Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lenten Wednesday Sermon, March 26, 2014: "Elijah flees Jezebel: A Journey in Fear" [from series: Roadtrippin': Journeys in Faith] - 1 Kings 19

Have you ever had a price on your head? Have you ever had to run for your life? You see, that’s basically the situation I’m in right now. I’ve been running for days trying to escape the clutches of the evil Imperial forces. They’re ruthless, as wicked as they come. At first I ran to Beersheba, way down in the south, about as far away from the northern empire as you can get.

Oh, you people probably don’t understand. You may complain about the NSA spying on your cell phone calls and monitoring your internet activity, but until your life has actually been threatened by the people who are supposed to protect you and govern you, you have no idea. I’ll admit it: I’m afraid! I’m a holy man of God, a prophet of the Most High…and I’m scared to death.

Some back-story may help here. It all started when King Ahab, ruler of Israel, decided to marry Jezebel, a Sidonian. She was not a Hebrew, which is not bad in and of itself because plenty of important people in our history have not been Hebrew, but she…she had no interest in knowing or serving God. From the start she wanted to obliterate any sign of our God she could find, which meant she built a temple to the false god Baal and got Ahab to help her! Then she started slaughtering all of Israel’s priests and prophets and replaced them with hundreds of her own priests who served Baal, too. Hundreds! Jezebel wanted to turn Israel away from God and the way of good. Her forces quickly outnumbered us, and eventually only I was left. That was when things started to get really scary: to think that Israel would be left with no priests to worship God and give God glory!

Elijah and the sacrifices of the Priests of Baal (Lucas Cranach the Younger)
Anyway, eventually this conflict turned into a showdown between all of the priests of Baal and little old me. I challenged them to what was essentially a battle of sacrifices in order to prove that the God I serve—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God whose honor Ahab should have upheld—was the one true God and that Baal was just a worthless figment of everyone’s imagination. I’ll spare you the gory details, but our God came through with flying colors. Right there in front of all the people of Israel! It was pretty obvious that worshipping Baal looked pretty pointless. One little prophet, Elijah, had stood up to the army of false prophets. Needless to say I got a little carried away in my victory and the crowd of onlookers took to my side so quickly that we ended up killing all of the priests of Baal.

So I kind of thought it was done. God won. Baal lost. But rather than admit defeat, the empire struck back! With no other prophet left at whom she could direct her anger, Jezebel focused it all on me, and she vowed to slaughter me as we had done them.

That’s when the fear gripped me. I suppose I had been somewhat brave and confident before, but then—just like that—that trust and confidence left me. Does that ever happen to you?

Fear: it just shows up with no rhyme or reason. And takes over. One minute things are fine…and then the next minute you’re scared to death. And when fear does come, they say we have two main reactions: fight or flight. Well, in this instance, I chose flight…and I fled fast.

At first I took my servant and headed straight south to Beersheba, far away from the northern empire where they were. I left him there and went about a day out into the wilderness. There I found one lone broom tree. The sun was beating down. I was famished. That was the low point. I finally just looked up at God and just said it was better for me just to die now. No point in going on. Despair had gripped me to the core. You might have labelled me suicidal.

Part of fear is not being able to see a way out of or though the situation you’re in.

That’s how I felt at that time. There was no way forward and I couldn’t imagine how I could backtrack and undo what had occurred, and change the mind of Jezebel. Checking out here wasn’t a great ending, but I really figured that dying alone from starvation and exposure in the southern wilderness was better than being slain and used as a humiliating example before the whole kingdom.

But in the midst of that despair, God showed up.God didn’t show up in the way that my fear hoped he would, but God showed up nonetheless. It was in the form of a simple, basic meal, mysteriously placed by my head. My overarching needs of triumph over Jezebel and Ahab and a way back to civilization that worshipped and honored God were not met in that instant, but my most basic needs of that moment were satisfied. A cake baked on a hot stone. A jar of water. It’s like a casserole on the doorstep when the chemo treatments start to bear down.  Or an unexpected phone call from a friend when the semester at college is heading downhill fast. In the midst of despair, God will provide something, and although at the time it may seem small and puny and not an answer to your direct prayer—God knows it is enough. Looking back on it, that bread and water looks so insignificant. But it took my mind temporarily off my despair and gave me the strength to walk 40 more days until I got to Mount Horeb.

