We are living in a difficult time, a time in which it is very easy to become despondent and discouraged. Global pandemics, threats to the foundations of our democracy, our growing awareness of the ways that our very culture is infused with white privilege and supremacy, gun violence and mass shootings, the growing gap between rich and poor, climate change, threats to the hard-won rights of previously marginalized people, the threat of global war. It is enough to make even the strongest and most optimistic person want to run and hide on a deserted island. I certainly harbor such fantasies from time to time. It is a challenging time to hold onto hope and to work for change. And I think Elijah, the main character in our Old Testament reading for this morning, would understand completely what we are going through.
Elijah came into the world during a very difficult time in his people’s history. I’m going to back up and give you a very broad overview of the history of the Israelites, so you can better understand Elijah’s story.
The ancient Israelite people, through their ancestor Abraham, settled in the land of Canaan four or five hundred years before Elijah was born. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the heavens and God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. During a period of drought, Abraham’s descendants migrated to Egypt, as people are wont to do when faced with natural disasters that threaten their existence. In Egypt they were mistreated and enslaved, and God, ever faithful, led them out of their misery and back to Canaan, the land of their original settlement.
While traveling back to Canaan, under the leadership of Moses, God clarified the covenant he had made with Abraham and his descendants. God explained that the Israelites had been chosen by Him to show the world what God intended for the world. They would be God’s people and in return they needed to be the people God intended them to be and God gave them the Ten Commandments to guide them. The ethical system laid out by the Ten Commandments required very high standards of behavior from the people. They were required to treat everyone with respect, even the stranger, and they were required to worship Yahweh, the one true God.
As the Israelite people resettled in Canaan, they existed as a loose confederation of twelve tribes. National leaders called Judges emerged to deal with particular crises. God was quite happy with this setup, but the people were not. God never intended the people of Israel to become a conquering nation with strong monarchs and large armies. He wanted a people that would follow God’s ways, the ways of justice, love, and peace. But the people looked around at the nations that surrounded them and wanted more. They wanted military power. They wanted a king. They begged for a king. God told them that they needed to be careful about what they wished for. If God gave them a king, they needed to know that their labor would no longer be their own. Everything they had and everything they did would be for the wealth and power of the king. They said, “Give us a king anyway.” And so, God did.
First the were ruled by Saul, then David, and then Solomon. These weren’t horrible kings. They weren’t perfect, but they were ok. But toward the end of Solomon’s life, Civil War broke out, as often happens when leadership is passed down from father to son. The nation divided into two: In the north was the kingdom of Israel. In the south was the kingdom of Judah. Elijah was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel.
Over the course of 200 years, the kingdom of Israel had 19 kings, all of whom were wicked. God sent prophets to the kings and to the people urging them to repent of their misguided and wicked ways. Bloodshed and assassinations, murder and malice, intrigue and immorality, conspiracy and deception, hatred and idolatry prevailed. And then Ahab became king, and he was the most wicked king yet and he married Jezebel, the daughter of the Phoenician king, who did everything she could to lead the Israelite people away from Yahweh, the one who had chosen them to be his people who would show the world the ways of God.
And God did not forget His covenant with His people. God chose Elijah to confront Ahab and the Israelite people. And Elijah does what God asks of him. In chapter 17 of 1 Kings, Elijah bursts onto the scene confronting Ahab and saying, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” This is a brave man.
And then God tells him to go and hide near the Wadi Cherith and he does. God provides food and water for Elijah. Elijah is a faithful man. He does as God tells him to do. He remains there by the Wadi Cherith until the water dries up and God tells him to leave and seek out a widow in Zarephath who will provide for him.
At the gates of the town of Zarephath, Elijah finds a widow and he tells her to give him food and water. She responds that she only has enough left to make a small cake of meal and oil for herself and her son. They are planning to eat it and then wait to die. Elijah tells her not to worry and to simply do as he has said and there will be plenty for all three of them. She does and lo and behold there is enough, and Elijah goes to live with her. During this time the widow’s son falls ill and Elijah heals the son. He trusts that God will provide, and God does.
