Our hope for years to come

Elijah is a great prophet, but he has lost hope.  How does he find a way to keep going?

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Our hope for years to come

November 3, 2013 – I Kings 19:1-18

 

            After the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt, traveled for a time through the wilderness and arrived at last in the land promised to their ancestors, they lived for a time as a loose confederation of tribes.  This gave them freedom to live in their own way, but without the protection and stability of a centralized government.  In their vulnerability, they cried out to God for a king.  This was not what God wanted for his people.  He had just gone to all the work of freeing them from slavery in Egypt.  He had made clear to them that he was, in fact, their king.  And he understood the dangers of a human king.

            Still, they pled for a king.  They wanted to be like other nations.  So, God relented.  God gave them Saul, the first king of Israel.  Then, when Saul didn’t work out so well, God gave them David, Israel’s greatest king.  While he certainly had his faults, David had a heart for God and brought the Ark of the Covenant – the representation of God’s presence – to Jerusalem.  Although David had wanted to build a temple, it was his son, Solomon, whom God gave permission.

            It was a great and glorious temple, but it was not without cost.  Solomon laid heavy taxes on the people in order to pay for the temple.  He forced their sons and daughters to build the temple and serve it.  When Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, refused to change is father’s policies of heavy taxes and conscripted labor, the northern tribes broke off from the southern tribes.  The kingdom that David had united in stability and prosperity was now broken into two.

 

This is the time in the story of Israel when the prophets move to center stage.  There continue to be kings, of course, and some of them are even faithful to the traditional God of Israel.  But there are none who keep the God of Israel alive for the people as do the prophets.  And it was not an easy task.

Elijah was one such prophet.  Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, makes his appearance in I Kings 17.  It is during the reign of King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel.  In many respects, King Ahab was a successful king.  Under Ahab, the northern kingdom had a strong military and a healthy economy.  Nevertheless, Ahab was not faithful to the traditional God of Israel.

He had married Jezebel, daughter of King Eth-baal of Sidon.  As his name implies, he worshipped the god, Baal, the god of rain.  So did his daughter.  And so did his son-in-law.

Now this may not seem to be a very big deal.  I mean, one god or another god – does it make that much difference?

Yes, it does.  We learn in the verse immediately prior to I Kings 17, that when he rebuilt the city of Jericho, his first born son was sacrificed at its foundation and his youngest son was sacrificed at its gates.  Even after the story of Abraham and Isaac, and even after the laws of Moses, child sacrifice continued to be a problem in Israel for centuries.

This displeased God.  God wanted this practice stopped.  So, God sent Elijah the Tishbite to Ahab, in order to tell him that it would not rain in Israel until God gave the say-so.  This was quite a thing to say to Ahab, since the god he worshipped – the god Baal – Ahab believed to be in control of such things. 

After delivering that bit of news, Elijah skipped town.  He was away for three years.  In that time he saved a foreign widow and her son from starvation.  Then he raised the son from death.

At last, God told Elijah to go back to Ahab to announce the end of the drought. But God wanted Elijah to do it with style.  Elijah challenged the priests of the god, Baal, to a sacrificial showdown.  The priests of Baal could not get their god to rain down fire on their sacrificial offering – even when they prayed for hours and cut themselves to bleeding.  The God of Israel consumed the whole soggy offering in a conflagration after Elijah prayed one simple prayer.  (You can read the whole story in I Kings 18.)

It was a big victory of Elijah and for his God, but it did not make Queen Jezebel very happy.  So, Elijah skipped town again.  But Elijah did not merely run to avoid losing his head to Jezebel.  He ran because he was burned out.  He had given everything he had.  He had scored it big against Baal.  All it got him was a warrant for his arrest, a price on his head, and the endless wrath of the most powerful woman in the country.

He went a day’s journey into the wilderness.  He rested under a broom tree.  He prayed to God: “Do me a big favor, O Lord.  Kill me right now!”

But God didn’t do him a big favor.  Instead, when Elijah went to sleep, God sent an angel.  The angel woke Elijah up and said, “Here is food for you to eat.”  Elijah ate and drank and he went back to sleep.  The angel woke him again and said, “You need to eat more so you have strength for the journey ahead.”

Elijah ate and drank and he made the 40 day trip into the wilderness to the mountain of God – Horeb, or Sinai, as it is otherwise known.  When he arrived, he spent the night in a cave.

Then God said, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

And Elijah said, “I have been working my tail off for you and what do I have to show for it?  Your people have utterly rejected you (in case you haven’t noticed).  I am the only one in the whole country left who still believes in you and now there is a price on my head.”

So, God said, “Elijah, go out and stand in front of the cave, because I am going to pass before you.”  And Elijah went out.

There was a great wind, so strong that it split rocks.  But the Lord was not in the wind.  Then there was an earthquake which shook the whole mountain.  But the Lord was not in the earthquake.  Then there was a raging fire.  But the Lord was not in the fire.  After the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence.  And Elijah covered his face, because he knew God was present.

God said again, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

Elijah said again, “I have been working my tail off for you and what do I have to show for it?  Your people have utterly rejected you (in case you haven’t noticed).  I am the only one in the whole country left who still believes in you and now there is a price on my head.”

Then God said, “Elijah, I want you to stop feeling sorry for yourself, because I have work for you to do.  I want you to anoint a new king in Israel and a new king in Judah and a new prophet to succeed you.  And, by the way, you are not alone.  There are still 7000 in Israel who still worship me.”

            And Elijah went and did as God said.

 

            Elijah is burned out.  He is not the first case of burn-out in the Bible, but he is probably the most severe case of burn-out.  It is not merely that he has done everything that God has asked him to do.  He has had great success doing it.  But now he has nothing to show for it.  And he may even end up losing his head over it all.

            Elijah is burned out, but that is because Elijah can only see the past.  He can’t see the future.  He believes there is no future – no future for him and no future for Israel.  But the future does not belong to Elijah.  The future belongs to God.  And God is doing things that Elijah cannot do and God is doing things Elijah cannot see in order to save Israel and her faith.

            A colleague called my attention to an Allstate Insurance commercial.  I haven’t seen it, although I don’t watch much TV.  Perhaps you’ve seen it.  Or maybe it’s only playing in his part of the country.  It is narrated by a child.  While pictures roll, the child says:

            There are man-eating sharks in every ocean, but we still swim.  Every second, somewhere in the world, lightning strikes, but we still play in the rain.  Poisonous snakes can be found in 49 of the 50 states, but we still go looking for adventure.            A car can crash.  A house can crumble.  But we still drive and we love coming home.  Because I think deep down, you know, all the bad things that happen in life, they can’t stop us from making our lives good.

 

            Martin Luther is supposed to have said: “If the world were going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.” Elijah needed this affirmation.  I need it, too, because it reminds me that what we see is not all there is, and, no matter what may come, God will have the last word, and it will be a good word.  

This is not optimism, but it is hope. For, while optimism assumes things will soon get better, hope testifies to the promise that whether things get better or worse, ultimately God’s good will for us and for all creation will prevail.  In the confidence of that promise, we can take action today, action for good, despite how our lives look and despite how the world looks.

 

This is how saints live.  And it is how we, as people of Hope, also live.  We live not for our own future, but for God’s future.  Bad things may happen, but they can’t stop us from doing what we can to make our lives and our world good.