Sermon Aug 4

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

August 4, 2013

“Through Life’s Ups and Downs”

I Kings 19:1-13

One of the great promises in scripture is the presence of God with us. We derive great hope and comfort from the words of Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We trust in God’s promise at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Our hope and trust in God’s real and empowering presence in our lives is very personal.

Yet I am sure there is not one of us who has not questioned those promises when in the midst of despondency. God promises that he is with us and yet we know the person of faith encounters all kinds of trials and tribulations in life. Is God really with me? Will God watch over me?

If ever there was a patron saint for all those who have wrestled with the ups and downs of life, it could well be the prophet Elijah. Elijah is considered the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. However, in Elijah’s life we witness the same ups and downs, the same peaks and valleys, that we find in our own lives. And yet in Elijah’s life we are aware of the God who is with him, and also with us. In Elijah’s life we gain an appreciation of the presence of God with us. What I read for you this morning is really the second half of a larger narrative. It’s a story which takes place between two mountains – Mt. Carmel and Mt. Horeb.

Let me start by taking you back to Mt. Carmel. Elijah appeared on the scene in one of Israel’s darkest hours. Ahab was the king of Israel and he had made Jezebel his queen. Even today their names are synonymous with evil. When Jezebel married Ahab she brought with her from her native country of Sidon the worship of Baal. Baal was the god of fertility, and the worship of Baal included child sacrifices. The priests of Baal lived at the royal palace and ate with the king and queen. And since the worship of Baal was officially sanctioned, the Israelites began to worship both Baal and God. Things could hardly have been worse when Elijah came into the picture.

The great confrontation took place on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and Ahab and Jezebel; between God and Baal. To the Israelites assembled there, Elijah called upon them to choose between God and Baal. He said: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

Elijah then proposed a decisive test. Sacrifices would be prepared. The God who answered with fire should be accepted as the true God of Israel. The first sacrifice was made by the 450 prophets of Baal. From morning until evening they implored their god to ignite their sacrifice. Hour after hour they hopped and danced about the altar in a religious frenzy, chanting and cutting themselves with knives until the blood flowed. Elijah couldn’t resist getting in a few digs. He began to mock them. “Cry aloud!” he yelled. “Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

In spite of their frantic cries, there was no answer. Then Elijah called the people to gather in closer. Carefully he built his altar, making sure there were twelve stones, one for each tribe of Israel. Next he dug a trench around the altar and had four jars of water poured on it. Twice more he commanded water to be poured on the sacrifice until the trench overflowed. Then Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

Then lightning flashed. The sacrifice was consumed in fire and the water in the trench fizzed like spit on a hot iron. Nothing was left of the offering but a pile of ashes. “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God’.”

This was a spectacular victory for God over the pagan idols of that day. And Elijah must have come out looking pretty good too. He had been allowed the great privilege of being God’s spokesman. He had seen God work a miracle and change people’s hearts to worship the one true God. So how is it that Elijah went from a spiritual mountaintop to the depths of despair? What’s the difference between the fire of Mt. Carmel and the cave of Mt. Horeb? These verses in chapter 19 identify four factors which account for Elijah’s depression.

The first was fear. Verse 3 says: “Then Elijah was afraid; he got up and fled for his life.” Elijah was a wanted man. He was wanted by Jezebel the queen. Her message to Elijah was – before this day is over, I will see you dead. In Jezebel’s eyes, Elijah was responsible for the defeat of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel was a ruthless tyrant and she was going to protect her interests any way she could. Any other time Elijah would have faced that threat courageously. But now, just when he thought Mt. Carmel was the final battle with evil, Jezebel’s threat was a source of unbearable discouragement. Afraid, Elijah ran for his life. Fear sends Elijah spiraling into depression. Afraid, he despairs of his own life. The presence of God in Elijah’s life which was so critical to his prophetic ministry had now been overshadowed by fear.

