Last year, when I was burned out by my church crisis, I really resonated with Elijah. I recently wrote a narrative sermon for a seminary class sharing what I learned from his story.
We’re going to watch a clip from the end of the movie Avengers: Endgame. For those who haven’t seen it, (spoiler alert!) ultimate bad guy Thanos wants to destroy the planet by snapping his fingers while wearing a glove with the all-powerful Infinity Stones. He finally has acquired all five stones, and he’s minutes away from snapping his fingers. The small team of Avengers superheroes are trying to stop him. In this clip, I want you to notice how every time it seems like the bad guys were getting the upper hand, the good guys came back with another surprise:
The good guys and the bad guys
Today we’re going to look at biblical bad guys and good guys in a contest. The story is in 1 Kings 16:29 through chapter 19. Yahweh, the true God, is trying to get back his people Israel’s allegiance, because they are worshipping Baal, the false God. The good guy is named “Yahweh is God”: Elijah. He realizes Israel is at risk of being sent into exile for their idolatry. He’s desperate to prove to them that Yahweh, not Baal, is worthy of worship. The leader of the bad guys is Jezebel. Her father’s name means “Baal exists”. She comes from Tyre, where they worship Baal. When she married Ahab, the king of Israel, she made it her objective to promote only Baal worship everywhere. They are fighting over the allegiance of Israel, represented by Israel’s king Ahab, who the Bible depicts as “limping” or “dancing” with one foot in each camp. They’re go to whichever campaign rally is giving out free t-shirts.
Yahweh challenging Baal on his home turf
The story starts with Elijah challenging Baal on his home turf. Baal is supposed to be the god of thunderclouds and fertility. Every year during the dry season, he dies by the god of death. Then during the rainy season, another god resurrects him, and he brings rain and crops. So Elijah says, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). If what Elijah says happens, it will prove that Baal is dead and powerless for several years, but Yahweh lives. Sure enough, it happens.
But wait, will God let his prophet die in the drought? This is the first time we see: it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. God provides a brook and ravens to drop off fresh meat for him twice a day. In Israel back then – just like some Tanzanian villages I’ve visited – only a chief would eat meat twice a day. But Elijah was eating like this in the wilderness, in a drought being fed by the equivalent of carcass-picking marabou storks.
But then the brook dries up. God, will you let Elijah die? But – say it with me – it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. God tells Elijah to challenge Baal on his home turf again. He heads straight for Jezebel’s homeland, where he asks a widow in Zarephath to cook him her last flour and oil into mandazis. Imagine the drought we had in Kenya several years back and asking someone in Garissa region to cook you their last ugali flour. But unlike her countryman Jezebel, this widow obeys the prophet of Yahweh, even though it costs her everything. And God miraculously refills her oil and flour, so she and her son don’t die either. God cares for the widow and the needy and his prophets in Baal’s own territory. Ouch!
But then the woman’s son gets sick and dies. Elijah prays, essentially asking God, “Will you let this generous woman’s son die?” But say it with me! It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. And God performs what I believe is the first resurrection in the Bible! Baal can’t resurrect himself, but Yahweh is resurrecting a sick little boy!
Despite all these proofs of God’s power, the famine doesn’t seem to be winning Israel or Ahab over. So Elijah proposes a contest to challenge Baal on his home turf in full view of Ahab and all Israel. Elijah and the prophets of Baal meet on Mount Carmel, which archaeology shows was still a site for Baal worship until 200 AD. Since Baal is the god of lightning, Elijah says they will each built an altar, kill a bull as a sacrifice, and whichever god sends fire from heaven will obviously be the real god. Team Baal tries frantically all day and nothing happens. Elijah douses his altar with water, giving himself a handicap, and as soon as he prays, WOOSH, fire from heaven consumes even the water, the soil, and the stones of the altar! OH SNAP! TAKE THAT, BAD GUYS!
Israel worships Yahweh. They start chanting: “The Lord – he is God!” That’s literally Elijah’s name, remember? Elijah’s imagining he’s like Ironman saying “I am Ironman” [snap]. He’s thinking, “Mission accomplished. Baal is defeated. Yahweh is vindicated. Israel is saved. Peace out!” The false prophets are killed, the rains return. This is the happy ending, right?
But Elijah forgot something: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Elijah may have won the people’s allegiance from Baal for a moment, but they are always dancing between two opinions. And evil lady Jezebel won’t go down without a fight. Furious, she calls in the big guns. She vows that her own gods can curse her if she doesn’t kill Elijah in the next 24 hours.
Elijah is totally blindsided by this plot twist. 1 Kings 19:3 says, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Literally. His superhuman race was a bit longer than a half-marathon, but now he flees to the opposite side of the country, Beersheba, which is 173km away – that’s as far as Nairobi is from Nakuru, on foot!
Elijah ditches his servant and lays down to die in the desert: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). What? Israel’s fearless prophet is suggesting that following God isn’t worth it anymore? The whole time we’ve been asking, “God, are you going to let your prophet die?” and now it’s like the enemy is playing mind games to make him self-destruct!
