Most spiritual teachings assume solitude and silence, but the story of Elijah suggests that a healthy God-centred spirituality is grounded in the hustle and bustle of community. (Listen.)
Once upon a time, long long ago, when my kids were young, I felt for a while that my faith and spirituality had to go on hold. Life was so busy, and the kids were so demanding, and everywhere I went there were people. People needing a nappy change; people needing a story; people needing a cuddle; people needing a cuppa; people needing a neighbour; people needing a friend; people needing a volunteer; people needing a worker. Everything I had ever read about spirituality was about spending quiet time alone with God: yet quiet time alone was exactly what I never had.
Tonight’s story about Elijah was often held up as an example of this model. The interpretation went like this: The hyper-holy man got away from it all, and there on the mountaintop had a powerful spiritual experience in solitude and silence. Lucky him, I’d think, as I was yanked in a dozen different directions all at once. But as the years went by and the demands continued, gradually I realised that if I wanted to go deeper with God, I had to go now, and I had to find a different way to the standard models of spiritual seeking. Oddly enough, I found it in the very same stories which had been held up as models of solitary spiritual growth.
For example, as I read this story again, I realised things were not what I’d been told. Yes, Elijah encountered God in the silence. But it strikes me that he went to the mountaintop for all the wrong reasons, and in his solitude and silence he missed a lot. So I think it’s time we took a closer look.
First, let’s remember why Elijah headed to the mountain in the first place. He’d just won a major contest between himself and 450 prophets of Baal. When Elijah prayed, God sent raging fire and everyone in Israel witnessed that God was God, and Baal was nothing. Elijah prayed again, and God sent desperately-needed rain to a drought-stricken land. Then Elijah, filled with God’s power, sprinted faster than the king’s chariot as they raced back from the mountain into the city. His demonstration of God’s reality and power was absolutely awe-inspiring to all the people of Israel.
All the people, that is, except Queen Jezebel. Jezebel was enraged that her pet prophets had been bested and slaughtered, and so she threatens to kill Elijah. And this man, who has spent years successfully evading murderous royals, who has just called down fire and rain from the heavens, who has just run faster than the king’s best warhorses, who can do pretty much anything, it seems, in the power of God: well, he turns tail and runs away!
There in the desert, under a lonely tree, he prays: “I’ve had enough, God; kill me now!” Not a prayer of wonder or praise or gratitude for what’s just happened; not a prayer for protection or wisdom or anything else: just, “Kill me now!” And then he falls asleep.
Twice he is woken by an angel, who tenderly feeds him. Then he travels up the mountain and into a cave. There he meets God, who asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah’s just been fed by an angel. Twice. You’d think he’d be transformed by this amazing spiritual experience, but instead he moans that he’s the only righteous person left in Israel, and his life is under threat.
God tells him to go outside. Elijah experiences some heavy duty stuff: wind, earthquake, fire; but God is not in them. Then comes the sound of sheer silence: and God was in the silence. And the voice comes to him again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Again, you’d think Elijah would be transformed by his amazing spiritual experience: in silence, he’s just encountered God. But instead, Elijah moans again that he’s the only righteous person left in Israel, and his life is under threat. So God tells him to get back to work and to anoint a prophet to replace him; and God reminds him of the 7,000 in Israel who remain faithful. In other words, God tells Elijah that he’s not as important as he thinks, he’s not the only prophet, and he’s not the only faithful person.
There are two things I want to draw out here. The first is Elijah’s sin. For he fled to the mountaintop not in faithfulness, but in sin. Despite God’s displays of power through him – despite fire on the altar, rain in the sky, power in his legs – Elijah allowed fear and depression and burnout to control his actions and drive him away: and the fear and depression and burnout were caused by his inflated sense of his own importance. “I’m the only one,” he moans in self-pity. He had forgotten that God can use whoever God chooses. Nothing had ever relied on Elijah; if it hadn’t been Elijah, God would have found someone else. Elijah’s view of himself blinded him to God’s presence and God’s power. Instead, he was consumed by fear and anxiety, and in self-protection, he fled his community to go it alone.
And that brings me to my second point. Under the tree and up on the mountaintop, he had extraordinary spiritual experiences: he was fed by an angel; he encountered God. And they did nothing for him. He didn’t fall to his knees in awe and wonder and praise. He wasn’t healed by them. He just continued to moan and feel sorry for himself; and God’s response was simply to send him back: back to being among the people, back to proclaiming the Word of God.
So what this story tells me is this: When we try to be spiritual alone or disciples alone; when we convince ourselves that we are uniquely faithful; when we believe that we, and only we, know the mind of God, we become incredibly vulnerable: to fear, to anxiety, to depression, to burnout. We risk being obsessed by our own self-importance; we risk being consumed by self-pity; we risk being blinded to the extraordinary works of power God is doing in this world, even, at times, through us.
But the story also tells me something else: that God is so patient, so gracious and so kind, that even when we fall into this sin, and even when we turn our back on God’s people, God will still seek us out and meet us in our need … but only to tell us to get back to the people, and back to work. For there is never a time when our spirituality should go on hold, or our ministry: it is in the very midst of the people, in all the chaos of life, that God must be encountered and proclaimed through word and deed and stories told and burdens shared and large and small works of wonder and power.
So, my friends, what are you doing here? And where will you be tomorrow? Here, God will meet you in your need, and hand-feed you with heaven’s bread; but tomorrow is where your ministry lies: among the people — your families, friends, neighbours, classmates, clients and colleagues — and in all the chaos of life. Your ministry lies among the people, and in all the chaos of life. So rest, and take, and eat, and listen … and tomorrow, get back to work. Ω
A reflection on 1 Kings 19:1-18 given to Sanctuary, 23 June 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019.
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