Resignation Refused: Elijah

1 Kings 19:1-18

We live in an age of “tolerance.”  Everybody is right, nobody is wrong – everything is just an opinion  and every opinion is as good as another.  We are careful not to offend anyone by suggesting that truth might be absolute and that there is one and only one God.  Then we find that tolerance is only a one-way street.

We meet people everyday who believe in “God,” but that god is a concoction of their own making.  He is a god of convenience – there when I need him and minds his own business the rest of the time.  He loves me for who I am, and demands nothing of me.  He (or she or it) is the same as the gods of Hindu and Islam and Paganism.  Jesus was simply a good teacher like Buddha or Muhammad or Joseph Smith.  In fact, if truth be told, most people like to think – “I’m my own god, in charge of my own destiny, accountable to no one but myself.”

And in that respect, we’re not a lot different than the people of Elijah’s day.  They believed in God, but they lived surrounded by a society that didn’t.

His very name proclaimed his message – “Elijah” = “My God is Yahweh”.  One God – no other, no substitutes, no additions, no rivals.  One God who is the Lord of all the earth.  His name was his message.  And with that stand he was putting himself on a collision course with a man and a nation. 

The man was King Ahab and the nation was his own people, Israel.  Let’s see Ahab’s reputation –

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years. Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.  1 Kings 16:29-33

Let’s notice Israel’s problem:

·         Not that they would abandon the Lord, but that God would simply be placed among the pantheon of other gods which they had adopted from the Canaanites among whom they had taken up residence.

·         The religion of the Baals – the gods of nature – sun and rain and fertility of the land and its people.  It just seemed to fit so naturally for this people – nomads become farmers.  They were just learning how things worked.  And after all, they needed all the help they could get.  So what would be the harm in giving a little credit to the Baals if it kept the crops growing.

Before we can understand Elijah’s despair, we must see the flow of Elijah’s ministry over the previous three years.

His ministry began rather abruptly.  God chose Elijah to confront Ahab.  His message?  Drought.  No dew, no rain, not a drop of moisture until I speak the word.  I can just imagine, Ahab’s lips started cracking and his mouth grew dry even as Elijah spoke.

This is serious business.  Elijah has just threatened the end of their livelihood.  We know the critical importance of rain.  For us, the lack of it means brown lawns and low river levels and wildfires.  For an agricultural society, it was a death sentence.  The drought got so bad that Ahab commandeers the little feed and grain and hay remaining for his horses and mules (all in the name of national defense, of course) and leaves his people to starve.

After this announcement, God sends Elijah into hiding – first in the Kerith Ravine, fed by ravens – and after the drought dried up the flow of that river, to the widow of Zarephath (of the bottomless oil jar fame).

It’s now been over three years since the land has seen a drop of rain and Elijah is called back into service to drive God’s message home to the people –  1 Kings 18:1-2 “After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: ‘Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’  So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab.”

Elijah goes back to Ahab and challenges his 450 prophets of Baal and Jezebel’s 400 prophets of Asherah to a contest – a contest of gods.  And you know the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel – never a more powerful or more decisive victory was ever won.

The point of it all?  Listen to Elijah’s words “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21).  One God, one Lord – who will it be?  It’s decision making time - 1 Kings 18:22-38

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD'S prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 

So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice.

But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” 

“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again. “Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench. At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

The contest is over – they had seen the power of the Lord demonstrated so convincingly - not a man or woman is left doubting – vs. 39 “When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord – He is God!  The Lord – He is God!’”  The hearts of the people have turned – then, the great slaughter of the idolatrous prophets.

Then Elijah begins to pray.  Off in the distance a small cloud forms over the Mediterranean Sea.  Quicker and larger it comes – Elijah tells Ahab to flee in his chariot before the sun-baked roads turn to mud.

Elijah is so pumped up, he runs – vs. 46 – “The power of the Lord came upon him.”  Ahead of the storm, ahead of Ahab’s horse drawn chariot he runs – and he arrives in Samaria before either of them.

You don’t need three guesses to figure out where Elijah’s spirits are – sky high.  Until… until Jezebel sends word – “Elijah, you’re a dead man.”  (You remember that Jezebel is King Ahab’s wife and queen – if you think Ahab was wicked, Jezebel makes him look like a choir boy).  Elijah has misjudged.  He expected praise, he received threats.  One voice rings out above all the rest – and that is the one Elijah listens to.

