June 7th Evening Service
Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-18
It feels like an age since I gathered with you here on a Sunday evening to praise and break bread together. What with marathons and Emmaus services, the last time we did was, in fact, March 1st. And since that Sunday, a lot has happened. We’ve marked Good Friday and Easter Sunday, celebrated Ascension, Pentecost and, last week, Trinity Sunday and now we’re well and truly into the period of the Church year that some call ‘Ordinary Time’ – the time between Pentecost and Advent when few feast days and festivals come round. After the hoopla of Easter, the hullabaloo of tongues burning and wind rushing at Pentecost, we take a breather and return to our regular patterns of worship. For some, this might be a welcome rediscovery of a normal routine of praise, for others, it might leave us a little…well, flat.
And if the church cycle means little to you, perhaps you can identify with the sense of mundanity or even disappointment that sometimes follows a great religious festival or spiritual experience. Perhaps you’ve had a mountaintop moment in your faith – a time when God felt particularly close, when you experienced a great revelation, or when you simply felt the love of God or joy of living in a tangible way. Perhaps such a time revived your faith. Perhaps you even told yourself or God that you’d get more involved in church, that you’d stop putting off Bible study, no longer have unchristian thoughts about your neighbour with the big head. And it lasts. For a time. Then, more often than not, life has an irritating way of eroding those good intentions. The weeks go by and your church involvement slips, the Bible’s put back on the shelf and you find yourself having unchristian thoughts about old ‘Melon-head’ next door. You no longer feel spiritually successful. Perhaps you even feel like a failure and angry with yourself, or maybe with God, that the mountain-top experience is followed by a period in the spiritual wilderness.
If y can identify with that, perhaps it is comforting to know that we’re not the first to have gone through such a time. Reading the story of Elijah, we’re reminded that even the Biblical greats have had such an experience.
You see, prior to today’s reading, Elijah has been a bit of a spiritual superhero. Through Elijah, God has fed the starving and ended a drought; has defeated 450 priests of Baal, even raised a boy back to life…Elijah has been God’s go to guy who’s shown a huge amount of faith. Take the account of the event immediately preceding today’s reading – Elijah on Mount Carmel. Mocked and derided by much of Israel, Elijah’s faith in God is so great that he can pour twelve large jars worth of water onto a sacrificial altar and still believe that God will send down fire to consume it all. Elijah is surely a man of great faith. And yet, following such a high, following such an awesome revelation of God’s power, Elijah faces failure and depression. In a wonderful example of one woman doing what hundreds of men failed to do, Jezebel strikes doubt and fear into the heart of Elijah in her promise to get revenge for his defeat of the priests of Baal. And so Elijah’s confidence wavers, his faith is shaken, his resolve weakened. In spite of the fact that God has shown his loyalty to Elijah time and time again, suddenly, it’s not enough and Elijah runs for his life; he flees to the very edge of Israel and, under a tree, lies down and prays for death.
Now this is the point where some preachers would tell you not to worry about being depressed or defeated because God will carry you. This is the part when some would say – look, just like the angel gave Elijah spiritual food which kept him nourished, God will feed us with his words, his body – that just when we feel at our lowest ebb, God will be there to make things instantly better. Only I can’t, of course. Because sometimes, it feels like God has stopped listening – or worse still, that God doesn’t care. Sometimes, the situation doesn’t turn around; a relationship doesn’t get any better; getting out of bed in the evening doesn’t feel any easier. And just as the psalmist exclaimed ‘I say to God, my rock, why have you forgotten me’, so we might say the same. Our faith is not one that wipes away every tear here and now or takes away all of our problems; it is not just the faith of the mighty and miraculous. No, our faith is one which sees Moses fail to get to the promised land, that sees Naomi bury her husband and two sons, that sees Christ dying as a criminal nailed to a tree, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We might well believe that death has been defeated, that love will win and that one day God will be all in all but that doesn’t mean that we can or should be permanently smiling. Our church is built of tears and laughter, our story is full of triumph and defeat. And I thank God for that. I thank God that the Bible doesn’t pretend that the secret to happiness is to believe the right things about God; I thank God that the Bible isn’t made up of perfect women and men who completely understand who God is and what God wants with them and is instead full of real women and men of faith who doubt and question, who make mistakes, sometimes the same ones, over and over again, who get angry and frustrated, even with God, because life is like that; because our relationship with God can be like that.
