In this morning’s Scripture, we find the prophet Elijah cowering in a cave. And we have to ask ourselves – as compassionate, thinking people – what’s wrong with Elijah?
Because Elijah, well, he’s one of the superheroes of the Bible – he’s a powerful prophet. He’s the prophet who takes on kings and queens, and slays the false prophets of false gods. I mean, this is the prophet who from the very beginning stood up to the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. When they don’t listen, Elijah calls down a drought on the land – flees from their wrath – and survived out in the wilderness. He is fed by ravens sent by God who bring him bread and meat. Elijah is the prophet who befriends a widow starving in that drought – and miraculously produces a jar of flour that never runs out – so that he and the widow’s family can survive. And then, when the widow’s son falls ill and died – Elijah brings him back to life.
And as we meet Elijah this morning, he’s just coming off of one of his biggest victories. He has taken on the prophets of Baal. They were all challenged to set up big bonfire piles – to see whose God would send down the fire. The prophets of Baal set up their bonfire pile. And Elijah set up his – all to see whose God was real – whose God had the power to send the fire. And to make it even harder – they drenched Elijah’s bonfire pile with water. And guess who won the challenge? Elijah. Or we could ask – of all those prophets – guess who is still alive? Elijah.
Elijah is a powerful prophet – he is a superhero of the Old Testament.
But here he is. In this morning’s Scripture. Here he is. Just after that. And he’s on the run. Queen Jezebel sends a messenger to tell Elijah – “May God do such and such to me if by tomorrow, you aren’t dead.” And Elijah takes off. Elijah goes as far south as he can. And then he leaves his servant, and sets off on his own into the wilderness. And when he can’t go one step further, he finds a broom tree, he lies down underneath it, and says, “I’ve had enough.” And he goes to sleep. He can barely lift his head off of the rock he’s using as a pillow.
What’s wrong with Elijah? Well, you know what I think? I think Elijah is... human. I think Elijah is worn out. As my grandmother would say,I think Elijah’s get up and go – has got up and went. Elijah has been engaging the fullness of life with the fullness of all that he is – living life with all he’s got. And the world has not been friendly. And life has not been easy. It can’t be easy calling down droughts, and being hunted down by kings and queens, and taking on the false prophets of false gods. And Elijah gives out. Maybe he is just exhausted. Maybe he’s in “the depths of despair.” Life and the world are overwhelming. Elijah’s get up and go has got up and went.
And maybe you know what that feels like.
It’s hard to live in the world right now. Hard to wake up in the morning and turn on the news – because the world seems to have gone mad. Our nation seems to have gone off the tracks. Our national and global problems feel bigger than we could ever fix.
I don’t know about you, but I start to feel helpless and overwhelmed.
And even closer to home. Life can be rich and rewarding, and it can also be overwhelming. It’s not easy living life in family – not easy to raise kids – or teenagers – or adult children. Not easy to live through our own aging – the aging of our parents. It’s not easy to live through illness, and our deep grieving.
During this Epiphany season, we’ve been talking about the experience of encountering something so much bigger than ourselves. Sometimes what is bigger than ourselves is ... life.
Wherever we are, whatever the nation, community, or family, we know what those days feel like when the alarm goes off, and we just want to pull the covers up and stay in bed. We know what it’s like – when it feels like our get up and go – has got up and went.
That’s where we find Elijah this morning – asleep on a rock in the wilderness under a broom tree. And so I suggest -- just this morning -- that we just lie down with him. ‘Cause life is hard. Pull up a rock for a pillow. Pull the covers back up. In any place that we are weary. Let’s just crawl up under that tree, with Elijah, and listen for what God has to say:
And the first thing that God has to say – through an angel, God’s messenger – is this: An angel comes and touches Elijah’s shoulder and says, “Get up and eat.” And Elijah opens his eyes, and sees a cake of bread baked over fresh coals, and a jar of water. There, in the middle of nowhere – a bite to eat, and a cool sip of water, on a dry dusty day. And Elijah drinks. And Elijah eats. And crawls back over under that broom tree and goes back to sleep.
And the angel comes back later, and touches Elijah and says, “Elijah, get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” The angel knows, God knows.. that life is hard.. that the way is too much. There’s no judgment or shame because Elijah has given out. Just a word of encouragement, and a bite of bread, and a jar of water. And it’s a start. Elijah gets up, and walks a few miles further to Mount Horeb, and finds a cave for shelter.
And that’s where we hear the second thing God has to say: God finds Elijah in that cave and says, “What are you doing here?” “Why are you here?” And Elijah thinks he understands so he rattles off the list: “Your people have rejected you and me; they’ve killed all the other prophets; I’m the only one left.” But I think that’s really not what God’s asking – but let’s come back to that. Because God is going to give Elijah a second try at that question
AND, now we get to the good part of the story – this is the part that you may remember from Sunday School – the third thing that God says. God says: “Elijah get up and go stand at the mouth of the cave, and wait for God’s presence.” And we know what happens next.
