Elijah and the Still Small Voice a Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-18
Today our sermon series Bible Stories You Should Know gives us a story in 1 Kings 19:1-18 about the prophet Elijah, who emerges on the scene several generations after King David (click here for last week’s sermon about David). After David’s son, King Solomon, a long series of horrible kings ruled Israel. The author of 1 Kings ticks off a long list. This King (with an unpronounceable name) reigned and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and he died. Then another king arose, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and he died (and so on). The prophetic tradition describes kings as evil if they did two things:
1. They presided over governments that ignored the plight of poor people.
2. They bowed down to idols instead of Yahweh. One after another, evil, corrupt, evil.
Elijah gets into “good trouble”
At the end of the long list, we get King Ahab, described as the worst of the worst. But his wife, Queen Jezebel, was worse. The situation was untenable, so God sent the prophet Elijah to call out King Ahab and lead the people toward righteousness. Elijah goes to work and develops a reputation. The first time King Ahab meets Elijah face-to-face, the king sees his distinctive look—wearing a hairy mantle from some animal. (By the way, did you know that the symbolism of clergy stoles is supposed to remind us of Elijah’s mantle and the calling of pastors to call for better treatment of the poor and lead people away from the idols of the age). Ahab looks at Elijah and says, “I know who you are, the troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17).
Elijah probably thought, “No, Jack. You’re the troubler of Israel, and I’m the troubler of you.”
Elijah makes me think of former civil rights leader and U.S. congressman John Lewis, who talked about how people who stand up for what is right are dismissed as troublemakers. But he said there is a good kind of trouble to get into—the trouble that upsets the status quo when you stand against evil. In the face of evils like racism, we are called to cause what he called good trouble. Disrupt the system. Work for change.
Prophetic cage match
One day Elijah challenges the prophets of the fertility god Baal to a prophetic cage match. It’s Elijah mono e 450 false prophets. He takes them all on. Whichever prophet could call down fire from the sky to consume a slaughtered bull represented the true god. The Baal prophets go first. They dance around and pray and cut themselves, but nothing happens. Elijah taunts them, suggesting they yell louder because their god might be indisposed–perhaps going to the bathroom. Eventually, they hang their heads in defeat.
Then it’s Elijah’s turn. He makes the contest more challenging by digging a trough and submersing his bull in water. He prays, and bada-bing-bada-boom, a pillar of fire, strikes from heaven, consuming the carcass. We have a victor!
Then the story dips into deliberate exaggeration to make a point. Elijah rounds up the 450 Baal prophets and another 400 false prophets, draws his sword, and executes them. All of them. No one runs away while he’s taking a breather from all that hacking; no one thinks to overwhelm him with a swarming attack. Bruce Lee movies don’t have him taking on 850 at once. No. The Bible doesn’t detail how it happened because that is not the point.
One evil replaces another
The point is that Elijah believed that eliminating the false prophets would get rid of evil. The story parallels the story of Noah when God decided that there was too much evil and to start with a clean slate. Neither the flood nor the slaughter of the prophets eradicated evil. Something always comes along to take the place of what you extricate. I think these stories reflect ancient people trying to tell us that religious violence is stupid, pointless, and ultimately ineffective. And it reminds us that evil is not eradicated in big sweeping actions but is an ever-present struggle in our hearts and society.
Queen Jezebel learns that Elijah wasted the prophets, so she puts a hit out on Elijah, sending word that he will be killed by the day’s end. Elijah runs away. Weird that he wiped out all those dudes but was afraid of Jezzy’s hitmen. But again, that isn’t the point. The point is that for all his efforts, the evil he thought he eradicated immediately raised its ugly head.
When the funk hits
On the lamb, Elijah sloops his shoulders and falls into a funk. It’s the funk we’ve all had when we realize, “I went through all that effort for that? What’s the point? What’s the use, no matter what good you do, what victory you win, nothing changes. One step forward, two steps back.”
Elijah handled it by lying on the ground, hoping to die, but God sends an angel to feed him and get him going. He wanders for 40 days, and God finds him hiding in a cave. Who has a “man cave” or a “she shed,” someplace you retreat and lick your wounds? Maybe it’s a literal place you go, or it’s alcohol or distracting activities to put your head down and keep from thinking about. Where do you go? What do you do?
Former victories are threatened by evil in the US today
We go through it personally, and many look at our society and understand what drew Elijah to that cave. Many of us feel like Elijah when we see that the great victories of yesterday didn’t permanently solve anything. They require constant vigilance.
- I thought we won World War II against the Nazis and Fascists. The victory was won, but we see Nazi and fascist slogans and ideas going mainstream today. Pundits praise dictators and their autocratic methods.
- We thought we were further ahead with race relations with the passage of the Voting Rights act and the election of our first black President. Now we see these freedoms being chipped away, and hate and fear percolate through our public discourse.
- We thought women’s rights and gay marriage were settled principles. The victory had been won. Now there are platforms to roll back those rights.
- We thought Thomas Jefferson settled the separation of church and state, now we see people trying to use government to impose a narrowly defined Christian theocracy on everybody.
- Everywhere we look, we see the false prophets encouraging us to bow down to the false gods of greed and division, of living for oneself, not giving a hoot about seeking the welfare of a suffering brother or sister.
