In The Storm: Presence and Purpose
Topic: Christ's Presence Scripture: 1 Kings 19:3–19:15
Last week was Easter Sunday. Easter serves as the ultimate display of God’s faithfulness, and as the monument and beacon for all of our of faith, regardless of what state it may be in, at any given moment. It is the mountaintop of not only our Christian experience but really, all of human existence. There is no moment more triumphant, reaching, or meaningful. But last week, when I shared about this new message series, I also admitted the reality that our journey of life is not spent exclusively on the highs of the mountaintop. Sometimes we walk the fairly neutral roads we’re familiar with. And sometimes we have to travel through the painful, confusing, terrifying valleys of life as well.Even if it has been some time since we’ve personally walked those painful valleys, we often find ourselves face to face with those who are. Recently, I have seen family members have to walk such paths. And even here, we’ve felt the effects of loss, anxiety, fear, and sickness - crash against our own family of faith at First Pres. I consider it a gift and a blessing that many of you invite me into those moments with you, and I have the opportunity to be with you, advocate for you, and hold your stories in my prayers. But even more precious to me, is seeing you do that for one another, in what seems like second nature. There is no greater example of a church who loves like Christ, than a church who cares for one another. And it is a church of that kind - that this world needs, whether it realizes it or not.
And it’s with all that, I have seen our church endure recently, and all the pain and frustration that we have to witness around the world that led me to share the idea for this series with Larry. A series we’re calling “In The Storm”, focused on exploring a few moments in Scripture, that capture the same kinds of tragic experiences and painful valleys we have had to travel from, time to time, or, are maybe traveling right now.
But I want to also offer a disclaimer of what this series is not. This message series is not meant to be a quick fix or an easy answer. A Band-Aid doesn’t do anything to treat a broken bone. Neither I nor Larry is able to remove or heal all of the anxiety and suffering in your life, let alone in this world. Instead of offering an empty condolence or novel saying, I want us to enter a few painful, yet sacred moments found in Scripture, to see where God showed up, and how those moments could impact where we are. I hope this series is more of an invitation to see God together than it is any kind of attempt to religiously explain away the struggles we all endure. And so, with that, we’re going to begin in a text that spotlights a hero of Scripture in his darkest moment. In a moment of depression, fear, weakness, and doubt. We’re in 1 Kings 19:3-15.
Many of us are familiar with a portion of our text today. In fact, in my experience, I’ve found that it is a text often used to support someone who is wondering where God is or what God’s will is. And it’s an inspiring story. One that doesn’t solve the all-too-common ache of uncertainty that our hearts wrestle with. But it does offer us a glimpse of quiet hope. A gentle reminder that the Lord is present. It is often used as a reminder to quiet our hearts and our lives, so that distractions may fade, and the Lord’s voice might become audible. But this passage, in all of its potency, I feel, is lost without the immediate context, both before and after.
Before Elijah has this memorable encounter, he has what could be considered one of the most public and powerful victories of a prophet. On top of Mt. Carmel, Elijah faces off against the prophets of a false god and emerges not only victorious but having utterly demoralized his opponents. If you recall, Elijah even mocks his opponents during their attempt to bring forth the power of their god. Saying things like, perhaps their god is sleeping or simply away from his desk. You don’t see many examples of it in scripture, but this is a classic “neener-neener” type of scenario.
But Elijah’s moment of victory does not go unnoticed. Jezebel, the wife of the king, learns what has happened, and makes a vow to end Elijah’s life. In reading, we see Elijah’s previous confidence melt away and he flees. His former gusto is gone by all recognition. But we have to notice what else is lost in this moment. Elijah had possessed not only a passion to prove his Gods existence against his foes, but he also had an assurance that his God would show up. It is not an unfair question to ask - if that assurance has now deserted Elijah at the current moment. Confident before the false prophets, but now buckling under Jezebel’s threat. Elijah has forgotten something far more important than his own confidence at this moment. He may have forgotten his confidence in the Lord.
And this is where we find that oft-spoken-of scene on the mountaintop. The wind tears through everything around Elijah. The earthquake rips the ground under him. The fire burns furiously consuming all it touches. But God is not there. After this trifecta of natural force, it is a gentle whisper…a small sound. And there have been so many reflections on this portion of the passage. I, in no way, want to try and detract from those thoughtful contributions. But I do want us to continue. Because we are not told what Elijah heard. The word used can translate into sound or voice. But we do know that God asks Elijah a question and gives him a command.
God first checks in with the prophet. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” We, of course, are lacking the tone and inflection of this question. Is it possible God is being accusatory? Like the way I am when I come in and find my son has unraveled an entire roll of toilet paper, and I ask, “What are you doing, Isaac?” Or perhaps it is the comforting, sympathetic voice we hear a mother softly say to her child, after an injury, “What’s wrong, sweetie?” We don’t know, and I am inclined to think that the Spirit moves the heart of each reader so they can hear God’s voice in this text, as God intends them to. But Elijah answers.
