We are, apparently, troublemakers. Schismatic at best, enemies of the gospel of inclusion at worst. But this is nothing new. When Elijah stood before that pagan King Ahab after 3 years (no small co-incidence, I think) of drought brought about because of the reckless unbeliving leadership of Ahab, he had the same accusation flung at him.
1 Kings 18:17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”
But are we really the troublemakers? Not so, as Elijah quickly reminded Ahab,
18 And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals.
There lies the source of all our trouble – it is not that we are divisive but that the leadership has pursued false gods.
Of course, we all know the outcome of this confrontation. Elijah challenges Ahab, Jezebel and their priests to a duel on Mount Carmel and wins convincingly. I doubt very much that we can view the clarity of GC2006 and the subsequent bold moves of orthodox bishops and the Southern Primates in quite the same way but I do sense that the tide is turning. Nevertheless, the lashing of the serpent’s tail continues all the more against faithful ministers and congregations and it is quite easy for us to lose heart. A surge of confidence on the tide of a great victory can very quickly turn to depression at the continued assault of those who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality, just ask our friends in Connecticut.
And that’s Elijah’s experience. No sooner has he come down from the mountain and seen the return of much needed rain (18:45) then he is once more under attack from the enemies of God.
1 Kings 19:1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
This renewed assault upon Elijah’s faithful ministry is enough to make him despair.
3 Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
He takes himself out into the wilderness where God had previously led him. But this time it is Elijah’s forlorn initiative – his fathers could not turn the pagan kings back to the LORD and neither, it appears, could he. Of course, in one sense He is correct; he is no better than his fathers, he is (after all) a man just like us, as James reminds us, and yet God was pleased to work through him – not because he was anything special but because he was simply faithful to God’s word. All Elijah had done was pray in accordance with what God had already declared in scripture.
But look where that had got him. Out in the wilderness.
But God is not done with Elijah and He provides for him just as He did before.
5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.
And so Elijah is refreshed despite his desire to die. God still has plans for him, this man just like us.
7 And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8 And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
This is no meander in the countryside for Elijah, he sets off purposefully on an international journey, all the way to Horeb, to Sinai. The language here is quite intentional, just as the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness Elijah now spends 40 days on his journey. We are taken back to the Exodus and, as we approach Horeb, we are meant to have a rising sense of anticipation. Horeb is where the God of Israel does business. Horeb is where heaven touches earth and the Lord of the Universe makes Himself known. Horeb is where God makes his purposes known as He did with Moses, giving him the Law.
Elijah has not come here simply for a quiet time, for a period reflection and meditation. If not for that then why is he here?
9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 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.”
And suddenly it makes sense. Elijah thinks its all over. He is the only one left. What better place, then, to come? It was on this same mountain that Moses stood when the rest of the nation had gone whoring after their own idol, a golden calf. Elijah, the new Moses, stands alone and despairing. But this, of all places, would seem to be the right location since in the past God was more than willing to begin again with Moses when all others had deserted Him. If this is Elijah’s understanding then what happens next can only reinforce the expectation:
11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire…
It is Sinai all over again. Just as Moses and the Israelites saw wind and fire and felt the ground tremble (e.g. Exo. 19:16) so now Elijah has the same experience, just as he would have expected. But what follows is not what Elijah expected. He has come to Horeb as Moses did to hear from God, to hear God’s words that would move the story of Israel forward to the next chapter. Moses received the 10 words from God, words that shaped a new relationship between God and His people, so what will Elijah receive now that he, the second Moses, comes back to the mountain of the LORD?
…And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.
In the original this is not even a “whisper”. It is the calm that arrives after a storm, it is not so much a small sound as no sound at all. And it is all the more striking for it comes in such strong contrast to the preceding events. This is not God whispering, this is God not talking at all.
13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It is the same question as before. Elijah is in no different a place than he was before this encounter with God – the same question is asked – why have you come to Horeb? What were you looking for here? So Elijah gives the same answer, although we begin to suspect it may be redundant. Nevertheless…
14 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.”
What is left unspoken is the reason he came here, to Horeb. It was to hear again from God – to perhaps have some fresh words now that he is the only one left. But he is in the wrong place. There is no need to hear a new word from God, there is simply an ancient task to continue. This is why God was silent – His plan is by no means defeated. Elijah may be a man just like us – and it would certainly be a worrying thing is the future of the gospel were in His hands – but God is utterly unlike us; He knows exactly what He is doing and He is more than able to bring His plans to completion, despite what it looks like to us.
15 And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.
Elijah is to continue the work he was appointed for. Nor is he alone…
18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
7,000! A wonderful number. The seven speaks of completeness and the thousand of a multitude. God still has a vast remnant – the gospel is by no means over and there is no need for a fresh and different work. The ancient way is still the modern way and Elijah, persecuted by those who oppose God, need not have come down to Horeb for something new but, rather, should just have carried on with the work.
19 So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.
Not only is there the same gospel work to do, but there is a need to raise up a new generation to do that work. Now is not the time to look back and long for better days, now is the time to understand that God’s plan has by no means failed, whatever Ahab and Jezebel might seek to do. There is no change to the way God is doing things, no need to look for a new message and a new scheme. Rather, the need to return to where we have come from and continue the work.
Of course, we may need to ditch our buildings and let Ahab worry about paying the mortgage and the bills (good luck to him). We may need to set up new structures and turn to others to provide the leadership that Ahab simply refuses to give. But the work remains the same, there is nothing new to do. If we look for a new message then all we will hear is the voice of silence. Instead, be reminded that there are still 7,000 who refuse to bow the knee, a faithful remnant who are getting on with the work and who also require encouragement.
Elijah was a man just like us and God is the same God. So, friends, there is no need to take that long road to Horeb to see what new thing God would have us do – we are to simply continue the original plan; the proclamation of the gospel. Can I encourage you all to not put yourself in the position where God must ask “what are you doing here?”, for that would be to have placed far too much enphasis on your own ability and weakness and to have forgotten that it is God who is responsible for the spread of the gospel. Rather, we are to get on with the job assigned to us, refreshed in the knowledge that, whatever our foes throw at us, God is greater. There will be further victories and defeats. Israel was soon to be exiled for her apostasy and the faithful were taken with her into Babylon. Who knows what is to come in the future? But the place to find out is not at Horeb, attractive as it may appear to be. The place to find out is back in the Land, back in the communities where we already were, albeit perhaps in different buildings.