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June 21st, 1998 (St. George's URC, Hartlepool)
Proper 7,  (RCL - year C )
Readings:    1 Kings 19:1-18   Elijah feels all alone
Psalms 42-43       Put your hope in God
Galatians 3:21-29 Clothed with the life of Christ
Luke 8:26-39       Changed by Jesus' touch

"Still, small voice..."


Elijah has engineered and been triumphant at the most spectacular battle of the gods on top of mount Carmel. Baal, attended by 450 of his priests has been shown to be powerless, nothing more than a wooden idol carved by human hands. Yahweh, the God of Israel, the One God, has been shown to be full of power and might.

This is Elijah's moment of greatest triumph, this is what he has been waiting for for three desperate years. Through fear and hardship and drought Elijah has remained faithful and now sees the glorious fulfillment of everything he has waited for. Carried away by success, he has all the priests of Baal dragged off and put to the sword. A cloud appears, and it begins to rain, the drought is ended, Yahweh is the winner, surely now the people must reject the false Baal, repent and turn the the one true God.

But Elijah is in for a surprise. There is no popular uprising aginst Jezebel and Ahab. There is no mass turning away from Baal. There is no repentance from the people, no desire to worship the One True God. What they had seen was impressive, make no mistake, great drama, but what they had seen was really nothing new. They had seen confrontation and violence - Jezebel had shown them that, killing the priests of Yahweh. They had seen a struggle for power - whose god is the strongest? - Jezebel had shown them that, tearing down one set of altars, erecting many new ones. They had seen a prophet trying to prove his God to them and lapsing into bloody vengeance - they had seen Jezebel do just the same.

And no sooner does word reach the palace of Elijah's massacre, than Elijah is on the run again. Jezebel is furious, lets loose her crack troops, and vows to have him killed by morning. He runs for his life to Beersheba. When he is safe from Jezebel, he sinks into a deep depression. He leaves his servant behind, treks out into the wilderness, sits down under a desert broom and prays to God that he might die.

It is not the outcome to the mount carmel showdown that Elijah had anticipated. But we see here in Elijah, not a spiritual Superman, not a priestly Power Ranger, but a vulnerable and weak servant of God. Elijah experiences a range of emotions that from time to time, and with varying intensity, we all feel. Fear, fatigue, failure and a feeling of forsakenness. The emotions drive Elijah out into the wilderness and into a deep depression. Weary, famished and heavy of heart he lies down under a desert broom and is willing to die. He feels that his life has been a failure, he has been defeated in the battle of life, and somethig tells him that he has deserved to be. He is no better than his fathers. He has now nothing more to live for. It is hopeless to continue the unequal struggle.

Elijah's words have been echoed across the ages. John McCarthy wrote this in his book, "Some other rainbow", recalling five years of captivity by terrorists in Beirut.

I was to be in this solitary cell for less than three months, but after the first two
or three weeks it felt as if I had slipped into a different time-scale. Days passed
without any variation. I relived much of my life and made endless plans for the
future. So many of my recollections had left me feeling inadequate that i really
began to doubt that I could cope alone.

One morning these fears became unbearable. I stood in the cell, sinking into
despair. I felt that I was literally sinking, being sucked down into a whirlpool.
I was on my knees, gasping for air, drowning in hopelessness and helplessness.
I thought that I was passing out. I could only think of one thing to say - "Help
me please, O God, help me."

Fear, Fatigue, Failure and the feeling of Forsakenness. How did God respond to Elijah?

Fear. Elijah was frightened for his life. God empowered him to escape, to run away, to withdraw from danger. Elijah was a bold prophet of Jahweh, but he wasn't stupid! Not even the Elijah's of this world are called to be reckless and irresponsible. Sometimes it is right for us to run away!

Fatigue. Elijah was exhausted, hungry and alone. Physically, he had no strength left for the fight. It wasn't tiredness that caused his depression, but perhaps tiredness was a factor in aggravating it to the point of suicide. God offers him rest and food and the company of angels. Never overlook the value of the ordinary gifts of God in a rush always to find a spiritual response to somebody's needs. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me water to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in prison, you visited me.

