Text from the Narrative Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:1-18
Have you ever been disappointed by God?
I know that sounds sacrilegious, but let’s be honest. Has there ever been a time in your life when you thought that you had done everything that you were supposed to do, and things still didn’t work out well. What’s going on, Lord? I’ve lived a clean life. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t chew, I didn’t go with girls who do, I’ve followed all the commandments, I’ve gone to church, I give faithfully, and still these bad things happen in my life. When are you going to show up?
This fall we’ve been walking through the story of the Bible, using the Narrative Lectionary, with the theme God with Us.
We’ve been playing with that theme a little. Last week Pastor Mark asked the question, “Where is God with us?” A few weeks before that I asked, “Is God Really with us?” Today I want to play with it again and ask, “When is God with us?” Does God show up when we’ve done everything right? Does God show up in big acts of power, or in mountain top experiences like mission trips or national crises?
Our story explores that question. Let’s look at 1 Kings 19:1-18. Here we have a new character named Elijah. He has just come from a huge event that takes place on Mt. Carmel.
It will help us to understand the full impact of this story if we invest a few minutes and go back to tell the whole story again. This is a tale of two mountains.
Let’s go all the way back here, to Genesis, when God calls a guy named Abraham. God promises to Abraham that God would bless him and make his offspring into a great nation and that through that nation he would bless all nations. Blessed to be a blessing. Then in Exodus we see that these people, the Israelites, are enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. God uses Moses to deliver them from slavery. God leads the people out of Egypt in a miraculous defeat of the Egyptian army, then takes them to this mountain.
We know this mountain as Mt. Sinai. It is also known as Mt. Horeb. What happens here is a Horeb-al thing. See what I did there. 🙂 Moses climbs up to this mountain and God shows up in a thick dark cloud, kind of like last week when God filled the temple with a thick, dark cloud. Moses is engulfed in this cloud and there is thunder and lightning, and an earthquake shook the ground, and the people were freaking out. In this demonstration of power God gave the Law to the people and it shaped them as a nation.
Moses came down from that mountain and led the people to the Promised Land of Canaan. Joshua leads them into the land. The book of judges tells about how the people tried to follow God with just the Law. We saw how Samuel was the last judge and the people cried out for a king. Samuel anointed Saul, then he went bad and so David became the king that united the tribes into one nation. Then his son Solomon became king and built a temple. That was last week.
Since last week, things have gone badly for Israel. Solomon’s son wasn’t very good and his harshness led to a civil war and the nation split into two kingdoms. One to the north, called the Kingdom of Israel, and one to the south, called the Kingdom of Judah.
The kings of Israel were bad kings and they kept leading the nation into the worship of other gods. During this time God would send messengers to the kings. These messengers were called prophets.
Our text today in 1 Kings 18 tells the story of one of the most wicked kings and one of the most famous prophets.
King Ahab married a Queen from another country. Queen Jezebel brought her gods with her and her agenda was to convert the Kingdom of Israel to complete devotion to her gods.
Enter Elijah. This is the prophet who predicted a drought and was fed by the ravens out in the wilderness. He was a bold man who stood up to Ahab and Jezebel. Chapter 18 tells the story of a second mountain. Elijah issues a challenge to Jezebel and all the prophets of her gods–Baal and Asherah. He tells them to meet him here, on Mt. Carmel for a showdown. He instructs them to make an altar with an animal sacrifice on it, and he would build one, too. Whichever god was real would be the one that brings the fire himself to burn up the sacrifice.
450 prophets of Baal spend the whole day crying out to Baal. They are dancing, and chanting, and cutting themselves, and nothing happens. Elijah taunts them. Maybe your god is sleeping. Why don’t you shout louder! Nothing.
Then its Elijah’s turn. He was so confident that God would deliver that Elijah doused the altar and the wood with water. Then God shows up and a great fire burns up the sacrifice, the altar, and all the water! Then Elijah takes all the prophets of Baal and destroys them and tells Ahab to look out over the horizon to see the storm cloud forming. A huge rain storm appears and the three-year drought is broken!
