back in the cave
I should have read a little further in Elijah’s story. Last week I wrote: solitary with the ravens, pandemic pod with the widow, return to public work. The Lord’s victory over the prophets of Baal through Elijah was resounding. After persistent prayer, the rain returned; the drought was over.
But Elijah didn’t ride off into the sunset in victory. Instead, Jezebel redoubled her efforts to find and kill him. Elijah knew these were no idle threats.
Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush. 1 Kings 19:3-5a (CEB)
What an emotional rollercoaster! Elijah is back in solitary; he is feeling the despair and isolation of fear, not victory. Returning to reality, I promptly got COVID after I posted that pastor’s note. Back to solitary for me as well. Not feeling particularly victorious. Not longing for death, certainly, but contemplating the virus that has killed millions.
Then suddenly a messenger tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!” Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. 1 Kings 19:5b-6 (CEB)
God is so practical! Giving us bodies that need food and water, and then cooking for us and serving us right where we are. Knowing that we need sleep. After all, God created us and pronounced these human bodies very good. The Lord, our Nurturer- sewing our first clothes, baking us bread, and refilling our water bottles. When we are sick, or in despair, we remember our need for the caregiver God who attends our fragile bodies with compassionate love.
The Lord’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. There he went into a cave and spent the night. 1 Kings 19:7-9 (CEB)
A difficult road lies ahead. We need refreshment and rest to meet the next challenge. This back and forth, advance and then retreat, can be a frustrating cycle. Elijah was over it too. We are not alone, but like Elijah, we may be in isolation.
The Lord’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!” 1 Kings 19:9-10 (CEB)
The Lord’s response to Elijah’s despair is the beautiful demonstration of presence. That we are not alone in the cave. Perhaps we look for the Lord in the sound of power- the strong wind tearing through the mountains and breaking apart the stones. We want God to bust things up. We look for God in the earthquake when the ground on which we stand trembles. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. God sometimes reveals presence in the fire, but not this time. The Lord wasn’t in the fire. Rather, there was a sound- thin, quiet, silence- and Elijah came out of the cave to meet God in the stillness.
I appreciate that God attends to Elijah’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. To meet the challenges ahead, Elijah (and we) need the reassurance of the Lord’s presence. And the reminder that God works in ways different than we might expect or desire. Sometimes, God shakes the foundations and appears in the fire. Other times, God meets us in the quiet, while we hide in our rooms, in the stillness of a whisper.
Then the Lord asked the same question, and Elijah gave the same despairing, I’m-all-alone answer. Unbeknownst to him, God had been working behind the scenes, preparing kings and prophets and faithful followers.
The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” 1 Kings 19:15-16;18 (NIV)
The Lord sees a future that Elijah has not yet glimpsed. The new leaders and the people who have remained faithful and ready to follow. Meet them, anoint them, train them. Elijah’s work was not done. There is a future. It doesn’t depend on us, but God does invite us to participate in preparing the next generation. Reassured of God’s presence, we too go back the way we came to rejoin the work in its next iteration.
May we taste the bread for our bodies, drink the water for our spirits, and experience the sleep that restores our strength. May we be attuned to God’s presence in the elements God reveals. May we recognize and raise up the new leaders God has chosen. And may we be encouraged by the thousands of faithful that God has reserved to carry on the chosen work.
Connecting with our broader faith community, I encourage you to read the CCDA reflection I’m From Uvalde.