Not Alone in this Christian Life (1 Kings 19)

Have you ever been in a situation where you found yourself in the midst of a large group of people and you were there feeling very alone – totally different than the rest of folks in that place? In November of 1986, I flew to London to set up the details for leading a youth missions music team to England the following summer. I traveled with the director of the mission agency on Kuwait Airlines – an airline most Americans were afraid to fly, but which fit the mission budget especially well.

The cross cultural experience began on the airplane. It was a Boeing 747 full of people, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you that my friend and I were the only Anglo-Americans on that fight. It was a flight beginning in Newark and going to London, Kuwait and ultimately Bangkok. It was a virtual United Nations on that flight, with people and children sleeping in the aisles, etc.

A university student from Pakistan was seated next to me, and I struck up a political / international issues conversation with him. After a while, he asked me, “What are your views on the nation of Israel?” … to which I looked around me and quietly whispered to him, “I don’t think my views on Israel would be very popular on this airplane.” He looked around also, and quickly grasping the situation said, “I think perhaps you might be right, let’s talk about something else.”

Some years ago I was invited to a Williamsport area event that honored women in sports, and I was in fact given an award at the event for coaching the girls cross country state champions. This was an event by the women, of the women, for the women! I was the only male who made it to the front of the room! It felt kind of silly and awkward.

Maybe that is how you often feel in your world as a believer in Jesus Christ, seeking to live out the values of Scripture. Maybe you feel all alone, totally going against the current. Isolated!

Elijah felt that way! He had just gotten done challenging the hundreds of prophets of Baal and seeing them wiped out by God. Of course, this made Queen Jezebel really angry. Elijah panics and runs away as far as he can into the wilderness and hides in a cave, where God asks…”What are you doing here, Elijah?”

1KINGS 19:14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The following answer of the Lord has always stuck me as rather humorous. Actually, God does not really deal with Elijah very specifically… he basically just gives him another job to do. I can almost imagine the Lord rolling his eyes at such a whining and wimpy answer.

1KI 19:15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

Elijah thought he was all alone, when if fact there were 7,000 others who shared his values.

And you are not alone. God has His people everywhere. And God wants His people to be united and spend time together, to encourage one another for the inevitable times we are in single combat against the enemy.

And God also has made it so that we may be a part of what He is doing in the world. We may be players in the story He is writing. How many authors allow the reader to be a living part of the adventure?  … to be a partner with the hero of the story?  You have to admit, that is pretty cool way to live this Christian life!

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Not over; never alone (1 Kings 19)

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This is the question we still haven’t addressed.  Elijah, as we’ve seen, has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  He’d been a hero, so to speak, the man through whom God showed his supremacy over the rival worship of Baal.

So why does he now feel like such a failure?

He’d made a 40-day pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.  This isn’t a small detail.  No one travels forty consecutive days unless they have a purpose.  Why Sinai?  Well, isn’t it obvious?  Sinai had a special place in the heart of every man, woman, and child who called Israel their home.  It was there that—through Moses—Israel had encountered God in the most direct way possible.  But as many times as I read this I can’t quite decode Elijah’s emotional state.  Is he going to Sinai to try and get closer to God—trying to recreate some feeling or some memory of Israel’s past connection to God?  Is he like us when we try and recapture the emotional highs of our spiritual past, perhaps the “glory days” of youth group?  Or maybe he’s angry—deeply, and profoundly angry—and he’s gone to Sinai to shake his fist in his Creator’s face.

Perhaps there’s a little bit of both found here, for Elijah’s words sound almost like a prepared statement:

10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:10)

Success can only carry us so far.  Elijah had indeed accomplished much—yet felt so inadequate as he faced toward the future.  He had drifted, to use our summer-long image; he had anchored so much of his faith in his own achievement that when the memory of victory no longer sustained him…well, that’s just it: he had nothing left.

You and I face a similar danger: we base our identities on our performance.  Or, said another way, God seems only as real as he is spectacular.  God seems near to us when we experience his miraculous provision, or when we are drawn to his throne through the intensity of a worship experience.  When these fade—as emotions inevitably do—we are left with an endless search to recapture the emotional highs of the past.  Another worship album.  Another book.  Another spiritual project.  Another Church.  And another.  And another.  And another.  Until one day we’re stripped of anything left at all.  Unless we anchor ourselves to something else, our faith will flicker and die.

11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13a)

Elijah is surrounded by the spectacular.  But God is not “in” these events, we’re told.  Not in the winds, not in the earthquake, not in the fire.  He was found only in the “gentle whisper,” what other translations call the “still, small voice.”

There’s a powerful lesson here, about the voice of God.  Our faith is rooted not in the monumental experiences of life, but it is rooted instead on our devotion to our Creator’s voice.  The strength of our faith will invariably be a reflection of our connection to God’s Word—yes, the Bible.  For it is there, in those pages, that we find that the “still small voice” speaks across time and across cultures to peel back the layers of the obvious, and unveil for us the very heart of God.

