English worship service on August 16, 2020
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
I Kings 19:9-18
Living in God’s Family When You Are Isolated
If you were here last month for English worship, you may remember that I talked to you about the prophet Elijah’s story and “Living in God’s Strength When You Are Tired.” When we left him, Elijah had run away from his country of Israel, crossed the Sinai Desert after an encounter with God’s angel along the way, and come to Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai. Today I’d like to continue that story and see what God has to say to us about “Living in God’s Family When You Are Isolated.”
Going through our coronavirus pandemic, many of us are spending large parts of many days separated from human contact to a pretty great extent. With our various personalities and widely differing situations, that is easier for some than others. But it is safe to say that, for all of us, there is some level of stress and a real cost to being without our normal connections with others. We are used to having them, and God designed human beings to live in community. Being in healthy relationships is at the heart of what it means to be human, in the worldview the Bible’s God gives us. So when isolation is part of our day-to-day experience over a period of months, with no end in sight, what can help us? That is the question that can be an entry point to today’s Bible story. Let’s walk through it together today.
Backing up one verse to refresh your memory, verse 8 tells us that Elijah has spent 40 days and 40 nights crossing the Sinai Peninsula before arriving at Mt. Sinai. (There is a Shinaizan Byoin in Sapporo, as in many other cities.) There is layer on layer of mystery here. For one thing, if you have the strength to walk for 40 days and you go straight toward the area where Mt. Sinai is, it doesn’t take 40 days. Google Maps shows it at an 87 hour walk from Beersheba. If you walked eight hours a day, taking a Sabbath rest, of course, you could arrive in around 11 days. If you walked four hours a day, it would be about 24 days, but 40? If Elijah is the healthy man who could run 24 kilometers ahead of the king’s chariot, as I Kings 18:46 describes, it’s hard to see how it would take 40 days. So it’s pretty likely that Elijah just did not feel energetic enough to make a great effort in hiking, or he did a lot of wandering about during this time. That is very easy to imagine, given the “lost” state he is in spiritually and emotionally.
Elijah’s 40-day-and-night journey to Sinai reminds us of the 40 days and 40 nights that Moses was on that same mountain, receiving the 10 Commandments from the Lord (Exodus 34:28). And that phrase, 40 days (or 40 days and 40 nights), is one that you come across now and then as you read through the Bible. Have you noticed that? In Noah’s story, rain fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:12). The people of Israel spent 40 years wandering in this same wilderness before entering the Promised Land of Israel (Exodus 16:35). Jonah was sent to Nineveh to give the message that in 40 days that city would be overthrown (Jonah 3:4). Jesus went without food in the desert 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2) before being tempted there. After His resurrection, He appeared to His disciples over a period of 40 days.
So here is another Bible number loaded with meaning. It seems that 40 appears in God’s word in times of both testing and opportunity. These are times the Lord is working in special ways through particularly tough circumstances, but His goal is to bring His people through them with His blessing. It’s a good habit for your spiritual health and mine for us to view our troubles as that type of thing. We can be in very tough times, yet know that the God who is going through them with us is the One who has many times in the past taken His people through terrible trials, yet brought them out on the other side stronger and wiser. He makes it His practice to let His people enter awful crises, yet enable them to leave with a greater sense of His presence and ability to rely on Him.
With that larger goal in mind, God challenges the prophet with a question (v. 9): “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Like so many of the Lord’s simply-worded yet deep and penetrating questions, this one is not for casual conversation, and He doesn’t ask in order to learn something He doesn’t yet know. He understands that Elijah needs to look inside himself to find the truth and make an honest reply.
What is the answer? Why is Elijah there? God called him to be a prophet to His people, Israel. He had been doing that with great energy, commitment, and passion, up until recently. But now that Queen Jezebel has threatened him, he has left his post. He has separated himself from the people God sent him to serve and the work itself. The Lord challenges him to face this reality.
Of course, Elijah comes up with all kinds of explanations of why he is there. He couldn’t keep prophesying to the people because they wouldn’t listen. He couldn’t stay in Israel because the queen wants him dead, and a dead prophet can’t prophesy. If he can just escape for a time, maybe the circumstances will change and he can go back. Probably Elijah has rehearsed this story-telling time and time again as he has come across the desert. In his answer in verse 10 he focuses only on the negative part of what’s happening in his life. It is a self-centered view of events, not looking at what God intends to do in his life or that of the nation as a whole. God has not brought him to Mt. Sinai, exactly, but he is there anyway.
He is there partly based on a misunderstanding. He says (v. 10), “I'm the only one left.” Really? One of the king’s officials told him in chapter 18 that he had been hiding a hundred prophets in caves to keep them safe from persecution by the government. This is a tough time in his country, and it could use some strong, faithful leadership right now. Yet somehow Elijah seems only able to think about himself and how to make his life more manageable.
