
But Jezebel IS NOT HAPPY. She sends a message to Elijah: This time tomorrow – you’re a dead man.
And now Elijah – faithful, wise, courageous Elijah – is terrified. He hightails it to the wilderness, finds a solitary broom tree, takes a seat beneath it and – whatever adrenaline rush he had going for him the day before – it is over. And it’s not just this last confrontation. This whole “Ahab – Jezebel – apostate Israel” thing has been going on for years. He’s scared and vulnerable and just plain worn out. Really worn out. “God, I am done with this mess,” worn out.
And he lies down beneath the tree and is ready to die. But instead, he fell into a deep sleep.
Then, after a long sleep, an angel shakes him awake. “Get up and eat,” he tells him. There beside him is food (that the angel’s baked for him) and a jar of water. Elijah does what he’s told. He eats. He drinks. Then he falls asleep again. He’s still just so tired. Then after another long rest the angel wakes him again. “C’mon. It’s time to eat some more and get going.”
And this is where the story gets interesting for me. It doesn’t tell us why Elijah did what he did next. But I’ve got a theory.
My hunch is, after years of costly faithfulness, and after a significant crisis, and after a couple days’ deep sleep, he’s finally arrived at a startling degree of honesty and is starting to wonder, “Was it worth it? All this faith? All this sacrifice? this obedience? What have I got to show for it? Who are you, God? I want to know. Who are you? I’ve given everything I’ve got and I’m worn out and I just want to know, were you worth it? ‘Cause honestly, at this point, I’m not so sure.”
It’s not petulance. Just raw, earnest honesty. And he does the most faithful thing he can think of. He remembers Moses, who like himself suffered much for his faith while trying to lead a faithless people. So what did Moses do? He fasted forty days; he went up Mt. Sinai; he hid himself in a cleft in the rock (like God told him to) and there he was awarded a glimpse – just a glimpse! – of God’s backside passing by. He saw God! And even the glory of God’s rear end was enough to make his face glow for days afterwards.
And I think the conclusion Elijah reaches is, “I want what Moses got. Just a glimpse of your glory would be enough for me to know that this life of faith has been worth it.”
So when the angel wakes him for the second time, Elijah gets up and does what Moses did. He fasts and journeys for forty days; he climbs up Mt. Horeb (also known as Mt. Sinai) where he finds a cave that he goes into and spends the night, hoping to see God’s glory.
The next day he wakes and the word of the Lord comes to him. “What are you doing here?” Elijah complains a little about what he’s been through. Then the voice says, “Go stand out on the mountain, for the Lord is going to pass by.” And Elijah must be thinking, “Yes! Yes! This is exactly what I’m after. Show me the good stuff!” And then all this crazy stuff starts happening: this powerful wind comes whipping down – so strong the rocks are breaking apart. But God’s not in the wind. Then there’s an earthquake. But God’s not in the earthquake. And then fire! But God’s not in that either. None of this can match the glory of God Elijah’s there for.
And then – there’s sheer silence. What is it? What’s out there? Elijah’s still in the cave. S, he wraps a scarf around his face (presumably to shield himself from all that glory), and he walks outside the cave ready for it. And what does he get?
Nothing. All there was was utter silence.
Are you kidding me?
Then the voice of the Lord asks him again, “What are you doing here?” And poor Elijah, what’s he supposed to say? so he repeats the same complaint he’d made before. Word for word. Nothing has changed. (Except maybe his tone!) He gave everything he had; he was as faithful as he knew to be. Just a little glimpse of God was all he needed, and he got nothing. Then God says, “Hey, Elijah, I need you to go back to the wilderness, around Damascus where there’s some work I need you to do.”
And you know what? That’s exactly what Elijah did. He went down the mountain, back to the wilderness and kept on being obedient to what God told him to do without getting at all what he’d hoped for.
If you’re like me, whenever you’ve heard teaching on this story of Elijah and the “sheer silence” (or the “still small voice” as it’s badly translated in the King James Bible) – it’s always suggested that Elijah perceived some deeper awareness of God’s presence through the silence. And the exhortation for us is that our experience of silence in prayer can be akin to that. And don’t get me wrong, centering prayer and silence in prayer can be extraordinarily powerful.
But I’m no longer convinced that’s the point of this story. I think there’s a truth that’s a lot more raw being dealt with here: There are times in this life when we’ve reached the end, when we’re barely holding on, and all we want from God is the tiniest evidence of God’s presence, of God’s reality, and we cry out for it, begging for it; we can’t go on without it…and we get nothing.
And you think, “What’s the point of it all?” Then you start looking back – all those years of asking God to deliver your children from their addictions; all those years of faithfully going to church and giving to church, and at some point something snaps and you suddenly get honest like Elijah and wonder, “God who are you? I might not have had the faith of Elijah, but I’ve tried – given what I can, believed as much as I could. Now I’m just wondering here, is it worth it? Are you worth it?” And God responds with silence.
This is what makes Elijah’s story so powerful. Totally disappointed in his heart’s deep yearning, he nonetheless heeds God’s word and heads back into the wilderness to do what he’s told to do next.
And I tell you what: That’s some deep faith right there.
Because – yes – faith is hard. Choosing to be like Jesus is costly. And the tasks do remain before us – glaring and endless.
But I think the point of it all is this: When Elijah was worn out, ready to die – and Jezebel was there, eager to make that happen – what God chose to give Elijah was rest. There beneath the broom tree, God sent an angel to watch over him while he slept, to bake him a cake and bring him some water. Who knows? Maybe that same angel was keeping Jezebel away, allowing Elijah to sleep so peacefully. He wanted glory. He needed rest. And that God gave him.
We see the pattern again at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days. Then at the end, totally famished, the temptations begin. And it was glory that tempted him. Fling yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you in front of God and everyone. Let the miraculous vindicate you. But it wasn’t glory he required. It was rest. And having persevered through temptation, “the devil left him and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
And so for us. In our anxious wakefulness it’s proof of God we crave. (And like I said last week, that is a perfectly legitimate craving to have, and we’ll happily take every proof God sends our way.) But night by night, Sabbath by Sabbath, it is the rest of God our souls and bodies truly require. For it is from rest we gain the resolve to fortify ourselves and return to the task of faith before us.
At a very simple level, sleep itself is such a mercy. God could have made us to function in any way. Imagine if there were no such thing as “tiredness,” and we just kept going, wide awake, endlessly until we die. How dreadful. What a gift to know the rhythm of work and leisure and sleep; the “start over” button we’re given each day.
But at a deeper level, “the rest of God,” is more than just sleep. It is true peace. It is refreshment for the soul that – regardless of the circumstances – all will be well. Such rest is the gift of God. And more often than not, it comes through the care of another. We become the angels (as it were), when we bring meals and bottle of wine to a friend who’s wearied. We become the angels when we then share that meal and that wine, and enter deep conversation – when through our spirits their spirits know, “I am not alone. I am seen. I am cared for.” For such is the rest our souls require should we desire to live in faith for the good of this lonesome, stricken world.
 Matthew 4:11