Change: Elijah

Change: Elijah
A Message on 1 Kings 19:1-10
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 12, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

1 Kings 19:1-10 (NRSV)

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “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.”

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Today we continue our sermon series on “Change” by exploring the life of someone who really knew about change. I’m talking BIG change, too, not chump change.

Elijah was a prophet who lived in the 9th century BC in the kingdom of Israel, back when the kingdom was divided as two countries: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. He lived during the time of King Ahab, a leader who found himself strongly influenced by his wife, Jezebel.

I don’t think the term is used much anymore but “back in my day” (I have become my grandfather) the term Jezebel was used to refer to a woman who was mean-spirited. You’d hear it as in, “You know ol’ so-and-so, I tell ya, she’s a Jezebel.” It was not a compliment.

Jezebel convinced her husband, King Ahab, to institute the worship of Baal, a false God. Not only that, but she also saw the Jewish God as a threat to her worship of Baal. Being the evil woman (like the one the Electric Light Orchestra sang about, “Evil woman.”) that she was, she had the Jewish religious leaders brutally persecuted and killed. Most of the Jewish priests, if not all except Elijah, were murdered as a result.

Elijah, feeling the pressure, proposed a challenge between the Jewish God Yahweh and Baal. Sarah read about that challenge during our first reading this morning from 1 Kings 18:20-40. Two bulls were slaughtered and prepared as sacrifices to be burned. The challenge was for the true gods to send down fire to burn up the sacrifices.

Well we heard how that turned out. The Baal sacrifice just sat there, in spite of their priests’ actions, including cutting themselves and mixing their blood with that of the bull on the sacrifice. (Yet another reason not to be a Baal priest, if you ask me.)

Elijah, on the other hand, douses his sacrifice with water three times (a foreshadowing of baptism in the name of the Trinity, perhaps?) The true God sends down flame that not only consumes the bull, but vaporizes all the water as well. When the crowd saw this, Elijah takes advantage of the moment to convince the people to grab the Baal priests and kill them and they do.

Well as you can imagine ol’ Jezebel wasn’t too thrilled about this so she makes a vow to kill Elijah, and Elijah has to run for his life.

Now this wasn’t the first time that Elijah had to flee for his life. If we back up and look at the 17th chapter of 1st Kings we find that Elijah confronts King Ahab and declares a drought on the land until God, through Elijah, ends it. (It lasted 3 years.) As expected, King Ahab isn’t very pleased to hear about this. Elijah has to flee for his life into the wilderness where Ravens (we call them crows) take care of him.

So Elijah has fled for his life before, and is forced to do so again after having the priests of Baal killed.

It’s important for us to remember life wasn’t easy for Old Testament prophets. They kept singing that Santana song to the people, [sing]: “You’ve got to change your evil ways.” But the people were stubborn and stiff-necked and kept singing that AC/DC song, “We’re on a highway to hell.”

As a result oftentimes the prophets had to sing that Styx song, “Oh Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law.”

Elijah finds himself in that situation in the scripture we read today. So he flees into the wilderness. There are very few sources of water or food in the wilderness. Elijah was in real danger of dying from thirst and/or starvation. In the words of Jackson Brown, he was “running on empty.” (I have no idea why I’m referencing so many classic rock songs…)

Angels come and give him bread and food, refreshing him and strengthening him. He then starts out on a 40 day journey to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Moses were given the 10 Commandments. When he gets there, he finds a cave and settles in it.

If we keep reading the scripture after the one we read today, we read this: “He [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”

So Elijah’s life is not an easy one, for sure. But he also has some deep, profound times where he experiences the presence of God, which is pretty cool. And the reason he covers his face with his mantel (kind of like a robe) is that he knows that the scriptures tell him that no one can see the face of God and live. (Exodus 33:20) God is that holy.

Eventually Elijah trains a new group of prophets, including Elisha, who he taps to take his place.

One of the interesting things about Elijah is that in the New Testament he represents all the Old Testament prophets. In the transfiguration of Jesus, found in all three synoptic gospels, Peter, James, and John go to the top of a mountain where Jesus is transfigured before their eyes. He is surrounded by dazzling light and is seen with two other figures, identified as Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the law given by God to the Jewish people, while Elijah represents the prophets.

Another interesting thing about Elijah is that he is one of only two people in the Bible who don’t die, but instead are taken up into heaven. Enoch is the other person. Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind of fire.

So, what can we learn from Elijah that can be applied to our lives today?

I think the first is that even when it seems like the whole world is against us, God is still for us.

Elijah spent a lot of time fleeing for his life. As a result he spent a lot of time alone in desperate circumstances.

