1 Kings 19:1-15
Once upon a time, there was a prophet in Israel named Elijah. A man of God, fearless and brave. He used to confront King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel, causing all sorts of upset in their kingdom.
One day, a most famous incident occurred. Elijah the prophet proposed a face-off between the God of Israel, Yahweh, and the god that Jezebel had imported in and Ahab had propped up alongside Yahweh, Baal. The showdown was epic, on the top of a mountain a huge crowd gathered to watch the 450 prophets of Baal on one side and Lone Elijah on the other.
Get your god to answer, was the challenge. Set up a sacrifice and get your god to show up. Whoever does, is the real god. Up first, the prophets of Baal. They cut up their ox and laid it on their alter with firewood underneath and began begging Baal to start it on fire. All morning long they begged, throwing themselves down, pleading, urging, cutting themselves, whatever they could think of to make it happen. Around noon Elijah started taunting them. “Maybe your God is away on a long journey! Or sleeping – call louder! Maybe he just can’t hear you because he’s meditating!” But their god stayed silent.
Finally the prophets of Baal gave up, and it was Elijah’s turn. Elijah dug a trench around his alter, and asked for several jugs of water to poured upon it until the wood was drenched and the whole trench itself was full of water. Then he prays to Yahweh a polite little prayer. It went something like:
‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’
Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘Yahweh indeed is God!; Yahweh indeed is God!.’
God showed up in fire. And Elijah, the man of the hour, took his bow and then chased away the prophets of Baal, cornered them in a valley, and with his sword, invincible Elijah killed all 450 of them. That was his most famous triumph.
And that was just before we encounter Elijah today, the taste of his victory speech still on his tongue, the blood of his enemies still on his sword. Once upon a time there was this great and mighty prophet, Elijah, who had God’s ear and stood up to an evil King and Queen and singlehandedly slayed an army of liars.
But then, the king tells Queen Jezebel what happened that day, and the Queen sends Elijah this message: “I’m gonna get you.”
And this big brave man runs.
He flees. Deep into the wilderness. 100 miles he goes, driven by terror he blindly races as fast as his legs can take him as far as he can go into nothingness, and he collapses under a single broom tree in the middle of the parched desert. “O God! he cries out, “just kill me now!”
But God pays no mind to his drama. “Get up and eat,” says an angel, startling him from sleep and giving him a cake cooked on a hot stone next to him. So he eats and then he sleeps again, fitfully, fearfully, and when he awakens an angel is there again, ready to feed him. “Eat this or you wont have strength for the journey that’s ahead of you.”
How did I get here? Have you ever wondered that?
How in the world did I end up here?
And so we meet up with Elijah under the broom tree.
And huddled there, in the wilderness, Elijah is a mess. For all the strength he’s just exhibited, Elijah feels anything but strong. For all his bravado and might, when he heard Jezebel was after him he ran for his life. With the triumph quickly worn off and his bloodstained hands mocking him as Jezebel’s warning rings in his ears that she would do to him what he did to them, he finds himself crouched up under a scraggly broom tree in the wilderness.
We’ve already spent some time in the wilderness – with Moses, with Jesus – we’ve seen that the wilderness is the place of terror and confusion, where you get stripped down and laid bare, and everything that made sense gets taken from you. So the wilderness is a place of loss. But we’ve also seen that the wilderness is the place of finding, the place where people’s lives are given back to them, identities are clarified, callings are heard loud and clear and they are given strength to respond, to truly live.
So here is Elijah’s turn in the wilderness, Elijah’s 40 days and nights. And he feels like a failure, a frightened, weak, empty failure. It doesn’t get any grander than what had just happened, so why does he feel so badly about it? It doesn’t get more final than having everyone bow down, so why has it seemed to just go back to the way its been, Jezebel breathing down his neck, Ahab too weak to stand up for the god of Israel? Elijah feels alone – oh so alone. He feels alone and tired and very very afraid.
So he flees to the harsh solace of the wilderness. And he asks to please die. Please just kill me, God. But God is silent on the matter. Doesn’t answer any of his whining or begging, doesn’t hear his arguments. Instead, like a mommy with a sick kid, God lets him sleep, feeds him in spite of himself, tells him to get up his strength, and then when he is ready, God sends him on a journey. Deeper into the wilderness, further into his questions.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“Oh God. I’ve tried so hard but I’ve failed, I’m alone, I can’t do it. And they’re going to get me.”
“Let me show you myself,” God says.
So God leads him up to a mountain cave:
And there came a wind so great that it split mountains and broke apart rocks, but Yahweh was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire, and after the fire, a
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Oh God. I’ve tried so hard but I’ve failed, I’m alone, I can’t do it. And they’re going to get me.
“Go, return through the wilderness…and go back.”
And Elijah does.
I find it fascinating to get a glimpse into someone else’s wilderness. Because for as completely individual and isolating as wilderness experiences are, they are also universally familiar. And there is a sense, when you read through scripture, that having it all fall apart, losing yourself, your direction, your faith, is part of the whole journey – that maybe it is even an essential part of the human journey with God.
Because it is in the wilderness that we learn that our God finds us when we’re lost. It is in the wilderness that we learn that our God sustains us when we’ve got nothing left to live on. It is in the wilderness that our great lies are exposed and our deep fears are manifested and God doesn’t flinch at either. It is through the wilderness that we come out changed from how we came in, braver from having been so afraid, stronger from having been so weak.
And even though he’s a total whiny baby, I love and admire how Elijah isn’t afraid to lay it all out there to God, and even to ask God to just go ahead and be done with him. And that it doesn’t phase God in the least – God’s silence starts pretty early on in the story.
In fact, it seems that is exactly what Elijah needs. God’s silence. He has seen the God of might, he has reckoned with the God of power. He has just watched God send down fire from the sky in front of everyone.
But not here. That isn’t how God meets Elijah in the wilderness. In the wilderness when all displays of power blow over, all recognizable godlike rumbles die down, and he is left with a vacuum, an emptiness, a vast, quiet nothingness – it is here that God meets Elijah.
When God is silent.
Would we prefer earthquakes? Everything knocked down and mixed up and split open - We can try to make sense of destruction, at least it shakes things up. Would we rather God come like wind or fire – tangible, hot, forceful, leaving your skin prickly and taking your breath away? Perhaps.
But often, God is silent.
But Yaweh’s silence is different than the silence of Baal to the prophets pleadings. It isn’t the inanimate silence of your own efforts bouncing back at you; it isn’t silence dependent on your own ability to keep it, or fill it, or explain it away.
When Yaweh is silent it is like deep calling to deep – it is the sound of the great I AM, that no despair, no fear, no horror or godforsakenness ever dreamed up could ever swallow or overpower. In the absence of sound, I AM, in the vacuum of light, I AM, in the loss of all hope, I AM: there is nothing that can drive me away.
And when we’ve reached the end of ourselves, and we’ve got nothing left to say, when our strength is gone and our voice gives out and we fall utterly, helplessly silent, God is.
Elijah went back. And God showed him that he was not alone, there were 7000 people who still worshiped Yahweh in Israel. And he spoke out and anointed kings and was a great prophet until the day he was taken into heaven. And I imagine that for the rest of his days he carried with him the encounter in the wilderness with the silent God.
In our own noise and the world’s clamor, in the force of all that blusters and burns and rages and billows within and around us,
may the silence of God hold us.