The questions posed by the encounter between Elijah, Ahab, Jezebel, God, and the priests of Baal are too numerous count. Idolatry, corruption, vengeance, brutality, and murder are only a few which come to mind. However, to quote Kelly Clarkson, “at a moment like this”, there’s only persistent issue raised by this story. How do we understand God’s role in our lives? When things are going well for us, do we pin the tail on the good God donkey? Most of us do. We readily attribute blessings and miracles to God’s work and presence in our lives. Yet, when things go south, when the fit hits the shan, is the tail pinned on the bad God donkey? Do we become fearful and angry with God? Do we threaten God? I think so. I know so. This is what Elijah does.
God has presented Elijah with an overwhelming and undeniable reality: God supports Elijah. Despite this massive show of divine force, Elijah chooses to believe the words of a human being who has now been deprived of her entire religious workforce.
No, we’ve never been high on God one day and had a something go wrong the next which totally changed our perspective on God, life, and the world. This experience from the Bible seems totally foreign to my life as a person in the 21st century. No, that’s has never happened to us. Really, I think not.
Let’s excavate this text a little further. When we last saw Elijah he has scored the Super Bowl touchdown, the winning three point shot, and the home run in the bottom of the 9th to facilitate the defeat of 450 prophets of Baal. Remember, they were having a “God-off” between God and Baal. Both teams built altars and waited throughout a hot day for their respective God to ignite their altar with fire. Both sides sacrificed cows. Elijah, in an effort to build tension doused his altar with water. He also trashed talk the other side all day long, accusing Baal of sleeping and going for long walks in the sun. The Baal prophets, in fancy headdresses and dancing wildly, cut themselves with swords. Eventually, a divine hellfire missile lets loose from some heavenly drone, and blows up both altars, killing the 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah is proven right. Clearly he’s the big winner. That’s where we left him, surrounded by 450 dead people.
Jezebel is mad. She is a sore loser and a visionary villain. She isn’t going to let the death of nearly five hundred people who work for her impede her vision for Israel and Baal worship. So she sends word to Elijah and says, “By this tomorrow, I’m going to make you dead like them.” Here’s where the problem starts.
Verse three says, “Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life.” In an instant he goes from trash talking, loving God, bracelet wearing, Bible toting, and miracle happening Elijah to some random, frightened dude living in the desert. Where was his faith in the first place? Did he believe God in the first place? Was it all a sham? The writer wants us to know: this happens with lightening speed. Why is this important? As deep as we think our roots go, we can lose perspective in an instant.
So what happens when the donkey is gone and you’re left holding a tail with nowhere to pin it? God’s presence has run off and there are no explanations other than your own sense of fear.
You go to the desert. That’s what you call, in fancy words, “a motif”. That means it’s a recurring pattern or image and you ought to pay attention to it. In Bible, when people need to get things figured out in regards to God’s plan and their identity, they go to the desert. Moses, Jesus, Paul (three years in Arabia), and Elijah are only a few but I’m sure you’ll agree, those names carry a bit of weight.
Elijah begins a journey deeper into the desert. The further he travels; his will to live diminishes by the day. He doesn’t want to eat. Even here, shadowed by the Lord’s messengers (call them angels if you want or people the Lord sent to care for him), he says, “Take my life; it is no better than my ancestors.” Remember, all of this is because Jezebel said she wanted to kill him. He can’t see beyond her threat and acknowledge God’s provision and presence in the wilderness. You would think, at a moment like this, Elijah’s perspective might start to change.
We’re told, whether by these messengers or Elijah’s own design, the journey is taking him toward a place called Mount Horeb. For forty days and forty nights Elijah is wrestling with these questions trust, fear, faith, and God’s presence. Who does that sound like? Elijah is being tempted. I remember people telling stories about a young Galilean prophet who was walking the hills above Nazareth, up near Capernaum. He went in those synagogues; preaching and healing people. They’d never seen anything like this boy from Nazareth. The first question they always ask him was this, “Are you Elijah, come back dead?” He’d say no, my name is Jesus, Mary’s my momma and Joseph was my daddy. But Elijah, said Jesus, they are preaching from the same hymn book. God, they would say, is trying to do a new thing in a new way.
Elijah is disheartened with his ministry. When he’s finally in the cave, with an opportunity to one on one with God, we realize Elijah is carrying a ton of emotional baggage. He says the “Israelites have abandoned your covenant and I’m the only preacher left in the country”. Everybody is off doing their own thing; I can’t keep the God thing going all by myself. That’s what Elijah tells God. Some of his colleagues were murdered, the rest quit to work in car dealerships up the beach. Now, he tells God, the Toyota place isn’t hiring and now Jezebel wants to kill him too. What’s the use of going on, despite God’s presence and promises?
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Do I mean it wasn’t interesting up till now? No, this would make a great TV show. What I mean is this where God moves not in a mysterious way but off the grid. We expect God to be mysterious but sometimes God goes off the grid. “Off the grid” means completely below the radar in ways we’ve been conditioned to expect, understand, or interpret.
The Lord gives Elijah specific instructions, “Go out and stand (think of this at the door of the cave) at the mountain before the Lord.” The Lord, much as he did with Moses is going to pass by, do something, and make an appearance. Recall, in Elijah’s mind, the last time the Lord did something of this nature is was a ball of butt kicking fire sent from on high. This is probably what he’s looking for; he’s not thinking off the grid.
First, a mighty wind rocks the house. Category 4 or F8 level winds shake the rocks of the mountain and cause minor landslides. That’s all awesome natural wonder God stuff, right? No! Verse 11 says, “The Lord wasn’t in the wind.” God’s not in the power of the storm. I thought that’s the conventional wisdom. Nope.
No sooner than the wind dies down, an 8.5 earthquake hits the mountain. “But the Lord wasn’t in the Earthquake.” Next a forest fire rages through and around the mountain. “But the Lord wasn’t in the fire.” If nothing else, this passage should deal a death blow to the idea that God has anything to do with natural disasters.
So we have all these things we normally associate with God’s power, majesty, and awe. The Lord is in none of them. Where is the Lord? In a moment like this, where is the Lord?
“There was sound. It was thin and quiet.” I dare you to do a better description of the voice of God. Perhaps it’s the sound between the notes, music waiting to be played. That’s what I mean by going off the grid. Our world is so noisy; we have to go off the grid to hear God. The Lord is in the thin, quiet, sounds of our lives. In the moments when we might not hear anything at all, that is when we hear God and know what comes next.
We must find a place to hear God so we may ask ourselves; what will we believe; Jezebel’s threats or God’s provision. Will we assign miracles to God and sing praises to the Lord on one day and walk away from God the moment bad news or tragedy strikes.