There in the Calm – June 19

A sermon based on 1 Kings1-15a (The Message)

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 19, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Since Elliott means Elijah you know I like the prophet in our story, he’s kin. Our names mean “Yahweh is my God.” Which is pretty cool and very true. Elijah, the greatest prophet in the Bible and my family’s namesake, is portrayed on one of our huge stained-glass windows looking out over Main Street (the one on my left). The other fellow is David the greatest king in the Bible, he not only gets to look out over Main Street but gets to hold an instrument. My theory is Elijah has an instrument too, we just can’t see it, it’s a didgeridoo hidden behind him, and he plays it like all my namesakes who do, very well.
There’s actually IS something sort of hidden about Elijah that’s not in the portrait or likely in our usual recollection of him. As great a prophet as he was, as we just heard in our lesson, at one point Elijah lost his nerve. Remarkably the Bible records one of its greatest heroes unraveling, his courage and his resolve are gone. Most of us probably never think about that, but Elijah’s prophetic work halted when Jezebel responded to that work with threats to have Baal, her god of the storms hunt him down and kill him. This week’s powerful storm gives us a pretty good idea of why a person might get unnerved by the threat of a storm being hurled at them. It’s Elijah’s loss of nerve at such a threat that drives the lesson today.
Interestingly the lesson follows quick on the heels of Elijah’s great triumph in an altar lighting contest with Baal’s prophets to see whose god was really real. You may recall that in the contest Yahweh, the one God, shows up and not only lights the altar when Baal could not, but also brought a much-needed rain storm to end a drought when Baal could not end it. Baal, Jezebel’s purported god of storms, failed to show up at the contest or provide much needed rain, so Elijah and Yahweh carried the day. Sadly, Baal’s four-hundred-fifty prophets were slaughtered by the crowds as a consequence of Baal not being there. The humiliating defeat of her god Baal and Baal’s prophets is what caused Jezebel to threaten Elijah and rattle his nerves. She basically claimed she’d sic her storm god on him and she’d get even making sure Elijah was killed by the next day. These threats deflated Elijah’s sense of courage and confidence that he had just shown during the victorious contest of God over Baal, and of Elijah over Baal’s many prophets.
And actually, the threats Elijah got for doing God’s prophetic work did more than deflate his sense of courage and confidence, they sent him scurrying away and into a very dark place, both literally and figuratively. In modern times we could even say the lesson evidences signs that suggest Elijah was depressed. We can hear in the reading that he felt hopeless, empty and extremely tired. Elijah slept a lot and was not getting pleasure from anything. Elijah also showed signs of “escapist behavior,” running away and longing for death . . . even praying for it. Ironically Jezebel’s evil desire for Elijah’s death led Elijah to desire the same thing.
Feeling depressed and afraid of Baal and Jezebel, Elijah runs away far into the desert wilderness. When he is deep enough in, Elijah collapses in the shade of a broom tree and drifts off to sleep. Broom trees are very handy. They offer rare shade in Mideast deserts and their roots offer a source of food and their branches burn well and make good cooking coals for making bread. We can hear some of that reflected in the story when the angels appear to help Elijah as he experiences deep despair. Notably those angels didn’t do any super-duper magic beyond showing up like a good neighbor or church member to nurse Elijah with food, kind words and advice . . . and just being there.
Nourished and rested Elijah gained enough strength to get up and fast as he took a forty-day journey to the top of Mount Horeb where God was known to hang out. When Elijah finished the trek he crawled into a cave and collapsed. He escaped Jezebel and threats from her and her supposed god Baal. Elijah’s reason for running and seeking refuge and being depressed seems obvious. We can fairly assume God knows what’s going on from the angels, and the obvious, and God’s otherwise all knowingness. Nonetheless God wants Elijah to tell him and wakes him asking, “What are you doing here?” As we heard in the reading, Elijah pretty much tells God he’s worked his heart out for God with nothing to show for it, except people abandoning the faith, destroying places of faith and killing faithful prophets. Now Elijah claims he’s all that’s left and they’re trying to kill him too. Elijah does not mention he’s lost his nerve or fears Baal, but God knows.
God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain and watch God pass by. Then the things Baal is claimed to be god of occur, the unnerving threatening powers of earth, wind and fire pass by. But God’s not in them. The things Baal’s supposed to be the god of, have no god in them– at least not in the sense that God’s flinging their destructive power about to do bad to Elijah or anyone else. The message for Elijah is he does not need to worry about aimed “acts of God” by Baal who is no god at all.
