Upon what do we base our confidence?
As many of you will know, I used to be in the Territorial Army. One of the exercises we were required to do on our training was what the Army calls a confidence course. This is a sort of assault course but about 20 or 30 foot up in the trees. We had to do it in webbing and carrying our rifles. There were grappling nets and ropes to climb up and to climb across between trees. In particular there was one point where there were two scaffolding poles between two trees which you were expected to run across. The distance between the two trees was too far to stretch. It was at this moment that my friend John Smith came a-cropper. He just couldn’t do it. There he was clinging to one tree and unable to crawl across at the great height. No amount of encouraging or cajoling made any difference. He was in paroxysms of terror. Whilst those of us who had completed the course had had our confidence built up, for him it ruined his. He eventually was coaxed down the tree.
However confident we are in our own abilities, there can come a time when we feel completely out of control and terrified. When we pick up Elijah’s story in the passage from 1 Kings 19 that we have just read, he is cowering in a cave. Why? Well he has got himself in trouble for doing what God has called him to do – for prophesying – for revealing God’s will for the people of Israel.
It was a time in Israel when the kings had gone bad and started worshipping the Canaanite fertility god Baal rather than Yahweh the Lord God of Israel. Elijah had a huge success on Mount Carmel in chapter 18. He said to the assembled nation – “How long will you waiver between two opinions – If the Lord is God follow him. If Baal is God, follow him”.
He then sets up a contest. Which of Baal or the Lord will provide the fire for a sacrifice made in his name? The priests of Baal chant incantations to Baal all morning, but nothing happens. When its Elijahs turn, he instructs gallons of water to be poured on the pile of logs. And then Elijah calls on the Lord, fire comes from heaven and burns up the wood , the sacrifice, everything. So the Lord wins hands down. Then the people of Israel turned on the priests of Baal and killed the lot of them.
Game set and match you might think. But no, King Ahab relates the events to his Baal worshipping wife Jezebel, and she is furious. Elijah runs into hiding.
So we find him cowering in a cave, terrified. He is convinced Jezebel is going to try to kill him. And actually that is exactly what she plans to do.
Elijah’s confidence is shattered. He is discouraged and frightened. Hiding in a cave – keeping silent. It’s not what God expects of Elijah, or of any of us.
As God says to him in verse 13 “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah is frightened and angry. He has done his bit so far as he is concerned: “I have been very zealous for the Lord…the Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me too”.
He is proud of what he has done for the Lord. He thinks he is the only one who has kept the faith. He has stood against the onslaught of idolatry and corruption in his society. But his confidence was misplaced. It was based upon what he had done – that he had been zealous for God, but not based on God himself. Despite the success of Mount Carmel, the moment that he hears that Jezebel is out to get him – he is terrified and hiding in a cave.
And yet, by the end of the chapter, we hear that he has set off, back the way that he came and is going to do something even more dangerous than denouncing the priests of Baal, he is going to commit treason – he is off to anoint a new king for Israel.
How does this happen?
How is it that the terrified lonely old man cowering in a cave is turned into the literally death defying spokesman of the Lord God?
How does God achieve this?
Does he give Elijah a pep talk? ‘Now you have done well Elijah, but I really do expect you to step out a bit now!’ Or does he show him that that he is surrounded by angels armed to the teeth to protect him? Does he give reasons to Elijah to explain why he is suffering as he is? Does he give him the big picture – why it all has to be this way? Does he strike his enemies all dead? Does he kill Ahab and Jezebel by a magisterial sweep of his hand?
No, none of these.
God simply invites Elijah into the supreme reality of his presence, with which nothing in the natural world can compare and in comparison with which the pathetic efforts that we make for God or for ourselves are totally trivial.
God tells Elijah to come out of the cave, because he is about to pass by. But it seems that Elijah does not do this immediately. Initially, he stays put. Then there is a terrible wind so powerful that the mountains are shattered. Then there is an earthquake. Then a fire. Elijah is still hiding in the cave. God does not seem to Elijah to be present in any of the cataclysmic events happening outside – the noise and violence of the natural world in which we are so puny and so vulnerable. And yet it is a world created by and subject to the powerful God to whom we pray and in whose service as Christians we spend our lives.
