Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, November 17, 2018
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We Are Never Alone

1st Kings 19:1-18

 We have fast-forwarded through a lot of the Old Testament.  Last Sunday we were talking about David, before he became king.  Eventually he does become king and he and his son Solomon after him lead Israel into its “golden age.”  But after Solomon’s death, the nation is split into two by the foolish choices of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  The ten tribes in the north continue to be known as Israel, and the two tribes in the south are known as Judah.  King David’s line continues in the south, but a new line is founded in the north, and before long, those northern tribes stray farther and farther from God.  One of the prophets who ministered in Israel and tried to recall people’s hearts to God was Elijah.   

We know Elijah best for his contest with the prophets of Baal and Asherah on top of Mt. Carmel.  This spiritual giant of the Old Testament stands toe to toe, alone, against 850 pagan prophets.  He calls the nation back to God.  And after proving that God alone is worthy of their worship, he leads the nation in executing these pagan prophets.  He calls on God to bring rain back to the land, and the drought that has gone on for three years ends.  

 But very soon after that great victory, we find a man who is far less sure of himself and far less sure of God.  King Ahab of Israel goes home from Mt. Carmel and tells his wife Jezebel what has happened.  

 Jezebel is the real power behind the throne of Israel at this time.  She is not a Hebrew; she is a Phoenician, from the city of Sidon, a neighbor to the north of Israel, present-day Lebanon.  She is a fanatical devotee of Baal and Asherah, and those were HER prophets that Elijah put to death.  They served her and gave glory to her, and she is not the least bit happy that they are dead!  

 When Ahab tells her the story, he credits Elijah with the victory, not God.  And maybe Elijah credits himself a little bit too much, too.  As we’ll see, he may be falling prey to spiritual pride.  So Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah if he does not leave town immediately.  

 If she wanted him dead, why threaten him?  Why not just kill him?  Well, she might be afraid of him.  After all, Elijah did just do in 850 pagan prophets!  But also, if he runs away, that discredits both Elijah and his God.  And sure enough, it works.  Elijah runs away.  He runs as far as Beersheeba, the southernmost limit of the land of Judah,

90 miles to the south.  But even here he doesn’t feel safe because Jezebel has married her daughter into the royal house of Judah, so she still has influence here.

 So Elijah leaves his servant there and continues on into the desert.  And I think we see him demonstrating classic signs of burnout.  He pushes away the only person still with him, his servant.  He seems to be depressed, maybe even suicidal.  He is tired, sleeping all the time.  He is not taking care of himself.  He has to be told to eat and drink.  He feels hopeless.  He is complaining a lot and blaming others for his own failure.  All of these are signs of burnout.

 I know from my own experience and from conversations with other pastors that most clergy struggle with burnout to one degree or another from time to time.  And often it comes on as we experience a “letdown” after a spiritual “high point.”  Things seem to be going well, and then there’s a hiccup, and we just want to throw in the towel.  The emotional and spiritual and physical energy that goes into serving God can leave a person feeling “worn out.”  I know for me that Sunday afternoons are a rough time.  The energy that goes into preaching often leads to a crash on Sunday afternoons.  A nap is often in order.  If only I could….  

 But we just can’t always live in the spiritual high points.  Physically, we just could’t do it.  We don’t have the limitless energy and vitality it would take to stay in those spiritual high points.  We need the still and quiet moments of life to recharge us.  And as we will see, God is no less present in the still and quiet moments of life.  

 Second, even when we feel “worn out,” it doesn’t mean that we are “used up.”  God is not finished with us yet.  Often in those moments, we find that God is there to encourage us.  Rather than rebuking Elijah for his failure to trust, God spends time encouraging Elijah in this passage.  

 Here is Elijah, sitting under the broom tree, wishing God would just end it all for him.  He has failed, just like all his ancestors.  He has given up.  But God hasn’t given up on him.  

 First, God sees to the needs of his body.  He is told to eat and drink and given a chance to recover.  He has a journey ahead of him, a long journey, 200 miles further to the south to the mountain of God, Mt. Sinai, also called Horeb, the very same mountain where his ancestors encountered God hundreds of years earlier.

 It takes Elijah 40 days to get there.  The 40 days is reminiscent of the 40 days that Moses spent on the mountain with God.  It’s reminiscent of the 40 years that Israel spent wandering in the desert after their great spiritual failure at Kadesh.  And of course all of these look forward to 40 days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the wilderness before he engaged in his ministry, hoping not to fail as his ancestors had.

 Elijah comes to a cave on Mt. Sinai.  Actually, the Hebrew says that he came to THE cave on Mt. Sinai, as in the same cave where Moses had his encounter with the Living God.  

 “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

 “I’ve served you zealously, but everyone else has turned against you.  Now I’m the only one still serving you.”  I think there is some spiritual pride in Elijah’s answer.  He speaks to God as if everything depends on him.  He’s failed, so now there is no more hope.  As if God can do nothing if Elijah doesn’t do it.  

 “Stand before me.”  And the glory of the Lord passes by Elijah, just as it had for Moses.  It begins with a mighty wind, so strong it tears the rocks apart.  Then there is a great earthquake, and the whole mountain shakes.  Then there is a fire.  

Storms and earthquakes and fire and lightning were all pretty common parts of appearances of the divine in that ancient Near East world.  Often they were seen as the gods passing judgment or waging war on their enemies.  But surprisingly, God is not found in these powerful phenomena.

Instead, God shows up in the “still, small voice” or the “gentle whisper” or the “sound of fine silence” after the storm.  All of these are our attempts to put into words what many have experienced but few can define:  God’s presence with his people in the still and quiet moments of life.  God is not just there in the spectacular; he is also present in the quiet, humble moments of life.  

“Why are you here, Elijah?”

Elijah gives exactly the same answer as before.  Why the repetition?  I think it’s because Elijah still doesn’t get it.  He’s still hung up on himself.  

But God’s purposes are bigger than any one person, even a spiritual giant like Elijah.  He is sent home to anoint three people.  First, he is to anoint Hazael to be king of

Aram.  Aram is an enemy of Israel, and they will be the instrument by which God will judge Israel for its idolatry.  Then Elijah is to anoint Jehu to be the next king of Israel.  Jehu will bring God’s judgment on the house of Ahab.  And finally, Elijah is to anoint Elisha to be his successor, the next prophet to continue to speak for God.  Part of God’s calling on the lives of the faithful is to raise up a next generation of the faithful who will continue God’s work. 

But God has one final message for Elijah:  There are 7000 people in Israel who have never knelt before Baal or kissed him in homage.  Elijah is not alone. It does not all depend on him.  Elijah may have pushed others away in his depression, but he was never alone.  There is always a faithful remnant.

And we are never alone either.  There are always others around us who are faithful to God, too.  When we feel worn out, we should seek out the encouragement of other believers.  It’s dreadfully dangerous to “go it alone” as a Christian, but unfortunately, I think, there are too many who claim the name of Christ who do not claim a part in the community of the faithful.  We’re setting ourselves up for trouble if we do that.  God is present in every moment of life, the great and the small, but who will be there to remind us of that if we push others away in our times of need?  

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