1 Kings 19:1-18
Late in the evening of January 27th, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, his family asleep, a cup of coffee in front of him, ready to call it quits. The civil rights movement was still in its early days, and while the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which King led, was a little over a month in and picking up steam, the opposition was growing as well. King had just received yet another death threat over the phone, and while he had been receiving these threats for weeks – up to 40 a day – this one shook him. This is how King describes that night – which would become a turning point for him – in his book Stride Toward Freedom:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."
King was in the midst of experiencing what would become a massive victory, the Montgomery bus boycott, and yet the threat of violence hounded him. When he was, in his own words, “at the end of his powers,” he turned to God in silence of his kitchen, and in the silence God spoke to him.
Our story of Elijah in the wilderness has much in common with Martin Luther King Jr. at his kitchen table. Elijah, like King, was coming off a victory, but was almost immediately threatened with violence. Running into the wilderness, instead of his kitchen table, he also came to the end of his power, and was ready to give up, albeit in a much more dramatic fashion than King, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my ancestors.” In his time of desperation, God sustains Elijah, and in the silence outside Mt. Horeb, God speaks to Elijah, as God spoke to Martin Luther King Jr. at his kitchen table.
It’s no surprise that these two prophets, living nearly 3,000 years apart, both experienced the temptation to give up. Both were up against powers far greater than them. They were both made stands against the government and most of the nation.
Martin Luther King Jr. was standing up against a sin as old as our country, one that still hasn’t been rooted out of our national identity: racism. In his day it was manifest in Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation and relegated black people to second class citizens. Black men, women, and even children were often lynched without any consequence. Today racism makes itself known in the prison industrial complex, the cradle to prison pipeline, and the all-to-common shooting of unarmed black men and women and children, not to mention the overt racism of white nationalists and neo-nazis.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew the threat of violence he received that night was real. Black folks had been lynched for far less. Everyone from the local police, to the FBI, to government officials, to regular white church folks hated King.
Elijah was in a similar situation. He was up against the king and queen of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel, and at least half the nation. Israel was split between worshipping the God of the Bible, Yahweh, and Baal. Just before our reading from today begins, Elijah had called all the prophets of Baal to Mt. Carmel, as well as all the people of Israel, and proposed a contest. Both he and the prophets of Baal – numbering 450 – would make alters to their gods with a slaughtered bull cut up and lying on top. Neither group could light their alter fire, but had to pray that their god would light the offering on fire. The god who lit their alter on fire was the true God.
Elijah let the prophets of Baal go first, and they spent all morning calling on Baal, but their alter remained unlit. Then Elijah took water and doused his alter 3 times. He even dug a trench around his alter and all the water he poured on the alter collected in the trench. Then Elijah called on Yahweh and fire fell from heaven and consumes not just the bull, but the whole alter, and even “licked up” the water that was in the trench.
Unsurprisingly, the people were convinced that Yahweh is the true God, and Baal is not. Then Elijah did something rash, something God never told him to do. He had the people grab the prophets of Baal, and Elijah killed all 450 of him. Imagine if Elijah had taken a page out of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent playbook and shown mercy, then what could the king and queen have accused him of? He had proven Yahweh was the true God, if he had then shown mercy, no one could fault him. But this rash, violent decision ensured that there would be repercussions. And there were. That’s where our reading today picks up.
Jezebel, the queen, threatens to kill Elijah and he takes off for the wilderness. Despite the great victory he has just experienced, this threat is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, just as that one call on the night of January 27th, 1956, was the threat that almost ended King’s involvement in civil rights. Elijah finds a single broom tree and gets pretty emo. He tells God to take away his life. He’s done. This call of being a prophet is too much, as we talked about a month or so ago when we read about John the Baptist. Being a prophet is the worst. Everyone hates you, kings and queens want to kill you, and even when rare victories occur, they are quickly followed by more opposition. This is as true of Martin Luther King Jr. as it was Elijah. Three days after that fateful night at his kitchen table, King’s home was bombed. Praise God, no one was hurt.
But it is at the point where, in King’s words, he and Elijah are “at the end of their power,” that God steps in. Or, maybe more accurately, God was always there, but when they are at the end of their power they are able to hear God.
It’s hard to hear the silent voice of God, when we are always busy, always running around, always trying to do it ourselves. But it’s in those moments where we can’t run anymore, can’t pretend to hold it all together, can’t drown out our helplessness with the radio or podcasts or Netflix anymore, that we finally find ourselves broken, crying out to God to sustain us.
A few years ago I was really struggling with prayer. I was mainly concerned with the mechanics of prayer. How does it work? What’s the point? So often we pray, and things don’t change. What’s worse, politicians have made “thoughts and prayers” an excuse for not doing anything. Prayer seems like wishful thinking with a religious gloss. So why pray?
I was still feeling quite cynical about prayer when I was being interviewed for this position (something I didn’t share with the search committee). It was a very stressful time. We’d moved back to Portland hoping I’d get this position at Grant Park. Brie had started a new job that was going alright, but no way paid enough for us both to live off, I was working 3 days a week at a coffee shop, and our student loan payments were going to start coming due in only a few months. Needless to say, there were nights I laid wide awake stressing about what would happen if I didn’t get called to Grant Park.
One night, as I laid there, I suddenly had to pray. At that moment I didn’t care what the purpose of prayer was, or how it worked, or if my prayer would do something. I simply needed to pray. I needed to give all my anxiety and worry and uncertainty to God. Just to share it with God, no matter what happened.