It is interesting to explore how Elijah’s strengths are playing into his reaction to his situation. He apparently is a good distance runner and has proven himself physically tough enough to survive for long periods of time in the desert (with God’s help, of course). Yet when his stress levels get high, instead of falling back on God’s unfailing commitment to Him, Elijah turns to his own strength and trusts his instincts to run and survive in the wild. Human beings can do this, can’t we. When we depend on our abilities to save us instead of trusting the Lord, our strengths can actually become weaknesses. It’s not comfortable to see this about ourselves, but we need to do so, don’t we.
And when Elijah runs away from God’s call, he in effect is cutting himself off from the contacts he needs with other people and the Lord. Loneliness is a profoundly sad part of life for everyone on some level, it seems. But it is remarkable to me how many of the loneliest people I have met are ones who had the habit of making choices that destroyed relationships and cut themselves off from others. The singer Sting describes himself in one song, “I . . . struggle to avoid any helping hand.” Some isolation is forced on us. But there are also patterns of freely-chosen behavior that lead us to live in isolation.
Elijah takes God through the whole list of troubles he faces, as if God Almighty does not know about them already. Yet the Lord does not begin by telling him where he is wrong. The time isn’t right for that, it seems. What is Elijah doing there? If he has come just to make excuses and get God to feel sorry for him, he has come to the wrong place. But maybe there is something more. Maybe he senses that he needs a deeper knowledge of God and His will and how to follow Him in faith. If he has come seeking a genuine encounter with God, he has come to the right place. If his reaction to things’ falling apart around him is to go back to the source of his and his nation’s strength, he may be in the very best place.
Remember, this is Sinai, where God gave His Law and recommitted Himself to the covenant relationship with His people, the nation of Israel, based on that Law and all His word. And when Elijah arrived there, he was at the place where Moses, so many years before, encountered God in front of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Moses asked God what His name was (Exodus 3:13). He began getting to know God in a deeper and deeper way, beginning that day and continuing throughout his life. In doing so, he found help in making sense of his situation and himself. Elijah may be there striving to do something of the same thing. He is running away from a queen who wants him dead, just as Moses had crossed the desert to get there, running from the King of Egypt, who was trying to have him killed. But, also like Moses, he finds a chance for not only escape but discovery of something greater that can help him—not just in the desert but in any situation and circumstance.
If our isolation from people serves to drive us back to God, there is hope. If all the separation from others that we are experiencing can serve to bring us into a closer, deeper relationship with our Lord, good things can grow out of the terrible situation our world is in now. Some of us have great amounts of free time, staying at home a lot now. Investing that time in prayer, learning God’s word, and other spiritual disciplines can make this an extremely productive time in the Lord’s eyes. In helping us mature spiritually, it will also lead us to build and keep stronger relationships with people over the long term.
God tells Elijah (v. 11) “Go out. Stand on the mountain in front of me. I am going to pass by.” Do those words sound familiar? In Exodus 33 Moses asks God to show him His glory. God tells him, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence” (v. 19). The Lord tells Moses He will meet him on Mt. Sinai. He continues (vv. 20-23):
But, you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.
God does a similar thing for Elijah, but first three things happen that in the Bible are often signs of God’s mighty presence. First, there is a great wind (v. 10). This reminds us as readers of, for example, the people of Israel’s great escape from Egypt. Exodus 14:21-22 tells us that God used a powerful wind to open the Red Sea and make a way for His people to cross safely.
Then Moses reached his hand out over the Red Sea. All that night the LORD pushed the sea back with a strong east wind. He turned the sea into dry land. The waters were parted. The people of Israel went through the sea on dry ground. There was a wall of water on their right side and on their left.
Next, an earthquake happens (v. 10). In Matthew 28:2, this same sign of God’s power comes together with the event of Christ’s resurrection. “There was a powerful earthquake. An angel of the Lord came down from heaven. The angel went to the tomb. He rolled back the stone and sat on it.” Revelation 16:18 describes what will happen as God brings an end to the world. “Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, thunder and a powerful earthquake. There has never been an earthquake as terrible as this since man has lived on earth.”
Then, to complete the set of three amazing acts in His show of force, God sends fire (v. 11). He has done it before there, as we’ve noted, in Exodus 3:2. “There the angel of the LORD appeared to him [Moses] in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.” Then much later when all the people of Israel were at Sinai, Exodus 19:18 tells us, “Smoke covered Mount Sinai, because the LORD came down on it in fire. The smoke rose up from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain trembled and shook.” Of course God has just recently used fire to demonstrate His power in the I Kings 18 story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, burning up Elijah’s sacrifice as a sign of His acceptance of it, not the other prophets’.
