This is a copy of my ‘sermon’ preached at our Virtual Service at Emmanuel, Billericay, on Sunday 14 2020 and is part of our sermon series ‘Standing For God – Elijah and Elisha.’ The Bible Reading is 1 Kings 19:1-18. If you didn’t get a chance to watch this when it was released, you should be able to catch up at Emmanuel YouTube or Facebook.
1. Running Away vs 1-3
After the impressive and spectacular victory of Mount Carmel when, by the miracle of fire and rain, Baal worship is finally exposed as empty and meaningless.
The clear message from Mount Carmel was for Israel to return wholeheartedly to the worship of the one true God. But it’s quite clear from Jezebel’s response that this wasn’t going to happen. She wore the trousers in this relationship and what she said, went.
Nothing changed in the life of Israel. There was no constitutional turn around; no cabinet reshuffle; no opening of the treasury to provide funds for the reinstitution of the prophets (and bring them out of furlough); no call for a national day of prayer and penitence. No U turn. Nothing.
Elijah, who stood against a King and 400 hostile religious leaders, now cowers at the threats of Jezebel, which she communicated by a messenger, vs2: ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like one of them.’
As a result, Elijah was scared witless and does a runner, vs3. It hardly seems to be same person does it? Elijah may have been sorely tested, emotionally wasted and in deep anguish, but it’s not the Elijah we’ve come to know.
But the reason he ran away, it seems to me, was not so much to preserve his life because in vs4 he asks God to take his life, rather it was so that he would not die at the hands of Jezebel for that would have marked a final victory for her evil ways. Could it be that Elijah acted out of concern for God’s honour, when he says: ‘I have been zealous for the Lord.’
Yes, God had every right to take away his life, if Elijah had failed in his mission, but Elijah would not allow Jezebel the opportunity of killing him in order to strengthen her political ambitions.
This is more likely to be the explanation for Elijah’s flight and this is backed up by where he ran to – Beersheba. This is about 100 miles south of Jezreel, well outside the reach of Jezebel’s clutches. In 1 Kings 17:3, God told Elijah where to run. This time he’s running on his own. So, let us follow Elijah on his journey as he keeps on running! As we see:
2. The Provision of God vs4-9a
Elijah appears to be a broken man, doesn’t he? He went running into the desert – always the place of testing and death – sat under a broom tree (hoping it might sweep away his sorrows!) and prayed: ‘I have had enough LORD, take my life I am no better than my ancestors.’
He feels that he has tried everything, at least let his life end nobly by the one who gives and takes away. Elijah is exhausted, understandably so, physically and emotionally, he may feel he is an utter failure too, and he falls asleep. But what does the LORD do? Rebuke him? Tell him to snap out of it and recover some of his Carmel spirit? No!
Just look at the tenderness in how God provides for Elijah, vs5 ‘All at once an angel touched him. Get up and eat’ he says. Elijah looked around and there was a cake of bread baked over hot coals – warm food, and a jug of water to drink. There is a wonderful verse in Hebrews 1:14 that says: Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? And, in this case, the angel was certainly ministering to Elijah.
It’s interesting to see how God’s provision is so different from that in ch17. Then, the Ravens brought food for Elijah, here, it is a hot meal, not cooked by some celebrity chef, but by an angel of the Lord.
Here, God acknowledges what we often do not, namely, that we are whole beings: body, mind and spirit and that these are so inextricably woven together that one affects the other. In these conditions Elijah doesn’t need a counsellor he needs a chef. It is not a time for prayer it’s a time for rest. How often do we look for spiritual causes to our problems when they are physical? Sometimes we just need to listen to our bodies when we feel weary and worn out.
God is not in a hurry to get his patient out of bed before he’s ready, vs7: ‘the angel of the Lord came back a second time, touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you’. The angel anticipates the journey to Horeb, which is 200 miles further south.Strengthened by the food, Elijah travelled for 40 days and 40 nights until he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God, and spent the night in a cave. This seems to suggest that far from running away from God and his mission, as some would say, he is actually running to God, where he enters:
3. The Presence of God vs9b-14
What is implied by the question we see in vs9 and repeated in v13, when God asks: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Is this some sort of rebuke? Or is God signalling a different message? Given what surrounds these verses I want to suggest that far from being a slap on the wrists it is, in fact, an invitation for Elijah to put his case before Him. The stress is on the word, ‘here’. Where is ‘here?’ It is Horeb, or, as it is better known, Sinai.
400 years before, Moses himself stood in a cave, maybe this very cave where Elijah stood, in order to intercede for God’s people who had broken his covenant and worshipped a golden calf. Moses stayed on that Mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, praying that God would forgive the people’s idolatry. And during that time, he was given a unique experience of God’s presence (read Exodus 33 – 34).
