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Speaking to the Soul: The Elijah Method of Spiritual Renewal

Speaking to the Soul: The Elijah Method of Spiritual Renewal

by Linda McMillan


It has been quite a week, hasn’t it?

Last Sunday was Shavuot. In the Jewish calendar it is observed 49 days after Passover. It’s the day that we remember the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Sometimes it’s called Hag Mattan Torateinu, or Festival of giving the Torah. It’s one of the happiest says of the year!

Yet, from now on, it will be remembered as one of sadness too. On Shavuot we also woke to the news that 49 people had been gunned down in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. It is a twisted bit of irony that on the very day that we recall the ten commandments, the third of which is, “Thou shalt not kill,” we had one of the worst mass shootings in recent memory. Forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot, 49 lives lost. It’s almost too much to bear.

Most of us will be like Bathsheba who, despite everything — and there was a lot of it — carried on with as much grace and dignity as she could. For others, though, it will be too much to bear, and they may slip into despondency.

That happened to Elijah. For whatever reasons, he went from successful prophet — victor over the prophets of Baal —  to being a despondent, suicidal mess sitting underneath a broom tree telling God that he was ready to go.

God was not finished with Elijah, though, and God may not be finished with us either. A messenger came to Elijah and gave him some food and water. Your Bible may say that it was an angel — and you’d have to be almost divine to survive in that desert — but if you read your Bible in Hebrew you’ll see that the word for messenger is the same one used for the messenger that Jezebel sent warning Elijah of his impending death. It is more likely that Elijah had a good samaritan in the wings, someone who was looking out for him, possibly the servant he’d abandoned in Beer-Sheba. The simple food provided by his “angel,” whoever it was, was enough to nourish him and get him back on his feet.

On the strength of the water and bread that the messenger gave him, Elijah traveled to Mt. Horeb. If you’re confused about where Mt. Horeb is, it’s sometimes called Mt. Sinai! Elijah had returned to base camp, the place the Torah was given. This was where it all started. He camped in a cave.

The next day God asked Elijah a question. He said, “Elijah, what are you doing here.” That’s when Elijah started telling all his troubles to God. He said that he had been faithful, very faithful, but that the Israelites were trying to kill him. “I alone,” he opines, “am left.” Well, the truth is that Elijah was not the only one left. There were lots of others who had not worshiped Baal. Elijah either didn’t know about them or — like many burned-out and weary people before and after — he was playing the martyr card.

Finally, God told Elijah where to go and what to do: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” And, Elijah did. Then Elijah experienced the same signs of theophany that we saw the last time we visited Mt. Sinai:  fire, earthquakes, and wind. But this time, God was not in the fire, the earthquake, or the wind. Something else happened. A thin, ineffable, silence or sound came to Elijah and caused him to go to the entrance of the cave. He covered his face as Moses had done before because he knew that at last he was in the presence of God.

We don’t know what happened in the silence. Maybe God spoke to Elijah, maybe something was revealed to him. But something happened and, once again, God asked Elijah a question, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” And Elijah appears to give the same answer, doesn’t he? He said exactly the same thing as before. But, this time, God said, “Go, back… I have reserved seven thousand in Israel— none of them worshiped Baal or loved him.”

So, Elijah overcame his burn-out, his despondency. He went from being suicidal to being a man on a mission.

Sometimes all of us feel that we’re at the end of our rope. There’s been an enormous amount of bad news, there’s politics, and we all have the everyday demands of just living piled on top of that.  But the experiences of Elijah offer a way forward:

1. Eat and drink, or nourish yourself. In this story, Elijah had some bread and water, but you can probably do better than that. Do what nourishes you.

2. Return to base camp. Or, as our collect for today calls it,  the sure foundation of lovingkindness.  Elijah went back to his tradition, to Sinai, to Torah. What is the basis of your faith? Go there. That’s your base camp.

3. Shelter yourself from drama… fire, earthquake, wind. Drama is a value in our society. If you don’t believe me, just watch a little television.  We can accept the fact that there are drama queens around, and that drama is going to happen, but we know that’s not where God is.

4. Listen. It is hard to understand what happened when the thin silence fell over Mt. Sinai. That is often how it is with the things of God. (Note to self… Listening means not talking.)

5. Then go forth. When he was ready, God sent Elijah back out there. Everybody needs to take a time out once in awhile, but God doesn’t leave us on the sidelines, the idea is that we will get back in the game.

If you’re feeling like you have wandered into a parched desert and there’s not much hope of getting out of it, look to Elijah. He has shown us a way out. So, get up from under that broom tree. Our sorrow, anger, and the general malaise of just trying to get by are the stuff that new missions are made of!

Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China

Image: Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some Notes of Possible Interest

As for the things that may indicate God’s presence, you can read about them being at the giving of the Torah here:

Fire – Exodus 19:18, Deuteronomy 5:22 and 18:16
Wind – Exodus 33-34
Earthquake – Exodus 19:18

Regarding the silence, sometimes called “a still, small voice,”  I like the translation, “a thin silence,” but there are other ways to say it. It may even imply that there was sound, or a voice, which is not silence at all. It’s slippery, whatever it is. I doubt that it is either a real silence or a real sound, but something that is quite different altogether. 

The final instructions to Elijah are, “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.” (NIV)

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