Not as bad as it seems - 1 Kings 19:1-18

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 2nd March 2003.

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The TV does it, the tabloids thrive on it, and we all get caught up in it to a greater or lesser extent. In fact it has become something of a national past time. What am I referring to? Well, ‘digging for dirt’, that voyeuristic prying into people’s lives in order to unearth some sordid secret, a flaw in character which will only go to show that the rich, famous and powerful are really just like us underneath. Channel 4 devoted a whole series to this called ‘Secret Lives’, when on the flimsiest of evidence, embroidered with rumour and gossip, Lord Baden Powell was suspected of having an affection for boys and Errol Flynn was portrayed as a Nazi sympathiser. Apparently no one is to be spared such close scrutiny. But why? I guess that on the one hand it does feed our pride and in some cases, spite, that inner glee to see how the mighty have fallen. On the other hand, there may be a more charitable element, the feeling that such people are not so high on a pedestal that we cannot touch them, but rather that because of their foibles we can more closely identify with them. That may be so, but we should at least make sure that we get our facts right about the person to ensure that a proper and true comparison is being made rather than engaging in just plain character assassination.

And that certainly applies to Elijah in the episode we are looking at together this morning in 1 Kings 19. By and large commentators and preachers give Elijah something of a bad press at this point. After the victory of Mount Carmel when, by the miracle of fire and rain ,Baal worship is exposed as empty and vain, we move to the cowardice of Horeb, when the man who stood up to a King and 400 hostile religious leaders now cowers at the threats of one woman-Jezebel. Elijah is then given the psychiatrist’s couch treatment- he must be a manic depressive, they say, all this ‘Take my life’ business or at least he has lost it in an egotistical implosion ‘Only I am left’. It hardly seems the same person does it? Elijah the warrior is transmuted into Elijah the wimp. Well, Elijah may have been sorely tested, emotionally wasted and in deep anguish, but not in the way that is normally supposed and which impugns his character.

Why is it normally assumed that Elijah has gone into self-pity mode? The main reason is because of v 3 ‘Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.’ Jezebel had just been breathing threats in v2 which she communicated to Elijah by a messenger ‘ May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow (something of an optimistic estimate if ever there was one) I do not make your life like one of them’- that is the dead prophets of Baal. The response? Elijah is scared witless and does a runner. However, if you cast your eye down to the bottom of the page you will see that there is an alternative reading which might have more going for it; ‘Elijah saw and went for his life.’ What was it that Elijah ‘saw? Well, it was that inspite of what happened at Mount Carmel nothing has significantly changed in the life of Israel. King Ahab had gone back and reported to Jezebel everything that had happened. And you can be sure he would not have spared any detail. It was impressive, it was spectacular, nothing had ever been seen like it before- I guess the nearest to it would have been the signs and wonders performed before Pharaoh with the plagues, the river turning to blood and the like. But the difference was this- Pharaoh relented, Jezebel and Ahab did not. The call from mount Carmel was for Israel to return wholeheartedly to the worship of the one true God, but it is quite clear from Jezebel’s response that this was not going to happen. She wore the trousers and what she, the pagan Queen said -went. So inspite of the miracle, there was to be no change at the top- no constitutional turn around, no opening of the treasury to provide funds for the reinstitution of the prophets, no call for a national day of prayer and penitence- nothing. That is what Elijah ‘saw’. And he was gutted. And the reason he ran away was not so much to preserve his life as such, because in v4 he asks God to take his life, rather it was so that he would not die at the hands of Jezebel for that would have marked a final victory for her evil ways. What would the people have said then? ‘Elijah God’s man is killed by Jezebel- Baal’s woman. Maybe Carmel was just a ruse by Baal, Elijah’s death at her hands shows Baal is Lord after all.’ So Elijah acted out of a concern for God’s honour As he says, ‘I have been zealous for the Lord.’. Yes, God had every right to take away his life, as it seemed to Elijah that he had failed in his mission-Israel had not turned back, but he would not allow Jezebel that privilege of killing him in order to strengthen her political position. And that this is more likely to be the explanation for Elijah’s flight is backed up by where he ran to - Beersheba. This is about 100 miles south of Jezreel, well outside the reach of Jezebel’s clutches. What is more, Horeb where Elijah eventually ends up, is 200 miles further south than that- now that is taking the security business a little too far isn’t it? There must be another reason for going there. And there is as we shall see. So let us follow Elijah on his journey of restoration, but this is not simply only the restoration of God’s man, but also the restoration of God’s people so demonstrating what a glorious God he is.