Fundamentally, I think that’s what prayer is: communion with God. It’s sharing our life with God, and God sharing God’s life with us. It’s not about getting something. It’s not about cause and effect. It’s about what Elijah found out on Mt. Horeb, and Martin Luther King Jr. found out at his kitchen table.
God isn’t in fire and wind and earthquake – well, of course, God is there, but God is hard to discern in those moments and events. God is most readily accessed in silence and solitude – what 1 Kings 19:12 calls “the sound of sheer silence,” and what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the quiet assurance of an inner voice.” When our minds are quiet and our hearts are calm the whisper of God can be heard. Sometimes we get to this place through sheer exhaustion, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah, but we can also build these practices into our daily lives, as people and as a community.
As we think about what the stories of Elijah and Martin Luther King Jr. have to say to us as a individuals and as a church, there are 2 takeaways that I’d like to highlight. Of course, there could be many more.
The first is that we should be in places that exhaust us. Elijah and Martin Luther King Jr. got to their breaking point because they were following God’s call on their lives. A few months ago the lectionary took us on a harrowing journey through Jesus’ call to discipleship, and I think all of us felt the impossibility of living up to that call. Jesus said we must pick up our crosses and follow him, he told us, along with the rich young man, to sell everything we have and give it to the poor, he told us that we must lose our lives in order to find them, and that we must become servants to all. Elijah stood up to an evil monarchy and a nation who had forgotten God. Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to a nation and culture that were sick with the sin of racism and militarism and capitalism, sins that continue to infect our world today. To follow Jesus is, now as it was then, to stand up to injustice, to fight for freedom and equality and peace, to envision a world where – as Ben preached about a few weeks ago – “a great leveling” takes place, where those on top and those on the bottom meet in the middle, where everyone has enough and no one has too much.
These are God-sized dreams. They are impossible for us. We might not be as dramatic as Elijah, asking that God end our lives, but we may feel, like King, at the “end of our power.” That is where we should be. The apostle Paul says that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). There is a special grace for us when we reach the end of our power, drop all pretense that we have control, and give ourselves to the Divine. Maybe, like King, we’ll experience the presence of the Divine as we’ve never experienced God before.
So don’t beat yourself up when you feel in over your head. You’re right where God wants you. To quote the apostle Paul again, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:10).
We are a small church, it could be easy for us to think only of survival. How do we meet the bills we have, how do we keep existing Sunday to Sunday? But I believe God is calling us to dream impossible dreams. To imagine impacting our community and our city in ways that bring the healing and the love and the justice of God to the broken, the poor, the addicted, and the outcast. But, to do so, we will have to lean wholly on the God of Elijah and the God of Martin Luther King Jr. God must show us the way, and God alone can sustain us. Otherwise, in the words of the angel who appeared to Elijah, “the journey will be too much for us.”
So, the first take away is to put ourselves out there, to pursue the dreams God has placed on our hearts – as individuals and as a church – even when they seem ludicrous. To believe that we can do more than survive, we can thrive, and we can be a source of healing and hope because we have experienced healing and hope from the One who created us and that One is the one who has called us to this work.
Second, Elijah and Martin Luther King Jr. teach us that God is found in silence and solitude, and while we can wait until we come to the end of our power to call on God, we are more than welcome to call on God before that. To make weekly, daily, or even hourly journeys into silence.
Since I’ve been struggling with prayer for the last few years, I’ve been reading some of the masters of prayer to learn more about prayer, and hopefully develop a more robust prayer life. I’ve been reading the likes of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, and Richard Foster (I recognize that those are all white men, so I probably need to diversify a bit). All of them believe solitude is vital to prayer. Henri Nouwen says, “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”
It’s difficult to hear the voice of God in the midst of the fire, the wind, and the earthquake – all those things that seem so urgent, seem more important than our time with God. To hear God’s voice, we must let them go for a time, set them aside. This is exceptionally hard for us today. At no other time in history has there been so much to distract us. We’re constantly glued to our phones, we have entertainment available to us at all hours, and friends and family can contact us through social media, email, texting, Skype or Facetime, or the good old fashion telephone. Solitude can hardly be stumbled upon. In our day and age it must be created.
That’s not to say that we have to have silence in order to pray. Michelle had an excellent point the other day when she shared that she’s realized she can pray at any moment, in the midst of any situation. When she thinks of someone who needs prayer, she can pray for them instantly. This is certainly true, and I encourage all of us to have that mindset, but there are many kinds of prayer. When I say that we need solitude and silence, I’m talking about prayer that brings us into communion with God, prayer that sustains us. We can speak to God throughout the day, just as I can text Brie throughout the day. But texting is no substitute for the deep conversations we share on road trips, or around the dinner table, or in the midst of difficult or uncertain times.
So, we can wait until we’ve got nothing left and we’re ready to throw in the towel, or we can follow the example Jesus set, and create times in our day when we leave the hubbub, find a deserted place, and pray (Mark 1:35). I hate to be so cliché, but I’ve got to say a daily quite time is a great place to start. Either before the day starts or after the day has ended, it’s a good idea to set aside a few minutes to be silent and listen for God’s still small voice.
I know for many of us there’s a lot of wind and fire and earthquake in our lives. We are struggling with jobs we don’t like, jobs we do like but demand a lot from us, school, difficult family dynamics, medical issues, finances, the reality of growing older, uncertainty in our future…the list goes on. But God is there with us, waiting in the midst of it all to speak words of life to us in the silence in between.
May we stop long enough to hear God, be it on a mountain top, or at our kitchen table.
 John Dear, “The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table,” https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/god-dr-kings-kitchen-table.
 Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New, 69.