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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There has always been a tension between the king and the prophet in Hebrew literature. In a medieval legend, Moishe, a Jewish astrologer, prophesied that the king’s favorite horse would soon die. Sure enough, the horse died a short time later. The king was outraged at the astrologer, certain that his prophecy had brought about the horse’s death. He summoned Moishe and commanded him, “Prophet, tell me when you will die!” Moishe realized that the king was planning to kill him immediately no matter what answer he gave, so he had to answer carefully. “I do not know when I will die,” he answered finally. “I only know that whenever I die, the king will die three days later.”
Prophets appear in the Hebrew scriptures in a variety of ways, in the “writing prophets” such as Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, and Malachi; and the “non-writing prophets” such as Gad, Nathan and Elijah. There are even anonymous prophets. Regardless, they all serve a purpose in delivering a message from God. But it is not necessarily glamorous work, nor are the prophets often very popular. This was especially true of the beloved prophet, Elijah the Tishbite. There is however, something, so real and personal about Elijah’s story that it is worth meditating on it today.
In the 9th century BC, a century and a half after King David had united the tribes of Israel into one kingdom, the nation had become divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, each with its own king. Ahab, who was the King of Israel, chose to expand his control in the region by marrying Jezebel, the daughter the priest king in the neighboring land of Tyre and Sidon. Queen Jezebel, however, did not worship the God of Israel, but continued to worship Baal, the god of the Canaanites. She encouraged King Ahab to let her establish an order of 400 priests who would lead worship of Baal throughout the kingdom. This was the reason God chose Elijah to bring a message of displeasure to Ahab. “You shall worship the Lord, your God only the God of Abraham and Jacob.” Elijah then announced to the king, that there would be no rain or dew in the land of Israel until he himself allowed it.
In the third year of the great drought, when there was a severe famine in the land, the prophet Elijah came to King Ahab and proposed a contest between the deities on Mount Carmel in the north of the kingdom to determine whether Baal or the God of Israel was the true God. Here were the rules Elijah proposed. “I’ll build an altar over here- you build an altar over there. I’ll get a bull- you get a bull. I’ll cut my bull in half and lay him on my altar- you cut your bull in half and lay him on your altar. Then we’ll each pray to our God, and whichever God can send a flame first, wins!” And the Baal followers agreed. And so the altars and bulls were prepared and the contest commenced.
The Baal’s worshippers began by calling on their god, and calling, and calling, and after a few hours of chanting and praying, there was still no fire. Elijah, sitting on the ground with his back leaned up against his altar, watched this spectacle and started heckling the priests. Finally Elijah said. “Enough. Come closer and watch this.” Now, Elijah knew that God would come through. But in a stunning act of showmanship, Elijah ordered his attendants to soak his altar with water… and then he had them soak it with more water. And then he stood back and said in a loud stage whisper, “Ok God, do your stuff!” And of course the altar went up in flames like a charcoal grill with too much lighter fluid. Then Elijah ordered that the priests of Baal be seized and executed. At the end of the day, Elijah marched back to the top of Mount Carmel where he looked out on the Mediterranean Sea. There in the far distance, rain clouds were moving toward the land. The drought in the kingdom of Israel would soon be ending.
Can you imagine how Elijah felt at that moment? How proud he must have been? But Elijah’s feeling of invincibility came to a sudden and dramatic end when Queen Jezebel sent word to Elijah that she wanted him dead within 24 hours. And Elijah, who had such a memorable, banner day, was crushed. Every bit of confidence and trust he had in God disappeared. And so, scared for his life, he fled into the wilderness. What a difference a day makes.
As I mentioned, there’s something so real and personal about Elijah’s story. Elijah had just vanquished his foes, but now he was at a crisis point physically, spiritually, and vocationally. That’s how life often challenges each one of us. One day you are enjoying a remarkable experience with God, you’re on top of the world, God is in his heaven, the stars are in moving in the courses, and all is at peace on the earth. The very next day, you find yourself questioning God’s will in your life. You’re scared, and you find yourself running away out into the wilderness. There Elijah lay down under a solitary broom tree and said to God, “It is enough, Lord. Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” And he cried himself to sleep. It was the only peace he could find.