So where does all of this leave us. Where did it leave Elijah? Well, Elijah had given up with God – dismissing his servant was a sign that he was giving up as prophet, giving up God’s land for the desert, giving up on life and asking for death. But whilst Elijah had had enough of God, God had not had enough of Elijah. And so the messenger was sent to feed Elijah. He had to be fed twice, highlighting the depth of Elijah’s depression. This feeding was no quick-fix solution, no magic pill to make things better. As Elijah journeyed towards Mount Horeb, he had not recovered completely or returned to God instantly. But he kept going and sometimes that is all we can do – to simply keep going.
And so Elijah is brought to Mount Horeb – also known as Mount Sinai – the mountain where Moses had encountered God in the burning bush and where God had later given him the commandments amid dramatic scenes of smoke, fire and thunder. To the Israelites, this mount represented a place of great holiness and wonder. This was the place where God flexed His muscles; showed His power. This was the place where the story of Israel really got going and so this was surely the perfect spot for God to perform some miracle to remind Elijah of how awesome his God really is. And a great, rushing wind did come. But the Lord was not in the wind. And the earth was shaken. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. And a fire burned brightly. But the Lord was not in the fire. No, the Bible tells us that God was not in any of these signs and wonders. In fact, Elijah did not even come out of his cave to witness these things! So what did draw Elijah out of his cave? What spoke to him in his hour of physical and spiritual darkness? A soft whisper.
Elijah had met with God in many dramatic ways. Bringing a child back to life, ending droughts, raining down fire…and yet, when it might appear that he is in most need of a miracle – of a showy, dramatic proof of who God is, God draws Elijah out of his cave with an unseen, small, still voice.
Perhaps, like Elijah, many of us have felt lost or confused, unsure about what God is saying to us, angry as to why God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to help his troubled creation; why he doesn’t seem to be listening to us. Many of us might even be attracted by the claims of others who would have us hear God only in fantastic and sensational actions; who ask us to demand daily miracles; who measure their relationship with God, by the number and magnitude of dramatic, mountain-top experiences. But to do this would be to ignore Elijah’s mountain top experience at Horeb – his encounter with God in the unseen, small, still voice.
God has acted, God continues to act, in incredible ways in our world. Sometimes God works through mighty signs and wonders – in miracles and acts of healing. But not always. Not even usually. If we only seek out God in the big and dramatic, we will fail to listen to God in the soft and subtle, fail to look for God’s presence in the quiet, ordinary, even mundane areas of our lives. Maybe that’s why so many ignored the birth of a carpenter’s son in a cow shed or overlooked the death of a criminal in a sleepy backwater outpost of the Roman Empire.
After his experience with the divine whisper on Mount Horeb, God told Elijah to journey onwards – to continue his work as a prophet, as a child of God. Elijah was called back into the affairs of the world – to anoint kings, to stir up trouble, to minister to God’s followers.
And so, just as God asked Elijah the question – “What are you doing here?” God asks us the same. “What are you doing here, in this place, today?” And if we’re here to see proof of God’s power and might, we may well be dissatisfied. If we’re here to demand quick fixes, spiritual highs or instant answers to prayer, we may well be disappointed. But if we’re here to listen to God, if we’re here, with our doubts, fatigue, confusion…here to listen to a God who meets with us in unseen, quiet ways; who works through people who have been on the brink of giving up; who seeks average women and men to serve God in the wonderfully ordinary areas of real life – then maybe, just maybe, we’re in the right place. Amen.