As we continue our Lenten sermon series focused on telling the stories of the faithful people who have gone before us, this week we’re going to switch it up a little bit. Rather than tell a contemporary story, we’re going to flip all the way back in our Bibles to the book of 1 Kings, where we find the story of the prophet Elijah.

Most of us probably know Elijah from the places where he’s mentioned in the New Testament in relation to Jesus, or maybe we’ve heard one or two of his stories – but today, we’re going to look at his story of radical obedience to God in a very challenging time from beginning to end.

But first, we need to set the stage a bit. Buckle up for a history lesson.

King David was the second person to rule over all twelve tribes of Israel, after he deposed King Saul. David’s son Solomon inherited the throne, and for the most part ruled well and wisely. Solomon also built the first temple in Jerusalem, and at the dedication of that temple made a covenant with God – which essentially promised that so long as his descendants followed the law and worshipped God alone (which meant not worshipping all of their neighbors’ gods, which was common at the time), the kingdom of Israel would last forever with one of David’s descendants on the throne.

But even Solomon couldn’t 100% keep that promise. So God raised up a man named Jeroboam, who when Solomon died led a rebellion of the ten northern tribes that split the kingdom of Israel into two. Solomon’s son Rehoboam reigned over the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Jerusalem, while Jeroboam reigned in Shechem over the rest of Israel. And that’s how we got two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. So far, so good.

But because the Temple was in Jerusalem, in Judah, Jeroboam didn’t want people going down there to worship – so he had two golden calves built and said to the people: “these are your gods, who brought you out of Egypt.” So many of the Israelites worshipped them, instead of following the Lord.

(You would’ve thought they’d have learned the first time.)

But through several generations, God kept sending messengers (whom we call prophets) to call the people back – and to warn the kings who followed in Jeroboam’s footsteps that the covenant God made still stood: so long as the kings and the people followed the one true God, the kingdom would stand. If not, it would fall.

The last straw was a king named Ahab, who married a woman from a neighboring kingdom named Jezebel. Jezebel brought her own gods (called Ba’al) with her and demanded that the king and all the people worship them, and many, many of God’s prophets were killed under her orders.

Enter a man named Elijah. We don’t get any background story, other than he is “a man of God from Tishbe.” Elijah goes to Ahab and Jezebel and says: “God has given me a message for you, so here it is: there won’t be any rain until I say so, because you have not kept the covenant made with your ancestors.”

They are…unhappy with this message, and try to get rid of Elijah by any means necessary. God tells Elijah to hide, and sends him north to a town called Zarephath, where he will meet a widow and her son who will shelter him. Elijah goes and finds them, but they’re also affected by the drought, and running out of food themselves but Elijah miraculously provides for them by stretching what little they have for several years, and even resurrects the woman’s son when he dies after an illness.

Then, after THREE YEARS of drought, Elijah goes back to Ahab with another message: let’s put our gods to the test, eh? Gather 450 of Ba’al’s prophets and two bulls, and meet me on Mt. Carmel. 

So a great crowd, with all the prophets and the king and ordinary people, gather together on this mountain. Elijah says: “it’s time to make a choice; you can’t have it both ways. If Ba’al is god, then follow him. But if the Lord is God, then follow him.”

Then, at his direction, each side chose a bull, prepared it for sacrifice, and laid it on an altar. The challenge was simple: pray to your god, and the god who answers with fire, consuming the sacrifice, wins.

The prophets of Ba’al cried out and prayed and sang and prophesied from morning through to the evening – and Elijah got a few digs in while they did it. “Shout louder!” he said. “Maybe he’s sleeping!”

After the day was mostly gone, Elijah called everyone over to him. He built his altar, prepared his wood and his bull, then directed someone to bring 4 large jars of water and pour it over the wood and the sacrifice. He did this twice more, so that twelve large jars of water had been poured on his altar.

Then he prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”[1]

Then, the fire of the Lord fell from heaven and burned up the sacrifice and everything around it.

The people were amazed and said “The Lord is surely our God!”

Then Elijah directed them to seize the prophets of Ba’al, and they were all killed.

Ahab went home and told Jezebel what happened, and she was furious. She vowed that he would lose his own life, and God once again told him to flee. Then, the drought ended and the rain began.

Elijah went into the wilderness and sat under a tree, thinking he was toast. But God was not done with him yet, because there angels tended to him – they gave him food and water, and he slept for about two days and renewed his strength. (Never underestimate the power of a nap and a snack.)

Then, he walked for 40 days and came to Mt. Horeb, where he entered a cave and sat down.

(And this is where I’ll let Scripture tell the story.)

Scripture: 1 Kings 19:9-18

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.

What strikes me most in this passage is the gentleness of God in the midst of absolute chaos. Elijah has been obedient to God in every way, and that has put him through some stuff. And now, he encounters storms and earthquakes and fire – but those things are not God. Instead, God comes to him in a gentle whisper, with a simple question. “Why are you here?”

And Elijah unloads all of it – his loneliness, his fear, his frustration and his grief. God doesn’t explain it or really even try to comfort him, but the directions God gives acknowledge that he has been heard. Perhaps that’s all he needs, because he does indeed go find Elisha, who becomes a prophet in training, and he goes to face Ahab one more time.

Meanwhile, while Elijah was avoiding the king, Ahab took a liking to a vineyard that was next to his palace in the city of Jezreel. The man who owned it refused to sell it, however, because it had belonged to his family for many, many generations. Through a very long and complicated scheme, Jezebel has the man killed and Ahab takes over the vineyard. They thought they’d won, until Elijah finally shows up and says “God knows exactly what happened here, and your punishment will follow.”

Jezebel dies in a somewhat shocking way. Surprisingly, though, Ahab repents and God does not destroy him. His eldest son, however, does not reign long after Ahab’s death, and his younger brother Jehoram takes over. Jehoram is not the best king in history by any means, but the book of 2 Kings tells us he wasn’t as bad as his parents, so that’s something.

Meanwhile, Elijah and Elisha are doing their own thing trying to train up a new generation of priests and prophets. Eventually, Elijah realizes his time is drawing short and he starts preparing Elisha to take over. On their last day together, Elijah says: “ask anything you want of me, Elisha.”

And Elisha says “ask the Lord to grant me a double portion of your spirit.”

The older man thinks about it for a minute, and says “if you see me go, then your request will be granted to you.”

And Elisha does see, as a sudden whirlwind turns into chariots of fire, which carry Elijah straight up to heaven – where he no longer waits to see God in wind or fire or earthquakes, but speaks with God face to face. Elisha carries on in his own way, and the cycle of kings who mess up a lot and prophets who call them back to faith and faithfulness continues. In fact, that’s a really easy way to sum up the second half of the Old Testament.

In many ways, this story probably sounds a lot like a Game of Thrones episode. There is a lot of death, fear, threats and violence—but there is still good news for us in Elijah’s story. Elijah’s life and witness reminds us that when you’re the only one, when it seems impossible that you could make any difference, God still calls you to radical obedience—and part of that obedience is trusting that God’s grace is at work in the chaos, that God will provide for you and shelter, you, and that no matter how much we get it wrong, God will keep coming back to love and care for and call us home, because we are God’s beloved people.

This is the good news: whether you’re Elijah or Ahab, so long as you have breath, there is always another chance to say “yes, Lord, I will follow you.”

[1] 1 Kings 18:36, NIV.