Today I would like to tell a story of a figure of the Old Testament, Elijah.
In Jesus' time there was hope that a man would return in the spirit of Elijah to Israel and would clean up things. He would throw out the occupiers and the governors. Israel would return to the good old days. Some saw in John the Baptist an apparition of Elijah. It is said that some believed that Jesus had begged to Elijah, as he hung on the cross.
Elijah is seen as a figure of hope, as someone to put religious life in order, as a charismatic liberator. He seems to have been all this for thousands of Jews and is prominent in stories and songs. It is as though believers need such heroes from time to time. But, the story of Elijah is difficult at face value, like so many stories of the Old Testament. Today we can not simply regard such heroic figures as being right in all they did. Christians need to read the OT from the standpoint of Christ. We need to find “what confirms Christ," as Luther once said. If Elijah was right in everything, we would have to doubt Christ's message.
Elijah is portrayed as the most dedicated advocate of the faith in one God and his claim to Israel. He fights the enemies of the faith and puts prophets of Ba'al to death with his own hands. At least here we find him contrary to the spirit of Christ, who symbolically overturned the tables in the temple, but has never called for violence. On the contrary, he tells his followers to love their enemies.
It is reported that Elijah humiliates his opponents out of sheer enthusiasm. He feels that his God, who is very jealous, is a supporter of all of his actions. But in our section he is, despite all eagerness, at his wit's end. Even (or especially) after the elation of his victory, he is lost all élan and strength. He sees no escape. His opponents, Ahab and Jezebel are overpowering in his eyes - and he is afraid. He feels abandoned, he resigns.
First Book of Kings 19
1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.
2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the elohim do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.
3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O YHVH, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.
For us in the West in modern times the idea of revenge is perhaps not quite as prominent as in other cultures. But we hear often enough that this idea is still there. The more open we deal with the world, the fewer the boundaries we draw, the more we encounter thoughts like these. And even in our own culture, vigilantism is not unknown. The fear of revenge make us just as worried as it did Elijah. Maybe we do not have to run for our lives, but we try to keep everything risk-free.
Back to the story. We may hold the seriousness of the situation of Elijah in honour, but could it be the fate of the over-zealous and idealists that at some time they reach a point when they only want to die? What is point in the end? His physical and mental strength has reached an end. It is low tide, the wick of the candle has burned to a glimmer. Enough is enough! Burnout is possibly down to the overzealous such moments know all too well.
It is possible that such people will suddenly realize what had kept their zeal red-hot: the idea of being better than the fathers. This idea, this hope that with us the situation will 'finally' change, so that 'finally' something reasonable can be achieved, has a mysterious power over us, and lets us be driven by pride rather than by love of God.
Elijah says at the end of the disillusionment: I'm not better than my fathers. It seems that God allows his zealous and self-praising Prophets to burn out and become drained and have to admit: I can't do that! We can't go on dreaming our dreams, and believing that the world is waiting for us. Even if we want to spread the love of God and embrace the whole world - and even if we seem to have a noble task. We must eventually come to dis-illusionment and sober up.
We can neither squeeze the world nor God into our plans. God will evade us and seem even lost, if we try. What remains is perhaps the pride and ambition to make everything better. And these may push us as if they were the spirit of God - but they drive us to other ways. Paths are paved with dead bodies and wounded - perhaps much more than we imagined. And our victories, the triumphs along the way? They fade into the realization: I am no better than the fathers and all of me.
Why is the great fighter so resigned? What is he afraid of? If God is for him, who can be against him? But it is precisely this certainty which he has lost. Under such circumstances, when our zeal is so great, God becomes so small. We ask, is he not a man of God? A prophet, a spokesman for God? Perhaps Elijah also asks quietly: Am I not your man? And whether for him or for us, it is healthy to ask in that way. It is healthy to have between us and our ideas so much doubt that God can get in between. Otherwise he must wait until we are down - completely knocked-out and nervous. Perhaps we must even suffer depressive mood disorders. For some of us, that is the only way God can get a word in!
However, we must pause a moment and ask ourselves: Aren't the conditions sometimes so bad that reforms are necessary? Don't we sometimes need harsh criticism so that intolerable conditions be changed? Haven't there been enough examples of historical misdirection that need to be corrected? What would have become of Europe sixty years ago without a course correction? And the recent history? Must we not sometimes move in and take over?
The Church of Jesus stands in the midst of such historical developments. The church also needs reforms. However, reform must be the result of an awoken consciousness. They shouldn't only be driven by ambition. We as Christians are involved in an ongoing development process. Nor can we orientate ourselves only on the past. We need to meet the present and the future and seek answers to current questions. There are people living in an 'eternal yesterday' among Christians, and those with a habit of obscuring what every blind person could recognize. Children often see better.
