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Services and special presentations from
Houston Mennonite Church in Houston, Texas.

God in Wilderness and Whisper (Sermon Text)

Mar 1, 2021

God in Wilderness and Whisper
Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-18
Rev. Teresa Kim Pecinovsky

Today’s text begins with the prophet Elijah, fresh from his triumphant victory over the prophets of Ba’al, where he summons a throwdown between the prophets of Ba’al, the Canaanite God of rain, thunder, lightning, and dew and the Hebrew God.

And the God of the Israelites responds with a fiery display from Heaven that scorches the alter, ignites the doubting Israelites, and leads to the killing of the prophets of Ba’al.

But instead of basking in his impressive display of divine fire, Elijah flees to Beersheba and beyond, to its desert.

And if we look to the text LaTayna will preach on next week we will find the enslaved woman Hagar and her young son Ishamael, thrown out by an insecure and jealous Sarah, ignored by his father Abraham. The wilderness of Beersheba is also where Hagar and Ishmael wandered, weak, and weary, until God hears her cry and saves their lives.

The wilderness desert, it seems, is a place where God frequents.

It is also an ideal place to hide, to run away to, when all hope is gone.

It certainly seemed this way for Elijah.

The Elijah of today’s text hardly seems like the same Elijah of 1 Kings 18, the confident, almost swaggering prophet who calls down fire from heaven, bests the prophets of Ba’al and ends their lives.

Can Elijah still smell the burnt smoke of his cloak from this incredible feat?

Is his face still red from the blaze of the fire that fell from heaven and consumed the watery alter?

Elijah no longer seems like this great prophet. King Ahab has informed Jezebel that Elijah has killed the prophets of Ba’al. Jezebel wastes no time and issues a hit on Elijah’s life within 24 hours.

And why, we are not told, but Elijah is afraid. He runs for his life.

He flees from Jezreel to the southern city of Beersheba, a distance of about one hundred miles.

The text explains that Beersheba is in Judah, beyond Jezebel’s reach. After a long journey Elijah has reached safety in another land. Still, he runs. First, he leaves his servant behind, and goes out a day’s journey into the wilderness.

And there, under a solitary broom tree, Elijah collapses, completely exhausted. Not just the physical exhaustion of escaping the queen’s death threats.

Elijah is deeply troubled, overwhelmed, and desperately defeated. He is depressed and in despair.

“Enough, ENOUGH Lord! It is ENOUGH!”

It is too much. Too much for just one person to bear alone. Too much to follow this reckless Spirit who leads him to go against nations and kings set on his destruction.

“I don’t know what I thought being a prophet would look like after all these years, but this ‘aint it. I’m not young anymore! It’s too much, Lord!”

It’s too much to expect that God would ask him to do it again, and again, and again.


I’ve had enough. Let it be over. I’m ready to join my ancestors.

And then he falls asleep under the broom tree.

Does Elijah dream while he sleeps? Is he tortured by all the evil he has encountered in his life? Does he scream in his nightmares to the surprise of lurking animals nearby, sweat pouring down his forehead?

Is this how he sleeps most nights? Is this how he sleeps every night?

And then, it happens.

A messenger comes to him, awakes him from his slumber. And, like a quintessential homemaker, he tells Elijah,

“Get up! It’s time to eat!”

Elijah nibbles on some of his hot cake and drinks from the jug of water. He is still so, so exhausted. Maybe God gave him this simple meal to end his life on this earth. He falls back asleep.

Again, he is awoken. The angel tells him,

“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Dr. Sara Koenig, Seattle Pacific University:

“The Hebrew points us back to Elijah’s complaint in verse 4 that it was “too much” (rab), when the angel uses the same language in his frank assessment of what lies ahead. Elijah has had rab (verse 4), but he is sent on a way that is also rab for him (verse 7).”

Too much.

This part of the text has always struck me. I know there have been times in my life when the journey has felt too much for me. Where I wished God would let me die. Where I was ready to die.

And yet.

And yet, God has always sent messengers to me when I find myself in spiritual wilderness, wandering alone, desperate, and utterly exhausted. Friends who bear witness to my pain and suffering, spiritual siblings and beloved ones who meet over a cup of coffee, a screen, a meal, a box of tissues. Sometimes the messengers are professionals, like physicians or therapists. Often they are fellow wilderness travelers in whatever season of life I encounter.

But what they give is no less miraculous than an angel in the desert, because they offer strength for the journey.

