Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 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.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. … 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?” 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.” 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 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?” 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.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go…” – 1 Kings 19:1-3a, 9-15a
Today’s Old Testament text is a small part of a larger story that you need to know a little more about in order to be able to put into context, and hopefully understand a little better. This is a story of the prophet Elijah during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab had married Jezebel, who was the daughter of the King of Tyre, an adjacent kingdom to the north of ancient Israel, in part of what is modern-day Lebanon. This marriage undoubtedly helped Ahab with trade relations, political and military alliances, and so on. Jezebel worshipped Baal, the ancestral god of her people, and while Ahab kept focused primarily on the military, and statecraft, and the business of the kingdom, he let Jezebel handle the religious affairs of the household, and by extension, the countryside. Jezebel established temples to worship Baal, and supported hundreds of priests and prophets of her religion. And that’s when problems with Elijah, who had never been a big fan of Ahab anyway, came to a head.
There was a dispute over who would be the God that the people worshiped – Baal or YHWH. In order to decide the matter, Elijah proposed a competition, a showdown of sorts. The prophets of Baal would slaughter a bull and put it on an altar, and Elijah would do the same. Then, they’d each call on the name of their respective gods, and the one who actually sent fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice would be one to worship. The people all thought this sounded fair enough, so the competition was on.
The prophets of Baal – all 450 of them – went first, but despite praying and calling on Baal for pretty much an entire day, nothing happened. Now Elijah was a cheeky, sarcastic sort of prophet, and as the other prophets were praying and wailing to Baal, he started to taunt them – What’s wrong? Where is your God? Maybe he’s off praying somewhere and can’t hear you; maybe he fell asleep; maybe he took a long weekend to the beach.
Finally, it was Elijah’s turn, and he placed his sacrificed bull on the wood on the altar. And then, just for added theatrics – I told you he was a cheeky sort – he had them doused with gallons and gallons of water, twice even, until everything was completely saturated with water. And then, standing there in the mud from all of the water running off the pile, and water trickling between his toes, Elijah calls on the name of God to send fire, and BAM! Fire shoots down from heaven and the sacrifice bursts into flames. The people were all impressed, as I supposed they should have been, and they side with Elijah; and in the religious fervor of the moment, Elijah orders that they seize and kill all 450 of the prophets of Baal. Which brings us to where we pick up the story in today’s Lectionary text.
Well as you might expect, Elijah’s killing all of the prophets of Baal doesn’t sit very well with the Queen, , and she vows that if she ever gets her hands on Elijah, she’ll do to him what he’d done to the prophets of Baal. So Elijah flees for his life. Ultimately, he ends up in this cave on Mount Horeb, the same mountain where God spoke to Moses and handed down the Ten Commandments according to the book of Deuteronomy. There in the cave, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah tells God how everyone has turned against him and away from God, and they’re all out to kill him, and that only he was left in all of Israel to stand up for God and defend God’s name – which seems a little odd, considering it was just a few verses earlier that there were apparently enough followers of God to seize and kill 450 prophets of Baal – but Elijah was on a roll at that point, and God seems to just let him go. And he undoubtedly reminds God of that event too, to show how devoted and faithful a servant he was.
After listening to Elijah’s answer, God seems to set up an object lesson for Elijah. God tells Elijah to go stand out on the mountain, because God was about to pass by. And then, there’s this tremendous show of force and power and fury – a mighty wind, and earthquake, a huge fire. It was a scene that made Elijah’s sacrifice showdown look tiny by comparison. But the story tells us that God wasn’t found in any of that. It was only after that show of force, that illustration that God was perfectly capable of taking care of himself against his enemies, without Elijah needing to supposedly defend the faith by killing a bunch of people and then playing the martyr card – it was only after that, when everything had died back down to absolute silence, that God offers Elijah a second chance to answer the question. So… What are you doing here, Elijah?
And in what seems to be a classic scriptural case of cluelessness, Elijah seems to miss the whole point of God’s demonstration and just offers God the exact same answer again. At that point, God tells him to just go, setting him off on his next adventure. At this point, you can almost hear God sigh. You can almost feel God’s shoulders droop. You can almost hear God say “Well… maybe we’ll work on this lesson with him another day.”
Even as great a servant of God as Elijah sometimes gets things wrong. Even Elijah can get wrapped up in delusions of grandeur, that he’s the sole defender of the faith, that he’s got to go to extreme, maybe even violent means, to save the faith and protect God’s name, all in the name of faithfully trying to hear the voice of God.
This story shows us that we don’t usually hear God’s voice in the big, mighty, loud things of the world. We don’t usually find it in the high drama or theatrics or sarcasm. Contrary to some televangelists, we don’t hear the voice or judgment of God in earthquakes or floods or hurricanes or mudslides. And we certainly don’t find it in acts of violence. Whether in Elijah’s time or our own, the voice of God is most present, most hearable, in the still, small moments. In the silence.
Where is it that you find the voice of God? Maybe in moments of silence, here, or in the chapel, or looking out at the lake at sunset. Maybe we hear God’s voice in a recurring dream that we can’t seem to shake, that comes to us over and over again in the middle of the night when the distractions of the day that tend to drown out the voice of God are largely set aside. Maybe we hear God’s voice through the surprisingly wise and observant words of a small child. Or maybe, as sometimes happens when we’re in times of real distress, we just hear the voice of God within us – not in actual words, but just resonating inside our very being, just as audible as my words are to you right now.
Where is it that you’ve heard God speaking in your life? Wherever it may have been, one good thing that we can get out of this Old Testament story is that if God’s asked something of us, and we didn’t quite get the point, or if we didn’t really come up with the answer God wanted us to, God will keep speaking to us. Just as was apparently the case with Elijah, God will keep loving us and working with us on getting the right answer, maybe on another day.
Thanks be to God.