God now repeats his earlier question to Elijah, and Elijah once again gives his same response.

And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14 He replied again, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:13b-14)

Hearing him repeat himself almost makes me imagine Elijah, during his 40-day trek to Sinai, rolling these words over and over in his head, perhaps fantasizing about his chance to confront God directly.  But God now consoles him with some concrete instructions:

15 Then the Lord told him, “Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. 16 Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet. 17 Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha!18 Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Kings 19:15-18)

Elijah isn’t alone.  He never was.  And neither are we.

You may feel like your best days are already over.  And, for some of you, maybe it feels that way because your kids are grown, and they may or may not have turned out the way you would have desired.  But God promises you there’s something more to be done, that the horizon will always be a moving target.  Elijah could stand confident knowing that 7,000 others had his back.  You and I can stand confident knowing that we are one of a “great cloud of witnesses.”  God gave us each other for each other, that through our fellowship he might be known.  No cultural crisis is so great that it overshadows the call to draw near.  It’s not over.  It’s not over.  It’s not over.

 

Beneath the broom tree (1 Kings 19:1-9)

How did it come to this?  How did it get so bad?

What goes up must come down, as they say.  But sometimes the fall seems so far and so unbearably long.

When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel everything Elijah had done, including the way he had killed all the prophets of Baal.

2 So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”

3 Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. 4 Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”5 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.

But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” 6 He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again.

7 Then the angel of the Lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”

8 So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. 9 There he came to a cave, where he spent the night.

But the Lord said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:1-9)

God’s question must be one we’ve all asked ourselves from time to time.  What am I doing here?  How did it come to this?

For most of our series, we’ve looked at Godly figures whose drift from the faith came about through personal sin and greed.  Elijah’s story is very different—yet very, very human.

Christianity doesn’t always do well with suffering.  We usually greet it with a host of trite platitudes that never rise above the wisdom of a bumper sticker.  “You know, Elijah,” I can imagine someone saying, “God never closes a door without opening a window.”  Such statements, however well intended, fall flat in the face of those whose pain—like still waters—runs so deep no tears can seem to breach the surface.

We will explore more of what Elijah is going through in the days ahead.  For now I want us to sit and reflect on this story in all its rawness.  Live long enough, and you will bleed.  You will experience seasons in which you will wish you’d never been born.  You may even experience seasons where—like Elijah—death seems your only escape.

Suffering rips away the rose-colored lenses we wear and confronts us with the brute reality of the world.  Eljiah was at what seemed to be the losing end of a culture war.  He was despised, he was hunted.  His success—of which he’d had a lot—could sustain him no further.

In other words, Elijah is a lot like Jesus.

The story of the cross is, indeed, a story of God’s victory over sin, just as the story of the resurrection is a story of God’s victory over death.  But there, on the hillside known as Golgotha, we find the God of the universe hanging there in what the ancients knew to be the most wretched and shameful of deaths.  It is there that the relationship between Father and Son is strained past the point of breaking as Jesus cries, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?”  On the cross, Jesus experiences more than just death.  He experiences rejection.  He experiences ridicule. He experiences shame.   Through the cross, Jesus becomes the ultimate paradox: the God-forsaken Son of God.

Look at the story of Elijah again.  What do you notice?  For me, one of the things I notice is the absence of any sort of condemnation.  We might be tempted to respond to suffering by saying—to others or even ourselves—Don’t feel that way.  Cheer up.  It’ll get better tomorrow.  We might even be expecting God to give Elijah a hard time, as though he’d given up so easily.  But he doesn’t.  He feeds him—twice, as a matter of fact, sustenance for a forty-day journey ahead.

The gospel doesn’t attempt to wrest suffering away from us.  It reminds us that we have been provided for in the best way possible.  God provides blessings, he provides nourishment.  And most of all, he provides himself.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther wrote extensively on more topics than we might care to count.  But one theme that surfaces in his writings again and again is what we would call his “theology of the cross.”  For Luther, to “carry the cross” means something more than mere escapism or denial of life’s truest pains.  In fact, Luther would regard suffering as inevitable—but bearable, because of what Christ has already done for us.

In his famous “Sermon at Colberg,” Luther wrote:

“What makes this cross more agreeable and bearable for us is the fact that our dear God is ready to pour so many refreshing aromatics and cordials into our hearts that we are able to bear all our afflictions and tribulations….When the suffering and affliction is at its worst, it bears and presses down so grievously that one thinks he can endure no more and must surely perish.  But then, if you can think of Christ, the faithful God will come and will help you, as he has always helped his own from the beginning of the world; for he is the same God as he has always been.”

In the wilderness of our pain, God is indeed “the same God…he has always been.”  Jesus is enough for us—yesterday, today, and forever.

If you are in deep pain right now, take heart.  Cling to Jesus.  Participate in Christian community.  Worship—even if all you can sing is the blues.  And for those who might even be in a place of considering suicide I say only this: there’s not a soul on earth that would be better off without you.

God is good.  God provides.  And through the cross God also teaches us to suffer well.