When we meet the prophet Elijah in our first reading today, he has reached the end of his tether, and is feeling pretty sorry for himself. He even goes so far as to ask God to take away his life, something which God has no intention of doing. Instead he strengthens Elijah with food and drink as he makes his desolate, weary way to the mountain of God.
Elijah is exhausted and close to despair because he feels that he has been a one-man defender of Yahweh, the God of Israel, against Israel’s king, Ahab, and his pagan queen, Jezebel, who have turned the whole country away from worship of the one true God to the worship of pagan gods. Despite Elijah’s having performed several miracles through the power of Yahweh, such as stopping the rain for a year and a half, and routing the 450 prophets of Baal and Astarte, the gods of Jezebel, it seems to have made no impression on the hard-heartedness of the people of Israel, and now Jezebel has put a death sentence on his head.
So Elijah desperately needs to hear from Yahweh, as he used to so easily in his early days, and he needs Yahweh to manifest himself as he did to Moses in such power and glory on the very mountain to which Elijah is headed.
Have you ever been there, brothers and sisters?
Ever felt that you are the only one in your family or among your friends who is still faithful to God?
Are you fed up being the only one at work sticking up for the Church and its teachings?
Do you recall how wonderful it was when God first revealed himself to you and brought you alive in the Spirit, and are you desperate to have that same experience over again?
If so, you know what it is like to walk in the shoes of Elijah.
At any rate, Elijah does make it to the mountain, with the help of God and the food he provides him through his angel. And there, Elijah learns his first lesson. God does not manifest himself in a terrifying, loud theophany, as he did to Moses all those centuries ago on this very same mountain. Instead, He reveals himself to Elijah in a “still small voice”, akin to a whisper (cf 1 Kings 19: 12). God is not tied to any one way to show himself to us. If you think about it, if we have been growing over the years in our relationship to God, and become accustomed to the sound of his voice, as sheep do with their shepherd (cf John 10: 4) then God does not need to shout to get our attention. Maybe he first revealed himself to us in a very striking way, by a sudden felt burst of love in our hearts, or through a miracle in answer to a prayer, or by a very clear word to our minds. But now, many years on, we don’t need that, and we shouldn’t be demanding that God turn on the pyrotechnics for us.
A whisper in our ear should be all we need from God.
Secondly, God allows Elijah to first voice his complaint to him before responding. When God asks Elijah on the mountain: ”What are you doing here Elijah?”, the prophet replies: ”I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19: 9 – 10).
God is very polite like that. He gives us the privilege of speaking first, of getting it off our chest, all of it, our disappointment or anger at God, our frustration, our despair, our self-pity. We feel sometimes that it is wrong to speak like that to God, but look at the book of Job, and how he complains to God, or how the prophet Jeremiah accuses God of deceiving him, or check out some of the laments in the psalms which say things like: ”Where are you God? Why aren’t you doing anything to help me? Are you asleep? If so, wake up!!”. If these form part of the sacred Word of God, as we believe, then it must be ok for us to voice what is in our heart to God. God prefers honest dialogue with us, rather than fake politeness, where we stuff down what we are really feeling about God. He knows what is in our hearts anyway, of course, so why try to pretend that we are not spitting mad at him, when we are? That is ok with God, he has broad shoulders, and can take it and prefers it, as I say, like that. Provided …
Provided we allow God to have the right of response!! Far too often, we tell God our sob story, and then stalk off, still mad, and never give God the courtesy of answering our complaint. And then we complain that God is silent. I see that more and more these days, brothers and sisters, people come and blast off at me, either at something I have done or not done, or something they have read about the Church’s flaws, and they will not listen to anything I might want to say in response, to defend myself or the Church.
Is that fair?
Is that just?
Is that mature?
Is it even Christian?
Let God have the right of response, and give time for him to answer us. That is what Elijah does on the holy mountain. God then issues clear directions to his prophet, as to what steps he is to take to deal with the situation he finds him in. He then sends him back into action, but first shows him that Elijah is not all alone as he thought. There are in fact, 7000 people in Israel who are still faithful to Yahweh, and God is sending Elijah back to join them. You see, hitherto, Elijah had been a one-man-band, what one might call “a lone wolf” and no-one can live like that, when so many people are against you.
When we allow God to respond to our complaint, we will find that God will answer us in a clear way. Again, provided… provided what? Provided we are fervent and sincere enough in seeking relationship with God. As he says through the prophet Jeremiah “I know my plans for you..plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future full of hope…Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me , if you seek me with all your heart!! (Jeremiah 29: 11-13). If we are half-hearted in seeking God out, because we really don’t want to hear from him, we just want to sound off to him, and storm away, leaving him and his Church behind, then we should not be surprised that we don’t get any divine help. We all know how frustrating it is to phone someone and have them hog the conversation for an hour, without letting us get a word in, and then ring off leaving us open-mouthed and frustrated.
Probably the best consolation God will give us in our darkest moments is the reminder that we are not alone, even though it feels like that at times, especially when we are down. God will point out to us that there are others who feel the same way we do, and share the same beliefs, and he may show us the Christian symbol of a fish on the back of the car in front of you in the traffic jam, or some other symbol or a Scripture quote or perhaps a “Pro-Life” sign of some kind. I have to say I always find this encourages me and cheers me up, when I am feeling pretty sorry for myself (a reason to put those symbols on the back of our car, to help others who may be feeling that they are out there on our own). But God will also want to remind us that such friends are to be found in the Church, yes, in that very place we are intending to walk away from. Not everyone there will necessarily be a friend, but where else will we find in, sufficient numbers, people of similar dedication to God and to his teachings?
Not only that, but the Church is the only place where we will get the kind of support and strengthening Elijah receives during his journey to the mountain of God. Except that, while Elijah gets ordinary food and drink to sustain him, albeit ministered to him by an angel, we receive the supernatural food and drink, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, Jesus himself, in his Body and Blood, ministered to us not just by an angel, but by Jesus himself. He is the priest, the sacrifice and the altar. He is our strength and our stay. In the Church we receive not only the bread of God’s Word, but also the Bread of Life, our Eucharist.
The biggest lie Satan will be telling people, in these days of the Covid pandemic, is that we don’t need the Church, we don’t need the Bible, and we certainly don’t need the Body and Blood of Jesus in communion. “Just look” Satan will whisper into our hearts, “you’ve gone a whole year and a half without going to Church or receiving communion, and you are doing just fine, aren’t you? So why bother going back?”
To this, Jesus is also speaking to us and saying what he says in our gospel today: ”I am the bread of life come down from heaven… Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”.
So who are you going to believe, brothers and sisters, Satan or Jesus?