"More in Store"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
This week, we’re back with Elijah. Week three in our six week series. Last week, Elijah was the hero who saved the day. Standing all alone, he confronted the king. He openly mocked the god Ba’al, in the face of four hundred and fifty of Ba’al’s loyal priests. His prayers called down fire, consuming his offering at the altar, exposing Ba’al as nothing more than an idol. Elijah stood tall, courageously tackling huge odds. And his faithfulness made way for Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be vindicated as the true living God, and the Source of all Life. He’s the heavyweight champion of the Word of God. What a guy.
But O how the mighty do fall. Here, this week, Elijah undergoes a complete personality change. After her husband tells her how Elijah took care of the prophets of Ba’al, Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, puts a hit out on Elijah. His life is in jeopardy. So he drops everything and flees. As far away as he can be. Out way far in to the desert. And after about a day of wandering, he collapses under a broom tree. And then he gasps out one last prayer: “It is enough now, O Lord,” he prays. “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah who seemed invincible. Elijah, who could face anyone, and anything. When no one else believed, Elijah believed. And now…. and now Elijah has given in to fear. He’s ducking and hiding under a broom tree. So ashamed of his cowardice, that he sees no other option than to beg God to end it all. The Elijah we knew, that old Elijah, so vital, powerful, faithful evaporates in to the desert air. In the space one single paragraph. He’s just not the same person he used to be.
And it’s never really explained why this happens. How someone so bold and so powerful, somebody as courageous as Elijah, could suddenly lose his nerve just like that. But we know that it happens to many, if not most of us, at least at some point in our lives. And sometime many times in our lives. Once we stood at the peak of our powers, overflowing with energy and vitality. Plenty of achievements, success, and meaning. And the next day (or at least it seems like the next day) things start to dry up. And we’re no longer the people we thought we were.
This may be the most obvious those of us who have grown old or are becoming older. Once it seemed like we could take on anything, and do anything. For ourselves, for our children, for our grand children. The glass was always filled to the brim, and the well seemed bottomless. But now, regardless of our will and our desire to do what we’ve always done, like Elijah, our minds, our bodies, and even our souls, simply aren’t up to the task anymore. We see this in the church a lot, actually. We can find ourselves overwhelmed by duties and ministries we once excelled at. And if we let them go, it can feel like failure. Because we just ain’t the person we used to be.
And it’s not only about getting old. This can happen to us at any stage of life. Could be a long-time job that comes to an end. It could be a life spent in social activism that seemed so promising at the beginning that now seems to be flickering out. Or retirement, when suddenly we don’t have that identity or vocation we drew our meaning from anymore. A lot of parents experience this when their children move away… that sense of importance and work in caring for someone no longer exists in the same way. Could be illness, it could be depression. It could be anything, really. Or it could be nothing at all. Regardless of what it is, it can feel like somebody just tightened the taps. And everything is going dry. But, like Elijah, so many of us have experienced, and continue to experience this sudden shift from a sense of energy and purpose, to a sense of meaningless, and even despair. Because we are no longer able to be the people we used to be.
And the truth is we can never go back. It’s just not the way life works. There’s no way to turn back the clock. No way for us to somehow transform back in to the people we used to be, or live the same life we used to have. Not happening. That’s the truth.
But there’s also another truth. One that isn’t just common sense, one that isn’t just an obvious interpretation of the facts. We live life with and before a God who never gives in, and will never give up on us. A God who is never actually finished with us.
No, God is never done with us. This is what our passage for this morning is getting at. Remember when Elijah runs to the desert, collapses under a tree, and is ready to pack it in and die. He falls asleep, and an angel gives him food and drink. And when he rolls over and tries to drift off in to oblivion, the angel shakes him up again. “Eat, for if you don’t the journey will be too much for you.” And the food he eats sustains him for another forty days and nights. Even when there is no life left in him, God sustains and nourishes him. And strengthens him to carry on. When we’re in the middle of it. When the bottom has fallen out. When life as it was vanishes in to thin air, God is there to keep us going. Sometimes just being given enough spiritual food and drink to endure our suffering, to make it through the desert, can be enough.
But God doesn’t just want us to endure. God wants to bring us new life. No matter what stage of life we’re in. So Elijah is sustained by this food and drink all the way through the desert to Horeb, the Mountain of God. This is Holy Ground. The place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments, and the place where Moses caught a glimpse of the sacred as God passed by. Here God asks him, “what are you doing here Elijah?” And Elijah answers, saying that he did everything he could, the people turned away from God. Now he’s the only one left, and they want him dead. And so God tells him to stand on the mountain. For God is about to pass by.
And so Elijah climbs the mountain, and tucks himself inside a cleft of the rock. And outside the cave, a hurricane touches down, busting the mountains in half. Then an earthquake hits, the earth shakes under his feet. Then suddenly a fiery inferno. But after the fire, it says, “the sound of sheer silence.” Or, as in the old King James Version “a still small voice.” Elijah steps out of the cave, and the voice again. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah gives the same answer. Saying that he did everything he could, the people turned away from God. Now he’s the only one left, and they want him dead. But God’s response this time is a summons. “You’re done in the desert,” God says. “Go back the way you came.” When you get to Damascus you’ll anoint Hazael to be king over Syria, and Jehu to be king over Israel. And you’ll pass the baton off to Elisha, who’ll take your work over for you.
You see, Elijah thought he was finished. He was no longer the person he once was. But God sustained him long enough to bring him in to his presence, and then to give him a whole new commission. He’s no longer fighting kings, no. That life is behind him permanently. Now he’s called to anointing new ones .He has a new vocation. Because God isn’t finished with him yet. Because when one chapter in our lives ends, God always has more in store.
God always has more in store. Church, this is the promise to each and every one of us when we hit a wall like Elijah. Whether the change is sudden, or it’s gradual. When we can’t do the things we used to do, or be the people we used to be, whether by the fact of old age or the reality of new challenges. God always has more in store. When the things in our lives that once gave us meaning, energy, and vitality come to an end, whether they be our vocations or our marriages, church ministries or lost opportunities. God will carry us through them, and help us endure. Because God always has more in store. Even when everything else dries up, like Elijah we can have faith, confidence and courage, that God is preparing us with new wisdom and new gifts to serve God in the next chapter of our lives. Because God always has more in store.
Indeed we come here week after week, to be reminded of this fact, and to be nourished for the journey. To discover what God has in store for us next. Elijah received his commission, and is sent out of the desert and back in to the world to anoint a new king. But we in our baptisms, we are sent out of the desert already anointed by the King. Our souls are marked by God’s promises to sustain us through whatever spiritual desert, whatever struggles, whatever demanding journeys we may be on. But we are also marked by the promise that even when life seems like it’s over for us God always has more in store. No matter who, no matter what, no matter when, no matter how. God always has more in store.
For me, for you, for this community of faith. And the world God so loves.
And for this, thanks be to God. Amen.