Before launching into the reflections on our text, pause for a moment and identify/consider these three ideas in your life, ministry, business or organization:
- Achievement – identify a significant achievement from your past, something that was a defining moment, and preferably one which outsiders also considered significant.
- Challenge – identify a significant challenge in your present, something that presents a difficulty, obstacle or frustration around or through which you must work.
- Hope – identify a significant hope for your future, something that you desire or dream to see come to fruition, though you may have no idea how or whether it is possible.
Now let’s return to Elijah – Elijah, perhaps not unlike many of us, has bursts of enthusiasm followed by waves of uncertainty, doubt. We get an idea and launch forward with it, trusting fully that we are taking the right course of action. Then, shortly after, we are confronted by an obstacle, a threat to our plans and goals, and suddenly we cower in fear. We run on and then off, hot and then cold. Now, in our defense, Jesus said he prefers this to a lukewarm response to everything, completely lacking in energy, passion and commitment either way. (Rev 3:16) Jesus wants us to recognize the weight and import of life, to feel the full burden of this one wild life. In the story that precedes this, Elijah has just been witness to an awesome sign of God’s power – fire from heaven coming to consume the water-soaked offering and even the altar (1 Kings 18:17-39) followed by his slaughtering 450 prophets of Baal – a rival god to the God of Israel, Yahweh – in a fit of glory. That scene reminds me of the riots that occasionally follow the championship basketball game, where the fans of the winning team pour into the streets and destroy their own downtown. Elijah is at the very top of his power, both in terms of how he is viewed by the people and their kings, as well as his ability to participate with God in a dramatic show of singularity – there really are no true rivals. Elijah had a significant achievement from his past.
Elijah’s witness may be a hard pill for some of us to swallow – we tend to not think of the prophets as mighty soldiers or executioners, yet we are told that Elijah, whether personally or through his assistants, killed 450 of his enemies who were leading the king and people of Israel astray. I’m not sure what to do with this, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies. One thing I do notice is that God has not told him to kill these men – he makes this choice himself out of his great zeal.
Then king Ahab tattles to his wife, Jezebel, that Elijah has killed all the prophets of her gods, and she sends a messenger to say that she is putting a hit out on him – like some scene from a mafia movie. And Elijah runs and hides. And he whines to God that he is a failure and he just wants to die. Elijah now also has a significant challenge in his present.
How does he go so quickly from powerful witness for God to running scared and hiding in a cave? The text does not say. We may be able to draw some inferences from our own life experiences.
When have you felt passionate about something, ready to take a public stand even if you thought it might not be popular at first? Have you been compelled to confront injustice? Do you remember sticking up for someone who was being abused?
And then you lost your nerve because of what it would cost you. Doing the right thing is often difficult, at least at first. We may find ourselves shifting into self-preservation mode, just keeping our head down and trying to survive. People describe feeling this way when they work in a place where some misconduct is going on – perhaps someone is embezzling, or employees are not being treated well. But times are hard, the unemployment rate is up. If I speak up I may lose my job, and then someone will be waiting in line to take my place. How will I feed my family? What if I speak up and I am all alone, with no one to help or defend me?
What about as a church? Have you looked among yourselves and around you to your community and world and gotten a glimpse of what God’s kingdom might bring? Where do you see the mustard seeds of Jesus’ message waiting to sprout and grow? Where is God calling you to speak, and even just to be present? What might it cost you? Many of our churches can look back on days when there was more money, when there were more people. Congregations are finding themselves stretched between paying a pastor, paying for buildings, and investing in mission. Like Elijah, we can look back to a time when God’s work was great among us, when we were thriving, at our peak. But now, Jezebel threatens to destroy us. She represents all those opportunities to worship and serve anyone or anything other than the God we find revealed in Jesus, the Christ.
But following Jesus is not easy. Following Jesus costs us everything. You know the stories. The rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to enter eternal life, and the reply is, “Sell all that you have, give to the poor, take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 18). Later he says, “They persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15) Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Bonhoeffer) This is the very thing that Elijah feared. And at this point he thought his journey was over.
If we are going to take this kind of risk, we want some assurance, some sign that God is with us, and that the course of action we have chosen is the right one. Again, we can look to Elijah hiding there in the cave. We might imagine this to be like his prayer closet. Elijah is there, wondering what has happened to his life. Things were going so well. He has basically given up on doing anything else useful or meaningful for God, or God being able to do anything in or through him. Perhaps he is in what John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul.” Or what St. Ignatius calls “desolation.” He is at a particularly low place, spiritually. He wants and needs God to show up, to intervene, answer his prayers, do something.
Have you ever wanted that? Every wanted God to give some kind of clear, emphatic direction, something big and dramatic? Perhaps like Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Elijah waits, and does have some dramatic experiences – a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire – the three natural disasters we fear most. Throughout the history of Israel these things had been taken as signs of God’s action. Yet somehow Elijah knew that God was not there. It was in the whisper, in the sheer silence, that God was found.
There has been a renewal in the church over recent years – a return to embracing periods of silence. Elijah’s story tells us that sometimes it is only there that we can hear from God, receive the guidance we need, and the affirmation that God is with us and love us, that we are not alone. In response to increasing challenges and declining numbers and resources, many churches are frantically looking for, and even creating, shaking the earth, and burning hot – we even say, “I’m on fire for Jesus.” Yet in this story God is not in any of that. Only in the silence is God known and peace and assurance found. Perhaps we need to, as someone cleverly put it once, “don’t just do something, sit there.” What if in our business meetings we found more time for prayer? What if in our efforts to reach new people we were less concerned with programs and more focused on listening to the hearts of our neighbors in the midst of a holy silence. In our culture we have the phrase “awkward silence” and people often feel the need to fill it. What if instead we used that time to listen for God in the sheer silence as Elijah did?
When God finally speaks, Elijah again rehearses all his woes, all the things that have gone wrong, as if to implicate both himself and God, as if to put God in the dock, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase. “Look, God, what has happened, because you didn’t exercise your power and strength sufficiently.” Hear those last verses again: 3When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
Do you hear how God completely ignores everything that Elijah has just said? Ignores the complaints, the frustrations, the guilt, even the accusations. God simply gives Elijah his next instructions. Elijah has at least demonstrated the ability to recognize God in the silence, and this is sufficient. This is enough for God to use, to send Elijah out on mission, not of his own design, not in his own cleverness or power, but out of the mystery of God’s wisdom. What God directs could not have been guessed, would not have been imagined by Elijah or anyone else. Elijah finds renewed hope for his future.
To develop a Missional imagination, we can do several concrete things:
- Realize that God has a mission, and that we are a part of it.
- Recognize that as a part of God’s mission, we are sent out to the world, just as Jesus was sent to us.
- Wonder if the things we take as signs of success or effectiveness do not necessarily matter to God.
- Accept that we may not get dramatic confirmations of what God wants for us.
- Wait on the Lord patiently in silence
By identifying these three themes – Achievement, Challenge, and Hope – we become better equipped to understand how God might be trying to move us forward, not resting on our past, or being overwhelmed by our present, but realizing that life and love are continually calling us forward into God’s unfolding dream for us.