1 Kings 19:1-18 & Luke 8:26-39
Elijah’s existential crisis & the lonely, unpopular road of going against the crowd – a reflection by Dan Spragg
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asked. This is the sort of probing question that demands a bit of soul searching before one answers it. It is one of these poignant questions that tend to come when they are needed most. They can be hard to endure, for all of what they drag up to the surface, but usually it’s worth engaging in them. It might be helpful for us today to back things up a little bit, to get a little context for where Elijah finds himself before we have an attempt to connect this to where we find ourselves here and now.
In the history of the Hebrew people, Elijah is held in the same esteem as Moses. He was a great prophet, one who would call the people of Israel back to living in the way of Yahweh. At the time, Israel was a divided kingdom. There was north and south, Israel was the northern kingdom, and Judah was the southern one. They were once a united country but at the time of Elijah they were very much past their prime. The great kings, David, Saul, and Solomon had already been and since then the kingdoms had fallen into disarray. There were civil wars and conflicts with surrounding nations that were slowly but surely chipping away at the once great Jewish nation. The northern Kingdom of Israel had succumbed to a series of kings who were more interested in power and wealth than they were in working to keep the nation as God’s covenant people with any sort of integrity. They had by and large turned to the gods of other nations. The role of the prophets in such a climate was ultimately to display to the people that their investing in these other gods was futile and that only Yahweh, that is the one true God, was the source of an abundant life. You will recall the story of Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal? The story goes that Elijah challenged them to a sort of dual to prove whether Baal or Yahweh was the one true God. They built altars with the challenge being that the god who answered the prophets by bringing down fire upon the altar was therefore the winner. The 450 prophets of Baal danced around their altar for hours to try and call down fire from Baal. Elijah in the meantime sarcastically torments them, “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27) When it came to Elijah’s turn we see a confident and calm man who thoroughly douses his altar in water, to make a point, and prays a simple and quiet prayer, “Lord, the 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, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God…” (18:36-7). We know the ending… fire erupts and engulfs the altar burning it for all to see. Elijah has won, Yahweh has definitively spoken. Not everyone was happy of course with the result of Elijah’s work. The ruling elite King Ahab and his wife Jezebel were really not happy, especially Jezebel, so she vows to kill him and Elijah flees for his life. It is important for us to note today, that this story comes immediately before where we find Elijah today.
Do you see the contrast? The Elijah in the story we have before us is not the Elijah who defeated the prophets of Baal. Where has that Elijah gone? Where is the confident and victorious prophet of Yahweh known as Elijah?
It is like there are two Elijah’s. One a confident, powerful, brave, effective messenger of God and the other a depressed and frightened man who feels inadequate and alone and ready to end it all. How can it be that he moves so quickly from one to the other? Elijah is experiencing what we would call an existential crisis – a crisis of his own existence! After the high of victory over the idolatry of Baal he crashes to this low point of feeling as though he needs to flee for his life. He feels alone. He feels as if he has no other options. He is occupying an unknown space of what to do and where to go? The opposition is relentless and the ruling powers are doing everything they can to wipe him out. He feels as if he is the only one left fighting for the cause and so he is ready to throw in the towel. It is into this crisis of existence that we see God care for Elijah – he is given food, but God also challenges him, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” We see that God draws near to Elijah; God’s presence is made known. We also see that in the end God tells him to get up and get moving again. The most important message God gives Elijah is that he is not alone – there are others waiting for him. He is not alone – he is fed in the presence of angels, he is not alone – God presence draws near to him, he is not alone – there are 7000 others waiting and ready for him to join them, so he goes. Elijah from here goes on and successfully anoints a new King for Israel and passes on the mantle of his mission to Elisha for the next generation.
There is an important lesson in this story. The lesson is one of learning how to define one’s reality. In life and in mission there are both highs and lows, but one must not let these be the things that define what is. Elijah learned that he was not alone, there was a bigger picture at play. There was a future for him and for Israel. There were 7000 other people he didn’t even know about! There was a future for his ministry. Yes he had dramatically come crashing down from the highest of highs but this did not define who he was or where he was to go, or what he was to do. Elijah learned that faith often goes beyond what we can see in the present and that the catalyst for faith is to be something that comes from something other than ourselves and what we feel, despite how real it does feel.
