Text: I Kings 19 (selected verses)
Chapter 18 of I Kings is all about the religious superstar Elijah. The prophet stands up to Jezebel, the powerful foreign-born queen of Israel, and he makes a fool of her and her minions. Elijah takes on the mouthy prophets of the wimpy gods of Ba’al and it is no contest. At the close of chapter 18, Elijah is a religious superhero who soars to the greatest heights.
I stand in awe of Elijah in Chapter 18, but he is not someone I know. It is the Elijah that we meet in Chapter 19 who is a not too distant cousin. [Read I Kings 19]
Throughout history, it has never been a good thing to make a fool of a king or a queen, or a president, for that matter. Jezebel is not impressed by the divine fireworks orchestrated by Elijah, nor is she converted to belief in the God of Israel. She does not shout out: “Hallelujah! I have seen the light!” Jezebel and her belief in the gods of Ba’al will not be mocked and so she sends this not-so-subtle message to Elijah: “May the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them [her slayed prophets] by this time tomorrow.” Jezebel does not send an assassin to take Elijah out; she gives him to the count of ten to start running.
So, the superhero prophet who has just had the most impressive day of his religious life runs like a school boy away from the bully on the playground who wants to fight. He runs and runs until he cannot run anymore. He plops down under a broom tree in the desert. Elijah, like a later prophet on the run, Jonah, sits down under the tree, which is really no more than a desert shrub, and pouts. “Just kill me, God. I have just shown all of Israel that you are the one true God. While others in Israel have had a silly crush on the gods of Ba’al, I have remained true to you and where has it led me? I am sitting her under this sticking bush and the queen has sworn a warrant out on my life. I am no better off that my kin who spent forty years trying to get out of the wilderness. So, please God, just kill me.”
As someone who has spent his entire adult life as a pastor, I can report that a not-too-infrequent lament among preachers, certainly this preacher, is that God does not fully appreciate how much we do for God.
“Hey God, what about all those times we headed to the hospital at 3 a.m. to be with that terrified family?”
“Hey God, what about all those times when we stood in the bitter cold on the steps of the Virginia and Georgia and North Carolina Capitol to plead with those in power to stop killing their own?”
“Hey God, what about all those Session meetings and Presbytery meetings and General Assembly meetings?”
“Hey God, what about all those times we sleep on dirt floors in distant places to introduce teenagers to a new part of your world?”
I have never defeated the prophets of Ba’al atop Mount Carmel or done anything close to it, but I sure have pouted like Brother Elijah beneath the broom bush. Move over, Elijah. Make room for me under that broom bush.
One of Elijah’s clear frustrations is the poor payoff for outstanding service to God. His New Testament twins, James and John, ask Jesus as much, “Hey Jesus, what is the payoff for following you through all these dumpy towns and standing by you when the heat is getting turned up on you AND US in Jerusalem?” (see Mark 10). Long before the Zebedee boys try to negotiate a sweat heavenly deal from Jesus, Elijah decides that this whole religious business is highly overrated, plops himself under a broom bush and tells God, “Just kill me.”
I cannot understand the awesome courage of the superstar Elijah in Chapter 18 and I definitely do not understand the God we meet in Chapter 19. God does not send a messenger to Elijah informing the prophet to get up, grow up, and get on with God’s work. No, instead God sends the pouting prophet room service. Twice! Only after the second meal does the angel of God gently nudge the whining prophet to eat, get up, and move along.
Like Elijah, though, I can acknowledge how many times an angel (simply put, a messenger from God) has come into my life when I was parked under some broom bush, self-absorbed in some spiritual desert. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone has appeared to check in on me, care for me, feed me, listen to me, and encourage me, when it could not have been easy to be around me. Not once did I receive the lecture, “Now Gary, you know that God loves you and that God expects more from you than pouting under this broom bush.” No, like Elijah, I received a double dose of compassion and understanding until I had enough perspective to stand up again and get on with God’s business.
Elijah’s story does not end with his being buried beneath a broom tree in the desert. No, like Moses before him, Elijah heads to Mount Horeb or Sinai. He spends the night in a cave and there is every reason to hope that he will be a new man after enjoying a double dose of God’s mercy in the desert.
Well, that is not the story told in I Kings 19. When a voice from God asks Elijah, “Why are you hiding out in this cave?” Elijah gets indignant. “I’ll tell you why, God. I have done everything you ever asked me to do. My kin ignore you on a regular basis, but not me. My kin turn to the gods of Ba’al, but not me. I, and I alone am the only faithful person left in Israel!”
A common contagion of dedicated religious folk is the “Elijah Lament.” “Me and only me, God!” Wherever I have served as pastor, I have heard the Elijah Lament, “Me, and only me, God!” Too often, the chief cheerleader for the Elijah Lament is the pastor. “How could the church survive without me?”
Elijah sits in a cave convinced that God’s future rests on his shoulders and his shoulders alone. Once again, God comes to Elijah and does not deliver a stern lecture to the pouting prophet, but simply offers this observation. “Elijah, there are 6,999 faithful folks down in the valley who love me and serve me as faithfully as you do.” “6,999” is an invitation to get out of the spiritual cave we are in, look around, and rejoice in the faithfulness of those all around us.
As someone who too easily hangs out with Elijah in the cave of lament, I am grateful beyond words to the “6,999” at Cove, who regularly remind me that our ministry is not done principally by me and ministry is never about me or about you for that matter. I am grateful for the “6,999” at Cove who travel to Red Hill School once or twice a week to help a child learn how to read, who like Will and Kristin sacrifice time and money each year to travel to Reynosa, Mexico to build houses for those who have none with Faith Ministries, who like Eva and Oliver light our candles to call us into worship each Sunday, who like our fabulous choir practices every Monday night and sings each Sunday in a way to make our hearts glad, who like all who can and do write checks so we can pay our bills and contribute to Christ’s mission far beyond Cove, who print bulletins and set up Coffee Hours and prepare communion, who serve on Session and who take time to pray for us every day, who like Kelly and Jordan work with Habitat and who like those faithful Cove members who spend one Saturday a month building with Habitat and feeding those working, who like Susan and Amy, Ginny and Rebecca, Gregg and George, Kathy and Jennell use their medical gifts to bring healing to those who are sick, who like Linda and Jessica devote hours of time to improve life at the Covesville Child Development Center, who like John and John Borden use their imaginative gifts to bring joy in reading and viewing.
I am grateful to those pastors who have come before me at Cove like Josh and Jane, Marcy and Gay Lee, and for the company of saints with them who prayed and sacrificed and worshiped God in this place. After Elijah left the cave, God introduced him to his successor, Elisha, assuring Elijah that God will always raise up servants to accomplish God’s purpose. In this our 250th anniversary year, that God will raise up a new company of the faithful to serve God in this place after me and after you.
Thanks to my brother, Elijah, I am reminded that ministry is never chiefly about me and it is never chiefly about you. It is about our God who raises up servants in every time, in every shape, in every color, and in every place to accomplish the work before us. That is why whenever we find ourselves sitting beneath a broom tree or hiding out in a cave, we would do well to pause and remember the number “6,999” and give thanks.