Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” [Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”] He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and 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. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”
Elijah is a remarkable character in the Old Testament. He seems larger than life as he zooms from one encounter to the next. Where we encounter him in today’s story, Elijah has already had a showdown with the false prophets of the god, Baal. He has raised the widow’s son from the dead, and he has gone toe-to-toe with King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, denouncing their ever more sinister behavior and actions. In fact, if ever there was a hero/arch-nemesis story in the Bible, it is this saga of Elijah versus Queen Jezebel. But where we pick up the story this morning, we find that Elijah’s continued antagonism has brought the tension between Elijah and Jezebel to a head, and Queen Jezebel makes a vow that she will take his life within a day.
This is where it starts to get interesting. Elijah, who has made it his mission to lead his people back to God, who has time and again proved to the crowds the power and dominion of Yahweh, who is remembered as one of the greatest prophets of God, Elijah who has done all these things has a crisis of faith. Now, when we talk of having a crisis of faith today, we tend to use it in the sense of questioning whether God exists, whether we can believe in God. That is certainly a crisis of faith, but it is not the crisis of faith that Elijah is experiencing in this story.
No, the crisis Elijah faces is the certainty that he is alone, that no one else in all of Israel is faithful to God, that he is the lone ranger defending the faith against an onslaught of the unfaithful, that everyone is out to get him, and that his very life is being threatened. In this crisis Elijah, who has never before quailed when facing down kings and queens, false prophets and angry crowds, or hunger and death, suddenly turns tail and runs away as fast as he can.
It is a crisis that is not unfamiliar to many Christians. In fact it can be argued that the emergence of denominations was fueled in part by the belief of different groups of people that they alone were faithful to God, that they alone knew what God wanted, that they alone acted on God’s behalf. This tendency can even be seen in our own tradition of the Episcopal Church, where congregations and communities are convinced that they alone are worshiping the proper way, and that they alone are faithful to the traditions and liturgies of the Anglican Church.
But even closer to home, we can identify times in our own lives or in the lives of those who are close to us, when we have felt alone and isolated, felt that we were the only one who understood this situation at hand, felt that we were fighting a lonely battle with everyone set against us, felt that we were the only ones who cared about something, felt that we alone were being faithful to what God wants, or felt that the weight of everything rested on our shoulders alone—whether that be a program or ministry in our church or even the continued livelihood of a congregation. Clergy seem especially prone to this type of crisis of faith, feeling like they are holding everything together, feeling that there is no one to help them, or feeling that they alone are being faithful.
It is an exhausting feeling that wears us down over time. We know it by another name—burnout—because in this type of crisis of faith, we eventually reach a breaking point when we can no longer hold it all together, when we can no longer fight the uphill battle, when we can no longer go it alone.
Elijah reaches his breaking point and runs away from everything. He runs from the people and their wayward worship. He runs from the prophets of Baal, who outnumber him so greatly. He runs from Ahab and especially Queen Jezebel. Elijah runs for forty days and nights, he runs straight for Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.
Elijah goes to the mountain seeking comfort from God. He goes to the mountain seeking reassurance and acknowledgement that he is doing what God wants. He runs to the mountain seeking vindication, proof that Elijah alone has been right all along. After all, isn’t that what we seek when we are starting to feel burned out? When we are sharing in Elijah’s crisis of faith, don’t we often want some acknowledgement or vindication for our struggles? We might well imagine that Elijah was hoping that he would come to the mountain of God and return with God’s wrath behind him, perhaps in the form of an army of angels, or fires falling from heaven, or terrible earthquakes. Then everyone would know that he had been right all along! Then everyone would know that they had been wrong to oppose him! Then everyone would recognize how he alone had fought the good fight for so long!
As he stands in the cave waiting for Yahweh to come, Elijah witnesses first a terrible wind that rips the very rocks apart and he thinks, “ah yes, this would do nicely!” But God is not in the terrible wind. Then Elijah feels an immense earthquake that shakes the very foundation of the world and he thinks to himself, “even better, an earthquake to cause the world to crumble around my enemies!” But God is not in the earthquake. Then Elijah winces as a scorching fire flares up around him and he thinks, “the best yet! A fire to consume the evil that I have seen all around me!” But God is not in the scorching fire.
Then Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence, and he knew that he stood before Yahweh. In the immense silence, Elijah heard the voice of God ask him a very simple question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gushed out everything that he had been feeling, “Oh God, I have worked for so long, so tirelessly for your cause, but I am surrounded by those who are unfaithful, by those who work against you, and I am the only one left, the only one who is still faithful to you.”
As the last sounds of his voice died out, Elijah once again stood in the sheer silence. Then God replied, “Go back Elijah.” The lectionary ends the story here, but in fact God continues speaking in the next verse, “Go back, Elijah, and seek out the one who will succeed you in your work. Go back, for you are not alone, there are yet 7,000 others who have kept the faith and who are doing the work of God.”
Elijah goes to the mountain of God in his crisis, seeking comfort, reassurance, and vindication. In a way he gets what he was seeking, but just not in the way he was expecting. Elijah runs to God because he feels all alone in the world, but God reminds him that he is a part of a great community of the faithful. Elijah runs to God because he feels that he is the only one doing God’s work, but God reminds him that there are others who have done, who are doing, and who will continue God’s work—in fact, Elijah is to raise up his own successor who will work after Elijah no longer walks the earth. Elijah runs to God because he feels that he alone knows what God wants, but God reminds him that he does not have all the information, that God is at work in more ways that we can possibly know.
This may not sound all that comforting at first, but it is in fact the Good News of God. Elijah’s crisis of faith that we share in from time to time is that the success of God’s work in the world rests on our shoulders; Elijah’s crisis of faith is that God depends on us. But God give Elijah the Good News—God gives us the Good News—that God does not depend on us, but that we depend on God and God is reliable. God gives us the Good News that God’s work is not completed through our own efforts, but because of our reliance on God; it is the Good News that whether we succeed or fail, God’s work will be done.
We all experience Elijah’s crisis of faith in our lives from time to time, and God will meet us in our crisis. God will let us rest there for a while, and then God sends us back out into the world, comforting us with the reminder that we are not alone, that we are a part of a great crowd of the faithful, and that God is at work in more ways that we can possibly imagine.
Preached by Adam Yates