The Wilderness

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on September 26, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, thank you, again, for this time of worship that we have, Lord — for your providence through another week. Thank you for the ways that you are present in the lives that we live. Thank you for revealing that you are not distant from us but that you are with us — through the times of trial, through the difficulties in our faith, through our exploration of truth. Thank you for revealing to us that you are present in every season and every circumstance, in every moment of joy and mourning that we have, in every life lived in all of creation.

I pray, this morning, Lord, that we would consider that carefully. I pray, this morning, that as we consider scripture and consider our own lives that we would consider the ways in which you have been present, the ways in which you call us to a forward path, the ways in which you call us to growth and change, Lord — because we know that you are in the business of new creation. We know that you are working in us to make something new, to transform us in the Spirit, Lord, so help us to trust in that. Help us to pursue it so that we can be part of that transformation rather than standing in the way of it.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m going to be in 1 Kings chapter 19 this morning. We’ll get to that in just a minute.

Man, it must have been… It must have been at least 15 years ago that I read about a study they did on my generation and the previous two generations, so my parents and grandparents, and one of the things they examined in the study was how people in my generation feel about the passing down of material things. The idea that a couple generations ago people owned things that they intended to pass down to their children and their children’s children and even had things that might have been passed down to them by their parents and their grandparents — family heirlooms, homes, furniture, antique wardrobes — all these kinds of things. Sets of silverware and fancy dishes… People’s homes were filled with material things that were built to last and cared for meticulously with the expectation that they would be passed down to the next generation.

Yet, in my generation, they found an increasing number of people who didn’t care for those things. It was causing a rift between people in my generation and their parents and grandparents who were basically saying, “You know, we aren’t interested in the things that you have for us, and even as you give us these things, we’re not sure what we want to do with them.”

Parents and grandparents were saying, “But I saved these things for you, so I expected you to care for them.”

People in my generation were saying, “I don’t want the responsibility of caring for things that were valuable to you but mean nothing to me,” and that was causing tension.

It was interesting to see the way that these things play into churches, today — that there are things that people want to pass down in the traditions, in the ways that we’ve done things, in the theologies that we have, in the doctrines we have — and younger generations are increasingly saying, “I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in what it is you think you’ve preserved for me, because it doesn’t have any value to me. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”

We find ourselves in that kind of a transitional place in Christianity, today, and that’s been a big part of my story — struggling with that tension between innovation and tradition, between the people who want to press forward into something new and the people who want to stay where we’ve always been.

In 1 Kings chapter 19, we find a parallel with that story in Elijah. We find Elijah having just confronted prophets who have come from Jezebel, and it didn’t turn out well for them. It turned out fairly well for Elijah — not so much for the others.

In 1 Kings chapter 19 and verse one, it says,

“Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’”

1 Kings 19:1-2, NIV

In other words, it’s a death threat. Jezebel says to Elijah, “I have every intention to kill you by this time tomorrow, and if I don’t succeed, then curse on me.” That’s how serious she is about it.

Now, I don’t get death threats, but what I have received is this kind of attention where an ultimatum has been given, where you either conform to what people expect of you — to what churches expect of you, to what congregations expect of you — or you get ousted — where there’s no middle ground. There’s no room for questions. There’s no room for doubt. There’s no room for what if’s. There’s no room for uncertainty. You either look like us, or you get out.

That’s what’s happening to Elijah, here. He made his choice, and Jezebel’s saying, “You made your choice, by killing my prophets, that you’re not going to be part of who we are. You’re not going to do what I expect you to do, so your time is done.”

In verse 3:

“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.”

1 Kings 19:3-5a, NIV

If you’ve ever experienced the trauma of being ousted by your own community, you know what Elijah feels like, here. We’re going to talk about the reality of his situation of his situation, later, but the reality of our situations doesn’t always inform the way we feel about our situations — the way we perceive our situations. When you find yourself ousted by your own community, when you find yourself alone, when you find yourself out in the wilderness, the desert places, of your life, and there’s nobody with you, you journey by yourself, and you think to yourself, “I’m done. I’m done with this.”

