Looking for God in all the Wrong Places
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
3 Elijah 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.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 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. 7 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.” 8 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. 9 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?” 10 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.”
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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
It was after midnight, but he couldn’t sleep. So, after he had paced the hallway up and down several times, he decided to make a pot of coffee. Sitting down like an old man, yet only being 27 at that time, he cradled his head in his hands. By this time in his life, the bus boycott had stretched on for months, and people were getting restless. He had been arrested for traffic violations, money was growing tight, the Klan more aggressive, and the death threats against him had climbed to nearly 40 a day. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat there in the silence of those morning hours, and prayed,
“Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now I am afraid. And I can’t let people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone."
—Martin Luther King, Jr., January 1956
Have you ever had a crisis of leadership? Have you ever faced mounting odds with indescribable pressure from every direction including the internal pressure that we place upon ourselves? The prophet, Elijah is at a similar point in our text for today. He staggers toward a shade tree, looking weary. He had tried to do what was right, but everything seemed to be going wrong. And here was on the brink of despair. Slightly delirious he prays, “Enough, God. Just take my life.” Just a short time before, his life and ministry were succeeding. He had confronted King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, for their worship of other gods. To prove his point, Elijah warned them that not a single drop of rain will fall until he said so. Flying high with confidence and power, no rain fell, and a famine spread across the land. Not surprisingly, Elijah was not very popular. Don’t shoot the messenger but Ahab and Jezebel did not get that memo, so Elijah spent most of his days hiding out in the wilderness. God sent the ravens to feed him twice a day. These are rough days for Elijah. He confronts Ahab again, face-to- face, and this time, his confrontation culminates in a show-down between Elijah himself and 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah wins that battle, and as a result is handed a death threat from the queen, which seems to surprise Elijah. He thought that his final confrontation was the final confrontation, and everyone could live at peace and go on with their lives. Finally, Elijah felt his days of hiding were over and he could finally take a rest. But that’s not how it went for Elijah. Jezebel’s death warrant shattered his illusion and sent him running into the wilderness, frustrated and frightened. When he finally returned to the mountain, forty days later, God asked him a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He wanted Elijah to think through and to access his life, something critical for all of us at critical times. The answer God posed to Elijah should have been obvious: Elijah has come to hide. It’s not out of the normal to want to hide when things go haywire. One day, you’re going along with life as normal, and suddenly, someone starts messing with the dials of the earth’s speed. All of a sudden, it’s spinning recklessly out of control, and it’s all you can do just to hang on. Suddenly we feel the temptation to withdraw and disappear from everything and everyone. If you can hold on and be still long enough, maybe things will sort themselves out. If you can just lie down and go to sleep, maybe this will all just be the nightmare that you think it is. Elijah seeks the comfort of a cave that is darker and more hollow than he himself felt at that moment. He had enough of the world and was over it. When God asked him the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” he can’t resist the opportunity to file his complaint. He says, “I have worked hard for God,” and look what it’s gotten me! And your people have turned against you, and yet Ahab and Jezebel continue in power! You can hear the implicit challenge behind his words: I have been faithful to the covenant, but you, God—why have you forgotten me? Why must I slink around in hiding while the bad guys win? How long will this go on? Elijah has had enough of the world, but even more, he had it with God. He had questions about management style and efficiency, systems of benefits, commission, and insurance policies. Somewhere in the midst of it all, he suggests that he himself, is God’s last remaining hope on earth, and God just doesn’t seem to recognize his gifts. Have you ever had similar conversations with God in which you try to remind God of what God seems to have forgotten, namely how special, and unique and gifted you are in this grand scheme of life and how God seems to have forgotten that about you. Elijah is blinded by his own goodness. The glare from his own faithfulness has prevented him from being able to see the world clearly. He is tired of God’s patience with people less faithful than himself, but