Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 25, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 19:1-13
This past Wednesday I traveled over to Waynesboro for a meeting. That gave me a chance on the way back to do something I find fun to do. Before coming back over the mountain, I like to fill up my gas tank at one of the gas stations there where Rosser Avenue intersects with I-64.
Then just as I’m about to top over Afton Mountain, I reset my gas mileage calculator to zero and I shift my car into neutral and I coast down Afton Mountain. I am very easily entertained. I will admit that. What entertains me about this is watching my gas mileage calculator calculate my gas mileage as I coast down Afton Mountain on my way back to Charlottesville.
So, I’ve reset my gas mileage calculator to zero, I’m in neutral, I’m coasting down Afton Mountain. I’m watching the calculator with one eye, my speedometer with one eye, and the road with my other eye. Occasionally I’m having to apply the brakes to stay at the speed limit.
The first calculation that pops up is 33. 6 miles per gallon, but I smile in anticipation because I know where this will end up…33.6…33.7….34.0…on and on the readout of my mileage calculator climbs. Forty-two miles per gallon! Eh…that’s nothing, as I continue coasting down Afton Mountain.
I hit 50 miles per gallon, then 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 miles per gallon, and I’m laughing because I’m only half way down Afton Mountain. Finally, the calculator tops out at 99.9 miles per gallon that I’m getting in my little Ford Focus, and I’m still not off the mountain.
My calculator won’t go any higher, so who knows how much my actual gas mileage is when I finally come down off the Mountain? A hundred and ten miles per gallon? A hundred and fifteen miles per gallon? What an amazing car I’m driving! This is absolutely thrilling me! This is so excellent an experience!
Until I start coasting on towards Crozet. The calculator holds at 99.9 miles per gallon for a few miles, but then, inevitably, the gravity that gave me that fabulous mileage coming down the mountain now starts to taking it back…90 miles per gallon…89.9 miles per gallon…well, I won’t count it out for you. Let’s just say reality can be a bitter cup from which to drink.
What happened to all my wonderful miles per gallon? Was my calculator malfunctioning? No. My calculator was working perfectly. Was I dreaming or hallucinating? Nope, to the best of my knowledge, I was stone-cold sober and clear-eyed.
My readout was factually correct; in full truthfulness I can tell you that my little Ford Focus gets better than 99.9 miles to the gallon. At least, when I’m coasting from the top of Afton Mountain, most of the way down to exit 107.
So, let’s see if that has anything whatsoever to do with Elijah’s experience here in 1 Kings, chapter 19. If not, then I’m about lay an egg, but I think it might help us.
Last week, we saw Elijah have this great victory up high on Mount Carmel. He put the 450 prophets of Baal to shame. Baal was nowhere to be found, but Yahweh God showed up with a tremendous display of fire reigning down from the sky above. Elijah’s riding high…he is getting 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon, and he’s still up on the mountain top coming down to the valley below.
Elijah commands this fired-up frenzied mob of religious folk to seize the prophets of Baal; commands they drag these 450 men of false faith, to go down with Elijah into the valley, where Elijah oversees the execution of those 450 men. He’s still clocking in at 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in his soul.
Then, the reality of Elijah’s world starts encroaching. The gravity of what Elijah has done starts dragging at him. The off-the-chart calculation of Elijah’s enthusiasm begins to spiral down, as the reality of Elijah’s pyrrhic victory collides with the reality of Jezebel’s burning vengeance.
Chapter 19, verse 2, “…Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and worse, if I do not make your life as the life of one my dead prophets by this time tomorrow.’” And, suddenly, not only is Elijah getting really bad mileage, but Elijah discovers that his soul is just about on empty and the little warning is blinking at him, announcing his grand road trip is about to run out of gas.
Have you ever gotten the equivalent of 99.9 spiritual miles per gallon in your soul? Have you ever experienced what it was like to know the presence of God and the power of God and the overwhelming reality of God in and around and beyond everything in your soul?
Nothing was wrong with you. Everything was working the way it should with you. You weren’t dreaming or hallucinating. You knew correctly; perhaps you even testified truthfully, you experienced the Living God. For a time, in your travels with God, you were getting better than 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in your soul. But, then, the gravity of this world took hold of you…the reality of Spirit of God within you gaveth, but now other realities draineth…and, so, now, you’re not so sure any more about that whole God thing.