And that’s where I am now. Mount Horeb was the place my people had long had experiences with God and spoken with him. Most famously, perhaps, Moses struck the rock here and found water while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. That little bread loaf and water jar allowed me to get here, and here I’ve been talking with God one-on-one. And it was hear that my fear has finally begun to subside.

Sometimes in fear you just need a refuge, as rudimentary as that refuge may be. Here it’s been a familiar mountainside. For you it might just be your bed, or your bedroom. Or an afternoon with your loved ones. And in this refuge the word of the Lord did come to me. The Lord asked me to stand in front of this cave and wait for him to pass by. Now, only Moses had ever really seen God pass by. This was something that didn’t happen to just anyone. So I did as the Lord said and stood in front of the cave. And waited.

That’s when the strangest thing happened: this wind started blowing...the fiercest wind I’d ever heard or felt. It started blowing from over the tops of the distant mountains and swirling into the valley beneath me. It kept getting stronger and stronger until it started to move boulders around me and dropping them to places below. It was like the wind was breaking mountains apart…and I waited, ready to hear what God would say in the wind…but there was nothing. Just wind. Just noise.

Then it got silent. I started to feel some confusion, but then the earth started to shake beneath my very feet. It was an earthquake. More rocks and boulders falling to the ground and breaking. It was loud and frightening, but I stood up and waited for the Lord like he said to. But no Lord in the earthquake! Again, I was disappointed…but just as I turned back to the cave, I smelt smoke. And then I started to hear the crackling of a fire. I felt heat on my face, and I knew that a fire was beginning somewhere…it was raging all around me and I got ready to listen because it was at Horeb, too, where Moses also saw the burning bush and heard God’s voice. And I waited, with the inferno raging below and around me in the valley…but no voice. Sometimes, when you’re afraid, the thing you fear most is that God will won’t speak.

Then, just as quickly as all of this had started, it all fell silent. Absolutely, totally silent. Nothing like an abrupt change in surroundings to get my mind off my fear! As it turned out, that’s precisely where the Lord would be: in the silence, in the stillness. And so I covered my face, knowing that would show my respect for the Lord, and God’s voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And I said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts. The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, but I have not! The Israelites have thrown down your altars, but I have not! The Israelites have allowed the killing of your prophets! I alone am left, and they are trying to kill me, too.”

Then, slowly, in that silence, in that moment of total stillness, God began tearing down all the rocks of fear and boulders of despair that had surrounding me. He told me that I was not the only one left. I could return in safety and in the middle of Jezebel’s dark kingdom I would find some supporters. Most importantly, I would find another young Jedi prophet like myself, Elisha. I would anoint him to help me take on the forces of evil. And…here’s the surprising part: God would show me 7000 people in the land of Israel who had withstood Jezebel’s onslaughts and were still faithful to God’s kingdom! 7000! And I was convinced I was the only one!!

Amazing! That’s another thing about fear: it often distorts our ability to see the big picture and that God is in command of it. Fear can feel like a cave, giving us such a small window to the possibilities that God can create. All this I learned in my fear, and yet, an important thing needs to be said: having faith does not mean being without fear.

Faithfulness does not require bravery at all times. Too often we’ve distorted faith to mean just that: that somehow part of being a good follower of God means never feeling despair. But it just isn’t the case. In fact, sometimes the best faithfulness will lead you into the experiences where fear is common and expected.

Just look to Jesus, too see how this is the case. He exemplifies despair in the face of faithfulness more than anyone. In Gethsemane and again on the cross he cries out in anguish. He has his own cave of death and mockery and feeling terribly alone. You already know this about him, and you know how his story goes: he does die…the empire swallows him up completely, and he is fairly horrified at the end, crying out that God has forsaken him. Yet God still finds a way to provide his way through. Like I said, you know that story.  You know all about that journey of the cross and the risen life, for you gather so regularly around the simple meal he has mysteriously left for you.

As for me and my journey…I’m through this part of my fear. God has restored my hope and brought me out of the cave. It is time to be brave and return to return to life. It is time to show Jezebel what I know about the Force…the force of God’s grace and it’s ability to work through fear.

May that force be with you, my friends. May the force be with you.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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