"Life Between the Mountain Tops" - on 1 Kings 19 - by Rev. Sean Baker, CRCNA.org - Jan. 9, 2022
Before we dive into our scripture reading today, I want to give you a little bit of context. In the chapter before this, God’s prophet, Elijah, had essentially gone to battle against the main false god of Israel: the god, Baal. As well as Israel’s King Ahab and Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. They were big supporters of Baal. And on Mt. Carmel, there was a showdown between Elijah and 850 prophets of false gods. It was a blowout. The true God just wiped them out.
1 Kings 19: 1 Now Ahab (the King, who was there for the blowout) told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how Elijah had killed all the prophets (of Baal) with the sword. 2 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.” (In other words, Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah.) 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.
(Which, by the way- is kind of weird right? Didn’t Elijah’s God just wipe out 850 of Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets (like yesterday)? And now Elijah is afraid that Jezebel is going to get him? Seems kind of backwards, doesn’t it?
Then it says, “When Elijah came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, 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.” 5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.
Again, this is so strange isn’t it?
I don’t know about you, but I regularly encounter people who make fun of the Christian faith. Who mock our beliefs and our hypocrisy.
And I hate it. And maybe you all are more sanctified and holy than me, but when people are mocking God, sometimes I think - God why don’t you just show up right now, with some unmistakable, powerful display and just (I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this) just shut them up? You know what I mean? Like God, I know you’re here but could you be a little more obvious?
That’s what makes this story so strange - God was really, really obvious in chapter 18: It’s probably one of the most dramatic appearances of God in the whole Bible. And it happens precisely on cue: precisely at the moment these prophets of Baal are mocking Elijah’s God. God’s like boom, fire consumes the offering, and it’s like, “Whoa!”
And I gotta tell you, if that happened to me, if I were Elijah: and God showed up in power like that in front of these people mocking God, I’d feel awesome. I’d be like, "Yeah, that’s my God...don’t mess with him!"
But look at Elijah - he gets one threatening message from Jezebel - one! And he’s like “Lord, I’ve had enough, take my life.
So strange, isn’t it?
What happens next?
5 All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 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.” 8 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. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
Alright - now this is better - Elijah’s got a little life yet – he just needed a meal...he’s on his way to Horeb - anyone know what Horeb’s other name is? Sinai, probably the most famous mountain in the old testament - the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai - okay, maybe Elijah is back!
9 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, broken 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.” The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by. 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. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, (by the way, he gives exactly the same speech) “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken 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.” 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. 16 Anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Me-holah to succeed you as prophet. 17 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. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”
Dear brothers and sisters of Christ in Telkwa, this is such a strange story - in chapter 18, Elijah is part of one of the most dramatic displays of God’s power, one of the clearest rebukes of a false religion recorded anywhere in history. You would expect that after that he would feel invincible, untouchable, on top of the world…
And at first, he is, we didn’t read it but chapter 18 ends by telling us that Elijah was so excited after what happened on Carmel, that he outran King Ahab 26 miles to Jezreel. Which maybe doesn’t sound that impressive except that Elijah was on foot and Ahab was riding a horse! Whoa!
Yeah, I’d say Elijah was feeling pretty good.
But then, almost as soon as he gets to Jezreel, Elijah comes crashing down from his mountaintop.
Jezreel is the de-facto capital for King Ahab. And maybe Elijah went there probably expecting that King Ahab, who had seen the whole thing, expecting Ahab to fall to the ground and apologize. To be like, “Sorry for trying to kill you, Elijah.” “Sorry about all the apostasy.”
But what happens instead? The king doesn’t repent. Instead, the King’s wife declares that she will have Elijah killed before the end of the day. And just like that, all the good feelings from the mountain are gone.
And as much as I’ve been giving Elijah a hard time about this - I think a lot of us know exactly what this is like - you go on a spiritual retreat or a mission trip, or you become a Christian for the first time; or maybe you experience a miracle in your life, a distinct answer to prayer, - and you say to yourself - I will never be the same again. You say, “This changes everything!”
You know what we call those moments? Mountain-top experiences. After a mountaintop, you feel invincible, untouchable, on top of the world…there is no god like your God.