It’s a reminder to us of how God’s people make the same mistakes time and again and how often God’s prophets make the same intercessions on our behalf time and again. The lessons of the past always need to be reapplied for every generation. I’m reminded of the ditty by the poet Steve Turner:
‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ The place where the covenant was broken and renewed, where I declared myself to be a compassionate God but who nonetheless would not leave the guilty unpunished. This is the right place to be, Elijah if you are going to plead your cause, present your case before me.’ Vs10: I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty … I am the only one left.
I’m sure we’ve all felt alone, as if no-one cared, sometime during our Christian lives. Feeling God to be absent during the hard times in our lives is not unusual or even un-Christian. God’s love often gets hidden away under all the emotions we experience. But His love doesn’t change, or go away, just because we may feel weary and frustrated – it’s always there.
It’s interesting to see how God just let Elijah talk and talk and talk. God knew Elijah’s needs, his fragility, his need just to be able to express himself and be handled with care. Not once did God suggest to Elijah that he should feel differently or try to talk some sense into him. And, when he did talk with him, he did so gently and with encouragement.
God promises Elijah that he will see His presence just as Moses did. But how? Where will God be found? We then have this amazing account of what is called a ‘theophany’- an appearance of God. There is the shattering of the earth, there is the tumultuous blowing of the wind, there is the blinding effects of the fire, but God was not in any of these. These were more like fanfares preceding the coming of God, but they were not to be identified with God himself.
Some Christians suggest that if we are going to persuade a sceptical generation, God too must turn up to our meetings in the wild and the spectacular, the strange and bizarre, then people will believe.
Maybe you thought, when we looked at the Carmel passage a few weeks ago, ‘That’s just what Billericay needs! A ball of fire on the High Road is bound to make people in our town think again.’ Well, the response to the spiritual pyrotechnics of Carmel puts paid to that idea doesn’t it?
Signs and wonders may confirm faith, but they cannot produce faith. Something else is needed. Real spiritual power lies elsewhere.
Here, God is to be found communicating vs12 in: ‘a gentle whisper’ or the ‘still small voice of calm’ as the hymn writer put it. The reality is that we don’t do silent reflection very well, do we? Yes, it’s easy to praise and celebrate, but we so often shy away from the silence. This still small voice of calm is not some inner mystical voice, it is something which comes to Elijah externally as did the earth, wind and fire, but it is something, which transcends all these things.
As Moses heard God speak on this Mountain so does Elijah. And when that voice spoke, he experienced it as a gentle whisper. God makes a real difference in the lives of His people by the gentle whisper of his Word.
If we really want to know God, experience his presence, then it is to his living Word we must come. It may seem unspectacular, we may prefer the impressive noises and sights of the spiritual fireworks, but God comes to his people in the way he always comes to his people, by his Word.
Many of you will have seen Donald Trump’s awkward photo opportunity outside Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC (June 2020). What this showed to us is that the Bible is not a prop or a badge to be used to politicise a warped agenda.
If we’d open it up, and not just hold it up, then it would open us up.
I need this book to keep me believing and going on for another week, because life can be pretty wearing at times can’t it? And the amazing thing is that God’s voice still speaks from these pages telling me He has not changed, that His purposes have not changed, that He is the same yesterday, today and forever. This reminds us we can have confidence in:
4. The Promise of God vs15-18
Isn’t it wonderful that God is more faithful (stubborn?) than his people? Despite Jezebel’s threats, it is He and not her who will have the last word. He will appoint a new King and provide a new prophet in Elisha. It is He who has secretly been at work holding in reserve 7,000 others who have remained faithful. The promise of his Word.
Even in today’s world, real worshippers may be in the minority, but don’t be misled by numbers. Before the day of Pentecost there weren’t that many followers of Jesus. Now there are countless millions throughout the world.
Tyrants like Ahab and Jezebel come and go, but they will never win in the long run.
The church has often had to face dark days as in the time of Elijah when those in power are set on the destruction of God’s people and, in some cases, enforcing the worship of another god. But God is faithful and keeps His promises.
Elijah began his journey by running away from God but ended up running into His perfect presence.
And Finally …
I wonder, where you are on your journey of faith right now? You might be experiencing your Mount Horeb for the first time and you might be in a wrestling match with God.
Maybe you have been faithful, and you are disappointed, and you are experiencing your own 40 days of searching. You might be wondering when God is going to show up. You might be asking: Where is God during the difficult times?
The answer is that he’s in all of it. And remember, God will provide for you and make His presence known to you and He promises to renew all things. His mercies are new every morning. It is up to us to trust in His faithfulness and compassion and listen for the gentle whisper of His voice.
If the title to this sermon brought a song to mind, you might enjoy listening to the Spencer Davis Group below!!