Out of the Wilderness

June 23rd, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; 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.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; 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.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Elijah has really been through the ringer when today’s reading from 1 Kings begins. 

To bring us up to date:

“He is headed into the wilderness because the evil Queen Jezebel had a contract out on his life and he was scared to death of her. He had good reason to be. He had just staged a contest on Mount Carmel between himself –one lonely prophet of Yahweh – and 450 of the prophets of Baal, whom Jezebel worshipped. The contest was to see whose god was really God, and Elijah won. 

While Baal was nowhere to be found, Yahweh sent a blast of fire from heaven  that no one present could deny, and Elijah marked the victory by killing every last one of the losers.

When Jezebel heard it she sent a message to Elijah, letting him know that he was about to be the next loser, and he knew her well enough to start running right then. Leaving his servant behind, he fled into the Negeb desert south of Beer-sheba, where he walked into the wilderness all by himself.

According to the text, the holy spirit of God did not drive him there. His fear did, and something more than that—something that grew bigger and bigger in all that silenceuntil he sat down under a solitary broom tree and asked God to let him die.

I have backpacked through that desert myself, along with three friends, when I was a nineteen-year-old college student studying abroad. We boarded a bus in Beer-sheba and headed south some 20 miles before getting off as night fell in the middle of the desert.I still remember standing there, watching the taillights as the bus kicked up some dust and disappeared into the darkness.  The night sky shone with countless stars unparallel to anything I had ever seen before. We set up camp in some ancient ruins and settled in till morning.

Waking up to a new day in the desert, from the relative safety of a sleeping bag on the ground was also a new experience. We were nestled in up high among the ruins and as dawn broke, daylight filled the desert valley. It was vast and quiet–a looming expanse of openness that felt exciting and overwhelming at the same time.  I could see for miles. 

It makes sense that Elijah sought out a solitary broom tree and took shelter under its branches. Without something to cover you, the desert feels as if it could swallow you whole. 

As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Maybe it was the bloody contest on Mount Carmel. Sometimes, when you get exactly what you want, there can be a terrible vacuum afterwards. All the energy you counted on to reach your goal suddenly deserts you, and you do not have a clue what you are supposed to do next. You felt so strong going up the mountain. Now you don’t know if your knees will hold you up on the way back down.Or maybe it was just exhaustion, with one major thing happening right after another and no time to rest in between. First the prophets of Baal, then Jezebel, then the flight into the wilderness without anything to eat or drink. Separate those things by a week or so and they might be do-able, but one right on top of the other was like being in a war.”

We’ve all had those days, months, or even years – when we begin to feel like Job –as if one more thing couldn’t possibly go wrong and if it does, we’ll just fall apart. In the lives of those I care about just this past week, friends have dealt with loss, miscarriage, a car fire, being forced to move, frustration, and injury just to name a few. These things happen no matter where we are in our spiritual journey.

Like Elijah, maybe we sometimes want to crawl underneath a broom tree all alone and sleep for a season. Maybe Elijah was just tired of being a prophet. “Thank you for this call, Lord. I fully recognize the privilege of serving you, but the truth is that I am just about called out right now. With all due respect, I quit. You are going to have to call someone else to take my place, because I have just resigned.”

That sort of response after everything he’s been through doesn’t seem unreasonable but of course that isn’t what happens. The angel comes, wakes him up, and feeds him. Elijah stirs, eats the bread and drinks from the jar of water, but falls again into a deep depressed sleep. 

The angel doesn’t give up and wakes him again, fortifying him for the journey ahead. And that is what God does for us. 

God may not heal, take the pain away, or transform our misery, but God DOES fortify us for the journey.

After eating the bread of angels, Elijah finds within himself the strength to go to Horeb, the mount of God where he finds a cave for shelter through the night. Once there, God says to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts 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” (I Kings 19:10). 

God tells Elijah to go outside where he is met by a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire –but the Lord was not to be found in any of these cataclysmic events. Instead, for Elijah, God appears in what comes next, the sound of sheer silence –a still, small voice, in which God repeats, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

This experience introduces something new and different: God is revealed not only through magnificent natural events but also through the lives and words of those who work and speak on behalf of God. God then sends Elijah back through the wilderness to Damascus where we can assume his spiritual journey will continue.

The wilderness is a place we all find ourselves at one time or another. And there are certain commonalities to the experience across time, gender, creed, allegiance, or persuasion.

1)      When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we didn’t choose it.  It is a location of the heart, mind, or spirit in which we are thrust and left to navigate our way out.

2)      In the wilderness, you aren’t in control and that is frightening.

3)       Whether it is noisy or quiet, there is one sound missing and that is the voice of God.

The wilderness is a place in which we might feel buried alive, like the man in today’s gospel story from Luke who is plagued by many demons and lives among the dead. In the wilderness, we are separated from God and from community and it is a lonely place.

For Elijah, it was FEAR that chased him into the desert, depression literally pinned him to the ground under that broom tree and it took an angel to pull him from his slumber.Once the angel woke him up, God got his attention.

In your own wilderness, what are you longing for God to say to you? What are you afraid God MIGHT say to you?

This is really a resurrection story. In it, Elijah transforms from a man who wants to die into a man possessing a willingness to live. The same transformation takes place for the man from whom Jesus casts out demons.

 What do you hear in the sound of sheer silence?  What transformation do you await?