I Kings 19.11-13
How many of you all know the book, used the book, or know someone who has used the book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Written by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, it has sold millions of copies, and has spawned thirteen follow-up titles: What to Expect the First Year, the Toddler Years, What to Eat When you are Expecting, and many more. It has been a wildly successful book and series I think because pregnancy is one of those times when we largely have no idea what is going on. If it is our first, or even if it isn’t, there are a lot of question and concerns that we have, and a book that can tell us what to expect is like a godsend. It helps us turn our fears into hopes.
But there is something tempting about a book like this one, isn’t there? For many of us, there is a deep yearning to know what to expect. We would love it if someone would write the complete set: “What to Expect…the Retirement Years” or “What to Expect…the College Years” or “What to Expect in my New Job or Place to Live or Beginning of this New Relationship.” I think a lot of us would love to live life with clear expectations, predictable future, and a guidebook for every step of the way.
This was the experience of Elijah in today’s Scripture passage. For those who might not know or remember the Biblical history from that time, the people of God were divided into a Northern and Southern Kingdom, and the Northern Kingdom struggled in the eyes of the Biblical writers to stay true to God’s commandments. They followed political entanglements, more worried about aligning themselves to the power structure of the day. Israelite king Ahab married the outsider Jezebel in order to curry political favor with her native Phoenicia. It was a convenient political marriage, but it drew the people away from their worship of God and practice of God’s commandments.
Elijah and prophets like him stood in the gap, and spoke against these political alignments, calling people to return to their covenant with God. In fact, Elijah was the hero of the Battle of Baal. He stood up to Jezebel and her priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Their priests failed to do much to demonstrate the power of their god, but Elijah called down God’s power and fire from heaven to ignite the altar and defeat the priests of Baal.
He was the hero for the people of God. And that made him public enemy number one for Jezebel. She swore that she would end his life, and used all of her power to make that happen. In a heartbeat, Elijah’s fortunes had turned. The hero had become the hunted.
So he fled. He fled Jezebel and Ahab. He fled Israel. He ran and ran until he didn’t have the power to run anymore. And he collapsed in exhaustion and when he closed his eyes, he had a vision. A desire. A yearning for things to return to the way they were. He wanted to be the hero again. He wanted everything back to the way it used to be.
“The way it used to be” is a dangerous pitfall that we see again and again throughout the Scriptures, and I would suggest we see if again and again in our own world, too:
- The Israelites before that wanted to return to “The Way it Used to Be,” back when they were in Egypt and life was hard, but at least there was a guidebook, What to Expect When you are Enslaved by a Violent Empire.”
- Later, the Exiles wanted to return to “The Way it Used to Be,” wishing they could see God at work in the way they were used to, worship God at the Temple, live in the land of Promise.
- Even later, the disciples wanted to return to “The Way it Used to Be,” believing that God only worked a certain way and if you were going to follow Jesus, you had to be lockstep with them first.
- Perhaps we understand the yearning. We want things to be like they used to, in our life or in the church or in our marriages or in our jobs or back when we were in school and life seemed a little easier. I think there is something in human nature that wants to return to the good old days, even if they weren’t really as good as we remember.
- Elijah wanted to return to “The Way it Used to Be,” remembering his success on Mt. Carmel and wistfully wishing that it would return. He wanted to return to the days when God seemed obvious to him. Back in the good old days, when God rained down fire on Mt. Carmel, and God was clear and obvious. In his exhaustion, he yearned for “The Way it Used to Be,” and since Mt. Carmel wasn’t a safe place to be anymore, he thought of the next best place. Mt. Horeb. Sinai. The mountain of God. The place where God first showed up to the Israelites to bring them the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Here God would make things like they used to be. Fire and lightning and the voice of God booming from above. That’s how it was with Moses…that’s how it would be for Elijah! So that’s where he went, journeying in solitude to Horeb, where God would make things back like they used to be. In exhaustion, he climbed the mountain and collapsed into a cave.
And this is what happened:
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”Elijah wanted to return to the way things used to be. But God had other plans.
Elijah had read the book: “What to Expect When Life Gets Hard and You Need God to Show up in the Power and Spectacle Once Again.” But God never wrote that book. And God was writing a new book for Elijah now.
