God in the Silent Wilderness
The kingdom of David and Solomon has been split in half for about sixty years into two rivals: the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel, ruled by the wicked King Ahab and where Elijah did most of his prophetic work. When we last left our hero Elijah, he was at the top of his game. Like Michael Jordan in game six of the 1998 NBA finals, like Winston Churchill keeping freedom alive in Europe until the other Allies could join the Second World War, like America's “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980's Winter Olympics hockey finals... Elijah was in peak form when last we saw him in his campaign to get the northern kingdom of Israel back to following the Lord alone. Elijah single-handedly won a battle of miracles against 450 prophets of Baal. He summoned a drought lasting over three years and ended it too. He raised a widow's son back to life from the grave. When last we saw Elijah, he was on top of the world.
But... it turns out killing 450 prophets of Baal—the patron deity of Israel's new pagan queen—is not a good way to stay in royal favor. The northern monarchy starts killing of prophets of the Lord in revenge and demand Elijah's head as well. The prophet realizes his battle against the 450 prophets of Baal wasn't the final climax but just one small step. And with the royals of the north wanting him now dead, Elijah runs for his life across two kingdoms’ length. Then he went alone into the wilderness that's south of Judah's border, and in the middle of a desert, he sits under a solitary tree all alone and begs for death. “All this? It's enough. I'm done. God, take away my life. Everything I worked for? All those battles I fought? Those risks I took for you, God? Everything I did is undone! What's the point?! The queen is killing all your followers, and I have nothing to show for years of sacrifice. Just kill me now. I'm no better than my ancestors. The prophets of old couldn't change your people's hearts, and I couldn't either now. I failed you too, God. Just end it already. There's no hope for your people or me.” Later, the Lord will ask Elijah what's going on, and Elijah will sum up his entire situation: “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 am lone am left, and they now are seeking my life too, to take it away.” Now if we read chapter 18, just before this one, we know Elijah already knows how a bunch of prophets are still alive, hidden away by a royal officer still faithful to God. Elijah has been told he's not the only prophet left, but the selective memory of his despair has him thinking he alone remains faithful to the Lord. Here in this far off desert under this lonely tree, the despairing prophet' sees little point in his life anymore.
When I was in middle school, I loved the British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Anyone here ever see that film? Well, as a youth, I thought it was the funniest thing ever. But as I aged, I matured and grew more sophisticated and appreciated the theater and performing arts. So as a mature adult, instead of watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail on TV, I saw the 2005 Broadway smash hit, Tony award-winning: Spamalot... the musical theater adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Much classier. I mention that because Elijah reminds me of a song in the Monty Python musical. At the show’s darkest moment, when all the knights abandon him, King Arthur sings a duet with his trusty servant, who bangs two coconuts together to make horse sounds. If you'll indulge me trying to sing two parts at once... “I'm all alone (He's all alone) All by myself (Except for me) I cannot face tomorrow (He cannot face it) I'm all alone (Though i am here) So all alone (So very near) No one to share my sorrow... Yes, I'm alone. (Oh no you're not!) So all alone. (I'm here you clot!) All by myself, I'm all alone.” Then dozens upon dozens of knights... rush in to sing about how King Arthur is all alone. Scores of men, singing about how Arthur has no one near. Elijah—after years of success with God and with well over a hundred prophets like him surviving in hiding—weeps he's all alone, ready to give up for good.
And yet for all the ironic melodrama of Elijah's feeling of isolation, in the words of Spamalot's King Arthur, in many ways: “Each one of us is all alone. So what are we to do? In order to get through?” Loneliness, despair, hopelessness... these are feelings every Christian will face. N.T. Wright—a former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the greatest Bible scholars alive today—Wright himself confesses in his commentary on this Elijah text: “My vocation is to help people understand the Old Testament and let their thinking and their lives be shaped by it. I am passionately committed to this task... but I am inclined to think I totally fail. It is not because I am incompetent but because the odds are stacked so high by the church’s ignoring of the Old Testament... Nothing I can do—like writing all these commentaries or having four or five hundred students in my classes every year—nothing can make a significant difference.” I think we all have those moments of despair. I do, at least. I'm about thirty in a profession shrinking yearly here in the States; statistically, the odds aren't in my career's favor. Catastrophic climate changes cause more of my home state to burn every year, as my wife's home state gets hit by harder and harder hurricanes. I know many in this church struggle much worse than I, from overwhelming mortgages and cuts to retirement incomes... to alienation from family and diagnoses that offer little comfort. It's easy to chuckle at the irony of Elijah's lament. But whatever the cause, we all know what it is to feel that prayer of Elijah's: “It is enough, God! I alone am left, and they're coming for me next. Enough!”
God never directly addresses Elijah's complaint. Did you notice that? God never says, “Elijah, everything happens for a reason.” Maybe it does; maybe it doesn't. But God doesn't use that cliché here. And the Lord doesn't explain, “Elijah, don't worry. I wouldn't give you more than you could handle.” Quite the opposite. Elijah gives himself up for dead, and the Lord asks the rather obvious question “What are you doing here, Elijah? Tell me what happened to you. Why aren't you doing what I created you to do? Why are you way out here?” God asks Elijah to tell him what's going on, and so we get those speeches about how Elijah wants to die or how everything's gone wrong. So what does God do? Five steps.
