The 11th Sunday After Trinity August 31, 2003
1 Kings 19:1-8
27, 276, 427, 800
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.” Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow-redeemed:
I read recently about an old cemetery in Texas in which there is a mysterious tombstone. The name Grace Llewellen Smith is chiseled into it. There is no birth or death date, only these words: “Sleeps, but rests not. Loved, but was loved not. Tried to please, but pleased not. Died as she lived—alone.” That’s all we know about her. We don’t even know whether she wrote that inscription or someone else summed up her life in that way.
Do you ever have days or weeks or months when you feel like Grace Smith: when you wake up in the morning, but feel as tired as ever because of a burden you’re carrying; when no matter how hard you work at being kind and loving, no one seems to notice or appreciate it; when you are surrounded by people, but you still feel all alone because no one seems to care about you? Then you know the hopelessness Grace Smith must have suffered through. More importantly, then you need to meet the prophet Elijah.
There would seem to be little in common between Grace Smith and Elijah. The prophet is one of the most famous heroes of the Old Testament. He had a difficult commission: Preach to the unbelieving northern kingdom of Israel. Yet he seemed to have incredible physical and spiritual stamina for the work. While hundreds of the Lord’s prophets were systematically hunted down and killed by Queen Jezebel, Elijah continued preaching. When God sent a devastating drought, Elijah camped out by a stream and survived on bread brought by ravens. When the brook dried up, Elijah did not panic, but trusted the Lord’s word and went to a village where he stayed with a widow and her son. By the Lord’s gracious working, during the whole time in their house, the jar of flour and the jug of oil were never exhausted.
But those events were very minor compared with the showdown on Mount Carmel. There it was 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah versus Elijah. Even then Elijah did not give up. He stood toe-to-toe with them and challenged them to a contest to see once and for all who was the true God. All day long the prophets of Baal pleaded for Baal to hear them and answer with fire, but nothing happened. Then Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, had gallons of water poured over the altar and sacrifice, called on the Lord, and fire from heaven incinerated not only the sacrifice, but the stones and dirt, and licked up the water in the trench around the altar. The people were awestruck. They threw themselves to the ground saying over and over, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39). But Elijah was still not done. He had the 450 prophets of Baal executed, and he finished the day by tucking his long cloak into his belt and running ahead of King Ahab’s chariot all the way to the king’s summer palace in Jezreel. What would Elijah know about feeling defeated and hopeless?
But, as we learn from our text, even prophets get discouraged. Elijah must have had high hopes that finally a religious reformation would sweep through Israel. The people would repent of their sins and turn back to the Lord in droves. But it didn’t happen. Things only seemed to get worse. In a rage, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah saying he was as good as dead.
That was the final blow. Elijah headed south, far from Israel, Jezebel, and anyone else, until he collapsed under a shrub in the middle of the desert. Then he prayed, “Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” [v.4] Later he poured out his frustration to God: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10 NIV).
Like Grace Smith, Elijah was saying, “It’s no use. My life is futile. I’m all alone. I may as well be dead!” Have you ever felt that way? It can seem all too true, can’t it? We look at our world and think of how the Word of God has been preached and taught over the years, and what is the result? Things seem to be getting worse instead of better. It seems the more the Word is proclaimed, the more indifferent people become toward it. It is becoming less and less of an influence on people’s lives. They go right on worshiping the modern idols of financial portfolios, houses, boats, cars, and weekend getaways. You bring the Word to family members, neighbors, or friends, and either nothing happens at all or you are seen as being judgmental and meddlesome. Grim statistics come out every year reporting that membership in our church body and in Christian churches in general is stagnant or even in decline. It can all seem pretty hopeless!
Then we look at ourselves and see that the situation is no better. Elijah confessed to the Lord that he was no better than those who had gone before. He saw the burdens and responsibilities of his calling as prophet, and at the same time knew all too well his weaknesses. The burden looked far heavier than his ability to carry it, and so he was ready to give up.
The Lord has called each of us to walk that narrow, difficult path leading to life, rather than take the wide, smooth, freeway that most are traveling. It means patterning our lives according to the standard of God’s commandments, rather than just going along with the lifestyles of everyone else. It can leave you feeling very alone when everyone laughs at a dirty joke except you. It takes real effort to put the Lord and His will first when others make it a priority to spend their time and money on getting ahead in the world. We know all too well how weak we are and how easily we can be distracted from the Lord. We see our problems, while others seem to be enjoying a carefree life without the Lord, and our faith begins to waver. It can all build up over time, until suddenly, like Elijah, we’re ready to run away and say, “Lord, it’s too much! I’m too weak! You might as well take my life now!”
Elijah just wanted to be left alone to die, but God loved him too much to let that happen. The angel of the LORD appeared and provided fresh-baked bread and a jar of water. Through that food, God miraculously renewed Elijah’s physical and spiritual strength so that he could survive the next 40 days and reach Mount Sinai. There the Lord wonderfully taught and encouraged His discouraged prophet. A powerful wind ripped the mountains apart. After that there was an earthquake and a raging fire, but the Lord was not in any of those. After that there was a gentle whisper, and Elijah covered his face recognizing the voice of God.
The lesson was that Elijah was looking for God’s presence and power in the wrong place. Elijah was longing to see more dramatic, outward displays of God’s power and judgment; and when they did not come, he despaired. But in coming to him in a gentle whisper, the Lord taught him that what truly works to bring about a saving change within people or a nation is not sheer visible power or force, but the quiet, gentle working of the Word in people’s hearts. For faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of God.
Even though Elijah did not see it, the Word was working. There were still 7,000 in Israel who were remaining faithful to God. There was no need to be discouraged. Elijah could go back to work and go on preaching God’s message with the confidence that it would bring people to repentance and faith, and that it would preserve that faith against all attacks.
When hopelessness begins closing in on you, and one fear feeds on another until you’re ready to just give up and run away, look up. The Lord is right there ready to give renewed strength and purpose to life. He knows all about our earthly needs, and He has no trouble providing for them, no matter what the situation. What is hopeless for us is an opportunity for the Lord to show His loving care. So Jesus says, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31 NIV).
The Lord does not stop with providing food on the table, clothing, and a roof over our heads. He gives us much more! He spreads out a lavish, free, all-you-can-eat feast for the soul, which gives us the strength and confidence to go forward in life, no matter how hopeless things seem. He says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:1ff. NIV).
When no one seems to be paying attention to God, and the world seems to have the upper hand, don’t give up. Listen, for the Lord promises that He is still in control and that all the forces of hell cannot prevent His will from being done. When you are frightened by your own sins and weaknesses, and discouraged by how many times you have failed in your walk as a child of God, listen. Listen to the Lord telling you that He faced the hopelessness and fear of sin on the cross, and defeated them by His own death and resurrection. Listen, and you will hear: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. You are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). “My strength is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When you feel all alone against overwhelming odds, listen. The Lord promises, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age!” (Matthew 28:20).
Trust that quiet power of God’s promises to sweep away discouragement and fear. That makes all the difference in life. It is the difference between the hopelessness of a tombstone reading: “Loved, but was loved not…Died as she lived—alone” and the confident faith which says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38ff. NIV).
Even prophets get discouraged, but the Lord offers new hope and strength to all! Amen.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
And young men stumble and fall;
But those who hope in the LORD
Will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary
They will walk and not be faint.
(Isaiah 40:30-31 NIV)
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.