There’s a mighty wind that shatters stone. But God’s not in the wind.
There’s an earthquake. But God’s not in the earthquake.
There’s a fire. But God’s not in the fire.
And then, after the wind, and after the earthquake, and after the fire:
In the way we probably heard the story as kids:
There’s a still small voice.
Or as today’s translation says:
The sound of sheer silence.
Or I’d say it like this: A small quiet whisper.
And Elijah covers his face as he experiences the presence of God.
The presence of God ... in a small quiet whisper.
And God asks the question a second time,
“Elijah, why are you here?”
And Elijah starts with the list again – the list of his worries and woes – his very real problems. But I don’t think that’s what God means, when God says, “Why are you here?” God is inviting Elijah to see God’s presence – to see it, to hear it, to taste it, to feel it – to experience God’s presence.
“Elijah, why are you here?”
Elijah, you’re here because I brought you here. You’re here because I have been with you every minute of every day from the moment you were born. Remember? I sent you ravens with food and water when you were in the midst of the drought – and then I sent you and the widow a jar of flour that never ran out – and then in the midst of death, I brought that widow’s son back to life. Shoot, I sent you the widow, and her son, and a whole host of co-prophets to accompany you. I was with you when you faced down those prophets of Baal, and when you fled for your life. And what about that cake of bread you just ate? And the jar of water? Why are you here? You’re here because I’m here, because I have always been with you, because I have never left your side. Get up, come to the mouth of the cave, and experience my presence – not in a violent wind, or an earthquake, or a raging fire – but in the sound of sheer silence, in a small quiet whisper. I am here. Right here with you. I’ve never left.
What we remember from this story is where God is NOT – NOT in the wind, NOT in the earthquake, NOT in the fire – but this story is actually inviting us to ask a different question – this story is inviting us to look around – in Elijah’s story, and in our own lives and our own world, and ask this question, “Where IS God?”
Maybe we’ve conditioned ourselves to think that God only shows up big – that God only shows up in a big show of power – earthquake-level power – in a way that fixes everything for us – and sets the world right. And if God doesn’t show up like that, then what’s the point really? Because our problems are real, our troubles are big, and we need help.
But what we experience with Elijah is this – God shows up in the sheer silence – in the sheer silence that underlies all of our noise. Not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire – not (always) in big flashy moment – but in the sheer silence that is always with us – that underlies every moment of every day – in a small quiet whisper. As one writer says, “God’s voice often shows up in unspectacular events and ordinary people.”
In the everyday moments of every day.
God gets that Elijah’s way is too much for him – the angel says so. And God invites Elijah to notice – to notice God’s constant, loving, sustaining, accompanying, providing, protecting presence. “Get up and eat.” “Get up and come out to see my presence.” Now tell me again, “Why are you here?”
I’ve got this little prayer that I learned when I was a first starting out in seminary – it comes out of the Jesuit tradition – and it’s a prayer for noticing every day where we’re experiencing the presence of God. And it couldn’t be simpler. At the end of the day, you just find a quiet place and you look back – look back on your day and ask two questions:
1. Where did I feel distant from God?
2. Where did I feel the close presence of God?
And maybe take some notes – keep track – of all the places that we see God showing up. It’s kind of like being invited to come to the mouth of the cave, and notice – look for the presence of God. And what we find in this prayer – over time – is the pattern of God’s presence in our life – a deep well from which we can draw a sip of water for our parched places – a cake of bread -- bread for the journey.
Oh, and I almost forgot. God says one more thing to Elijah. After all that, after the bread, and the water, and the reminder of God’s presence with Elijah always, God says, “OK, Elijah, now get up and go.” Get up and go – you still have work to do – there is an unjust king to challenge, and I’ve got some reinforcements for you to meet.
And for us, we have families to feed, loved ones to care for, systems and structures of oppression to dismantle, and a planet to tend and to mend.
And so God says, to Elijah – and to us -- pack up the rest of the bread – remember what you heard here in the sheer silence. Get up and go.” Because God always has something for us to do in the world. Our lives have purpose – even when the work is hard – even when it is scary. God is near. Now get up and go.
Now I don’t want to leave you only with that. I want to leave you today with a little bread for the journey. As I have worked with this text, and also thought over the whole of Scripture – of all the ways that God shows up to replenish and nourish God’s people – I wrote this blessing – and I want to give it to you to carry with you into your days:
Get Up and Go
When your get up and go
has got up and went,
may God send you –
a raven with snacks, and
a small quiet whisper;
manna in the morning,
water from the rock, and
quail in moderation;
a perch to glimpse
a promise you may never enter;
stones for the stream,
a bird with a twig,
a stranger to wrestle,
breath for dry bones;
a friend with an arrow, and
a midwife or two.
when you’ve eaten and slept,
but maybe even before you feel ready,
may you get up and go.
© 2020 Scott Clark