This is one of those days when in just three chapters there’s more to think about and reflect upon than I can handle! The start of Elijah’s story seems to set the pattern for our whole cultural idea of what a prophet is – a bit wild, with predictions, miracles and fiery denunciations of evil. And of course Elijah is so much the ‘prophet’s prophet’ that he’s the one who stands beside Moses with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
His story brings a sudden change of gear in the book of Kings. We’ve just hurtled through a succession of kings, being told of the many ways in which almost all of them have failed to live up to David’s example. Now we slow down, but there’s another change.
Extraordinary things in ordinary places
Elijah’s ministry doesn’t begin at the royal court at all, but in the wilderness and in the home of a famine-struck widow. It’s in that home that through him the LORD works miracles, feeding the family and village and raising her son from the dead. We’ve been swept along for the last few days in the company of kings and generals – now we’re reminded that God is at work in ordinary homes, far from palaces and battlefields.
It’s telling that when Elijah meets Obadiah, he’s told that King Ahab has been searching for him everywhere – where searching everywhere is defined as ‘asking every king and nobleman where Elijah is’. Ahab has assumed that prophets belong at the seat of power, and has missed the prophet working in the ordinary, right under his nose.
I know from my own ministry that it’s easy to forget that God is at work in the ordinary and unnoticed places – in my case in the funerals, the weddings, the school assemblies and the conversations with ordinary people – and perhaps above all in an ordinary church congregation trying to worship and serve God faithfully. It doesn’t make headlines or attract notice, but God is here and at work.
You’ll never walk alone…
Despite the incredible things that Elijah sees God do through him, he flees from Jezebel’s threats, believing himself to be alone as a faithful servant of the LORD in a hostile nation. This seems to be a theme of his. We read the same thought, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty’ in 18:22, and ‘I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away’ in 19:10 and 19:14. He doesn’t mention the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal the second time for a simple reason – he’s killed them, after taking part in a demonstration of the power of the LORD and the impotence of Baal. We might think that would give him confidence, but his sense that he is alone is too strong.
Among the LORD’s answers is a reminder that he is not the only faithful one. After judgement is complete, says the LORD, there will still be seven thousand who have not served Baal.
It’s worth remembering that we are seldom as alone as we think – of course God is with us, but there are usually other people with us as well, even if they haven’t introduced themselves yet.
To hear the encouragement that he is not alone, Elijah has to seek the LORD, and to hear him in the wilderness – not in some romanticised idea of a spiritual retreat, but in hiding and fear. Yet still it is in time apart that he hears the voice of God.
Elijah has been in the wilderness before – that’s how his story began. This time, he has to wait for the ‘still, small voice’ – in the NRSV, ‘a sound of sheer silence’ – in which to meet the LORD. To be ready for that silence he has to realise that God’s voice is not in the earthquake, wind and fire. In the quiet beyond these things, God speaks.
More and more I find that I need silence and contemplation – I know that one of the reasons today’s been good is because I’ve managed a couple of times to sit and be still with God for ten minutes, and that’s before I’d read this passage to be reminded to do so!
In everyday life the earthquake, wind and fire tend to turn up from time to time. The sound of sheer silence, though, needs our effort if we’re to hear it and rest in it. The effort may sometimes seem pointless, but I know that it makes a difference to me when I remember to make it.
I suspect Elijah would agree.