A Man Just Like Us…
1 Kings 18-19If I had to do it over again, I think this sermon probably better fits last Sunday better than this Sunday. With last Sunday being Super Bowl XVLI, the spectacle watched by 111.3 million viewers corresponds well with the spectacle that is the Prophet Elijah’s life. With the Super Bowl we have the two best teams going head to head. There are the commercials that make us reminisce and make us laugh. There is the glamorous halftime show that again came with a bit of controversy. There was a last second hail-Mary pass. If you’re like me there were good friends to be around and good food to munch on.
The Prophet Elijah is a Super Bowl sort of character with a flair for the dramatic. He is kind of like the spiritual seeker’s patron saint. We meet Elijah the Tishbite when he declared to King Ahab that the Lord will not allow rain until God says so. This comes just after Scripture tells us that King Ahab has taken Jezebel as his wife. With Jezebel came the worship of the Canaanite god Baal, who was seen as the God of thunder and storms. So for Elijah to say this to King Ahab is like a declaration of a war among the gods. God tells Elijah to flee for safety which he does in the wilderness next to a small pond called a wadi. For food God sends ravens who bring Elijah bread and meat. Like I said, pretty spectacular stuff. Then God sends word to Elijah to make his way across the country to the city of Zarephath, the heart of Canaanite country, when he encounters a widow who is making her last meal. She’s has just enough ingredients for a last meal for her and her son. Elijah asks her to bring this to him, since I guess he famished, but also notes that the God of Israel will keep her supply of ingredients continuous if she obeys. She does and they all have food until one day the boy dies. The grieving widow takes her anger out of Elijah and blames him. He proceeds to go to the boy. He lays on top of the boy and prays to God three times who then resuscitates the boy. Again we see the spectacular.
The drought that the Prophet Elijah declared goes on for three years. Elijah then has a run in with an assistant to King Ahab who is on the search for water. Elijah then encounters King Ahab himself and summons the King and the prophets of Baal for a divine duel if you will. They go up to the top of Mount Carmel where the prophets of Baal set up an altar as does Elijah. The contest is for each side to pray to their god and the God that consumes the sacrifice by fire will be seen as God of the land. Elijah allows the prophets of Baal to go first. They cry out to their god for hours. At noon Elijah begins to mock the prophets. It’s kind of like Elijah stacks the deck in their favor a little bit. It’s like Elijah allows the opposing team to score some points all while mocking them by saying, “Go ahead and score at will. I’m still going to beat.” (Elijah would not have gotten the sportsmanship star if he were playing Upward.) In fact, Elijah mocks them saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 1 Kings 18:27 In the Message paraphrase it has Elijah in jest suggesting that perhaps their god in using the bathroom that’s why he doesn’t hear their cries. So the prophets not only begin to cry louder but cut themselves in hope to get the attention of their god. With a flair for the dramatic, Elijah has everybody come closer to his altar. He digs a ditch around the altar and has his people douse the altar and the sacrifice on the altar with water, three times. Then Elijah prays to God, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 1 Kings 18:36-37 Sure enough fire comes down and consumes the sacrifice, the altar, and even the water from the ditch is dried up. The people fall down and begin to worship God. Elijah then declares to King Ahab the drought will end even though all anyone can see is a small cloud over the sea. Elijah has a flair for the dramatic. Wouldn’t it be fun to be Elijah? To say a simple prayer and God respond in such an overwhelming and spectacular way?
Before you get to wrapped up in desiring to be Elijah let’s continue his story. Elijah’s dramatics get the attention of Jezebel who promises to end Elijah’s life. Yet again Elijah had to flee to the wilderness. However, you might think Elijah still has some boldness or brashness or at least a little confidence left after such an amazing event. Instead Elijah has a pity party. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 1 Kings 19:4 What has happened to our extraordinary hero? Has anything like this happened to you? After an emotional high your rollercoaster of emotions takes over and you hit a deep valley? Things appear to be going your way and then life crashes into you?
I’ve mentioned before how much preaching takes out of me. My last appointment was to a three point circuit where I preached three times twice a month: 8:30, 9:30, and 11:00. That first year I was absolutely wiped out after preaching three times in a row and driving about ten minutes between each church (depending on how fast I drove the country roads in between them). Usually after preaching three services my adrenalin had been going so much that I would crash the rest of the day. Getting home I’d go into the parsonage’s large living room close all the currents and just sit for a while. I was so wiped you could have asked my name and I’m not sure I could have told you what it was. Though Elijah has the tendency for the dramatic, he is a lot like the rest of us with highs and lows, great faith and great doubt.
God tells Elijah to get up and eat. An angel repeats this instruction to Elijah. Then Elijah journeys for forty days nights to Mount Horeb, the same mountain we discussed last week with Moses. God and Elijah have another conversation and again Elijah has bit of a pity party. God then tells Elijah to go out on the mountain and God will pass by. Elijah goes out and a strong wind comes by such that it was splitting rocks. But God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire. But God was not in the fire. Then came the sound of sheer silence.
God and Elijah continue their conversation and God gives Elijah farther instruction that will help the Israelites and give Elijah a helper and successor. Elijah goes on to continue serving the Lord, but his ending is even dramatic. God carried Elijah up into heaven on a chariot. Seemingly a fitting end for a person with such flair for the spectacular. Though Elijah’s story is full of excitement it is telling that Elijah wavers, fears, doubts and encounters God most of all in sound of sheer silence. As perhaps we’ve heard it said before about worship and serving God, “It’s not how high you jump and praise, but how you walk when you come back down.”
