“In the Midst of Discouragement”

Pentecost 5

June 19, 2016


Text:  1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42


    In today’s scripture from 1 Kings we find the prophet Elijah deep in the throes of discouragement and despair.  Ironically, this discouragement came right on the heels of one of his greatest triumphs.  He had just won a challenge over the prophets of the Canaanite fertility god Baal, who was widely worshiped in Israel at that time thanks to the influence of Queen Jezebel, the foreign-born wife of Israel’s wimpy and unprincipled king, Ahab.  The challenge was to see who could get their god to send down fire from heaven. The prophets of Baal were unsuccessful. Elijah succeeded dramatically, with the fire of God burning up the sacrifice and the altar even after Elijah had soaked the entire altar and everything on it with water.  The people watching proclaimed that the Lord is the true God.  Soon after that, it began to rain for the first time in 3½ years.  

After Elijah won the challenge, he killed all 450 prophets of Baal.  Now to people of our time and place, that seems an extreme thing to do under those circumstances.  The response of most people in our society to religious plurality tends to be “live and let live”; only people regarded as extremists advocate killing someone because of their religion.  But ancient Israel had been founded on the principle that they were the nation that Yahweh had chosen to be his own, and Yahweh tolerates no rivals.  Although God did not actually tell Elijah to kill all those prophets, I am confident Elijah believed he needed to do that in order to be faithful to God and to bring the Israelite people back to God.

    I imagine that Elijah hoped that through this victory Ahab and Jezebel, and the people of Israel with them, would turn aside from idolatry and worship Yahweh, the one true God of Israel.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, Jezebel was angry because Elijah killed her god’s prophets, and threatened to kill Elijah within the next 24 hours.

    For some reason, this death threat sent the normally confident Elijah into an emotional tailspin.  He ran for his life.  He fled into the desert, sat down under a bush, and told God he was ready to die because he was no better than his ancestors.  In spite of God being victorious, Elijah felt he had failed because Ahab and Jezebel refused to repent.

    Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that, in spite of your best efforts, you had failed to accomplish what you set out to accomplish, people did not do what you hoped they would do, and you began to question why you should keep trying?  I know I have, many times.  Although I have never asked God to end my life, there have been times I have felt so discouraged I have wanted to hang it up and do something else.  

    The author of our psalm today also knew something about feeling discouraged.  This person was a person who loved and desired God, who sought to be faithful to God in all things.  But the psalmist was feeling discouraged because of ridicule and even bullying by others for being faithful.  “Where’s your God now?” they would taunt as they mistreated this person.  If you have ever been bullied, you understand how soul-crushing this experience can be.  

    Yet in the midst of his discouragement, the psalmist found hope.  The psalmist remembered ways in which God’s presence had been experienced.  This person remembered participating in joyous worship while going to God’s house.  Because of that experience, the psalmist also trusted God to be present at times when feeling overwhelmed by trouble and sorrow.  Thus the psalmist could say, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

    Elijah also experienced God’s help in the midst of his discouragement.  First God gave him physical nourishment under the broom bush so he could make his long trek into the desert to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.  Then, once Elijah settled into the cave, God came to Elijah and asked him, “Why are you here?”  

Elijah launched into his complaint:  “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant.  They have torn down your altars and murdered your prophets with the sword.  I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to kill me, too!”   So on top of feeling discouraged, Elijah felt alone, abandoned, and overwhelmed.  No wonder he wanted God to end it all.

God instead told Elijah to go out and stand on the mountainside, for God was about to pass by.  A ferocious wind blew.  This was followed by an earthquake, and then by fire.  But God was in none of these.  Then, however, came something that English translators of the Bible struggle to translate.  It has variously been rendered as “a still, small voice”; “a sound of sheer silence”; “a gentle whisper”; or “a thin, quiet sound”.  Whatever it was, Elijah recognized it as the presence of God.  He wrapped his face in his coat and stood in the entrance of the cave.

God asked him again, “Why are you here?”  Elijah repeated the same complaint as before.  God replied by giving him his next assignment.  He was to go to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram.  He also was to anoint Jehu to be the new king of Israel, and Elisha to be Elijah’s successor as prophet.  In other words, God still had some things for Elijah to do.  God also assured Elijah that he was not alone--there were 7,000 people in Israel who remained faithful to God and had not worshipped Baal.

So what about us?  What about those times when we feel discouraged?  Like the psalmist, we need to remember that God is our hope, that God is with us to help us and deliver us.  Like Elijah, we need to run to God.  You see, I don’t believe Elijah was just running away from Jezebel.  He was running to God.  He went to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.  When we are discouraged, who better to run to?  Elijah needed assurance that he was not alone.  He needed to know that God still had need of him and what God wanted of him next.  He needed to get his mojo back.  I have times when I need that.  I imagine you do, too.

So when we are discouraged, let us run to God.  Let us seek his encouragement, his help, and his guidance.  Let us place our hope and trust in him, for we shall again praise him.  Amen.

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