Just yesterday, Elijah faced off in a dramatic contest against the 450 “prophets” of Baal. Baal was the Canaanite god of rain, thunder, fertility and agriculture. The contest was between Baal and our God, Elijah’s God—the God of Israel, Maker of Heaven and Earth. The contest was intended for a very specific audience: the people of Israel. You see, ever since the people of Israel had entered the Promised Land and come to live among the Canaanites, they had been hedging their bets: they had taken to worshipping both the local Canaanite deity, Baal, and their God, our God ... the God who had freed them from slavery.
Elijah, God’s prophet, was fed up with their two-faced worshipping. He was furious at them for keeping open their God-options. It was time to choose, said Elijah. Who will it be: either Baal (an imposter) or the God of Abraham and Sarah (the genuine article), the God of Moses and Miriam, the God of the Exodus.
To force the issue, Elijah proposed a contest, a competition, between the two gods. The contest would reveal which was the real God and which the fake.
Here’s the contest: the 450 “prophets” of Baal are given a bull. Elijah is given another bull. They each kill their bull, build an altar and pile it with dry wood. They then place the bull on the altar.
The idea is that the first God to ignite the pyre is the real God ... the God with bone fide power ... the God whose prophets are also, therefore, the genuine article.
The “prophets” of Baal go first. They dance around the bull calling on the name of Baal to ignite the fire. “Baal, come here! Please. Don’t embarrass us. Show yourself. Do your divine thing. Pleaeeeeze.”
Nothing. They start up again, making a terrible racket: Baal, for God’s sake! Come down, now! Now!”
Nothing. The 450 “prophets” of Baal have danced and pranced, pleaded and yelled, and begged Baal’s presence. For four hours they have been at it. They are exhausted, limp, collapsed, panting.
Elijah, steps forward. “Hmm,” says Elijah, considering the problem. “I wonder if you should try again but more loudly this time. I wonder if your “god” is off meditating, or perhaps he is away on a journey ... or, perhaps Baal is asleep. Try again “prophets,” but louder this time. As loud as you can be.”
So, the “prophets” of Baal slowly pick themselves up and go back at it, raving, says the Bible, and beating themselves, cutting themselves with swords. They rave on and on for hours and hours.
They have been at it is since sun-up and it is now dusk. Still, there is no voice. No answer. No fire. No response. No Baal. Nothing.
As the sun begins to set, all eyes turn to Elijah. Elijah has been waiting for just this moment. “Come closer” he urges, “Gather round.” And, then—Elijah is nothing if not dramatic—he orders someone to fill four jars with water and pour the water all over the wood and the bull. They do.
Then he says, “Do it again. Four more jars of water.” They do it again.
“Oh, do it a third time.” A third time four jars of water are poured over the wood, the altar and the sacrifice.
Elijah steps back. He raises his arms to heaven. In a whisper—no shouting, no dancing or prancing—Elijah says, “O Lord, God of Abraham and Isaac, answer me so that this people may know that you, you alone, are God.”
With that, the fire of the Lord falls from heaven and consumes the wood, the sacrificial bull, the altar and even licks up the water. (I Kings 18.38)
That was yesterday. Yesterday Elijah was on top of the world. He was the king of the prophets; God’s mighty lion, roaring prophetic utterances, calling down fire from heaven. Yesterday Elijah was filled with confidence, firm, resolved. He was bold, daring. Yesterday Elijah was magnificent.
But not today. Today Elijah is unhinged. He is a shadow of his former self. He has lost his nerve. His confidence has shriveled to nothing. He is a quivering wreck. And he is hiding in a cave. He is curled up in the fetal position, shivering, frightened.
And God finds him. God speaks to him. “What ARE you doing, Elijah?”
Good question! What IS Elijah doing? What HAS become of him?
“I alone am left,” he wails. Has he succumbed to existential angst? Whither Elijah’s solipsistic despair?
The text doesn’t say.
Here is what it says: God commands Elijah to get up and get out of the cave. “I” says God to his wreck of a prophet, “will pass by.”
And we arrive at the marvelous text we read today.
First, there is this tremendous wind, a mighty force ... so impressive it splits rocks and upends great boulders. Elijah looks and listens. But God is not in the wind.
Next, the mountain rumbles and grumbles, quakes and shudders. Elijah is all attention, straining to see, to hear. But, he decides, God was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake, there is fire, roaring, consuming, hot and furious fire. But, as it turns out, God is not in the fire.
After the fire, we read, there is the sound of sheer silence ...
Elijah hides his face in his mantle. God asks him a second time, “What ARE you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah, wallowing in dramatic despair, whines again: “Oh, God, I alone speak for you. Everyone else has abandoned you. Alas, Alack!”
