Our Scripture passages today require a bit of background information, from the stories of the Old Testament:
You have heard, I believe, of a king named David, a shepherd boy who killed a giant named Goliath and eventually rose to become the king of all Israel, approximately one thousand years before Jesus was born, 1000 B.C.
Under King David, and his son Solomon, the nation of Israel reached its height of prosperity in many ways—it grew to its largest size, in terms of territory; it was safe from its enemies, due to the strength of its armies and the protection of God; it was wealthy, and the envy of surrounding nations; it built a great palace for its king and a great Temple for God; and it was righteous, following the laws of God, so that God blessed it. The age of David and Solomon was the Golden Age for Israel, the time always looked back to, from then on, as the glory days.
But when King Solomon, David’s son, died, there was no leader strong enough to keep the nation together. A civil war broke out, and soon the nation of Israel had split into two nations, the nation still called “Israel” in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south.
And as the two countries went their separate ways, the Bible tells us, the northern kingdom Israel in particular had a hard time following God, and God alone. Several different times the people, led by their kings, began to worship other local gods like Bâ’al or Asherah.
Some of these kings of Israel were worse than others, in terms of leading the people astray, and in approximately the year 874 B.C., a man named Ahab became king of Israel, and is described like this: “Ahab reigned over Israel twenty-two years, and Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”
Ahab worshipped Bâ’al, the old fertility god of Canaan. He built and altar to Bâ’al in Samaria, where the God of Israel had been worshipped. He sacrificed his sons as he laid the foundations of two cities he built, in the belief that this would make the cities strong. He built a shrine to the goddess Asherah.
And he married the princess Jezebel, from the neighboring country of Sidon, a dedicated and zealous worshipper of Bâ’al, and enemy of God.
There was a man named Elijah in Israel, a man devoted to God; and the word of the Lord, we are told, came to Elijah while the evil King Ahab was on the throne, that there would be a drought, with neither dew nor rain, for years.
Now Ahab’s god Bâ’al was supposedly the fertility god, the one that made the crops to grow, the one that brought the rain, so right away the prophets of Bâ’al turned to their rituals and prayers and dances, trying to coax him to send the rain. And of course no rain came.
Then one day Elijah came to Ahab and said, “I say it is the true God, the God of Israel, who withholds the rain, because of your evil. Come, let us have a contest: you bring the prophets of Bâ’al to Mount Carmel, and I will come as the prophet of God. And we will see who it is who controls the rain.”
So the prophets of Bâ’al, 450 of them, came to Mount Carmel and built an altar to Bâ’al. And Elijah—Elijah alone—came to Mount Carmel and built an altar to God. And the people of Israel all gathered round too, and everyone agree to watch together for a sign, to see which god would respond, which god would prove their existence and their presence and their power.
The prophets of Bâ’al, the 450, sacrificed a bull and placed it on their altar, and began to call upon their god. From morning until noon they did their limping dance around the altar, crying, “O Bâ’al, answer us!” But Bâ’al did not answer.
And Elijah said, “Cry out louder. Maybe he is asleep and must be awakened, or maybe on a trip and must be called back . . . or maybe he had to leave the room for a moment to go to the bathroom.”
So the prophets of Bâ’al cried out louder, and danced harder, and even cut themselves with knives until they bled, to provoke a response. From noon until three they danced and bled and cried, “O Bâ’al, answer us!” But Bâ’al did not answer.
Finally Elijah said, “Enough! It is my turn now.” And he sacrificed a bull and laid it on the altar of God, with some pieces of wood; and he dug a trench around the altar; and he said, “Fill four jars full of water and pour it over the sacrifice and the wood.” Which the people did. And Elijah said, “Fill the jars again and pour it on the altar,” and the people did. And he said, “Fill them a third time and pour it on the altar,” and the people did, so that the altar and the bull and the wood were soaked, and the trench around the altar was full of water.
Then Elijah said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you are God, and turn their hearts back to you.”
And the fire of the Lord fell from the sky, burned up the bull, burned up the wood, burned up the altar, and licked up all the water from the trench! And the people cried out, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God!” And they seized the prophets of Bâ’al and had them killed, for leading them astray. And later that day, the rains finally came.
Now King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, champions of Bâ’al, were not too pleased by the outcome of this little demonstration. And Jezebel sent a message to Elijah, saying “What happened to the prophets of Bâ’al, I will do to you by this time tomorrow.”
And Elijah, for the first time, was afraid, and got up and fled for his life into the wilderness, where he climbed a high mountain. And that is where our second Scripture lesson begins today:
(I Kings 19: 9-14 NRSV)
The first part of the lesson which we’ll look at today has to do with how God came to Elijah. Do you remember how the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ disciples, in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, the story which began the Christian Church?
