My sermon from this morning:
1 Kings 19:11-18
The Lord said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Yahweh, for Yahweh is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for Yahweh, 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.”
Yahweh said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Mehola to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”
No one likes being told what to do. We all want to find our own way, make deals on our own terms, and build lives that reflect our individual concepts of success. Self-sufficiency is a heavily lauded virtue in the 21st century. The great American dream maintains that anyone, willing to work hard and think a step ahead of the masses may find wealth, success, and comfort, so long as he sticks to his guns and doesn’t let the whining voices of naysayers distract him from that purpose.
Today, however, it seems harder than ever to avoid the cackles and hollers of the crowd. We live in a world where everyone seems to be an expert on everything. Parents are being constantly drawn into magazine articles and books written by experts who all claim to have the key to raising good children; the only problem is, most of those experts have never raised any children of their own, and none of their methods seem to match up. Any hour of the day I can turn on CNN and listen to four self-proclaimed experts breaking down the critical issue that’s crippling our government today. They’ll tell me what I need to do about it, who I need to vote for and what club I need to join to fix the country; it all sounds great until I realize if I heeded their advice, I’d have to run in four different directions all at once. Go strolling through the grocery store on a Tuesday evening and chances are you’ll run into a friend and find yourself caught up in conversation about the week. Let a concern about a budding conflict at work slip out, however, and you’ll likely find every shopper within ear shot, whether they have a clue about your life or not, has a piece of advice to offer that will surely clear up the matter once and for all.
There is no end to the “expert” advice available today. New philosophies on living are a dime a dozen; most of them seem so blatantly ridiculous on their face, you just can’t help but say, “Come on man, are you really serious Joe? Can’t you see that listening to that crackpot is just a waste of your time?” But you can’t say that. You try to get the words out, to steer your friend down the right path, but your voice is overpowered by the excited shouts and fury of the crowd, and before you know it, Joe has jumped onto the next bandwagon that just came into view. At the same time, your friend is still firmly parked right where he’s always been: Lost in a sea of noise.
This is the situation the prophet Elijah found himself in as he tried to remain faithful to God amidst a people who proudly clung to an “anything goes” way of life. At the urging of their crooked queen and her puppet husband, King Ahab, the people of Israel began to worship Baal alongside Yahweh. They didn’t want to sever their ties with the Lord completely — you never know when a second opinion might come in handy — but just to keep their bases covered, they figured it would be alright to follow the trend and pay homage to Baal as well. To Elijah, the absurdity of this line of thinking made it laughable on its face. The people couldn’t see it that clearly though. The noise of the crowd, the pressure of the experts, was simply too great. The prophet’s voice, and the people’s reason, were lost in the chatter. So what did Elijah do? How could he show this people the error of their ways? You know what happened next. Elijah proposed a test. He had the people build an altar for Baal while he straightened up the neglected altar of Yahweh. Sacrifices would be made for each god, and which ever god acknowledged the sacrifice by consuming it with fire — proving his deity with supernatural power — that was clearly the god to follow. The people agreed. They built their altar to Baal, but crying out to the phony god didn’t seem to be working. Elijah, being the human that he was, couldn’t help but rub it in their faces a little. “Maybe Baal is sleeping. Or maybe he’s relieving himself,” Elijah teased. “Shout louder, then he’ll hear you!”
Then Yahweh showed up. He lit up his altar with a fire and heat the people hadn’t known before. Scripture tells us that the flames licked the water out of the moat Elijah had built around the altar. If that wouldn’t get the people straight, what would? The people believed all right, at least the ones who were there, at least for a little while. Elijah had done it. He had given the job his all and he had made good on his claims. The prophet was a model of success. But his troubles were just beginning. Queen Jezebel didn’t take Elijah’s rebuke sitting down. She wanted his head, and normally what Jezebel wanted, Jezebel got.
