(This piece, with slight alterations, was originally written for the D'var Torah series, a weekly series of meditation and commentaries on the Jewish Scriptures posted by the Elders of Zion, a group on the Daily Kos website.)
I never liked gym class in high school. I was never very good at it. About the only sport I cared for much was volleyball. I did okay in volleyball. But there was one thing about it I found frustrating. Whenever I made what I thought was a good return, I never had time to pat myself on the back for it. I knew that within seconds the ball would come back and I'd have to be ready for it. No one would remember the great save I made if the ball came back to me and I botched it.
It seemed to me that this was a metaphor for life.
Perhaps Elijah could have empathized with me.
For a brief, shining moment, Elijah was on top of the world. At the Lord's command, he had gone to King Ahab to challenge the Prophets of Baal. Elijah and the Prophets of Baal met on Mount Carmel to have a Prophet-off: both would build altars to their respective deities, and whichever prophet's prayers were answered would be the winner.
You probably know the story. Four hundred priests of Baal danced around their altar, praying and imploring their god to answer them, while Elijah mocked them. "Shout louder! Maybe he's taking a nap, or out to lunch! Maybe he's in the john!"
Elijah built his altar with twelve stones, one for each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When it came his turn, he commanded that the altar be drenched three times with four large jugs of water. Then he prayed. And the fire came.
The Fire of the Lord came down from Heaven and burnt up the offering, and boiled away all the water that had been poured on it. And everyone knew who was God in Israel. Elijah slew the Prophets of Baal. And then, to punctuate the miracle, the Lord sent rain. For seven long years the land had suffered under a drought as the Lord withheld the rains; but now the heavens opened up and Elijah, laughing Elijah, told Ahab to hurry home if he wanted to avoid a drenching.
It was a spectacular demonstration of the Lord's power and a vindication of Elijah seven years of ministry and exile.
But that was yesterday.
1 Kings Chapter 19 picks up as Elijah is running ahead of Ahab's chariot, caught up in a divine adrenaline rush. It was what Christians like to call a "Mountaintop Experience", after the story of the Transfiguration; (which, come to think of it, also involved Elijah). At one point in that story, the Disciple Peter said, "Wow, this is so cool. Maybe we should, I dunno, build three tents up here and just stay here." (Mark 9:5, Revised Wilcken Version).
Ah, but the problem with having an experience on a Mountaintop is that eventually you have to come back down to earth; and this is what happens to Elijah.
Ahab is still King in Israel. More important, his wife Jezebel is still Queen, and she is majorly cheesed. Despite the tremendous victory on Mount Caramel, nothing has significantly changed in Israel. Expect that Jezebel is more determined than ever to kill Elijah.
So Elijah flees, south to Beersheba in Judah; and from there he ventures out into the desert. He travels until he comes to a broom tree, and there he falls in a heap. All he wants to do is crawl under a rock and die. "I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." (1 Kings 19:4)
He doesn't die. An angel shows up an feeds him, and nags him until he gets up and continues on his journey. He travels for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness his ancestors traveled for forty years. I wonder if during that trek his words to the Prophets of Baal came back to to him. "Shout louder! Maybe your god can't hear you! Maybe he's asleep!" It certainly must have seemed to him like God was out to lunch.
Elijah finally ends up on Horeb, the Mountain of God; the place where the Lord spoke to Moses. And there, finally, he hears the Lord speak to him. "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
"I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected you covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." (1 Kings 19:10) What he doesn't say, but is implicit in his complaint is, "AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT???"
The Lord doesn't answer right away. He tells Elijah to stand outside on the mountainside, because He's going to pass by. And as Elijah watches and waits, a tremendous windstorm whips the mountains, strong enough to rip apart the very rocks; and it's followed by an earthquake, and then a raging fire; like the miracle on Mount Carmel, awe-inspiring demonstrations of divine power.
Elijah realizes that he does not sense the Lord's presence in these calamities. They're just a lot of special effects, "Full of sound and fury, signifiying nothing," as the fellow said.
Then comes the voice; the still, small voice; the gentle whisper that he might almost miss. It tells him that the Lord has not forgotten him. He will deal with His enemies in His own way, not with flashy cosmic destruction, but through earthly means. And he tells Elijah that there are seven thousand in Israel whose knees have not bowed down to Baal. Elijah is not the only one left; he is not alone.
We want signs and wonders. We want St. Michael to descend with a flaming sword and dispatch the Enemies of Righteousness. We want the Lord to Smite the Wicked. But more often the Lord works through humbler means, like you and me. And rarely does He command us to do any smiting; more often he calls on us to build, to heal; and to cultivate leaders who will do His will, which is what Elijah is called to do.
And if it looks like God isn't doing anything, maybe what he's doing lies just on the periphery of our senses and we aren't paying enough attention. And maybe He's not performing miracles because He wants us to have the chance to do things ourselves.