Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 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. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 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 19:1-18)
Over the past few days my wife and I have received detailed communications from congregational connections, personal friends and their related military personnel about the on-the-ground details of the ongoing situation in Afghanistan. We have felt personally and certainly witnessed socially a palpable sense of loss, anger and overwhelming helplessness as two decades of possible hope disappear in one week of visible hell, when it appears that the power of darkness holds sway over the dimming flicker of holy light. It is a moment of great distress for the observer and incalculable hardship for the actual participants. It is a moment in which a national, social and intensely spiritual cry reaches heaven to touch earth. In that moment, however, we must hold fast to the reality that the plans of the Lord are good, the justice of the Lord is sure and the grace of the Lord is present.
In the passage above Elijah has just risked his life in a moment of faith which demonstrated the truth of the one true God against an institutionally powerful, threat-based and governmentally-sanctioned false religion. The authorities in that government, incensed at the loss of their power and a demonstration of their falsehoods, seek to kill Elijah and issue threats upon his life. Blind to their own deception – Jezebel says “may the gods deal with me” even though such gods were just proven as worthless – the authorities press in to silence the opposition of light with the fears of darkness.
Elijah feels this moment deeply. Despite just being delivered before the nation, he loses hope. His soul is assassinated despite his body remaining unharmed. He flees to the wilderness and the voice which God chose to speak through now speaks to God simple words of complete despair – I am finished, and my life has amounted after all of this effort, work, ministry and time to nothing more than those who came before me. As he sinks into the despair of fearing man and giving up on God, he experiences a moment of spiritual intervention – not revelation, but intervention. The angel of the Lord appears, not to tell him what is to come, but to tell him that he needs strength right now to take hold of something better later. Elijah needs to take heart on earth today to hear from heaven tomorrow. When everything seems so incredibly lost, he needs to focus on the next step towards the Lord, not the last words he heard from man. He needs to regain his footing so his feet can find their way to God, who is waiting for the worrier with words greater in power than fear can fight.
Elijah needs to stop running from what the world is saying it can do to those who follow God, and start running towards the God worthy of being followed. He needs to stop escaping from fear, and start moving towards faith. He doesn’t know it, but his fear has created an artificial sense of being alone, helpless and unheard, when none of those things were actually true. Lies about who he was, what he had done and the power of what others could do had begun to infect his soul, to the degree that he had been transformed from a man so confident in God he could bet his life on it to a man who thought his life wasn’t worth anything at all. He had moved from God being able to do anything with man to man being able to do anything to God, and had lost his way on the road of kingdom living through the fog of earthly fear.
So God meets His man. And He says, what are you doing here, Elijah? I believe these are powerful words. What are you doing here, Elijah? A man I created to stand on mountains, now found hiding in a desert? What are you doing here? When you have seen Me, there? Why do I find my prophet of courage in a place of fear? Having met you on the mountain, must I now see you in a cave?
Elijah responds. I am alone, I am helpless, I have worked hard, and all is lost. The people I wanted to help have seemed to reject everything I came to give them, and now I find myself abandoned by people and hunted by the government.
God changes context. He takes Elijah out of a cave for conversation.
Go to the mountain. I will pass by.
First, wind so powerful it could shatter rocks. But no presence.
Second, earthquake to shake the world. But no presence.
Third, fire to burn unquenched. But no presence.
Then a whisper. Presence. Not in the speculator, but the silent. God decides to meet a man afraid not by signs of obvious power but in quiet of sacred kind. Elijah had already seen God show fire on the mountain – and he accepted fear into his heart. Clearly displays of God’s sovereignty had not satisfied the fears of the human soul. Elijah didn’t need more power. He needed more presence.
God repeats the question. What is a man to whom I gave my words doing in a wilderness? Will my kingdom advance if its servants dread the powers of earth having seen for themselves the authority of heaven?
And the reply is the same. I am alone. I am helpless. I am afraid.
But this time the response is changed.
