I Kings 19: 9-18
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost / June 20, 2010
Once upon a time in a land far away called Israel, there was an evil king by the name of Omri. Omri had been a commander of the Israeli army and became the first king of Israel after the nation divided into two kingdoms. He established a new capital named Samaria and worshipped false gods. He made his son Ahab king. He also arranged for his son to marry a wicked woman by the name of Jezebel from the land of Sidon, which was along the coast. She wore lots of heavy makeup with blue eye shadow that she smeared on her eyelids. Lots of bangle bracelets and other cheap jewelry. This marriage of convenience gave Israel access to the ocean for trade and travel. Jezebel worshipped the false god Baal and Ahab soon followed. He set up altars and sacred poles to worship Baal, which really ticked Yahweh off. This was the name faithful Jews gave God. Ahab was so evil that he even sacrificed two sons to Baal.
During Ahab’s rule, Yahweh raised up a prophet called Elijah the Tishbite and sent him to give the word to Ahab. “Hey Ahab,” Elijah said. “You talkin’ to me?” said Ahab. “Yah, I’m talkin’ to you. Knock off this vile stuff you’re doin’!” “Yah, and if I don’t, what are you gonna do about it?” “What am I gonna do about it? How about shuttin’ up the sky for three years so there’s not a drop of rain? God says, ‘Knock it off or that’s exactly what will happen.” “I dare ya. In fact, I double-dare ya.” So, it stopped raining for three years.
Now this meant something in those days besides the crops not growing. You see, Baal was the storm god. He was the one who sent rain and gave life. When there was a drought it was presumed that Baal was dead. When there was rain, it was assumed that Baal was alive and that death had been defeated. So when Elijah made the rains stop, it was a sign that his god was stronger than Baal.
So, during the drought, Yahweh had Elijah go off into the wilderness and hide out for three years. Over time, there was a severe drought in Israel and eventually Yahweh told Elijah to go back to Ahab to see if he was ready to listen. When Ahab saw Elijah he said, “Yo, Elijah. Whaddya you doin’ here, troubler of Israel. And Elijah says, “Yo yourself. I’m not the one troubling Israel, you are. Here’s the skinny; let’s settle this once and for all to see whose god is the real deal.
“Get your 450 Baal prophets and your 450 prophets of Asherah and meet me at Mt. Carmel.” So, Ahab gets the 900 prophets and a bunch of curious onlookers and they march up to Mt. Carmel.
“OK, here’s what’s up,” says Elijah. “Give us two bulls and build an altar anyway you like it. Make it with granite, marble, stones…anything you like. Then stock it with wood, kill the bull and cut him up, put the steaks on the barbie, but don’t light it. Then, we’ll each call upon our god and whoever’s is real will answer with fire and start the cookout.”
They all said, “Sure that sounds fair.”
So the Baal prophets set up the grill and start dancing around it. “Answer us, O Baal.” Well this goes on all morning. By noontime they’re getting’ a little worried. Elijah starts bustin’ their chops. “So what gives boys? Where’s your god? Is he out for a walk, sittin’ on the can, sleepin’ in this morning?” By now they’re getting desperate. They dance like crazy people. They whip out their jack knives and start cutting themselves thinking, “This’ll get his attention.” But still, by mid-afternoon, nothing happens.
Finally, Elijah says, “Step aside boys and let a man show you how to do it.” So he rebuilds the altar and sets twelve stones around it, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Then he stacks up the wood, butchers the bull, and throws the meat on. But he’s not through yet. He says, “Get four gallons of water and dump it on the altar.” And they did it. And he said, “Do it again.” And they did it. And he said, “Do it again.” And they did it. So, they dumped 12 gallons of water on top of the altar. He even had a trench built around the altar and had that filled too! So now he’s good and ready for a fire.
Then Elijah stops and says a prayer. He says, “Lord God, shows these bozos that you are the one true God and that there is none other beside you. Amen.”
“Whoa,” say all the Baal prophets as they look at each other blinking at what just happened. They all go face down in the dirt saying, “Oh my gosh. It is true. Yahweh is indeed God of the universe.” Elijah will have none of it and has the people round them up and slaughter them.
Well, then Ahab got back home and told Jezebel what happened. “You wouldn’t believe what Elijah’s god did.” She was fit to be tied. All of her henchmen had been offed. So she sent word to Elijah, “May I look like one of my butchered prophets if I don’t do to you what you did to them by tomorrow night.”
At this challenge, Elijah reels back, digs down deep and runs. No kidding. Right after this massive display of Yahweh’s power, he runs at the threat of this queen who worships Baal. He runs all the way to Mt. Horeb and hides there. While he’s hiding there God comes to him again and asks, “What gives? Why so glum? Why you hidin’ in the bushes?” Then he lets it all out. “Whaddya mean what am I doing here? I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve gone out of my way for you. I’ve gone the extra mile without complaining. I’ve gone beyond the call of duty and look what it’s got me. A death warrant. Nobody’s been faithful but me. I’m gonna go eat worms. That’s why I’m here.”