And then what happens? Life goes on. Bills still need to be paid. Kids still need to be fed. Car still needs to be fixed. House still needs to be cleaned. Boss still needs to be happy.
In my experience, it doesn’t take long for the mountain-top high to fade away when life resumes.
And that’s Elijah - maybe he thought that awesome feeling on the mountain top would change everything about Israel...and it wasn’t until he got to the palace and faced the king that he got his bitter dose of reality…and he realizes that despite this answer to prayer, despite this display of God’s power on the mountain — Israel’s leadership is just as far away from God as they ever were…
The question is: What do you do when you’ve come down from your mountain top and life goes on? That’s kind of the question of Chapter 19.
Now, one way of looking at Chapter 19 is to see Elijah down from the mountain looking for the next mountain—There’s something to that: After all, he is setting out for Mt. Sinai, the site of probably the only mountain top experience more epic than what Elijah just witnessed. (God speaking to Moses.)
So, here’s Elijah knocked off one mountain—where does he turn? He’s looking for the next mountain.
And you know, there’s a sermon there: I could tell you ‘Telkwa Church, don’t give up, you may be in a low spot right now, but “just keep looking for the next mountain;” “Seek out that big experience of God to keep you going.” The important thing is that you get back to the mountain—God meets us on the mountain.’
And honestly, I think this is a popular idea. Especially for people like pastors —people like me.
We are so invested in the Sunday morning experience. We want Sunday worship to be this kind of mini-mountain top. So much energy of a church goes into this one hour or so. To make it awesome, life-changing, incredible. We try to get you to that mountain by trying to get some of the flash and bang and good feelings we associate with these mountaintops.
But studying our passage this week, I think there’s something else going on here. Cause you see, I’m not sure Elijah is going to Sinai to get pumped up and recharged. It actually sounds like he might be going to Sinai to give up, really. Maybe even to die.
He’s got this prayer in vs. 4: it’s not subtle. He’s contemplating suicide. This is very serious stuff. I’m sure some of you know what this feels like - this level of just total despair - Elijah’s got this line about being no better than his ancestors—it’s like he’s saying, I did my best—but I’m useless. I’m better off dead. It’s such deep pain. Some of you know what that’s like.
Or in vs. 8, it says that after eating this meal, he was strengthened to travel 40 days and 40 nights from Beersheeba to Horeb—at first, maybe you’re like, “Wow, that’s pretty good - 400 km: big long hike!” But then it’s like, do the math: oh, 40 days, assuming you’re walking 10-12 hours a day— Typical adult walking pace is like 4 km/hr. You know how fast he’s going? Like maybe 1 km/hour. You know how fast that is?
Well, I’m a dad. I’ve got a 2 year old. And sometimes we walk together to the park. And he picks up every stick. Points at every house. Tries to pick up every bug. You know how fast we go? About 1 km/hour. It’s excruciatingly slow.
Except Elijah doesn’t have a toddler with him—so what does the body language of an adult walking a km/hr by himself look like?
It’s slumped shoulders. It’s kicking every stone along the path. This is not a man determined to find God on the next mountain. This is a man who is finished. He did his best. It wasn’t enough. He just wants to die in peace. And I know it’s kind of a downer, but I actually think this makes our passage today even more helpful.
'Cause I don’t need to tell you in Telkwa that these last two years have been really, really hard. How many people lost work? Lost income? Had to cancel trips to see family? Had to miss out on a wedding? On a funeral? How many of us lost friends, family, co-workers? I interact with churches across the US and Canada, and it has been brutal out there these last two years, especially for churches.
Since COVID hit, mountaintops have been pretty rare. It has felt more like a really long valley to me.
But what I like about our passage today, and why I felt led to this passage to share with you all this morning is that 1 Kings 19 shows us not just how God meets us on the mountains, where you might expect, this passage shows us how he also meets us in the valley - how he’s there with us in-between.
Here’s God—his prophet is as low as he’s ever been. How does God treat Elijah? Does God say, “Good grief, Elijah, get some perspective, man! Does he say, “Snap out of it! Did you forget your last mountain already? It was like yesterday!”
Obviously, God could have said those things. They’re true. They’re fair.. But that’s not how God treats Elijah.
