Let us pray (Prayer from Book of Common Worship, p 39).
For a few weeks here at Kerr we are off of the usual lectionary Scriptures to look at some of our favorite stories of the Bible.
Today we are visiting one of the great heros: the prophet Elijah. Perhaps as a kid, you grew up with some of the tales of his miracle works. He’s the prophet who prayed it would not rain and a severe drought fell over the land and then prayed again for rain and it poured.
He’s the prophet who had a contest against a host of other priests who worshipped idols. Elijah challenged them to a prophetic dual of sorts: They both offered sacrifices to their gods—the other priests prepared sacrifices up on a mountain and then prayed that their idols would take the offerings by burning them—by catching them on firing and taking the offerings up into the heavens. They prayed all day that their gods would come.
And then Elijah took a turn. He was an incredible show-off. He created his own offering to the Lord God in front of all the people. And then he dug a trench around it and had people carry up buckets of water. They drenched the alter completely with water, filling up the trench. Not once. Not twice. But three times.
And then Elijah prayed for God to bring fire to consume the sacrifice. And God not only set fire to the very wet alter Elijah had prepared but God decided to take all the other sacrifices too, basically setting the whole mountain on fire.
And if that isn’t enough, Elijah even raised a little boy from the dead.
By all accounts, Elijah is a miracle worker.
By all accounts, Elijah is one who knows God.
By all accounts, Elijah is one of the great heros.
But in our story today, Elijah does not look like a great hero.
Our Scripture begins: “[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die” (1 Kings 19:4a, NRSV).
(pause) One of the reasons why I love the Bible so much is that it doesn’t pull any punches. Sometimes we preachers might want to. Sometimes we soften things a little. Sometimes we choose to talk about lighter issues. If I’m honest, one reason why we are doing favorite stories of the Bible instead of the lectionary is because I wanted something a little lighter—a little easier—a little more fun—for summer, and the lectionary always pushes us deep into Scripture.
But here’s the thing. Even in our favorite, kid-friendly, stories of old. If we pause and read closely. We find that even our heros struggled. And they didn’t just struggle a little. Hear the word of the Lord:
“[Elijah] … came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die” (1 Kings 19:4a, NRSV).
Have you ever gotten to your wit’s end? Ever gotten to that place where you just weren’t sure that you wanted to go on?
Sometimes I think that we start to believe that if we are Christians we shouldn’t struggle. We shouldn’t be sad. We shouldn’t have times of loneliness or depression or hardship.
But here is a person of great faith. One who can call down rain and fire from heaven. One who can raise the dead. And he is at such a low point in his life that he is praying for death.
Now in Elijah’s time, they didn’t understand depression and mental health and chemical imbalances the way that we do now. God would eventually gift humankind with doctors and scientists who would begin to figure this stuff out. And the science of mental health still has a long way to go, but we know a lot more than they did in Elijah’s day.
In Elijah’s day, the only treatment available was a form of medicine directly from heaven—cakes baked by angels. I’m very thankful that we live in a day and an age where that’s not true anymore. Now God has provided us with counselors and therapists and people to talk to on the really difficult days. But here’s the point:
There is no shame in feeling like Elijah felt. And there is no shame in admitting you need help to get through it. We all need help sometimes. The Bible doesn’t pull any punches about this—this is the raw human experience.
And so if you are feeling like Elijah today—feeling like you just can’t go on anymore. Come and talk to me. Or talk to a trusted friend. We have our counseling center right next door. Most tele-health counseling services are totally free right now—I see a counselor through my phone every single week during coronavirus. There is no shame in this. Even the greatest prophets of old got to the end of their rope sometimes. It’s okay that we need someone to talk to as well.
And as Elijah admits to God how he is really feeling. As he says aloud the truth of his inner struggle, God begins to walk with him on a mighty adventure.
I believe the same is true for us today. Now, I hope that most of us are not feeling like Elijah today. Again, if you are feeling that way, know that we are standing with you, but regardless if you are feeling like you are at the lowest point or if you are experiencing a moment of great joy, I’ve been praying this week about God’s call for us as a church, as a people, as a nation, to a new journey.
There are times when great awakenings come. Often they come in times of great tragedies and trials. The great depression. The death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And for Elijah, this is his moment.
You might think that it would come at the height of his success. That after raising a kid from the dead he might somehow be ready for a great awakening—a great moment of revival and renewal and faith. But that’s not always how it works.
Sometimes it’s the low moments that God uses most of all.