The place Elijah had got to is quite understandable. He had simply slipped into thinking that what he was experiencing in that moment was all that there was left for him. Into this we see God not let him give into his frustrations or to his depression. I like how God doesn’t belittle his experience, but rather simply meets Elijah where he is – needing food, needing company, needing reassurance and hope. God didn’t brush aside Elijah’s frustrations, what he was experiencing was real, but rather he gave Elijah what he needed to carry on from this point, with his frustrations. God reminded Elijah of what is true for all of us. In the midst of our life, when we feel lost, defeated, inadequate, or alone we do well to remember that we are never truly alone. We do well to remember that the mission of God never rests squarely on our shoulders. We do well to remember that we are to live by our reality defined by something other than only what we see in front of us. For we don’t know what is next, we don’t know who else is on their way to join us. And, we do well to remember that we discover this truth not by giving into our loneliness and despair, withdrawing and waiting for death, but rather through stepping back into life. We discover again and again God’s life for us as we engage rather than disengage.
I’d like to quickly mention the gospel passage we have with us today and to finish up refer us back to today being Refugee Sunday. Firstly, Jesus and the casting out of the legion of demons. I’m not going to mention that specific act but rather simply point out that Jesus, acting in the stream of biblical prophets like Elijah discovered too what Elijah discovered. That when speaking God’s reality into situations of evil, injustice and chaos, it may not be received well by those who are watching. The man Jesus set free was certainly quite pleased, but as for the rest of the town, well they seemed to be less pleased and grateful than fearful and angry. Jesus though, wasn’t one to pander to the crowds. Living in God’s way isn’t always popular, and it will draw resistance, but to live and die by the whim of the crowd is the way to give in to that which seeks to bring us down. Jesus defined his reality not by the harshness of what the world can sometimes dish out, but rather by the story of a loving God who wants life, love, and justice for the entire world. Both Jesus, and Elijah eventually, showed that yes, living the mission of God’s love and justice can be an unpopular and often lonely road but this is not the end of the story.
Secondly, as I have mentioned it is refugee Sunday. A day in which the situation of refugees across the globe is brought before the presence of the global Christian community. In one sense we can say that Elijah was a political refugee and he was fleeing for his life. It is a situation that many unfortunately find themselves in today. Some refugees choose to flee because of circumstances while others have no choice but to flee. It isn’t an experience of life and hope I’m guessing. It’s easy for us to comment on their situation and encourage them to keep their faith, to not give up hope. It’s easy for me to say that because I haven’t been there. For Elijah the standout point is that he feels alone. The key reassurance that God gives him is that he isn’t alone. Elijah couldn’t see that for himself, he needed something, someone, outside of himself to be the catalyst for his faith. So, perhaps today the message for us in all of this is twofold. Can we remember for ourselves that our reality is not to be defined only by what we experience in life whether it is the highs or the lows? Our experiences are real, they are valid, but we need to remember that we are called into a bigger story. One in which there is the presence of an active God who is with us, who feeds us, and who is working not only with us but with many others as well – we are in a much bigger story than simply our own. And, perhaps that part of living in this story is that we are to step forward and be agents of God in the world who move towards those who are refugees to remind them that they, despite the situations they find themselves in, are not alone. Can we be agents of God in the world who seek to remind others that God is with them and that we inhabit God’s story of love and justice with them as of course, Christ did for all of us. This of course, may be unpopular but it is the story that we are called to inhabit. We are called to inhabit the story of justice, grace and love which in the case of refugees may go against popular culture and popular politics in which we see the latest version of nationalism that gives rise to Trump and Brexit and terrorist attacks.
So, may we not seek to be popular – for if we do we will live, and die, by the whims of the crowd and it will be our undoing. And may we remember we are not alone – God is with us, giving us all we need and calling us onwards despite what we may be facing. Our reality is not defined only by what we see but rather we are caught up in God’s big story of love, grace, justice, and peace. May this be what we see.