Elijah “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. . .” (1 Kings 19:3a, NRSV).
People who are trying to be faithful to God can empathize with Elijah — there can be a temptation to run away from it all. They confront evil and injustice as best they can, but still they sometimes want to slink away and hide. It is no fun being attacked and criticized even when you are right.
Faithfulness can be especially hard for those who seek to confront phony religion. Take Elijah. Take Jesus. Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day pulled it off.
The story of Elijah’s run is in 1 Kings 19:1-18.
. . . he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and 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.”
This guy had just been God’s servant in doing some major religious clean-up work. Miraculous stuff. He goes from big-time faith to no faith in days.
I have known some godly people who can confront evil all day long and be ready for another day of the same — the late James Dunn comes to mind. (Though sometimes I thought he was tilting at windmills.)
Elijah and James Dunn stand out as confronters of bad religion, but a lot of people are trying to do their parts. Still, they may feel inadequate for the tasks. We need Elijah’s angel — a patient angel.
Then he [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.
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.
Sometimes we want to lie down under a tree — a live oak, possibly. But then it’s like we hear: “Nope. You can’t lie down town. Take nourishment and get ready for another journey.” We hit the snooze button on such angelic encouragement and go back to sleep, but we all know that a snooze button doesn’t turn off an alarm.
Back to Elijah.
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.”
When we are in the pits we can overstate our situation, and that’s because we misunderstand it and ourselves and our God.
He [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
That would get your attention. You would be like a kid in the old days if someone said a parade was coming to town. Gotta see it!
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;
and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
Wind, earthquake, fire — but not God. Attention riveted. No God around. Then, silence. And Scripture says at odd thing — Elijah “hears” the silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Summoned by silence is almost an oxymoron. Silence does not summon — or does it? Has a parent ever suddenly realized his or her children had grown silent and proceeded to investigate.
Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Why is a prophet in a cave in the wilderness? Prophets are needed in the cities, in the middle of culture, out in the open where evil can be challenged.
He [Elijah] answered, “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.”
Elijah is continuing his earlier riff. God speaks.
Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return. . . .”
So many faithful believers feel like Elijah. They have been trying so hard for so long to be faithful, but no one seems to be listening. And this can happen even in the midst of praise and encouragement.
In the silence, however, we can be encouraged. We can gain a renewed sense of God’s presence. We can get new orders. “Go, return” to the fray, because God is up to something.
And we now have distinct advantages over Elijah. We have the example and teachings of Jesus, and the truth of this Man can change an individual and a world of individuals and their communities. And we have the Spirit of the Creator recreating within each of us the life spark that animated Jesus.
Ah, yes! Leave the cave!
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).
(All quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)