W E CONTINUE our summer road trip through the scriptures. Today we will move from Jezreel, north of Jerusalem, on down to Mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai as you see it on the map.
Today’s plot begins with revenge. Jezebel, King Ahab’s evil wife, threatens Elijah’s life.
Jezebel had married the Israelite king, Ahab, and she had persuaded him to introduce the worship of Baal, a god believed to control storms and rain. Ahab seems to have been complacent, which would make for another sermon about being unequally yoked, the strength of our faith, our testimony. But that would be taking a wrong turn on today’s road trip!
Back on the main road. The drought referred to in last week’s sermon has continued, and a confrontation between the Baal prophets and the prophets of our One true God takes place.
† † †
JEZEBEL GOT WIND of the contest and the slaughter of the Baal prophets, and she makes it known to Elijah that she means to have him killed. This was no idle threat, as she had seen to it that many other prophets of Israel had lost their lives at her command.
Elijah hightails it out of Jezreel, heading south, and arrives in Beersheba in Judah. He leaves his servant there, and he continues further south, a day’s journey into the desert. Alone. And afraid. He sits under a broom tree, which is a desert tree that provides some shade.
He is so overcome with fear that he prays to God that he has had enough. Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors. (other prophets had lost their lives; he didn’t think he should live). He lay down and fell asleep.
† † †
LOOKING BACK at a couple of scripture references, we see that time and again God has called Elijah to do things, and Elijah has been obedient, and God has provided for him.
■ 17:7 — God tells Elijah to go at once to Zarephath and stay there … and he went. That is where he ministered to the widow and her son, who Pastor Keith spoke of last week. They were on the brink of starvation. When the son became so ill that he stopped breathing, Elijah cried out to the Lord, and the boy was healed, saved from certain death. The widow affirms Elijah’s calling, saying, “Now I know you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is true.”
■ 18 — God tells Elijah to go and present himself to Ahab … so Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Jezebel’s husband.
Elijah confronts Ahab, saying that he, and the Israelites, have abandoned the Lord’s commands. The prophets of Baal call upon the name of their god, and Elijah calls upon the name of our One true God. There’s a bull, actually two bulls, and wood, and water, and a calling out for fire. And, let’s just say our God wins.
The people cry out, again affirming Elijah, saying that The Lord — he is God! Elijah sees to it that the Baal prophets, who had been pulling people from following the One true God and killing God’s prophets, were killed.
† † †
ELIJAH HAS BEEN LISTENING to God and serving him. He has gone where God has sent him and been present as God fed a widow and healed a boy and made himself known to them.
God has sent him to confront the king, and God showed up in a mighty way.
Elijah has been serving God, and God has been walking the dusty roads with him, and has had his calling affirmed, and has seen God provide for him and others. His faith could be strong and unshakable. But now Elijah has been threatened by Jezebel, and he is overcome with despair.
As he flees Jezreel — and Jezebel — and collapses south of Beersheba, he is physically, spiritually exhausted. Despair overwhelms him.
† † †
THERE ARE OTHERS in the Bible who have experienced deep despair, for different reasons.
■ David pours out his despair in the Psalms:
“My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” — Psalm 38:4
■ Jonah fled as far away as he could when God called him to go preach to Nineveh, spent time in the belly of the big fish, went on to do what God asked, and then sat and pouted:
“Now O Lord, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.” — Jonah 4:3
■ Job! The righteous man who lost literally everything. Though he maintained his faithfulness, he, too, struggle:
“Terrors overwhelm me … my life ebbs away; days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones; gnawing pains never rest.” — Job 30:15–17
■ Moses grieved over the sin of the people as he comes down from his mountaintop experience with God, commandments in hand, only to find the Israelites in complete chaos and sin. He cries out to God:
“Forgive their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” — Exodus 32:32
■ Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, was rejected by the people he loved and reached out to:
“Cursed be the day I was born … why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” — Jeremiah 20:18
† † †
WHY SO MANY examples of people in despair in biblical times? Because there are so many of us in despair today. We need to know we are not alone, and we need to look to the Bible in faith for hope. What’s true about all of these stories is this: God was with them. Close. Near.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” — Psalm 34:18
† † †
BACK TO ELIJAH, when he ran off to the desert and God was there with him.
