God will provide.
It’s “one of those phrases,” isn’t it? One of those phrases that sounds so good and pious at first, but that can end up feeling empty and meaningless when measured against the many challenges of real life. It’s in the same family as:
“God never gives you more than you can handle.” Statements that just don’t seem to align with the difficult realities in which so many of us live. Trite, worn-out platitudes that just don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Because more often than not, it seems as if God doesn’t really provide; it seems as if God allows for way more than we can really handle; It seems like all these ideas of a comforting, benevolent, reasonable God must be holdovers from a simpler, easier time… “once upon a time,” we might even say.
And in a week where I’ve needed a whole lot more from God, facing a new set of injuries that make it difficult for me to live fully and to do my work here at church…the lectionary has had the audacity to remind me, to remind us, of the story of the prophet Elijah.
We enter the story in the middle of the action, where we find Elijah, alone, sitting under a broom tree, way out in the wilderness. He’s feeling desperate and wants to die. Elijah cries out, asking God to take his life. Then he falls asleep. And once asleep, an angel shows up with food and drink, with sustenance and nourishment to assuage Elijah’s despair.
All of which may lead us to wonder: why doesn’t God do things like this for us? Why doesn’t God seem to show up when we’re in great need?
We may also wonder: how DID Elijah end up here in the first place? How did things get so bad for him?
It’s surprising, in some ways, that we would meet Elijah as a man on the run. Surprising that a great prophet could be in enough trouble to hide out in the wilderness.
Because just before the part of the story we heard today, Elijah had won a great victory over the prophets of Baal, a Canaanite deity whom many Israelites had begun to worship. Like many Old Testament prophets, Elijah understood his job as provoking the Israelites to return to Yahweh, at almost any cost.
In this particular episode, Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal to prove that their god was real. The prophets of Baal tried again and again to incite Baal to act, but nothing happened.
Then, it was Elijah’s turn. Elijah built an altar and prepared a sacrifice to Yahweh. He put water all over the altar, too, which would make it even more difficult to burn.
Then Elijah prayed to the Lord, and immediately, fire fell from heaven and consumed the entire altar. The Israelites who witnessed this remarkable act of power fell on their faces and shouted, “The Lord indeed is God.”1
After this display of Yahweh’s power, Elijah seized and killed all the prophets of Baal. Now, this slaughter deeply angered Jezebel, wife of Ahab, the King of Israel. Jezebel had abandoned the worship of Yahweh and turned to the worship of Baal. She was known for persecuting the prophets of Yahweh. And when she heard what Elijah had done, she sent a messenger to him, threatening his life.
This threat against his life, then, is what drove the esteemed prophet Elijah into the wilderness.
Now here’s the thing. When I began studying this passage this week, I wanted to focus primarily on God’s provision for Elijah, on the sustaining gifts of food and drink that appear in Elijah’s moment of great need. I wanted to explore how God provides for us, too. I wanted to explore why it can be so difficult for us to experience God’s provision and how God sometimes provides for us in hidden, disguised ways.
But as I dug deeper into the text, I realized that I couldn’t just ignore the carnage that lies at its very heart. God’s provision for Elijah would ultimately be too troubling, if we simply let Elijah get away with murder.
You see, according to the text, Elijah killed 450 prophets of Baal. That’s a whole lot of prophets.
And then God ministers to Elijah, sending him food and drink. God provides. Which might make us wonder if God has condoned this slaughter, if God is pleased with Elijah’s murderous actions.
In order to find out, we need to hear a bit more of the story. Here’s what happens next…
After Elijah eats his second meal delivered by an angel, “he went on the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the holy mountain of God.” (1 Kings 19:8, adapted)
When Elijah arrives at Mount Sinai, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks re-tells the story,
“God asks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replies: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.” God says: “Go and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Suddenly there was a whirlwind, “tearing the mountains apart and shattering the rocks.” But God was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then came a “still, small voice.” Immediately, Elijah recognised that this was the voice of God. God then repeated God’s question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah replied in the same words as before. God then told Elijah to appoint Elisha as his successor.
Now, Elisha’s career was similar to that of Elijah. He spoke the same message. He performed similar miracles. There was only one difference: Elisha was not a zealot.”
Choosing Elisha, therefore, was God’s way of sending a strong message to Elijah and to Israel, about the essence of who God is and about what God wants.
As Sacks puts it, through the choice of Elisha, God is telling Elijah:
“In your contest with the prophets of Baal, you showed that I am a greater power. You defeated idolatry on its own terms. And that may be fine for those tempted by idolatry, but that is not who I am. The supreme power cares for the powerless. The creator of life loves [all] life. The voice that summoned the universe into being is still and small, hardly louder than a whisper. To hear God you have to listen.”
But it is often difficult to listen, isn’t it? So difficult to hear God. So much easier to speak at, to, or about God. And when we’re doing all the speaking, we usually end up re-creating God in our own image. We too easily convince ourselves that God wants exactly what we want. We clamor to create a God who agrees with us, and we invest a great deal in convincing others that our way is the right way, maybe even the only way. Even good liberals can become zealots.
So, like Elijah, we too have to learn, in the words of Rabbi Sacks…
“…that zealotry is profoundly dangerous. […] God is not in the fire, or the whirlwind, or the earthquake. Zealotry wins the battle but not the war. It creates fear, not love. It risks desecrating the very cause it seeks to sanctify. […] Religion fails when it seeks to impose truth by force, whatever the truth, whatever the force. Only when it divests itself of earthly power does faith learn to speak the healing truths of heaven.”2
God feeds Elijah so that Elijah has the strength to journey to a place where he can hear the truth. And isn’t this what God does for us, too? What God provides each and every week? God feeds us at this table, this altar. We are fed with the tiniest piece of bread, and the faintest sip of wine, and we are told it is a meal, a feast. We are told that this IS the bread of life. That those who eat of this bread will never hunger. We are told unbelievable things, week after week. And yet, we barely notice the dissonance. We eat and drink, with little expectation. We eat and drink, and little changes. The truth of this meal remains somehow inaccessible.
Perhaps because we surround it with so much talking. Perhaps because we have scarcely begun to listen.
Because if we listened, we might just hear: This bread is more than just bread. This bread makes you part of one another. Eating this bread joins you to the Body of Christ, which means you no longer belong only to yourself. This meal will divest you of power, and make you subject to one another.
The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, expressed well the profound social implications of the Eucharist.
“When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship
. . . Here your heart must go out in love and learn that this is a sacrament of love. As love and support are given to you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray, and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy . . . It is Christ’s will, then, that we partake of it frequently, in order that we may remember him and exercise ourselves in this fellowship according to his example.”3
We are fed so that we can hear the truth. God DOES provide. God provides US. Provides us to one another.
God gives us the tiniest piece of bread, as a bit of starter, starter to ferment the dough of our lives, starter that will bubble new life into us and prepare us to become bread for others. Bread for the world.
We are the provisions.
- Adapted from: Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).
- Martin Luther, On the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ (1519).