Sunday’s sermon: Wilderness (Un)Rest

Text used – 1 Kings 19:1-18

  • Anthony of Egypt. Paul of Thebes. Arsenius the Great. Macarius of Egypt. Syncletica of Alexandria. Theodora of Alexandria. Sarah of the Desert. Paula and Eustochium. These are just some of the names of a group of highly influential ancient Christian teachers and monastics known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers: “early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the 3rd C.E.”[1]
    • Men and women who sought to live out their faith and deepen their relationship with God out on the farthest margins of society, both literally and spiritually
    • Came about after Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and elevated it to the sanctioned state religion in 313 C.E.
      • Remember, before Constantine himself converted to Christianity and then declared it the official religion of the entire Roman empire, Christians were persecuted throughout the empire. This hostile atmosphere lent a certain gravity and potency to the lives and witness of the early Christians. “Being a Christian” was something that took serious commitment and intentionality because being a Christian had the real potential of getting you killed!
      • Trevor Miller (in a talk titled “Understanding Desert Monasticism” that he gave to the Northumbria Community in the United Kingdom): After 3 centuries of ‘being homeless in the world’ Christians began to find themselves in favour, rather than persecuted. The result was confusion and bewilderment in those who had accepted themselves as aliens and strangers in this world. … Constantine’s edict of toleration … resulted in the cutting edge of the Church’s life being blunted as for the first time nominalism took root (believers in name only) further resulting in mediocrity, accommodation and compromise as social standing became the reason for faith and not love of Jesus Christ. It was at this point, when Christians began to find themselves at home in the world, where those who had previously persecuted the Christians were putting out the welcome mat and sitting in the ‘same pew’, that the response to the ‘call of the desert’ began to gain momentum, beginning at first with a few, and then a multitude.[2] → So when they saw the way that cultural acceptance was watering down the Christian faith, these Desert Fathers and Mothers decided to remove themselves from the influences of the culture and take to the wilderness. And in that wilderness, they found God. Absolutely. Profoundly. Reverently. They found God. God found them.
        • Followed the example of so many throughout the Bible who found God in the wilderness
          • Those who went seeking God in the wilderness
            • In their exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel followed God into and throughout the wilderness
            • John the Baptist spent all sorts of time living out his faith in the wilderness
            • Following his baptism, Jesus followed the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days
          • Also those who found God unexpectedly in the wilderness
            • Hagar and Ishmael’s encounter with God after being thrown out of Abraham’s house
            • Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush
            • And today’s Scripture reading – this story of the prophet Elijah fleeing into the wilderness to save his own life – is just such a story.
  • Background for where today’s story falls in the Grand Arc of God’s Story
    • Last week: talked about Solomon building the Temple → point at which the kingdom of Israel was settled
      • Time of peace → peace within and peace with neighboring kingdoms/nations
      • Time of stability in the monarchy
      • Time of prosperity for the people of Israel
    • But, as seems to always be the case, this peace and stability didn’t last.
      • Following Solomon’s death, kingdom of Israel splits into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah
      • Line of corrupt and unfaithful kings lead the kingdom of Israel further and further away from God → culminates in the rule of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel – text (1 Kgs 16): [Ahab] ruled over Israel in Samaria for twenty-two years and did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. … He married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, who was the king of the Sidonians. He served and worshipped Baal.[3]
    • Enter Elijah the prophet – the one that God calls to bring God’s word of condemnation to King Ahab and God’s call of repentance to the people of Israel to try to bring them back to the Lord their God. → does it in just about the most drastic, theatrical, jaw-dropping way possible
      • Elijah challenges 500 of the prophets of Baal to a competition: create a giant bonfire but do not light it → whoever’s god can light the pyre is the true God → prophets of Baal spend all day calling out to their god … nothing happens → Elijah first calls for the giant pile of wood to be doused with gallons upon gallons of precious water (made even more precious because the land of Israel is in the midst of a severe drought and famine), then calls up on God → fire streams down from heaven and lights the wood → God’s fire burns so hot that the wood, the water, and even the stones and the dust are consumed[4]
      • And if Elijah had stopped there, he might have been fine … but he didn’t. → Elijah instructs all the people watching to seize the 500 prophets of Baal → Elijah slaughters them on the banks of the Kishon Brook[5]
  • Brings us to today’s story: Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.” Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life.[6]
    • Like so many before him, Elijah finds himself in the wilderness, not by choice, but by necessity. Jezebel is ready to kill him, so he throws some clothes in a bag and flees.
    • Heb. makes it clear just what a dangerous and desperate situation Elijah is in