- Participation in all religions has been plummeting for decades, and there seems to be no moral center that holds us together anymore.
I get Elijah and why he went to that cave. Don’t you? Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel, too.
What are you doing here?
The cave Elijah found was on Mt. Horeb, the mountain where Moses heard the call of God to tell Pharoah to “Let my people go.” It’s the mountain (also called Mt. Sinai) where God later gave Moses the commandments. Even though he was in a funk, Elijah’s instincts drew him to holy ground. Maybe that’s what we do, too. Even when we feel defeated in a funk, we come here to the holy ground to find our purpose and ignite our passion again.
God finds Elijah in the cave and asks, “What are you doing here?”
Elijah answers God.
“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.”
Elijah was throwing a pity party in the cave. I like Elijah because he’s so like any of us. We’ve all thrown those parties, right?
Earth Wind and Fire—and silence or a thunderous roar
God says, wait. I’m about to pass by. Then come some supernatural events. There is a pillar of fire, perhaps like the one he had called down from heaven days before. But God was not in the fire. Then there was wind so powerful that it split rocks. But God was not in the wind. Then an earthquake. You can remember this by thinking of the rock band Earth, Wind and Fire. But God was not in any of these.
What happens next is the subject of much scholarly debate because the Hebrew words used here are unique and could go differently. Some versions of the Bible say there was the sound of a still small voice, other translations say it was the sound of sheer silence. Much is to be said about taking time for silence and listening to God. A couple of weeks ago, Rick Hamlin preached about how we need to build that time into our lives, and we should always think in that direction. Even in worship in the parts that aren’t speaking or singing parts, we can adopt the attitude of opening ourselves to hear God speaking to our inner hearts in silence.
In a twist that blew me away, some translators say where we’ve been reading, still small voice the Hebrew suggest something more like a deafening roar. It’s not quiet, it’s loud. Elsewhere in the Bible God’s presence and voice is heard what is described as a roar. The roar signifies God’s presence in a powerful way.
Whether it is quiet or loud, the power of God draws Elijah from the depths to the mouth of the cave to encounter God’s power. I wonder what would draw you from the depths to the mouth to reconnect with God. What would a step forward look like for you?
The transforming power of God
At the mouth of the cave, Elijah experiences the power of God. It is a scene like one in the book of Job where Job is feeling sorry for himself, and he wants answers from God about why he was suffering and what’s the point of it all if you do good and suffer anyway. God addresses Job from a whirlwind and testifies to all the works of power God has done in creation. God doesn’t answer his questions, but the power of God so moves Job that he trusts again and his questions pale in significance to the power of the almighty God.
The parallel stories of Elijah and Job give us the key to getting out of our self-indulgent pity parties. It’s like that old phrase: Instead of telling God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big God is. Put yourself in the presence of God, and feel the power. Look at the images of the James Webb telescope. Billions of galaxies with trillions of stars and planets. Let music and art reach deep inside of you. Look for the helpers, the people God does good through, who put themselves out there instead of giving up. Maybe you are waiting for God to act in some dramatic fashion when God is waiting for you to change your perspective. Experience and connect with the power around you and God put within you.
At the mouth of the cave, God again asks, “What are you doing here?” Elijah repeats his sorrowful answer. I’m alone. It’s pointless.
Connect with others and get back to work
God tells him you are not alone. There is a village filled with thousands of faithful people. We can learn from this lesson. We see from limited, self-pitying perspectives. God sees from a wider vantage point. Where we think we are the only ones left, God has been at work in others, doing good. Remember when we lose hope and crawl into caves, God is still preparing wonderful things for us, things we can’t see from our limited vantage point. The lesson is to trust in the One who moves in mysterious ways that we cannot see in the present moment.
God is trying to tell Elijah (and us), “I’ve got this.” Don’t worry about things you cannot control get back to doing the good I called you to do. Elijah, get back to work. Connect with the faithful people. Train Elisha, the prophet of the next generation, to cause good trouble to be a witness to make things right. Pass the mantle of courageous, prophetic leadership and cause good trouble to Elisha.
As people of faith, we know the mantle has been passed along to our generation. One of the reasons I don’t often wear a clergy stole is because I believe the spiritual mantle falls on all believers. It’s not something we hire out to the clergy. Let us again hear God’s call to connect with the faithful and to get back to work witnessing to the power of God to a nation that is losing its way.
Like Rep. John Lewis wrote:
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Let us hear what God is saying to us through this story of Elijah. Trust in the power of God. Learn to trust in God who is working behind the scenes for the results. Don’t get surprised and in a funk when evil raises its head. Our call is to get back to work. Spreading love, promoting peace, and advocating for the poor and those who are victims.
Maybe it is time to let people hear God’s roar. Like Marianne Williamson said.
“Hate has talked so loudly for so long. Greed has talked so loudly for so long. Liars have talked so loudly for so long. Love has got to stop whispering.”
Let’s love louder! It’s not about shouting but about having clarity of purpose and rekindling our passion. It’s about how we live, what we stand for, and how we demonstrate care and compassion. Remember, God’s got this. Now, let’s get back to work. Amen.