On many Sundays, the prayer of illumination calls for an invitation to listen for the Word of God. This message speaks to our text this morning as we hear the story of Elijah listening for the Word of God. For a little background, Elijah has just won a contest with the 450 prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel and was euphoric. This contest proved whose god, the Lord God of Israel or Baal, was truly God. Both the prophets of Baal and Elijah built an altar. The prophets of Baal prayed and danced around their altar and nothing happened. After they had their turn, Elijah, the lone prophet prayed and fire from heaven came down and ignited his alter. Elijah proceeded, in a moment of religious fervor, to kill all the prophets of Baal. King Ahab reports all this to Queen Jezebel. Let us listen for the Word of the Lord as we hear today’s text.
Read 1 Kings 19:1-15a
You may wonder, like me, why Elijah would react the way he did. He had just had a literal mountain top experience. He was riding high. He stood up by himself to Baal and his prophets and Elijah had come out victorious. The people now knew who the true prophet of God was.
But when he gets this one small threat from Jezebel, he flees for his life. He is afraid. Yes, her threat was serious, but he had God on his side! He had God’s seal of approval. Surely if Elijah could ask God to send fire from the sky and consume the altar, God could protect Elijah from Jezebel.
But it’s what the text doesn’t say at this point that speaks to Elijah’s fear. When we read about Elijah’s previous experiences in 1 Kings, God continually directs where he goes and what he is to say. These are the “the Lord said unto Elijah” moments. But when Elijah receives Jezebel’s threat, what he hears is God’s silence. “I’m going to do to you what you have done to my prophets.” Silence. It was in his silence that he became afraid and fled for his life.
It is after his 40 day flight to sacred Mount Horeb that God finally speaks again to Elijah; “What are you doing here?” Elijah’s response speaks to his fear that caused him to flee from Jezebel in the first place. “I have spoken for you, I have been zealous for you, I have overthrown the prophets of Baal for you, but I am alone, I am the only one left and there are others who are trying to take my life.”
God then tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain. Here, Elijah witnesses the presence and power of God over creation. First there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks, a wind that nearly threw Elijah from the mountain. But the Lord was not in the wind. Then an earthquake that drove Elijah to his knees, but again, the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a great fire, filling the valley with smoke. But the Lord was not in the fire. And when the smoke cleared, all that remained was silence. The text version we read this morning says “sheer silence.” The King James translates the Hebrew as “still small voice” and the New International version says a “gentle whisper.” What ever it exactly was, Elijah felt exposed and covers his face, and confronts this sheer silence of God.
What is difference between these two silences; the one when God does not tell him how to respond to Jezebel’s threat and the sheer silence he is exposed to on Horeb? I think it has to do with his response about his place in the world, his approval from God. When he was confronting the prophets of Baal, Elijah had boldly declared that he, and only he, was left as a prophet of God. All of Israel had turned to Baal except for him. God had given him a special commission to act in the world. And as he saw himself alone, he even slowly started pushing God out the picture.
Later, as he is huddled in his cave, convinced of his unique status as the last remaining person of faith, Elijah’s primary temptation is to think that he has to go it alone, that it is all up to him. His ministry had become about what he was doing, not what God was doing through him. He was convinced that God was on his side, rather than seeking to be on God’s side. He became a ministry unto himself; being led by his own pursuits on what he thought was right and not being led by the word of God that had directed him thus far.
But in the sheer silence, there is a difference. God is present and his presence is known. His presence is felt. God’s call is felt in Elijah’s bones. Elijah wants to hear God’s voice, he wants to reach out to his God. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God again asks him. Elijah responds exactly the way he did before. This time, God’s response is different. God’s response reaffirms Elijah’s call as a prophet. In reaffirming Elijah’s call, God affirms to Elijah that he is not alone.
God has a plan for Elijah’s tomorrows. God has a plan for him, but that plan isn’t about him, but for the king and people of Israel. He is not alone, because most importantly, the Lord God of Israel is with him, guiding him, caring for him. And when Elijah focuses on God and not himself, God’s presence is known and overcomes the silence.
God also lets him know that he is not alone in another way. There is a community out there that needs Elijah. There are seven thousand people in Israel who have not bowed a knee to Baal. These people feel isolated, too. There is a community that needs a prophet and a prophet who needs a community.
In our ministry, we often fall into the same trap that Elijah fell into. We start outwardly-focused, and slowly become inwardly-focused. It starts as a ministry of the church, dependant on God, but eventually that ministry’s success and failure depends solely upon us. We begin being led by the Spirit, and then slowly begin following our own desires and chasing after our pride. Our work is blessed because we are on God’s side as we seek God and God’s work in the world. But, we now think that God is on our side, approving of our every action and motive. Our prayer and worship life was a time of seeking to hear that still small voice, of feeling God’s presence in times of sheer silence. But, they have become moments of isolation, times of silence, and seasons of being afraid.
How does this happen? How can living a life with God and hearing God’s still small voice change to seasons of fear and isolation? It can happen when we become the lone ranger in our ministry. When we fail to invite others into ministry, when we think it is easier to just do it ourselves, when we say, “They’ll just say no,” or “I don’t have the time to show someone else how to do this,” we limit the Body of Christ. It becomes about our talents and dreams and not the Holy Spirit’s work in the midst of our community. We become exhausted and shut off from our vocation with God. We become shut off to God’s Word in our lives.
I’d like to repeat a quote that Laura shared at Terry Griffith’s memorial service last week. “It’s not about you.” This is the opening line of Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life.” It was a line that I understand Terry quoted often and attempted to exemplify in her life, especially in her last few days in this world with us. In the silence Elijah faced when confronted with Jezebel’s treat, God was telling Elijah, “It’s not about you.” And Elijah fled, because at that moment, it was about him. In the sheer silence when God’s presence overwhelmed him, God told Elijah “It’s not about you, it’s about my purpose and my people. I will never leave you or fail you, because you are my beloved child. I want to be in relationship with you. Let my Spirit guide you in keeping your focus and purpose on me and you will always know my presence.”
Friends, the good news is God is saying that same thing to us, today. God is calling us to love him with our entire being and our neighbor as ourselves, to be led by the Holy Spirit into ministry partnerships with God. It is easy to turn our focus inward towards ourselves and create an idol of ourselves. Our ministries, our lives, our purposes must be Christ centered, God focused and Spirit led. And that is something we cannot accomplish alone. That is what God was telling Elijah. It can only happen with God and the community of faith.
Friends, God is asking, “What are you doing here?” What do you hear in that silence? Do you hear your own voice, planning out all the things you need to do to be successful, be on top, win? Or, is the silence uncomfortable because God was trying to get through? Or, do you feel the presence of God, telling you that he loves you, that his purpose for your life goes beyond yourself? What do you hear in the silence?