Like Elijah, I felt burned out when my former church was straying away from God. I felt like the only one pointing out these problems. God did something dramatic (not quite Mount Carmel). I was relieved, but after the adrenaline rush, I realized how wounded I had been in battle. Why did God ask so much of me? I felt disillusioned. I read Elijah’s story. And I realized the crucial moment is what happens next.
The Moment of Truth
Let’s read 1 Kings 19:9-10:
9 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?”
10 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.”
Strengthened by God, Elijah travels forty days and nights to Mt Sinai. This is where the covenant all started, with Moses on this mountain for forty days and nights. Here, Elijah complains that Israel has abandoned the covenant. God responds.
11 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. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 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?”
During the Exodus, the wind blew and made a path through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21). There was an earthquake and smoke when Moses received the ten commandments (Exodus 19:18). Elijah had just seen fire on Mount Carmel. But none of these changed Israel’s hearts from their idolatrous ways. Elijah knows that much. “But Mount Carmel was the battleplan! How could the people not believe after that? I’m out of big ideas. And I’m not enough!” But then… there’s a whisper. But Elijah doesn’t seem to notice.
14 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 people of Israel’s hearts were as stony as the first set of tablets Moses broke. But Elijah is surprisingly stubborn too. His encounter with God doesn’t change a single word of his answer either.
15 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. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 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. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
Elijah has assumed that he and his battleplan were Israel’s only hope. If he died, Israel is doomed. God seems to correct him: “First of all, you’re not the only one left.” We already saw Obadiah in chapter 18 had saved some prophets from Jezebel. God says he’s about to raise up two kings and a prophet to succeed Elijah. Plus, there was a faithful remnant of 7000 believers. From this chapter, Elijah won’t be the star anymore. Two more prophets will confront Ahab before the end of 1 Kings.
Second, we learn that Israel is too stubborn to be saved from the consequences of their idolatry. Next time we see Elijah, he’s confronting Ahab for his worst sin yet. Jezebel has influenced him even more. Israel is spiralling downwards. Even Elijah is too stubborn to obey what God tells him. He never anoints either of the kings. He anoints Elisha, who finishes that task. Despite his superpowers, he’s not the ultimate hero. Before the end of 2 Kings, this northern kingdom of Israel will indeed go into exile.
Where’s my happy ending?
Where is our happy ending? Has evil won? No wonder Elijah was disillusioned. We are left with an unfinished work and an uncertain prophet, wondering, is God going to bring his people back into covenant allegiance to him?
But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Elijah missed the whisper. The Exodus and the law and the prophets hadn’t finished the work. But someone was coming to fulfil the law and the prophets. There where the old covenant on stone was broken as soon as Moses came down the mountain, God was whispering about a new covenant on fleshy hearts. In the New Testament, God would unveil his glorious new battleplan on another mountain to Moses and Elijah – the transfigured Jesus.
Elijah wasn’t the Saviour. But he didn’t have to be. There will another prophet who will be put to death, who will say “It is finished!”. There will be another widow grieving her dead son – not from Zarephath but Nazareth. And then – the son is resurrected! The word of God is vindicated.
Elijah got discouraged in the desert because he thought this was the endgame. He thought he was all alone in the fight and he wasn’t enough. But God was trying to tell him his story was only page 554 out of 2177. He wasn’t the star of Avengers Endgame. He was just Peter Parker in Spiderman 2!
Don’t Worry, You’re Not the Messiah
Can you identify with Elijah? When you turn on the news, perhaps you mourn how far your nation has strayed from God’s will. Powerful leaders like Ahab kill innocent people, steal their land, pocket the people’s inheritance. Perhaps you have been battling corruption where you study or work. Like Ahab, people will even sleep with the enemy if it is politically expedient. Perhaps you’re seeing people misled by false prophets, people trying to cry louder, dance harder, and shed more blood to get their miracle today. Perhaps you see so many people dying unjustly of famine, disease, and domestic violence. You wonder whether God is really sovereign over life and death. People keep ignoring God despite our prayers. We think there is a breakthrough, only for things to get worse. Maybe you just want to give up.
But remember: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. No matter how many comebacks evil makes, in the end, the good guys win. God resurrects even when it seems the dark powers death have won. Yahweh is God!
You, dear friend, are not. You are not the Saviour. You will fail, and you will leave things unfinished. You are not enough, but you don’t have to be. Because you are not alone.
That’s what I learned from Elijah’s story. When I was burned out, I left my leadership role in the youth ministry. As my friend used to say, “Jesus already died.” I didn’t have to kill myself in the ministry. I wasn’t the only one left, so I handed over to the Elishas there. God still had a very good plan for that church, but I had played my role. And I regained hope in God’s redemptive plan.
On your seats, you’ll find a prayer that has encouraged me when I’m overwhelmed. If this message resonated with you, consider praying this each day this week. For now, let’s read it together:
Prophets of a Future Not Our Own excerpt from homily by Fr. Ken Untener
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.