The other thing we might expect God to do is fix Elijah—zap him, change his brain chemistry, boost his endorphins. Chemically change his attitude. But God doesn’t do that either.
God doesn’t provoke Elijah; God does not wave some magic wand to fix Elijah.
Instead, God feeds him and God lets him rest. Not once but twice.
When I think of God feeding us or letting us rest, I can’t help but think of communion and Sabbath/Sunday rest. Two of the best gifts God gives his people.
Communion—receiving the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus—we call it a sign and seal of God’s grace. A reminder for our senses of what Christ has done for us.
And Sabbath—a day of rest—to lay down your worries about work and school and shopping and needing more and not being good enough—and just connecting with other believers to remember and celebrate that God is in control.
Here’s the thing I love about Sabbath and communion. They don’t wait for mountaintops—They don’t come just once in a lifetime, or once a decade: they come, routinely, regularly, every week, every month—to sustain you whether you’re feeling awesome or terrible; whether you’re on top of the world or in the deepest pit — God will still offer you rest and food.
There is nothing fancy about Sabbath and communion. And that’s so important to hear – because COVID, especially in the Bulkley Valley, is making it so much harder for us to do the big Sunday morning event. It’s complicated, right? Worship services aren’t what they used to be. There’s less flash and bang. But does that mean God’s not giving us exactly what we need?
I think sometimes we’re tempted to think that God is only with us on the mountaintops…only with us when we’re feeling blessed and feeling inspired. But I believe the Bible argues strenuously that that could not be further from the truth. We want so badly to get back to normal…to the sweet season of 2019. You remember 2019?
But think of Psalm 23. Where do we meet the good shepherd? Quiet Waters. Green pastures. And where else? In the valley of the shadow of death. Doesn’t sound like a mountaintop to me. Where does God provide food and rest for Elijah? In the middle of his depression, at his truly lowest point. Not when he’s turned it around; not when he’s showing promise: the guy is literally hundreds of kilometres from where God wants him to be and God comes to him anyway.
Telkwa Community Church: this is such good news!
Our God isn’t just about impressing us on mountain tops, in flashy worship services, when everything is going just right; he’s about walking with us through valleys; he is especially with us when everything is going wrong.
The first thing God does is feed Elijah and let him rest.
And then of course, God does show up. Though not in a flash and a bang, as you might expect on Sinai - but God shows up in this quiet whisper. Which some of you know — is just like God.
Again, I know we pastors put a lot of emphasis on the mini-mountains each Sunday; we love our worship services, we invest ourselves into them, and we all know COVID has made it so much harder–but here’s the secret that not every pastor will tell you – the flash and bang of a great worship service alone seldom causes anyone to grow very deeply in their faith.
You know where Christians actually grow? Consistently deeper than at even really polished, powerful Sunday church services? They grow in Monday quiet time. Tuesday devotions. Wednesday small group. I bet if you ask around people in this church who have been following Jesus for a while — many of them would say that God has done more to meet them and change them through simple quiet time routines and regular meals, and prayer with other Christians than through all the ecstatic mountain top experience of their lives. God can do a lot in the very ordinary rhythms of a Christian life.
And then, finally, God gives Elijah a bigger perspective. See, Elijah thinks he’s the only one left—he’s made this point twice. But God says, “Elijah, there’s 7000 of you.” You were only off by a bit.
And that, too, is so much like us. We often have such a limited perspective on what God is doing in the world and in our lives. We see such a small slice. We tend to fixate on the thing we don’t like and miss all the rest.
God’s like, “Elijah, you don’t know the half of what I’m up to.”
Here’s Elijah all bummed that he couldn’t change the king’s heart...what does God send him to do? Anoint two new kings.
This is God’s way: when God meets us in our lowest point, one of the best gifts he can give us is a sense of his perspective—and God’s perspective is always hope. It may seem like we just lost a battle—but the testimony of scripture, the testimony I have heard of Telkwa church, a testimony hard won over decades, is that whatever it may look like to us: however grim it may appear: God’s kingdom is still advancing. He will come again.
And every day, every week, every month, he says to us - he says to you—come to me—all you who are weary and heavy laden, come to me all you for whom the journey is too much—come to me and I will give you rest. Amen.