Readings 1 Kings 19:11-15, John 7:37-39, John 8:12
If we were to personify strong emotions, I wonder what hope and despair would look like? Would despair be a grey robed hovering presence, waiting for an opportunity to wrap their cloak around you? Would hope also be a hovering presence but a bit more flighty, more distant – rather like the light of a candle, flickering, mesmerising? Would one shut out the other or would they both exist within the complexity of what we know as human existence?
Elijah was in a state of despair – at a point in his life where he could see not much to live for – a serious low point in his life and in his service to God. Remember what had just happened: he had just organised and delivered the most powerfully public display of the unique authority of Jehovah – picture it – there was Elijah and the opposition (consisting of 450 priests of the God Baal) - and Elijah and his God humiliated them, decimated them. But almost immediately, instead of the expected strengthening of his influence and status – he is running for his life, running from the death threat made by Ahab’s wife Jezebel. Frightened and afraid for his life, he flees. He finds himself in the wilderness outside Beersheba, alone and in despair – and he prays that he might die. He is engulfed by the cloak of despair, thinking that he has somehow failed God in his failing to convince or change the thinking of others.
God’s response to his plea for death is to provide Elijah with food and water – with life and continuing sustenance for the journey ahead. And that journey takes him into the Sinai where he meets with God. And it is really interesting to see how the reassurance of the presence and promise of God is given to Elijah – not in the pummelling wind nor in the cataclysmic earthquake or the burning intensity of fire – but in the sound of sheer silence. It was the still small voice of God that finally drew Elijah out of his despair and into a place where he could finally respond to God.
I wonder if sometimes we look for God to be always spectacular, impressive, obviously present and influencing – especially in our times of despair when we just want God to fix it, to make the cloak that is despair go away forever, to strike Jezebel down, to make our life easier and our way smoother. It was interesting that the big public display of power didn’t really work for Elijah – that it was trumped almost immediately by an effective personal threat – and that Elijah did not find God in the elements of power but in the stillness of silence.
It is important to remember that the God who gifted us the person of Jesus was the same God who ministered to Elijah – the one who understands what it means to be human, to experience times of despair as well as times of joy and hope – and who knows that the one assurance that we need is to know that God is always with us, deep in our hearts, there to help us cope with the dark times. Fear, flight and despair are part of most people’s journey of life – nothing to be ashamed of or forgotten but simply times when things just get too much. There is no condemnation from God, just sustenance and loving care until we are ready to re-engage with the work and the life that God calls us to. For, as with Elijah, we are challenged to return to the life of loving and caring for others, speaking up for justice and standing up for what is right – but we are doing this empowered by the presence on the living God, whom we know in the still places of our hearts. The light of Christ, of hope will always permeate the shadowing cloak of despair – not to blast it away but to allow us to know the presence of God, even in our most difficult times. And for this we say ‘thanks be to God’. Amen