The second factor which contributed to Elijah’s sense of abandonment by God was failure. The text employs a play on the word “life”. In verse 2, the queen threatens his life. In verse 3, Elijah flees for his life. And then in verse 4, he despairs of his life and wishes he were dead. Fear has a way of clouding our perspective on life. Now Elijah sees himself as a failure. He says: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Thinking he had to live up to an impossible standard of perfection, Elijah’s house of cards collapsed. He says to himself – “I’m no good. I can’t do anything right. I’ve given up on myself, surely God has given up on me too.” Elijah’s mistake is that he has taken himself too seriously and God not seriously enough.

The third factor in Elijah’s mental collapse is fatigue. Elijah is emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Today we call that being burned out. People can become burned out from a lot of things. Overextending ourselves in the cause of righteousness is as depleting and debilitating as any other. Then when we can no longer cope with the stress, we lose our ability to see anything but the dark side of the problems we face. Although Elijah cannot appreciate it yet, there is a tender, compassionate response from God. Food for the journey is placed before him and twice the divine message comes to Elijah – “Get up and eat.”

The fourth factor in Elijah’s depression is a sense of futility. Elijah had been so shaken by Jezebel’s threat that he loses sight of the sovereignty of God. Elijah voices his complaint: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts … I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah forgets the hundred prophets of Obadiah who are also faithful to God. Elijah conveniently ignores the great conversion of the Israelites at Mt. Carmel. Literally and figuratively, Elijah has taken refuge in a cave and he can see no hope for the future. Elijah’s cave is a weary place to be and all those who have felt the icy grip depression know what it’s like to live there.

This passage has some important things to say to us about the presence of God. Sulking in his cave, Elijah had begun to think – “I’m all alone. It’s me against the world.” But even though God had been silent, he was not absent. God reveals himself to Elijah in a fresh and totally unexpected way. To Elijah, his God was a mighty whirlwind and a roaring thunder. He was to be found in the lightning flashing and the earth trembling. But that is not how God comes to Elijah. First came the wind, loud and powerful, breaking the rocks. But God was not in the wind. Then came the earthquake, shaking the mountain. But God was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire, lightning flashing and illuminating. But God was not in the fire. Then there came to Elijah a sound of sheer silence. Greater than the wind, earthquake and fire was the internal experience of God’s grace. Speaking to the heart of Elijah, God let him know that he was there, that he was with him, that he had nothing to fear.

There was a favorite story of Robert Louis Stevenson about a ship trapped in a terrific storm. One sailor, working deep in the hold of the ship, could contain himself no longer. In a panic, he stumbled up the stairs into the control room where he stood frozen in terror, watching the captain grapple with the controls as he fought to steer the huge ship through the rocks to open water. The captain looked over his shoulder at the scared sailor and smiled. The sailor smiled back and went back down below deck to tell the crew that everything was going to be alright. When they asked him how he knew, he said, “I have seen the face of the captain, and he smiled at me.”

Elijah would have understood that. Deep in the cave of fear, God smiled at him. And it’s worth noting that God’s final cure for Elijah’s depression was to put him back to work. After Elijah emerged from the cave, God gave him a new task to do. The noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger was once asked, “Suppose you think you’re heading for a nervous breakdown. What should you do?” One would have expected him to say, “See a psychiatrist.” But he didn’t. Instead his reply was, “Go straight to the front door, turn the knob, cross the tracks, and find somebody who needs you.”

What God did for Elijah, he can do for you and me. God is not only present in the spectacular and the dynamic but also in the midst of the mundane and the everyday. If we seek God in earthquakes and storms we won’t find him. Whenever and wherever faithful hearts seek him, he is there. In spite of your circumstances, God has promised you that he will never leave your side.

Brother Lawrence was a 17th century French monk who knew the meaning of God’s presence. Brother Lawrence was no Elijah. His life-long career was washing dishes in the monastery. But he comprehended the presence of God so profoundly that now his few writings and letters are treasured. Let me close with his words. As he began his work he would pray: “O my God, since you are with me, and I must now in obedience to your commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I ask that you grant me the grace to continue in your presence; and to this end grant me your assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.”

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