The danger of Elijah’s story in our day is we too hope that God will show up in the miraculous in the spectacular overlooking to the ordinary and seemingly mundane. As my professor from January points out in his book What God Wants for your Life, "Signs and wonders offered reassurance, certainty, and a sense of God's presence in the midst of seemingly meaningless and painful events."[i] We can get caught looking for God only or exclusively in spectacular when God is often trying to speak to us in the stillness of a small voice. We’re so busy, so often on the move, with so much noise around us and we wonder where God is or why we’re not growing more in our spiritual walk with God.
Have you seen the shirts and signs going around that say, "If I agreed with you, then we'd both be wrong." Humorous for sure, but I think it reveals something else about us as a society. We're bad listeners. We really are. Look at our political process and there are debates, tweets, sound bites, speeches, and a few town hall meetings thrown in for good measure, but how much real listening takes place? We live in the rise of the digital information age with broadband speeds and as it has been pointed out it has not exactly made us anymore wise. What has become too common place is we can go to the websites and news sites that confirm our previously held beliefs rather than go to websites and news organizations that are different than what we hold to be true. Thus we are rarely challenged and rarely do we listen to the other side, we just lock and load with more of our own arguments.
The same can be true within the church. People suggest new ideas or creative proposals and are shot down because we don't things like that around here. Listening really is a lost art in our society. I actually got that from a title of a book by Michael Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening. It’s a book I had to read for one of my seminary classes. I remember getting this book and being humored at a 250 page book on listening. My first thought was to think that this author must be a terrible writer to spend more than 100 pages on listening. What can really be said about listening? We'll thankfully I read the book with a better attitude and learned a great deal about listening. One of Nichols main ideas is that "Listening is a strenuous but silent activity." I don't think many of us are really surprised to learn that silence is a crucial part of listening, but strenuous? One of those things you learn as you're growing up is that God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a purpose, to listen. But for most us during our moments of silence in a conversation, we're figuring out what we’re going to say next. We're getting our defense ready. If we're a parent listening to our child we're usually trying to figure out how we're going to set them straight. If we're a spouse listening to our mate we're usually trying to prove why we're right and they are wrong. If we're trying to convince a friend or acquaintance while their political ideology is crazy we're remembering arguments and looking for holes in their argument and so on and so on we go. Thus, I think Nichols sentence is exactly on point. "Listening is a strenuous but silent activity." It takes effort, a lot of effort, to shut off those voices in our heads and truly be silent and hear what the other person is trying to tell us. This morning we’re blessed to have our Boy Scouts join us. I was a Boy Scout at one time. I didn’t get real far in scouting. One of the reasons why I didn’t get real far was that it requires some strenuous effort to get the merit badges to move up in rank and at that time I was unwilling to put in the effort. It takes work. They have to volunteer time. They have to learn new skills and a variety of them. They have to learn from others. They have to go through discomfort. And on and on. It’s strenuous.
This is true for listening and it is also true in our spiritual lives especially as it relates to God in prayer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we're so often looking for God in the extraordinary and the miraculous. That’s easy really. It requires little of us. Thus we take little to no time to cultivate an inner relationship with God. We're so busy running from errand to errand, from children's activity to grandkids activity to meeting to event and on and on we run too busy to stop and listen and cultivate a spiritual life that is an ongoing conversation with God much less to hear God’s small still voice. If God would just speak to us out of the clouds or with fireworks or on billboard signs perhaps we'd hear because that's really the only way to get our attention at the lifestyle we are running. We wonder where's God? We wonder why we have so little energy? I really like my phone. It does all sorts of neat things. I’ve told you before how my prayer guide for morning and evening is on it. I’ve got all kids of Bible software on it. I can check Facebook or Twitter. GPS if I need it. Lately I’ve been playing chess. It’s funny how we can get addicted to those games. But you know this gadget is worthless if I don’t plug it in and charge up its battery. Isn’t that true for us? We can refuel our bodies with food and the will keep us going, but that plus a whole lot of spectacular wasn’t enough to sustain Elijah and it won’t sustain us either. It takes the strenuous, daily activity to listening to God in prayer to energize to live the Christian life.
Nichols goes on to observes, "Genuine listening involves a brief suspension of self." instead of formulating our arguments or biting our tongue until we can get a word in edge wise, to really listen we have to let go of our stuff, of our agenda, of what we want to see happen in order to genuinely hear our children, our spouse, our friends, our church members and the same is true for listening to God. I don't think this is far from Jesus' words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 There is more encompassed in Jesus' words than listening, but I think that's a part. If we really want to know what God wants for our lives, what God is calling us to do, to hear what God is desiring to do in us and through us as individuals and as a church, it will call from the strenuous activity of suspending our own agendas and listening to hear the still small voice of God. Maybe this sermon would have fit better last Sunday. But maybe now that we’re away from it, perhaps we’ll have new ears, both ears, to hear and an inner disposition that is ready to do the hard work of listening to God’s still small voice that we can begin listening to the real cries of others around us who are also like Elijah, worn out, burned out, looking for light.