Go back along the way you came – head straight back into what you were afraid of facing. Along the way carry out the business of my kingdom. You are afraid of what this government can do to you? Do you think I do not control the affairs of earth? Elijah you were afraid of the ruler’s wife. Go anoint a new one. See how your fears were worthless, misguided, a waste. I build up. I tear down. You trembled at the words of the First Lady. I control the destiny of the king himself. The governments of earth are one word away from being changed by the edicts of heaven. The spiritual has power over the temporal. But there is one more task. My prophet you will be no more. I will change the government to one that will do my will. But you will not be the one to see it. I have heard. You tell me you are finished, and finished you are.
And I cannot help but wonder if fear is what finished the ministry of this man, so that he would not see what God was going to in the future because he gave in to the threats of the past. With eyes on earth he no longer retained his role from heaven.
And the Lord adds one more thing.
You felt alone.
But you were never so.
I am building an underground kingdom that you cannot see in a place hostile to its formation. And because you thought that you were the only believer you could not grasp my plan and became lost in your dread. I have my people. They are not prophets with public ministries, but that does not make them less of my people with an eternal promise.
And so a man living under a hostile regime actively seeking to kill him for his belief in God and prior public witness, who goes into hiding because the government knows about his faith due to past public ministry, gives into fearing the threats of that government, and seeks in an increasing sense of isolation, helplessness and spiritual decay to escape and die, not realizing that the very place and people he wanted to flee held the very church he so desperately needed to encounter. So God asked him to go back by faith and see that God was in control of who sat in the palace, God was in control of who led the nation and God was in control of His kingdom witness. God’s answer to fear was not doing less of His work, but more.
So I caught myself praying for our spiritual family in Afghanistan, that they would not be overcome. And then I felt stopped. Overcome? By whom? Defeated? By whom? Abandoned? By whom? If God is for them and us – and He is – who could be against them, or us? So I intercede. But not the begging of someone asking an indifferent God to begin caring, but a child asking Father to do what only Father can, the impossible redemption of the seemingly unredeemable and the ongoing protection of His dearly loved family. If you become bitter towards the President, it will temporarily alleviate the burden of care through the means of rage, but this action of avoidance is fleeting in nature. We can spend our time speaking against the President, or crying out to the King. We can hate the White House or ponder the empty tomb. Our fears today will become our lies tomorrow, and those fears about what we cannot control will begin to control what we should not fear. We will scroll our phones, look at situations we cannot resolve, and lose our courage to address the moments we can. I am telling you with conviction and experience that fear, isolation and helplessness about the world “out there” will always rob your potential of serving God right where you are. This has nothing to do with closing our eyes to crisis. This has everything to do with seeing our part of it. Either we can betray our spiritual family in their suffering by silencing our witness, or we can say to God, if you are in control of everything you are in control of me, and I will spend less time looking down at my phone and more time looking up to You.
A lot of powerful emotions have arisen this past week as we watch chaos and suffering unfold in Afghanistan. But Elijah reminds us that what we need and what our brothers and sisters need is the presence of God to do the impossible in redeeming the places of our present fears to become the beginnings of future faith.
I am going to give you one fact of faith before I close – More Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries. In fact, according to reporting from the Gospel Coalition “About [the year 2000], the number of Christian converts from a Muslim background in Iran was between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Today [in 2021] it is between 800,000 to 1 million people.”
Between the September 11th terrorist attacks and today a million Iranian Muslims have become disciples of Jesus – in a place of great social persecution, governmental threat and frequent abuse.
No matter who we blame, we can feel overwhelmed thinking about what America couldn’t seem to do in twenty years.
What God does with His kingdom in two decades is quite different from what we can accomplish with ours.
So we pray, we intercede, we yearn and we even weep. But may we have eyes on what God is doing next, not what man said last.
You are loved. You are not alone. And in Jesus you are not helpless but hold the very keys of the kingdom itself. That – that – is the furthest you could ever be from helpless, and don’t ever forget it.