Then, there is what the King James Version of the Bible calls ‘a still small voice’ or other versions ‘a gentle whisper’ or ‘the sound of sheer silence’.
Elijah recognises in that voice, in that whisper, in that silence, the presence of God.
He pulls his cloak over his face – a sure sign that he recognises that God is there – the fear being in Old Testament times that if you see God, you would die.
God is present.
Elijah goes to the mouth of the cave.
Again the Lord asks him ‘what are you doing here Elijah?’ Another chance to recognise the absurdity of Elijah’s pride in what he, a puny human, has done for God.
And yet he stammers out the same explanation. “I have been very zealous for the Lord….”
But God gives no answer to any of Elijah’s fears; no massaging of Elijah’s pride.
He simply gives him an instruction. ‘Go back the way you came and do what I have called you to do – anoint the kings of Aram and Israel’.
This time, instead of cowering in the cave, Elijah steps out back straight into the danger from which he has fled.
The presence of God transforms Elijah from cowering quivering wreck into brave man of God. No explanation, no pep talk, no revelation of angelic armies surrounding him. Just the presence of God – so quiet that someone not experienced in watching for it might miss it altogether. But Elijah has learned to look for God’s voice amongst the other noises clamouring for his attention. He finds God’s presence in the still small voice – and covers his face, goes to the entrance of the cave and returns by the path he came.
What can this teach us today?
I think this story teaches us that pride and fear come together – they are related. One follows another.
We cannot be free of our fear, without abandoning our pride.
Elijah is so proud of what he has done for God – how he has been the only prophetic voice amongst so many.
But, by relying upon his own strength: (“I have been zealous for the Lord”) and not relying upon God – his confidence has gone, he is like my friend clinging to the tree on the confidence course, he has effectively been defeated, he cannot endure what the opposition throws against him – he is cowering in the cave.
If we start to believe that we have earned God’s favour in some way, by what we have done for him, or done for the church, or if we are proud of what we have done for our families, or our businesses or employers, we will inexorably come to a point in our lives when our confidence is shattered, when we despair, when eventually we encounter the rawness of the way that the world is. When our dreams are dashed, when things turn out differently, to what we expected.
There will inevitably come a time when we get caught in the tectonic plates of insuperable forces, the earthquake, wind and fire of events, which are far beyond our capacity to manage.
We may say ‘it’s all so unfair’.
We may even feel that God has deserted us.
And if we say ‘well I am not fearful’, I would ask ‘are we ever angry’, as our anger is so often a cloak for our fear. It is fear’s handmaiden…
But as we draw closer to God’s presence we realise, that anything that we do which is in the least successful, is entirely down to God’s grace and mercy and the opportunities he has given us and not really due to us at all.
The more I reflect on my career as a lawyer, the more I recognise that its success was entirely due to God’s mercy and intervention and really little to do with my abilities at all. My former partners might agree…
Like Elijah’s success on Mount Carmel – it wasn’t at all because Elijah had been zealous for the Lord that the priests of Baal had been defeated, it was because God intervened. Without God’s intervention Elijah would have been standing humiliated next to a pile of wet logs.
So if we are frightened or angered by our situation, if we have lost our confidence, perhaps it is because we have, in our pride, been relying on our own strength and have finally come to recognise how woefully inadequate we are to address the forces that we face.
We are cowering in the cave of our fear and anger, which is built from our own pride.
Is God is saying to you today, as he said to Elijah, “what are you doing here?”
If he is, then there is an opportunity to be free of all of this fear and anger and pride.
An opportunity to draw close to God’s presence and to get to know him.
It’s called the Alpha Course and it begins with an introductory party on 30th September at St John’s Itchen Abbas http://itchenvalleychurches.org.uk/activities/the-alpha-course/
Take this opportunity to go to the mouth of your cave and to enter God’s presence.