So Elijah, the great model of success — the symbol of a job well done; the man who had all the answers — very quickly found himself in a place where he needed some help. Elijah needed some good advice.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because we have an abundance of cheap, one-size-fits-all advice floating around in the world today that good advice has become a relic of the past, or that quality guidance isn’t worth the trouble often required to find it.
John D. Rockefeller, the famous oil tycoon of the 19th century who still, all things considered, holds claim to the largest fortune amassed in a single lifetime, wasn’t above heeding good advice. Of his wife Laura, Rockefeller once said “Her judgment was always better than mine. Without her keen advice, I would be a poor man.”
A modern-day tycoon, Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google, told CNN Money in 2009 that one of the keys to his success was hiring a coach to guide him through the murky waters of business dealings. Schmidt didn’t come to this realization easily though. “Why would I need a coach? Am I doing something wrong?” Schmidt thought to himself when the idea was first proposed. “My argument was, how could a coach advise me if I’m the best person in the world at this?” Then Schmidt realized a coach doesn’t come in to take over the game for you. A coach doesn’t even play the game. A good coach gives you the advice you need to be the best you can be at the game you play.
Abraham Lincoln, faced with the most difficult circumstances a president could imagine, also knew where to turn for advice when all other options seemed bleak. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, considered by most historians to be the turning point of the Civil War, Lincoln spoke with Gen. Dan Sickles, who had witnessed the travesty and successes of that pivotal moment first hand: “Well, I will tell you how it was,” Lincoln, always the statesman, began. “In the pinch of the campaign up there (at Gettysburg) when everybody seemed panic stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told him that this war was his war, and our cause his cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. … And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into his own hands and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.” ¹
Elijah also knew where to turn for a word of guidance when all other voices rang hollow. Elijah needed to hear God’s voice! Elijah needed to hear the Lord say that everything would be all right! Elijah needed someone to tell him “get back on your feet and get back to work!”
Elijah knew he needed to hear God’s voice. He wanted to hear God so badly, but he wasn’t ready to listen. He wasn’t in a place where he could pick God’s voice out from the noise of the world. So, Elijah left. He left the place his own work had brought him to and he went looking for God.
Elijah already knew he needed to stay away from his enemies. He was steering clear of Ahab, Jezebel and any others who obviously meant him harm. But Elijah also needed to get away from his friends, from his helpers, his supporters. As encouraging and well meaning as they were, Elijah’s friends were still not the ultimate authority for him, and they were not the ones he had to answer to when his work was done. So Elijah went off, alone, to find a quiet place. Finding peace wasn’t easy though. Elijah didn’t walk into a quiet office and find God sitting in an easy chair ready to hand over the plan. Scripture tells us Elijah spent an entire day in the wilderness, where he became so discouraged he simply wanted to die. He asked God to let him give up, to let him quit. Elijah cried: “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” But despite his frustration, his emotional emptiness, and the scattered, distracted state of his own mind, Elijah still wanted to hear God’s voice. So he continued in the desert for 40 more days, each day getting a little further from the things that had been distracting him.
When we’re tired of listening to the dull drone of this world, or when the sweet words of our companions just don’t have the kick we need anymore, we have to be willing to put ourselves in a place where we can hear God speak. We have to be willing to take the time to search for a spot where we can clear our minds, where the distractions that keep calling out to us can’t reach us anymore. Sometimes trying to ignore the world around us simply isn’t enough. Sometimes turning off the t.v. and putting up a mental wall to protect us from the noise on the street just doesn’t cut it anymore. We must be able to recognize that. If we truly believe the message God has for us is worth listening to, we must be willing to go through the trouble of finding a place of quiet solitude; A place where we can hear him speak.
Elijah found his place in an empty cave, on a desolate mountain in the middle of the wilderness. The Spirit of God had led him there. Elijah knew it was the place he needed to be, and he was willing to go through the trouble of clearing off his agenda, of rescheduling his appointments and going to this place where he could meet with the Father.
