Lent 1, February 18, 2018
At that place Elijah 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.” God 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. (1 Kings 19:9–12)
This is a familiar story about Elijah the prophet. Elijah is on the run, fleeing a traumatic violent scene and the consequences that will be brought down on him from Queen Jezebel. Prior to this passage, Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, a different religion. There had been a drought in the land, so it had to be decided whose God was responsible. Elijah called for the fire of God to descend upon his offering in a contest with the prophets of Baal. wEach side set up an altar, piled it up with wood, cut up a bull into pieces and then called on the name of their God to bring fire down upon it. You remember how the story ends. The 900 prophets cry out to their gods all day, until they are hoarse and there is no response, nothing happens. Elijah prayed and the fire of God rained down upon Elijah’s sacrifice and consumed it. The people fell on their faces and worshipped the true God. Then Elijah rounded up hundreds of Baal’s prophets, led them down to a wadi and slaughtered them. When he carried out the slaughter, he did so in accordance to the law. And awful law, I might add. When we ask, why would Elijah be depressed, wouldn’t you be if you had just slaughtered 900 people for your God? So, despondent and depressed, Elijah asks God to take his life. You can almost hear him crying out “I’ve had enough!” After Elijah slaughtered Baal’s prophets, he went on kind of a vision quest. He left his country in the north and traveled south. When he got to the border of Israel at Beersheba he went into the desert. Finally, Elijah went to sleep, which was often a symbol of death in ancient times. Elijah was on the brink of despair.
God came to Elijah in the midst of his despair in the form of an angel, a messenger. The messenger fed Elijah and he went back to sleep. The angel returned a second time and fed Elijah again, indicating that he needed to be fortified for the journey ahead. So he ate again and then continued on his Spiritual journey…forty days and nights to Mt Horeb. He went 40 days and 40 nights on that meal. Think about the other places in scripture have you heard about forty days and forty nights. Noah and the flood, the people of Israel wandering in the desert, Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism…40 is a symbol of a time of spiritual preparation and Mt. Horeb is a holy mountain…the place where God dwells.
On the mountain, in a cave, the Lord asks Elijah: What are you doing here? Elijah pours out his heart reminding God that he has been zealous for God, thrown down the alters of other gods and killed their prophets and for all of his troubles he has been left alone and his enemies are trying to kill him. In his mind, he has done all the right things, he’s been obedient to God and instead of enjoying glory and adulation, he is traumatized, afraid and alone.
Mt. Horeb, where Elijah ended his long journey through the desert was the very mountain where Moses had encountered God in the fire of a burning bush. It was at that mountain also called Mount Sinai that God gave the law to Moses amid fire smoke and thunder. The very name Horeb or Sinai evoked images of a powerful and awesome God who strode boldly into history overthrowing kingdoms and working fantastic miracles before people’s eyes. Elijah stood on that very mountain. Given its history, we would expect God to come to him in the drama and power of an earthquake, great wind or a fire.
Elijah was standing on the mountain waiting for God to speak to him in some spectacular way. First there was a great wind that split mountains and broke rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was the earthquake, and God was not in the earthquake, and then fire, and God was not in the fire, and then a sound of sheer silence. Elijah knew this was God because he wrapped his face in his prophet’s mantle. God was in the silence. God was in the silence.
Twice in this narrative from 1 Kings 19 God asks Elijah why he is there. I wonder if that is because when we are hoping to hear from God, it’s helpful to be quite clear as to what kind of guidance we are looking for. If we are looking for a specific response, then we should ask a specific question. Often, asking the right question is as important as listening for an answer.
The fact that God’s response is not found in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire is significant. These are three of the great ways that God speaks in the Hebrew Scriptures. The story is trying to tell us that God’s voice does not necessarily come with the ancient equivalent of flashing neon signs. Rather, it often comes to us in ways that are completely unexpected. When God’s voice doesn’t come in the “usual” or “expected” ways, Elijah doesn’t pretend that it has. He doesn’t put words in God’s mouth to suit whatever desires he may have.
This coming week I invite you like Elijah, to find your cave. That is, find a spot where you can step out of the fray of life and find a little quiet time alone, in a time or space that works for you…in the quiet of the morning or on an afternoon walk…in a way that works for you. Where is your cave?
Then find a question or need that’s really important to you right now. Make sure the question is specific. It should be highly personal and of enough importance that you’ll actually remember it later. Finding a question both important to you and just your size will raise the chances of your not only sensing a response but understanding it!
Finally—and this is the hard part—be ready to hear an answer. Central to prayer is a willingness to open ourselves to God. Be so willing that you will literally be open to “hearing” God in whatever form God chooses to address you, even if it’s entirely unexpected or unconventional. Remain watchful throughout the day for a response. Keep asking this same question or stating this same need each day. Find your cave and stay there long enough to be open, feeling in your gut that you are truly willing to receive a response. Ask God for it. Then, let God do the action, not you. Like Elijah, simply be watchful. Pay attention to the music you’re listening to; to the conversations you’re having; to the inner voices running through your head.
Don’t expect God to act on your timetable. A response you can trust may not come for days or weeks, or it may come before you’ve finished writing the question down. Whenever it happens, a response will come. Listen. Listen for that still, small voice which, like gently falling snow, can’t be directly heard, but changes the acoustics of your surroundings. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. For in the realm of prayer, intentionality is more important than technique. When we’re intentional, even our missteps may be transformed by grace.
Thank you to Eric Elnes for the inspiration