A great rush of wind, and tongues of fire, and disciples speaking languages they could not speak before, drawing the attention of the whole city! And how did God respond in the contest on Mount Carmel? Fire from heaven, burning up the altar, licking up the water, amazing the people!
But up on Elijah’s mountain when the fire comes, God is not in the fire. And when the great rush of wind comes, God is not in the wind. And when the earth shakes and the rocks break, God is not in the earthquake. God does not sound like any of these big things. No, instead, this time, God is in the “sound of sheer silence.” The King James Bible calls it “a still small voice.” Another translation reads “a gentle little breeze.”
God is in the quiet this time, in the silence—reminding us that we need to listen for God in many ways at different times, not just big flashy events like fire from heaven atop Mount Carmel.
God speaks to us in our silent prayers, if we will stop piling up phrase upon phrase and request upon request long enough to stop and listen for a moment. God speaks to us through the gentle little comments we make to one another, not just through loud flashy preachers, waving their arms and shouting out warnings. God speaks to us as we sit in silent prayer together, not just when we’re planning flurries of activities and running constantly till we drop. God speaks to us in many little moments of many parts of worship, not just through hundred-member choirs accompanied by organ, timpani, and brass.
But a sound of sheer silence, a still small voice, a gentle little breeze, is easily missed, if we aren’t careful. So take time to listen, at home in silent prayer, in your pew in our short periods of quiet, in the suggestions of your neighbors. Withdraw into silence every once in a while, the experts on payer tell us; retreat—doing nothing but praying and meditating and listening for God. For that is where one hears the “still small voice” of God.
What was that voice telling Elijah? Well, it isn’t “telling” so much, you may have noticed, as it’s asking, twice: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” What are you doing here? Remember, it was in the nation of Israel, among the people, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah and told him what to do. It was on Mount Carmel, among the people, that God and Elijah together changed the hearts of the people back toward God. It was back in Israel, among the people, that there was still work to be done.
So, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” What are you doing here?—far away, on this mountain, alone.
“But . . . but, God, you don’t understand. Those people, they’re trying to kill me. They’ve all turned away from your law. They’ve taken down your altars. They’ve killed your prophets, the people like me. I’m the only one left, in all of Israel, who’s faithful to you, and they’re trying to kill me. And then there’s this queen, this Jezebel, and she’s big and mean and nasty and . . . “
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” What are you doing here?
The temptation to withdraw when the job gets hard is one we have all probably experienced. Who hasn’t wanted to just go home or go away on a day when things weren’t working out? The church, or some other holy place like the holy mountain Elijah went to, has sometimes been seen as that place to withdraw to, when life in the “real world” isn’t working out:
- “I’ll go hide in the church; they have to be nice to me there.”
- “We’ll build a monastery or convent, and keep the real world outside the walls, where it can’t get us.”
- “We’ll just talk about heaven and inner peace and Jesus-being-my-friend at our church, and forget about that bad old world out there.”
But: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” What are you doing here? Didn’t I give you a job to do, out among the people? Why are you hiding here?
God is not unaware of Elijah’s fears, and God’s tone is not harsh. God does not act terribly angry, or threaten Elijah, or punish Elijah. In fact God, in the verses following our text, seems to try to reassure Elijah: “You are not alone,” is one thing God says. “There are seven thousand in Israel that have not bowed their knees to Bâ’al.”
But God is also firm: “Go, return on your way to Israel. And when you arrive you shall anoint a new king Hâz’ael over Syria, a new king Jehu over Israel (which is an outright act of treason), and a prophet to succeed you, named Elisha.” Get back among the people, God says, back into the world; go, return on your way, and finish what we’ve started.
Elijah’s job now is to get back in there among the people, even within the reach of Ahab and Jezebel, and finish the task of returning them to God.
God’s message had its intended effect, as described by a writer named Simon DeVries: “We are told nothing of a change in Elijah’s psychological state. We are not even told whether he actually did carry out the anointing of Hâz’ael and Jehu and Elisha. But Elijah’s abandonment of ministry and surrender of life is overcome by the straightforward commission with which the story ends. Doubts will cease and misgivings vanish when God puts him to work.”
Elijah returns to Israel.
The breeze is gentle and little, the voice still and small, but the message is clear: You are not alone; and it’s time to stop hiding here in your holy place, and get back to work among the people. That’s where discipleship happens; that’s where God’s kingdom is introduced; that’s where we make a difference in this world. The time for retreat ends; the time comes to emerge from “here.”
Let us pray: God, help us to hear exactly what it is you are calling us to do among your people, even when you speak in a “still small voice.” Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, to be your evangelists, your mission workers, your teachers, your servants, in a needy and hurting world. Amen.