12th Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Thursday, August 4, and Sunday, August 7, 2005
It’s storytime, so sit back and relax. Use your imagination, since this story doesn’t have pictures. This is a story of Elijah, prophet of God. And it is a story of you and me, because in Elijah’s story we may just see a little of ourselves in our reaction to what happens around us, in our need for God’s protection and hope, and in how God may choose to use us. The story comes from the Old Testament reading in 1 Kings, but we’ll also use Psalm 28—which you have at the end of the printed worship service—as part of telling this story.
This is a story of Elijah, but first it is a story of Ahab and Jezebel.
Ahab, king of Israel, married Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. It was a political marriage, sealing an alliance between Israel and Phoenicia. Ahab married Jezebel, and she is the one that really causes the events that lead up to this story of Elijah.
Jezebel came into her marriage with Ahab wanting to keep her own religion. I don’t mean she was Catholic and he was Lutheran. Those are two different denominations, divisions within Christianity, but still the same religion. No, with Jezebel and Ahab, they had two very different religions.
Ahab was king of Israel, a country that had been worshipping Yahweh, the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our God, and yet, they were slipping away from the true God which is exactly why Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was so dangerous.
Jezebel worshipped Baal. The worship of Baal is centered around fertility rites. It was a religion that encouraged people to act like animals, letting their immoral passions lead the way. Yahweh, the true God, calls people into community to serve one another, calls people to set aside their sinful desires and live more holy lives. That’s not what happens with Baal, and that’s not what happened with Jezebel.
So Ahab marries Jezebel. Jezebel gets Ahab to worship Baal, to build a temple for Baal. Jezebel leads Ahab astray, and that’s when the prophets get mad.
The prophets of Yahweh, the true God, start to preach against Baal and Jezebel. They tell the people to stop following any god but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And this really makes Jezebel mad, so she starts rounding up these prophets to have them killed. And that’s when Jezebel sets her sights on Elijah.
Elijah the prophet comes and shows up the prophets of Baal, embarrasses King Ahab, and now Jezebel is furious. She sends a message to Elijah saying that she will have him killed by the next day.
With a death warrant out for him, a price on his head, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.”
Elijah ran, because Jezebel had threatened his God. Elijah worshipped the true God, and Jezebel was threatening anyone who preached in Yahweh’s Name.
Elijah ran, because Jezebel had led the people away. From King Ahab down to the people in the streets, everyone seemed to be fooled by Jezebel’s false god. She led the people away from the true faith to a terrible religion that made them act like animals, greedy people worshipping a false, powerless god.
Elijah ran, because now Jezebel was out to kill him. You can see why we started this story with Ahab and Jezebel, because when we get to 1 Kings chapter 19, when we begin the story in verse 9, “There he went into a cave and spent the night,” now you know why Elijah is there. Ahab and Jezebel were after him. Elijah was running for his life.
This is a story of Elijah that began with Ahab and Jezebel, but God’s a part of this story, too. In fact, Elijah ran to that cave to hide from God, too, it seems. Elijah is burnout, worn out with stress. Here Elijah is God’s prophet, but Elijah is being hung out to dry, being left out there alone to face death threats.
During that night in the cave, it wouldn’t surprise me if Elijah was yelling at God, saying things like Psalm 28 says,
To you I call, O LORD my Rock;
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
toward your Most Holy Place.
Do not drag me away with the wicked,
with those who do evil,
who speak cordially with their neighbors
but harbor malice in their hearts.
Repay them for their deeds
and for their evil work;
repay them for what their hands have done
and bring back upon them what they deserve.
Since they show no regard for the works of the LORD
and what his hands have done,
he will tear them down
and never build them up again.
Elijah just wants to die, but God won’t let him. Elijah just wants to hide in that cave, but God won’t let him. God comes to see Elijah in that cave.
