It would be comical if it didn’t hit so close to home.
“Elijah, the great prophet of Israel triumphantly defeats the prophets of false gods and celebrates by deserting the sphere of influence to commit suicide.”
It sounds like the premise of a TV drama that network executives wouldn’t green light into production.
It’s not fiction, though, is it? 1 Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah’s rise to power and his great victory on Mt. Carmel against Baal’s false prophets. You don’t have to make this stuff up—Elijah’s story is exceedingly human and eerily familiar.
We may have more in common with Elijah than we might care to admit.
How many of us, for example, have experienced a devastating low after such a mountaintop high? It would seem that we are most vulnerable at the moment we experience our greatest triumph.
Elijah bottoms out when he learns that Jezebel is going to kill him just as certainly as Elijah had killed the prophets of Baal. Elijah flees into the wilderness before the headline, “Elijah Achieves Victory over Baal,” can dry on the following days’ newspapers. Oh, it gets worse. Not only is Elijah fleeing the theological battlefield; he now wants to die.
And yet, even with Elijah’s retreat, God still provides for the depressed prophet. God sends an angel (twice, no less!) to feed Elijah while he sleeps and recovers his strength. Does he then return to Israel to reengage? Uh, no. He continues to run in the opposite direction.
As we learned this past Sunday, Elijah takes up residence at Mount Sinai in an apparent homage to Moses’ encounter with God’s glory. But God seems put-out to find his premier prophet in hiding hundreds of miles from where he’s supposed to be.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks.
Elijah spills it. God’s people have deserted him, choosing Baal over the One True God. Elijah stands alone as God’s remaining representative and is under attack, himself.
God’s reply is fascinating. “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by,” He tells Elijah.
But God does not show up in the ways that we might imagine. First, there’s a great wind. Nope, God’s not in that. Second, Elijah experiences a terrible earthquake. No, God’s not there. Then, fire engulfs the mountain, but God is not in that, either. Lastly, an unexpected silence overtakes Mount Sinai and that’s when God speaks.
It’s the same question as before—“What are you doing here, Elijah?” And the prophet repeats himself.
Then God weighs in on what will happen next.
Spoiler alert: It’s not what you think. God does not comfort Elijah like a parent might comfort a discouraged child. Neither does God simply make everything right. Here’s one other thing God doesn’t do. God doesn’t give Elijah what he wants—that is, to die.
Instead, God directs Elijah to empower others to help in God’s cause.
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel- meholah as prophet in your place.” (1 Kings 19:16)
The anecdote to Elijah’s sense of failure and defeat is recruitment and delegation. The moral and meaning of the story is straightforward: When one of us hits a wall, we are to solicit the help of others.
The world needs more prophets of God, not less of them. The story of Elijah is not confounding, as some commentators have suggested. If anything, it’s a tale of encouragement as God continues to care for his demoralized prophet and yet ensures that His will be done through the work of others.
God cares for each of us and is aware of our individual weaknesses and obstacles. Even in our moments of despair, God cares for us. Lastly, God overcomes our shortcomings by directing us to find help in others.
I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds like the mission of the church and the Body of Christ, to me.