Ahab told Jezebel about everything that had taken place. He told her how Elijah had executed all the prophets of Ba’al with a sword, and she became furious. Jezebel sent an urgent message to Elijah. “May the gods kill me and worse, if I haven’t killed you the way you killed their priests by this time tomorrow. Your end is near, Elijah.” Terrified, Elijah quickly ran for his life. He traveled the length of Israel and finally arrived at Beersheba, in Judah. He left his young servant there and then went into the desert another day’s journey. He came to a lone broom tree and collapsed in its shade, wanting to be done with it all—to just die. Elijah cried, “Enough of this, GOD! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” Exhausted, he fell asleep. While he was sleeping, a heavenly messenger came and instructed Elijah to “Get up and eat!” He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep. The heavenly messenger visited Elijah again—shaking him awake and saying “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.” He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to Mount Horeb—the mountain of GOD. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep. Then the word of GOD spoke to him saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for GOD—working my heart out—but the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” The ETERNAL ONE responded, “Leave this cave, and go stand on the mountainside in my presence.” Then, a mighty wind separated the mountains and crumbled every stone—but this was not a divine wind, because GOD was not within the wind. After the wind, an earthquake shook the whole earth—but this was not a divine quake, because GOD was not within the earthquake. After the earthquake was over, there was a fire—but this was not a divine fire, because GOD was not within the fire. After the fire, the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then the word of GOD spoke to him saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for GOD—working my heart out—but the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” The ETERNAL ONE responded, “Go back through the desert to Damascus. When you get there anoint Elisha son of Shaphat to succeed you as prophet. And, you’re not alone. There are 7,000 Israelites who have not bowed down to Ba’al or kissed his image.”
1 Kings 19:1-18
It’s worth noting that when Elijah hears the still small voice, it doesn’t thank him for his zealotry. The sound of sheer silence doesn’t say, “Hey, good job killing all those heathen prophets.” It says, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” In fact, it says that twice. GOD repeats the question word for word. “Elijah, what are you doing here?” That repetition can be interpreted as an allusion to the reality that Elijah is stuck in a loop—retreading a mountain that Moses has already climbed. It’s as if GOD’s saying to Elijah, “We’ve already done this. We’ve been here before. Why are we climbing the same mountain again?” And just as GOD repeats the question, Elijah twice repeats his answer word for word—complaining that he’s the only one keeping the faith while everyone else fails to measure up. GOD’s response to the complaint, however, tells a different story than the one Elijah has been telling himself. GOD tells Elijah, “You’re not the only one keeping the faith.” There are 7,000 others—which is a number symbolic of abundance.
“Elijah, you’re not alone—and you never have been.”
The only subsequent instruction Elijah receives is to go anoint successors—for himself and for the kings of Israel and Aram. Friends, I think we are supposed to see ourselves as Elijah in this story—and not as Elijah the triumphant hero who defends the faith and is rewarded but as the Elijah who got stuck. I think we’re supposed to see ourselves as the Elijah who became so dedicated to a static and stored faith that he brought drought-stricken people death instead of water. I think we’re supposed to see ourselves as the Elijah whose well-intentioned efforts to protect his faith left him exhausted and depressed in the wilderness with the terrible idea that he was alone. I think we’re supposed to see ourselves as the Elijah whose crushing certainty would rather ask to die than consider the possibility of change. We may be content with maintaining our museums, but the GOD of Elijah is not. If the museum won’t come to the mountain, then the mountain will come to the museum.
Change is inevitable—it’s a part of it.
A few weeks ago, my daughter had some of her artwork featured at the McNay Art Museum. After visiting her exhibit, we found and were fascinated by a 3D tree-like sculpture in the main exhibit hall. I’d never seen anything like it. As I leaned in to examine it more closely, an extremely polite and well-intentioned docent appeared as if out of nowhere and asked me to step back and measure an appropriate amount of space in order to protect the art. I quickly apologized and stepped back. That’s what museums do—measure an appropriate amount of space and protect. And as museum patrons, we respect that. We don’t touch the pieces. We don’t breathe on them. We don’t get too close—which makes sense because everything in a museum is dead or in a state of decay. To be sure, museums house and protect beautiful things—art that can inspire and relics that educate—but staving off and slowing decay is what museums do. And that’s not where faith belongs—at least not a living faith. A living faith is necessarily dynamic. A living faith breathes. A living faith rejoices and cries. It tries and fails. It collapses in the wilderness and rises again. A living faith climbs the mountain—sometimes clumsily and sometimes with contradiction. A living faith may even have to climb the same mountain twice—but it climbs, nonetheless. If our faith is to move forward—if it is to be a living faith—then it cannot be under glass. It must breathe. It must be able to receive and respond. Drought-stricken people need water, and they’re not going to get it in museums filled with fossilized forms. The gospels tell a story of Jesus climbing a mountain—one on which he is joined by Moses and Elijah. The mountain of Moses invites us to trust in a GOD who desires to move us away from slavery and toward freedom. The mountain of Elijah reminds us to be open to change by a GOD who cannot be contained in a doctrine or a discipline. The mountain of the Christ calls us to absorb pain and suffering and death and replace them with love and light and mercy.
None of that happens in a museum.
Our institutions must evolve. Our traditions must transform. In the name of Moses, Elijah, Jesus the Christ, and every climber of mountains that has followed,
the Church must change.
May we all be filled and surrounded with the
sheer silence and stillness of the ETERNAL ONE.
We are sent out with a mantle to climb mountains.
May we leave our museums, be open to change,
and discover new ways of experiencing the presence of GOD.
We are sent to drought-stricken people with all sorts of gods.
May we leave our museums, abandon our measurements
and meet them with living water.
Go in Peace.
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