1 Kings 19:4-18
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
The silence is preceded by wind, earthquake, and fire, not unlike the thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, and trumpet blasts that Moses met on this same mountain. Elijah almost certainly expected… to receive a Moses conclusion in which “God would answer him in thunder” (Exod. 19:19). But instead of thunder, Yahweh met Elijah in a quiet, inarticulate breathing – God’s breath. God’s life.
Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 118.
I heard a story on the radio this week that had to do with why students are not going into math and science. Students hear about great scientists who have made great discoveries, like Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison. These students describe them with adjectives like “brilliant,” or “genius.” Because they don’t feel like a genius students don’t choose to go into science. However, when students hear some of the struggles that these brilliant scientists experience in their work they are more likely to choose science. In fact, when they hear about the struggles that scientist go through in making their discoveries, the students do better on science tests. In other words, it helps to hear the struggles that our heroes go through.
Elijah – his name means “My God is Yahweh.” He is only in six chapters of the Old Testament, about nine stories. Yet he is one of the heroes of the Bible, one of the two or three greatest people in the Old Testament – Moses, maybe David, and Elijah. Among all the prophets who spoke God’s word, Elijah is the model of what it means to be a prophet. Yet Elijah knew what it was like to struggle. Specifically, he struggled with depression
Two weeks ago we heard the story of Elijah prophesying that God was going to cause a drought. For three years there was no rain. During that time God provided for Elijah. Last week we heard the story of Elijah’s battle against the 450 prophets of Baal. They built two altars on top of Mount Carmel, with wood and a bull on top. The prophets of Baal prayed, asking their god to light the fire on the altar. Nothing happened. Elijah prayed and Yahweh sent a fire that burned up the altar. It was an overwhelming victory. After that the prophets of Baal were killed. Then Elijah prayed and it rained.
Ahab went back and told his wife, Jezebel, what had happened, how Yahweh had defeated Baal and all the prophets had been killed. Jezebel was never one to let facts get in the way of what she believed. In spite of the evidence that Yahweh was God she was furious at what had happened and promised to kill Elijah. He ran away, out into the wilderness.
He found a small broom tree. It wasn’t much, but it was the only protection there was out in the desert. He sat down and prayed. “God, I give up! I’m a failure. You might as well take my life. It isn’t worth living.” Then he went to sleep, hoping that he would never wake up. An angel woke him up. Told him to eat some food which God provided. He fell asleep again, probably still hoping not to wake up. The angel woke him up a second time. Told him to eat so that he would have enough strength to journey down to Mount Horeb, the mountain where Moses received the 10 Commandments.
When he got to the mountain he went into a cave and slept again. Then God spoke to him. This part of the passage always surprises me. When I hear the phrase “the word of the LORD” I expect a great truth, some sort of spiritual or theological proclamation. God commands us to do something. God comforts us or encourages us. Instead, the word of God to Elijah was a question! “What are you doing here?” God really wants to know. God is curious about your experience. God wants to hear your story. At that point Elijah complained. He poured out his heart to God. “I’ve worked so hard, and look what it has gotten me. I’ve spoken your word and done these great deeds, and the people still are worshiping other gods. And now they even want to kill me.” Elijah is depressed.
God responded by revealing himself to Elijah. He told him to stand at the edge of the cave where he would see God pass by. A hurricane force wind blew by. Imagine a wind that could take boulders and fling them through the air – but it wasn’t God. An earthquake shook the mountain – but it wasn’t God. Then there was a fire – but it wasn’t God.
After the fire came “the sound of sheer silence.” Or, if prefer the King James version, “a still, small voice.” Biblical scholars aren’t sure how to translate these words. The Hebrew words suggest something like “a voice that is a silent whisper.” Even though we don’t have an exact translation, the message is simple. God is powerful and majestic. Even if God wasn’t in the wind and the earthquake and the fire, God caused them. However, God’s word to us is often a quiet, subtle, whisper.
God asked Elijah a second time what he was doing. Again, Elijah complained. Then God gave Elijah a new job, three new jobs. Elijah is told to anoint two new kings and to anoint Elisha as the next prophet, Elijah’s successor.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been depressed. It is a horrible feeling. It’s like living in darkness. There is a sense of hopelessness, a sense that nothing really matters. Sometimes depression is connected to the circumstances of life – the death of a loved one, a crisis at work, an illness or a family problem. Some people struggle with depression that isn’t connected to a particular situation. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Some people become depressed after a major victory.
That’s what happened to Elijah. He won on Mount Carmel. Then Jezebel threatened him and he went into the depths of depression. He was afraid for his life, mad at God and felt terrible about himself. He wasn’t thinking clearly and felt all alone. Some of you have probably been there. It isn’t a fun place. Elijah’s story shows us three gifts that God gives to us when we are depressed.
