When God wants to get people’s attention, He has lots of options: rainbows, earthquakes, babies. When He wants to explain why He’s getting their attention, He sends prophets. Prophets speak on God’s behalf. As you read through the Bible, they are men and women, old and young, consistent and inconsistent, shepherds, nobles. They have little in common with each other, except this: God gives them illustrated words.
They often sound cranky. They speak against the way we routinely live. It’s not because they are trying to be contrarian. Quite the opposite. They are speaking the truth, the standard. And everything else is contrary.
Part of their message is always good news: God’s offering this. Stop doing that. Draw near to God. Stop doing what takes you away. But most of the time, the good news gets ignored. To hear it would mean changing our fundamental orientation to life.
Sometimes prophets are living metaphors. For example, God says to Ezekiel, “Lie on your side for 390 days. Then lie on your other side for forty days.” (This is in Ezekiel 4.) Ezekiel’s life for more than a year illustrated years of rebellion against God. For those who had ears to hear and eyes to see, it would have been a heart-breaking illustration. Each day of Ezekiel’s life showed a year of a whole nation’s rebellion. No wonder God was heart-broken.
2 .The danger of the successful prophet
Elijah was a prophet.
He suddenly appears in 1 Kings 17, telling the king of Israel, Ahab, that the dew and the rain will not come again until he, Elijah, says so. And then he disappears from public for about three years. During that time out of the public eye, he first lives by a wilderness stream and then has a room in the house of a widow. In both places food is provided in miraculous ways.
Elijah’s action feels abrupt, until we see that Moses predicted this very thing. In Deuteronomy, Moses’s last lecture at the edge of the Promised Land, he warns:
“Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and He will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:16-17).
Before Ahab, king after king allowed the people to worship other gods, to cover all their deity options. There had been prophets before Elijah, warning the kings and the people. But Ahab was the worst: “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife.” (1 Kings 21:25). As God’s response to Ahab’s behavior, Elijah appears, says that the heavens will be shut, and then disappears.
When Elijah shows up in public after three years, he meets again with King Ahab. He tells Ahab that it’s time to decide which god is real: the fertility god, Baal, that Ahab’s wife Jezebel has been worshipping, or the Lord, the God of Israel. Elijah invites Ahab to a showdown on Mount Carmel. Two altars. Two sacrificial bulls. Two gods. The being who sends fire and lights the altar is the winner, is The God.
The prophets of Baal build an altar. They spend a whole day praying for fire. Nothing happens.
As evening approaches, Elijah builds an altar with twelve stones. He digs a trench around it. He pours so much water over it that the wood is soaked and the trench is full. And then he says,
“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)
Fire comes. The wood, the bulls, the water, the stones and the soil were burned up. The people worshipped God. They captured and executed the false prophets. Elijah watched for rain. When a small cloud appeared, he warned King Ahab to hurry home before the storm. And Elijah ran faster than the chariot back to Jezreel, Ahab’s capital.
And when Jezebel hears the news, she warns Elijah that she will kill him. And after all Elijah’s experiences of God’s protection and provision over the previous three years, he is afraid. He runs for his life. Ninety miles to Beersheba. Another day into the wilderness. A simple prayer: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.” And a deep, exhausted sleep.
When Elijah woke up, he saw an angel. Exactly what a prophet who asks to die wants to see. But he wasn’t dead. So Elijah decided to go to the mountain of God. He needed to talk to God.
At the beginning of Elijah’s journey, an angel fixed him breakfast. Sometimes we are just hungry, and God knows that. Sometimes we just need sleep. And God knows that.
But sometimes, even after the breakfast, we are still on a journey. For Elijah, at the end of his journey is the mountain of God. In between was forty days spent alone.
That’s what the life of following Jesus feels like. A supernatural start. A future hope. And in between is wilderness. The wild places past the last homely house.
I suppose that God could have talked to Elijah along the way. But sometimes we have to travel a long way to be alone with God. Sometimes it takes forty days for our frustration to become clear.
By the end of the journey, standing on the mountain of God, Elijah’s lament had clarified.
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken 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.” (1 Kings 19:10)
It’s possible for us to spend our entire Lenten journey working on our speech for God. We keep track of when the prayer feels mechanical. When we are hungry because of following God, and the relationships we are praying for are still messed up, and the wisdom we want for our future still isn’t available. Day after day of hunger. Day after day of silence. Day after day we distill our lament until it fits on a 3×5 card, or can be recited on an elevator ride.
God says, “So why are you here?”
And we say, “I have been very zealous for you. Everyone else is rejecting you and killing your people. I’m the only one left. And now they are after me. When are you going to pay attention to me?”
4. God invites Elijah into conversation
We have pictures of God. Sometimes on our wall. Always in our minds.
So did Elijah.
I’m guessing that’s why God provided a wind that shattered rocks and an earthquake that sifted the shattered rocks into a new landscape and a fire that purified that landscape of vegetation. Elijah wanted to see power, a response that would match the pain of his lonely lament.
“Make them pay. Vindicate me.”
But God wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. He was behind them, causing them, but they weren’t him.
You can lean into wind, but you can’t reason with it. You can be warmed by fire, but you can’t converse with it. You can recognize the power behind an earthquake, but you can’t complain to it. And God is, by nature, relationship. Not just relational. A God in three persons is the essence of relationship. That’s why we read that God is love. By coming to Elijah in a quiet whisper, God is inviting Elijah into that relationship.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God knew the answer. He didn’t need to ask. But He did anyway.
God comes to us where we are. He allows us to argue with him, to complain to him. He won’t let us get away with wrong facts, and He corrects us in his presence and with compassion.
5. When you are sent, the sender is everything
I heard God talk to me once. He said, “It’s okay, son. Go to bed.” Elijah’s message was less comforting:
“Go back. Anoint the replacement for King Ahab. Anoint the replacement for the neighboring king. And anoint Elisha as your replacement. And there are 7,000 people just like you, people who have not rejected me.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)
It’s a blunt message. God says, “The end of your work is on the horizon, Elijah. You are being replaced. You can’t see the facts, Elijah. Go do something that will aggravate Jezebel more than anything you could imagine, Elijah.”
But Elijah’s assignment is given in the context of relationship. God isn’t angry with him. God isn’t sending him away from his presence. In fact, God esteems Elijah. At the end of his life, Elijah’s life doesn’t end. A chariot of fire comes and takes him away. The Old Testament ends talking about Elijah. An angel starts the New Testament by talking to John the Baptist’s dad about Elijah.
I don’t know what your message is. I don’t know what God wants to tell you through this Lenten journey. If I did, you wouldn’t need the journey. But I am confident that whatever your speech when you get to the mountain of God, He will talk with you.