Parish Communion St Mary’s, Whitchurch on Thames
June 19 2016, 9.30.
4th after Trinity: 1 Kings 19:1-16
Elijah Flees from Jezebel
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then 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.’ 3Then 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.
4 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.’ 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ 6He 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. 7The 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.’ 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At 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?’ 10He 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.’
Elijah Meets God at Horeb
11 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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.13When 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?’ 14He 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.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.
The spiritual journey downwards reveals God’s surprising word to us
Let’s go on a journey with Elijah the prophet. It’s a journey every human being will need to make at some point or other. It’s a journey that writer Richard Rohr calls ‘falling upward’, and it’s far from easy. It’s a journey without geography, except the geography of the human soul, and it’s the most important journey we’ll ever make.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done something really heroic, and felt justifiably proud, only to come crashing down the other side? On July 6 2005, Britain was riding high having just won the Olympic bid for London 2012 against stiff competition from Paris. The great and glorious news was announced – Britain had won the Olympic bid. Elated scenes in Trafalgar Square! Cue cheering, screaming, hugging, jumping up and down. Union Jack umbrellas, balloons and streamers. Prime Minister Tony Blair, called it a ‘momentous day for Britain’. We all felt wonderful; we felt proud; we felt elated. Less than 24 hours later, London was plunged into terror and grief as we reeled from fatal attacks on the London Underground and bus that killed 52 innocent people. A lot can happen in a day.
Elijah had reached perhaps the pinnacle of his spiritual achievements. He had stood up to the threat from wicked King Ahab and his evil wife, Jezebel; he had proved with miraculous power even over weather, that the LORD was God, and not Ba’al. He had been a faithful leader to Israel and zealous for Israel’s God. But all it takes is 24 hours, a scary threat from Jezebel, and Elijah is on the journey down. The great prophet of God, the confident man of faith turns on his heel and runs away. ‘He got up and fled for his life and came to Beer-sheba, and left his servant there (…) and went a day’s journey into the wilderness and sat down under a solitary broom tree.’
From hero to zero in three easy steps. What has happened to Elijah the great prophet, the man full of righteous anger, the mighty instrument of God’s judgment? He’s just discovered he’s human after all. It seems to be our lot in life to have a trough after a peak. To suffer gloom and boredom after joyful achievement. Remember the disciples at the Transfiguration? Coming off the mountaintop with the vision of Jesus fresh in our hearts, to the messy humanity at the bottom of the mountain– a child no one can heal? Coming off the mountaintop always carries a strong health warning. Bear Grylls, explorer and survival expert extraordinaire writes movingly of climbers he has known who have not survived Everest – the thing to note is that they nearly all died on the way down. They conquered the summit, but lost it on the descent. The descent in life is always a tough one. The descent into mediocrity, the descent into losing capacity…
Elijah’s descent begins in fear and continues as he runs away from Mt. Carmel, scene of his spiritual triumph over the prophets of Ba’al, scene of his wonderful God-filled moment of victory. After running, he is tired; he despairs and he falls asleep under a tree. He is alone, he is depressed and he is exhausted. Having experienced a spiritual peak on Mt Carmel, he is now on the way down, miles form everything familiar and in unchartered territory spiritually. But unchartered territory spiritually is the best territory to be in for growth. We perhaps even we are learning (depending on how mature we are) that it is at our lowest, that God can be nearest.
Mercifully God knows we have also physical needs when we’re at our lowest ebb. After sleeping, Elijah is refreshed by food that miraculously appears, twice, and an angel encourages him to eat his fill before continuing the journey to Mt. Horeb. The angel doesn’t ask why he is going there (though well he might, and we might) – just that he eat enough for the arduous 40-day journey. A 40-day journey from one mountain to another. I expect human beings always discover something about themselves in the mountains. 40 is a biblical number for completeness – it’s as if Elijah is destined to wander in order to discover himself, as did the Israelites in the desert for 40 years. This is Elijah on the way down.
