Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Kings 19.1-15a
20 June 2010, Ordinary 12C
King Ahab told Queen 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, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place 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, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…’
I don’t know if any of you have been watching the TV show “Glee” over the past few months—I definitely have. It’s about a high school show choir called New Directions. A few weeks ago, there was an episode in which the opposing choir showed off how good they are—great choreography, great costumes, great music. And then, to top it off, one of the New Directions stars defected to that opposing choir, breaking up with his glee club star girlfriend in the process. It sent the whole choir into a spiral of depression—though they won the last contest, they believe they can’t win the upcoming regional competition, and so they begin to give up. They…well, metaphorically anyway…curl up under a tree in the desert and go to sleep, hoping never to wake up.
Elijah seems to also be in a funk, as the choir director put it. He won the big contest—proved that the Lord is God AND eliminated the false prophets all in one fell swoop. But now there’s an even bigger contest coming, and the opposition is fierce and powerful. So rather than let an evil queen kill him, he runs away—hundreds of miles away—and then lays down and asks to die.
I suspect many of us have been here—maybe not literally asking to die, but so tired, so worn out, so deep in the darkness that it’s all we can do to eat the bread the angels bring before we go back to sleep. We may not be battling the prophets of Baal or running for our lives from one of the most notorious evil queens of history, but a lot of the time we are battling something, or running from something. And sometimes, the cost of discipleship seems too high. To keep facing the competition, to keep following God’s call, to keep picking up the cross every day, to keep widening the circle of grace while others seem always to be closing it. Sometimes the world is just too overwhelming, the need to great, the problem too big, and our resources too small.
And so we run.
And we leave behind the people who help us, and we run some more.
Then, at last, we rest. Where no one can see, we just let it go. The façade comes down, the cheery face gets put away, and we just … rest. No expectations, no one needing us, no one waiting for our opinion or direction or help.
Sometimes we get to this place because our bodies refuse to go any farther—we get sick, or our body breaks, and we’re forced to be still.
Sometimes we get to this place because our minds can no longer keep up—something snaps and we just have to stop.
Sometimes we get to this place because people around us are willing to pick up the slack so we can take a little time off before “burnout” becomes literal.
However we get here, though, it’s not the end of the journey. It’s tempting to stay here on vacation from life, but this is just the beginning, the first water station, the restaurant where we carbo load before the big race. Food and water weren’t what Elijah really needed—they were a means to an end.
When Elijah got to the mountain—the mountain where God spoke to Moses, where God made the Israelites a community, where Elijah could literally stand on the promises of God—he rested again. But physical rest wasn’t the point in this place. Soon there came The Word of God: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Here, far from home yet close to his foundation. Here, a place of refuge and hope. Here, our rock and our fortress. What are you doing here?
Elijah’s answer rivals even show choir for its melodrama. “I’ve been working so hard, and no one even cares, and I’m ALL ALONE.”
I suspect most of us have been here too.
Then something happens—this vacation turns into Sabbath, into a retreat. It’s not just a trip, not just a time to rest, not just a chance to sight-see in the Sinai. It’s time for Elijah’s spirit to be renewed by a meeting with the living God.
All the usual acts of God come first—raging wind, shaking earth, crackling flames. We’ve seen all of these before—burning bushes and pillars of fire, earthquakes that free apostles in prison, Pentecost wind. But this time is different.
This time, these signs come and go…to be followed by the only lasting sign: silence.
You know how sometimes silence can be deafening? This is a quiet we rarely hear in our electronic-filled world. This is the kind of quiet where all you can hear is your heartbeat—even your thoughts seem fuzzy in the din of silence. The kind of quiet only God can give us—maybe even the kind that we can only find inside ourselves, regardless of the noise outside.
It doesn’t say how long the silence lasted, but I like to think it was long enough for Elijah to meet himself—to hear his thoughts, his feelings, his heart. Long enough to look deep and see the image of God inside.
Into that silence comes the Word again—living, breathing, whispering. And this time, when Elijah tells God that he feels alone and overworked, it’s not the same melodramatic whining of the first conversation. This time, it feels like a confession. Into the silence, Elijah whispers, “I thought I had to do it all myself. I thought I had to have it all figured out. I thought you had left me alone.”
In that confession, God is moving in and through Elijah. Elijah’s own spirit has met the One who can feed him, who brings the peace that passes our understanding, who will never EVER leave him alone.
This is what Sabbath is for—to encounter the living God and find our spirits renewed. In the process we too can whisper into the silence our own belief that we have it all figured out, or that we should have it all figured out. We can admit that we don’t know, and there might even be more than one right answer, and we’re never going to be able to do more than follow where we are called. In other words, we can confess our own idolatry of ourselves. We can look deep and see the image of God—the image we want to reflect into the world—is so much better than the image we’ve been reflecting…and then we can clear away the stuff that gets in the way.
Only then can we hear the call again: Go, return on your way.
Just as the nap under the tree wasn’t the destination, the mountain isn’t the destination either. Yes, we need both the rest and the retreat. We need to have our bodies and spirits nourished and renewed. But that’s a means to an end—to get back on the way. And this time, we’ll walk the road of life and discipleship knowing that the Spirit of God goes within us, whispering encouragement and direction—and that’s all we need to know for now.
Thanks be to God.