When a person is depressed they often feel exhausted but may not be able to sleep. Some people stop eating when they are depressed. Others eat too much, but not necessarily good food. They often don’t get the exercise they need. All of that leads to our bodies needing rest and nourishment. There is a strong connection between our physical, emotional and spiritual health.
The first gift God gives to Elijah is physical rest and nourishment. God cared for his body. Elijah had spent all of his inner resources on Mount Carmel. Now he needed to rest and recuperate. He slept. Sleep is a gift from God. Then God provided food for Elijah and then he went back to sleep. When he woke up there was more food to strengthen his body. God provides for us the rest and nourishment we need. [10:00]
The second gift that God gives to Elijah is a revelation of himself. The theological word for this is theophany. “Theo” is the Greek word for God. “Phany” is the Greek word that means to show up or appear. A theophany is God revealing himself, God showing up.
Traditionally, theophanies involve some sort of overwhelming and unmistakable experience. The fire that came out of heaven on Mount Carmel was certainly that. Isaiah has a theophany when he had his glorious vision of God’s throne in heaven and the seraphim singing “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). These majestic revelations are intended to show God’s power, to overwhelm anyone who might think of him or herself as important. However, in our passage, God isn’t in the wind, earthquake or fire. God is in the sound of sheer silence, the voice of a quiet whisper.
When Tanya and I were in seminary we went to church one Sunday, and a thunderstorm came right over the church where we were. It was so loud that we couldn’t hear the pastor’s sermon, even with the microphone turned up. I remember thinking “I’d rather listen to the thunderstorm than the pastor. Maybe God is trying to tell us something.” I’ve been a pastor almost 29 years and I’ve waited for a thunderstorm to interrupt worship. It hasn’t happened, but I know what I will do. I have it written in the front of my Bible.
After waiting out the storm I’ll read a passage from Job 37. “Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth… God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.” (Job 37:2, 5). Then I’ll read a couple verses from Psalm 18. “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth” (Psalm 18:7-8a). Then I’ll turn to 1 Kings 19. “There was a great wind… but the LORD wasn’t in the wind; 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 (1 Kings 19:11b-12” And in that silence came a quiet whisper that promises “Come to me, all of you that are weary and tired, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). A whisper that proclaims “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). A whisper that says “No longer do I call you servants… Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Listen to God’s whisper to you. “You are my beloved child.”
The third gift that God gives to Elijah is a mission, a purpose for life. Even after rest and physical nourishment, even after experiencing something of God’s power and God’s tender love, Elijah was still discouraged and depressed. After the sound of sheer silence God asked him what he was doing and Elijah repeated his complaint. God didn’t argue with Elijah and try to convince him that everything was going to be okay. Instead, God gave him three jobs. “Go out and anoint two kings and anoint Elisha.”
When I’m feeling down and have the sense that I’m sliding into a depression I find that the best thing I can do is to get busy with my job. And the best of the best things is going to visit people who are also struggling. By focusing on my calling as a pastor and listening to other people I usually am able to get through my own difficult times.
What is God calling you to do? What is your mission, your purpose in life? Where is God calling you to serve?
I hope no one thinks that I’m downplaying depression or suggesting that it is no big deal. I know how devastating and difficult depression can be. There may be physical issues involved. Getting medical and psychological help is a good idea. I’m certainly not saying that “You just need more faith to get over your depression.” It isn’t a lack of faith to be depressed. Elijah had incredible faith and yet he struggled with depression.
What I want you to hear is that when you are depressed there is hope. God is with you in your depression and will give you gifts to help you through your depression. God is at work in your life, bringing you physical rest and nourishment. God is at work in your life, revealing himself to you, even if it is in a deafening silence or a quiet whisper of love. God is at work in your life, giving you a purpose, a mission for your life.
1 Kings 18:17-39
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
For God to send down the angels to take away our doubts would only result in removing our freedom to have faith in the love of God. Like hunger, doubt gives meaning and substance to our choice to live as God’s beloved. Craig Barnes, Best Advice, ed. W. Carl p17
No More Fence-Sitting
Last week we started looking at Elijah’s story. Ahab, the king of Israel, was a terrible king. He was married to Jezebel who worshipped Baal and encouraged everyone else to do the same. As a response to the sins of Ahab and Israel Elijah declared that there would be a drought. For three years God didn’t send any rain. During that time Elijah hid and God provided food and water for him. After three years God sent Elijah back to Ahab to tell him that the drought was going to end. Our passage today is the climax of this story. It is a battle between Elijah and Ahab, between Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal, between Yahweh and Baal.
“1 Kings 18:17-29, 36-39”
When I was going into 5th grade our family moved into a new house. It was in a suburban community with fences marking off our yards. One of the activities that my friends and I used to do was walk on top of the fences. We’d climb up and walk along the fences through people’s backyards. Sometimes there were trees next to the fence and we’d have to climb through the branches. Other times there were dogs that would bark and bang against the fence. That made it challenging. The goal was to stay on top of the fence, without falling off one side or the other into someone’s backyard.
