1 Kings 19:9-12
9 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?” 10 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.”
11 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When King Ahab first saw Elijah, the first words out of his mouth were, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah was trouble. If you were in power and saw Elijah coming the result would not necessarily be your own joy and merriment. Instead, if Elijah was showing up it likely meant he would be speaking in the voice of God and calling you to task. Elijah was most likely to tell a truth you didn’t want to hear to remind you of the power of God when you spent most of our time enjoying your own powers, thank you very much. Elijah was the one who called accounts and who called the drought: three years of drought without water or even dew to fall upon the land. Three years of drought without water to prove that perhaps the storm god that everyone had been worshipping wasn’t quite that stormy.
And so, you understand how those who were in power at the time would have given him the title he had earned: Elijah, troubler of Israel. And if you were Elijah, called upon this task, you might find that you ended up with just as much trouble as well, for just as Elijah would say the booming words of courage, “If they shall worship Baal the storm god in the place of God of Israel, then there shall be neither dew nor rain except by my word,” and you can imagine those words with force and conviction. And then, of course, in the next scene you will see Elijah standing in front of a puddle. It is a wadi, a valley that catches the rain, except that there is no rain. So here is Elijah, standing before the puddle that God has provided for him. This is to be his water for the drought that is to come as Elijah stands and waits each day for the ravens to bring him his food: bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat at night, standing before the puddle saying, “Look at me, the great prophet of Israel. Here I stand waiting for God.”
When the puddle dries up he goes instead to a perhaps even more unlikely source: a widow. She is so poor she doesn’t have food both for dinner and breakfast the next day. She is so poor she doesn’t know what will come next and she fears for her and her child. So, how do you think that Elijah is going to be fed by this widow, this widow who has nothing, even for herself? And here it is that the meal and the oil don’t run out, day after day. Elijah is provided for, if not in the ways he would have wished. Elijah is provided for by the compassion of God, the grace of a poor widow and a miracle that brings her son back to life. And at the end of three years of these times in the desert, Elijah is sent by God back to the palace.
Now let me say, in Scripture even the most glorious of kings have their seasons of being terrible: Saul has his rages, David his Bathsheba, Solomon in his wisdom works the people into rebellion. Even from the beginnings of the monarchy in Scripture, when the people are crying for the king Samuel, the last of the judges, tries to talk them out of it, “Are you sure you really want a king?” Because, even if the kings in times of glory could be a little bit terrible, the terrible kings were far worse. In the northern kingdom of Israel, Ahab, son of Omri, reigned in Israel and the Scripture tells us that King Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all of others who were before him. He created great temples to Baal, the storm god, and to worship him he built an altar to Baal. He did more than that: erected also a big pole which may not sound like something you know, a pole to Asherah, another God as well. And even more so than that he marries a foreign woman, Jezebel, and together created altars to false gods who were not gods and created cruel sacrifices in the rebuilding of Jericho.
But in this story it will not do just to blame the terrible king in the terrible story or else we end up putting out sins on Jezebel and forgetting they are our own. For who are we too, if not a people who build temples to things that are not God, who erect poles to our own ambitions, who build structures of this world that sacrifice the most vulnerable. Who are we if not those who worship things that are not God with our day, with our acts, with our thoughts and with our choices? And yet, here are the people too, broken and weary and yearning for rain; people are yearning for a different way to remember who it is in heaven, of who they are meant to be, yearning for the Holy like a deer’s thirst for a flowing stream.
And so it is after three years of drought that Elijah is called to the court; Elijah is called before the king. The king cries out, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And Elijah replies, “I have not troubled Israel but you have. You have forsaken the commandments of God and followed Baal.” And so, this is what Elijah proposes: he proposes a god-off, a competition to see whose God is the most powerful. And let it be known: at the outset God, the God of Israel who brought the people out of Egypt, isn’t looking much like a front runner. On the one hand, we have Elijah, prepared and ready and all alone – one. And on the other hand we have the prophets of Baal numbering, I kid you not, 450, 450 prophets of Baal. And each is given the same task: each is asked to prepare a bull, prepare wood and pray for fire. As the prophets of Baal are so many, they are given the first start. They start early in the morning. They start pleading, pleading to Baal to send down flame upon this bull they have prepared. Time marches on. The 450 prophets start working themselves into a frenzy. They start lashing themselves with swords, they start chanting and moving and still the pyre remains strangely unlit. As the morning continues, eventually Elijah starts lobbing insults in their direction: “So, you say your god is a god. Is he meditating? Maybe he’s asleep. You should really wake that god up. Maybe your god has gone on a trip; that must be it.” The prophets of Baal continue and continue until the morning has gone on and still they have nothing to show for it.
