Today’s Scripture is a story about how God shows up. Keep that in mind, because we’re going to come back around to that.
But before today’s Scripture – a little earlier in 1 Kings – it’s a story about what happens when work gets us down.
Have you ever had your work life get you down? Stress you out, or just bum you out? I think we all have. Just recently I was at a gathering where we were supposed to name something we were worried about. We started by writing our worry down on a piece of paper. When we turned our papers over and shared around the table, all but one of us had written the word “work.”
We were surprised that we had all written the same thing down – but then, not at all surprised. How many adults worry about work?
But you don’t have to be an adult to worry about work. School is “work” for our kids, and ask any student of the 2021-2022 school year – school is hard, too.
So what’s today’s Scripture about? When God shows up. But before that – it’s about when work gets hard. In this case, it’s the work of being a prophet.
Elijah’s assignment was to confront Ahab, a king of Israel who “did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). It’s as though Elijah’s job is to supervise Darth Vader or Voldemort or Thanos. I’m pretty sure Elijah’s worries about work were much bigger than any I’ve ever experienced.
He did have some big victories. He predicted and miraculously survived a drought (1 Kings 17). He took on all the prophets of Ahab’s god, Baal, single-handedly (with God working through him, of course) – embarrassed them by calling down fire on a water-drenched sacrifice (1 Kings 18). But as today’s Scripture picks up, Ahab’s wife has had enough of Elijah; she’s set a 24 hour timer on her goal of killing him dead. (As bad as your boss might be, has your boss ever tried to kill you? I hope not – but that’s how bad things got for Elijah.)
At first Elijah runs for his life. But once he’s safe in the wilderness, he gives up. To put it simply: work stress is too much, and there doesn’t appear to be any way out. He sits down under a tree and asks God to put him out of his misery. He wants to die.
This is an easy moment to gloss over in the story, but let’s pause and soak in what’s happening here. Elijah is so depressed and overwhelmed, death seems like his only way out. Elijah isn’t the only one who gets to that place sometimes, and this is a serious place. If you ever find yourself in this place, it’s crucial to tell someone. That can be scary, but we aren’t meant to carry burdens that heavy alone. Tell someone.
Who does Elijah tell? God.
God doesn’t Elijah’s death-wish, of course; God knows there’s a way out for Elijah. So God tells Elijah to go to the mountain of Horeb – the same mountain where God once met Moses – to go there and wait.
Remember what this story is really about? How God shows up. Well, pay attention: it’s about to happen. This is the moment! Elijah desperately needs God to show up, to show up and help him. So here it comes…
A windstorm! A rock-shattering windstorm! And what’s this story about? How God shows up! This must be it, right?
No. God isn’t in the windstorm. Not for Elijah, at least.
But then: an earthquake! A bone-rattling earthquake! And what’s this story about? How God shows up! Surely this is it – this is how God arrives!
But no. God isn’t in the earthquake. Work-depressed Elijah doesn’t see God there.
And now: fire! Fire raining down from heaven! And what’s this story about? How God shows up! This has got to be it, for sure!
Nope. God isn’t in the fire. Elijah is still stressed. Work is still overwhelming. Jezebel still wants to kill him. And Elijah hasn’t seen God yet.
And then: silence. Sheer silence. Complete silence.
Something about the silence wakes Elijah up. He gets up. He gets dressed. He goes out.
And then it happens. The thing we’ve been waiting for. God showing up in an audible voice: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It’s so interesting, isn’t it, that God wasn’t in the windstorm or the earthquake or the fire. In the Bible, God does sometimes show up like that – but 1 Kings 19 tells us explicitly that God wasn’t in any of those things. Neither does 1 Kings 19 tell us explicitly that God was in the silence – but it’s clearly the silence that got Elijah’s attention. It was the silence that woke him up out of his depression. It was the silence that prepared him to hear the word of God.
What is this story about? How God shows up.
Yes – it’s about that.
But maybe it’s really about how we wake up to God’s presence. God has shown up. God is with us, already – with us when work is great and with us when work is so bad it’s depressing; with us when life is great and with us when life is so bad it’s depressing.
Sometimes, when things are at their worst, we wait for God to show up in some kind of miraculous pyrotechnics – a dramatic sign! But what if God is already there, speaking, directing? What if what we really need is a silent space to listen?
The truth is, when things are at their worst we often can’t be razzle-dazzled out of it, anyway. True depression feels like a prison. Well-intended friends do their best imitations of wind, earthquake, and fire – maybe in the form of casseroles and party invitations and pep talks. But none of it works; we stay in our own hidey-holes. Maybe what we really need isn’t friends who will fill the silence, but friends who will help us listen into the silence for what God is saying.
I think some of us are scared of silence. We fill our calendars so we don’t have time to be quiet; we turn on TVs and music so our homes aren’t silent; we put earbuds in while we walk or run. What are we scared we’ll feel in the silence? What if the silence is trying to get our attention, so that we can listen to God?
What is this story about? How God shows up.
Or – at least how one man noticed when God showed up. In Elijah’s case, he became aware of God’s presence only after a significant silence.
Let’s learn from Elijah. This week, make it a goal to seek out silence. You might desperately need it – maybe work or life has gotten you down and you need to become aware of God’s presence more than ever. Or maybe things are just fine… but how long do you want to go on, distracted by a noisy world, missing what God is saying to you? So turn each day set aside time to turn off the TV, clear the calendar, and sit in the silence.
Because this is what we want all our stories to be about – a lifetime of God showing up.