Not Alone (November 3, 2019)
1 Kings 19: 1-5, 8-10, 13-18
The time of the Kings in Israel and Judah is a time marked by turmoil for the people of God. The books of Kings and the books of Chronicles list off the rulers of Israel and Judah, but the stars of the books are not the rulers. Most of the rulers, not all but most of the rulers, in these two kingdoms are listed as people who were not doing what they were supposed to do; they did not follow the commands of God, and therefore listed as people who “do evil in the sight of the Lord.” The real stars of these books are the prophets, the ones who go to the people and the Kings and tell them to get back on track. People like Elijah and Elisha, people like Nathan who went to David. And of course eventually the history starts being told in books that are not named for the Kings, but rather named for the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Jonah. These are the real stars of Israel’s history. And this is a story about Elijah, one of those prophets.
The story that was read comes directly after a moment where Elijah is preaching the truth to the people and trying to call them back from worship of the Canaanite God Baal. What Elijah did was he essentially set up a reality TV contest in ancient times. He tells all of Israel to gather together at Mount Carmel for a sacrifice-off, a God-off if you will. 400 priests of Baal, and then he’s going to be there representing the God of Israel. And what they’ll do is they’ll each build an altar to their god and set up wood on it. Then there will be two bulls. The priests of Baal can pick theirs first if they want, and then he’ll take the other one. And they’ll prepare an offering, but they won’t light the fire. Then they will each call on their god, and whichever god answers by sending a fire to consume the offering is the winner. Seems straightforward enough.
So they do this. The priests of Baal go first, and of course with Baal being merely a block of wood, it does nothing. And Elijah begins to heckle them a little bit (we can get into the goodness of heckling in a different sermon). But eventually Elijah does his. And he has the altar doused with water to make it harder to burn, he has them build a moat around the altar and he fills that with water too. And then he prays that God would “show these people you are God.” He does not ask for fire, he asks God to show the people that God is indeed God. And God sends fire. And it consumes the bull, and the wood, and the stones of the altar, and for good measure the water in the moat around the altar. And the people become zealous for the God who wins the sacrifice-off; and Elijah uses that zealousness by telling them to go and kill the prophets of Baal.
This all gets reported to the queen, a fanatic worshiper of Baal. And it angers her to the point where she sends a letter to Elijah that says, “if I don’t make you like one of them, if I don’t kill you, by this time tomorrow, may God do whatever God wants to me.” Pretty serious threat. But Elijah‘s just called down fire from heaven! Shirley he’s not afraid of one person! But, yes; he runs away. And he finds himself depressed. He doesn’t stop running with his servant until they arrive at Beersheba, the southernmost point in the kingdom of Judah. Very, very far away from where Jezebel could get him. They he leaves behind his servant, and he keeps going into the desert, running away from the queen that can’t reach him and who is much less than the 400 priests of Baal. Why?
Elijah is a prophet. And prophets do a great many things, but one of the things they do is that they sometimes perform these miracles, these acts of God. Elijah has just performed what might well be the biggest act of God since Moses parted the Red Sea. He’s had a pretty good day at work. He has solidified himself as one of the best to ever do what he does. But as we all know, you can only go all out at your job for so long. You can only be the best at your job for so long before one of two things, if not both happens. One, people start to gripe about you; this is Jezebel for Elijah. And two, you get burnt out. And I think that was happening here. Elijah is burnt out. He’s wondering if he can do it again, “If I need to to escape Jezebel, can I do it again?” And he’s also wondering what’s the point? That’s a major burnout question: what’s the point, why am I doing this? I think that’s the one that really gets to Elijah, as will see later on.
When we get burnt out, when we have people who start griping about us, when we want to give up; Elijah reminds us that God still loves us. God does not join those griping about us. Even if God wants us to go a different direction, God is not about chastising us. And Elijah’s story reminds us that there is always someone to help you on the journey. That is true whether you are a prophet sending and speaking truth to the power of Israel, or whether you are a cashier at Walmart. And it’s true even if you just burn out of being a Christian and spreading the Good News and of loving other people. I do want you to notice though, that while God does not criticize Elijah for being burnt out, God also does not let Elijah stay there. That is not where God wants any of us to remain.