Unfortunately, many people try to do the same thing in the spiritual life. People try to stay on top of the fence rather than choosing one side or the other. Elijah calls us to stop our fence-sitting and make a choice – who, or what, will be our God?
In our passage there were two rival gods: Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God who brought them out of Egypt and gave them the Law at Mount Sinai; and Baal, the generic name for a variety of different gods in that area. Did you notice in our passage it said “Baals?” It was in the plural. “You have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18:18). Ahab was trying to keep all of his options open. He wanted to worship all of these gods, including Yahweh. He hadn’t rejected Yahweh. He even named several of his children after Yahweh. Ahab simply worshipped Yahweh and other gods named Baal. The problem is that for the people of Israel there is no Yahweh and another god. Elijah forced the people to choose.
Ahab was not alone in trying to worship a variety of gods. Elijah challenged the people. “‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word” (1 Kings 18:21). They knew that Yahweh was the God of Israel and that they had turned away from him. Yet they also wanted to worship Baal, so they didn’t say anything. They refused to commit.
Finally, Elijah proposed a competition between the two gods – set up two altars, sacrifice two bulls, put one on each altar. See which god lights the fire on the altar without any human help. Remember, the belief was that Baal controlled the rains and the storms. He was the god of the thunder and lightning. The competition was on – Elijah verses the 450 prophets, Yahweh against Baal.
Elijah let the prophets of Baal go first, trusting that they wouldn’t succeed. The prophets prayed for five or six hours. They tried all their religious rituals and nothing happens. Elijah mocked them and taunted them. They tried everything and nothing worked. Finally, late in the afternoon, Elijah called all the people to himself and took his turn. He built an altar with twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, reminding the people of their identity as people of Yahweh. He put wood and the bull on top of the altar. Then he had some people poor twelve jars of water over the altar, until everything was completely soaked. Then he prayed and fire came out of heaven. It lit the altar, burned up everything and evaporated the water. Yahweh was, and is, God!
You might think that Elijah’s and Yahweh’s victory on Mount Carmel would settle things once and for all. It was dramatic and overwhelming. There was no doubt. Yahweh is God! But all you need to do is read a few more chapters to realize that people continue to worship Yahweh and other gods. Let me suggest that if we look at our lives we all have the same problem.
CS Lewis wrote the book, The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape is a senior devil who is training his nephew, Wormwood. He writes a series of letters to help Wormwood learn how to draw people away from God and keep them from growing in their faith. In the 25th letter Screwtape says this.
What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know – Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians, let them be Christians with a difference” (p73).
I would suggest that Screwtape has been successful. People today, including us, don’t reject Jesus. You wouldn’t be here if you did. However, we all have a tendency to follow God and our own dreams, Jesus and our own desires, Jesus and our own gods. Let me share with you a few examples.
The first I would call God and My Cause. God cares about the world we live in and how we live in the world. Christians are appropriately involved in a variety of causes and social issues – trying to overcome racism and poverty, caring for the environment, feeding the poor. Christians are involved on both sides of issues like abortion and homosexuality. These are important issues and we ought to be involved with them. The problem is that sometimes these causes become more important than God. These issues become our Baal.
Another example would be God and My Convenience. These are people who love Jesus and would claim him as the most important thing in their lives. They may be involved in a church. They are good Christians, as long as it is convenient and doesn’t interfere with their other activities. These people will come to church, unless they can get a Sunday morning golfing tee time, or the Steelers are playing, or they want to spend some time in a family activity. God ends up being our second or third priority. Does your calendar show that Christ is the most important part of your life? Does the way you spend our money demonstrate that Jesus is your lord and savior? Is there evidence in your life that God is more important than anything else?
Another example, God and My Success. This is the prosperity gospel, the belief that God wants us to be rich. Anything that increases my wealth must be from God. Money becomes our god. How about God and My Nation. I love our country and consider myself fortunate that I live here. Yet the United States is not the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, for some people, the United States is their god. Finally, God and My Comfort. Anything that makes me feel good must be from God. Anything that touches my heart and helps me feel loved is good. What are the gods in your life that compete with Jesus and keep you from living as faithful and obedient servants of God?
God and anything else is not an option for Christians. We are called to get off the fence and to make Jesus the number one priority in life. We are called to reject the Baals of our lives, and worship God alone.
Yahweh is the only true God. Mount Carmel was an overwhelming victory for Yahweh. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind who won. Easter was an overwhelming victory for Jesus. On Good Friday he was dead. Satan thought that he had won. Yet God raised Jesus from the dead and he is alive today, sitting at the right hand of God. God won. Jesus is Lord. Yahweh is God. Choose the side of God, who won at Mount Carmel, who won on Easter morning, who is the Lord of life.