He prayed for God to take his life.
Instead, God sent an angel to minister to him, to wake him up and provide food and water. God allowed time for him to rest and directed him to continue to go to Mount Horeb. There God spoke to him in a quite whisper, and, God listened to him. Twice Elijah lamented his despair over the people turning from God, and each time God listened.
Right after Elijah lay down below that broom tree, there was an angel there with specific instructions for him. Get up and eat. And food was miraculously provided. He’d been working doubles and night shifts, and he was probably not only tired but hungry. God met his basic human needs; he fed him.
† † †
AFTER HE RESTED, another basic human need, the angel came again. Get up and eat. That first meal was necessary for his empty belly; this next meal was to prepare him for the work ahead. You’re going on a journey. And now, he was “on the road again,” traveling 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb.
Elijah went from the bare minimum shade of the broom tree to the protection of a cave at the base of the mountain. More necessary rest.
Food. Water. Rest. Important for all of us for whatever work God calls us to do in a day. And yet sometimes we get so caught up in things God may or may not be asking us to do that we don’t take the time to care for ourselves. Get up and eat. Get some rest. Someone listening today needed to hear that.
It is then that God speaks to Elijah in a way I think he speaks to us often: What are you doing?
He replies as we may when we are overwhelmed by the realities of our lives: I’m doing everything I possibly can, and I can’t do anymore!
Well, that’s a modified version of what Elijah says.
† † †
WHAT HE DID SAY? Becky read for us today, “I have been zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”
Sounds like, “What more can I do?” Doesn’t it?
Again God gives him specific direction, which I believe he does with us today, but we may not always be listening.
God tells him to get out of this cave. He had led him to this spiritual place. Now he was going to reveal himself to him.
† † †
I LIKE what I call “weather.” Like when it is pouring out and I am safe inside with a roof over my head. And when I lived in Connecticut and would go out walking in a snowstorm, down the middle of the street before the plows came through.
I don’t like the devastating storms that have torn through Iowa, leaving people without power or homes or the basic human needs of food, water, and a place to rest. Though I do like the story of the barbecue restaurant up there giving out 400 free meals a day.
I don’t like dueling named storms coming our way — or perhaps here by the time of this worship service. If you or your loved ones need assistance preparing for, or due to these storms, please contact one of the pastors or your deacon.
I would like to be Elijah, standing safe and protected at the mouth of the cave, in the presence of the Lord. In the presence of the Lord, as a great a powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered rocks. While safely in God’s presence seeing an earthquake. And then, seeing the fire.
And then, hearing God’s voice in a gentle whisper. Scripture says God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. But God had said to go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord. For the Lord is about to pass by. And then the voice of the Lord is heard. You see, he was with him the whole time. We read this: God was not in the wind or earthquake or fire. But he was with him!
† † †
HE WAS with David, and Jonah, and Job, Moses, Jeremiah.
He was with Elijah, in all his despair.
He is with you.
As today’s story comes to an end, after God has ministered to Elijah, he tells him to get back to work. Again, not quite in those words, but he tells him to get some help, anoint kings and prophets.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the realities of our life, wanting to flee the scene, and cry out, “I’m doing everything I possibly can, and I can’t do anymore!”, know that God is listening.
In your despair, pray, get up and eat, and get some rest. God is with you.
Notice that Elijah did not say that he wanted to take his own life, but that he wanted God to “take his life.” If you or someone you know struggles with suicidal thoughts and tendencies, please seek help. Talk to a pastor, a trusted friend, or a professional. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255, suicidepreventionlifeline.org.