Be the Fire: August 13, 2023

August 13, 2023

Year A, Pentecost 11                         1 Kings 19:9-18  

        Elijah was depressed. There is no way to get around it. Our reading begins in verse 9 of chapter 18. Just a few verses before, Elijah, wearied by a long journey, collapsed under a broom tree, which is really a bush and asked God if he could die. He said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He then fell asleep under that bush. If you had read the previous chapter, this might surprise you. It would seem he should been flying high. In the last chapter he had won an epic show down where he defeated 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah was trying to prove that his God was more powerful than this fake god Baal. 

        So they had a little contest, who could set the altar on fire. Baal had 450 prophets trying to make it happen and they failed. Elijah was alone, but God rained down fire, thus allowing Elijah to win the contest. One would think this would have been a shining moment in his career. He had not just won, he had proved a point. He could say I told you so. I mean really, how often do we ask for a sign and not get it? Wouldn’t it be nice if just once God could rain down some fire to prove we are right? I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I just want it to be clear that God has my back and now everyone can see the proof. Elijah got that clear sign…why was he so depressed? 

         What happened between that astounding accomplishment and Elijah collapsing under a bush and wanting to die? The only thing we know for sure is that King Ahab told his wife Jezebel about Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal and she was very upset. She threatened Elijah. While no one likes to be threatened, Elijah had been through worse at this point. It doesn’t seem like that would be the thing that would drive him to despair. 
         Some have hypothesized that it was burn out. While Elijah had performed some incredible miracles and provided powerful prophesies, the hearts and the minds of people had not changed. King Ahab and Jezebel were still leading the country in the entirely wrong direction and not taking the warnings or advice of Elijah seriously. King Ahab had abandoned the one true God and not even Elijah’s showdown could convince him to return. Elijah was tired. God responded to his weariness and despair. First God provided some food and water, which is always a good thing. Then Elijah journeyed for 40 days to a cave. At this point God decided to engage him in conversation by simply asking him what he was doing there. 
         Elijah responded, “I have been very zealous for the LORD; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Not only did he not answer the question, but what he was saying wasn’t entirely true. The Israelites hadn’t all forsaken God. Many had, but not all. And they hadn’t killed all the prophets. Elijah was the one who defeated the prophets of Baal. Things were not nearly as bad as Elijah was describing. But that’s how it is when you are depressed…you focus on the worst things that are happening and you can’t see past those things. God knew he needed to shake him up a bit. 
         So he threw powerful signs his way. First there was a great wind, and then an earthquake and finally fire. The text says that the Lord wasn’t in any of those things. Of course he wasn’t. God sent those things, but God wasn’t in those things. Then there was sheer silence. When Elijah heard the silence, he left the cave.
Now there are a lot of different interpretations of the Hebrew phrase that was translated to sheer silence. Many have translated that Hebrew phrase to a still small voice and then gone on to explain that God wasn’t in the big displays of power, but the quiet, the small voice, the voice you have to really work to hear. 
         But notice, the text doesn’t say God was in the silence. It simply says that Elijah left the cave after the silence, which makes sense. Who leaves the safety of a cave when there is a fierce storm? It would appear that Elijah is not changed at all by this experience. God asked again what he’s doing there and Elijah gives the exact same non answer as before. Elijah didn’t hear the still small voice of God. Or if he did, it had no major impact on his thinking. But he did leave the cave. God got him out of the cave. And often, that is the most important and hardest step, leaving the safe confines of our own despair and self-loathing. 
         Since Elijah remained unchanged, God changed tactics again—no more wind, fire, earthquakes or silence, God gave Elijah a new purpose. God told him to anoint a new king and also a new prophet. God knew what Elijah needed. He didn’t need a pep talk or even a display of God’s power and majesty. Elijah had been the very tool of God’s displays of terrific power. No, Elijah needed direction and help. He needed a reminder that not only was he not alone, but there was someone who needed his guidance and support. It’s true, his role as a prophet was coming to an end, but it was not yet over. He had more work to do. 
         My friends, there are times in all our lives when we would do almost anything for the kind of signs that God displayed to Elijah. We would do anything for a direct conversation that would give us an epiphany. But that didn’t work with Elijah. It didn’t work when Elijah tried it with others and it didn’t work when God tried it on him. What worked for Elijah, was discovering his purpose by finding someone else to guide and help.
We will find very few earthquakes in our lives, but there will be no shortage of people who need us. There is always plenty of work to be done. The harvest is plentiful. If you find yourself in a cave, don’t wait for a magnificent sign. Don’t even wait for the sheer silence. Instead, get some food, get some sleep and then get out of the cave. I don’t care how spacious and comfy that cave is. God needs us, each one of us—to get out of that cave and find someone else who needs help getting out of their cave. I promise you, there are all kinds of people stuck in caves and you might be the person who will be the fire, or the wind, or the earthquake that they need. We can’t wait for the fire or the wind or even the silence. Instead, let’s stop waiting for a sign because God is already here. God is with us. Stop waiting for the fire. Be the fire.

*This idea of burn out and God’s prescription
for burnout comes from: Interpretation Commentary: First and Second Kings by Richard
Nelson   p. 123-129