The Agony of Success

5th Sunday after Pentecost 

I Kings 19:1-21

“The Almighty has His purposes.”  That little statement, that simple little statement, summed up terrible and conflicting matters of faith in the mind of President Abraham Lincoln.  “The Almighty has His purposes.”

On a scrap of paper dated September 1862, Mr. Lincoln had written the thoughts, The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party…. 

Those thoughts would find their way into Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address to the Congress on March 4, 1865.  As the war was winding down, Mr. Lincoln told the Congress, Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained…. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Indeed He does.  To the continued frustration of many a preacher who zealously tried to persuade Mr. Lincoln that God was on the Union side in that contest—no doubt, even as many a preacher south of the Mason-Dixon zealously told Jefferson Davis that God was on their side—to the frustration of many who claimed God for their side, Mr. Lincoln insisted that it was more important to know whether he or anyone else was on God’s side!

Oh…but standing at God’s side was far from easy, as Lincoln said in that 2nd Inaugural Address: Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Aye, it can be a fearful thing to stand by the Lord’s side.

But…from that fearful, yet wonderful side, Mr. Lincoln could conclude so graciously, so famously: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Incredible words of hope…even today they remain incredible. But 5 weeks after he spoke those words—5 weeks!—Mr. Lincoln was dead, and the whole course of Reconstruction took a vastly different path.  In the awful clarity of hindsight it is hard to say, “the Almighty has His purposes.”  Still, faith, and only faith, confesses that those purposes “are true and righteous altogether.”

Now this may seem like a long and winding road to get to Elijah this morning, but there are a lot of similarities between the Prophet and our Redeemer President.  They both had some very dark days.  This is Elijah’s, I Kings 19.  The depth of Elijah’s darkness is there at the end of v4, “It is enough,” he cries.  More accurately, “I’ve had enough!  It’s too much!”  “Now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Where is this coming from?  Elijah has witnessed great miracles of God’s providence.  At Mt. Carmel he witnessed a dramatic display of fire from heaven.  God has shown great power, and Elijah has been The Man.  And now this?  “I’ve had enough”?

In v1, King Ahab recounts to his wife, Jezebel, everything that happened on that mountain.  The fire from heaven…the humiliation of the prophets of Baal…and their slaughter by Elijah.  450 prophets…Jezebel’s 450 prophets…all killed.

Ooh…nobody messes with Jezebel and gets away with it!  She roars in her fury, v2, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  And Jezebel, cold calculating Jezebel, would have had deliciously cruel ways at her disposal to strip Elijah of his life, piece by piece by agonizing piece.  He’s gonna beg to die!  And he does…to God!

Now this is much more than a bout of the blues after the great success of Mt. Carmel.  This is Elijah having done everything that God told him to do, and look where it’s gotten him!  He’s as good as dead.  “My God, my God…why?!”

So Elijah escapes into the wilderness, v4. He is awakened by an angel. “Arise and eat.” Miraculously, there’s some fresh baked bread and water. He eats. Sleeps. V7, the angel awakens him again. “Eat some more…for the journey is too great for you.” 

Ah…God has heard Elijah’s cry.  It is all too much…for you, Elijah!  But not for God.  Except, right now, all Elijah can see is himself…himself and how poorly things have turned out for him because of God!  V8, like the years of Israel’s pilgrimage in the wilderness, 40 days and 40 nights carry Elijah from Samaria down to Sinai, about 400 miles, to Mt. Horeb, better known as Mt. Sinai…to lodge his complaint.

Now…this scene at Mt. Sinai/Horeb is amazing.  V9, Elijah gets there and finds shelter in a cave.  And God, as He did in the beginning with a disobedient Adam in the Garden, God asks a question: “What are you doing here Elijah?”  He knows why Elijah has come (He fed him to endure the journey to get there).  God knows, but Elijah does not yet know as he ought.  He blurts out, v10, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts.  For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

“I…I…I…”  There’s the sickness ailing this man…a sickness unto death.  Elijah has turned completely in upon himself because of all of this. He has no hope. You’ll notice that God does not tell the prophet to look deep within himself for strength!  “Elijah, when you reach the end of your rope tie a knot and hang on.”  Ugh, that’s the sort of thing the devil would suggest.  Elijah is already turned in upon himself.  He can’t save himself.  He wants to die!  The hand of his salvation must come from outside Elijah.

But first…God puts on this little display of His power (a divine power which Elijah has forgotten all about in his fear of Jezebel’s deadly power).  V11, And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind.  And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, [reminiscent of Mt. Carmel] but the LORD was not in the fire

Great and dreadful power…but God is not going to make His salvation known by power.  He will do it in weakness—v12, the sound of a low whisper.  “A still small voice,” as the King James Version calls it.  A silence so palpable you can actually feel it.  And in that weighty, awe-filled silence comes the question again, “Elijah…what are you doing here?”

Even for the remarkable Mr. Lincoln…it wasn’t his own inner strength which created those famous words.  Mr. Lincoln went to church.  And not one of those trendy, new measures churches that were being swept up into the emotionalism of that era.  No, sir…he attended an old school Presbyterian Church in the Capitol City.  So Lincoln got a meaty diet of solid preaching about God’s providence, of how God’s good and gracious will unfolds in the affairs of men.  And that still small voice of God’s Word gave to Lincoln’s own words their life and strength for the struggle of war.

Well, unlike Mr. Lincoln, Elijah is a slow learner.  V14, heedless to everything God is doing around him, Elijah blurts out the same response as before.  “I…I…I…”  This time God shatters His self-focused prophet, nailing him with a new commission.  Successors, vv 15-16; kings—Hazael for Syria, Jehu to replace the wicked Ahab (and that wicked witch of the north, Jezebel), and Elisha to succeed Elijah.  Plus, v18, 7000 faithful Israelites, “all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”  Elijah is far from being alone in these troubles.

So having turned Elijah inside out, from a solitary “I” to an all encompassing “We” …God sets His burned-out, fiery prophet free—free, reborn, reignited.  God sends Elijah back with a new spirit to finish the work he was called to do.

It’s not just prophets and wartime presidents who can find themselves up-ended by the Almighty’s purposes.  His Church today is getting it in the neck by sore abuse and scorn from within and without, by ambivalence all around. Congregations turn in upon themselves and are sorely tempted to abandon the solid foundation of Preaching and the Sacraments, to chase after new measures more immediately self-gratifying. 

And it’s not only the Church these days, but individuals too—of strong faith or little—individuals are finding themselves in the midst of such turns of events that they are crying out, “Enough!  I’ve had enough!  This is too much!  Lord…take my life!”

But when, like Elijah, “too much” drives us in upon ourselves, it is only the hand of God, coming from outside ourselves, which can save us—the same hand of the inscrutable God who has laid the cross upon us, because He has His purposes—only the hand of this same God can touch us by His Word.  “Yes,” He says, “It is too much…for you…but not for Me.”

And shattering us with His left hand, He also feeds us with His right by His eternal Word, lifting us with His life-giving Sacrament.  And in His hands, His crucified hands, we find new life to return in faith to our own callings.  Yes, the Almighty has His purposes…but in Christ we know…the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether!