Last week, we took a look at the incredible story of Elijah facing off against the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel from 1 Kings 18. That is one of my favorite stories in the entire Old Testament. What we came away with was a reminder that God sometimes acts in powerful ways, along with the exhortation to keep an eye out for His activity in our lives and the lives of the people around us. This week, we are taking a step forward to finish the story by looking at what happened next. The outcome of that incredible mountaintop experience isn’t what we might have expected it to be. Dive in with me, and let’s see what any of this has to do with our lives.
If you’ll indulge me just a bit, as we are coming up quickly on the one year anniversary of a truly historical event, I thought we might reminisce on it for a few moments. Forty-eight weeks ago (this being the 49th), a competition was held. This was not your every day, average competition, though. This was a true clash of the titans. Two teams met in pursuit of the same goal and only one of them would walk away a step closer to it than they had been before. The other would go home in frustration and anguish and perhaps even shame depending on how the competition unfolded. If you’ve done your math and are aware of my sporting loyalties, you have perhaps already deduced that this epic competition was none other than last year’s AFC Divisional Championship Game between the Buffalo Bills and my Kansas City Chiefs. Within minutes of the game’s dramatic finish, it was already being heralded as one of the single greatest football games of all time.
If you follow a football game using the ESPN App, one of the pieces of information they make available is their at-the-moment projection of who they think will win. Now, I don’t have a clue as to what kind of mysterious formula they use to figure this out, but at any given point in the game, it will show you which team they believe to be the likelier victor and the level of their confidence in their prediction presented as a percentage. For instance, as you can perhaps see in the victory chart from the game, at kick-off, the experts gave the Bills the slightest bit of favor to be moving on to the Conference Championship the following week. As the game wore on, the Bills’ victory was heralded with greater confidence until things suddenly started turning in the Chiefs’ favor where they remained—as you can see—for most of the rest of the game.
Then, with just under two minutes to go, the Bills scored a touchdown to put them ahead by three, and the experts were suddenly sure of their victory with a 93% confidence level. Have you ever taken a slight lead in a competition of some sort, but at a point that the competition wasn’t quite over? The question in that moment becomes: Now what? Now that you have the lead, what are you going to do about it? Well, the Bills’ answer in the context of the game was that they were going to allow the Chiefs to almost immediately score, retaking the lead, and leaving the experts—who are starting to seem less and less expert in their predictive capabilities at this point—91.4% (to be exact) confident that it will instead be the Chiefs who will win. After all, there’s under a minute left in the game at this point. And this confidence holds until the Bills promptly answer the Chiefs’ “now what” question by scoring themselves in about 45 seconds to retake the lead. This makes the “expert” line leap in the other direction, indicating a Bills’ victory, although only with a 90% confidence level this time—slightly less than before. That is interesting because with only 13 seconds remaining in regulation, that appears to be a safe bet. Of course, history is made on the overturning of safe bets. The Chiefs, with Patrick Mahomes at the helm, pull off an incredible 13-second scoring drive to tie the game, sending it into overtime in which the Chiefs win the toss, win the game, and prompt a much-overdo change to the overtime rules to finally make them more equitable. It was the kind of game that could easily lead to an inspirational Disney sports movie except that in the following week we were matched with our gridiron kryptonite of BJ Hill and the Cincinnati Bengals who gave us a thorough beating and dashed our Super Bowl repeat hopes. The real winner, though, was the L.A. Rams, who took home the Lombardi trophy three weeks later in the most boring Super Bowl in recent memory. The lesson for all of us out of all of this is that when something incredible has happened and the game isn’t over, we are left with the question of what we are going to do now. How we answer that determines a great deal about how our part in the story is going to unfold.
Last week, we saw something incredible happen together. Well, we didn’t see it with our own eyes, but the vibrant description given by the author of 1 Kings took us as thoroughly into the action as we could have asked for. With the northern, breakaway kingdom of Israel running far off the rails of righteousness under the leadership of the evil King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, God sent the prophet Elijah to first get everyone’s attention by announcing a three-year drought. This was followed by a “god-off” on the top of Mount Carmel in which Elijah, representing Yahweh, the original God of the people of Israel, faced off against the 450 pagan prophets of the local storm god, Baal, in a contest to see once and for all which god was the real God. In what had to be a stunning display of power, God sent fire on Elijah’s sacrifice after the followers of Baal had been embarrassed by their god’s no-show.
If you’ll remember, the big idea for us out of all of that was simply that sometimes God acts in powerful ways. Sometimes God shows up and does things that go beyond our ability to explain or understand. He reveals Himself in ways no one can miss or mistake. And He does this for reasons to which we are not privy until long after the fact if even that. Sometimes God acts in powerful ways. But as we talked about, while those ways are occasionally big and bombastic—like sending fire down on the top of a mountain—even more often they are things that seem small or even insignificant. These are no less displays of His incredible power, they are just not in ways we are looking for and so we often miss them. We need to be always on the lookout for God’s acting in our circumstances.