We all come to places and times in our lives, where things just don’t look like we had hoped they would. We possess one version of what our future is supposed to look like, but it seems God has another. And that’s unsettling. No one likes to live with uncertainty. But my friends, God’s good news is like that given to the prophet Elijah, for as long as you live on this earth, he will never be done with you. Your work isn’t over until God says it’s over and takes you home. So until then, all of us, no matter what our age, or health, or ability, have a vital, vibrant ministry to do. .All of us, have something unique to add to the work of God’s kingdom.
Your journey with God may sometimes demand that you to do things and be things that you do not want to do, or didn’t ever see yourself doing. There may even be times when things get tiring and perhaps frightening. What we can learn from the prophet is that when things happen, and when the road gets hard, that it’s ok to be afraid, or worried, or frustrated; it’s even ok to feel like giving up. But be assured, God will not give up on you.
This morning’s story of the Prophet Elijah offers us two words of hope for those troubled times. First, remember God will use his holy messengers to encourage you for the journey ahead, second, his gentle quiet voice will still speak to you offering the inner strength you need.
Let me begin with his only messengers. Remember when you feel that you can’t take one more step that God send his angels to minister to you. Yes, they could be sitting right next to you, even this this morning. And those heavenly messengers are challenging you even now, to, “Get up, and eat… you’ll need strength for the journey that is ahead of you.” It’s ok to feel uncertain, undeserving, and even unworthy, God wants you to take the nourishment that is set before you. Yes, no matter how life feels, or what you’ve lost, or even what you’ve done, God has a plan for you. You’re not done yet. Get up and eat. That’s what his messengers are telling you.
According to reports in Pravda, the Russian state’s propaganda publication, the first Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was instructed by Soviet premier Khrushchev to watch out for angels when he went into space in April, 1962. On his return he reported that he had seen no angels. Khrushchev is said to have replied, “Good, I knew you wouldn’t. There are no such things!” It is all too easy to assume that what you do not see does not exist, but be prepared and be open. God uses messengers of all kinds to encourage us to eat and drink, and to be nurtured for the road ahead.
Second, be prepared that God might be speaking to you in a new way. Elijah was expecting God to speak to him with dramatic signs and acts. Why else would the angel have lead him on a 40 day journey to Mount Sinai, the very place where Moses had been lead to see God in the glory of his presence on the mountain? Yes, we all want and expect dramatic signs. God, however, is not always speaking through the loud and showy events of history. God had brought fire from the sky onto Mount Carmel. Yet, that is not the only way God works. He is heard unexpectedly, and just as profoundly in the soft and subtle sounds of life.
When Elijah heard the sheer silence, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. It was not what he expected, but it was what Elijah needed. Most of us will never see the fire fall like it did on Mount Carmel, and if we are only looking for God in those dramatic things, we may miss him. Far more often, God appears in the quiet, ordinary, unseen, gentle sounds of life.
Art Linkletter once said, “kids say the darndest thing.” Of course they can be heard saying, “Why didn’t they play cards on the Ark? Because Noah was standing on the deck. Or who was the greatest comedian in the Bible? Samson. He brought the house down. Even the prophets are fair game. Which Old Testament prophet took forever to make a point? “I say… uhhh…” But they can also interrupt us with their profound perspective. One Sunday a little boy interrupted the pastor during his Children’s Sermon. “Pastor, do you know what I think is the most difficult thing for God to do?” Before the pastor could respond, the boy moved on. “ I used to think the creation of the world must have been the most difficult think. Then I thought that God raising Jesus from the dead on Easter morning was the most difficult. But I don’t think so anymore. No, I think the most difficult thing for God to do, is to get me to believe than he loves me.” Yes, kids say the darndest things.
My friends, God works through ordinary prophets, ordinary men and women like you and me, and children. We serve him in the tough and gritty places of life. So be prepared to meet him there, to hear his voice again and be nurtured by his holy messengers. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.