      • Jezebel’s threat: she calls the vengeance of her own gods down upon herself if she doesn’t repay Elijah in kind for the death of her 500 prophets “by this time tomorrow” – Heb. word that she uses for “time” = definitive and definite → There are multiple words in Hebrew that get translated as “time” in English. Some are more open-ended and imprecise, more like “eternity” or “some time” or “eventually.” But that is not the word that Jezebel uses. She isn’t threatening Elijah with retribution someday. She’s very clearly threatening to repay him death for death now.
      • Heb. also makes it clear that Elijah is fully aware of just how quickly and seriously this situation has become deadly – Heb. “terrified” (“Elijah was terrified”) shares same root as word “see, perceive, know, understand” → So the Hebrew makes it clear that Elijah’s fear over Jezebel’s threat is far from a blind fear. He knows exactly what awaits him if Jezebel gets a hold of him. He understands fully and completely. And so he runs.
    • Runs into the wilderness because the wilderness is vast à figures it will be impossible for Jezebel to find him there
    • Runs into the wilderness because the same vastness that hides him also provides Elijah with a place to pour out all his fear and vulnerability – text: [Elijah] finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m not better than my ancestors.”[7] → Heb. here is very revealing as well
      • Text says Elijah “longed for his own death” → Heb. “longed” = both an inward expression and an outward expression of emotion
        • Component of inward longing, desire, deep-seated urge
        • Component of vocalizing that longing – asking, begging out loud
  • But even here, in this most desperate, most desolate state, Elijah encounters God not once … not twice … but three separate times.
    • 1st time: Elijah falls asleep under that same broom bush → awoken by one of God’s messengers (angels) and given food and water → Elijah eats, drinks, goes back to sleep
    • 2nd time: Elijah is again awoken by one of God’s messengers à more pointed message this time – text: “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.”[8] → This passage is really interesting because of the different ways it’s been translated. Some versions read the way ours read this morning – some minor variation of, “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” But other translations, like the New Revised Standard versions, read more along the lines of, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
      • Heb. here is a little murky/difficult (hence the varying translations) = “get up” and “eat” are clear → But the rest is a challenging combination of words with a somewhat complicated sentence structure.
      • What is clear: God’s way of preparing Elijah both bodily and spiritually for what lies ahead → And clearly, God spoke the truth! – text: Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. There he went into a cave and spent the night.[9]
    • Brings us to Elijah’s 3rd encounter with God in the wilderness – text: The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”[10] → This is such a fascinating interaction because it is God coming to Elijah in the wilderness in a way completely outside the realm of the way God usually comes to people throughout Scripture!
      • Dr. Nancy deClaissé-Walford (author and prof. of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta) points out: An appearance, a manifestation, of God to humanity is called a theophany, a moment when the sovereign God physically interacts with the human realm. In the Old Testament text, God interacts with humans in dreams (Abraham: Genesis 15; Jacob: Genesis 28); in seemingly human form (Abraham: Genesis 18; Gideon: Judges 6); in fire and smoke (Moses: Exodus 3; Sinai: Exodus 19); in wind and earthquake and unexplainable phenomena (Sinai: Exodus 19; Isaiah: Isaiah 6; Ezekiel: Ezekiel 1).[11] → I think this is the most powerful part of Elijah’s story this morning. We know that he has fled into the wilderness out of necessity – as a way (the only way!) to save his own life. We know that he’s feeling desolate and vulnerable. He’s afraid. He’s uncertain. He’s discouraged. If he has any hope left, it’s barely a spark. And yet into that place of wilderness – both the wilderness landscape that surrounds Elijah and the inner wilderness that has engulfed his spirit … into that place of wilderness, God comes down and interacts with Elijah in a whole new way. A way that grabs his attention. A way that speaks to him not with the flash and flourish, the bluster and grandeur, the bombastic power that God has used before, but a stillness. A silence. A whisper. A word and a way of being to calm Elijah’s raging and comfort his fear.
  • Friends, we rage. We fear. We find ourselves in times of uncertainty and vulnerability. We have times when, like Elijah, we cry out to God, “God, this is too much!” I know that Christian pop culture likes to doll out well-worn platitudes like “God will never give you more than you can handle” and “If God brought you to it, God will bring you through it,” but in the moment – in those wilderness moments full of pain and anxiety and doubt and fear – have those platitudes ever brought comfort? Generally, no. But when we find ourselves caught in the vast emptiness of those wilderness moments, we can hold tight to Elijah’s story and the assurance that God is there in our wilderness, too, reaching out to us.
    • Maybe not the way we want
    • Maybe not the way we’ve prayed for
    • Almost definitely not the way we expect
    • But God is more familiar with wilderness wanderings and wilderness unrest than we can even begin to imagine, and God will not leave us in that wilderness alone. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Fathers.

[2] https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/understanding-desert-monasticism/.

[3] 1 Kgs 16:29b-31.

[4] 1 Kgs 18:1-38.

[5] 1 Kgs 18:40.

[6] 1 Kgs 19:1-3a.

[7] 1 Kgs 19:4.

[8] 1 Kgs 19:7.

[9] 1 Kigs 19:8-9a.

[10] 1 Kgs 19:11-13.

[11] Nancy deClaissé-Walford. “Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-3/commentary-on-1-kings-191-45-78-15a (emphasis added).

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