By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Kings 19:4-18
We have all, I imagine, had times in our lives when we have felt dreadfully alone and discouraged. Recovering from my recent surgery, I’ve recalled times that I’ve been sick or in the hospital over the years. One of the worst came when we were living in Gary and I had a bowel obstruction. The pain was so intense. That afternoon, Britt took me to the ER. It was as rewarding as most ER trips are. It took forever. They did a scan and knew I had an obstruction but, somehow, they still discharged me after giving me some pretty heavy narcotics to dull the pain. We returned home late that evening and in the wee hours of the morning I woke Britt again in terrible pain. I couldn’t stand it. So, before it was even dawn, there we were, back at the ER. After a couple hours they administered an IV med. Now, I don’t recall what it was for or what it was called, but my body did not respond well to it. Britt had to pop back home to give our oldest dog her own medications and, while he was gone, I began to feel the most intense anxiety and claustrophobia I have ever felt in my life. I was in terrible physical pain and, now, intense emotional anxiety, lying there all alone on an ER bed, behind a curtain, too weak to move but desperately wanting to escape my own skin. I could hear people beyond that curtain but I felt like I could not endure one more moment alone and miserable.
We’ve all been there, right? Maybe not in the ER, but grieving the sudden, unexpected death of a friend or family member; a brutal betrayal beyond our wildest imagining; some extreme loss or feeling of desperation that we cannot rise above. Dreadfully alone and discouraged.
That must have been the experience of the prophet Elijah; feeling dreadfully alone and discouraged.
It’s important to know what precedes this morning’s bible story. After King Solomon died, the 12 twelve tribes of Israel divided into two kingdoms: Judah in the south and Samaria in the North.[i] Our bible narrator quickly reports the rise and fall of the various kings until chapter 16 when we are introduced to King Ahab with our narrator’s dire summary: “Ahab… did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who came before him.”[ii] Such a level of evil cannot go unaddressed by God who raises up a prophet named Elijah from Tishbe in Gilead. Elijah appears suddenly on the pages of scripture at the opening of 1st Kings, chapter 17.
God announces to Elijah that he is sending a drought upon the nation as punishment for Ahab’s sins. God instructs Elijah to go a foreign land where he is cared for by a widow during the drought. 3 years later, God directs Elijah to return home. King Ahab knew that God and his prophet Elijah were behind this drought.[iii] Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, has been trying to kill off all the remaining prophets of God. But, this is important to note – don’t forget it – we read that a servant of Ahab, named Obadiah, is faithful to God and has rescued and hidden 100 of God’s prophets.[iv] Queen Jezebel is a foreigner who worships the false God, ba’al, and she has no respect for Yahweh, the God of Israel.
If you went to Sunday School as a child, you might remember the story of the dramatic showdown on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of ba’al.[v] Yahweh crushes it, the people of Israel turn away from ba’al and even put his prophets to death, they return to the Lord, and the three-year drought comes to an end with a brilliant rainstorm. All’s well that ends well, right? Unless you are Jezebel, furious that Elijah has made a mockery of her religion and her prophets, so she puts out the hit on Elijah and he must flee for his life.
And that is the background to this morning’s story. Elijah knows too well what it’s like to feel dreadfully alone and discouraged. He has fled for his life, all alone, deep in the wilderness.
In my 20 at Twilight this past Wednesday, I addressed this wilderness experience of Elijah’s, a liminal experience, as he drifts between sleeping and waking, vulnerable and exposed in this barren wilderness space. You can still check it out on Trinity’s Facebook page.[vi]
It is a 40 day journey through the wilderness for Elijah to move from beneath that solitary broom tree to the top of God’s holy mountain, Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, that place where Moses received the law, that place where Moses saw God pass by after God tucked him into a cleft in the rock.