Loneliness can be a killer. One of the things that has happened as collateral damage to this COVID pandemic is that so many people are experiencing loneliness. As humans it’s not in our nature to be alone. Now I believe it’s good every now and then to be alone, but not in large segments of time. And if you think about it we use loneliness in our prisons to punish those who have committed horrible crimes. We put them in solitary confinement.

COVID has in effect placed many people in solitary confinement. I believe one of the saddest examples of this is in our hospitals. So many people are dying of COVID, which is horrible, but what makes it even sadder is that they are dying alone. Their loved ones cannot be there at their side as they take their last breath. The health care workers that are taking care of them are not only serving as caretakers, but as their connection to other human beings as well.

The elderly and those with health conditions are choosing to stay in their homes in order to keep from being exposed to the virus, and for good reason. And while these self-imposed exiles are needed to protect their physical health, it takes a toll on their emotional health.

And yet, God is still with them. God still loves them and is present with them, even if it may not feel like it. And instead of ravens or angels, God may be using us to take care of them. We can pick up grocery orders and deliver them to their front porches. We can call them on the phone or send emails or text messages. We can even go old school and write them cards or letters that they will get in the mail.

And if we are the ones who are experiencing that isolation, that loneliness, we can be comforted in knowing that with God we are never alone. Like Elijah, God will take care of us, God will provide. And we can use that isolation, that loneliness, to experience the presence of God.

The second I think we can learn from Elijah is that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth. Now let me be very clear on this and emphasize that we should always speak the truth in love, not in anger. Social media and our world today has too many people speaking in anger, but as Christians we are never called to speak in anger.

We are called to speak the truth in love. Like Elijah, those in positions of power may not like what we have to say, but still we are called to speak truth into the world. Our society is moving further and further away from biblical principles and we may feel outnumbered and overwhelmed, but God calls us to hold to what is right, even when it is unpopular. And we speak the truth not only in our words but in our actions as well. Sometimes how we act speaks much louder than the words we say, and if our actions are the opposite of our words then we are doing damage to God’s Kingdom.

But again, I emphasize that we need to speak the truth in love.

The third thing I think we can learn from Elijah is that following God isn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for Elijah to stand up to the King and Queen (“that ol’ Jezebel”) to tell them things he knew they didn’t want to hear. Still, he took a deep breath and did it because God called him to it and it was the right thing to do. And the results are that he had to run for his life (multiple times) and hide in the desert.

As we have said before, God doesn’t call us to the easy places. God calls us to those places where we find ourselves anxious, doubting our abilities, and even questioning God as to why he allowed us to be in those difficult positions. And yet it is in those times that our faith grows.

We are living in difficult times. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on our country. And after 20 years of our military men and women fighting in Afghanistan as a result of those attacks, with 3,586 American and allied troops giving their lives for the cause, the country is now under the control of the same political group as it was when the terrorist attacks in the US happened 20 years ago.

COVID has reared its ugly head with the Delta variant, and our hospitals and healthcare system is trying to treat a record high number of patients. Many businesses have had to close because of the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs, and yet there are some businesses that can’t find enough people willing to work. Many items are in short supply, and parts for repair are hard to find. Many people are finding themselves with less income while facing higher prices.

But it is in difficult times such as this that God’s Kingdom can grow. Twenty years ago, the Sunday after 9-11, most churches in the US saw record attendance. People turned to God for the answers to how something so terrible could have happened.

I think the soil for God’s Kingdom is fertile and ready to be worked and seeds to be planted. The world really, really needs to hear the Good News today. There is so much negative news that it can drag people down in their souls. But the Grace of God as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ empowers us as Christians through the Holy Spirit to lift those spirits, to enjoy life freely without fear, declaring “I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Let us devote ourselves to being those workers.

So my challenge for you this week is to be like Elijah. Remember that when the whole world seems like it may be against us that God is for us. God loves us and will never, ever leave us. Even when we are alone God is with us.

And let us remember to speak the truth in love, even if it’s unpopular. We are called to live for God, not for others, so let us resist the siren songs of the world and instead look to God’s word for direction and guidance. Let us proclaim the Gospel of love in love, so that others may be able to experience it for themselves.

And let us remember that following God isn’t easy. There will be obstacles, there will be resistance, and at times it may seem like we aren’t making a difference. But don’t give up. Keep planting those seeds, especially in the tough times. In the difficult times people really need to hear the Good News, so let us be willing to share it with them

No matter how our world changes, let us be like Elijah and have the faith to do the right thing.

In the words of Tom Petty,

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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