Regardless of what lectionary year we find ourselves in, every summer includes a journey through the stories of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Sometimes we visit him early in the summer, in Year C. Sometimes it’s late summer, in Years A and B. No matter the year, we are invited to take a summer trip to Mt. Horeb.
It’s one of the few passages in the Bible that the lectionary invites us to read every year, and we can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the point is this: Every year, we need hope. The causes of our suffering and hardship might vary from year to year, but the source of our hope remains the same, for the assurance that Elijah received from God on Mt. Horeb is as true now as it was thousands of years ago. The truths of this story are both timeless and timely, and it’s a story of hope we need to hear year-round.
In fact, if we widen our lens to view not just 1 Kings 19, but the two chapters preceding it, we see that the theme of hope is a common thread throughout most of the stories of Elijah. These three chapters offer us three key principles for how to claim the hope that God brings us today:
First: God gives us just enough. That’s from 1 Kings 17.
Second: Be the hope. From 1 Kings 18.
Finally: You are not alone. 1 Kings 19.
First, in chapter 17, Elijah meets a woman who has fallen on very tough times. Drought has afflicted the land, she is now a widow and raising a child on her own, and she is down to her last morsels of meal and oil to back one final bit of bread before the two of them die of starvation. Over the course of their conversation, Elijah convinces her to take a leap of faith and surrender her last bit of food. And when she does, she discovers that God replenishes that jar of oil and jar of meal with just enough - just enough - to make it through one day at a time.
And that’s what God offers you today. Just enough physical provisions, emotional support, and spiritual encouragement to get through today, and then the next day, and then the next.
God will give you just enough.
Then in 1 Kings 18, after a fiery faceoff between Elijah and the false prophets of Baal, Elijah takes his servant to a mountain and tells his servant to go up to the ridge and look off into the horizon to see if there was any sign of rain. He goes up and sees nothing. Elijah tells him to go up and look again, a second time, and a third time, and fourth time. It is not until the seventh time that the servant says that he sees a small rain cloud, about the size of a human hand. Not much, but enough.
Now, what if Elijah or his servant had decided to give up at any time between the first and sixth time? The hope that God offers us requires our persistence and our participation. God’s hope is not something to sit back and wait for; it is something we step into and participate in. Right now, God is calling you to be the hope for someone. To offer them encouragement. To bring a spirit of calm. And to embody relentless hope for them.
Be the hope.
And then we get to today’s reading in 1 Kings 19, our annual summer rite of passage. Personally, the story of Mt. Horeb is my absolute favorite in the entire Old Testament. This story has gotten me through more tough times personally and expanded my view of God more than any other story in the Hebrew Bible.
At the outset of the chapter, we find Elijah at the lowest point of his life and ministry. Queen Jezebel is furious that her prophets had been defeated on Mt. Carmel, and she issues a death sentence over Elijah’s head. Elijah was running scared for his life and found himself in the middle of a wilderness.
He was, in a sense, socially distanced and socially isolated, and every emotion that he was feeling in that moment is one that many of us can relate to right now. Exhausted. Bewildered. Alone. Scared. Distrustful, Skeptical. Angry. Finished.
We know he was feeling these things, because when God came to him in the middle of that wilderness, and asked him what he was doing, Elijah told God these exact words:
I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!
In other words, Elijah was saying, “Look, God, I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do. I fulfilled your mission, lived life with integrity, and taken every precaution I’ve needed to. And all it has brought me is misery.” At one point, he even tells God, “It is enough. Take my life, God, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
And what do you suppose was God’s answer?
I find what happens next to be utterly fascinating. Because the next eight verses are like a massive game of Hide and Seek. Every way that Elijah would have expected to find God does not work. There are five different ways that God had shown up in the past but wasn’t showing up now. Until God was ready to surprise him in the end.
You might feel right now that God is distant or absent. But maybe, God is just stretching you to listen and watch for the new way that God is showing up right now.
The first thing God said to Elijah was to go up on Mt. Horeb. Makes sense. God has shown up on mountains before. Noah and the Ark on Mt. Ararat. Moses on Mt. Sinai. Even Jesus would preach a sermon on a mountain. So, Elijah went there expecting to see God exactly how he had seen God in the past.
But he didn’t.
The second thing God said to Elijah was to go into a cave. Makes sense, too. David hid in a cave from Saul and found protection from God. Jonah found God in a cave of sorts, in the belly of a fish. Jesus would be buried in the cave of a tomb before he rose again. So, Elijah went into that cave expecting to see God exactly how God had shown up in the past.
But he didn’t.
The third thing that happened was a great wind. Makes sense. A wind hovered over chaos at creation, breathed life into dust when the first human was formed, and would birth the Church when the wind of the Spirit touched down at Pentecost. So, Elijah expected to see God in the wind, just like he had in the past.
But God wasn’t in the wind.
The fourth thing that happened was an earthquake. Makes sense. A God who created the earth could certainly shake its foundations. An earthquake shook the Temple when Jesus died, and freed Paul and Silas when they were broken free from jail. So, Elijah expected to see God in that earthquake.
But God wasn’t there, either.
Finally, there was a fire. Well, of course that makes sense. A fire led the Israelites through the wilderness and would be visible in tongue-like form at Pentecost. Elijah had just seen God in the fire on Mt. Carmel in the previous chapter. So surely, he expected to see God in that way again.
But God wasn’t there.
If you are having a particularly hard time right now sensing where God is and what God is saying to you, then maybe God is trying to speak to you in a way that you have never heard God before. Not always in the standard prayers that we have prayed, or in the small batch of scriptures you may have read over and over again. Not always in the places, behaviors, or times that we have met God in the past.
God is not a genie in a bottle, or a lucky rabbit’s foot. If that were the case, then we would be in control of God.
So, maybe this wilderness season of your life is pushing you to leave your old ways of seeing God, so that you can remember that you are not God. Maybe this is an invitation for you to slow down your life, so that you can see God in the new way that God is speaking to you.
It was only until Elijah had dispelled all of those closely held assumptions about God that God was able, finally to break through to him. The Bible says that eventually, a still, small voice came to him.
A “voice, thin and quiet,” as one translation says. A whisper, just a bit louder than the noise within his heart, that he could only hear when he learned to silence every other voice but God’s voice.
It was then that he could hear God give him the words he needed to hear. God told Elijah, “Look. You think you’re all alone? Well, I’ve got another surprise for you. There are 7,000 other people who are here to support each other, and you are a part of that community, one that is bigger than you ever imagined. You’re not alone, Elijah.”
And friends, neither are you.
1 Kings 17: God gives you just enough.
1 Kings 18: Be the hope.
1 Kings 19: You are not alone.
Find God this week in the quiet. Amid your exhaustion, bewilderment, and isolation, create space in your mind and heart. And be open to God showing up and speaking up in a way you’ve never seen before.
Let us pray.
God, we claim your promise that you are about to pass by. You wish to draw near to us and become real to us. Teach us to listen. Teach us to silence all voices but your own. Help us to learn to sit and be still, to listen to our breath and your presence in it. Speak through the scriptures we have never read before; in a way we have never heard them. And in the end, help us to hear your message. Just as Elijah heard that he was not alone, help us to receive the good news that we are surrounded by love. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.