Then Elijah hears the word of God, and he knows it is time to return to his prophetic call. He again confronts Ahab saying, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baal.” And he tells Ahab to gather all the prophets of Baal (900 of them) and the people of Israel at Mount Carmel where he will do battle with these false prophets. Ahab agrees and a great competition ensues—one prophet of God against 900 prophets of Baal.
And Elijah wins the battle, the people of Israel who are there are converted and kill the prophets of Baal. Elijah, the brave, faithful and trusting prophet of God has prevailed. Victory is his. He is on top of the world. Or is he? This is where our reading for today comes in.
Jezebel is enraged and orders Elijah’s death. We would expect at this point that Elijah would confront her with no fear, after all he knows that God is with him. He knows that God has always provided for him and protected him. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, Elijah flees in terror. He runs 100 miles and then some to get away from Jezebel. And he cries out to God in despair, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He has hit bottom. He is in the pit of despair. What on earth has happened?
Well, I think what has happened is that this great prophet has burned out. He was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. He had been through several years of great trauma. He had been faithful and strong and now he has nothing left. He is done with it all. But God isn’t done with him, and I am fascinated by God’s response to Elijah. He doesn’t get angry with Elijah. He doesn’t shame or blame Elijah. He doesn’t tell Elijah to get over himself. He doesn’t walk away from Elijah. God takes care of Elijah.
The first thing God does is provide for Elijah’s physical needs. Nothing else can be addressed if he is collapsed from hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. After sleeping for a while, God’s messenger wakes Elijah and gives him food. Then Elijah sleeps again. The angel then wakes him and feeds him again.
Next God calls Elijah to spend time with Him. He is now strong enough to travel to a place where he can pray and be in the presence of God. Elijah is still psychologically and spiritually despondent, but he is now strong enough for meditation and prayer. And God asks him a simple question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” No long sermons or admonitions, just one simple clarifying question. And Elijah responds, “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.”
Now, Elijah isn’t really seeing his life accurately. Despair and despondence almost always warps a person’s view of the world. He isn’t alone. God is with him. There are the 7000 Israelites who converted on Mount Carmel. There are the 100 prophets who Obidiah has kept safe from Jezebel. But nonetheless, Elijah feels all alone. God knows that he needs to draw Elijah out of the cave of darkness that he his despair has locked him into.
So, God tells Elijah that He is going to pass by him. “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.”
Elijah grows a little bit stronger and leaves the cave. Then God speaks to him again and asks the same question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah gives the same answer, “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.” He is not fully recovered. His despondence is still lying to him. He still thinks he is all alone, but he is getting stronger. He can now stand up in the light.
God knows that Elijah is now strong enough to take the next healing steps, so he says to Elijah, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” God doesn’t try to talk Elijah out of his depression, that almost never works. Instead, after helping Elijah to regain strength, he gives Elijah a sense of purpose and a new companion in his work, Elisha.
I think there are some very important lessons for us in Elijah’s story. We too are living in extremely difficult times, times in which despair and despondence are places we have all known. Even if we have not gone as deep as Elijah into the pit of depression, I think we can all acknowledge that despair and despondence can nip at us from time to time. This is normal and human, given what is happening all around us. And just as God did not abandon Elijah, God has not abandoned us.
God wants us first to attend to our physical needs. If we are in a place of despair or in danger of going there, we need first to take care of our physical selves. We need to get enough sleep. Eat and drink nourishing food. When we have taken care of our physical selves, we need to find a place, both physical and mental, for prayer. We need to step out of our lives and be quiet long enough to actually hear God or at least feel God’s nudgings. And as we sit in prayer and meditation, we need to be open to the relationships and purpose that God will give to us when we emerge from prayer. And we need to help others who find themselves in a place of despair to do the same for themselves.
God does not condemn Elijah for his despair. He loves Elijah through and out of it. The same is true for you and me. You may not think God is with you in your times of despair, but God is. And God is caring for you just as steadily and gently as God cared for Elijah. Amen.