He answers with pain, struggle, anger, and with confusion. He answers with despair. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn 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.” None of us have likely faced the kind of circumstances that Elijah is facing, but we have faced suffering, loss, confusion, and anger. Many of us have likely stood and watched the chaos unfold around us, and wondered where God was. Where God is. We’ve waited for His voice. For direction. For just the assurance that we weren’t – that we aren’t - alone.
God’s answer to Elijah is perhaps the least comforting answer he or we could anticipate. Often times the verses about the still, small voice are used as encouragement to hang on. That God is present. That the storm is not all there is. It is used as a lifesaver thrown into the turbulent waters of our experience. It is offered as a means to deliver much-needed hope. I’ve tried to recall the times I have heard this passage preached or discussed. And do you know what I noticed? Even having heard this story upwards of 50 plus times in the context of the pulpit, youth ministry conferences, and personal conversations, I have to admit to you, that not once, do I recall the speaker continuing to what God actually tells Elijah.
To be blunt, God tells him to turn around and go right back from where he came from. “Go back the way you came.” Go back. Go back to the danger. Go back to the fear. Go back. We can’t forget that God gave him a purpose. The anointing of kings and finding Elijah’s successor as the prophet of God. A task and decision that would influence and shape an entire nation. But what must have gone through Elijah’s heart when the Lord’s response to his anguish, confusion, and brokenness was…Go back?
Sometimes, brothers and sisters, God’s answer to our hurt is not what we desperately seek. Sometimes after experiencing chaos, trauma, loss, or fracture, God’s answer is not the tenderness we have been told to expect. Sometimes it is a command to go back. The Lord ensures we have what we need to maintain strength, as he does with Elijah in verses 6-7. But Elijah is not given the moment of quiet, safe rest he seeks. Even to get from his place of nourishment to the mountain, was around 250 miles. Elijah’s situation was dire and soul-crushing. His journey was long. And his response from God was to continue.
I said it in the beginning, easy answers are not often the language God speaks. But that does not mean God is without compassion and affection for those who suffer. As I reflected and chewed over this text, there were two realities that kept appearing to me: presence and purpose. Even though Elijah felt defeated and abandoned, God never left him. God showed up that day on Mt. Carmel, and delivered a pyrotechnic display of his power. When Elijah was faltering, God sent His angels to tend to Elijah, even to give him a meal. And God spoke to Elijah. God listened and shared those painful moments with the prophet. We can question elements of this account, but whether God showed up or not, is not one of them.
And the second reality I see here is a purpose. God’s words had a purpose. A purpose that was intimately tied to Elijah’s call and faithfulness to the Lord. A purpose that was founded, not only on Elijah’s confidence in God but also God’s confidence in Elijah. God did not simply send Elijah back into the fire with callous disregard of the prophets’ heart and state of mind. God sends Elijah back into the storm because God has unwavering confidence in Elijah, and in the critical and pivotal role, Elijah will play in the story of all of God’s people.
Presence and purpose. To hang onto these realities in the storm is so very important. We cannot escape the storms that roll into our stories. They come in all shapes, sizes, and severities. Some come in slowly. So much so that we can anticipate them. I still remember when my family and I first moved here to the Midwest. Folks would tell me you can see the storms coming in. I didn’t know what they meant, until one summer afternoon, when I was walking out from the church to my car, and I could see the clouds from miles and miles away like I never had before. Some of our storms are like that. And some of our storms are sudden, and crashing, and leave us with little or no time to prepare. An unexpected phone call, an almost unbelievable comment from a doctor, a single moment that changes everything.
In those storms of life, in every storm, we may feel the battering winds and stinging rains. But the presence and purpose of the Lord are there. We might not be able to see it right away. We might need others to bolster us, and anchor us. But, friends, the Lord is present, and He will redeem the darkness and the chaos that we believe is insurmountable. In my own life, I saw the Lord use a house fire that forced Caitlin, Isaac, and myself into a hotel for 3 months. The most painful day of my adult life and I can see that God was always with me and that He used that terrifying event as a means to bring me here. And that is only one instance.
I don’t have simple answers. Believe me, I wish I did. I cherish the moments I’ve had with those of you who have invited me into the storms of your life. And I want nothing more than to deliver some word of wisdom and comfort that will take away the pain and suffering I see. But I can’t. I can offer my presence, personally, and also as an ambassador for the God who is with you. And I can walk with you as God’s redemptive purpose is revealed, like the rising of the sun after a terrifying night within the storm. In truth, I believe that’s what all of us can do when we come alongside those amidst their own storms.
Elijah experienced the highest mountaintops and the shallowest of valleys. He stood victorious and filled with certainty, just as he stared blankly into the darkness, and contemplated ending his own life. The human experience is a journey through, over, and in those mountaintops and valleys, and all the roads in-between. It is a journey filled with wonderful moments, but also periods where we feel trapped in the storm. Through it all, two things remain: God is there. And God knows how those moments will be woven into a display of redemption, light, and hope, for you and for others. Through it all: presence and purpose.