1 Kings 19.1-15
June 20, 2010
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” Elijah had done violent things. He had killed hundreds of prophets of Ba’al who were in the employ of Jezebel the queen. Jezebel was not native to Israel; she was from the coastal city of Tyre. She was a devoted follower of Ba’al, not of Yahweh, the God of Israel. The land was in the grip of a bloody religious civil war. Elijah had won the latest round with a victory on Mt. Carmel. It was a terrible time, with much killing in the name of religion.
The bodies weren’t even buried yet before Jezebel retaliated. She sent Elijah a message saying, “By this time tomorrow, you will be dead.” Elijah did what anyone would do. He fled the scene. He fled the country. He walked 100 miles south to Beersheba, at the southern tip of the country. He rested there. Then he walked another 200 miles farther south to Mt Sinai (also called Horeb). The journey took many weeks.
Imagine yourself walking across the state of New Mexico to get a sense of the distance and the landscape of Elijah’s journey. Horeb was the mountain where Moses talked to God hundreds of years earlier. It’s as if Elijah wants to go back to the beginning and hit the re-set button. The scripture says when he arrived there he found a cave and lodged in it.
A cave is a good image for us. Hold that image in your minds. A cave offers a place of safety. A cave is also a place of hiding. Elijah has gone into hiding. He had to in order to save his life.
Francis Asbury was the founder of Methodism in America. He lived through the American Revolution and into the early decades of our new nation. For about a year during the Revolutionary War, he went into hiding. He lived with a Methodist family in Delaware. He told few people were he was, and he did no public preaching. The reason is that it was a dangerous time to be a Methodist leader in America. Across the Atlantic, John Wesley had come out publicly against the American Revolution. That played well at home, but not so much in the colonies. It made life difficult for Methodist leaders here. So Asbury felt the need to go into hiding. Asbury put the time to good use. He mostly read books to deepen his education. And finally, he felt safe enough to come out of hiding and resume his public ministry. Later on he was criticized for this time of hiding, but really it was necessary. He hid to preserve his life, just as Elijah had done.
Sometimes we must hide to preserve our life. Other times we hide because our life itself has become overwhelming. We face problems and challenges that we cannot bear. So we find a cave, a place of hiding, and we hide ourselves away in it.
My father died during my first year in college. It happened during the Christmas break. I went back to school for the spring term, but I had a hard time of it. At our student union there was a large, dark room where they kept the video games. I pretty much spent the whole spring semester in that room – I was there every day playing video games. I got good at the games, but not so good at passing classes. That room was my cave. I hid away there because my Dad’s death was too much to bear at the time.
There are many kinds of caves, many reasons why we hide in them. Alcoholics Anonymous meets twice a week at our church. In a way, a bottle of alcohol is a place of hiding for people. After a while you have to go to AA to stop hiding in the bottle. In a less serious way, for some people their bottle… it’s a book. They hide in the pages of a book, losing themselves there, while real life swirls all around them. For some people, the office is their place of hiding. They hide at work to escape problems at home. And other people do the opposite: they hide at home to escape problems at work. Some children hide from their parents; some parents hide from their children. There are lots of ways we hide ourselves.
The thing about hiding, though, is that at first you do it out of self-preservation. But you know it’s not a long-term solution to anything. And the time comes when you must come out of hiding and face things. At the end of our scripture, Elijah will come out of hiding.
The good news in our scripture today is that all during his time of hiding God is helping Elijah. I’m using his cave at the end as a symbol of hiding, but really for the entire journey Elijah is hiding. And God meets him in particular ways. A couple of months ago I preached a sermon in which I said God is never directly present to us. That would be too much for us to bear. But God can be indirectly present to us in particular ways. In our scripture, I see three ways God is indirectly present to Elijah.
First, the shade of the broom tree, where he stops to rest. Calling it a tree is charitable. It was really a large shrub or bush. But it was the only thing in that barren land that threw any shade. Elijah needed to escape the burning sun, just as he needed to escape the burning anger of Jezebel. So God helped him find shelter under a little tree. The Holy Land is a land of little shade. People there prized shade and identified God with it. So it says in Psalm 121, “The Lord is your shade at your right hand.” Elijah found shade.
Second, the angel, who provided him with water and a cake baked over hot stones. For a better image, think flatbread, which is still eaten in the Middle East today. God sent an angel to take care of Elijah. During our Sunday Discovery time last week, the children made angel mosaics. They took foam and cut it out in the shape of an angel, and then they glued little bits of colored paper on it to make a mosaic pattern. We talked too about what we thought angels looked like. Maybe they look like a mosaic. In my mind, though, I see angels as beings of pure light, a golden light. Maybe you imagine them differently. But we can trust that they watch over us, often in ways we cannot imagine. That’s why in Psalm 91 it says, “God shall give his angels charge over you to guard you in all your ways.” God’s angels watch over us, as they did Elijah.
Third, God is present to Elijah in the silence at the end of the story. Remember how Elijah is in the cave, and all that destruction happens outside. The terrible wind, the powerful earthquake, the devouring fire. But God is in none of these things. Then there is a silence after the storm – a sound of sheer silence, it says. Maybe you have heard that kind of silence. The silence tells Elijah that God is near.
In the movie The Horse Whisperer, a man named Booker tries to heal a traumatized horse. In one scene, the horse is spooked by a noise. It flees to the other side of the field. Booker walks after it slowly, getting near enough for the horse to see him, but not too close. Then he kneels down and waits in silence. He waits in silence for hours. Finally, the silence and the horse’s curiosity draw it back to Booker. He takes the bridle and brings the horse to the safety of the stable. The silence drew the horse back… in a like way, the silence drew Elijah out of the cave, out of hiding, to listen to God’s instruction.
God has things for Elijah to do. We only read the first instruction, more or less “Go home, Elijah.” But God has other things for Elijah to do once he gets there. In our staff meeting we are now using a tool called an Action Register; it’s a detailed to do list of who will do what by when. It helps us stay focused. Well, after he comes out of the cave, God gives Elijah an Action Register, a list of things to do, like anoint a new king over Israel and mentor a successor to himself, Elisha. It’s like God says to him, “It’s time to come out of hiding, Elijah. I have things for you to do. That’s where our scripture ends.
This is also where the sermon ends. If you are in hiding today, let Elijah’s story give you hope and courage. Your hiding is normal and natural, but you know it’s also not a permanent solution to things. Today may be your day to come out of hiding. All during your hiding, God has been helping you. God has sent you shade. God’s angels have watched over you when you didn’t know it. And today, out of the silence, God is speaking to you. God is saying, “It’s time for you to come out of hiding. I love you, and I have important things for you to do. Let’s get to work.”
(Image of Mt. Sinai from Wikimedia Commons.)