Sunday, June 23, 2010
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© The Rev. Dr. James Campbell
I Kings 19:1-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…”
“Hello darkness, my old friend.” That phrase has an uncomfortable familiarity for anyone who has ever suffered from depression or chronic pain or addiction or loneliness. Maybe you are one of those people. And so was a man named Elijah.
The prophet Elijah was running for his life from King Ahab and his pagan wife, Queen Jezebel. The reading you heard today picks up immediately after a confrontation between the priests of Yahweh, the God of Israel and the priests of Baal, the god of the Canaanites. Elijah had challenged the priests of Baal to a duel of sorts, to see whose god was the most powerful. They set up an altar and then called on Baal to send fire from heaven to consume the animal sacrifice. We are told that nothing happened, no matter how loudly they called out. Their gods were silent.
And then it was Elijah’s turn. And being a bit of a show-off, Elijah ordered that all that raw meat be drenched with water, again and again to make the fire more of a challenge. And then he called upon the name of the Lord – just once. And fire came from heaven and devoured everything in its sight. That display of power emboldened Elijah so much that he took a sword and killed all the prophets of Baal. He slaughtered them. What a bloody, awful mess that must have been.
This infuriated Queen Jezebel, whose god had been humiliated and whose priests had been murdered. And so she promised that she would do that same to Elijah within 24 hours. And so Elijah did what I would do: he ran for his life. He ran all the way to Beer-Sheba in the Negev desert, about one hundred miles to the south, in the neighboring kingdom of Judah. And he did that on foot – fear and adrenaline driving him.
When he finally stopped, he was beyond exhausted. When he finally stopped, he was frightened and alone and deeply depressed. And if you have ever been deeply depressed, you will understand what Elijah did next. He prayed to die. "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…” And then he lay down under a broom tree and waited for his prayer to be answered. But instead of dying, Elijah fell asleep. And if you have ever been depressed; if you suffer from depression; if you have ever been overwhelmed by anything, then you know how sweet the escape of sleep is. You may not feel rested afterwards, but at least you have temporarily escaped your misery.
Before too long, an angel of the Lord tapped Elijah on the shoulder and said: “Get up and eat.” When I’m depressed, food hold no pleasure. Maybe it didn’t for Elijah either. But there it was, by some miracle, fresh bread and water. And angels of the Lord are very persistent. So Elijah sat up, ate and drank. And then he fell back to sleep again. But the angel of the Lord returned and tapped him on the shoulder one more time. And wonder of wonder, there was more bread and more water. “Eat this,” the angel said, “because we’re going on a journey.”
Elijah and the angel traveled to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, the dwelling place of God. And there on the mountain Elijah found a cave to hide in. “Maybe here I will be safe,” he thought. But before he could really settle down, the voice of the Lord came to him, saying: “What are you doing here?” “What do you mean ‘What am I doing here?’” Elijah bellowed back at the sky. “I am a wanted man. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was doing your will. But now there is a bounty on my head. And I am all alone in this world.”
And God replied: “Go to mouth of the cave, for I am about to pass by.”
Suddenly, a violent wind began to blow. It was so strong that it actually broke the stones into pieces. “This must be the Lord,” Elijah thought. “For the Lord is mighty enough to break the stones.” But the Lord was not in the wind. And then there was an earthquake. “Well, then this must be the Lord,” Elijah said. “For the Lord is Sovereign of the earth and make it quake whenever he pleases.” But the Lord was not in that either. And then there was a fire, and Elijah knew that God sometimes appeared as fire. Hadn’t God sent down fire to consume the sacrifices of the prophets of Baal? But the Lord wasn’t present there either. Wind, earthquake, fire - any of these spectacles might have saved Elijah from his enemies. Each of these demonstrations seemed like something his mighty God would do.
Elijah looking for God in these displays of power are more revealing of Elijah than they are of God. Wind, earthquake, fire – this is how we want our God to be revealed against our enemies. We want a God who beats his chest and raises her voice and rattles the saber and calls a team of lawyers. That’s how we define power. That’s how Elijah hoped God would reveal her power. But God, we are told, was not in any of those displays. God was not in any of it. And that seems an important thing for us to ponder as so many loud, violent people claim to be speaking for God. God was not in any of it.
After all of these fearful and noisy manifestations, there followed what the Hebrew language calls the “qol damamah daqqah” – what the King James Version of the Bible translates so beautifully as a “still, small voice.” As much as I love that turn of phrase, it is probably better translated as “the sound of sheer silence.”
Profound silence seems to have a weight of its own. It pushes down on us. Profound silence will get our attention when nothing else will. So after the wind and earthquake and fire, when it was suddenly and deafeningly silent, Elijah came to the mouth of the cave to see what on earth had happened. And God said again: “What are you doing here?” But this time, something shifted in Elijah; something softened and he was ready to listen. And God said: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…”
This is a marvelous story for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it is our story. It is the story of anyone, anywhere who has ever been overwhelmed and underwhelmed; anyone searching for meaning; anyone who has ever been afraid or made a life-altering mistake; anyone running from loneliness, illness, poverty, fear, depression, or anxiety; anyone wondering where God is in the midst of pain; wondering is God is anywhere at all; anyone distressed at the inequality and unfairness of life. This is your story. And it is mine.
But if this is truly our story, then that means that our stories are full of angels. Our stories are about generous gifts of food and drink in the midst of a wilderness. Our stories are about a God who loves us enough to ask us again and again: “What are you doing here?” until we move on to something better. And if this story really is our story, then in the end, no matter what a mess we make of everything – there will be stillness and there will be redemption.
Thanks be to God. Amen.