That was last week. God acted and Elijah was left with the question of, “Now what?” This week, we are going to take a look at his answer in the very next chapter. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to 1 Kings 19. After experiencing something as powerful and profound as he did up on the top of Mount Carmel, you would think that Elijah was feeling pretty confident about…well…everything. I mean, think back through what he had just experienced. He said it wasn’t going to rain for three years…and it didn’t rain for three years. He said it was going to rain again…and it rained again. He said God was going to send down fire from heaven…and God sent down fire from heaven. Then he oversaw the execution of hundreds of the leaders of God’s enemies in Israel. Too bad there wasn’t an office he could run for or a lottery he could play. He probably would have won both.
Given all of that, when—as we see in the text here starting in v. 1—“Ahab told Jezebel everything that Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword [and] Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying, ‘May the gods punish me and do so severely if I don’t make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow!’” you’d think that he would respond with something like a scoff. Maybe even a sarcastic, “Good luck with that, Honey. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m on a bit of a winning streak here, and your god sort of isn’t” would have been appropriate.
Yet look at what we actually find here in .v 3: “Then Elijah became afraid and immediately ran for his life. When he came to Beer-sheba that belonged to Judah, he left his servant there, but he went on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He said, ‘I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my fathers.’ Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.”
Apparently Elijah’s answer to the “now what” question was to run and hide and pray for God to just go ahead and kill him when an evil queen whose power was not on anything like the level his God had just demonstrated made a threat on his life. Describing this turn of events as “shocking” doesn’t really begin to cover it. How could Elijah retreat so thoroughly into a funk like this so soon after experiencing God’s power so dramatically? Why would such faithless cowardice be rewarded with such a prominent position to play in the rest of the history of God’s people stretching all the way to the end of time?
And if this was just a one-off sort of deal, that would not be good at all, but it would perhaps be excusable. I mean, which one of us hasn’t experienced a great success of some sort and followed that up with a rather immediate meltdown. But after an angel twice woke Elijah up from his nap to make him eat, and then a 40-day journey into the wilderness (something God uses fairly often in the Scriptures to get people ready for what’s coming next), he’s still in his funk. Jump down to v. 9 with me where Elijah has gone into a cave on Mount Horeb which is where Moses first encountered God through the burning bush. “Suddenly, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
Now, think quickly about all the ways Elijah could have responded to that. This was his chance to get back in the game. He could have made an excuse for his meltdown. He could have asked God’s forgiveness for doubting Him. He could have said he was ready to go again. But he doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he reveals he’s still having his pity party. Look at v. 10. “He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.’” There are several things wrong with this. Yes, he’s correct that he has been zealous for God, and, yes, he’s right that the Israelites have abandoned the covenant and did all those other things. But hadn’t he just 40 days earlier put to death 450 prophets of Baal? Seems like he’s more trading blows than merely absorbing them. And for his contention that “I alone am left,” what about Obadiah, the servant of Ahab who was still faithful to the covenant, and had in fact told Elijah that he was responsible for saving 100 prophets? Additionally, surely he had converted a few folks with the display of power on Mount Carmel. The whole crowd was shouting, “The Lord, he is God!” after the fireworks were over. Elijah’s whole rant here just seems totally disconnected from the recent reality. Yes, Jezebel’s threat was a serious one, but it’s like it forced him completely off the rails of faithfulness he had been riding so well and for so long.
For His part, God is just…patient. He doesn’t argue with him or tell him how wrong he is or scold him for falling to pieces. Instead, he invites him to come outside. “At that moment, the Lord passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
It seems like we are finally in for a deep, spiritual awakening on Elijah’s part. He still at least recognized the Lord’s presence enough to know when to come out and face Him. Yet when God asks him a second time what he was doing there in the cave, Elijah gives the same answer as before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies. . .but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they’re looking for me to take my life.”
It’s really a sad end to a great prophet. Elijah would go on to occupy a gigantic place in the religious and cultural memory of the people of Israel such that he could still be used as an example of faithfulness for the New Testament writers who were writing to primarily Jewish audiences. And yet, his ministry is effectively ending here because he couldn’t come up with an answer to the “now what” question. But for God’s constant graciousness with His servants, it almost comes as a surprise that He sends Elijah to do some more important work at this point. He sends him to anoint two new kings—one for Israel, who would rid the world of Ahab and his household, and one for Syria, Israel’s mortal enemy. In this, God reveals that in spite of how it might seem to Elijah, He is still fully in control of His world. His concerns and sovereignty extend not merely to the people who call themselves His, but to every nation, including those who don’t pay any kind of fealty to Him. The still more significant thing God tells Elijah to do after this is to anoint the man who would be his prophetic successor, Elisha. In addition to this, God reveals to Elijah that he is not even remotely alone as he feared. He still has seven thousand faithful servants in Israel, a number that may be intended to be taken literally, but may also merely be symbolic for a large, complete number of servants. Either way, Elijah is not only not alone, but has way more support than he imagined.
