The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Pentecost V: Elijah and the still small voice
Elijah has had his showdown with the prophets of Ba’al, and that confrontation concludes with fire falling from heaven, and Elijah killing the prophets of Ba’al. A clear, unequivocal message has been sent:
Ba’al is not the god of Israel, YHWH is.
Jezebel (and tattler Ahab because she said so) isn’t happy, and Elijah’s life is the fee demanded for annoying them. Elijah is not feelin’ the love; he flees the country, leaving his servant in Israel .
Elijah enters the Kingdom of Judah, and walks a day out from Beer-sheba. He “...sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors."
Elijah has had it; it’s been a rough couple of weeks ending with some heavy-duty killing and a run for his life. Elijah is at what he believes to be his breaking point. He questions himself, concluding that he is as failed a prophet as his predecessors had been. Death looks better than what he’s living right now, and he asks for it.
“Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”
Yowzer. If this isn’t Eucharistic imagery I’m not sure what is. I know that Elijah was provided with hot bread and water, not The Blessed Sacrament. No Blessed Sacrament until Easter Day; I know. I get it. But it was divine food provided by God, intended for Elijah. ”...eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” No kidding. There have been days in my life when I have felt as low as Elijah does right now. I suspect I’m not alone in that. The journey already feels like it’s too much, and it ain’t even close to bein’ over! Nothing other than what God provides, intended for me, could possibly restore and sustain me...angel-biscuit and cool water?...The Blessed Sacrament?...holy meal either way. Thank you, Holy One.
Elijah, unlike those to whom he is sent, does have ears to hear. He eats. Going “in the strength of that food,” Elijah makes another leg of the journey- 40 days and 40 nights- right to the mountain of God...”in the strength of that food” indeed.
So far, so good. Elijah has had the courage to stay when he needed to, and he’s had the courage to leave when he needed to leave, and God has preserved Elijah’s life. Now it gets interesting.
Elijah arrives at Horeb, a place he knows is holy. Having sought refuge, he has found it. He sleeps in a cave there. It’s safe. It’s isolated. He got there “in the strength” of what God had provided. It must have felt like tagging up on 3rd after barely beating out the arm of a really good outfielder. Whew...take a knee and get your breath.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” How Elijah responds to God’s question matters.
Elijah doesn’t respond with, “Needed sanctuary, sir…got here on what you gave me. Thanks, Lord.” Nope. He’s tired. He responds like a passive-aggressive whiner. He’s not scared; he’s seen the power of God and his previous courage is not faltering. He’s exhausted and that exhaustion has clouded his judgment and his spiritual sightedness for a moment. This is not Elijah’s finest hour; he does not speak like a mighty prophet of God:
"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." Please read: “I don’t know why I bother. I really don’t. They either ignore me or want to kill me. I am working so hard, and I am just not appreciated.”
There is little on Earth that is less attractive than self-pity.
Elijah has lost focus. He’s become so self-referent that he’s all he sees. Now, however, it is very clearly “camera-back-on-God.” God calls to Elijah. There is wind so strong that it breaks rock. There is earthquake. There is fire. Elijah is accustomed to serving this God Who can make a lot of heat and light and get peoples’ attention; the earthquake, wind and fire do not frighten him. He has seen this before. Having recently seen God appear in the consuming fire of Carmel, it might have been natural to assume that God would appear on Horeb in fire as well. In all of this, God shows Elijah that it’s not about Elijah, it’s about God. Yet the earthquake, wind and fire do not animate Elijah to move toward God.
God says, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." What will it take?
What gets Elijah on his feet and to the mouth of the cave is “sheer silence” - silence so profound that it’s deafening. Something in the silence is so dangerously holy that Elijah knows he must “wrap his face in his mantle” before stepping into God’s Presence. That’s a good instinct. Elijah is in the Presence of The Holy One of Israel…the Holy, Eternal Presence. At Horeb, the Holy, Eternal Presence is not thunderous natural cataclysm, but rather a silence that utterly overwhelms without devouring.
From it comes a clear voice heard in a language, at a frequency and volume, that Elijah can understand.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
No Technicolor. No Vistavision. No Lalo Schifrin or John Williams sound track- that was all just the trailer. The Real Presence is this sheer silence from which comes His Voice. The loud, fiery, tooth-jarring part of things had mirrored the disorder in Elijah’s own spirit. When that all dies away and the silence finally comes, it’s God.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God has heard Elijah’s whine, twice, and He knows that Elijah is better than that even before Elijah does. God gets directly to Elijah’s problem. The sheer silence that envelopes the Holy One of Israel eternally now envelopes Elijah too, if only for a moment. In that staggering limitless silence that holds Creator and creature, God and His prophet, Elijah is not consumed but rather held, and permitted the restorative moment he needs. If what he needed was just a couple of minutes in Heaven, Elijah gets it right here. God shows up where the prophet is, and calls him to stand as He passes by Elijah. Thank you, Holy One…praise you and bless you.
Having gotten away, it’s time for Elijah to get back.
And when He says “Go, return on your way,” it’s as much an encouragement as it is an order. God’s giving loving fatherly encouragement to a faithful soul that needed to touch base, to be re-assured, to be restored. God’s question is rhetorical. Elijah knows the answer when God asks. Elijah knows what he’s doing there; God’s question admits him to The Presence, and at the same time makes clear that what Elijah’s doing here will end. And when it does end, Elijah leaves in the restored strength of a person who has seen not just God’s actions, but God’s own Self.
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 19 June 2016, being The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
 It is physically exhausting work to kill people one at a time, by hand.
 Those who serve God are naive to assume that the people they serve in His Name will love them or even respect them; this is especially true of prophets. After all, if the people could hear God, they wouldn’t need a prophet. The prophetic vocation serves deaf, obstinate people; it is a vocation that appears scripted for failure. It is natural to want to be liked and respected. Such hopes and expectations are predictably human. Elijah had been called to a vocation that by its nature is confrontational, difficult, and most days it will feel like a terrible failure. He hasn’t at this point figured out that feeling as he does is evidence that he’s doing his job, and doing it well.