In the Old Testament story found in 1 Kings (in the chapter before our reading for this Sunday), the great prophet Elijah seems to finally have gotten his point across, and been vindicated in his “zealous” insistence of Yahweh God being THE God everyone should follow. Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, is a big worshipper of the fertility god Baal, and Elijah has a “throw-down” with the prophets of Baal, intended to prove beyond any possibility of doubt that Yahweh God is God. The contest is this: 500 prophets of Baal versus ONE prophet of Yahweh, Elijah. Each “side” builds an altar, puts wood on it, and whichever god torches the wood on the altar is proven to be THE god. The prophets of Baal go first, and despite all of their best efforts to invoke Baal (including slashing themselves to offer up their own blood), get no response at all. Elijah makes fun of them in their abject failure, and then, when it’s his turn, adds even more drama to the event by pouring water three times all over the wood, which would obviously make it even more difficult to set on fire. He prays, and Yahweh God sends down fire that sets the wood aflame. Game, set, match, right? Yahweh God is the one true God. Baal is exposed as an imposter.
So it would seem that Elijah is riding high. His unwavering faith in Yahweh God, and his insistence that Yahweh God alone is to be worshipped, would seem to have been proved out, incontrovertibly. You’d think it would be time for a victory lap, with such complete vindication, and such a convincing sign of Yahweh God’s power. To add injury to insult, Elijah has all of the prophets of Baal killed—probably not necessary, but he is riding high on his victory—or rather, Yahweh God’s victory. Who can argue with the results of the contest?
Turns out Jezebel can, and she’s really ticked off, and not convinced of anything she didn’t already want to believe. Elijah has to flee for his life so she doesn’t kill him.
Elijah almost instantaneously goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. His unwavering belief in the power of Yahweh God is challenged, as Jezebel still clearly has the power to kill him. His being entirely convinced of Yahweh God’s goodness and support for him, as he has (as he puts it) “been very zealous for the Lord”, seems not to be working out—what kind of support for all he has done is reflected in Elijah having to “get out of Dodge” just to stay alive? How does this massive vindication turn almost immediately into what seems like the exact opposite?
Maybe not with the same kinds of events, and the same kinds of stakes, but we too have experienced what seems like the removal of God’s care, of God’s blessing. We’re doing well, we’re doing all of the right things, and then a devastating medical diagnosis happens out of the blue. We’re doing well, living comfortably, and we lose our job. Someone we’ve always counted on turns on us. The person we love the most says it’s not true for them any longer. We can go from the highest highs to the lowest lows instantaneously.
Elijah is instructive for us. It’s bad for him—the text says that he wanted to die. He didn’t try to pretend that he wasn’t devastated—he is honest with himself and with God. He doesn’t blame God, but he certainly demands an answer. And he trusts in what God conveys to him, finding God’s voice not in what God can do with God’s power, that supposedly “proves” God’s power, but in the “sheer silence”—where he can listen for God’s word to him. And God’s word to him? “Go, return on your way . . . “ And know that you are not alone—there are others who ARE on board with you. As is God.
All of this is instructive for us when it seems like God has turned God’s back on us. Know that God hasn’t.
OLD TESTAMENT 1 Kings 19:1-15a
1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 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.’ 3 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.
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 for 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. 13 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?’ 14 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.’ 15 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.