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Thomas J Parlette

“Elijah meets God in the Silence”

1st Kings 19: 1-15a

6/12/16

As we tune in to the story of Elijah for the third time this morning, Elijah is stressed out. He has just defeated the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and Queen Jezebel wants him dead. He is scared and overwhelmed. He’s thinking to himself, “I have served a God who now abandons me into the hand of my enemies.

It’s time for Elijah to take a break. So he heads out into the wilderness to do a little “forest bathing.” That’s right, forest bathing. It’s a new practice that started in Japan in the 1980’s where tired stressed out, tech-weary office workers were encouraged to get out into nature for a day, completely unplug from the world and get lost in the rhythms and the sounds of the forest – a forest bath. Studies are beginning to show that it actually works. People to take forest baths are actually experiencing lower stress levels and better moods as well as an increase in self-esteem, physical fitness, memory, attention span and creativity.(1)

That’s exactly what Elijah needs as he meets God in the sound of silence. He is looking for some solace, some rest, some rejuvenation. So he heads off into the wilderness for a  little forest bath time.

There’s an old legend that tells how God once sent an angel to Satan with the message that all the methods, all the tools the devil was using to defeat Christians were going to be taken away from him. The devil pleaded with the Angel that he be allowed to keep just one thing. The angel, thinking that this was an unusually modest request for the greedy devil, agreed that Satan could keep just one of his tools.

“Which one do you want to keep?” asked the Angel.

“Let me keep discouragement,” was Lucifer’s reply.

The angel agreed – Satan could keep discouragement in his arsenal. And the devil walked away pleased as he said to himself, “With this one tool of discouragement I have everything I will ever need to accomplish my work.”(2)

That describes Elijah perfectly. He has fallen victim to discouragement. He is depleted. He is depressed.

And it’s easy to understand why. This episode actually occurs right after the contest on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal. At the conclusion of that story, Elijah orders the Israelites to kill all the priests of Baal. So they chase them down the mountainside into the valleys and undergrowth below and they kill all 450 priests.

Shortly afterward, the skies opened and the rain fell and the drought was over. But Elijah’s troubles were just beginning. Queen Jezebel was furious that her priests were wiped out and she vows revenge. She puts a contract out on Elijah’s life. Elijah hightails it out of the area. Then, when he is safely away, all his energy leaves him, the adrenaline wears off, and he begins to feel sorry for himself. He has had it with being a prophet and he wants to resign his commission. He is burned out.

Now, in saying that, that is not just a guess. This is a rare instance where a biblical writer tells us what’s going on with the prophet’s mental state. The writer uses a metaphor and a quoye from Elijah himself. The metaphor is in the detail that Elijah, alone in the wilderness, “sat down under a solitary broom tree.” It’s a poetic way of conveying how Elijah felt – all alone, like that single tree. Then Elijah’s words let us see his mood: “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” I’ve had it. I give up. I’m a failure. No more. What he really needs is some forest bathing, a spiritual retreat.

What happens next, however, tells us that God is not about to let Elijah give up. The prophet goes to sleep, but God sends an angel, twice to wake Elijah and give him food. Sleep and food – necessities when we are depleted. God then directs Elijah to make a long journey – go to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, where the great prophet Moses first formed God’s people. Go to Mount Horeb and be inspired. But instead of looking for a fresh vision, Elijah gets there and hides in a cave. That apparently was not what God had in mind for this journey back to Mount Horeb, for God comes to Elijah in the cave and says, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

Elijah’s response is a little strange from the fiery, confident, self-assured prophet we just saw defeat the 450 prophets of Baal. He’s actually kind of whiny – and it goes to show how burned out he feels. “I have been very zealous for the Lord, for the Israelites have forgotten your covenant, torn down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left. Just me – and now they are coming after me, they want me dead as well.”

Actually Elijah is exaggerating here a bit. There were thousands in Israel who remained faithful to God, he is not alone, but Elijah is so exhausted, he can’t see the reality of the situation.

God doesn’t coddle Elijah in this moment. God tells Elijah to go outside the cave and witness what God is about to show him, but Elijah won’t go. So God sends a great wind, and then an earthquake and then a fire – but God is not in any of these and Elijah will not budge from his cave.

Then after all the pyrotechnics – all of which are the traditional ways that God’s presence is known, in fire, wind and earthquake – after all that, there is the sound of sheer silence. And that sound, that whisper is what finally lures Elijah out of hiding. And God asks the same question again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah gives the same answer – “I have been very zealous… I’m the only one left – and now they’re coming to kill me.”

But God isn’t buying into Elijah’s complaining. Instead, God gives Elijah more work to do – “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…” When he gets there, Elijah will anoint new kings for Aram and Israel – the days of Jezebel and Ahab are numbered. Elijah will also begin grooming a new prophet named Elisha who will eventually be Elijah’s successor.

You have to admit, God doesn’t come across very sympathetic here. We don’t give any kind of glimpse into a divine therapy session. Here is poor Elijah, physically, mentally emotionally and spiritually exhausted from his work as God’s messenger, he’s got these people trying to kill him and God won’t give him a break. Won’t let him quit, not even take a break and hide in a cave for awhile. God calls out the forces of nature and then the voice of silence itself to get Elijah back on his feet. Actually does feed Elijah and lets him get the sleep he needs – but God doesn’t let Elijah wallow in his self-pity. Instead, when the weary prophet finally does stagger out of the cave, God adds new work to Elijah’s to-do list.

But here’s the thing – it works. Elijah does get back on track. His time of wilderness bathing does get him revitalized and back on the path God has laid out. God never tries to talk Elijah out of his depression and gloom. God does not argue with Elijah’s rather ridiculous notion that he is the only faithful one left in all of Israel. Instead, God provides Elijah with the one thing that sometimes does help when we have lost our way – and that is a new purpose. By giving Elijah a new assignment, one that will affect the course of history, Elijah has a reason to go on, to take the focus off of his own woes and to start looking out for others.

In the end, that may be the best thing that we learn from this story – that when we feel all used up, then it’s time to take the focus off of ourselves. Or, as the old saying goes, “When you dig another out of their troubles, you find a place to bury your own.”(3)

There are all sorts of reasons we can find ourselves feeling like Elijah does today – depressed, alone, grieving, burned out and feeling that there is nothing left for us to live for. And we should never try to talk people out of feeling like that. The best we can do is look for a little wilderness bathing – some get away time, so time to retreat and consider the question God put to Elijah – “What are you doing here?” “What are you supposed to do here.”

To paraphrase the great preacher Phillip Brooks – “The great Easter truth is not that we will receive life after death, but that we receive new life now.”(4) So what are you doing here with your new life? Come out of the cave, there is more to do.

So let us learn the lesson that Elijah learned – that God calls us to serve, and that in serving, especially in God’s name, we find meaning and purpose, and even the strength we need for whatever comes next.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 3, p. 62.

2.    Robert Leslie Holmes, Two Kings and Three Prophets, CSS Publishing Co. 2000, p. 47.

3.    Stan Purdum, Wisdom’s Delight, CSS Publishing Co. 2006, p. 267.

4.    Barbara Brokhoff, Grapes of Wrath or Grace? CSS Publishing Co. 1994, p. 66.