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Crawl in a Cave

The Second Sunday after Pentecost (June 23, 2019)

1 Kings 19:1-15

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he laid down under the broom tree and fell asleep. 

Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

He answered, “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.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 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. 

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

He answered, “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.” 

Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 

At face value, there might not be much we can relate to in this moment in Elijah’s life. After all, most of us haven’t found ourselves fleeing from a despotic queen and king and facing certain death after slaughtering the prophets of a rival deity (for more on that, by the way, you can turn to the previous chapter, 1 Kings 18; the drama and gore of that part of the story rivals anything the writers of Game of Thrones could come up with!). 

Elijah has found himself center stage of a high-stakes political drama in the affairs of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, in a showdown between Yahweh on one hand, and foreign gods and the corrupt regime that invokes them on the other. The king, Ahab, calls him a “troubler of Israel.” And Elijah is definitely in trouble. 

The whole saga may seem far removed from our everyday existence—fleeing persecution, sojourning through a dangerous desert landscape, seeking refuge under a shrub, crawling in a cave, being visited by an angel, hearing the voice of God. And yet if we can peel back the layers of distance of time and culture, we can see ourselves. Maybe we can even hear the voice too.

Elijah is at the end of his rope in two distinct moments. In the first he flees to the Negev desert and, after a day’s journey, seeks refuge under the shade of a broom tree. We have similar broom trees here in the Sonoran Desert—these low-lying, densely-branched shrub trees. But if you have trouble picturing that, sub in a mesquite or palo verde. “I am no better than my ancestors,” he pleads in prayer. Subtext: “I am no better than those who are already dead. Kill me now.” 

Later he comes to Mount Horeb after a forty-day, forty-night journey and spends the night in a cave. When the voice poses that key question, “What are you doing here, Elijah” he replies, in essence, “The whole country’s gone haywire, Lord. Your altars have been decimated. Your prophets are dead. I’m all alone here. And they’re after me.” 

Have you ever felt like the world is going to hell in a handbasket and all you’d like to do is crawl into a cold, dark cave? 

For some of us, that’s painfully true. When chaos swirls around us, we retreat. When forces far outside our control threaten to overwhelm us, we turn inwardly and our minds and hearts go to some cold, dark places. While we’re not literally running from tyrants, maybe we’re still hounded by the tyrannies of regret, heartache, trauma, or shame. “Caves” are apt metaphors for the anxiety or depression or grief many of us struggle with.

Whatever the modern equivalents of broom trees or mountain caves, they’re pretty appealing right now. In a 2017 column, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, an otherwise relatively healthy adult, went to the doctor with all these symptoms: fatigue, headaches, poor sleep, chest pain, high blood pressure. Milbank decided to diagnose himself with “Trump Hypertensive Unexplained Disorder.” In all seriousness, like many other Americans, he found that the stress of the current political environment was having a deleterious effect on his health. “Two years later,” another journalist writes, “the physiological effects… aren’t going away. A growing body of research has tracked the detrimental impacts of Trump-related stress on broad segments of the American population, from young adults to women, to racial and LGBT communities.”  

Now, to be clear, I’m not picking on the President and saying he is responsible for all our woes. That would be an oversimplification, at best. What I am saying is that these are particularly stressful times for many of us—not in a new way, mind you, for historically marginalized and oppressed groups—but being aware of all that is happening can feel like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. 

As in Elijah’s time, there’s very real evil at work in the world, and it needs to be confronted, not ignored. Just this past week: we’re facing the possibility of war with Iran; migrant children are still being detained in facilities that are rightly called “concentration camps” with cruel and unsanitary conditions; and the Administration is threatening to raid and deport members of immigration families. Turn on the radio, watch TV, or browse articles online, and you could come up with a much longer list of reasons to want to hole up in a cave. 

What Elijah’s story remind us, though, is that God meets us in those places of retreat and despair. The Holy One shows up under the broom tree and in the cave. That’s where God is present. 

It’s under the broom tree where twice a messenger of God meets Elijah with just enough food and just enough water for the next leg of his journey. God provides Elijah with just enough to take his very next steps. 

It’s in the cave where twice Elijah hears the voice asking him a question that is both timely and existential, “What are you doing here?” And it was in the cave through what this translation calls “sheer silence” but another translation calls “a sound. Thin. Quiet” and yet another calls “the still small voice” that Elijah encounters the divine presence. Not in the tempest. Not in the roaring flames. Not in the earth shaking beneath his feet. But in a whisper. In the deafening quiet. 

It’s as if God reassures him, in the words of C. Melissa Snarr: “You’re not alone. I care for you. Now get back to it.” 

There are times when we simply need to stop, step back, and take a deep breath. We need to create spaces of prayer and solitude for those deep breaths to happen. When we do so in faith it’s not the same as being like ostriches with our heads buried in the sand, trying in vain to shut out the reality of a cruel and chaotic world. It’s seeking refuge in places where God’s Spirit meets us in the stillness, in the silence, with the sustenance we need to continue on our journeys. 

But it doesn’t stop there. God renews our strength in those places so that we can go out and continue to do what we are called to do as God’s prophetic people: confront what is wrong, seek justice, work for a world of peace. 

I’ll close with a prayer from Teresa of Lisieux. Join me if you will… 

Just for today, 

what does it matter, O Lord, if the future is dark? 

To pray now for tomorrow I am not able. 

Keep my heart only for today, 

grant me your light— 

just for today. Amen.