1 Kings 19:1-15
David A. Davis
June 23, 2019
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Before the wind, before the earthquake, before the fire, Elijah the prophet was fed by ravens who brought him bread and meat in the morning and the evening. Elijah had declared to King Ahab that the Lord God of Israel would bring neither dew nor rain to the land and the Word of the Lord told Elijah to go east of the Jordan to be fed by ravens.
Before the wind, before the earthquake, before the fire, Elijah was fed by the widow of Zarephath from supplies the Lord promised would never run out. When the widow’s son became ill and there was no breath left in him, Elijah cried out to the Lord to let this child live. Life came into the widow’s child again.
Before the wind, before the earthquake, before the fire Elijah had a confrontation with King Ahab of biblical proportion. Some will remember Elijah’s memorable speech at Mount Carmel to Ahab and the prophets of Baal: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God, but if Baal, then follow Baal?’ Elijah won that contest of prophets in a big way with the fire of the Lord coming down from heaven and all the people who saw it falling on their faces and confessing “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God!”
Before the wind, before the earthquake, before the fire, the Lord sent rain again to the land. Elijah told King Ahab to harness his chariot before the rain came so he could return to Jezreel. The bible says that the hand of the Lord was upon Elijah and he “girded up his loins and ran in front of Ahab” the whole way to Jezreel, about 17 miles through heavy rain. Ahab told Queen Jezebel all that the prophet Elijah had done. The queen, not being very happy to hear the news, sent a messenger to Elijah telling him she was going to kill him. Elijah, was afraid and fled for his life. He fled to Beersheba.
Before the wind, before the earthquake, before the fire, Elijah went a day’s journey out into the wilderness. In that region of the world, the wilderness is actually a vast mountainous desert. Sitting under a lone broom tree, he told the Lord he was ready to die. As Elijah slept, an angel of the Lord told him to get up and eat. The Lord provided a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. The angel came a second time and told Elijah to eat and drink again because the upcoming journey would be too much for him. Elijah did eat and drink again and then journeyed on that strength for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. There at Mt Horeb, Elijah came to cave and he spent the night there.
Before the wind, before the earthquake, before the fire, Elijah was in that cave. In the cave, the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying “What are you doing…..here?” Here? Here in a cave. What are you doing….here?
There’s something about the cave; the cave at Mt. Horeb, the Mount of God. Something about how Elijah could go from that adrenaline-pumping, fists-pumping, legs-pumping, rain-soaked, celebrating life, loving life run to a cave on Mt Horeb in just a few verses. The details of how Elijah got to Horeb make it pretty clear. But the “how” is not as intriguing as the “why”. Why it all turned so quickly, why he went from a prophet’s mountaintop to a long dark night of the soul in a cave.
There aren’t all that many caves in the bible. One would think there would have been more caves in scripture, a lot more caves. Most the time, when one comes upon a reference to a cave it is a reference to a burial ground; like when Abraham was looking to bury Sarah or when Jesus came to the cave where Lazarus was buried. Caves were intended for the dead, so perhaps Elijah’s destination there at Mt. Horeb is a logical one after he sat down under the broom tree asking the Lord to take away his life.
But there are a few other caves in the bible. Here, in I Kings, Elijah tells Obadiah that he hid the prophets of the Lord in caves, fifty to a cave, to protect them from Queen Jezebel. In Genesis, after Lot had fled from Sodom and Gomorrah, after his wife had looked back, Lot lived in a cave with his two daughters because he was afraid. There is a story that tells of the five kings of the Amorites who fled to a cave in fear after Joshua and his forces had defeated their coalition. It was a poor decision, the result of which is described in brutal detail in the 10th chapter of the Book of Joshua. Perhaps the most famous biblical cave not intended for burial was the cave where David went to hide from Saul who was trying kill him. David went to the cave fearing for his life. The cave actually became the site where David and Saul were reconciled to one another. Saul accidently found David in the cave when he stepped into the cave as the bible puts it, “to relieve himself”. Hiding in fear. Fearing for your life. When it comes to the biblical cave, you either go there to be buried or because you are scared to death.
“What are you doing… here, Elijah?” The question didn’t come right as Elijah hit the road fearing for his life. The question didn’t come from the Lord when Elijah tells the Lord that he has had enough and admits he would rather die. The question came when Elijah goes to the cave. The question came before Elijah’s plea; “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” The question came before the wind and the earthquake and the fire. The question came before and it came after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. “What are you doing here. HERE. Here in a fortress of fear and death? What are you doing… here, Elijah?”
The thing about prophets is that they know the tradition. A prophet knows about the voice of the Lord. A prophet knows. Many preachers and scholars point out that Elijah the prophet would have expected God to show up in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. If that’s true, the prophet must have also been expecting the voice of the Lord to say “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not”? That’s a far more common happening in the tradition when the voice of the Lord or an angel speaks. “Do not be afraid…Fear not”. Elijah must have thought God would at least address his fear. After the wind, after the earthquake, after the fire, “Do not be afraid”? No, for Elijah it was crickets. Sheer silence. After the wind, after the earthquake, after the fire….silence. And when the still small spoke? “What are you doing…here.” Then in a rather undramatic way, with absolutely no dramatic flare, the voice of the Lord tells the mighty prophet to go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. Go back…get out of… here.