As much as I think Elijah was mad at God, was hiding from God, where is the cave that he runs to? At Horeb, the mountain of God. Maybe not quite a shock to our ears, but any Jew knowing that Elijah was tired of being God’s prophet wouldn’t have expected Elijah to Horeb, right to one of the centers of God’s contact with His people. You see, we don’t know this mountain as Horeb as much as by the name Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses met with God, where received the Law of God, where Moses saw God pass by. When you think of Elijah running away from God and running straight for Mount Sinai, now that’s quite a shock. It’s like he wants God’s help, but he’s hiding like he doesn’t want anything to with God. It’s like he wanted to get caught.
So God comes and says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s not so much of a question accusing Elijah of doing something wrong. It’s more like when you’re a teenager, obviously upset about something, locked in your bedroom, and your mom or dad comes in, sits on your bed, and says, “What’s going on?” It’s an invitation to talk, to explain how you’re feeling. God is inviting Elijah to share what’s going on, and Elijah lets loose.
“I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
What Elijah isn’t telling God, himself, or you, is that God has done quite a bit already. How did Elijah get to the mountain at Horeb? He traveled forty days and forty nights. What kept him on such an incredible journey was a meal that an angel of the Lord gave him. Elijah had gone away, asked to die, and instead God gave him the strength to travel great distances.
Take another step back: why was Elijah in need of this divine meal? He had run away, was giving up on his call as prophet, giving up on life. Elijah had felt like Jezebel’s order for his death meant that there weren’t any believers in God left. Yet, Elijah had just met up with the prophets of Baal. God showed that He had tremendously more power to the false, evil god, Baal. Elijah had been God’s instrument in showing this, but when Jezebel issued the death warrant, he forgot about this.
Even before that, Elijah had found out that the prophet Obadiah was hiding another 100 prophets of the Lord, keeping them from Jezebel’s murderous plans. Elijah clearly wasn’t alone as believer in the true God, but when Jezebel started to come after Elijah, his fear, his depression, and his doubt took hold of him, so that when he stood in that cave complaining to God, all of these other actions of God had been forgotten. What Elijah doesn’t tell God, himself, or you, is that God had already showed how powerful and faithful He was to those who believed in Him.
Of course, we’d shouldn’t get too down on Elijah’s short-term memory loss, his lack of faith, because I’m sure we can all think of times when we’ve quickly forgotten about God’s blessings and have ended up feeling like there’s no hope, no answers, no help from above. One day we face some set backs, and we think, “Woe is me!” Yet, we forget that just the day before God had given us some wonderful blessings.
It’s amazing how much God does for us even when we forget that He’s doing it. It shows how much God loves us, does things for us just because He cares. It shows the heart of God.
Meanwhile, Elijah’s forgotten all of that and is standing in the cave complaining to God. As we go back to the story, maybe you’ll be able to picture yourself in your own cave with your own complaints to God.
God says, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by,” but Elijah doesn’t budge. From back in the cave, it’s clear that God is sending wind, earthquake, and fire, sending these incredible displays of His power, but Elijah’s not moving from that cave.
It was like God was saying, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Elijah wasn’t biting, though. Elijah wasn’t so sure if this was going to end very well. For one of the first times that we can see in Elijah’s ministry, when the Lord commands him to go, Elijah doesn’t go.
Again, like when your mom or dad comes, sits on your bed, and says, “What’s going on?” how many times did you turn down that invitation to talk? When they said, “Please just open the door so we can talk,” how many times did you refuse? Elijah turns down this chance to talk to God about what’s going on. You and I turn down chances to talk to about what’s going on in our lives. It’s clear that God wants to talk to Elijah; I mean, God sends wind, earthquake, and fire. It’s clear that God wants to talk to you and me; I mean, God sends parents, grandparents, godparents, Sunday School teachers, pastors, church friends, the Bible, the Bible, the Bible.
God says, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Elijah stays in the cave, doesn’t want to talk to God. We stay in our caves, don’t want to talk to God.
