If you’ve trained for a marathon or even otherwise, you might be familiar with the phrase ‘hitting the wall’. It’s the point where the body of the runner has depleted all of its energy and cannot produce anything more quickly enough. You literally, crash (apparently, not a very pleasant experience). The only thing you can do at this time is to crash, eat and drink. It is impossible to go on. But it is possible to train well and space yourself properly so that you don’t hit this state. In our first reading we encounter Elijah, the archetypal prophet and greatest of the prophets after Moses. He has just hit the wall.
We meet Elijah today, depressed, but not long after his greatest victory. For a long time, Israel has been drawn away from God, to worship some a false god, Baal, introduced by the foreign queen, Jezebel. She had killed most of YHWH’s prophets; others were in hiding. Elijah had been singe-handedly fighting these prophets for three and a half years. Now he has just won the final battle against them and proven that YHWH is God. He thinks he can now rest. But when Jezebel hears about it, she sends an army to kill Elijah. Elijah runs for his life, exhausted and makes his way to Sinai where we meet him. What has happened? He’s hit the wall. He thought he had finished his task and the work was done, but it wasn’t. He wasn’t prepared for more enemies. When you’re fighting a war like that, you have to be very clear, what is it or rather who it is that you are fighting for. It is finally God who is in charge. And there are important lessons for the spiritual life that come from our episode.
The fragility of faith. How is it, that this greatest of prophets crashes so badly? How is it that it happens right after the most spectacular spiritual victory in the history of Israel – one he single-handedly brings about? It could be the difference between the gift of faith and faith as a way of life. It is not often noticed that Paul mentions faith as one of the gifts of manifestation or the ‘charismatic’ gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:9). The gift of faith is an anointing, given to enable one to move in the miraculous, in powerful ways. This is different from the life of faith, faith as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) which we are all called to live by.
One way of describing this faith, is simply, the quiet confidence in God’s love for us. Knowing that God is there in our lives, that he holds us and because of this, we can face anything that might come up in life. This kind of faith, takes years, a lifetime. It grows as we are more and more filled with the love of God which comes to eradicate all aspects of fear in our lives. And it is in prayer that we open ourselves to be filled with this love.
This is something that many of us might be familiar with. We might be very confident in God’s power for us in one area of our life, one crisis that we face, only to have a meltdown in another. It is the equivalent of someone successful in life, always seen to be in control and confident, who has a meltdown when he suddenly comes across his childhood bully on the street. There is no doubting Elijah’s faith, of course. But it might be fair to say, that even Elijah, after years of serving the Lord in spectacular ways, had areas of his spiritual life which were vulnerable. Having stood against the whole of Israel, its King, 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah – he hears one word from the now disempowered queen – and he crashes.
The enemy: Elijah’s battle, like any prophet’s, was primarily spiritual. It was for the heart of Israel’s worship to the true God against idols. It was prolonged spiritual warfare, one which would take him to the brink of death, literally. But unlike other prophets, he was not simply facing a people who had become lukewarm in their faith; actively driving this apostasy was the power behind the throne, also a spiritual power. Jezebel, the Lady Macbeth of the Scriptures. It is likely that she was not simply queen but also a high priestess of Baal. If Elijah is the archetypal prophet, Jezebel is the archetypal seductress and murderer who leads Israel into idolatry. She is neither the first nor the only foreign queen to introduce worship of the Baals (think Solomon’s wives – 1 Kings 11), but she is unique in her persecution and killing of the Lord’s prophets. So, when it says that she sent messengers to Elijah it is not unreasonable to believe that the ‘messengers’ she sent were not just of a human variety. The word malak in the Hebrew (similar to angelos in Greek) simply means messenger – which designate both human and angelic. With all of Elijah’s vulnerabilities, it is hard to account for such a violent crash in his faith, causing him to fear and run for his life (1 Kings 19:3). It is highly likely that she unleashed a swarm of demons against Elijah. Her god, Baal and hence her power, have just been dismantled and paraded for the whole nation to see, by Elijah himself. Yet, when she rages against him – a vow she does not fulfil – the prophet falls prey to her threat. He seems to forget all he has just accomplished and his dismantling of her power. This is a classic tactic of the Evil One.
On the Cross, Jesus dismantled the powers of darkness and their authority (Col 2:15). All he has are his lies. If he can get us to believe his lies though, he can triumph over us. He knows our specific weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Like the otherwise harmless arrow of Paris, which becomes potent because the god Apollo guides it to Achilles’ heel, the enemy can always find a way of using the most ordinary things, the most innocent of remarks by someone, specific events, words which will trigger our fears and insecurities to attack us. Here, he goes for a common Achilles heel of most people who choose to serve, not the least, ministers of the Gospel. ‘You are a failure. Nothing you do makes a difference. Look, all your miracles and feats of power – you succeeded no more than the prophets before you did! All your efforts and no one is saved’
Jesus had to face the same temptations through his ministry. After all the miracles he performed, people walked away from him when he spoke of the Eucharist; at the Cross there were only three people standing with him. But Jesus would triumph only by constantly trusting in the Father’s love for him. When the devil would explicitly attack him at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus would not debate with him – he would simply refute him with the Scriptures, which reveal the Father’s care for man. If everyone left him, the Father would never abandon him. His worth, the value of his work all came from the Father. And as God sends Elijah an angel to strengthen him, he gets up, and heads straight to Horeb, where God appeared to Moses. He needs a retreat. Here, he will meet God.
Renewal: As we meet him today, Elijah arrives at Horeb, where God first revealed himself to Moses. Like a child who seeks the bosom of his mother when afraid, he hides himself in the cave, seeking the comfort of God’s presence. Elijah, realises the battle has been too much for him. He needs renewal which can only come from God. God first passes by, in the wind, fire and earthquake. It says quite clearly that the Lord was passing by. But these fail to renew Elijah. All these are the manifestations of God; they are effects of his presence. They are external. But then, there is the ‘sound of a silent whisper’. How do you even hear something like that, especially after the noise of an earthquake? Maybe that’s because it is God speaking from within Elijah. Maybe he came all the way here, because he forgot that God was with him. Maybe, in the heat of the battle, he started looking to the results for fulfilment, rather than the One who called him to battle. And here, he meets God, not outside, but as the one who has never left him. Here, he is renewed. He can stand and face the world again.
Most of us, I suspect might not wage a war on the scale of Elijah, but his battle is paradigmatic for all of us. Spiritual life is spiritual warfare. You cannot take two steps towards God without the world and the flesh resisting you and the Evil One coming after you. And the best that God can do through you, whatever you might do – all of which might be profoundly good – can still leave you unfulfilled, fearful and feeling empty, because we can never find our own worth from what we do. To try to do so, is to fall prey to the evil one. What we do has meaning because the Father finds delight in his children. Otherwise, we will inevitably be frustrated and despair. It is in our daily time of prayer that we can be renewed in the love of God. It is in hearing the Father’s voice in the Scriptures – and choosing to believe what he says about us – that we can silence the voice of the enemy. If we realise that it is God who is doing his work, and he can multiply the little we give him, then we can then continue working in spite of the challenges. We can say with Mother Teresa, as she did when challenged similarly:
“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But without it, the ocean would be one drop less.”