“The Long Journey”
Elijah arises as a prophet during a dark time for the kingdom of Israel. King Ahab is king, and he was an enemy of God worse than any of the previous kings of Israel. He married Jezebel of the kingdom of Sidon, and together they worked on turning the whole people away from God. They built a temple to Baal in the capital and added a statue of the goddess Asherah to it, and encouraged the people to abandon God in favor of their new statues. In contrast to what you might have heard about Jezebel being a temptress, that’s just sexism. She doesn’t fit that stereotype, but instead was powerful and direct. Jezebel was the most zealous persecutor of the followers of God you’ll find in the Old Testament. She rounded up all the prophets who were faithful to God and had them killed. And in this time, when the leaders of the nation were committed to great evils, and the faithful were being killed or in hiding, or simply no longer faithful, Elijah arises.
The first thing that we hear from Elijah is a pronouncement of God’s judgment on Ahab and Jezebel. It will not rain again until I say so, he says. And for three years, not a drop of rain falls in the land of Israel. Then Elijah arranges a dramatic showdown where he struck the greatest blow for God in a generation, in front of the whole nation and King Ahab himself. 1 Kings 18. The lectionary skips it this year, but it’s one of the best stories in the Bible. (Broad strokes here?)
You would think, that after such a thing that Elijah would have some time to bask in God’s victory, but he does not. You would think that the people who saw the miracle happen would stand up to defend Elijah, but they do not. You would think that Ahab, having seen what God could do and had done would repent and listen to Elijah, but he does not. You would think that Elijah would at least be safe in his own country, but he is not.
No, what happens next in the story reveals a profound truth about following God in a fallen world. Doing the right thing is often lonely. In contrast with what they tell us in the movies, people do not always rally to what is right, especially when there are money and power on the other side. More often than not those who have chosen to follow God find themselves on the losing side and in the minority, few and far between, hounded by those who have chosen something else to follow.
Elijah has won a great victory for God in front of all the people of Israel and the King, he showed that God is the one who provides for them and now? He has to flee for his life. Jezebel declares that she will bring the all of the apparatus and power of the state to bear against him, and every friend he has is looking the other way. Like so many prophets in the Bible, and so many today, Elijah finds the power of the state being used to threaten and silence him, and the threats against him are enough to silence everyone else.
Elijah runs. He runs until he is tired of running. He has spent the entirety of his prophetic career in hiding, and now he sits down under a lone tree. And he wants to give up. He asks that he might die. Do you know how he feels? He is tired of running, tired of fighting, tired of staying on this long, narrow, lonely path, and seeing nothing but pain for his trouble. He sees people taking the easy way and getting away with it–people who care nothing about God or their neighbor and they get to run the world. And he is faithful, he is honest, he is true to his Lord, and he is running for his life. Maybe he wanted to switch teams.
You would think that now would be the time for God to come and give Elijah some assurance. You would think that now would be the time for things to turn around. But it is not. He falls asleep under that tree, but the next thing he knows he is jolted awake by an angel, who says, “Get up and eat.” Elijah eats and falls asleep again and a second time an angel shakes him from sleep and says, “Get up and eat. You’ve got a lot more running to do.” Friends, if you are trying to be faithful to God, and you do not want to run this race in vain, get up and eat, because otherwise the journey will be too much for you. Find the sustenance that God has offered you, and accept it.
And so Elijah runs even more. He runs for 40 days and 40 nights, and he ends up on Mt. Horeb. Horeb is another word for Mt. Sinai. Here he is at the mountain of the Lord, where God gave the law to Moses, where God cut the 10 commandments from the mountain, where God passed by while Moses hid in a cleft of the rock. And he stops there on Mt. Sinai, and the word of the Lord comes to Elijah and says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And it all comes pouring out. “God, I have been zealous for you, when everyone else has forgotten you. I have given everything for you, I have been faithful, I have been bold, while the whole country has forsaken you, and I am the only one left, and they are coming to kill me.” Do you see how he pours it all out before God? Do you see how he does not apologize for complaining or sugar coat it, or hold back anything with his God? Neither should you.
And the voice sends him out to stand on the mountain. And there Elijah begins to hear a rumble. It starts far away and as it gets closer it rolls into a shriek and a howl, and Elijah realizes that it is a tornado on top of a hurricane, shattering trees and splitting open rocks with the force of the wind. But the wind is not the Lord. And then another rumble, and the ground begins to shake, and the walls of his cave start to crumble, and the trees whose leaves were ripped off by the wind have now split open with the ground. But the earthquake is not the Lord. And then a fire, that blasts through what’s left of the trees and keeps going once they’ve been consumed. But the fire is not the Lord. And next comes something that translators have been struggling with for years. The KJV gives us “a still small voice,” the NIV tells us it’s “a gentle whisper.” The NRSV gives us, “the sound of sheer silence.” Other scholars make convincing arguments that the voice isn’t quiet at all but a thunderous roar.
What is undeniable is that Elijah encounters God on Mt. Sinai. Whatever else may be going on in Elijah’s life, whatever he is fleeing from, whatever he is afraid of, however he feels, God is still the everlasting Almighty God, and God has not abandoned him. God is still at work in the world. However it might seem that the enemies of God are overwhelming, however alone he may be standing up for God’s righteousness, God is still God. Elijah may not get what he wants. But Elijah gets the real Almighty God, burning with righteousness and holiness, so mighty and fearful that he covers his face with his cloak.
Whether it was quiet or loud, again the voice asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” and again Elijah pours himself out before the Lord. And then God says, “Get back to work.” God sends Elijah right back into the same danger to anoint a new King over Israel, a new prophet under his wing, and to keep alive the flame for God in an unrighteous and unjust age.
I don’t want to say that God cannot. I am too Presbyterian to say that. So I will say that God does not. God does not guarantee that the road ahead of us will be easy. Hardly any of the disciples and early church leaders died of natural causes. God does not give us a time when there is nothing asked of us. God does not send us out to rest on our laurels, but constantly sends us on a relentless pursuit of justice and righteousness. God constantly sends us to walk down lonely roads, like the one that Elijah walked, or like the one that leads to Golgotha.
God does not promise that it will be easy, or that we will be in the majority. What God gives us is what God gives Elijah – bread for the journey, and the real presence of God. Bread for the journey, so that we may have the strength to continue. This comes in so many forms and so many ways that it is hard to tell how it may come to you. But in all of the ways that it comes it is like manna from heaven, just enough so that we can walk for one more day in the wilderness. And the real presence of God. The reminder that God is still God, whether it seems that God’s side is winning or not. No matter what the forces that are arrayed against us may be, whether it is governments or armies or majorities or the vast and powerful force of cultural censure, we will have on our side the everlasting God, whose breath moved across the waters and called up the mountains, whose mighty hand delivered Israel from Egypt’s chariots, whose humble servant conquered death itself for us. God is still God. And God is at work in every and even in this unrighteous age. Someone posted on facebook a couple of weeks ago that any idiot can find God on a mountaintop. But it takes real faith to find God among those down below. That is what God has sent Elijah, and us, to do.