Popularity, it's a mug's game. Love's better (1 Kings 19.4-8)
How’s your day been? In our reading from 1 Kings Elijah’s having a tough day. The prophet Elijah has been given a tough task by God, to be unpopular, which often can be exhausting.
Obviously I don’t know what it’s like to be unpopular, as all my decisions are met with rounds of applause, well at least in my head anyway.
Perhaps thinking back through our lives there have been times when we’ve had to be the unpopular ones, the ones that go against the crowd. Sometimes that takes place in our own relationships, perhaps we’ve had to be the unpopular ones with our children or other family members. We’ve had to say things for the good of everyone that have made us disliked or resented in our own social circles. It’s a very human experience.
Before I did this, I had a number of different jobs. I won’t say where this was, but one of my colleagues was exposed to unsafe working conditions. In fact the conditions she had to work under were so horrible that she was in tears and extremely upset, the worst part about it was that no one sought to comfort her. I wrote an email complaining to my line manager about how deeply unacceptable this was. Which in turn found its way to the person who had been in charge, he then proceeded to bully me for the rest of my time there.
It’s sometimes hard to do the right thing. Sometimes you have to be unpopular.
Elijah’s just come from a difficult encounter that has left him physically and mentally exhausted. 1 Kings is a historical book, but not in the sense that we use the word History. The events in this part of 1 Kings take place in the 2 Kingdoms Era, when Judah and Israel were two separate kingdoms, between about 926 -722 BC. The whole of 1 and 2 Kings is about the gradual spiral of Israel and Judah, down and down into progressively worse stuff. This results in the conquest of Israel, then Judah. One of the major themes is that the exile and destruction of the temple happened because Israel and Judah’s rulers constantly break the first commandment, serving God, serving YHWH exclusively.
Instead they chase after idols, behave appallingly and ultimately bring about their own destruction because they violate the covenant with God.
Boom. Tough stuff.
King Ahab, the king of Israel is one such covenant violator, he had been listening to his wife Jezebel far too much, she was a pagan and worshipped the Baals. She’d been going around killing the prophets.
Elijah visited Ahab and said ‘look mate, (I’m paraphrasing here) you’re the reason Israel is failing. Because you’re following the Baals. So assemble all your prophets of Baal and the people at mount Carmel, and we’ll see who’s boss.’ He then says to the assembled people ‘you’ve gotta make a choice, you’re limping along with two different options, either serve God or the baals. You can’t serve both.
So he sets the priests and prophets of Baal a task, he says ‘if Baal is real, and such a great god, then call upon baal to bring fire and burn up the offerings. I’ll do the same with the Lord and whoever answers is the real god.
The prophets of Baal try all night, Elijah mocks them, then calls the people to him, and instantly when he calls upon God, the fire appears.
The people believe, and all the prophets of Baal are killed.
Hearing this Jezebel sends Elijah a message says that essentially she’s going to kill him for what he’s done, so Elijah flees to Judah, flees for his life. Being unpopular with the powerful is a good way to end up dead.
So this is where we find Elijah, dispirited and tired after all the conflict he’s had to endure, having had to flee for his life, I mean I get knackered just cycling here, so imagine how tiring fleeing for your life must be.
Being unpopular can be exhausting, but God is nurturing.
I’m sure there have been times in our lives when all of us have gone, right that’s it God. I’ve had enough. And it seems that Elijah has two very common responses to suffering one after the other, I’ve had enough and also a deep sense of self loathing. I’m not good enough for you God.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve regularly struggled with self-loathing, a sense that I’m not good enough at my job, or for my friends, or to be loved.
But notice God’s response to Elijah. God doesn’t just leave him alone to die. This story says a lot about God’s character. About how God sees us. God nurtures Elijah, God helps him, lifts him up, dusts him off, gives him bread to eat and says ‘son, it will be alright.’
This is the character of God, not some distant father figure, a thing far off that only is interested in punishing us when we do wrong. But intimate, close, a friend, a companion, a guide that walks with us through the pain of this pilgrim’s path we all tread. This sense that we’re not good enough, miserable offenders is true, but God’s grace goes beyond that and looks upon us kindly.
Even Elijah, a prophet chosen by God, who had heard God directly stumbled. The disciples who lived alongside the Son of God, who were directly in his presence stumbled and fled.
These examples give me hope in the fact that when we fail, when we’re in pain, when we sin, God does not abandon us.
Sometimes this is an unpopular thing to say, despite how positive it is, because it defies our natural human judgemental mindset. How on earth can x possibly get into heaven when they’ve done Y? It’s not fair, I don’t deserve this, or indeed they don’t deserve that.
In the heart of God is a deep aching for us. I have felt this yearning for me from God. It is deep. God says to us over and over again, do not be afraid of each other, do not be afraid of me.
God will certainly judge us, absolutely, I don’t believe you can be a Christian without believing in judgement of some kind, but that judgement will be in and through and with love.
So many people don’t know that they’re loved by God, and that’s what we need to focus on, not scapegoating, but that God loves you so intimately that he died for you on the cross.
I know this is all classic stuff that you’ve probably heard before, but mark, learn and inwardly digest it. In the words of St Frankie Goes to Hollywood “The power of love, a force from above Cleaning my soul.”
“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
When we have faith, when we turn to God, she nurtures us. Jesus nurtures us. Never mind being popular be good, you can’t please people all the time. Jesus certainly didn’t. God is with us. God aches when we ache, God understands when we stumble. God will be with us at the end of time when She gathers everything to herself. God continues to feed us over and over and over again.
God’s love is insatiable and doesn’t give up. It didn’t give up on Israel, or Elijah or the disciples, and it doesn’t give up on us.
When all we can see is darkness around us, God is still there. God is the light that will guide us.
Because “in him was life,[ ] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Preached at Evensong,
St Peter Mancroft
St Peter Mancroft