First of all we have Elijah and the provision of God vv 3- 9a. This is a very tender passage. Elijah does appear to be a broken man, he went into the desert-always the place of testing and death- sat under a broom tree and prayed, ‘I have had enough LORD, take my life I am no better than my ancestors.’ He feels that he has tried everything, at least let his life end nobly by the one who gives and takes away life. He feels an utter failure. The LORD who called him is the one he feels he has let down. He is exhausted, understandably so, physically and emotionally-and so he falls asleep. But what does the LORD do? Rebuke him? Tell him to snap out of it and recover some of the Carmel spirit? Some today would expect that to have happened. We can’t have defeated Christians, after all, that lets the side down you know, its a bad witness, we have to be living in the Victory and so there is no place for quite reflection, penitence- everything must be upbeat, spectacular and triumphant. And so the Christian is forced to put on the mask, sing his choruses and feel doubly worse for playing the hypocrite. Is that not so?

But look at with what tenderness God treats Elijah- v 5 ‘All at once’ or rather in the original -‘Behold an angel touched him.’ Even the writer is surprised by the sudden appearance of this divine messenger. And then this ministering spirit does just that- ministers: ‘Get up and eat’, he says. Elijah looked around and there was a cake of bread baked over hot coals -warm food, and a jug of water to drink. You see, at least God acknowledges what we often do not, namely, that we are whole beings, made up of body, mind and spirit and that these are so inextricably woven together that the one affects the other. In these conditions Elijah doesn’t need a counsellor he needs a chef. It is not a time of prayer he needs but a time of sleep. Often, you know we look for spiritual causes to our problems when in fact they are physical. And it has to be said that often the worst culprits in this are those engaged in full time Gospel work-ministers. They can be notorious in failing to take time off and working every hour God sends. The result? Burn out. The 19th century baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon put it like this: ‘ Other men look after their tools; a painter will wash his pencils; a smith will look after his hammer... only scholars neglect their instrument-their brain and spirits.... a body which has long been without exercise and a heart burdened by many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair.’ How true. And God knows that and we should not neglect the provision he makes for the sake of appearing too unspiritual. And this care is not rushed or perfunctory it is thorough, God is not in a hurry to get his patient out of bed before he is ready- v 7, ‘ the angel of the Lord came back a second time, touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you’. v7 So strengthened by the food he travelled 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.’ The angel anticipates the journey to Horeb, which seems to suggest that far from running away from God and his mission as the critics would have it, he is running to God and his mountain.

So we come to the second theme, Elijah and the presence of God.- vv 9b-14.

Now what is implied by the question we see in v 9 and repeated again in v13, when God says, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Is that some sort of rebuke? that is ,‘What are you doing here when you should be someone else?’ or is God signalling a different message? Given what surrounds these verses I would want to suggest that far from this being a slap on the wrists for Elijah it is in fact an invitation for Elijah to put his case before God. The stress is on the word, ‘here’ what are you doing here, Elijah?’ Where is that ‘here’? It is Horeb or as it is better known- Sinai. You see 400 years before Moses himself stood where Elijah stood , in a cave, maybe this very cave in order to intercede for God’s people who had broken his covenant and worshipped a golden calf. For 40 days and 40 nights we are told he stayed on that Mountain, the very same figures used here in v 8, praying that God would forgive their idolatry. And during that time he was given a unique experience of God’s presence, it is all there in Exodus 33 and 34. Moses was hidden in a cleft in the rock and the glory of God passed before him and it was a most awesome experience. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ The place were the covenant was broken and renewed, where I declared myself to be a compassionate God but who nonetheless would not leave the guilty unpunished. This is the right place to be, Elijah if you are going to plead your cause, present your case before me.’ And he does, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. the Israelites have rejected your covenant.’ There is the key. This is where the covenant was made and like Moses of old Elijah has returned to confess the people’s failure to keep that covenant and maybe, just maybe as with Moses, God would hear the plea of his servant and not abandon his people entirely. And what is the sign of God’s covenant blessing? That he is a gracious God? It is that he is present with his people. As he was present by the cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night as the Israelites came out of Egypt, as he was present by the cloud of glory in the Tabernacle and the fire of glory in the temple, so God signals his presence somehow. In one sense he had done that at Carmel, but it was largely ignored, it had no long term effect. So in his kindness God promises Elijah that he will see God’s presence as did Moses.

But how? Where will God be found? We then have this most amazing account of what is called a ‘theophany’- an appearance of God. There is the shattering of the earth, there is the tumultuous blowing of the wind, there is the blinding effects of the fire, but God was not in any of these. These were more like fanfares preceding the coming of God, but they were not to be identified with God himself. Of course that is pretty well what the worshippers of Baal did.. Not only did they make little statues to represent baal, but they believed that they, as it were, ‘saw’ this God of nature in nature, especially the wildly spectacular- the earthquake, wind and fire, as some Christians today think that if we are going to persuade a sceptical generation God too must turn up to our meetings in the wild and the spectacular, the strange and bizarre, then people will believe. Maybe you thought that when we looked at the Carmel passage a few weeks ago, ‘That is just what Hull needs, a ball of fire on Hull dock is bound to make the pagans in our city think again.’ Well, the spiritual pyrotechnics of Carmel puts paid to that idea doesn’t it? The true God is Lord over nature, but he is not to be found in nature. Signs and wonders may confirm faith but they cannot produce faith. Something else is needed. Real spiritual power lies elsewhere. Where is God to be found communicating himself to people?