Don’t let it fluster you too much. It happens to us all. It happened even to Elijah. The question is, what do we do with that experience of exhilaration? What do we do with that knowledge that at some point, for some brief part of the journey, we knew the simple and pure joy of God within us. That is, until those who serve the gods of this world threaten to overwhelm us and to defeat us? All those “Ahabs and Jezebels” and their minions, those prophets of Baal we thought we’d dispatched never to come ‘round again but who, now, seem to rise and haunt like ghosts from the grave?
Well, Elijah just decided he didn’t want anything else to do with any of it! Curse them all! And, curse me for caring so much! Elijah takes off, heading south. Recall your Bible-land geography. If you have your Bible, it’s o.k. to look back into the maps.
This sacred Promised Land which God gave to the Israelites lay within the ancient boundaries of Canaan. The twelve tribes had scattered up and down Canaan. Eventually, King David unified the tribes into the nation of Israel. King David’s successor, Solomon, manages to keep the twelve tribes united. But, after King Solomon’s death, the people became divided once again, splitting the Promised Land into two competing entities, Israel in the northern half and Judah in the southern.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, so Ezekiel heads south out of Israel, down into Judah to escape Jezebel. Elijah safely crosses the border into Judah, he doesn’t stop there. Elijah keeps right on going, traveling further south down through Judah, until he comes to the southern border town of Beersheba. Elijah is now at the southern-most point of The Promised Land. He is well beyond Jezebel’s assassins. But, does Elijah stop there even? No.
In verses 3 and 4, Elijah leaves Beersheba. He crosses over Judah’s southern border and goes a day’s journey even further south. Do you realize what Elijah has just done there in verse 4? Not only has Elijah fled from Ahab and Jezebel way up north, Elijah has left behind the Promised Land entirely. He’s gone into a desert no-man’s land.1
That’s how angry and frightened and depleted Elijah had become. He left the people of God behind him entirely. He’s even left the Promised Land of God behind him. Curse them all! And, curse me for caring so much! That’s what Elijah is telling God. “I’m finished!” Elijah tells God in verse 4. “My life means nothing! I am worth no more than the ashen bones of my ancestors, so just finish me off here and now!” Elijah falls asleep, hoping never to wake up again. What a terrible and dark place to be in one’s own head and in one’s own soul.
If you’ve ever been there in your own head and soul, it’s really, really hard to take care of yourself until you’re better. It’s also really, really hard to let someone else take care of you. But, if you ever do find yourself reaching that desperate place of wishing your own death, please let someone take care of you for a bit.
If there’s no one around, and you’ve got a phone handy, you make yourself pick it up and dial 911. Or, get yourself to an emergency room or a walk-in clinic. Don’t even debate it with yourself. Taking care of yourself is not up for debate. God takes care of Elijah, even though Elijah doesn’t want taking care of.
Think about all the other ways God could have responded to Elijah. In places, the Old Testament presents God to us in a pretty rough ways: pestilence and floods and fires and general acts of divine mayhem. So, maybe we’d expect God to be pretty rough on Elijah, too.
You remember that Geico commercial from several years ago where the serious spokesman asks, “Can Geico really save you 15% on your car insurance?” He pauses and then asks, rhetorically, “Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist?”
Then, it shows a client on the therapist’s couch, pouring his heart out to this former drill sergeant-turned-therapist. The therapist proceeds to ridicule the client, which makes the client cry; he offers the client a tissue and when the client reaches for the box, the therapist slings the box at the client in disgust.
Maybe we’d expect that kind of ‘quit your sniveling’ reaction from God to Elijah, but no. God takes care of Elijah. God sends an angelic messenger who prepares some hot baked bread and some cold water for Elijah. You know, sometimes what you need are your carbs replenished and rehydration. Elijah eats and drinks and falls back to sleep. Sleep…sometimes you need more sleep and rest, too.
A second day, God sends the messenger to wake up Elijah and make him eat. Don’t overdo the sleep…don’t let sleep turn into an escape from taking care of yourself…you’ve got to eat and drink to replenish what your body needs.
The third thing God does for Elijah is God takes this journey with Elijah. God transforms Elijah’s flight from life into a journey to rejuvenate his life. God helps Elijah to rediscover purpose and calling for his life.
God takes Elijah back, way back, in time and place to where it all started: Mount Horeb, better known to us as Mount Sinai.2 Mount Horeb, where Moses met God on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights. Where Moses hid in the cleft of the rock, shielding himself as God passed.