Elijah says, “Just take my life. Just kill me now.” You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s a little extreme,” but consider for a minute the suicide rate in America, alone. Consider for a minute the way that trauma has pushed people out of churches, out of communities — the way that trauma is being counseled in people for spiritual things that are happening in their lives. Yeah, it might be metaphorical, but this is not far-fetched. This is not far-fetched by any stretch of the imagination in America. In fact, we have to blind ourselves to the things that are happening in Christian communities, today, to think that this is far-fetched. For some people, this is so much closer to reality than we want to believe. They feel isolated and alone, because Christian communities have pushed them out.

Now, I understand that Jezebel is not a woman of God, and that’s part of what makes this so poignant in today. Jezebel isn’t a woman of God, yet we find this same dynamic happening among people of God. I wish that we could say this is a secular thing. I wish that we could say this is a Jezebel thing, but it’s not, and when we go through this kind of experience and we come to a place where we say, “I’ve had enough, Lord…”

Notice that Elijah hasn’t abandoned God. That is to say, he hasn’t stopped believing in God. He hasn’t stopped trusting in God, so to speak (we’re going to talk more about that in a minute). He still calls upon God. He still opens his heart to God. He still wants God to know what’s happening in his life, but he’s had enough. The word we use for this is “weary.” Elijah is weary. He’s tired. Not sleepy-tired; he’s tired in his soul, in his spirit, in his mind. He’s had enough.

“Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” That phrase — I don’t want you to breeze over it. I don’t want you to say to yourself, “Ok, ‘I’m no better than my ancestors.’ I don’t know what that means, so I’ll just move on.” Consider for a minute the story I told you before about my generation and previous generations — the way we consider material things. If we look at previous generations and we say we’re not like them and we don’t want to be like them… “They have these material things they want to hand down as family heirlooms. I don’t have time for that. I don’t have space for that. I live in a one-bedroom studio apartment or whatever. I don’t want their antique armoire to stick in the corner of my 200 square foot home.” But then, when we come to a place like Elijah, and we say, “All those things I didn’t want to be, I’m just like that.” We start to feel the guilt and the shame of that.

Elijah was supposed to be better. Elijah was a prophet of God. He was supposed to be better than the Israelites who came before him, and here he is, running for his life from Jezebel, even after God has just protected him from these prophets, and he’s thinking to himself, “I’m done. I’m tired. I’m weary. I’m in the wilderness. I’m by myself. I fled when I should have stayed. I didn’t do what I thought I should do. Maybe I don’t trust in God as much as I should. I’m no better than my ancestors who came before me,” and shame overwhelms him, and he lays down under this bush, and he falls asleep. Based on what we’re about to read in this next passage, I think Elijah expected to die in the wilderness alone, but then in the next part of verse 5, it says,

“All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.”

1 Kings 19:5b-8, NIV

This has been my experience, that when we find ourselves in the desert place, when we feel like we’re too weary to go on, when we feel like we’ve had enough and we just want God to make a change for us — a drastic change to take us out of that thing we feel — and we don’t want to do any more, he comes and he feeds us. There’s no expectation, here, from the angel. He simply says, “You’ve got a long way to go, so eat some food.” He eats some food and drinks some water, and then he rests. Then, [the angel] wakes him again and says, “Eat some food and drink some water,” and the implication here is, “You’re not done, yet, Elijah, but you need to be sustained.”

Elijah has been physically sustained, but he’s still weary in his heart, yet God pushes him forward, persists a little longer. At least… I under-exaggerate when I say “a little longer,” because his next journey was forty days and forty nights. Sometimes you find yourself in that place where you’re like, “Ok, I’m in the desert place now. I’m already weary. I’ve already asked you to cause this to end.” God feeds you a little bit more, and then you find out that the journey is just beginning!

