1 King 19:4-8
Year B, Pentecost 12
We all like to be right. And let’s face it, it’s kind of awesome when you get proven right in front of a bunch of people who have disagreed with you. The prophet Elijah had that moment in a big way. In our reading for today, he is fleeing for his life. Just the day before, he had a show down with 450 prophets of Baal (who was a pagan god). They had a little wager. They would each create an altar and place a sacrifice on the altar. Then they would each call on their god to send fire. This would determine who was the real god, the god of Baal or the God of Israel. Elijah even decided to show off a little by first dousing the altar and surrounding area with water. He wanted to make sure they saw how powerful God was.
By the time the altar was prepared, a large crowd had formed. The scene was set. The prophets of Baal and Elijah each called on their god. Elijah said, “Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” A mighty fire descended burning not only the sacrifice but the altar and the soil as well. Meanwhile, the sacrifice to Baal remained untouched. It was quite a triumph. There, before King Ahab, a crowd of people who were waffling between the LORD and Baal as well as 450 false prophets, Elijah proved who the true God was.
Therefore it is slightly shocking to see where he is in our reading for today. He is sitting under a bush begging God to end his life. It is too much for him. What happened? We all know that a lot can happen in 24 hours. A lot can happen in 24 minutes. When King Ahab told Queen Jezebel that Elijah had not only proven their god a fake, but also killed 450 prophets of Baal, she was understandably upset. She sent word to Elijah that his fate would be the same as her prophets and it would happen in the next 24 hours. This terrified Elijah. He ran as far as he could. He escaped the territory of Ahab and Jezebel. He was safe for the moment under that bush. But despite his safety, he was miserable.
It seems odd given what happened the day before. Obviously, having your life threatened would be disconcerting. I would run and become desperate. But this is Elijah we are talking about. He is a prophet especially chosen by God–the God. Just the day before Elijah had proven what his God could accomplish. His God could rain down fire and all he had to do was call upon God. Therefore, why would Elijah be so threatened by a human?
Elijah was definitely afraid. The text tells us he was afraid and ran for his life. But it seems as though there was something more going on. It was more than fear. He was discouraged, which does not make sense given his recent victory. The more I read the chapter that preceded our reading for today, the more I realized that there is an undercurrent in the story. One of the people who Elijah was trying to convince (or convert) was King Ahab. He was there for this whole dramatic show down. After the water, fire and death–Elijah told King Ahab to go and eat. It had been a long day and he wanted the king to get some food. He then went to the top of mountain to check the weather. He was looking for rain so he could tell King Ahab to leave before the rain.
Despite all the conflict, Elijah was intent on caring for King Ahab. I imagine he hoped that through the display of power and then the way he cared for him, he figured maybe….just maybe King Ahab’s heart would be touched. Remember the prayer he used before the fire came down. He asked that people’s hearts be turned. And it worked, after the fire descended, all the people who had gathered bowed and confessed their belief in the LORD God. But not King Ahab. What King Ahab did was go and tell his wife (who was not a fan of Elijah) all that happened. As a result, Elijah was running for his life.
There is no doubt of the reason for Elijah’s rapid departure. He was scared and knew he had to get away. But wanting die….that seems like an overreaction. I wonder if what was really bothering him was his perceived failure to win over King Ahab. Remember, King Ahab was present for the entire display of power. Everyone else was convinced by the words and actions of Elijah. Elijah took particular care of King Ahab. He had a relationship with him. And yet….it did not accomplish anything. All Elijah’s hard work and he could not turn the heart of the person whose heart was most important to him.
Consider the times when you have been discouraged, frustrated and wanting to give up. How many times have those circumstances involved another person, someone you cared about? How many times have you seen a friend or family member refuse to respond to love and forgiveness? No matter how hard you tried, the friend still did not respond. It seems to me that this was the final straw for Elijah. Sure, he was a great prophet, but he was also a human being who cared for people and wanted to know that what he was doing made a difference. Who among us cannot identify with that?
Thankfully, that moment—asking God that he would take his life is not the end of the story. In our reading for today, an angel came to him and said, “Get up and eat.” Food immediately appeared and he ate it. He then went back to sleep. Either he was tired or the miraculous appearance of the food was simply not enough. The angel came again. This time the angel said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” The angel was acknowledging what Elijah had said when he first sat down under the bush. He said: “It is enough now…” In other words—this is too much. I can’t do this anymore. The angel is agreeing– you can’t do this unless you accept this gift from God and follow God’s instructions.
Elijah was reminded that he needed support and couldn’t do this on his own. That was all well and good, but Elijah had to actually accept the gift and follow God’s instructions. He did. The food gave him the strength to begin yet another long journey. This did not mean that things got easier for Elijah. But he received the sustenance he needed.
After the big show down, but before he was warned that Jezebel was planning on killing him…I bet he was feeling pretty good about himself. He was thinking: “Sure God was there, but I was the one who lay the ground work. God came because of my prayer. I really am a great prophet. I can change people’s hearts.”
While that is a great feeling-it can’t last. Because inevitably when we are trying to do the work of God, we will fail. As long as we put it all on our own shoulders, those failures will feel like the end of the world. But if we can accept that all the victories are God’s victories, it might not be as hard when we cannot change the hearts of others–when we can’t accomplish what we want to accomplish. While it is frustrating, we must remember that only God can change hearts. As Christians we are called to love people with all our might. On our best days, we do. Then we leave the rest to God. We leave the hearts of others in the capable hands of God. We can’t know what is happening in the hearts of others. We can control what is happening in ours. God is telling each of us: Get up and eat and then continue on your journey.