a sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-15a
preached on June 23, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As much as he wanted to encounter God, Elijah really just needed a place to hide. The king and queen of Israel were out for his head—he had crossed them one too many times—and he was ready to be someplace safe and understand what he needed to do next. His journey of exile had taken him all over the place, first to a city in the neighboring enemy land of Judah, then to the shelter of a broom tree, and now finally to this cave on Horeb, the mount of God. He had been guided by the angel of the Lord in every step of his journey, but he had never had a confident and direct encounter with God.
Finally, it seemed that God was ready to speak to him. The word of the Lord came to him as he slept, and he laid out all his troubles:
I’ve been working my heart out for [you]. The people have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me. (The Message)
Just when it seemed there was no hope left, just when Elijah was ready to throw in the towel, just when he spoke the truth of his situation before God and cried out demanding something more, he heard a new promise:
Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God, and God will pass by.
As he prepared to do this, Elijah witnessed every imaginable wonder—first a great wind furious enough to split mountains and break rocks in pieces, then an earthquake that shook the foundations of the earth, and finally a great fire that consumed everything in its path. In all these things, though, he did not encounter God. Only after they had all passed, when the powerful signs of the moment had moved on, when the roar of the wind and the flame had died away, when there was no sound but sheer silence, only then did Elijah venture out to the entrance of the cave and encounter God.
There are countless moments in our lives when we ourselves are like Elijah, lost in the wilderness of our world, pursued by enemies and challenges of every sort, uncertain of the path before us, wondering where God is in the midst of it all. Just like Elijah, we may find ourselves wandering aimlessly, seeking whatever shelter we can find as we wait for a sign of God’s presence to emerge into our lives. And we may have no clue about where to look so that we can encounter God along the way. Take a minute or two and think about these kinds of moments in your lives, times when you have felt the need for God’s presence and just haven’t been able to find it. Then turn to your neighbor and talk about it (or post it in the comments): When in your life have you felt most separated from God?
Now take a moment or two and think about the other part of Elijah’s story where he meets God. Think on this and discuss (or post) it again: When in your life have you felt closest to God?
As I’ve reflected on this text this week and thought about my own separation from God and my own encounters with God, I’ve also wondered what it is for us as the church. Sometimes it sure feels like we the church are like Elijah, chased far away from home, pursued by a changing world that doesn’t have the same kind of space and place for us that it once did, holed up in a cave for our own protection, left to wonder where we will encounter God as we continue on the journey. We can lay out our troubles over and over again: our neighborhood is changing, the money is disappearing faster than ever before, we don’t quite know where and how we should focus our efforts, we just aren’t sure what we’re supposed to be doing. We’ve been everywhere imaginable trying to sort out the best path, and now we are just ready for that direct encounter with God to tell us what to do—maybe in the wind, maybe in the earthquake, maybe in the fire, maybe even in the silence. And just when hope seems farthest away, just when darkness seems to be settling in, just when we can’t imagine an encounter with the divine, just when we have heard nothing, that’s when God tends to show up.
But God doesn’t just show up to give us comfort—a true encounter with God always comes with instructions. In our text this morning, Elijah was given specific instructions to anoint kings in the opposing lands and so set up alliances that would protect him from the evil king and queen of Israel. In the same way, our encounters with God also come with directions for next steps, with exhortations to explore something new, with commands to step out of our cave and look for God in new ways and make God known in new ways, too.
So we must trust that something wonderful, some sort of divine encounter, might be emerging for us, and we have no choice but to step out, look for God, and act. God calls all of us to step out of the cave into the wilderness on a journey toward something new, to trust that God is up to something more than we can ever imagine, and to remember the promises of our divine encounters and as we seek the presence of God with us on the journey. It’s not an easy path, and there will certainly be plenty of challenges along the way, but God calls us to this journey and will not leave us alone, even if God’s presence doesn’t come to us in some sort of spectacular moment but rather emerges out of sheer silence. Even so, God will be with us on this way.
So may the voice of God call us out of the caves of our lives and into the wilderness of our world so that we might listen for God’s voice more closely, encounter God along the journey, and know the path to new life in this changing age as we bear witness to God’s new thing begun in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.