Failure. Elijah thought he had scored the winning goal, he thought he had battled hard and won, but it seemed that nothing had changed. Jezebel was still in charge, Baal was still being worshipped in Israel. It had all been in vain. God takes him back to the roots of his faith and trust - Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, the place where Moses stood and received the Ten Commandments.

Finding a cave, Elijah waits, and there follows one of the most profound spiritual experiences in the Old Testament. God wants to teach Elijah a lesson, he wants to show him the contrast between law and grace, between judgement and mercy. As Jahweh's prohet, elijah has been using the weapon of force. He has never thought it possible to defeat the enemies of God by any other weapon. He has acted with such confrontation and such violence in God's name, that God will have no more of it, and so Elijah has failed. His force has left Ahab and Jezebel, and the people of Israel hard and indifferent. Elijah won't see this unless he can experience it for himself. So God takes him up the mountain.

And God visits the mountain with a hurricane, with an earthquake and with a fire. The prophet's wounded spirit is not moved by any of these - he cannot hear God in the earthquake, wind or fire, just as Ahab and Jezebel and the people of Israel could not see God in the violent confrontations that Elijah staged. But in the calm which follows the tumult he hears a still, small voice, or, a sound of gentle stillness. And it is this sound of gentle stillness which thrills his inmost being, it is in this sound of gentle stillness that he is aware of God's presence.

And so he is taught the meaning of his failure. he is shown in a parable another way, a more excellent way. On that mountain he learns the gentleness of God. Others, like himself, may not be moved by might and wrath, but may be won by grace and gentleness.

But Elijah is still feeling forsaken. But Lord, he says, do I have to do it all by myself. I am the only one left. And God responds by giving him a companion and successor - Elisha, and revealing to Elijah that there are in fact 7000 faithful servants of God in Israel, he has never been doing God's work on his own.

Elijah comes down from the mountain with a new spirit. Elisha becomes his constant companion, looking to Elijah as his spiritual father. He ceases to be the wild, lonely figure, and is involved in the building up of a faithful band of prophets - in Gilgal, at bethel and at Jericho. He teaches them, he kindles in their minds a zeal for the Lord God, he transfuses his spirit into them. And in building up a faithful, worshipping community, he plants seeds that will be fruitful for the people of Israel for many years to come.

Thus God responds to Elijah's fear, fatigue, failure and feeling of forsakenness. How did God respond to John McCarthy, in the same position? Let's read on...

One morning these fears became unbearable. I stood in the cell, sinking into
despair. I felt that I was literally sinking, being sucked down into a whirlpool.
was on my knees, gasping for air, drowning in hopelessness and helplessness.
I thought that I was passing out. I could only think of one thing to say - "Help
me please, O God, help me." The next instant I was standing up, surrounded
by a warm bright light. I was dancing, full of joy. In the space of a minute,
despair had vanished, replaced by boundless optimism. What had happened?
I had never had any great faith, despite a Church of England upbringing. But I
felt I had to give thanks. It gave me great strength to carry on, and more
importantly, a huge renewal of hope - I was going to survive. Throughout my
aptivity I would take comfort from this experience, drawing on it whenever
ptimism and determination flagged. In the euphoria of the next few days I felt
ompletely confident, but soon I found myself wondering how, even with the
support of God, I was going to manage alone.

Let us pray...

Elijah was frightened, John McCarthy was frightened, Jesus was frightened in the garden of gethsemane. We are frightened. Gentle God, calm us and bring us your peace.

Elijah was tired and hungry, John McCarthy was tired and hungry, Jesus was tired and hungry as he travelled the dusty roads. Gentle God, restore us and feed us with your living bread.

Elijah felt failure, John McCarthy felt failure, Jesus felt failure as his disciples fled in terror. Gentle God, reassure us of of your presence in the sound of quiet stillness.

Elijah felt alone, John McCarthy felt alone, Jesus felt alone and forsaken as he hung on the cross. Gentle God, bind us together as co-workers for your kingdom, never alone, for we are with one another, and you are always with us. Amen.