And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Whether or not you have a substance misuse problem, we’re all more vulnerable to self-sabotaging or unproductive behavior when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. It’s a sign of emotional intelligence to be aware of and prepared for our vulnerable states that trigger foolish or self-destructive behaviors. Let’s focus for a few minutes this morning on one of these states, loneliness.
Would you be surprised if I told you that loneliness has become a problem for individuals and societies all over the world? The governments of the United Kingdom and Japan have both created federal government departments to deal with the problem of loneliness and its negative side effects, such as suicide and attempted suicide. Japan’s Minister of Loneliness says, I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.
Along this line, a young Japanese man got a lot of media attention last year when he began renting himself out to strangers and I quote, “to do nothing”, unquote. He will do literally nothing for you. He doesn’t give advice. He doesn’t offer a shoulder to cry on. He simply hires himself out for about $96, to show up and listen to people who want support or a chance to vent their feelings. Since he began his business, he has had an endless stream of extremely grateful clients. He has accompanied people to appointments as they sign divorce papers. During the pandemic, he’s listened to exhausted healthcare workers detail the stresses of their jobs. He’s walked in silence beside someone who just wanted a comforting presence. According to him, that may be his greatest value. People pay him to alleviate their loneliness.
When I read our Bible story for this morning, I wonder if Elijah should’ve rented a person who does nothing and just stand by him when he encountered opposition to his ministry. He certainly had a lonely job. Elijah was a prophet called by God to bring the nation of Israel back to worship of YHWH, the one true God.
In I Kings 18, the people of Israel have been led by their queen, Jezebel, into idolatry. Jezebel has introduced the people to the worship of the nature-god, Baal. Elijah has just arranged a public showdown, a contest between the God of Israel and Baal. The 450 prophets of Baal put on a dramatic show, trying to get their nature-god to burn up a sacrificial bull on an altar. No luck. Then the lone prophet, Elijah, prays a simple prayer to the one true God, and fire pours down from heaven and turns his sacrificial bull into a crispy critter. And the people of Israel bow down to worship the one true God, YHWH.
If this were a work of fiction, the author would’ve written about worshipers lifting Elijah on their shoulders and carrying him at the front of a massive parade. They would’ve poured a big cooler of Gatorade down his back, like the winning team celebrating their coach. But Elijah doesn’t get much time to savor the incredible success of his ministry. Queen Jezebel sends a messenger to warn Elijah that she’s going to have him killed. And Elijah, who has just seen God answer his prayers in an awesome and miraculous way, is afraid and runs straight into the wilderness and asks God to let him die there. He ends up on Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where Moses, met the one true God and received His laws. And God, who is all-powerful and all-knowing, asks Elijah, what are you doing here, Elijah?
Elijah replied, I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, torn 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.
Loneliness has turned into fear which, in turn, has turned into bitterness against God. Can you relate to Elijah’s struggle? Many of us are trapped in the same place as Elijah and we’ve never really confronted it. How did this happen? And what can we learn from Elijah’s story to protect us from giving up?
The first thing we learn from this story is God doesn’t have to respond to our “shoulds.” Have you ever struggled with disillusionment and anger toward God because God “should” have done something different in your life? God “should” have fixed your broken marriage, or your child’s depression, or your ongoing problems with your boss. I don’t know the secret struggles that cause you to question God, but I bet you’ve got some. You’ve been a faithful steward of God’s calling. You’ve prayed with all your heart. You’ve studied your Bible, hoping to discern the secret to earning God’s blessings. So, God “should” respond with blessings, shouldn’t He?
I like how author Max Lucado describes this idea. He writes, my first encounter with faith came about the time I was a Boy Scout, at about 14 or 15. I made the logical deduction that they operated the same way; I treated my faith like earning a merit badge, and everything about Christianity was about earning merit badges.
The Bible makes it clear that there’s no such thing as a merit badge believer. Following God sometimes leads to martyrdom, not merit badges. That’s the second insight we can get from Elijah’s story. The literal definition of the Greek word “martus” is witness. God calls every single one of us to serve as witnesses to God’s work in the world. Like a witness in a court of law is called only to tell the truth, we are called to witness to God’s truth and goodness, to witness to God’s value system. And that witness includes both our words and our actions, our lifestyle and our priorities. But if our faithfulness always resulted in obvious and immediate blessings, then we would become God’s cheerleaders, God’s PR team. Not God’s martyrs. Faith requires struggle and obedience requires sacrifice and never knowing if God will rescue us or remain silent. That’s how we live as witnesses to the reality of the one true God.
Bishop Hugh Latimer served in the Church of England in the mid-1500s under King Henry VIII and Edward VI. One Sunday, he preached a bold sermon that offended King Henry VIII, and he was ordered to make a public apology on the following Sunday.
Apologize? For preaching God’s word? I wonder if Bishop Latimer spent that week struggling with God. I wonder if he prayed, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. King Henry has rejected your message and insisted I recant. I am the only one left, and now he is trying to kill me too”?
We don’t know what went through Bishop Latimer’s mind that week. But we do know how his story ended. The next Sunday, he stood up behind the pulpit and began to speak. I’ve paraphrased his words. He said basically, “Hugh Latimer, do you know who you’re speaking in front of this morning? To the high and mighty monarch who could take away your life if you offend him.
“But then consider this, Hugh Latimer: do you know where you come from and who sent you to preach this message? The great and mighty God, who is all-powerful and able to cast your soul into hell!
“So, make sure you deliver your message faithfully.”
And then, Bishop Hugh Latimer preached the exact same message he had preached the week before, but with even more boldness and enthusiasm.
And that brings us to the final insight we receive from Elijah’s story today: the cross of Jesus reminds us that faithfulness is in our power; the outcome is in God’s hands. You would expect that God would respond to Elijah’s fear and loneliness and desperation with some words of comfort, or some revelation of how God would avenge Him against Queen Jezebel. Even a few days off from his job as prophet would have been nice. But God doesn’t do any of these things. Instead, God sends Elijah back out into the desert. God sent Elijah from Mt. Horeb in the extreme south to Damascus in the extreme north. A long journey back through the land where Jezebel is plotting his murder.
And that long journey through a perilous desert to an uncertain end is exactly the life God has laid out for those who love Him. God calls us to faithfulness in our journey, not success in our endeavors. Your journey will be filled with joy and pain, hope and sorrow, strength and struggle. Just as God showed Himself to Elijah before sending him back into the world, God has shown Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. He has walked in our shoes and shared our suffering. And His painful, humiliating and lonely death on the cross looked like the ultimate failure to the world. But it was through Jesus’ long and difficult journey to the cross that God brought eternal life and reconciliation and restoration to all of humanity. The cross is the answer to the question, what is the point of following God if it doesn’t earn you earthly rewards?
Once you became a follower of Jesus, you gave up on measuring your life by earthly standards of success. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We all want God to use us in spectacular ways. But our greatest usefulness to God is in our servanthood, in our desire to love and serve and witness as Jesus did. Please don’t let loneliness or fear or frustration quench the Holy Spirit of Jesus that is working in you. Remain faithful to the calling to grow into the image of Jesus Christ and trust the outcome to God’s good and powerful plan for you.