Sometimes that’s all it takes – one voice of criticism, one voice of condemnation and it drowns out all the rest – it’s all we can hear.

Suddenly, Elijah is plunged from the mountain peak to the valley floor.  From the emotional rush of victory to the depths of depression.  From confidence to confusion.

He flees into the desert.  A pause in the wilderness of Beersheba where he asks God to take his life.  God has other plans.  Fed by an angel, Elijah is strengthened for a journey – farther and farther south, 40 days and nights to the mountain of God – Mt. Horeb, Mt. Sinai.

There in the cave (perhaps the same cave in which Moses hid?) God asks Elijah what he is doing there, and Elijah pours out his heart to God – 19:10 “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

God reveals himself to Elijah – not “in” the wind, the earthquake, or the fire.  God reminds Elijah that he is not to be found “in” his creation.  (We fall prey to the same danger – to worship the creation rather than the creator – to expect God’s presence in the great and almighty.)

Elijah, though, recognizes when the presence of the Lord is there – in a still, small voice.  That which you or I might dismiss – “certainly God can do better than that” – Elijah pulls his cloak over his face and listens for the Lord’s voice.  Again he speaks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  The despair pours out again.

Elijah is asking to be excused – he’s resigning – “Lord, I never asked for this – get someone else.”

Discouragement, criticism, loneliness – sound familiar?  “Lord, I’m left all alone.”  Of all the sources of discouragement, to feel that you are all alone – that no one else has been there – no one would understand –that you face this storm on your own – has to be the most crushing of all.  There are times we don’t understand.  It’s easy to catch the disease, to lose sight, to give up, to drop out.  Elijah wanted to.

Instead, God sends Elijah back to where he came from – not to hide in a ravine or in some widow’s home far from the beaten path – but back into the fray, back into the conflict.

·         Back to Syria – where Elijah will appoint a new king.

·         Back to Israel – and a new king for them.

·         And Elijah, the Lord says, “find the young man named Elisha” – a prophet to prepare for your work.

·         And Elijah – you are not alone – I have 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

A lot of us go around like Elijah – weary of our journey – feeling alone, overworked, opposed, criticized, unappreciated.

His remedy is much the same for us.  He sends us back to work – but with a renewed sense of purpose.  When we seek the Lord, he restores our spirits and refills our empty cups with the refreshing of his presence.

And he reminds us – “you are not alone.”  Look around, and realize that we share something precious – the bond of the blood of Jesus Christ.  2 Cor. 4:7-11  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.

Are you discouraged?  Listen for the voice – he calls even now.

Illustration – Put her out of her misery

Mary Jane’s father owned a dairy and sold the milk and ice cream at a small store in front of one of the dairy buildings.  His ice cream was famous and people lined up to buy to taste his delicious flavors.  Mary Jane had started working for her father when she was young, and she enjoyed her job and helping her family.  One day in 1967, her father hired Debbie to work at the store.  On Debbie’s first day, she made one mistake after another – overcharging customers, missing up orders and ringing up sales wrong on the cash register.  The last straw for Mary Jane was when Debbie broke a half gallon of milk.  Milk and glass were all over the floor.  Rushing into her father’s office, Mary Jane said, “Dad you have to come and put Debbie out of her misery.”  “Okay,” her father said, rising from his desk.  “Debbie,” he called, “will you come here for a moment?”  A worried Debbie hurried to Mr. West.  “Yes?” she asked.  “Debbie, I have been watching you all day, and I saw how you treated Mrs. Forbush.”  Debbie looked even more worried.  “Debbie, I’ve never seen her be so polite to any of my employees before.  You handled her well.  I’m sure she’ll want you to wait on her every time she comes into the store.  Keep up the good work.”  Mary Jane was dumbfounded.  Over the next 16 years, Debbie became one of her father’s best employees.  She was loyal and hardworking, and a friend for life.

That’s how God treats us.  When we’ve blown it, when we’re discouraged, when we want to give up, he puts his arm around our shoulder and says, “Keep up the good work.”  Or as Paul writes:  Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  1 Cor. 15:58