If this were a movie it would be the grand climax where the hero goes against all odds and defeats the enemy. Cue the victory music. We all cheer!
At this point Elijah is feeling pretty good. The victory is his. God is avenged. Life makes sense. He’s done everything he was supposed to do.
Then it happens. A messenger comes to him. “Excuse me, Elijah, sir. Um, Jezebel sends a message. Well, she’s really mad, and she has vowed to kill you, at all costs.”
What?! That was not how it was supposed to go. This was the point where the nation was supposed to turn back to God and the wicked queen overthrown.
Here we come to our question.
Have you ever been disappointed by God? Elijah did everything right, and things still went wrong.
What would you do in that moment? Elijah did what most of us would do. He ran away. He ran for 40 days.
40 seems to be an important number in the Bible. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights to flood the earth. The Israelites were slaves for forty decades. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days.
Here’s an interesting thing. On Monday it will have been 40 days since I took my last comprehensive exam. I took four exams in September. 32 hours of exams. I wrote 145 pages. Then nothing. I’ve been waiting, and the school has been silent. There’s a part of my mind that is freaking out. 40 days is a long time. I can’t imagine running for 40 days without food and water.
Elijah runs for forty days.
Here’s a take home for us. Even the greatest heroes of faith have 40 day experiences of fear, loneliness, dryness, and hunger. It happens, and it prepares us for what God is doing.
The interesting thing to me about this story is the place to which Elijah runs.
He heads back to Mr. Horeb–to Mt. Sinai. It’s like he was thinking, when all else seemed lost, he needed to go back to where it all started, to get back to his roots, to his past.
Isn’t that how we often do things?
I come over here and look at this banner. Here are written the names of loved ones who have passed away. They represent our cherished past. It is good that we honor them. We can never forget them.
Many times when things get confusing we want to go back to a remembered past when things made more sense to us. We want to recapture traditions and “the good old days.”
We want to go back to Mt. Horeb.
Elijah gets there and God asks him an interesting question.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah cries out, “I’ve done everything right. I’ve stood up for you, and nothing has gotten better. I’m the only one left. All is lost.”
Hmmm… “Step out here and let me show you something,” God says.
I can just imagine Elijah getting excited at this point. God is going to reveal himself to me on this mountain, just like he did to Moses. This is just what I need right now.
A huge wind comes along. Boom, crash! Elijah thinks, “this is it!” But God was not in the wind.
An earthquake shakes everything. Elijah is ready. But God was not in the earthquake.
A fire burns all around. Elijah thinks, surely God is here. But God was not in the fire.
Then there was sheer silence.
I wonder how long that lasted.
Then God asks the question again.
“What are you doing here, Elijah? Why here? This is where I showed up for Moses and that is how I appeared in that moment, but that was in the past. Elijah, I don’t live in the past. I live in the Promise, and I have work for you to do. Why are you here? Go back. You are not alone. I have a new king for you to anoint. There is a successor named Elisha for you to pass the baton. And there are 7,000 people who are faithful to me. Get off of Mt. Horeb and go back to the future, where I live.”
I wonder where you are on this journey right now.
We will find ourselves at each of these places multiple times throughout our lives. Maybe you are experiencing your Mt. Horeb for the first time and God is doing amazing things in your life right now. That’s awesome. Maybe you are in the wrestling match with God. Maybe you have been faithful and you are disappointed and you are experiencing your 40 days.
When does God show up? In all of it. God is here, and here, and here.
Two things I’ve learned from this lesson.
First, you can’t go back. You can remember and honor the past, but you can’t go back.
Second, God lives in the Promise of renewing all things and works in new ways for every generation. His mercy is new every morning. Our job is to trust in God’s faithfulness, and be willing to listen to the whisper of God.
God is doing a new thing in this generation.
The world is changing and God is moving in fresh and wonderful ways as the Holy Spirit empowers and guides us to love and embrace each other. May we be encouraged that God still speaks, even in the silence, and God has an exciting future for us.