When the angel awakens Elijah the second time he does as he’s told. He nourishes his body. The food he’s given sustains him 40 days and 40 nights, until he reaches the sacred place, Mount Horeb, the Mountain where Moses encountered God.

I would wager that most of us who grew up in Christian settings are far more familiar with this scene- Elijah at the mountain-and not Elijah despairing in the wilderness. The Revised Common Lectionary even omits verses 5-7 in one of its cycles.

It certainly is more in line with the fiery prophet Elijah of 1 Kings 18.

It is tempting to speed through the wilderness, even skip it, especially when we as readers know what’s coming up ahead. But Elijah did not know. He was, after all, still just a human.

Professor Christopher Davis at Memphis Theological Seminary:

“Your calling does not cancel all your challenges.
I don’t care how anointed you are.
I don’t care how appointed you are.
I don’t care how filled with the Holy Ghost you are.
At the right time or the wrong time, with the wrong person, in the wrong situation, saying the wrong thing, acting the wrong way, you will discover that you still have some human moments.”

Elijah is having some human moments in this text.

The word of the Lord comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah tells God: I have been faithful to you, I’ve even killed others for you. Your people, however, are a different story. They break your covenant, serve other gods and now they’re ready to kill me too. It’s a little much for one prophet, God.

Elijah gives his lament to God.

And church, God does not rebuke Elijah for his very human lament. Because lament is part of who we are as humans. And lament is part of who we are as believers.

Instead, God chooses to reveal Godself to Elijah at Mt. Horeb.

Not through a category 5 hurricane wind,

Nor through an 8.6 richter scale earthquake,

Not even through a raging wildfire from heaven.

Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney at Texas Christian University:

“...God was not present among the usual suspects. Then there was a qol dammah daqah, a sound (or voice) of a fine silence. And that is where Elijah encountered God.”

qol dammah daqah is ambiguous enough to be translated as:

“Sound of sheer silence”

“A still small voice”

“A thin quiet sound”

In his translation of the Hebrew Bible Dr. Robert Alter uses the phrase “a sound of minute stillness.”

God shows up in the unexpected places: the wilderness, in the form of a messenger. At a holy mountain, in a thin stillness.

Elijah encounters the mystery of God, in the silence instead of the chaos.

This mystery of God is sometimes referred to in a typology of Christian spirituality. This slide shows a modified version of Urban Holmes “A Circle of Sensibility” from A History of Christian Spirituality.

We see four categories with balancing sides:


The next slide helps clarify what those academic words mean.

Kataphatic Mind: Theological renewal: reasons for belief, correct doctrine, study of theology, prayer leading to insight.

Kataphatic Heart: Personal renewal: being born again, having deep emotion in worship, prayer leading to presence.

Apophatic Heart: The Inner life: contemplation, inner peace, the monastic life, prayer leading to mystical union

Apophatic Mind: Social regeneration: social action, justice and peacemaking, spiritual relevance, prayer leading to witness.

In these categories there’s a lot of room for movement and change, depending on many factors, including the season you find yourself in right now. I can see different stages of my life in several different places on this circle, and I imagine you can as well.

During this season of Lent we will be focusing on the Apophatic tradition, the mystery of God, in worship. Today I invite you to think of where you have encountered God: in the wilderness, in a thin quiet sound, or anywhere else you had not expected for God to be revealed, in mystery.

As we reflect I will close us with a poem from the great mystic, theologian, and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman:

Let Go of My Accumulations
My ego is like a fortress.
I have built its walls
stone by stone
to hold out the invasion
of the Love of God.
But I have stayed here long
enough. There is light,
over the barriers, Oh my God.
The darkness of my house
and overtake my soul.
I relax the barriers.
I abandon all that I think I am.
All I hope to be.
All that I believe I possess.
I let go of the past,
I withdraw my grasping hand
From the future, and in the great silence of this moment,
I alertly rest my soul.
As the sea gull lays in the wind current,
So I lay into the spirit of God,
My dearest human relationships,
My most precious dreams.
I surrender to His care all that I have called my own.
I give back
All my favorite things
Which I withhold in my storehouse.
I let go.
I give myself unto thee
Oh my God.

Church, I pray that we would be for one another,
for our community, and our world,
messengers who provide strength for the journey
So we may encounter God
In the wilderness, in weariness and in doubt.
Where God is still present with us:

In the mystery.