It becomes Elijah’s turn, except he has to start in a different place: he has to start by rebuilding the altar, the one that has been destroyed in the years before. He starts by setting up twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel and preparing the altar and the bull. He then sends servants to get jars of water, flinging it on top of the thing that is supposed to be on fire in short order. Three times he tells them, “Fill the jars again and pour it on top.” Then Elijah turns and prays to God and it is set ablaze. Huge flames follow not only the bull but this and even the water that has fallen on its side, huge flames as the people then fall on their heads and start praying to God. And then, and here’s the part where I say that Scripture is not always pretty, Elijah is overcome with zeal and all of the prophets are destroyed. The people have been moved to hear more of God, they have been moved in their hearts, and this story does not just stay in the courts but travels throughout the land as Elijah then tells the king, “Go and stand and look on the horizon.” And he stands and says, “I don’t see anything,” and Elijah says, “Look again,” “I don’t see anything.” The third time, what does he see but a cloud until finally the whole sky is filled and it rains; after three years it rains.
However, great acts of power are powerful but are not without consequences. This act of devotion to God inspired the ire of the queen, the ire of the king and the queen pronounced, sent a messenger to Elijah that “as you have done to your prophets so I shall do to you by the end of the day.” Elijah runs, fleeing for his life, flees a day out into the wilderness. He came and he sits under a broom tree and he asks God that God might take his life: “It is enough now, oh Lord, to take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors.” I wonder in some ways if his hands were still covered in the day before, if he looked and said, “Take my life, oh God, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He lies down and he falls asleep and he is awakened by an angel. The angel meets him there under the broom tree and says, “Take and eat for you will need strength for your journey to come.” So he takes the food and eats it. On the strength of that food he travels forty days and forty nights into the wilderness, all the way to the Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, and here he finds a cave, a cave where he spends the night. 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, for the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets while I alone am left and they are seeking my life to take it away.” The voice said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before God for God is about to pass by.” And then, looking out from the cave, first Elijah heard a wind going “whshshshsh,” a wind that grew and was so great that it toppled the rocks, that it blew and blew and blew, but God was not in the wind. Next came the earthquake that shook underneath his feet, that shook and moved the rocks in their places, that shook his heart and didn’t know where to stand, but God was not in the earthquake. And next came the flame, the flame that burned, that covered, that roared, the flame that came from the mountain before him, but God was not in the flame. And then what followed after the noise of the wind and the noise of the earthquake and the noise of the flame, what followed, it’s hard to say, was still. It was a silence so deep it seemed to speak. It was a silence so stunning that it took his breath away.
When Elijah heard it he wrapped his face in his mantle and stood at the entrance to the cave and repeated his words, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant and thrown down your altars and I alone am left and they are seeking my life.” And here in the silence God gave him a task: “Go and anoint Hazael, the King of Aram, and anoint Jehu the King of Israel and you shall anoint Elisha as prophet in your place.” And Elijah went from there and found Elisha plowing in the fields and he put his mantle upon him. He called him to be a prophet like he was a prophet; he called him to a task so that he would not be alone.
And so it was that Elijah was not alone, that Elijah was not the first, that Elijah was not the last and Elijah was not the only, but that God was even then calling prophets to speak truth, calling prophets to breathe compassion, calling prophets to support one another and calling prophets to declare the hope of God:
Come and feel the mantle that is upon your shoulders, the one that calls you to a task before the Holy, with courage, with love. Come and behold how you feel the mantle of God. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2017. All rights reserved.