Yet somehow Elijah, the prophet whose life has been discerning the voice of God, understands that God is not in these dramatic events of nature this time. That is, God is not speaking through them. This time, Elijah receives the word of the Lord through “a gentle whisper” (v. 12b). God is God, and He will speak any way He chooses. This phrase, “a gentle whisper,” is apparently difficult to translate from Hebrew, and it appears in quite a variety of ways in different translations. In some English versions it is “a still small voice,” while in others it is “a quiet, gentle voice,” “a quiet, subdued voice,” “a sound of sheer silence,” or other phrasing. Japanese translations include:「かすかな細い声があった。」、「静かにささやく声が聞こえた。」and 「かすかにささやく声があった。」
God has already told Elijah (v. 11), “Go out. Stand on the mountain in front of me. I am going to pass by.” But until he hears this voice, he has stayed inside the cave, or cleft. We might expect a man of deep, passionate faith like Elijah to immediately obey His Lord’s direct command. But he is probably terrified, on top of the depression or whatever mental/emotional problems he has. It’s only after the wind, earthquake, and fire, when he hears his name in a question from God Himself, that Elijah gets up and goes as far as the entrance.
The Lord asks him the same question in v. 13 that He has already asked: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah hasn’t really answered it yet. He’s poured out his complaint and pain, telling God all the terrible things happening in his life. And now, when God gives him a second chance to face up to this simple, yet deep, penetrating question, Elijah gives exactly the same answer (v. 14) that he gave before the dramatic events of nature and God’s speaking to him. How has Elijah changed through his encounter with the living God, the Lord of heaven and earth? Not at all, it seems.
There’s a sobering warning for us as believers in God here. How are the encounters we have with God changing us? How fully are they forming and reforming us, growing us into the people of deep love and understanding that He so much wants us to become? How much progress are we making in our spiritual journey? It’s possible for us to meet God here in worship, in our own private time of devotion, or other places, and come away from the experience basically unchanged. We can check it off our “to do” list—“Have quiet time. Check.” If we are not willing to be sincere and honest and humble before God, we can leave His presence no more uplifted, redirected, empowered, or enlightened than we were when we came. If we’re too attached to our stories about how we got to this point and not willing to look at them again as God speaks to us, we can miss the opportunities He places before us for renewal and discovery of the plans He continues to make for us here and now.
So my question to you (and to me) is, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” If you are living in isolation, is it really because God has put you in that situation? Loneliness and hopelessness and many other things that are damaging to human life grow and multiply when we live cut off from relationships. God works to restore healthy relationships, first and most with Him. But in vital connection with that, He also helps us build and rebuild and maintain our links with others in our families, communities, places of work, and elsewhere. God tells Elijah something to the effect of “Your calling is there in Israel. Your mission is there in Israel. I am not finished with you yet, Elijah. My leading for you is not to stay here but go back to the work I sent you to do in your homeland.”
God is amazingly gracious and patient with Elijah. He does not condemn him for getting burned out, or losing touch with reality, or losing sight of His (the Lord’s) ability to handle the problems in the prophet’s nation and personal life. But He reminds Elijah clearly that He, the Lord, is not absent, not isolated, not unable to uphold justice, not unaware of the great challenges that still face His followers. The God says something like “Elijah, you are not alone. There are more than 7,000 others who have remained faithful and are ready to work together with you under my leadership. They need you, and you need them. Go back and serve me with them.”
Elijah receives very specific instructions about how to continue his work as prophet. Part of a prophet’s role is announcing God’s word about choosing leaders. God sends him to make Hazael the next king of Syria, Israel's worst enemy among the nations around it. Likewise, Elijah is to announce Jehu as king of Israel, replacing the current King Ahab. God does not send Elijah into retirement, but He does instruct him to choose Elisha to take his place as prophet when the time is right. These three, Hazael and his Syrians, Jehu and his followers, even Elisha himself, are to carry out God’s judgments against those in Israel who are leading the nation into idol worship.
All these instructions lead Elijah out of isolation and back into community with the people around him. This helps restore the prophet when his life alone is beginning to feel unbearable. In particular, by following God’s renewed plans for leading him, Elijah develops a close, personal relationship with Elisha, his successor. I hope to explore more of that with you in the next message. But when it finally is time for Elijah to leave this world, as Pastor Sasaki mentioned last week, Elisha calls out to him, “My father!” (II Kings 2:12). This teacher-student, mentor-protégé, and father-son-like relationship no doubt meets deep needs in Elijah for connection and leads him back from the despair he had been feeling. In these various ways, through communion with God, Elijah is led into stronger community with the people around him.
One of the things I see God doing at Open Door during this season of isolation through the coronavirus pandemic is leading us to strengthen our small group ministries. Some are in person, others are online, and they may have to shift back and forth between the two as waves of this suffering come and go. But in various circles of Christ-followers and seekers, all inside the work of the church as a whole, God is teaching us to be connected. I have great hope that this is a way He will help us, even after the season of the pandemic has passed (and it will!), to live more and more as His children. Let’s make it our prayer that in this and all the ways He chooses, our Father will help us learn what it means to live as members of His family.
Father in Heaven, thank you that when we lose our way, we always have you to go back to. Thank you for the covenant relationship with you, which you have made, you sustain, and you will always uphold. Help us keep seeking you, turning to you for strength, and discovering you in new and deeper ways as we do. And teach us to hold closely to each other, especially in this time of testing. In Christ’s name, amen.
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