Elijah, O Elijah
If you are a reader of the Hebrew Scriptures, you may once have heard that once upon a time,there was a man named Elijah––a prophet even––who once hid out in a cave. Yes, a cave, as if he were in this midst of a pandemic, or worse. He was “sheltering-in-place,” in obedience to one of the most autonomic reflexes of the human heart, i.e. the “flight” of “fight or flight.”
He was like the proverbial snail, who, when touched, as it were in the blink of an eye disappears into his shell. And so Elijah hid, once upon a time. He hid for life itself.
Hiding. Sometimes it was the only thing one can think to do, when afraid, or in trouble, or on the brink of disaster. Even as a child I remember that of all the games we used to play, I loved Hide and Seek the best. Didn’t you? It was spooky, and fun, and deliriously exciting. Needless to say, for some people, playing Hide and Seek can become a whole way of life.
Would this be the case for Elijah? Elijah, the triumphant. Elijah, the peerless. Elijah, the immovable; the irresistible. The name itself had always shouted faith. Elijah, which meant, “my God is YAHWEH!!!” i.e. “I am the Lord’s!!!!” or “as for me and my spirit, we will serve the LORD!!!!” (And don’t you forget it, baby!!)
But when push came to shove, Elijah had come to the end of himself. He was exhausted, and depressed; depleted even. In spite of always being in God’s corner; always doing God’s will; always being God’s person, Elijah had lost hope. Elijah had given in.
As per our reading this morning, Elijah had been on the run from Ahab, King of Israel, and his wife, Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel, testifies Scripture, “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before them.” Elijah had just had a showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, the toadies of Ahab, et al.
You may know the story. An altar to Baal is built, and one to the Lord God of Israel. Both are stacked high with wood; both have a slaughtered bull atop them, an offering to God––and Baal––respectively. Elijah challenges them to prepare the altar, but not light the fire: and then call on Baal to start the BBQ. “Come on, Baal, light our fire” they shout.
Well, nothing happens. And so Elijah begins to mock them. “Shout louder! Surely Baal is a god. Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So the prophets of Baal shout louder, and slash themselves with swords and spears until blood flows––but still, nothing happens.
Elijah then prepares his own altar, for the altar of the LORD had been in ruins. He takes twelve stones, one each for the twelve tribes of Israel, and rebuilds the altar. He not only sets wood upon the altar, and the bull for the sacrifice, but digs a trench around the altar and fills it with water, then pouring water all over the wood. Not a very bright idea if you want to get a good blaze going. But then, he prays to the LORD: and the LORD, much to the disappointment of the prophets of Baal, sends down fire to consume the altar.
Well, as you can imagine, having taken up Baal as their pet god, Ahab and Jezebel are “not amused” (thank you very much) by the rather tawdry performance of both Baal, and his priestly retinue. And on hearing the news of the humiliation of the prophets of Baal––and their death, for Elijah puts them to the sword––Jezebel swears revenge, and puts out a contract on Elijah’s head.
On hearing this, Elijah flees Carmel like quicksilver, as it were in shame. Collapsing under the cold comfort of a broom tree, he then makes a strange and terrifying prayer which has resonated through history. “God, if you would, please let me die. Thank you.” All this, right after his astonishing success against the prophets of Baal.
“I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
“All at once,” the text goes on, “an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” Elijah looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.”
The problem is, once he finds his way into his cave; his prophet cave; his ministry cave; his I’m-too-tired-to-go-on cave, prophetic PTSD reasserts itself: and Elijah never wants to come out again. He is not only depressed, but suicidal. Everything collapses, and God seems to grow silent.
Ever been there? Not just exhausted in body, but exhausted to the very depths of your spirit and being? Ever been depressed and suicidal? Ever made Elijah’s prayer your own, shutting a door against the world that you wish should never be opened again?
Not hard to do during a pandemic. I certainly have––and more times than I care to remember. I have hidden myself beyond the reach of everyone, and built a cave in my heart. Needless to say the silence––the silence of God even––at such times, can be deafening. “What are you saying?” some might ask. “Christians can never be depressed, much less suicidal, right?” Wanna bet??
But suddenly, in the midst of Elijah’s nightmare a voice speaks––a Voice; a Voice he has not heard for a long time. “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
“Well, Lord, I have been zealous for You as for no Other,” replies the prophet, to the Voice. “But the Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, an put your prophets to death with sword. And I am the only one left! And now they are trying to kill me too.”
The Voice speaks again. “Go out; Go out, Elijah. (First it was “get up, from under the broom tree, now it is “go out.”) Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by. Out of nowhere there is a great and powerful wind; then an earthquake; then a fire:––all manifestations of the presence of the Lord elsewhere in the Old Testament. Strangely, however, the LORD is not in them; neither in the wind nor the earthquake or the fire, the very troika of God’s power.
In one of the most extraordinary moments in the Old Testament, suddenly, shockingly, there is the sound of a gentle whisper rising out of the darkness; a Voice both still and small.
A Voice both still and small? How could this be? What of smoke? What of fire? What of the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz? How could one possibly encounter God without the requisite quaking and thunder? Without the glorious excitement of being “slain by the Spirit” or applauded by thousands? Without terror? Without compulsion?
Perhaps it was time for a whole new understanding of God: not to mention a whole new way of relating to God––even for a prophet of Elijah’s stature. A time for braving mystery, and embracing quiet; a time for honest transparency; a time for listening more deeply than ever before to a God whose Voice could not be truly heard, save by those of the long and quiet heart.
I opened with service with an excerpt from the Book of Jeremiah, where this is announced.
It’s an extraordinary place at chapter 31, a place readers of the Bible have called Jeremiah’s “Little Book of Comfort.” Jeremiah announces that there will come a time when people approach their relationship with God in a whole new way, from the heart, to the heart.
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
”when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
How God longed to take Elijah up into the long arms of his heart:––not only to pull him out of his despair and depression, but that Elijah would experience God in a whole new way . . . and have done, at least for the moment, with more theatrical manifestations of the Divine Presence––
what many people have looked for, and demanded from, God. That above all, Elijah would listen, and long, out of the stillness, and silence, of God’s presence.
I daresay God actually drove Elijah into the cave; into hiding; into the silence . . . God took away every last religious and/or spiritual prop with which Elijah was accustomed to survive.
The same happened to Paul the Apostle.
“Perhaps it was no accident that the Apostle Paul was struck blind for three days on the Damascus road,” writes pastor Kim Thoday, “nor Elijah driven into a cave . . . “The deepest valleys of human experience contain the necessary seeds of healing, deliverance, and maturation for new stages of life and discipleship. Depressions in the ground of our existence are part of the contours of life. They contain the ingredients for experiences and insights of spiritual renewal and the life of grace and hope. Saint John of the Cross experienced the dark night of the soul as a necessary part of the journey of finding God. He said: “ . . . this depth of darkness drives us forward to the what? To the love of God.” Perhaps we can only more deeply experience and contemplate the depths of God’s love once we have experienced the winter of our soul, as if God has abandoned us, when all is eerily silent. As Paul himself says to us, he who was struck blind to see, finally: “... suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope: and hope does not disappoint us––because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
But you’ve got to listen. Moreover, you’ve got to get up and get out: and dare the silent spaces of the heart, so that hope––real hope––will grow.
And God being your helper, it will. It will.