God Calls Elijah

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
October 29, 2017

1 Kings 19: 1-18 (CEB)
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. 2Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”
3Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there.4He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” 5He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.
Then suddenly a messenger tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!” 6Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep.7The Lord’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” 8Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain.9There he went into a cave and spent the night. The Lord’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
10Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”
11The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
14He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”
15The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet.17Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill.18But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand—all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.”

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been exploring the call story of some significant players in Israelite history. Two weeks ago, we considered the call of Samuel and how sometimes following God’s call can be difficult. Last week, we heard the call of David and talked about how God sometimes calls the least likely people because God does not look at us the way the world does. Today, we come to the call of Elijah. As we explore this story of Elijah’s call, it’s important to understand that this encounter with God sort of comes in the middle of Elijah’s ministry. It’s also important to know that by the time Elijah begins his work as a prophet, Israel has split into two kingdoms, one in the North and one in the South. This happened because the ten tribes in the North decided to establish a new royal line, while the two kingdoms in the South chose to remain loyal to the Davidic line.

In any case, Elijah first appears on the scene in 1 Kings 17, when he delivers a message to King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom that there will be no rain in the coming years unless God says that there will be rain. Prior to this appearance, there is no record of a call story or anointing of Elijah as a prophet, but from this point on Elijah is very active, right in the middle of everything that is happening. And what Elijah is dealing with is a corrupt leadership in the Northern Kingdom. Queen Jezebel has pushed for the worship of Ba’al, and King Ahab has gone along with it, as have many of the Israelites. So just before the passage we heard a few moments ago, Elijah has had a “showdown” of sorts with the prophets of Ba’al. A sacrifice of a bull is prepared, and Elijah challenges the 450 prophets of Ba’al to have their god send down the fire for the sacrifice. All day they call upon Ba’al to send fire, but nothing happens. At the end of the day, Elijah prepares the wood and the sacrifice, pours water over it three times, then prays to God to send fire. Immediately, God’s fire fell and the sacrifice was consumed. Ba’al’s prophets were also killed.

Where we pick up in Elijah’s story, Queen Jezebel has learned of the demise of Ba’al’s prophets, and she is very angry. Queen Jezebel is furious at Elijah for going against the leadership of the Northern Kingdom, killing the 450 prophets, and shaming the name of Ba’al. So Jezebel sends words to Elijah that she is going to have him killed, he is going to suffer the same fate as the prophets Ba’al. When Elijah hears this, he is terrified, and he immediately takes off, headed south as fast as he can to get out of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s kingdom. But Elijah doesn’t stop when he gets to the southern border of Israel. He crosses over into Beersheba in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and continues traveling for another day before stopping and praying to God to take his life. Instead, God sends an angel who provides food and water for Elijah, after which Elijah continues his journey into the wilderness.

So here’s the thing. Elijah is running for his life. This threat from Queen Jezebel has really scared him. But here, in the midst of his ministry, Elijah is running for other reasons as well. To a great extent, the people of Israel have followed the leadership of Queen Jezebel and King Hezekiah. They have turned away from God and begun to worship Ba’al. Elijah is fully convinced that the whole lot of them is completely corrupt. He feels as if he is the only one of the Israelites left who is still faithful and zealous toward God. The fact that Elijah is wandering around in the wilderness is representative of the fact that he has given up. Despite the fact that God has just shown up the prophets of Ba’al in spectacular fashion, Elijah seems convinced that God doesn’t have a future. It’s like Elijah has abandoned his calling. Not only is Elijah afraid, he is also agonizing and despairing.

But as Elijah travels through this wilderness of despairing, he goes to Mount Horeb. You might also know this place as Mount Sinai. This is the mountain where Moses encountered God and was given the Ten Commandments. It is a place that will appear in Scripture again and again as people encounter God in special ways. That is certainly the case as Elijah hides himself in a cave on the side of the mountain, still desperate and fearful. He spends a night there, and then God asks him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” Already, we can see that something is a little different about this call story. In most of our Biblical stories of call, we hear God sending people; “Go here, go there. Do this, do that.” But as Elijah huddles in a cave on Mount Horeb, on the run from a corrupt and vengeful queen, God asks his prophet, “Why are you here?” It’s certainly a legitimate question. When you think about the fact that God has just revealed himself to his people in a mighty way. This is a time that a prophet should really be capitalizing on and taking the opportunity to proclaim God’s ways to the people. But Elijah just took off. He ran away. After God proved his superiority over Ba’al’s prophets, Elijah got intimidated by another servant of Ba’al, a mere queen.

The thing is, though, we would do well to put ourselves in Elijah’s place. I don’t think any of us would have to think too hard to come up with a time when we have been intimidated by some person wielding nothing more than worldly power. We have watched corrupt leaders around the world come, and go, and come again. Sometimes, we are ourselves are drawn into their corrupt ways. Other times, we know the experience of being terrorized by some of these leaders. Like Elijah, it leaves us feeling anxious and fearful. And we get a sense of just how desperate Elijah is when he responds to God. “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces,” Elijah says, “because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”

You know, one of the beautiful things about this passage is that God, in God’s infinite graciousness, doesn’t scold Elijah. God doesn’t rebuke him for abandoning his post and running away. Instead, God instructs Elijah to go out and stand on the side of the mountain because the presence of the Lord is passing by. God in no-way abandons Elijah in his moment of fearful desperation. Instead, God calls Elijah to a closer encounter with God. And, of course, we are all familiar with the dramatic scene as Elijah steps out onto the mountain. Like the fire that God had rained down in the chapter before, here on the side of Mt. Horeb there are great winds, and mighty earthquakes, and more fire. But God’s presence is not in those mighty forces. Then, there is the sound of sheer silence. Thin. Quiet…and God speaks; a “still, small voice.”

What follows is a near repeat of the conversation that took place inside the cave. God asks Elijah why he’s there, Elijah explains that he’s zealous for the Lord, but he’s the only one. God listens to Elijah, and God hears his despair. Then God begins to set things right, to put Elijah back on better footing, and to assure him that there is a future with hope. This is Elijah’s opportunity to be reminded what it means to serve the Lord. As we can only assume he was somehow summoned or called by God into the prophetic business in the first place, we see God here calling Elijah again, giving him fresh instructions, renewing the ministry that Elijah has all but given up on. God is making clear that there are others still faithful to God, there is yet a future, and Elijah will play a part in bringing that future to bear. God sends Elijah back out into the wilderness. His charge is two anoint two new kings—one over Aram and one over Israel. Then, Elijah is to anoint his successor, the prophet Elisha. Through these leaders, God will deal with the corrupt and the unfaithful. Elijah is not and will not be alone, God will work through these new leaders, and God will lift up the faithful, seven thousand in Israel, “all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.”

Elijah was a prophet, but ultimately, he was human just like the rest of us. He got knocked off track by some corrupt leaders, but that happened because he was bold enough to speak out against those leaders in the first place. When they threatened retaliation, Elijah understandably became fearful and sank into deep despair, despair so great that he let doubt overtake him. He questioned God’s sovereignty and God’s future. But as we consider God’s call of Elijah, here in the middle of his ministry, this is what I want us to remember. In our moments of despair and absolute emptiness, in that complete deprivation, the “still, small voice” of God comes to us. And God’s presence in the midst of our suffering sustains us, sustains the church, sustains God’s people for the future. God has promised to meet us where we are. God always has a plan for the future, and that plan always includes each of us. Even if we lose sight of that plan, even if we stray from the path, God meets us “at the bottom.” And God does that in order to bring us forward into God’s future.

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