Once upon a time, there was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel named Elijah. A man of God, fearless and brave. He used to confront King Ahab and his wife, a priestess and daughter of a foreign king, Queen Jezebel, and Elijah caused all sorts of upset for them in the 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 everyone gathered, 450 prophets of Baal on one side, 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, the god of lightening and fire.
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 pleaded, throwing themselves down, imploring, 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 vacation! You’d better call louder, he’s probably sleeping! Wait! Maybe he just can’t hear you because he’s meditating!” All the while, these prophets worked themselves into a frenzy, but their god stayed silent – there was no voice, no answer, no response.
Finally Elijah calls it, my turn.
So he sets up stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel and digs a trench around his alter, and asks for water to be dumped on top of the whole thing, sacrifice, wood and all. Is it wet? Better add some more! He asserts. How about now? Better soak it a third time for good measure! And soon the whole thing is utterly drenched with the moat full around it.
Then he prays to Yahweh a polite little prayer, that went something like:
‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 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 to you.’
And in front of their eyes, 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, cornering them in a valley, and with his sword, invincible Elijah killed all 450 of them. That was his most famous triumph.
And we could stop the story there.
Yahweh indeed is God! Baal is not god!
Only God is God – and the truth is, there are plenty of things to ponder in this tale, such as, Why do the Israelites, and we, have such short memories?
Why is it so easy to forget who we are and whose we are?
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
And Elijah, the storybook hero, brought the lesson home.
But there is something fascinating about the next day, you know what I mean?
The moment after the invincible moment. When the curtain goes down and spotlight turns off and the applause dies and the adrenaline wears off… after the bravado and bravery.
Who is Elijah, then? Whose is he?
What happens just after this epic moment in the life of the prophet and the nation of Israel is technically just after our text for today, but I’m the preacher, so I’m going to allow it.
With the taste of his victory speech still on his tongue, the blood of his enemies still on his sword, and the legend about him building already: 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 and showed everyone who the real God is!
Elijah is feeling all right, for about five minutes.
But then, the king tells Queen Jezebel what happened that day, and the Queen sends Elijah this chilling 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 recklessly 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.”
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 boasting 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 wondering what it is all for anyway.
Elijah 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 to God, 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, wakes him to feed 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, a cave on the very mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments. And as he huddled there, 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 this time Yahweh was not in the fire,
and after the fire,
a sound of sheer 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 in a show of undeniable, crushing might.
But not here. That isn’t how God meets Elijah in the wilderness. In the wilderness when all displays of power blow over, and 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.
I love the bible. I love it for not leaving Elijah a strong hero and God a powerful, invincible force. For the prophet’s complete loss of faith just after the ultimate display of faith, I love it. For the messiness and confusion and refusal to leave things in storybook form. For God’s tenderness and gentle care in the midst of Elijah’s breakdown and fear, I am thankful. For the way God remains mystery and will not be boxed in, for God’s might and noise and for God’s deep silence, neither one canceling out the other, I love that this is the glimpse we get into the mystery that holds us.
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.
The mountaintop victory showed everyone else that God is real, but for Elijah, it was the utter silence on the other mountaintop that turned his heart back to God.
Sometimes what we need is the fire, the all-consuming proof that God is indeed alive and right here today. I heard a miraculous story this week of a person coming back from the dead from a heart attack just after arriving at a hospital, while his friend listened to the whole thing on the other end of a cell phone call, pulled over in a ditch with his car door still open, on his knees in the tall grass praying frantically to God for his friend’s healing. And God showed up in the fire and the drama, as his heart was shocked back to life on the other end of the line, and the interceding friend listened to his prayers being answered in real time.
But I also heard this week about a friend who found her only solace in the silence of salt water tears on a surfboard in the rolling ocean, carried into the place of deep calling out to deep, where grief and pain came pouring out and God’s vast absent presence wordlessly surrounded her even while not bringing back her dead brother.
“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, Elijah, return through the wilderness…and go back.”
Elijah obeyed and 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, while the world remembered him for the show of power in the mountain-top duel of the deities, he felt most defined by the life-changing encounter on the empty mountain with the silent God.
Our own idolatry can replace God, or it can rewrite God.
We can have an impotent god who leaves it all up to us, a distant god, uninvolved and vacant, a god who needs his ego stroked or his hoops jumped through.
We can make god in our own image, judgmental and harsh, wishing we were not such a perpetual disappointment.
Or we can replace or supplement God with the things that give us more immediate gratification, or credibility with others, or the impression of security in a shaky world - like the polytheists in Israel, paying lip service to the divine while serving our own satisfaction instead.
But God is real, my friends. Quite apart from us, God exists. God is free to encounter us, or not, free to act, or not, free to show up like we think God should, or not. God is powerful enough to meet us in stunning strength or in sheer silence. And God is able to know what we need better than we are.
Sometimes we are in our confidence and faith, standing before adversity and declaring the might and power of our God. And sometimes we are fleeing in terror, alone, exhausted and distraught, begging for God to just end it. Either way, this truth remains: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Sisters and brothers, that is whose we are.
And we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might. That is who we are.
And so, we pray, along with Elijah, Answer us, O Lord, answer us, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned our hearts back to you.’