1 Kings 18 & 19
The Story, Ch. 15
Any of you battling the post-holiday blues this week? Yeah? Well, you’re not alone.
I think the prophet Elijah could relate. He’s got it bad!
Elijah has just experienced one of the greatest victories of his life. It happened something like this:
The King of Israel – in Elijah’s time – was Ahab, a notoriously cruel man who not only treated his subjects harshly but also worshipped the false god Baal. King Ahab, and his notorious wife Jezebel, were on a hunting expedition for – of all things – prophets (see 1 Kings 18:4). Yes, that’s right, Jezebel and Ahab were hunting down the prophets of God and killing them off, one by one.
So, imagine being Elijah when he is summoned to the king’s chamber. Elijah the prophet, called before the King who murders prophets. Now I don’t know about you, but I think I would have run for my life – found someplace to hide – escaped across the border – anything to get away from the king!
But not Elijah. No, Elijah not only goes to King Ahab’s palace, but he brashly challenges him to a dual! He challenges the king to a prophetic showdown – a faceoff between Elijah, prophet of Yahweh God, and the King’s prophets of Baal.
King Ahab takes the bait. He calls together 450 prophets. They build an altar, prepare a sacrifice, and call upon their god to send fire down to consume the burnt offering.
They call again – louder, more insistent. Elijah taunts them: “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)
They dance, they beg, they cajole with all the insistence of a 2-year-old that WILL.NOT.STOP.WHINING. (Trust me – that’s a lot of persistence. I know of what I speak.)
And still nothing but some desperate prophets exhausted by their own antics.
So finally it is Elijah’s turn. He builds the altar and prepares the sacrifice, just as they did. And then, just to rub it in their faces a bit, he douses that altar with water. Three times. Until it runs down and forms a lake around the base of the altar.
Wait…wha..?? He throws water on the altar that is supposed to spontaneously combust? Elijah must be ridiculously arrogant – or he is giving himself a convenient excuse if nothing happens when he calls out to Yahweh God!
But he needn’t have worried. When Elijah prays to God, fire falls on the altar and burns not only the sacrifice, but the stones of the altar and water-drenched soil around it, too. Elijah calls, and God responds!
The people who witnessed that fire could only stammer: “The Lord – he is God! The Lord IS GOD!” And they fell on their faces in repentance before that charred altar (1 Kings 18:39).
That’s a pretty resounding victory for a prophet of God!
That all happens in 1 Kings 18. But then we turn the page to chapter 19, and the tone changes. There we find Elijah sitting under a tree, alone, praying again: “I’ve had enough, God. I’m tired. I’m scared. I’m done. Just take my life.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)
Talk about the blues!
There is none of the bravado, none of the brashness of the day before. Only exhaustion, and self-doubt, and apparently a desperate need for sleep.
You know what I love here? I love that God answers Elijah’s prayer here just as quickly and decisively as he did the day before. Only this time, the answer comes not in the form of fire, but in the form of sleep and food, silence and stillness. Just what Elijah needed at that moment.
And then, when Elijah is ready to listen, God speaks.
Elijah, what are you doing here?
Hiding, God. I’m hiding. Because I’ve given my all to calling people back to you – used up my life warning them to repent – and they hate me for it. They want to kill me! So I’m done, God. Why bother anymore? I’ll just live out my remaining days here in this cave, where the phone can’t ring and the emails won’t ding and no one can find me.
Really, Elijah? You really think that’s best? Come here a minute. I have another idea.
And then came wind – fierce, howling wind – and earthquake – and fire, more fire. Then…silence. And in the silence, a gentle whisper:
Elijah, go back. You’re not done yet. And you’re not so alone as you think, either. Go find Elisha – he’ll be the Robin to your Batman. He’ll stick with you. And you know what? There are a lot more people who love me than you realize. At least 7,000 of them in Israel alone. They need to hear your message, need your voice to lead them to me. So go on now. Get back to it.
Go on and get back to it. You know, when you hear the voice of God, it is wise to obey it. And so Elijah goes on and gets back to it.
As we pick up The Story again this week, this episode from Elijah’s life reminds of several things. It reminds us of the mess that the Israelites have found themselves in, and their frequent failure to seek God. It reminds us that God uses people – like the prophets – to speak to us in the midst of everyday life. It also reminds us that, despite human hard-heartedness, God will not desert us. And it reminds us that the story continues – there are yet 7,000 who have not bowed to Baal – human sin does not have the last word. All important things to remember at this point in The Story!
But in this particular episode of the wider story, I find it most interesting to trace the silence and the noise. The prophets of Baal make a lot of noise. Shrill, frantic noise that gets louder and louder the longer it goes.
The response they get? Nothing. Silence. A deafening silence, the kind of silence that crushes their spirits.
It is a different kind of silence that greets Elijah’s prayer. It is a deep, restorative silence. The kind of silence that settles one’s spirit and makes space for you to clear your head and catch your breath. A life-giving silence.
Eric Park, a United Methodist clergy colleague, wrote about this kind of silence on Christmas Eve. Eric asks what it was that was silent about that “Silent Night.”
Probably not the animals in the stable, since animals can rarely be counted on for reverence. Probably not the owner of the stable, who was most likely voicing several loud questions about how long the strangers were going to occupy his property. Probably not the shepherds and angels, who were engaged in a rather noisy exchange. Probably not even the infant Christ, since newborns are known for screaming their way into the world that exists outside the comfortable womb. Perhaps we can describe it rightly as a “silent night” only because God’s willingness to become flesh had inspired nothing less than an astonished silence from the “cosmic powers of this present darkness [and the] spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It was a silent night because the incarnated God had hushed the shrill dissonance that sin and death so consistently produce.
An awareness of God’s presence brings that kind of silence: the silencing of the shrill dissonance of sin and greed and gluttony that dominate our lives and our culture, especially during the holiday shopping season.
So are you feeling a bit of the post-holiday blues this week? You’re not alone.
Elijah’s story suggests that the best anecdote – the best way to restore our souls – is to get quiet before God. To slow our frantic pace and turn away from the shrill demands of busy lives, and to tune our hearts to God’s presence with us.
That doesn’t just happen. It requires us to intentionally set aside the things that usually fill our time and drain our energy, so that we can make time to be still before God. It means we have to answer Elijah’s question: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)
I won’t tell you it is an easy choice. But I do trust that if we choose to follow God – and to step back from the need to get more and earn more and win more often that usually dominates our lives – then the dissonance of sin will be silenced and we will hear God’s voice anew.
Let us pray…