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1 Kings 19:1-15

Sometimes, as pastors, we can feel the urge to explain the mechanics of a spiritual experience, to explain why God appeared in such a way. In this case, resist that urge. Instead, join in the journey with Elijah to the mountaintop, invite the congregation along with you. This is a passage of apophatic pray and ecstatic experience. This is not a passage of dogmatics. Instead, we must allow ourselves to hear the question God asks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” For we have all been Elijah, so we must all answer this question. We have much to learn from the prophet who failed.

After playing an integral role in God’s amazing work and displays of power, Elijah runs for his life at Jezebel’s threat. After calling down the Lord’s fire from heaven and bringing an end to a three year draught, Elijah does not bask in glory of God. He did not trust the power of this same God to deliver him from the queen’s threats. No. This prophet of YHWH flees in the face of opposition. From Jezreel in the Northern Kingdom to Beersheba in Judah, Elijah crosses borders hoping to be spared and protected. He travels more than 100 miles to escape Jezebel’s grasp. Put simply, he is not ready to die for God’s cause. Once there, he abandons the faithful servant who had travelled all that way with him. He journeys into the wilderness alone. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

In exhaustion, he collapses beneath a bush. He does not even bother to build shelter or erect a tent. This is a man who believes there is nothing to live for. Surely the shame of fleeing God’s calling weighs upon him. Surely the belief that all he worked for had failed. He just falls beneath a bush and prays for death, crying, “I am no better than my ancestors.” To which ancestors is he referring? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the hallmarks of faith. He is of course speaking of the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness who also doubted the faithfulness of YHWH to deliver them. The ones who grow weary of the food from heaven and cry for meat. The ones who demand that Aaron construct a golden calf for them to worship while Moses, the prophet is on the mountaintop. Elijah no longer sees himself as the one upon the mountain; rather, he sees himself as one of the faithless in the valley below. He hears his voice echo the cries of the unfaithful yet liberated generation, the ones cursed to die in the desert. So he asks for the same fate. It is as if he says, “Let me die in the wilderness. It is where my bones belong.”

Instead, an angel cares for his physical needs—twice. Just as with Israel in the wilderness, physical hunger is abated by heavenly bread, and water is divinely apportioned in a desert. This is an important reminder that God is not merely concerned with our so-called “spiritual” well-being.