Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The word disappointment is a word that all of us will get a chance to use at some point in our lives.

Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water
Tanner, Henry Ossawa. Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source: Wikimedia.

August 9, 2020

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18

The word disappointment is a word that all of us will get a chance to use at some point in our lives.

I’ll go so far as to say that it’s impossible to live this life and not have some interaction with the reality of disappointment. Disappointment comes in many forms and fashions.

Sometimes people disappoint us. We thought we knew them and figured they were one way, only to discover, through their actions, that they were not who we gave them credit for being.

Sometimes circumstances disappoint us. You expected the promotion and somebody less qualified got it. You anticipated closing the deal and it falls through at the last moment.

Sometimes we disappoint ourselves. You let somebody get under your skin and you started acting in a way antithetical to who Jesus is. You thought you had forgotten some of those words, and now you’re disappointed because you suddenly realize you’ve not come as far as you thought you had. So, sometimes, people disappoint us; sometimes circumstances disappoint us; sometimes we disappoint ourselves.

But then there are those times when God disappoints us.

God didn’t fix it. God didn’t turn it around. God didn’t expose it. God didn’t cure it. God didn’t pay it. God didn’t move it, and the reason disappointment sets in is because you know God could have. God just chose not to. However, I think it important to point out that disappointment is a part of the process that God uses to mature us. Because, often it is our disappointment that reveals our character.

Disappointment time becomes examination time. How we respond in the face of disappointment often reveals who we really are, and not just who we say we are. And, this is where we find Elijah in 1 Kings 19.

Prior this week’s reading, Elijah has been on a victory tour. Elijah has experienced the thrill of hearing people call his name and celebrating his heroic feats. It was at Elijah’s behest, at his call, at his command, that God rained down fire on Mt. Carmel, a fire so intense it burned wet wood. This act alone cleared up any and all questions as to whether or not God was really with him.

Yet when we focus the sermonic spotlight on 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah dealing with a level of disappointment that’s threatening to push him into depression. He discovers that even after victory, there’s still a thing called reality. And the reality is this: one victory does not mean the end of challenges. Your calling does not cancel all your challenges. I don’t care how anointed you are. I don’t care how appointed you are. I don’t care how filled with the Holy Ghost you are. At the right time or the wrong time, with the wrong person, in the wrong situation, saying the wrong thing, acting the wrong way, you will discover that you still have some human moments.

Elijah gives us a vivid picture of public victory and private struggles. All the bounding assurance passes away; the heavens appear to be emptied; the earth is deserted; and the prophet is left languishing, declaring “I alone am left!” The once triumphant spokesman of the Lord has temporarily lost his exuberant faith and is sunk in dark despair.

There is something in human nature that makes us feel more akin to individuals who occasionally suffer defeat. If Elijah’s journey had been one of endless victories, and uncertainty had never held him in its grips, he would have appeared “a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” Peter’s break with courage that leads him to curse, and Paul’s feelings of wretchedness despite his ecstasies allow them to be counted among the crowd of the common. In spite of all he had exclaimed, experienced, and expected, Elijah has experienced a crisis of faith that pushes him to give up on ministry and lie down with a desire to die.

What is the source and secret of such great despair? What pushes the prophet to give up on his work and witness? He’s guilty of what so many pastors fall victim to: he’s been head counting. “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

When the focus is on numbers—budgets, butts in the seat, and the building fund, when we exaggerate the possibilities we see and disregard the power we cannot see—disappointment gives way to despondency. So, what must we do? What does Elijah do? We understand that in those moments we don’t find God, but rather God finds us.

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

Is the writer of the story denying that God has spoken in times past in this fashion? No! There are times when we need the rebuke of the storm, the terror of the earthquake, or the purification of the fire. At other times, this may have been fitting, but for the occasion, for this level of need, God dismissed the extraordinary in exchange for the ordinary.

One of the hardest lessons we have to learn is that God is in the quiet, the gentle influences that are ever around us, working with us, for us, and on us, without any visible or audible indicators of activity. We must learn to listen for the God who is quiet and gentle. Maybe our failure to hear that which is quiet is what signals that which is catastrophic. When we fail to discern God in our health, God comes in sickness. When we fail to discern God in our prosperity, God comes in adversity. When we fail to discern God is the stillness, God comes in the storm.

In this age of feuding and fighting, screeching and screaming, bellowing and blowing, perhaps this story is a reminder that it’s in the hush, in the silence, where the presence and power of God are most identifiable.