God says, “Elijah, I’ve got news for you ... there are another 7,000 out there keeping the faith in quiet ways.”
“Elijah,” God says, “I can outdo you in pyrotechnics—in whirlwind and earthquake, in fire and storm—but that’s not where the real work is. The real work is with the 7,000 out there keeping the faith, living the life in quiet ways. It’s not about you, Elijah ... and it’s not about magic tricks. Here is what it is about ... and God reveals to Elijah this ...
Kay and Anna visiting elders. Betty and Elizabeth knitting prayer shawls. Erin and Lucy planting flowers at Snowden. George and Nancy snapping photos to capture the story in pictures. Carolyn delivering gifts to the newly baptized. Evan, Michael and Pam reading scripture like their life—and your life—depended on it. It’s about Liz and Earl preparing gourmet treats for our four-legged friends at the Blessing of the Animals ... carrots and apples, catnip and biscuits. Dick and Elinor greeting visitors on a Saturday. Welcoming them to this house and home of God. Jim and Vicki, John and Paul carefully counting and booking your Sunday offerings. Candace and Deborah modeling our Welcoming and Watchful hospitality. Diane archiving our documents and Ken’s gentle shepherding of Healing Prayer Worship. Ruth transforming her car into a carriage to ferry elders to worship. Bettina at the Name Tag Table and Bob and Coley’s financial generosity. Jani and Scott wielding nail guns and Alliea wrestling the State House over affordable health insurance. Betty, Robin, Dick and Bill scheduling volunteers and Bill and Sherry’s work with the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Ralph decorating cupcakes and Jim, Diane and Renata planting bulbs. Eleanor and Shelley presenting themselves to Helen McCrady each and every week with these words: “How can I help?” Pierce and Amelia, twirling hypnotwisters. Allie, on her 8th birthday, instructing her friends not to bring her presents, but instead to purchase items for hygiene kits to aid and comfort victims of disaster. Angela and Mark teaching our “Growing Deeper” class. Bob and Rory relentlessly teaching Bible Study ... so that the stories of Elijah and Elisha, of Miriam and Sarah, of Lydia and Phillip take on a life of their own. David peeling the great bell and rousing the sleepy to presence of the living God. Daniel smashing cymbals; Ben on bassoon and Amanda on piano; Willy and Pieter on drums making music to our God. Pam and Kurt and Diane and Nancy and Jennifer and Tom and Pam writing their money biographies, and sharing with you—daring to expose to you—something of their struggles with money and generosity. Lois, every week or two, packing into her car and ferrying to the Allston-Brighton Food Pantry, the fruits of our rolling food drive. Kate designing prayer cards and Caroline commissioning her Card Crew. Annamarie gracing our in-boxes with poems. Marcia and Mercedes and Ashton setting the tables for our special lunches. Phil and Tom, Debby and Dan worrying over our endowment. Erik composing and tickling with ivories while Sam wields his bow with passion and pathos. Sean crawling around the organ pipes, chasing and silencing a cipher ... sort of like God chasing and silencing an annoying, self-indulgent prophet. Professor Palmer waiting on tables and Dr. Dan in the kitchen washing dishes.
Paul and Roger acquainting themselves with every inch of this building, every steam pipe and electrical outlet, so that it may be a platform for ministry, a home for God, and an occasion for the ministrations of both mercy and justice. David coaching the Search Committee on Google docs, and Karen hosting us in retreat and calling forth from each of us our very best. Jon and Katie, Chris, Jack and Jess keeping our Facebook page interesting and fresh. Jim, celebrating 25 years with the AIDS Walk, and John, Jim’s chosen successor, learning the ropes. Deb and Diane and Nancy working on the upcoming program, the Dignity of Women. Chris organizing the art auction and Jon orchestrating our on-line evangelism and Charlotte folding clothes for Training, Inc.
The story of Elijah on the mountain isn’t really about the still small voice. The problem with all the hoopla about the Still Small Voice is that if we are only paying attention to that, we miss what is going on here.
What is going on here is that we have one seriously burned out prophet. A prophet who has become tragically unhinged ... a prophet who has plunged from the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat in a matter of hours.
Why? Because he thought it was all about him ... A prophet so wrapped up in his own doing, his own success, his own prideful relationship with God that he has lost perspective ...
It is about God lifting Elijah from selfish despair by opening his eyes to the others who are quietly giving witness to God ... who do so without the pyrotechnics ... without either stage or audience.
It is a story about a prophet being re-commissioned, refitted, refreshed, and reoriented.
Like Elijah, we each have only a tiny piece of the great whole. But look around you. Look. These are some of the 7,000 upon whom God depends. You—none of you—is alone in this work.