Sometimes it makes you tired to search for answers. Sometimes our previous answers are no longer satisfactory. It is sometimes hard to admit that previous answers that have ruled our lives for so long, no longer reflect the present. Maybe the crisis comes at a worst possible moment, as with Elijah. Perhaps Elijah cried out to God: "Not now, Lord! I can't use Depression right now! Right now I need all my strength to cope with the new situation. The new danger must be averted. Our enemies are gathering. A new phase of life must be addressed. A recovery must take place in the nation. There are so many reasons now to have no crisis! "
The story continues:
5 And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat.
6 And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again.
7 And the angel of YHVH came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.
8 And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of Elohim.
9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of YHVH came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
Elijah finally comes to rest! But the advice to take a nap or go rest ourselves is well said. It is implementation which is difficult. We need a place that is away from the humdrum - perhaps a day trip away from everyday life. A change of scenery. Different air to breathe. A quiet chamber. A hiding place. A refuge.
Sleep is a gift that we often neglect. But we need to sleep. The limbs, the muscles, the brain needs a break. We need to regenerate. We need the energizing sleep that sorts our thoughts. We must come to our senses and get rid of everything that has concerned us so far – that which has taken possession of us. There must be a cut - a break. Sleep can do that.
And we need someone who comes and wakes us and says: Get up and eat! A messenger, an angel must come. Who knows what shape they have. Wives and husbands, children, friends or colleagues. Someone who pursues us and said, Arise and eat! Strengthening is in order. A hug, a gift, a few words, a glance that tells us: I'm here for you!
I do not know what you need - perhaps not a toasted bread and a jug of water - but eating and drinking are important. Something good that can bring us back to the essence of life, to be. Also the essentials of nutrition. Occasionally we need to purify the body. And we sometimes need go back to sleep again, too.
Do you treat yourself to the rest you need? Or have you displaced or driven out rest? It must not be absolute silence - or “dead silence” - but it should enable us to be calm. Whatever you feel about that. We must ask ourselves whether we rest, or whether we suppress tiredness. After all, those who suppress tiredness reach a stage when they can't sleep. And rest doesn't become sleep - unless we have mistreated ourselves so much that we can no longer stand on our legs. But then you need very much sleep until it is restful and restorative sleep.
And then hopefully our angel comes back and strengthens us. But even more. We also need the reminder: You haven't reached where you're going. Don't give up now! I personally need this angel - I am the product of the influences of my fellow man. We can give only what we are given. Do we hear those angels sent to us by God? Or do we allow ourselves to be messengers for others?
How often is fatigue paired with disorientation and gives birth to resignation! May God always send us messengers who can strengthen us so that we pull ourselves together and move us towards the goal. However, the goal is not the realisation of all of our plans - the goal is the encounter with God. There, namely, is the refuge that we need. To hide the holes in this world is not right if we are called to be sons and daughters of God. Let us not forget this call. The NT says, that Christ gives us the power to become children of God and to be his brothers and sister.
We are to take refuge in him, so we do not go missing. So we don't "end up in the pit," as it is often said in the Psalms. And there are so many pits, which we can fall into. But the Bible says throughout all of these stories, like the one we have before us today, that God has ways to strengthen us and lead the way. And Elijah can strengthen himself and find the way forward - to Horeb, the mountain of God. He walks full of resolve and straight there because he needs the encounter. He needs a word, he needs certainty and confidence.
Where can we find this encounter? Where is our mount Horeb? Where do we meet God? God comes to Elijah in his sleep – Elijah doesn't seem to have made preparations for it. Neither did he ask himself whether he had prayed the right words or whether he had the right attitude, he hadn't opened his Bible. He had just come to a meeting and it happened.
Jesus makes it clear in the NT that we can encounter God and His kingdom in all situations of life, in nature, in everything that can be found in the cosmos - that God can't be ignored. He has his fingers everywhere in the game. Paul quotes: "if possibly they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us" And yet the Mount Horeb symbol of the encounter between the Creator and his image. It is the meeting place - which can today be a quiet chamber, a park bench, a wooded area, a church or chapel.
Time off to recharge your batteries is good for us. Find your own centre, discover the centre of your power. God wants to be the centre, says Christ. You are always guided by so many differing viewpoints and influences. Let yourself be brought where you may find rest for your souls. Where will you refreshed and revived. With him you are a child of God, which knows where it belongs. This gives us the confidence we need. Sunday was traditionally the day of refuelling or getting off the roundabout to find rest. On the 7th Day, it is written, God wants to meet us in a special way, namely in rest.
10 And he said, I have been very jealous for YHVH Elohim of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before YHVH. And, behold, YHVH passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before YHVH; but YHVH was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but YHVH was not in the earthquake:
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but YHVH was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?
Poor Elijah! He was zealous for the Lord of hosts, but now he is without armies alone in a cave. Alone and in danger. The altars are broken and the prophets were killed. And God asks, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" What a question! Doesn't he know that? It is as if God had hidden himself long before Elijah in the cave! Elijah must enlighten him?