1) “Eat something, Elijah, and sleep.” The man is so weak he can't even rise to dine at first, but God's angel feeds him 'til his strength returns. There is truth in this for us. Sometimes when we despair... a good meal restores us more than any words could. Sometimes our despair, our grief... sometimes it's more body than soul, more chemical than spiritual. Sometimes we just need rest.
2) God sends Elijah on a journey, warning he needs to eat because otherwise... Elijah really won't be up for what's coming. Quite the opposite from that cliché expression, God admits he's giving this prophet more than he can handle... unless he eats and recovers his strength. Sometimes in our despair, we need to accept help, whether from God directly or indirectly through other people, whether food for the journey, money for the rent, or comfort for the grief. Because sometimes we won't make it otherwise. And sometimes the answer when things get bad on life's journey... is to just keep walking. After running for his life, Elijah wants to lay down and die, so God feeds him and makes him walk some more.
3) After forty days and nights of walking in an Exodus homage, Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb, another name for the place where Moses received the 10 Commandments. Where God's promise with the Israelites was once reforged, God repeats with Elijah what he did with Moses: God will pass by in front of him. God will be near his prophet in distress. Sometimes in this life, what's broken can't be fixed with tools or cash or words or philosophy or anything. In such times, the nearness of God and of those love who us, the nearness of others is the best salve. As Elijah readies for God to pass by, we read of a shattering storm, a great earthquake, and a raging fire... but God was in none of those things. But then a sound of sheer silence, that still quiet voice... and Elijah walks out to repeat his complaint to the Lord. Sometimes God is near in big dramatic ways: honest miracles, big lessons from scripture, prayers answered directly... and sometimes God is near in silent, almost unnoticeable ways. In despair, it's easy for us to lose hope in the silence, never realizing God is near in both the hurricane and the quiet, the quake and the calm.
4) In the verses that happen a little after today's main reading, God goes on to renew Elijah purpose and direction: “Go, return to the wilderness of Damascus in the north, near Israel.” Ignoring Elijah's stated complaint, God sends Elijah out with the implied promise of continued support and aid, implying to him and us in our despair: “Just keep walking. I led you through deserts to get here. I'll lead you home just the same, though I make no promises the journey will be easy or short.”
Finally, 5) God at the end of this desert mountain scene promises ultimate victory to Elijah. “Go anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king over Israel: a rebellion within Israel against the Baal-worshiping royals. Anoint Hazael as king over Aram: Israel's menacing neighbor without. And anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, as the prophet who will succeed you.” This final task at first looks like God replyies to Elijah's despair with a crack of the whip, get-back-to-work. But ironically, these three anointings are what lead to the relief of Elijah's problem. A rebellion at home and invasion from abroad will destroy the royals who hunt Elijah and the prophets. And Elijah feeling all alone, abandoned in his task... will be soothed by the presence of an energetic, hopeful prophetic apprentice, who Elijah can know will continue his life's work after his death. Sometimes for us mortals, relief and comfort come not from what we do to fix things... but from others likewise fighting the good fight.
Most of all—for Elijah the despairing prophet and us in our own hopelessness—most of all, I appreciate God's non-answer here. Elijah ought to know he's not alone, he just had one of the greatest miracle battles of the entire Bible, and he clearly has God's favor. But his mind was telling him to quit and die already. God never dismisses Elijah's complaint as unfounded or over-the-top, though it is both. And while I love the academic side of Christianity, God doesn't get into a long, drawn out explanation of fate or the nature of evil with Elijah. When Elijah runs from his prophetic calling while at the same time claiming to be “very zealous for the Lord,” God doesn't mock Elijah's hypocrisy but rather gently corrects him, asking, “What are you doing out here, Elijah?” It's a rebuke, in that God points out Elijah's not doing what he was meant to do right now, that Elijah needs to reconsider his life and actions, but it's gentle in that God patiently prompts Elijah to realize his error on his own. I love that the Old Testament Yahweh, Lord of Hosts, here—just like Jesus in the New Testament—doesn't answer questions directly. God skips the explaining of despair, doesn't analyze how or why Elijah lost hope. Instead, God—with Elijah of old and us today—often God's answers to our prayers seeking relief is to skip replying and get back to work fixing. Elijah wants to die. God feeds him to restore strength; helps him take his first new steps of hard walking; is quietly near Elijah amid his despair; and sends Elijah out with new purpose... on a mission that leads to relief for Elijah and all of God's people.
In a way, God's relief for Elijah and us is like that revealing scene. We don't always get giant miracles in response to prayer. Sometimes it’s just the still, quiet voice of God silently enabling us to walk a bit further, one slow step at a time. Sometimes we do get big flashy answers to prayer. But sometimes the quiet presence of God helps us walk just a little bit further along life’s difficult road... until we find ourselves without even knowing it... at peace once more. But we walk knowing we don’t go it alone, trusting God is as near to us as he was to Elijah, thankful God places others in our life to strengthen our hope and our footsteps. In our own walks of faith, in our own fleeing and praying and struggling... may we likewise accept the gift of that quiet heavenly strength to journey on step by step. Until this life's journey at last is over, and we meet again through Christ, who walked among us that we might walk with God forever. Amen.