We have to understand that in this next passage when we find Elijah in this cave, this is not where he hits his wits end. He hit that in the wilderness when he laid under the bush. He was already at the end of what he felt he could handle before he started his forty day, forty night journey out to the mountain of God. This is one of those things where you’re like, “It couldn’t possibly get worse,” and then you realize that your life is getting worse. It couldn’t possibly get any worse than this, and then you realized you didn’t know what tired was until the next trial happened. That’s where Elijah finds himself — bottom of the barrel.

In verse 9, [it] says,

“There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

He replied, ‘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.’”

1 Kings 19:9-10, NIV

Elijah has nothing left. I’m honestly surprised that he answered God, at all. This is the second time he’s tried to lay down and die — the third time, I guess, if you count him laying under the bush for two nights. God says, “Why are you here, Elijah,” and I’ll tell you right now: that’s a question I have asked myself, repeatedly.

As you go through this experience of transformation, as you go from the things you were taught and the things you thought you believed into a place where you feel alone, rejected by your communities, by the places that were supposed to support you, by the places where you thought you were called — as you start to question and find yourself alone, you might feel like Elijah, here. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. I have been zealous for you, and my own people, your people, the Israelites, have rejected your covenant and torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword,” and if you look around at Christianity, today, especially in America, you might feel this. You might feel this reality speaking to you, that the safe places [where] you thought you were going to be for the rest of your life seem to have rejected the covenant they made with God and torn down his altars, and they seem to be putting to death all the prophets who came bearing the Gospel.

They’re not life-giving anymore. They’re not safe anymore. They traumatize us and abuse us, and we find ourselves in these desert places wandering through times of trial, and we fall on the mountain of the Lord, and we hide in these caves, because we are the only ones left, and they want to kill us, too. And God says, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19:11a, NIV)

I want to encourage you, here, in this second part of verse 11, because God’s going to pass by in a way that is unexpected. If you know this story, you know how it goes, but I want to suggest to you that this, as an analogy for your life, if you find yourself in this place, is something you should take very seriously. It says,

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

1 Kings 19:11b-13, NIV

There are so many ways that people are going to try to convince you that you are encountering God. There’re going to be big, flash, powerful, loud, in-your-face kind of ways. They’re going to lean into their credentials. They’re going to lean into the size of their congregations. They’re going to lean into their history and their endorsements. They’re going to put out big productions. They’re going to put out marketing. They’re going to try to convince you that “God is here,” and they’re going to point to all the ways that we traditionally view success in America in order to convince you that they’re telling the truth.

I’m not saying that they’re necessarily lying to you on purpose. They might actually believe it, but what I suggest to you this morning is that when God comes to Elijah and when God comes to you in those desert places when you feel like you have gone past your limit and you want nothing more to do with any of this because you are weary and you just want to die — what I suggest to you is that God is not in those loud productions. He’s not in the flashiness, and he’s not in the credentials. As with Elijah, he is in a gentle whisper that comes to you and asks you a second time, “What are you doing here?”

This is not an accusatory question. This is a reminder to Elijah that he has arrived here for a reason, and I think Elijah’s reply begins to reveal to himself the truth of what God is asking.

“He replied, ‘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.’”

1 Kings 19:14, NIV

God doesn’t respond to that. He immediately gives Elijah instructions, and I think the reason he does that is because Elijah answered the question rightly, not for God but for himself. When we find [ourselves] in these desert places, when we find ourselves driven from our communities because we cannot be there anymore, when we find ourselves traumatized and weary and we want to give up and we say to the Lord, “I have had enough. Please make it stop,” it’s not because we rejected God; it’s because we have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty, and the “Israelites” have rejected their covenant.