Instead God sends Elijah an angel, which tends to Elijah‘s physical needs, but then sends him off further into the desert to tend to his mental needs. For God cares about both of those; both our physical and our mental needs are important to God. God will tend to both. Sometimes through the use of helpers. Sometimes God sends angels, and God will send angels to you. But sometimes, a lot of times, you are the angels that God is wanting to send to others. That’s another lesson from today.
The angel sends Elijah on into the desert to Mount Sinai. Yes, that same mountain once again. And here Elijah meets God at Mount Sinai; an Israelite prophet meets God here again. Within this story there are a lot of connections to other stories that we have already read, or that we have already passed by. Remember back. The location that Elijah first stops is important: that location, Beersheba, was the exact same location that Hagar and Ishmael stop when they are on the run in the desert. Hagar was the slave girl of Sarah, the mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and after the birth of Isaac, Sarah tells Abraham to send her away. So Abraham gives her a flask of water and sent her off into the desert. And the flask runs out at Beersheba, and at that moment she leaves behind her dependent her son, unable to watch him die, and continues further into the desert. We’re meant to remember that story as Elijah winds up at Beersheba, leaves his servant, and continues on into the desert wanting to die. We’re meant to remember the story of Moses when Elijah winds up at Mount Sinai to meet God at “the Cave.” In Hebrew it’s not “a cave,” but rather “the cave.” The one, perhaps, Moses met God at.
As we encounter the story, the reader is definitely meant to remember these other stories. In fact this is why we do this. This is why I wanted to go through the story of the Scriptures from start to finish: to point out and remember. God has a tendency to work in the ways God has worked before. As we encounter situations similar to the ones that are encountered by these people in Scripture, (because that’s what Scripture is: it is the story of people trying to live as disciples and followers of God, and of the problems they encountered in doing that). As we encounter problems trying to do that same thing, God has a tendency to work in the same way that God worked before. And so reading the stories can provide us with the places to look for where God might indeed show up.
We might not be a prophet of God, but I think we sometimes will run into the same problem that Elijah had. Elijah‘s problem, what was really motivating Elijah‘s burn out and depression, was that he felt he was alone. There were 400 priests of Baal; there was only him who showed up for God. Was he all that was left? And if so, what was the point of continuing on? And God speaks to that problem as he tells Elijah that not only there are still 7000 people who have not worshiped Baal, you are not alone, but also then tells Elijah to get up to go back and anoint his successor. In other words, Elijah, this challenge will continue on after you. God will continue on after you. And there are people who are worthy of continuing the fight. There are people like you, Elijah; you are not alone in this struggle. It’s really that reassurance that gets Elijah back on track.
Today is when protestant churches celebrate All Saints Day. It is the day where we turn the church to the color of white, the color of celebration of life, and the color of Easter. It’s a day where we list off those who have gone on before us. This particular year and we remember all those we’ve gone on before us, who have run the race and now rest with the Lord in the midst of the Communion of All the Saints. This is the day we remember that we are not alone.
But this should be a day we also remember that there are those who are still running their race. Not just us, but many of those around us, who might be in the wilderness and just wanting it to end. Sometimes they’re people who are in the same families as those we’re remembering. And so on this day, let us remember that God sends angels to those in the wilderness. Let us remember Saint Grandma, who oftentimes (not always, but oftentimes) was at least once an angel to us when we were in the wilderness as we grew up, as we came to learn to trust in God. And let us remember that often times we need to be that person to someone else, maybe even grandpa. And when we’re in the wilderness, let us remember that God sends angels to us, and let us be welcoming of those who enter into our midst. On this day when we celebrate those that have gone on before us, let us remember that we are not alone; that there are 7000 (actually there’s a lot more than 7000) who have not bent the knee to anyone else. They’re still with us. This is not pointless. Let us remember that on this day, as we remember those went on before us. Amen.