The headline this week caught my eye: Governor signs bill that allows Presbyterian Church to have it’s own police force. Well, it’s a particular Presbyterian Church; the Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church is part of the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA, not our denomination, the PC(USA). The article described Briarwood as a Presbyterian mega-church. I never thought I would hear those two words put together: Presbyterian and mega-church. They have something like 4,000 members and a private school. The pastor of the church compared the church police force to a college campus police and that it was needed for safety and protection.
A local op-ed writer in Birmingham points out that the church could easily hire security guards like many mosques and synagogues have around the country rather asking the state to pass a law allowing it to create its own church-run police department. The writer points out for the uninformed reader that the PCA denomination does not permit women to be ordained as ministers or elders. They are also vehemently anti-LGBTQ and hold to a view of marriage that is known as “complimentarism” which is all about men being in charge and women being submissive.
The meeting that marked the beginning of the Presbyterian Church, when the vote to split from the then southern Presbyterian Church in the United States was taken, the meeting was held at Briarwood in Birmingham. Generalized history would tell that the PCA split away because the PC(USA) was too liberal and didn’t believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture. The op-ed writer points out that a more nuanced view of history understands there was more to it. There is always more to it when someone tosses out “too liberal” and claims a higher view of the authority of scripture with words like “inerrant and infallible”. The vote to leave the PC(USA) was also motivated by race and the pastors and congregations that did not want to allow African Americans in their worship services. The PC(USA) was protecting pastors from being fired from churches who tried to get of pastors who dared to preach against segregated churches. Significant numbers of those voting to establish the PCA denomination wanted to continue to bar African Americans from coming in the door of their church. That meeting at Briarwood was in 1973.
Researching local news reports, police and 911 call records, the journalist found that the only incident at the church or school in recent years was a mentally ill person being removed from the property. “Briarwood Presbyterian Church”, the essay concludes, “is an institution of worship that advocates an unabashed anti-equality, conservative, fundamentalist point of view. Who would give this church its own police force?” Good question. My question is what are they so afraid of?
When Elijah was hunkering down in that cave of death, the voice of the Lord doesn’t even acknowledge his fear. That’s because there is no place for such fear, or hunkering down, or a siege mentality, and hiding in caves for those who know themselves to be the people of God; the people of the living, life-giving, life-sustaining, death-stomping, resurrecting, grace-defining, salvation-authoring God. When it comes to one of those life changing encounters with God, one of those tablet-smashing, golden-calf-burning, how-long-will-you-go-limping-between-two-opinions, your-god-or-my-God, choose-this-day-whom-you- will-serve, you-can’t-serve-two-gods kind of encounter with God? One of those do-justice, love-kindness, walk-humbly-with-your-God, the-first-will-be-last-and-the-last-first, if-you-want-to-be-the-greatest-you-have-to-be-a-servant, do-unto-the-least-of-these, follow-me, kind of heart-to-heart with God? One of those I-will-show-you-a-still-more-excellent-way, be-steadfast, immovable-always-excelling-in-the-work-of-the-Lord, lift-your-drooping-hands-and-strengthen-your-weak-knees, nothing-will-separate-us-from-the-love-of-God-in-Chris-Jesus-our-Lord kind of gut-check encounters with God? When it comes one of those life-changing, life-sustaining, life-giving, what-are- doing… here kind of encounter with the Lord God Almighty, you can’t stick your head in a cave.
Of course, you have fears and I have fears, some of them for very legitimate reasons. But when it comes to the church, there is no reason for the people of God to fear when Jesus Christ is still head of the church. Rather than clinging to a fear-based siege mentality when it comes to non-believers and other faith groups and folks who hold to different theological perspectives the church ought to be living out words of the Apostles Paul, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Rather than fretting with a hand wringing theology of scarcity, the church ought to pray without ceasing while working all the harder to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and welcome the stranger and care for sick, choosing to live out Jesus’ words and seeing his face in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, all the while embodying a theology of God’s abundance.
Rather than fanning the flames of fear that some kind of privileged status of Christianity in the nation is being threatened and there is some ridiculous war on Christmas, the church ought to chose to reclaim the invitation of the preacher in Hebrews that when you show radical hospitality you may just be entertaining angels unaware. Rather than using the argument that someone’s same-gendered marriage somehow threatens another’s heterosexual marriage and turning religious liberty into a weapon to roll back civil liberties and justify flat out bigotry and discrimination, the church ought to be lining the streets of every Pride Parade singing “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
Rather than continuing to predict its own doom because the rising generations aren’t like the last ones, and denominational, congregational life will never look like 1955 again, the church ought to chose to live in grace-filled, life-giving, joy-overflowing congregations that embodied the prophet’s counter-cultural, fear-denying vision that “you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hand.” Rather than cowering before statistics and trends and demographics, the church ought to stop feeling sorry for itself and glorifying the past and choose to live like God makes all things new, and in the promise of God our best days are yet to come, joyfully reflecting the word of the Lord in the Apocalypse to John, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
What are you doing……here, Elijah? There are not all that many caves in scripture because why would the people of God go….there?