Nature’s storms, quakes and fires are a part of creation and full of awe and wonder as we saw this past week. But their destruction is not and never has been purposefully targeted at humans by divine powers. Jezebel claimed her god Baal would do that. She lied. Baal could not even seek out a log to start it on fire. So, he could not intentionally harm Elijah – or us– with storms. No god does that. There is no god of storms in that respect so Baal, does not exist. Simply put, –and this is important to hear in light of the storms we just had– there is no divine power intentionally sent to hurt or destroy humankind in any kind of way. God doesn’t hurt humankind. Jezebel – and modern Pat Robertson type preachers for that matter– are wrong. God does not fling natural catastrophes about to hurt anyone. God does not manipulate earth, wind and fire to sic humanity– no god does. See the threat of Baal hurting Elijah is pish posh. It’s nonsense.
While God is not in punishing acts of nature, Elijah does find out where God is. The answer may be as much a surprise as learning Elijah was unnerved. Elijah (and we) learn that God is in what The Message paraphrase calls “a gentle and quiet whisper. “That phrasing is a pretty good translation of the Hebrew in the context of the story. God’s in the “gentle quiet whisper” that follows whatever earth, wind and fire-like disturbances we experience, whether human or natural in origin. God’s not speaking in threats, God’s speaking in the calm.
As I sat with this story for the past few weeks reading it, researching it, praying about it, I could not shake that message. The point of the story seems to pretty much be, God’s voice is not experienced in the unnerving swirling thunderous quaking threats of life, but in the angels sent to help us and in God’s gentle quiet whispers.
Once I got that message, I had to wrestle with it and put on my critical thinking cap and wonder, is that true? Has that been my experience? I don’t know about you all, but I’ve had some pretty unnerving events in my life. I’ve had a number of drivers nearly kill me. I’ve had life threatening hospital experiences. I’ve been shot at. I’ve had a knife pulled on me. I’ve found naked strangers in my house at night. I’ve received death threats (which I will talk about next week). I have even been in earthquakes, a fire, and very scary storms with hurricane level winds and flooding. I was unnerved by each of those happenings. I have to admit upon reflection that in those threats, like Elijah, I did not sense God in the them.
I did, however, call out to God in each unnerving event There’s a proverbial saying that there are “No atheists in foxholes, ” and each of my “foxhole” like events had me praying. But I did not hear God’s voice in the threat and turmoil. I heard it whispering in the silence that followed. I heard God when the storm passed– in the calm. See while there may be no atheists in foxholes, there is no voice of God in the unnerving causes that surround foxholes. God’s not in violence. God’s not in what unnerves us. God’s in stillness, God’s in peace.
GOD’S IN THE PROMISE OF STILLNESS AND PEACE. THAT’S THE KEY. The promise is why we call out to God in calamities. We pray to God in the proverbial foxholes of life. God is not there in the violence, but God IS there in the hopes and prayers and longings for peace–and in the gentle quiet whispers of peace. That presence in and after unnerving events is what calms our nerves and can set us right again, restore our sense of courage and confidence.
When Elijah heard the gentle and quiet whisper that was God, he calmed down, covered up and re-approached God who asked “NOW tell me what you are doing here?” Elijah’s answer did not change. But God’s response did. God basically told Elijah to get back to work . . . And most importantly Elijah was able to do so and did. His sense of courage and confidence was restored. Elijah figured out in our story what God showed him, that divine action does not occur as Jezebel threatened, and that the god Baal did not exist in any divine violent intent in nature. Because there is no such thing. See Baal did not exist. He could not hurt, let alone kill Elijah. In other words, Jezebel had no god on her side to kill for her, and therefore no god was out to sic, to get, Elijah.
The one God, Yahweh was out to love Elijah and tend to his well-being by sending angels to help while he was in despair, and by letting him know God was there. God was with him not causing the earth, wind or fire to get him, but in a gentle and quiet whisper. What was in that whisper? In my experience the whisper is very personal and different in each crisis–and at the end of the day it’s not the words so much as it is the very presence of the divine. Which, like Elijah, may not change our answers to God’s questions or the facts of our experience, except that we regain our nerve and courage to go on. Which Elijah did.
Life’s tasks did not get easier for Elijah and he did not give up doing God’s work, he just had his nerve to face it restored. Why? Because he realized that there is no form of divine violence in all of creation. Elijah learned, as we can, the good news that there is the hope of God’s peace in all unnerving events; that God will send angels to aid us; and in the silence and calm God’s there with gentle and quiet whispers to help us move on and do what needs to be done. God loves us and cares for our well-being and calls us to it all the time everywhere. This is the Truth and it is the Good news. AMEN.