When the fire burns low… - Jon Fryer
So this is the story. Elijah was the big man of God in Israel, and he got into a row with the prophets of the God Baal. He challenged them to a duel of miracles, just him against their 450, and he trounced them by calling down fire from heaven. The people turned against them, and Elijah led them in
battle against the Baal prophets until none of them were left. Now the wicked queen Jezebel heard about this and was mighty peeved, cos she sponsored the prophets of Baal. She paid them, and they told her nice things about herself. So she calls out the royal guard to go and hunt down Elijah and kill him.
So Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. He left his servant behind and fled into the desert, and when he came to a broom tree he sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough Lord” he said. “Take my life for I am no better than my ancestors”. And then he fell asleep.
God sends an angel down to Elijah, who touches him and says “Get up and eat”. Elijah looks around, and by his head he sees some bread baking on a fire, and a cup of water. He eats and drinks and then lays down and falls asleep again. The Angel of the Lord comes back a second time, and touches him and says “Get up and eat, because the journey is too much for you”. So he gets up and eats and drinks a second time. Elijah feels better after his snack and heads into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights until he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God, and when he gets there he goes into a cave to rest.
While he is there God says to him “What are you doing here Elijah?”. Elijah replies “I’ve been working hard for you, but the Israelites have rejected your laws, broken down your altars, and killed all of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too!”
God says to Elijah “Go outside and stand on the mountain, for I am coming here to meet you”.
At that moment a huge great tornado rips up the side of the mountain and shatters the rocks, but God is not in the wind. After the wind comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. And after the quake comes a blazing fire, but God is not in the fire. And after the fire comes a gentle whisper.
When Elijah hears it he pulls his cloak over his face and goes outside. And God says to him again “What are you doing here Elijah?”. Elijah replies “I’ve been working hard for you, but the Israelites have rejected your laws, broken down your altars, and killed all of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too!”
And God says to him “Go back where you came from. You still have some work to do. Oh, and by the way, you are not the only one left – I still have seven thousand men in Israel who still worship me and have not bowed down to Baal”. And so Elijah goes on back to where he came from.
Sometimes things can just get all too much for us to cope with, and so we run away. And it happens to the best of us. Elijah was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament – he is the one most like Jesus in his power and miracles – he raises the dead, and makes food out of next to nothing for example. He even calls down fire from heaven. And yet, after single handedly facing down 450 enemy priests, he then runs away when one woman threatens his life. Its all just got too much for him, and he runs away to the desert. You kind of have to wonder what he was thinking – this guy can summon fire, so why is he running away? The problem is not in his power – its in his head. Elijah has lost his faith and his focus on what he is there for – he’s forgotten what its really all about and thinks its all down to him. If you listen to him, its all “Me, me, me, I, I , I” – and so he runs away, ‘cos like each of us, if its just about us and all just relies on us then we are deeply screwed. What are the things in your life where you have fallen for the lie that its all about you? What are you trying to cope with on your own? Where are you running away?
However far he runs however, Elijah finds that he can not run from God. When he has gone as far as he thinks he can, when he thinks he is so tired of it all that he wants to die, then the angel comes. And at the end of all his running, God meets him, and sounds surprised that he is there… “What are you doing here Elijah?” asks God. The subtext is – why are you here and not where you are supposed to be? Why are you not where I asked you to be? Why are you running away? You can’t run away from God – he comes and finds you, picks you up, feeds you, strengthens you, and then very gently asks “What are you doing here?” Are you running away from God tonight? Or rather, are you trying to run away from God, because he will find you.