at the same time he is blind to God’s patience with him. He is sick of God’s grace; he’s offended by grace, and yet he cannot recognize how much grace he is receiving even now. Though he has forgotten God’s promises, and even though his memory failed, he has clawed his way up God’s mountain. When he first asked to die alone in the wilderness, God delivered a cake baked on hot stones delivered by an angel right to his doorstep. God faithfully provided for him while he was lost and vulnerable. Then at the top of the mountain when Elijah was at his worst, he received a message. He was told to go to the mouth of the cave to witness the passing by of God’s presence. Suddenly the wind tears the mountain apart, but God was not in the wind. Then an earthquake shattered the mountain, but when all is quiet, it seems that God was not in the earthquake. Then after the quake, a fire – but God was not in the fire. Finally, at last, there is an eerie calm, literally “the sound of sheer silence.” We often hear this translated as the “still small voice of God.” The Hebrew words for “sound” and “silence” rarely come together – only one other place in Job. Sheer silence is not a comfortable place to be. Dallas Willard has written: “Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life.” In scripture, God is silent a lot. While people are talking to God, talking about God and asking for answers from God, they rarely find themselves at peace in the silence of God. This is true in the scriptures and in our daily lives. Episcopal author and minister, Barbara Brown Taylor in the Lyman Beecher Lectures, described the writings of Hebrew scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, whose book, paints a portrait of God who withdraws, stepping back from human beings so that they have room to step forward.
After the commandments were delivered through Moses, God never spoke directly to the people again. Moses wore a veil in God’s Presence. The Ark of the Covenant, the physical manifestation of God’s Presence that contained the 10 Commandments was placed inside a tent. When Moses died, there was no one left on earth who had actually laid eyes on God. As the biblical story progressed, God continued to be less and less visible. God is talked ABOUT, but the words of God and the acts of God are memories from the past. When Jesus is born, God is finally visible again. Fred Craddock, preaching professor at Emory University says that the voice of God in Jesus Christ was not a shout, but merely a whisper. So many missed who he was and what he meant as he stood in front of them and taught them. Even we, in order to catch it, we must hush, lean forward and trust that what we are actually seeing, and hearing is God at work. Elijah, after experiencing God not in the way he expected, in being challenged not by God’s majesty but by God’s silence, and apparent withdrawal, he decided to get up and get moving. He left the cave, and went out and was asked the same question as before: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This time Elijah’s tone has changed. God directs, “Go.” Get moving into the unknown. And then a promise: I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make you a blessing to the world. Elijah needed to be reminded. Finally, Elijah was able to get back into the mainstream of life and return to emotional and spiritual health. Elijah sat in the dark cave of self-pity just so long. Then God encouraged him to get up and leave the cave. The time for complaints and self-pity were over; Elijah now needed to get back to work. He needed the tonic of a new task. With us, as with Elijah, the best way to quit feeling sorry for ourselves is to start feeling compassion for somebody else. The well-known psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was once asked by an Arizona newspaper reporter, “What should you do if you think you’re heading for a nervous breakdown?” Most of us would have expected the psychiatrist to say, “See a psychiatrist.” But he didn’t. Instead, his reply was, “Go straight to the front door, turn the knob, cross the tracks and find somebody who needs you.” Don’t sit in isolation. Don’t give in to the struggle of despair. Get up and get back in the mainstream of life serving God in any way you know how, for in helping others we help ourselves. Elijah recovered from his depression and went on to useful service. Despair need not be the doxology of life.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in the silence of his kitchen, clinging to his kitchen table, he was thinking of escape, “a way to move out of the picture without looking like a coward.” When he heard a voice say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, I will be with you. Even until the end of the earth.” Granted throughout his life, he heard his share of God’s silence, but he also heard Jesus’ promise to never leave him, and that promise has been made to us as well. Martin Luther went out again the next day, and the day after that. And the day after his house was bombed, he went out again, and the day after that. He was eventually killed, but his vision of the beloved community did not die. God has called each of us by name. We may not always be tuned in because we are looking for God in the majestic – the wind, and the earthquakes and the fires, but most often God comes to us in the mystery of silence. Even in that, God will never leave us alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.