While the Israelite people liked to think of God dwelling conveniently in the inner bowels of the temple, the Holy of Holies, apparently God liked to get out and stretch his legs atop this sacred mountain where he moves and shows himself on his own terms. God has called Elijah to move into this sacred space where God opens their interaction with a question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
If we have not, ourselves, experienced this kind of isolation and discouragement, we might find it easy to judge Elijah as whiny, negative and overly-dramatic. But, if we’ve been there, well… then we understand what it is like to feel so dreadfully alone and desperate. “It’s your fault I’m here,” Elijah says in a nutshell. “Because of my commitment to you, my life is in danger. And I’m the last man standing.”
Except that, in reality, Elijah wasn’t the last man standing. Remember that Obadiah had hidden a hundred of God’s prophets. Those 100 prophets knew what Elijah was experiencing. They were hiding out in caves, too. They’d had to run for their lives, too. And as far as we know, they’re still out there.
But when we are suffering, it is hard to keep perspective. It is not about actually being alone. It is about feeling alone. It is not about actually having failed. It is about feeling like a failure.
“Go out and stand on the mountain,” God tells Elijah, “I’m going to show myself to you.” Now, word was that you couldn’t look on the face of God and live. When Moses met God on this very mountain, God tucked him into a crevice in the rock so that Moses could only see God’s back. That was, apparently, as much divine glory as even the mighty Moses could handle.[vii]
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?"[viii]
Elijah understands that he has encountered God in the silence. It’s evidenced by him wrapping his face in his mantle. He recognizes God’s presence; a presence that is not ferocious and violent, but rather soft and gentle, even silent. Elijah recognizes that he is in the presence of God… a God who asks him once again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And then we read what I consider the most interesting part of this story. Elijah, after witnessing wind and earthquake and fire and entering into the still and awesome presence of God is so transformed that he gives the same, exact answer as he did before. What?! How can that even be?
Don’t we all say, “If I could just feel God, if I just knew God was here with me, I’d be okay”? Well, apparently not because a face to face with the Almighty didn’t change Elijah’s perspective one iota.
So it is God who changes the game plan. Faced with a stubborn old prophet who can’t see what is right in front of his face; who can’t recognize that he isn’t the last man standing, not the only one left, God pronounces that Elijah isn’t a failure and isn’t alone in the work he’s doing. It’s time for him to go down the mountain and back into the real world where he will anoint new kings and, most importantly, Elijah will anoint the prophet who will succeed him, Elisha, who will now accompany Elijah and work with him side by side until that day when Elijah is taken up into heaven.[ix] Every remaining day of his life Elijah will now have a partner. He will never again be able to say, “I alone am left.”
Friends, there is so much to this story but, as I am recovering from my surgery, I wanted to focus on this part of the story: that our God never leaves us without companions. Over these last couple of weeks my prayers were answered as you all brought me food, read to me, picked up groceries, called me, drove me to the doctor, sat with me, brought my garbage cans back into the garage, did all that I needed you to do to get me through some, literally, dark days. If I am Elijah, you have all been my collective Elisha’s. And that is what God intends for all of us.
Life in this world can be hard. That’s just reality. It was hard for Elijah. It was certainly hard for Jesus. And each of us have also faced hard times; times when we are tempted to cry out, “Everyone and everything is out to get me and I alone am left.” But we are never left alone. God is with us and God sends us partners and companions to walk the journey with us.
This week, I called one of our senior members living at Westminster. These are tough times for folks in retirement communities. They are so physically isolated. So I want to encourage you this week to take time to seek out someone who is quarantining due to their age or their health or their living conditions. Seek them out, call them, send them a card, leave a little bag of goodies outside their door. Let them know that you will be their Elisha and that they are not alone. God blesses us not only with his presence. But God blesses and strengthens us with partners and companions to walk the journey alongside us each and every day.
[i] See 1 Kings, chapter 12.
[ii] 1 Kings 16:30. NRSV.
[iii] See 1 Kings 17:1.
[iv] See 1 Kings, chapter 18, particularly verses 3-4 and 13.
[v] See 1 Kings, chapter 18, beginning at verse 20.
[vi] Watch this 20 at Twilight at https://www.facebook.com/TrinityUMC509/videos/3109484055805564
[vii] See Exodus 33:17-23.
[viii] 1 Kings 19:11b-13. NRSV.
[ix] See 2 Kings, chapter 2.
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