Mount Horeb, where God through made covenant with this mass of rescued slaves and began to transform them into God’s people. As many centuries ago for Moses, so now for Elijah.
In verse 11, God calls Elijah to come out from the cave where he is hiding. God is about to pass by. But, as we read in verse 13, apparently Elijah had said no way I’m staying put in my cave.
But God acts anyway, in all the ways that have up to point super-fueled Elijah’s faith. God sends a terrific, destructive wind that sheers plates of rock off the mountain face, sending them flying, shattering down the mountainside. But, Elijah somehow understood, this terrible wind was not the true revelation of God with him, so he stays put.
Then God sends an earthquake; it’s as though God has snatched Mount Horeb by the throat, shaking it as though the destroy this sacred mountain itself. But, still Elijah hides himself in the cave, knowing that God had not yet passed by.
Finally, the fire rained down around the cave where Elijah hides. It’s the divine fire of God that Elijah himself had once called down on that other mountain top called Carmel. But, now, Elijah realizes, fire does not show God for who God really is; so still, he hides in the cave.
God was not in the wind, not in earthquake, not in the fire…what torrent will next sweep down around Elijah. There comes…what? What was that, which Elijah thought he heard, after the fire? Was it anything at all? Was there someone out there, outside of the cave, speaking, calling out to Elijah?
The phrase there at the end of verse 13 gets translated in various ways. It can be translated as “a sound, a fine silence” that Elijah hears. It can also be translated as “a voice, a small whisper”.3 In the silence itself, he hears God speak, “Elijah…what are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah once loved the thrill of that 99.9 miles per gallon kind of experience with God, but now God is reorienting Elijah in his grasp of God. Scholar John Gray interprets the meaning of this encounter to be this: God is admonishing Elijah not to expect God to be revealed in a way that thrills Elijah and that destroys the opposition. It is not in “the supernatural and spectacular in-breaking of Yahweh” into events with the “storm, earthquake, and fire”.
Instead, Dr. Gray continues in his scholarly way, God comes to Elijah with “an intelligible revelation to find God’s direction in the ordinary course of daily life…to communicate [God’s direction] regularly and constructively.” 4 Wow, doesn’t that sound… boring.
No, not really. There’s nothing boring about God in any way, shape or form that God chooses to reveal the Divine Presence to us.
I grant you, whirlwind, earthquake and fire are exciting and satisfying and will get you revved up. Yes! when it’s whirling and quaking and scorching someone else, especially when it’s happening to folks we wish God would remove from this earth.
But, it’s not God. It’s not redemptive, and God is finally revealed to us as the God Who Redeems. God does not shatter nor wrench nor scorch the land, nor does God do that to people. We do that. God, instead, redeems people as well as redeems lands.
When God wanted to prepare for coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God chose another like Elijah to prepare the way. When Jesus, in the course of his ministry, needed God to validate him, God sent Elijah, along with Moses, to meet Jesus up on that Mount we call Transfiguration. But, neither an Elijah nor a Moses is our Lord and Savior.
On that day we call “Palm Sunday”, Jesus’ followers expected a triumphal king to march through Jerusalem’s gates, to march up the Temple steps and to call down all forms of destruction on God’s enemies. God instead gave them the king who surrendered his life to death on a cross not only to redeem his followers but to redeem his enemies, as well.
When the followers of Jesus most expected their own destruction, God gave them resurrection instead. They learned, no person and no people, no servant of God, and no congregation that serves that same God, no, not one will God abandoned nor cause to fail. Any of us may come coasting down off a mountain-top of victory one day, only to find ourselves wandering in the desert of despair. But, in that silence, we will find God who whispered out to Elijah, still speaks our names.
The God who finally showed up in Jesus, still keeps showing up. We too, let us keep showing up, witnessing of God who redeems all people, in all the lands of the earth. That is our purpose in God’s service. It’s purpose enough for any of us.
1Both DeVries and Gray note the significance of Elijah’s further travel south beyond Beersheba; Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 237; and John Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970) p. 407.
2For Moses’ experiences on Mount Horeb (Sinai) see, for example, in Exodus chps. 19-20, chp. 33:17-23; and chp. 34:1-10.
3Gary T. Dalton, “Exposition of I Kings 19:9-18”, December 6, 1982, written for partial completion of requirements for class, “Introduction to Old Testament,” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY; Fall Semester, 1982; Dr. Page Kelley, professor.
4op. cit., p. 410.