Did you spot it? v12 ‘a gentle whisper’ or the ‘still small voice.’ This is not some inner mystical voice, it is something which comes to Elijah externally as did the earth, wind and fire, but it is something which transcends all of these things. This is the voice of God Elijah is hearing, as Moses heard God speak on this Mountain so does Elijah. And when that voice spoke it didn’t boom, it didn’t shout, he experienced it as a gentle whisper. Do you see what God is trying to say to his prophet and to us? The way God makes a real difference in the lives of people is by his Word-that gentle whisper of his Word. As Jesus himself said, an evil and perverse generation looks for a sign, but no sign was to be given but that of the prophet Jonah. And what was that-? He preached a message of repentance and faith to a pagan city Nineveh and they -believed. It is through the’ foolishness of what is preached’, says the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1, that God is pleased to save those who believe.

You see, if we really want to know God, experience his presence, then it is to his Word we must come. For it is as we turn to the written Word that we encounter the living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only time when God became fully visible to human beings, clothed in human flesh. It may seem unspectacular, we may prefer the impressive noises and sights of the spiritual fireworks, but God is not there- he comes to his people in the way he always comes to his people, by his Word, which is to be believed and obeyed. Do you remember what happened after Moses had experienced a theophany like this one? He came down this mountain carrying the two tablets of the law-God’s Word written on stone by the finger of God. This was to be a testimony to God’s people of his love and faithfulness- we worship a God who says what he means and means what he says.

Like Elijah we may look around us and see a society which is literally hell bent on its own destruction, a church committed to compromise and we wonder if there is any future. We may look to our statistical analysis, the church growth pundits for some indication of a way out. But the message here is that there is only one we are to look to, and that is God and only one place we are to turn to- his Word- that quiet still voice which endures for ever. When you are feeling down, when you are having to face some trying time, when because of old age your powers are not as they once were, what would you welcome most? Someone who boisterously comes in, slaps you on the back, tells you to cheer up, get into the mood of the party? Or someone who gets along side you, speaks gently and reassuringly to you, someone who has been through what you have and knows what they are talking about and whose words contain reality and an inner strength? I know which I prefer? And that is what we have with the Bible- God’s Word. I need this book and these sermons expounding this book to keep me believing and going on for another week, because life can be pretty wearing at times can’t it? And the amazing thing is that God’s voice still speaks from these pages telling me he has not changed, that his purposes have not changed, for he has established his covenant with me on another mount, Calvery, and he has shown his love for me, not with wonders written in the sky, but by the broken body of his Son nailed to a cross. And it is from that cross I hear another still small voice, one which utters, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’ So I now know that no matter what happens, no matter how I feel, he will not abandon me, as he did not abandon Elijah or his people. And if you are trusting in the Lord Jesus, you can say that too.

Which finally brings us to Elijah and the Promise of God-vv 15- 18. Isn’t it marvellous that God is more stubborn than his people? Inspite of Jezebel’s threats, it is he and not her that will have the last word. He will appoint a new King, he will provide a new prophet- Elisha and he has secretly been at work in holding in reserve 7,000 others who have remained faithful. The promise of his Word you see. Sure, real worshippers may be in the minority, but don’t be misled by numbers. At the beginning of the day of Pentecost there weren’t that many followers of Jesus to begin with. Now there are countless millions throughout the world. Tyrants like Ahab come and go, antichrists have their little victories, but they will never win out in the long run.

The church has often had to face dark days as in the time of Elijah when those in power are set on the destruction of God’s people ,enticing and in some cases enforcing the worship of another god. This happened of course in Russia. 50 years ago, Stalin set about the systematic destruction of the Lutheran church. Pastors were killed or imprisoned. Bibles, hymnbooks were destroyed. Women and children were loaded into boxcars and scattered throughout the frozen wastes of Siberia. But as here, thousands refused to bow the knee to the new baal- communism. The Lutheran women worked hard at preserving the faith, they sought each other out, they wrote down all the religious instruction they had learnt, helped each other memorise biblical texts. Over time husbands managed to rejoin their families and now- communism is dead and the church is growing. That still small voice you see, cannot be silenced, the word of the Gospel grows and continues to capture lives. And do you know what? He is doing exactly that here in Hull today. Let us pray.

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