The Two Way this week was full of wisdom: “God shows up…in unexpected ways.” Again and again, they understood what was happening in this passage was that God was the God of the unexpected. The new. The next. When God’s people think they have the book, think they know what to expect, think that things are going to return to the good old days simply because it fits their expectations, that’s when God does something new. One quote in particular from the Two Way was brilliant: “when you think you understand God, what you understand is not God.”
Elijah had to see that his textbook had to be re-written. He couldn’t just go back to the Way Things Used to Be. There was a new way that God spoke, a new way that God acted, and a new way to see God in the world. Just like for the Israelites, and for the Exiles, and for the disciples, the God of the new and the next was on top of that mountain. But not in the way Elijah expected. Not in the earthquake or the fire or the wind. But in the sound of sheer silence. God spoke in the silence. Not in the roar.
Once Elijah opened his eyes and his ears and his heart, he saw God in a new way, and saw the newness that he had in store for him. He was not alone, and in fact God revealed on Mt. Horeb that there was another, Elisha, who needed mentoring and encouragement. In addition, God revealed that Elijah would not be destroyed by Jezebel, and in fact on that mountain God revealed how Elijah would bring about a restoration of the faith, and an ending of their idolatrous reign. Elijah would become the hero once again, but he did it because he was able to let go of his expectations and take hold of the person God wanted him to be.
I had some big-time hesitation preaching this passage today. Of course, today is the last week before my sabbatical. And for some people, a sabbatical is a way to escape an unhealthy situation or an unhealthy church. Some pastors going on sabbatical are a lot like Elijah. They feel lost and alone and broken and beaten up. Elijah cried out to the Lord more than once in the full passage, “My enemies are trying to kill me and I am the only one left.” Isolated. Afraid. Alone. Many pastors leave for sabbatical like Elijah did, beaten up by the work of ministry and crying out to God in pain and agony.
Let me say this loud and clear. For me, this sabbatical is not about an escape. Ministry is hard, but this church has made it easier than many. We have had our challenges, but we have handled them in healthy and discerning ways. I am not running away from First Baptist. And I am not crying out to God to rescue me from you, or my ministry with you!
To the contrary, on the weekend of my graduation from seminary, I am instead struck by how thankful I am for you. I thought for a moment about skipping the doctoral bars on my pulpit robe…a little too showy, maybe. But then I thought about the PPG that has walked with me for three years, and the SLT and the staff relations that has supported me, and your prayers and thoughts and check-ups all throughout the degree. And I realized, that of course I am putting the bars on, because these aren’t my bars, these are OUR bars. Wendy Wheeler even put them on herself! I am not running from you, but deeply thankful for you, especially on a day like today!
So, instead of an escape, my hope is that the next three months will be a pit stop. Here in a few days, the Indianapolis 500 will race once again. Cars will race for 500 miles around the track, and they will need a lot of work during that time. New tires. Perhaps new parts of the engine. Refills on the gas tank. But there is one thing that you don’t often think about in the pit stop…that guy that takes the little squeegee and wipes off the windshield. After all, the best driver can have the best car, but if they cant see where they are going, it isn’t going to do them much good. My hope is that the next few months will be like a pit stop. And that I will be able to see God in new ways. Fill the gas. Get a new set of tires. And clean off the windshield.
I will be practicing the spiritual practice of photography. Some of you have probably heard that and wondered what is spiritual about taking pictures. Christine Valters Paintner, the author of the book that we read together during our Lenten study on this topic, has something to say about it:
“Photography as a spiritual practice combines the active art of image-receiving with the contemplative nature and open-heartedness of prayer. It cultivates what I call sacred seeing or seeing with the ‘eyes of the heart’ (Ephesians 1.18). This kind of seeing is out ability to receive the world around us at a deeper level than surface realities….we can immerse ourselves in the creative journey and discover the ways that God is moving through our lives and how we are being invited to respond. We release our own plans and expectations and pay attention to what is actually unfolding within us.”
My hope is that I, like Elijah can hear God in the silence, see God in new ways, and learn to open my eyes to the new and the next. May each of us do the same this summer. As you welcome new voices to the pulpit, and as I turn the lens to see God in a new way. Let us listen for God in new ways, and see God defying even our deepest expectations! I am deeply thankful for a church that sees the importance of both study and sabbatical. I am deeply thankful for those who made it possible, and for a church that cares for its pastor and his family. I am deeply thankful for First Baptist, and will miss you in profound ways during the next few months.