Still, the voice of God didn’t ring out loud and clear. The account of Elijah’s encounter with God is one of the most poetically moving stories in scripture:
“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”
How often do we want God’s guidance to be as clear and obvious in our lives as a hurricane. There isn’t much anyone can do to deny a hurricane. Caught in the middle of a storm, the reality of the situation is all around. The fallen trees, the ruined houses, torrential rivers running down city streets, overturned cars and broken power lines — everything declares the truth of the situation. This is a hurricane. But that would be too easy. God doesn’t typically speak that way, and Elijah knew it. He knew that God’s fiery, undeniable message to the prophets of Baal was not something he could expect every time he needed a word from the Lord. Elijah knew he would have to be patient, and he would have to listen closely to what was coming next.
“After the fire came a gentle whisper.”
Other translations describe this word of the Lord coming as “a sheer silence.” Either way, it was something Elijah would have likely missed had he not been deliberately, patiently waiting for it.
A reading of this text begs the question “How did Elijah know what to listen for?” How do we distinguish the voice of the Lord from the other unexpected storms that come our way? Elijah knew what to listen for because he had heard God speak before. Long before God brought down fire to consume Elijah’s sacrifice at Mount Carmel, Elijah had seen the way God spoke through scripture. Elijah knew the stories of Moses, of Joshua and Gideon, of Samuel and David. Elijah knew the scriptures and the stories of his people. He had heard them, and studied them and told them so many times, that the God they described was not just a character in a book. The God they described was a real deity, who loved his people and cared for them. By the time Elijah had a personal encounter with God, he already knew the sound of God’s voice, he knew the rhythm of the stories God told and he knew the purpose God had in mind for his people, for his world. When God spoke to Elijah, he didn’t have to bring him up to speed on the mission, on how the world had gotten to the point it had or why he cared enough to reach out to the people of Israel — Elijah already knew all of that, so God could get on to the details of the day, of the present assignment and the immediate obstacles that needed to be overcome.
If Elijah knew God’s voice from his study of scripture, how much more prepared should we be to listen to God today! We have nearly four times the sacred texts that Elijah had at his disposal. We live in a world that has not only experienced and recorded the messages of God’s prophets and kings, but we have a record of the life, the teachings, and the Word of God’s very son! We have the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Are we any better off for it? Do we study the scriptures to understand God as Elijah surely did? Studying the scriptures is not a task reserved for pastors and scholars; It is the first step Christians must take toward knowing God.
After Elijah received his message, he didn’t keep it to himself. He went right away and confided his experience with other believers. He took his interpretation of God’s message and went to find out what other, trusted believers thought about it. The prophet went, as God had commanded, to anoint a young man, Elisha as his successor. Elijah shared his vision with Elisha. He didn’t force it upon him as a decree, but he confided it to him in an effort to seek confirmation. Elijah found his successor ready, and most importantly, willing, to step into the role God had prepared him for. Elijah found confirmation of God’s directions in his relationship with other believers. God had told Elijah to find these three young men — Elisha, Hazael and Jehu — and set them to work. All along, though, God had been leading these other faithful Israelites toward the same goal. Their life experiences and their relationships with God confirmed Elijah’s interpretation of God’s message for him, and it was only after confiding in them, and listening to them, that the instructions God had given Elijah began to make sense.
Picking God’s voice out from the crowd isn’t always easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for Elijah. With so many voices competing for our attention today, we must strive to be evermore diligent as we seek to follow his will for our lives. Finding a time and a place to be still and listen for God’s voice is essential for anyone hoping to draw closer to him. Living lives that put us in constant fellowship with the scriptures and with other believers is key to staying within the boundaries of God’s will, and a sure way to find yourself growing into the Christ-like servant each of us longs to be.
1. Gordon Leidner, author of Lincoln on God and Country, and many other works concerning the nation’s 16th president, reports this conversation took place on July 5, 1863.