And we as a nation are at a low moment. Many are out of work. Many were already living pay-check-to-pay-check and pretty soon the extended unemployment benefits are ending. Many were already stretched too far in debt and for a little while creditors were held at bay but we know that won’t last forever. Many were kept from opportunities because of the color of their skin or their name on an application. Many were unjustly treated by a system called a justice system. We are a nation in trouble. We are a people in trouble. We need a great awakening.
We as a whole are in Elijah’s shoes right now. We need to be calling out that God might save us. Though I get the sense that so many of us are just so tired. Or sick. Or overwhelmed that instead of crying out we just want to find a broom tree—whatever that is—and sit down and tell God to take us away from all of this.
So, God gets Elijah some medicine. Some bread from heaven. We don’t know what’s in there. Maybe a little something to reset his chemical imbalance. And then he sets him on a journey. 40 days. 40 days of isolation.
Truthfully, I usually skip over this part when I read this story. Generally, I’m like: okay, yeah, sure, he’s alone for 40 days and then the good stuff comes. I’m drawn to the great finale. I want to get to the earthquake and the wind and fire and the shear sound of silence. The exciting part.
This week, though, as I’ve returned to this favorite story I just keep thinking about those 40 days. 40 days of isolation.
I think most of hated being isolated for 40 days because of the coronavirus. I know I did. The introverts among us may not have minded it, but going without a hug for 40 days nearly killed me. Physically distancing is hard, especially when we were in the “red-phase” here in Pennsylvania and nearly everything was closed down.
I’ve been watching the news this week as I’m sure you all have been as well. My heart has been breaking as I’ve seen the death toll numbers rise across our nation and the hospitals once again be overrun. Texas and Florida have been forced to re-close many businesses.
Here in PA we’ve been doing a great job of keeping our numbers fairly low. I am thankful to you all for being willing to physical distance here in church by staying at home and participating in one of our online worship services or by wearing a mask and loving one another by staying apart. We are a church who loves to hug and to be close and I know this isn’t easy. It’s hard for me too, but judging by our numbers, it is working.
And this week, I’m wondering if God wants to change my heart about this period of time.
I recently learned that in other times of quarantine some of the greatest breakthroughs happened. Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton developed calculus during quarantine (https://www.biography.com/news/isaac-newton-quarantine-plague-discoveries)? Or that some of Shakespears greatest plays were written when he was locked down from the bubonic plague (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/24/shakespeares-great-escape-plague-1606–james-shapiro)?
This is the part of the story I usually just skip over, but may it’s more important than I think. Maybe God used the 40 days in a miraculous way to transform Elijah into the person Elijah was suppose to be.
After all, Elijah wasn’t the only one to have a period of isolation: Moses, Saul—the first king of Israel, Paul the Apostle, and even Jesus our Lord took times in their lives when they stepped away for long periods of physical distancing.
I’ll be real with you. In my period of physical distancing I worked—A lot—and then I Netflixed and chilled. I did. I didn’t write a Shakespearian play. I didn’t solve any great mathematical challenges. I basically just made it through the day.
And that’s okay. It’s okay to just make it through the day sometimes.
But what if we start to see this time as a gift instead of a form of suffering?
What if we start to see this time as a great awakening?
What if we wake up to see a miracle—God at work in silence and stillness?
In the great finale of our story, Elijah experiences a mighty wind—and we expect God to be in the mighty wind—but God isn’t there. And then the earth shakes all around him—and we expect God to be in the shaking of the earth—but God isn’t there. And then there is a roaring fire—but God doesn’t come in that way either.
Instead, God surprises Elijah. He doesn’t show up in a display in majesty and power. Of course, God could because he has all majesty and power. And in other places in Scripture God shows that power.
But in this moment God comes to Elijah in a way he doesn’t expect. God comes to Elijah in stillness. God comes in silence.
Elijah doesn’t recognize it until he gets to the end of the 40 days. Elijah doesn’t know it until he’s standing on the mountaintop with a little distance to see what is happening. But God has been there the whole time. In the stillness.
What would it look like for us to be still?
What would it look like for us to see this time of physical distancing as something that God is using to set the reset button on our nation?
Not that God wills that suffering and death would come. We know that suffering and death are part of the Fall. We know that these things are enemies of God and that God has shown us in Jesus Christ that God is more powerful than suffering and death and that God will defeat them in the end.
But God can USE anything. And maybe God wants to use even this.
So what would it look like to turn off the Netflix or the social media for 40 days? What would it look like to commit ourselves to listening to the still small voice inside us? If you want to join me, forty days from right now would be August 6. Will you commit to 40 days of walking with the Lord. 40 days of prayer. 40 days of Scripture reading. 40 days to reset.
Come into the wilderness and see what the Lord will do.