Do we forget sometimes just like Elijah did. God permits many things, but, can we explain to God at all? It is our custom to babble sometimes, "I have been very zealous! Where everyone else left the covenant I am yet remained faithful, the only survivor. And now I'm sitting here alone! " Elijah doesn't have a clear view of the situation! He finds himself alone in the fight against the wicked and abandoned by God, for which he was zealous for. There's accusation in his voice. “I no longer recognize you! Previously you were always on my side! Where is my confidence gone?”
Perhaps Elijah doesn't recognize his God indeed. That is perhaps why it had to come to this meeting on Horeb. Know your God is the motto! Do we know our God? How often there have been stories of messengers of God and heirs who were not only ignored by the people of God, but fought off. Jesus told once his opponents a story and the zealots of the time immediately recognized that they were portrayed as the enemy of God. Only they made the story come true.
In all these stories, God is the Father, who runs after his Children. The no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He is the father who strains his eyes to watch the horizon each day, yearning for the returning son to walk up the path. He's the one who runs down to meet his son and showers him with kisses. It is important to recognize these glad tidings and return. This good news has also gone to Elijah, who wanted to die just because he realized what had really motivated him all the time. He didn't want to go a step further and was brought to this encounter.
Know your God! Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord! Whether we have the courage to take this step? What dangers lurk on the mountain when the Lord passes by us? Threats to the mindset that we have built so carefully. Threats to the ideas with which we have explained our world. Threats to all that we have full-bodied and full of zeal kept the other.
The big, strong wind symbolizes a strong spirit which even tears and shatters rocks. He tears the toughest mountain into small chunks. We might think, such a God would bring a long-awaited dynamic into a dormant Christianity - Elijah wants such a strong God. He should sweep across the land and carry away all adversaries. But the Lord was not in the wind.
The earthquake symbolizes the enormous creative powers but also judicial powers, which were also active in the story of the Flood. They are purifying forces which, according to the story of Noah, cracked the ground under their feet and hurled them into the depths. But now it says: the Lord was not in the earthquake.
A fire - Last detergent, final disinfection and sterilization. Excluding the earth from cadaver, plague and all deadly effects. But here it is: the Lord was not in the fire.
Know your God! Go out and comes on the mountain before the Lord! And behold, the Lord will pass. An important moment. A decisive moment. When is he coming? Don't we ask this too often? Can it be that we say: I do not see and hear God! It is nothing but a quiet small voice!
I do not know when it dawned on Elijah. I do not know how fast he had realized that the silence and the gentleness was the Lord - I would have probably noticed not so fast – but that's why we have this story. But when will it dawn on us? When will we become wiser in dealing with God? When will we acknowledge the quiet, gentle message of God? And when will this message guide us? Who is proclaiming this message?
Is this not the message from the Old Testament for Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost all together, as it is written by Sacharja (4:6 b): It is not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.
The word Sabaoth means hosts. The Lord of hosts will not come by military force or the target - this has to be imagined - the Lord of hosts will not achieve his goals by might or power. But by the Spirit of Christ. He is the spirit of mercy, "who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases. The redeems your life from destruction and crowns you with love and compassion. The saturates your desire with good things, that thy youth is renewed like the eagle "(Ps.103).
We Christians must learn that the way of Christ differs significantly from our path. But he is the one who goes before us so that we follow him. He is the good leaven, which should mingle with our lives, so its effect runs through our whole life. He is also the new wine that does not fit into old wineskin’s. The Spirit of Christ is too dynamic - but in an unfamiliar, quiet, gentle way.
What are you doing here Elijah? What are you doing here Christian man or woman? What forces do you hope to evoke in the cave where you hide, in order to satisfy your ambition? Maybe our ambition and the will of God do not mix - we may have to differentiate.
And the Lord was not in the wind, not in the earthquake, nor in the fire. And then came a still, small voice. That's a comfort to all who recognize the tragedy of mankind. One consolation for those who suffer the plight of the world, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the poor.
These people are blessed according to Christ - they can all look forward, because God takes down their load, gives them the earth for a possession, satisfies their desires, is merciful to them and they may see God, because they are God's children.
Finally, Elijah is said that everything will go it's way. And that he is not as alone as he thinks. He may retire and call a successor. It doesn't all depend on him - and it never depends solely on us. God enforces his good intentions with or without us - and sometimes even in spite of our efforts.
I wish us all the experience that a crisis can bring us to our senses. That sleep and peace strengthens us. That a break gives us new strength. That in the long run we can gain a new insight. And I wish us all that we keep the quiet, gentle message of Christ before our eyes - and learn humility and gentleness.
This is just an example of what I meant. I would tell the story differently today, but it was the only one I had written down - although I had to translate it from German. The groups that listen to such stories are encouraged to make short comments if they want but to assist the storyline and not to slow it down. Obviously some wait until the end, but some enhanced the whole process by their actively taking part.