On the plus side, we shouldn’t be afraid of God finding us, ‘cos he meets us gently. When Elijah is so tired of it al that he wants to die, God doesn’t show up and bully him – instead he sends an angel to minister to him, to pick him up, and feed him and help him on his way. And when Elijah finally gets to where he thinks he wants to be, God doesn’t turn up demanding obedience – instead he asks him gently “What are you doing her Elijah?”. And when God finally does turn up, its not in the explosions and turmoil and shaking – God comes as a whisper, and Elijah recognises that voice and goes out to meet him. What was the whisper saying? I suspect it was the same voice that Moses heard – “I AM. I AM. Compassionate. Gracious. Slow to anger. Overflowing in love. Faithful. Maintaining love to thousands. Forgiving everything you can throw at me. I love you. Come home”. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd, even when they are running away. Especially when they are running away. The Shepherd doesn’t say – “You bad sheep, I shall cast you out forever”, no he goes looking and brings you home. God doesn’t shout, he whispers. When you stop running, listen for the whisper.
Elijah’s big problem is that he forgot who God was. He forgot the fire and the provision and the miracles and the mission, and listened to the lies in his head. And they are the same lies the Devil tells us. Listen to Elijah – “Lord, I have had enough”. As if its all about him, and not about the one who has always provided for him and protected him. “I am no better than my ancestors” – well who says you have to be? No one asked him to be better than his ancestors, he just seems to think that he needs to be. When you’re saying ‘I’m not good enough’, the question is ‘Good enough for what?’, and indeed, ‘Who says you have to be?’. Its not about you for crying out loud. And then he says “I want to die” – which God graciously ignores for the time being. Elijah catastrophises instead of trusting – he says “I’ve been working so hard for you, and they don’t care, and they’ve smashed up all the churches, and now I’m the only one left and now they want to kill me too” – and then they stole my lunch money, and then it rained on me, and my teacher hates me, and no one likes me and I think I’ll go and eat worms. The sky is falling. The sky is falling. God gently points put to him that he is wrong, that he is not the only one, and in fact God has seven thousand other servants all doing the same work. How often do we do the same thing? What are the things you are turning over in your heart saying, ‘Its all going wrong, and why does no one care except me?” – I can assure you that God cares, and so do plenty of others. You are never on your own. Never.
God is gracious to Elijah. He sees that he has reached the end of his strength, that his fire has burned down to its last ashes, and rather than letting him fall apart God comes to him, and strengthens him, and then sends him back the way he came. And that’s important – when we run away, God knows better than to send us on to something new, without first putting right the thing we were running away from – you never get away with running away from God, ‘cos in the end his love will find you, and will put you back together again whether you like it or not.
But there is one word of warning, I guess. God listens to all of Elijah’s prayers, even the one where he wants to die. And God is gracious and lets him finish what he has started, but He does take him at his word – the work he is sent back to finish is to find and train Elisha his successor, because his work is now ending. God does you the honour of taking you seriously – don’t ever ask God for something unless you are serious about it in return.
So what are the candles for here tonight? Well, Elijah let the fire of his faith burn low, and it takes a forty day and night hike in the desert to go and find God to give him his chariots of fire back. Elijah forgot that there were 7000 others out there. Other lights. Other fires. A wise man once reminded us “When it is dark, what point is there in cursing the darkness? A better question is to ask “Why is the light not as bright as it should be?”” Elijah forgot to look for the other fires that would keep his own burning. ‘Cos you see, we catch encouragement from other people. We catch courage from other people – you remember the scene in the film ‘the Patriot’, where the army is running away and Mel Gibson grabs the flag and runs the other way yelling ‘Hold the line! Hold the line!’ until enough others catch the idea. We catch hope from other people. Elijah forgot that we catch fire from others. If you think you are all alone, and that you are the only one who has ever been in your situation, and that you have to cope all on your own then I’ve got news for you – You’re not, and you don’t. Whatever it is that causes you to lose heart, I guarantee that others have been there too, and that they have beaten it with the provision that God has given them. Another wise man once said that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, so that is what we’re going to do.
All candles can be prayers – the smoke rises up to him and they burn in God’s presence even when we have forgotten them and moved on. As the music plays, spend a while thinking about where you have let your fire die down, or where you are running away. When you are ready come up one at a time and light your candle this one as a reminder that God can lift you up again, and that we catch our fire from each other. You are never alone, and there is no where that you can run to where the love of God will not find you, meet you, and whisper your name.
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