Finally, when everything is silent, Elijah can’t stand it anymore, so he goes out to the mouth of the cave, sulking. He’s still stuck in his despair and fear, still feeling like God’s left him alone and actually it’d be better if he could just die. Sulking, he tells God the same complaint:
How many times have you been there at the mouth of your cave, sulking, complaining to God? God sends all of these people into your life, all of these people sharing His Word with you, and still you’re not ready to hear His hope and promise, still you’re feeling hurt and scared, so in that moment of silence, you just jump back on your same complaint. If you’ve done that, pay attention here to what happens to Elijah; it’ll tell you a lot about what kind of God we have.
God doesn’t punish Elijah for this complaint, but He doesn’t say, “OK, you’re right, just sit in your cave.” Instead, God simply picks up where things were left off. “Elijah, you’re my prophet, and here’s what I need my prophet to do.” It’s a reminder that God indeed is watching over Elijah, watching over the people, blessing Elijah in all of those ways that he had forgotten. Plus, rather than let Elijah sulk in that cave anymore, God gives Elijah a mission, a purpose.
He tells Elijah that he will anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Hazael will eventually conquer parts of Israel as a punishment on God’s people for their worship of false gods. God tells Elijah that he will anoint Jehu as king of Israel. Jehu, while no perfect specimen of a king, actually sets out to destroy Baal worship in Israel, like this country’s “war on terror,” call Jehu’s action a “war on Baal.” God tells Elijah about these future events to show Elijah that God will indeed punish the false worship of the people, that God is in control, that God will bring a purpose out of this mess.
Elijah is also told that he will anoint Elisha as prophet to take his place. It’s what Elijah does right away. He’s a burnout prophet who wants to die, and God tells him that he can retire. It’s years before Elijah is carried into heaven on a chariot, but by going to Elisha, commissioning him as the one who will take up his place as prophet, now Elijah knows that he will not have to suffer and struggle indefinitely. God’s got a plan for someone else to carry on the work.
This all seems to give Elijah some hope. He leaves the cave. He goes to find Elisha, and together they continue to serve the Lord. Rather than condemning Elijah for running away, for complaining, for wanting to die, God comes and says, “Go and do my work. I’m still going to use you. I’m still with you.” And as Elijah leaves the cave, headed towards Damascus where God was sending him, you can imagine him saying the rest of Psalm 28,
Praise be to the LORD,
for he has heard my cry for mercy.
The LORD is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and I am helped.
My heart leaps for joy
and I will give thanks to him in song.
The LORD is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever.
Maybe you’re standing in your cave, feeling like you’re alone, feeling like your family or your coworkers or your friends or your country have all turned away from God. God hasn’t necessarily called us to be prophets, but He has told us to go and share His Word with people. Maybe, though, you’re tired of talking to deaf ears, tired of talking to people who ridicule you for your beliefs. Maybe you’re just tired, so you’re standing in your cave, complaining to God.
God doesn’t punish you for your complaint, but He doesn’t say, “OK, you’re right, just sit in your cave.” Instead, God simply picks up where things were left off. “You’re my servant, and here’s what I need my servant to do.” God shows you all of these reminders of how to serve Him—shows you at church where there’s plenty of ways to help the ministry, shows you at home where there are ways to point your family to God, shows you at work or among your friends where there are ways to simply serve others with God’s love. God indeed is watching over you, watching over the people, blessing you in all of those ways that you had forgotten. Plus, rather than let you sulk in that cave anymore, God gives you a mission, a purpose. He will use you to tell the world about Jesus Christ, about forgiveness, love, and eternal life. He will use you to give someone hope. That is your mission, so leave your cave. Step out into the sunlight, and Jesus will always be with you. Those last verses of Psalm 28 are true for you, too.
Praise be to the LORD,
for He has heard your cry for mercy—
asking Him to give you love when you deserved punishment.
The LORD is your strength and your shield—guarding you on all sides;
Your heart trusts in Him, and you are helped—
He didn’t leave you alone today;
He came so that you could hear His Word.
Your heart leaps for joy
and you will give thanks to him in song—as we sing hymns later.
The LORD is the strength of his people,
He will save His people; He will bless us with the inheritance of eternal life.
He will be our shepherd and carry us forever.