So God says, “Hmmm. I see your point. Let’s go for a walk. Stand out on the edge of mountain there and I’ll pass by. See if that will cheer you up.” Elijah did as he was told and stood at the doorway of the cave. First a huge tornado goes by pulling up trees and throwing rocks around like they were pebbles. But Yahweh wasn’t in the wind. Then a monster earthquake comes and shakes the ground like a flour sifter, but Yahweh wasn’t in the earthquake. Next a gargantuan fire comes blazing by consuming everything in its path, but Yahweh wasn’t in the fire. Finally, there was “a sound of sheer silence,” (how’s that for an oxymoron?) and that’s where Elijah found Yahweh.
I don’t know about you, but this seems nuts. When I want to hear the voice of God, I go sit in the middle of Times Square. All the traffic noise, the horns, the police whistles, the construction, the throngs of humanity—that’s where you can really hear God. I’m only kidding. Although there are times when you have to get in the thick of it with real people to find God and see God at work, most often God is in the quiet.
This never fails to surprise me. I suppose it’s part of my American conditioning. Bigger is better. If it’s bold and brash and over the top, it’s got to be good. Think of Christmas Eve—we’re singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” at the top of our lungs; the organ has all the stops out, the timpani are pounding, the trumpets are thunderous—it’s a wonderful, inspirational moment. That’s where we find God. Or maybe in a mega-church like Lakewood Church in Houston. Pastor Joel Osteen and his congregation are housed in the former Cellular One arena in Houston that holds 13,000 people—and they fill it up. They have programs 24/7—Bible studies, men’s groups, women’s groups, Praisercize, dieting in the Spirit, auto repair for Jesus, a food court that sells heavenly baked goods, you name it. That’s where God is.
No, usually I find God at the kitchen table, at the bedside, or the fireside—those places where I intentionally settle down to have quiet conversation or to sit and read and think and pray. There are two traditions of prayer in the Christian faith, defined by two Greek words: one is called kataphatic and the other apophatic. Kataphatic prayers are those where we talk to God, growing out of an ancient Roman school of prayer. Those are the ones we are most familiar with. The other prayers, apophatic prayers, come out of the Alexandrian school in Greece in which we don’t talk but we listen for the voice of God.
This latter kind of prayer is the hardest because it takes planning and it takes time. It is also difficult because it is the place where we are most vulnerable. If the Spirit is alive and active and roaming around at the core of our being, which is the birthright of a Christian, and if the Spirit is shaping and redeeming and empowering and purifying us from within, and if we are usually so noisy and busy that we rarely make room for the Spirit, then if we are quiet, the Spirit just might show up and show us some uncomfortable things about ourselves.
One of the signs that the truth of the Spirit’s presence is beginning to make itself known is that we feel as if, in Paul Claudel’s colorful words, “an undesired lodger has moved in, one who does not hesitate to rearrange the chairs according to his taste, to drive nails into the walls, and, if necessary, even to saw up the furniture when he is cold and needs a fire.”
In the quiet we might find that we are more shallow and self-centered than we ever suspected. In the quiet we might see our temper, negativity, and critical spirit for what they are. In the quiet we might see our shame, weakness, and powerlessness to change anything in ourselves apart from God’s grace. In the quiet we might feel the pain of the suffering world as Jesus feels it and it might be unbearable. And we also find the smile of God who says, “You are my beloved child. Thank you for all you do for me.” We are, as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, we are like a shallow pond; one little pebble can upset us and send ripples all over us.
That’s what happened to Elijah. Immediately after this wonderful display of God’s amazing power, what did he do? He headed for the hills. He was afraid. And when people become afraid, they begin to operate on their spinal cord—literally. It’s called the “reptilian brain,” the most primitive part of the brain that ties us to all living creatures. It’s our survival mechanism. When we feel threatened the old fight or flight syndrome kicks in. In this case, Elijah ran. In other cases they fight. It was great when we had to face down saber-toothed tigers, but today when we are frightened or uncertain or worried we lash out at each other.
But we are not on the level of the animals. The Psalmist said we were made “a little lower than the angels,” or as some translations put it, “a little lower than God.” We have this gray matter in our frontal lobes that separates us from the animals and allows us to rise above our animal instincts. It’s also the place where we meet God and hear that “still, small voice.” Do you know what one of the frequent commands in the scriptures is? “Fear not.” “Fear not.” Whenever God shows up or is doing a new thing, the first response from us is fear; the first response from God is “Fear not.” When God called Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary or Paul the first word was always, “Fear not.” You can look it up.
So yes, fear not. Just as God did not abandon Elijah to himself or berate him for being so faithless, so God is with us. We are not surrendering to an enemy who wishes to punish us, but we are laying down resistance to the One who loves us more infinitely than we can guess, the One
who is more on our side that we are ourselves, the One who loves us too much to leave us where we are today.
And just as God restored and recommissioned Elijah to go anoint the next king Hazael and his successor Elisha, so God recommissions us to do God’s work in the world. So, I guess what we learn from this passage today is that when you face resistance, challenge, or suffering there are two things you can do: run and hide in a cave and suck your thumb, or stop and listen for that “still, small voice.”