I Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a
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.” 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; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
We find this morning that Elijah is on the run after having killed a large number of those who claimed to be prophets of Baal in a competition. Elijah had fundamentally committed an act of treason against the government and was now fleeing as fast as he could as Ahab and Jezebel were searching for him all over the land. But instead of standing up to Ahab and Jezebel, we discover that Elijah has something else in mind, he has a different plan, and that is to head off into the wilderness and hide out of fear for his life. Which raises the question, “Whoever said that following God was an easy thing for us to do?”
The story of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness is almost similar to that of the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by the whale, where instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah goes into the desert and asks God to simply die. Elijah too eventually sits down and asks God to bring it all to an end. But for whatever reason Elijah gets up, and God tells him to go up to a mountain and wait for God there. I'm not sure about you, but I would be wrestling with what God was asking of me if I found myself in Elijah's position. Having committed a life to serving God it would appear like Elijah wasn’t receiving anything in return.
We all have all had days like the one Elijah was having. You know what I'm talking about here. You may not have the armies of Ahab and Jezebel chasing after you, but there has to have been a time where we were feeling ready to tap out and give in. Those times are hard, because they aren’t only draining physically, but they are draining spiritually as well. On those days, it's understandable then why we may not be so eager to answer the call of God by saying, “Here I am.”
I’ve always found these stories to be amusing in a way, because they almost play out like a skit. This whole story that we come across this morning almost runs like a sitcom with a script that I can just imagine now:
God: “So Elijah what are you doing here?”
Elijah: “Well I’m pretty annoyed and upset right now.”
God: “Oh really? Why?”
Elijah: “Well I’ve done everything that you’ve wanted as a prophet right? And the people you sent me to aren’t doing anything in return. And now I’m all by myself and their even chasing me right now!”
And then there’s an awkward silence, because God doesn’t have any words of sympathy for Elijah. Instead, Elijah gets a call to get himself out of the cave, he had been moping around in, in order to bear witness to what we would call a theophany, a manifestation of divine glory. But while God wasn’t in any of the magnificent gestures, I would imagine that Elijah felt like he was at least making some progress.
In those moments we might find that we have a bit of a respite from the chaos of life and we might look to God in those moments, I'm sure that Elijah was doing the same. The hard part is that God doesn't always answer us in a way that we would expect. God didn't appear to Elijah in some flashy manner. God wasn't in the fire or the earthquake or the winds that cleft the sides of mountains. No God wasn't in any of those things; instead, God was in the silence.
We may not all get a vision in a brilliant flash of light or other grand phenomena. For the most part, the call from God comes in the whisper of a gentle breeze, which means it's all the more important that our hearts are in tune and spiritually aware of what God is asking us to do. Because more often than not, it's in the gentle whisper or the silence where God will be speaking into our hearts. And if you find that it’s a struggle don’t worry, because it doesn’t matter if you are new to faith or have been a seasoned traveller. The skill of listening to God in silence is a difficult ability to put into practice.
When was the last time you spent listening to God in the silence of your heart? When was the last time you spent time in prayer just listening for what God is saying or when was the last time you sat down with an open Bible and only reflected on the words that were in front of you? This relationship we have with God is a two-way street! We can't just wait around for answers to fall out of the sky; we have to be active in our pursuit of spiritual devotion as well. And we if we think that a once a week dose of spiritual penicillin is enough, then we might find that we are always returning to worship together with souls that are running low on sustenance.
There's a lot of noisy garbage that fills up our ears, and I'll be the first to say that I'm much more comfortable having a podcast or music playing in the background of whatever it is I'm doing instead of sitting in silence. But this spiritual path that you and I have decided to travel upon asks that we make some sacrifices along the way. It asks, or perhaps even demands that we set aside time to commune with God either by ourselves or with a group of people listening for the gentle words of God. Being intention about our time with God on a regular basis challenges us to decide what the priorities that guide our lives.
Listening to what God is saying to us isn’t as easy as you might think, as we live in an age where we generally like to speak more than we like to listen. And perhaps our hearts aren't attuned or aren't accustomed to that kind of spirituality just yet, which makes it all the more critical that we start cultivating those skills now rather than later. If we don't begin exercising those spiritual muscles now how will we be able to answer God when we are asked, "What are you doing? Where are you?" Because we exercise the other parts of our body, why don't we sacrifice the same way for our souls as well?
To answer the call from God, we need to be ready. That doesn't mean we're perfect or have our act completely together, but it does mean we have a spiritual foundation on which we may draw strength. What was it motivated Elijah to get up after asking God to end things? I would feel confident in saying that it was his faith, his upbringing, his hope, that gave him the energy to push just a little farther to listen to what it was God had to say to us.
This is all to say there's a time for us to sit and wallow, a time for us to grieve and put on sackcloth, but there is also a time for us to get up and keep moving along. We can't stay under the shade of a solitary broom tree forever. At some point, we will have to get in touch with something deep inside us that gives us the motivation, the energy, to go on. That may be your faith, your family, your friends, and it may be the time you spent having those late night conversations with God. It’s easy for us to get caught up in things that are flashy or seem to provide us with the answers we are looking for in any particular moment. But the truth is that the answer from God might not be in any of those things, the things we have a vested interest in.
So here is my advice if you are looking for a few beginning steps to exercise your spiritual muscles:
Read a verse of Scripture of day… Just one verse and spend a few minutes sitting with it and lettering your heart and minds meditate. There are plenty of good resources out there that can provide you with daily readings of Scripture.
Go for a walk or something where you are “plugged in” or distracts you.
Spend time in prayer.
It’s important that we we take time to listen for God in the silence. So that way when the time comes we are able to say, “Here I am.”