This is the sermon preached at the church I (Phil Groom) attended this morning, reproduced here by kind permission. It certainly hit the spot for me; hoping a few others may find it encouraging…
When you hear the name Elijah mentioned, what springs to mind?
Is it ‘the greatest of the prophets’?
Or, maybe you recall one of the miraculous events connected with him during the drought – being fed by ravens in the desert; being fed by the widow of Zarephath whose jar of flour and jug of oil never ran out, then Elijah raising her son to life again; or the dramatic defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
These were all great high points in Elijah’s life as God’s prophet. But, after heights of triumph we often hit depths of despair.
King Ahab of Israel had married Queen Jezebel, daughter of the King of Sidon and worshipper of Baal. Naturally she was furious at the defeat and massacre of the prophets of Baal and she sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
So, in the reading this morning we find Elijah running scared, totally depressed, and amnesic – he’s forgotten all the amazing things God has done through him in the past. He just wants to curl up in a corner and die. He says, “I have had enough, Lord, Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors.” But God doesn’t leave him there in a pit of despair, he sends a messenger with food and urges Elijah to keep walking until he gets to Mount Horeb, God’s mountain, also known as Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the ten Commandments.
On his arrival at the Holy Mountain, Elijah crawled into a cave for the night. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I’m fed up, I’m feeling sorry for myself, and I’m scared of the Queen…
No, actually he said, “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 has a very selective memory:
What about the miraculous provision during the drought, the resurrection of the boy, and the mighty acts of God on the mountaintops? What of the Israelites restored to faith at the defeat of the prophets of Baal? The altar rebuilt for the contest with the prophets of Baal? The prophets of Baal killed with the sword?
The resistance of one woman has in Elijah’s mind turned massive victory into overwhelming defeat. So often, one negative thing can bring us right down to rock bottom.
From his pit of despair Elijah needs to be reminded of the past, to remember who God is and what God has done. He needs to regain his sense of perspective, particularly about himself. For, Elijah has done considerably better than many of his ancestors, and he is far from being the only one left.
So, God calls Elijah out of his dark hiding place to meet once again the God of wind, earthquake and fire, and to remember what happened on Mount Carmel. But God also wants to teach Elijah something new. He is not only to be found in the wind, earthquake and fire, God reveals himself on this occasion in a still small voice, a barely audible whisper, or in the words of this translation, ‘a sound of sheer silence’.
It is only then that Elijah ventures forth from his hiding place with his cloak over his head. The voice asks again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah is not impressed, he gives exactly the same answer as last time. “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.”
How frustrating! Didn’t he take any notice of God passing outside his cave? Didn’t the experience jog his memory? Hasn’t he learnt anything new? Come on Elijah.
But, God is patient and long-suffering with his prophet. He doesn’t try to talk Elijah out of his depression, but neither does he give up on him. He gives Elijah a purpose for living, a new commission, ‘Go back the way you came, anoint your successor.’
He also reassures Elijah that he is in control and there are 7000 people in Israel who still follow him. You are not alone Elijah. And so Elijah ventures out of his cave on a new adventure with God.
Peter too was called to a new adventure in the gospel reading. You can imagine the conversation that night in the boat. The disciples must have been excited by the miracle they had just been part of, the feeding of that vast crowd. I expect they were brimming with enthusiasm and hope. But, as the storm brews, and they are drifting in open water, waiting for Jesus, who has gone alone to pray, they begin to worry, they begin to lose heart.
As always, it is Peter who is the first to regain his enthusiasm. As soon as he sees Jesus, he wants another dose of high excitement. ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ And Jesus indulges him, ‘Come.’
I do like Peter, the impetuous one, always ready for anything, tending to act first and think later. I can’t imagine him running and hiding in a cave. Yet, in a way, he fell into the same temptation as Elijah. He took his eyes off God for a few seconds, just long enough to see the wind and the waves, just long enough to become aware of the opposition, the battle with the elements, just long enough to be distracted and doubt, and so he too became frightened and he began to sink. There is a limit to what we can achieve by dint of our own willpower, even if it is in the service of God.
Yet, as he slowly sank into the waves, Peter remembered who could save him and rather than turning away from him, he called out, ‘Lord, save me!’
So often, the moment when we are most strongly tempted to give up, is the moment when help is, if we only knew it, just a step away. God is closer to us than our own breath and heartbeat.
Christianity is not about what great works we can do in our own strength, it is not about what we can do for God and his kingdom. It is not about seeking God in the drama of earthquake, wind and fire. Christianity is a relationship, a relationship offered by God to each one of us, a relationship made possible by Jesus, and a relationship in which we are constantly guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. He often communicates to us by whispering in the silence, by beating within our own hearts. God’s gift of intimacy is far more awesome than any work of power. What more could we want?