For the first half of our lives we like to think we’re on the way up – upwardly mobile – acquiring qualifications, work experience, relationships, children, a house, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these things; they’re markers of identity. But eventually we have to ask ourselves who are we, on the inside. This is the turning point of the journey of life, because if done truthfully, it requires us to be divested of our pretensions to status, pride and subtle one-up-man-ship.
Alain De Boton writes of ‘status anxiety’ and most of us suffer from it – even in the church. We wonder who is more spiritual, more knowledgeable, more popular.Who has the more perfect family life, the better lifestyle, the longer lasting relationships. Those of us with kids compare them to other people’s and either feel smug or panicked. It would be better if we could accept ourselves with contentment.
The other side of status anxiety is pride. If you’ve ever started to imagine yourself as more than you are; and then been brought up short, you’ll understand what taking a tumble, feels like, pride-wise. It feels like Elijah feels. Elijah doesn’t know why he’s in a cave miles from anywhere and everyone. He can’t even answer the question, ‘what are you doing here Elijah?’ A question God puts to him twice. A question we could perhaps interpret as ‘what are here in this desert, Elijah? This is the crux of falling upwards: we grow by having our false pretences stripped away.
As a once great prophet full of courage and purpose and spiritual power, Elijah doesn’t look much now. An old man hiding in a cave, unable to answer the most basic question about himself. Who are you? What are you doing with your life?
It’s a question God asks us from time to time. Who are you? What are you doing with your life? This is where the story gets mysterious. This is where God appears in a surprise. This is the famous part of the story, so you know it well.
Here at this moment of crisis for Elijah, God is about to pass by. Here comes the great wind – splitting rocks, more powerful than anything you’ve ever imagined, a raging, hissing, destructive, terrible force of nature. But God was not in the wind. Here comes the earthquake – a hissing, boiling, splitting, shifting landslide of terror and awe. But God was not in the earthquake. And then the fire – roaring, consuming, raging, full of heat and light and acrid smoke. But God was not in the fire.
Although God is often described like a fire, or like thunder, or like a rushing wind of Pentecost, it is God’s prerogative to be where God will be. He does not jump to our tune. He is the God of surprises. We can’t assume we have God taped. We can’t assume he does things the way we would.
How will God surprise you today?
Elijah’s surprise is what happens after the noise, after the rumpus, after the adrenalin fuelled activity and excitement. Because surprisingly, God is in the ‘after whisper’. God is in ‘the still small voice’; ‘the voice of silence’; ‘the voice of a thin, fine silence’; ‘the voice of fragile silence’ (however you translate it)*
In a week of violence and tragedy, with the Orlando gay club shootings and the violent death of a Leeds MP going about her daily constituency duties, the voice of silence is eloquent. There are sometimes no words.
We do well to stop, to attend to how we conduct ourselves in public and in private; what violence we have in our own hearts, what prejudices we unknowingly harbour towards those who are very different from us. Who vote differently, who love differently. We do well to be silent in the face of our own manipulation of others with language, to get them to do what we want, or to endlessly justify ourselves. We do well to listen again to the still small voice of God. The smallness of the voice masks its power to speak the word of loving correction, to raise us up and set us on our feet again. Or the voice can be a question. What are you doing here? After your job, or role is no longer yours, after your charity work is done, at the end of everything, what are you?What is your name?
(My name is Legion, for we are many).
In the silence, in the whisper of something utterly true about himself, Elijah meets God afresh. In our quiet places of prayer, alone or together, God speaks something special and unique to each of us, here and now. Elijah’s journey was downwards, to littleness. Only after that did God re-instate him, with a fresh direction and fresh instructions. He shows him his successor – always a sobering moment for anyone. Elisha will be even more full of the Spirit than Elijah. But we mustn’t compare.
The downwards journey to littleness is one all of us will make; some sooner than others. It is the ultimate journey that Jesus made for us – in the Incarnation and in his self giving on the cross.As we leave Elijah at Mt Horeb, humbled and surprised, about to re-engage with the next phase of his life, we can ask for grace to look beyond the chatter, the contests, the spin, the prejudice, and to make room for the surprising, the very personal, the very quiet, the very life changing, word of God.
* http://www.torahtrek.org/app-writings/writing-2 (very helpful website re. translation of ‘still small voice’)