Coming out of all of this, I think there are a couple of things worth our not missing here. These are both things that Elijah seems to have missed. For starters, when God has acted in some significant way, if we don’t respond with courageous faithfulness, whatever it is won’t likely do us much good. To perhaps put that back in football terms since we were using those earlier, if you are running the ball, when a blocker has created a hole for you to advance but you don’t take it, it’s not going to do you any good. Not only is it not going to do you any good, but it’s going to reveal something about you you probably would have preferred to keep under wraps: You don’t really have any trust in God. If you did, you would have followed Him forward even if you weren’t totally sure what going forward would bring. When God has acted to clear a path for you to move and you don’t move, what you are communicating at least in that moment is a lack of trust in Him. You don’t trust that He’s really cleared the way for you. You don’t trust that He is going to go with you so that you don’t fall into a trap as soon as you are through the opening. You don’t trust that He’s going to have your back once you are exposed to the enemy. You can’t follow someone you don’t trust.
This lack of trust, though, may not simply be a pervasive state of spirit for you. It could be that it comes out of a misunderstanding that Elijah seems to have shared and which is the other thing we have to be sure to not miss here. Just because God has acted in some powerful way to help you advance forward in your efforts to follow Him faithfully, and just because you are willing to dutifully follow Him forward does not mean those folks who are opposed to Him are simply going to roll over and let you advance. Just because a blocker has cleared a hole for you doesn’t mean the defense is going to give up and simply let you run the ball to the end zone. When God has acted, we should expect opposition. In fact, a total lack of opposition may indicate we aren’t following Him in the right direction in the first place. This is actually something Jesus and several of the other New Testament authors guaranteed for us. If we are following Him faithfully, we are going to experience opposition. The exact form of that opposition will vary, but the fact of it will not. Elijah seems to have thought that once he took part in this powerful demonstration of God’s power that the other side was just going to roll over and get out of the way. When that didn’t happen, he didn’t know how to handle it and fell apart over it.
I think there’s still even one more thing here that we need to get our minds around. This is not only so we can better understand what was happening in the story here, but so that we can do something positive with all of this in our own lives. This third and, frankly, most important thing is this: God always has a plan for what’s next. Elijah didn’t understand this and it really threw him off. He had come through this powerful experience with God on the top of Mount Carmel, but the game didn’t end. The other side didn’t give up, and in fact started firing back with their big guns. He wasn’t prepared for this. He couldn’t imagine what else he could have done to get the victory for his side. The answer to that, of course, was nothing. He had done what he was supposed to do. But he didn’t grasp the fact that this wasn’t the final battle. It was merely an important skirmish in a much larger war. He lost sight of the big picture. But God never did. God always has a plan for what’s next.
Imagine how Elijah might have responded if he really grasped this important truth. He might have been able to stay in place and score a much larger victory rather than running into the wilderness to hide. But he didn’t. God still worked because He always has a plan for what’s next, but Elijah’s role was more limited than it might have otherwise been.
Let’s leave the context of Elijah’s life, though, and step into the context of our lives. God always has a plan for what’s next. I don’t know what God has done in your life recently. It may be grand. It may seem fairly small. You may have not even noticed it just yet. Wherever you happen to fall on that continuum at the moment, it just may be that you are in or approaching a place where you aren’t totally sure what’s coming down the pike at you next. Three years ago, none of us could have predicted what was going to be dropped on our doorsteps in the form of Covid. We all had a full slate of plans for the year and none of them included that. We don’t know what’s happening tomorrow. Our predictive powers are about as good as the ESPN analysts were for the Chiefs-Bills game last year. But God does. God always has a plan for what’s next. Our job is to trust Him and keep following.
We can do this because we know something Elijah didn’t fully understand, but which Jesus made explicit. Once we are safely in His hands, He’s not going to leave us alone. Ever. He promised to never leave us nor forsake us. When we have set about doing His work—which so often means living out His character in the midst of whatever our circumstances happen to be—He will never hang us out to dry. We can continue on that path of faithfulness—the path of loving all of the one anothers around us, of practicing selfless, sacrificial generosity, of being patient and gentle and kind with others, of proclaiming the truth of the Gospel every chance we get—with confidence and boldness because we are absolutely not alone. Ever. God always has a plan for what’s next, and that plan will be for our good. It was not for no reason that Paul said He can work in all things for the good of those who love Him.
As we continue into this new year, my encouragement, my challenge, my invitation to you is to submit your plans to Him. Whatever they happen to be, give them wholly to Him and experience the fullness of His actions on your part. Trust Him with all of your “what nows” because although you may expect the game to be over and can’t imagine what needs to happen next, He can. God always has a plan for what’s next. Let us fully submit ourselves to Him and experience those plans together.