St. Philip Lutheran Church
19 June 2022 + Lect. 12c (Pentecost 2)
Rev. Josh Evans
Everything was going great…until it wasn’t.
Our first Sunday back in “ordinary time” brings us to the middle of the extraordinary story of Elijah, prophet and “troubler” of Israel.
Today’s story opens with Elijah fleeing for his life. He is afraid. What God has called him to do and indeed what he has been doing have gotten him nothing short of a murderous threat from the political powers that be. More than afraid, Elijah is tired. He is burnt out. He is done. He has nothing left to give. He retreats by himself into the wilderness and asks that he might die.
The work of a prophet is no easy task. After all, prophets are specifically called by God to be God’s spokesperson – and specifically to be God’s spokesperson to a monarchy that, on the whole, has failed to hold up their end of God’s covenant and refuses to listen. Where the monarchy has abandoned the worship and commands of Yahweh, the prophets become like “covenant watchdogs,” calling out idolatry and injustice, and urging the people to repentance.
It is to this work that Elijah is called. His story actually begins two chapters before – quite abruptly and really without much of an introduction. All of a sudden, Elijah appears, and he informs King Ahab – a woefully inept king in Israel’s history – that there will be a drought.
Then, in the midst of this drought also comes a tender story of a widow and her son to whom Elijah is sent. When Elijah asks for some water and bread, you can imagine the widow’s reaction: “Seriously? In this drought? I don’t even have enough for me and my son.” But Elijah promises there will be enough – and it will somehow, miraculously, last until the end of the drought. And it does.
The joy of this miracle is short-lived, though, when the widow’s son becomes ill and dies. But here again, Elijah calls on God and miraculously brings her son back to life, and the widow confesses: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Emboldened in his work by these experiences, Elijah’s inspiration turns to bravado in the next story. When Ahab confronts Elijah and accuses him of being a “troubler of Israel,” Elijah boldly responds: “I have not troubled Israel… but you have…”
For forsaking Yahweh’s commandments and following in the ways of other gods, Elijah challenges Ahab: “Assemble your prophets, all 450 of them, and we’ll settle this once and for all. We’ll prepare two bulls for a burnt sacrifice, one on Baal’s altar and one on Yahweh’s altar. But…we won’t light the fire. We’ll let the true God take care of that.”
Baal’s prophets pray and cry aloud all day … and there is “no voice, no answer, and no response.” Then, with a bit of the aforementioned bravado, and anticipating almost certain victory, Elijah has four jars of water filled and poured three times on his altar. Then he prays. And Yahweh’s fire consumes everything – even the last drop of water.
Elijah is high on power. He is confident and fearless. He alone challenged and defeated 450 prophets of his adversaries. Even the drought comes to an end.
Everything was going great…until it wasn’t.
Ahab takes the news back to his wife, Jezebel, who is furious. Swearing by her gods, she threatens to kill Elijah in the same way he killed her prophets.
Elijah has done everything God has asked him to do, and now he is fleeing for his life. He is done. He’s tired and burnt out to the point that he asks God to kill him before Jezebel can. That’s quite the reversal from the confident and fearless prophet only moments before.
I think Elijah’s mental state is worth paying attention to. He is disappointed and worn out. Despite his zealous dedication to God, and perhaps a bit of over-functioning and thirst for some power of his own, Elijah is left in a spiral of depression, lethargy, and resignation. And honestly, it makes one of the most prominent biblical prophets just a bit more relatable.
Revered as a saint of the church, Mother Teresa is best remembered for her selfless ministry among the poorest of the poor. Yet in a collection of her private letters and other writings published in 2007, ten years after her death, readers glimpsed another side of Mother Teresa’s life – a darker side in which she admits to feeling like a “shameless hypocrite” for publicly teaching one thing while personally experiencing something in herself drastically different.
She speaks of this sense of “spiritual darkness” as she writes: “There is so much contradiction in my soul, no faith, no love, no zeal… I find no words to express the depths of the darkness… My heart is so empty… so full of darkness… I don’t pray any longer. The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal…”
Her words are shocking for someone whose life and ministry would seem to offer no indication of the struggle behind the smile. And yet, even there, in that struggle and spiritual darkness, is a gift:
“If I’m going to be a saint,” she writes, “I’m going to be a saint of darkness, and I’ll be asking from heaven to be the light of those who are in darkness on earth.”
Mother Teresa realized her spiritual darkness didn’t have to be an obstacle to her work. Instead, it enabled her to be more empathetic to those experiencing their own struggles.
The presence of struggle does not mean the absence of faith. And it certainly does not mean the absence of God.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta struggled. Elijah struggled. We struggle.
To different degrees and in different seasons of our lives, we experience the disorienting nature of fear, anxiety, depression, and aimlessness. And that’s okay. Saints and prophets have been there. Or as the popular saying goes: It’s okay to have Jesus and a therapist.
Elijah remembers the not-so-distant memories of miraculously providing for a widow and her son and victoriously defeating the prophets of Baal in a powerful display of Yahweh’s power. But here, in the wilderness, in the cave on Mount Horeb, where are those moments now?
Like Elijah, we too remember the not-so-distant “memories of powerful, vibrant, Spirit-empowered ministry.” But today, we look at the pews around us, and we wonder, where are those moments now?
We are tired. We are burnt out. We wait and we look for the dramatic power of God in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire… and we are left with disappointment.
Until, in the sound of sheer …
… silence …
God speaks, quietly, softly, tenderly: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s the same question from before, and so too is Elijah’s response the same: “I have been very zealous for you, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left…”
For a fourth time in this text, Elijah is ready to call it quits. And the astonishing thing is that God doesn’t challenge him.
As if to say: “No judgment, no pressure. If you’re calling it quits, I won’t make you go any further… but I do have one more job for you first…”
Beyond the limits of our lectionary reading, the story with God’s response to Elijah continues: “You’re going to anoint a new king of Aram and a new king of Israel, and most importantly, you’re going to anoint your successor as prophet. Oh, and by the way, you’re not actually the only one left. There are seven thousand faithful Israelites who have not given in to worshiping Baal.”
God acknowledges Elijah’s “done-ness,” but God doesn’t leave him there either. There is more to Elijah’s story. It might not look the way Elijah envisioned it or wanted it to play out, but there is, nevertheless, more to be done.
People of St. Philip, there is more to be done.
In the life, sufferings, and death of Jesus, God has been where we are. And God who has been where we are meets us in our “done-ness,” in our exhaustion, in our weariness.
God meets where we’re at – and doesn’t leave us there.
Because God isn’t done, and there is more to the story.