So many times, especially now, people who have been abused and traumatized by the church have the fingers pointed at them as though they are the ones who abandoned God. Elijah first says it in despair, but then I think he says it with conviction. He realizes that the reason he’s here is not because he was driven out. He’s here because he was zealous for the Lord and because they abandoned the covenant and because they are trying to kill him. That’s why he stands on the mountain of the Lord, and that’s why God can say to him, “Now go back.”

Go back now; Elijah is ready now, because Elijah has come to the realization that these things he said in despair, first, are actually the reality into which he is living. They’re the reality into which he was called. We find ourselves in the desert place because we took God seriously, because we took the covenant seriously, because we took the altar seriously, because we took the prayers and the prophets and the scriptures seriously. We outgrew those places that didn’t take it seriously. We outgrew those places that tore down the altars and abandoned the covenant and rejected the prophets. We outgrew and outpaced those places, and they didn’t drive us out because we were falling behind; they drove us out because we were too far ahead, and our very presence convicts them of the reality that God is moving and growing in the world — that God is transforming and creating a new creation. When you want to be safe and comfortable, that reality doesn’t mesh.

Elijah doubles down on his conviction that he is very zealous for the Lord God Almighty, so God sends him in verse 15.

“The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’”

1 Kings 19:15-18, NIV

Notice that when God sends him back, he sends him back with a mission. He says, “Go back to work, because now you understand why you are here,” but he doesn’t send him back without an end. This is a part that I think a lot of people miss, especially if you find yourself in ministry, but in any community that you’re a part of.

Elijah has a way out. God didn’t ignore him when he said he’s had enough. God sends him back to do one last thing: set up what’s coming next. Pass the torch to somebody and then go, and he does what he tells Elijah he’s going to do. Elijah passes the torch to Elisha and then gets taken off by God, and he goes and he lives the rest of his life not as a prophet of God.

We find ourselves in these places of transition, and we feel alone, and we feel desperate, and we feel distraught. The story of Elijah reminds us that God is this gentle, compassionate, present God who feeds in the wilderness, who guides us to the mountain of God, who’s with us through the time of trial, who reminds us of the conviction that brought us to that place to begin with, and who ultimately gives us an end to the work that we do to help us pass the torch to the next generation. So, now we’re faced with these questions:

Where are we in this story? Where are we as communities of God? Where are we as individuals of God? Where are we as a people of God? Where do you find yourself in your journey? Is it time to pass the torch? And for those of us who are coming in behind and taking up this mantle: what does it look like for us to take this torch from you? What does it look like for you to pass this torch to us? What will it look like for us to then pass that torch to the next generation? Because that’s as much a part of Elijah’s journey as any of these other things?

He goes on into chapter 20, which we’re not going to read — all of the things that happen as Elijah attempts to do this last thing that God has commissioned him for. I want to get you thinking about that, because I want to remind you that the reason you are in this desert place to begin with is because of how zealously you pursued God. You’re not here because you abandoned the covenant. You’re here because you love God, and God recognizes that, and God is with you as he was with Elijah.

Our responsibility is to participate in the transforming work of God in creation. Don’t despair when you find yourself out there in the desert place. Don’t despair, but if you do, call on the name of the Lord. Allow God to attend to you and remind you why you love God to begin with.

This is a difficult thing, and if you’ve been through traumatic experiences, you know more than others how difficult it can be. What we invite you to is not just a superficial relationship with Christ. What we invite you into is a place where God can work with you for healing and reconciliation — reconciliation between you and God, reconciliation with you and yourself, reconciliation with you and Christian communities. I invite you to be open to what that can look like, as Elijah was open to what that can look like. I invite you to come and join us in pursuing that kind of relationship with God that questions and transforms and heals and empowers people — the kind of relationship with God where we begin to realize that he is ever-present with us in all of our suffering — that relationship that leads to the blessing of the Holy Spirit as we begin to participate with God in the transforming work he is doing.

If you want that, if you are interested in that, come and talk with us, come and join us, reach out to us on social media — we’re here for you. Thank you.

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