This week’s sacred story comes from 1 Kings 19:1-18 where the prophet Elijah is on the run, burnt out, and God shows up…not in power, but in stillness and silence.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Between the Swamp of Sadness in Neverending Story, the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride, and a surprise patch of quicksand in a 1994 live action version of The Jungle Book, as a kid I was pretty sure that I was going to die in a sinking pit of earth, swallowed up by muck. I was absolutely terrified by the thought of quicksand and had serious nightmares about it. So….I thought I better research the stuff and how to survive should I ever find myself in such a situation. The best advice is the most counter-intuitive. While you may want to kick and scream...the more your struggle against it, the more you sink. Stillness it turns out, is your best defense.
In the midst of chaos or struggle, I often want to try and fight my way out. Those moments in life where it feels like I’m drowning…. often end up with me frantically flailing which only exhausts me further, and pulls me deeper into the muck. Sometimes it may seem as though the only way out is to work more or to fight harder. But the Sabbath reminds us that there is power in stillness.
There is a particular kind of stillness that we can only reach by getting away, being removed from the usual surroundings and coming into the wilderness spaces of the world and of our souls. Jesus was always doing this - going away from others, off by himself. After teaching to crowds, caring for those in need, a full slate of the hustle and bustle of being God incarnate, he’d’ routinely get away for awhile... into a boat, up on a mountain, or out in a garden - to pray, to just be, to have some time alone, to find stillness.
The prophet Elijah has spent years telling King Ahab to turn from his ways of worshiping other gods and thus leading the people of God astray. He has survived a drought alongside an old widow. And he just executed 450 prophets of the false God, Baal - which has the Queen pretty ticked off as she’s worked really hard to protect and promote them. Speaking truth to power over and over again, feeling the threat of danger or stress breathing down your neck constantly is exhausting and wearisome. Bringing out truth in ourselves can be the same. It takes emotional and spiritual labor to be honest to ourselves about ourselves and that is real work too. Whatever work God has called us to do, if we our doing it faithfully, takes something of us that must be replenished and calls us to sabbath rest.
Sometimes we rest by choice and SOMETIMES, like Elijah, we rest by evacuation. When the wear of our work finds our immune systems weakened, and we physically just can’t go on. You know those times when you run yourself ragged and now you’ve got the flu, an ear infection, and food poisoning all at once. Sometimes sabbath claims us whether or not we planned on it.
If you are diagnosed with depression, you know that sometimes all you can do is eat and go back to bed. Sometimes it feels like a struggle to even do that. And even when you find other people who have depression, you can still feel alone. Elijah, out in the wilderness, running for his life, feels very much road-weary and alone. But the story does not end here.
When we’re exhausted, exasperated, fried and frazzled, and we don’t know where to start, we go back to the beginning. Elijah get a return to the basics - with the help of an angel he slowly finds health and grounding in the basic rhythm of rest, eat, sleep, repeat. Do you notice how your eating and resting habits both reflect and impact the well-bering of your soul? When you’re not eating well - your whole being suffers or when you’re stressed, you stop making good choices about food. When you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, you feel like a shell of yourself, so you’re less effective and then you feel like you have to stay up late to get it all done? But here, in the Word of God, it says naps and snacks are holy, y’all.
And when our physical needs are being met, we are better attuned to our spiritual needs. And so, AFTER regaining his strength through rest and food, Elijah sets his eyes on connecting with God. He hikes up the mount Horeb, also called mount Sinai, to the place where Moses communed with God generations ago. While waiting expectantly for God to appear, Elijah experiences several familiar forces - powerful wind, an earthquake, and then fire - all ways in which God has appeared and spoken before in history. But in my experiences of God, I may or may not see her in the exact same places and things, practices and texts, where we last encountered each other so clearly. I can go back to that hilltop where I remember feeling as though God were standing right next to me, or read a verse that has been balm to my soul in the past, and find that they don’t feel the same anymore. The mystery of it continues to astound me.
And so even though God in the past had made God’s voice clear in these powerful elements of wind, and earthquake, and flame, for this moment, for this person...God is not there. But then… there is stillness… and there is sheer silence. And in this silence, Elijah can hear the voice of God calling to him.
And there, Elijah can pour out his laments, his fears, and his weariness before God. He unloads the burden he feels like he has been carrying alone, lays it down. And in this place, where Elijah has come to get away, he is drawn in. God doesn't dismiss all that troubles Elijah, but points to there being so much more than trouble in Elijah’s world. God reminds Elijah that even when it feels that way, he is not alone and all is not lost. Look, God says, there are a couple other kings, there is another prophet, and 7000 people who have not abandoned us. God lifts up other leaders who will help and who will pick up the work where Elijah can leave it off.
In this wilderness silence, this Sabbath moment, where Elijah came in exhaustion, isolation and despair...he surprisingly finds strength, connection, and hope. There's no shame in needing to be refreshed and reminded. Renewal and remembrance are built into the rhythm of creation, and here in our ritual of worship. But still we can get so caught up in the work, that which God has called us to and that which we busy ourselves with, wear ourselves so thin…
Sabbath silence and restful retreat call to us. In the stillness, we hear God’s loving voice declare that we are not alone. Amen.