|The word of the LORD came to him: ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’ 10‘Because of my great zeal for the LORD the God of Hosts,’ he replied. ‘The people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.’ 11To this the answer came: ‘Go and stand on the mount before the LORD.’ (1 Kings 19:9b-11a, REB)|
There is a time for God’s people to seek more power from the Lord and to build up their prayer lives. There is also a time for us to reflect on what we have done, to listen to the Lord, to build our faith, and to reach out to those that the Lord wants us to reach.
I was reflecting recently after a powerful prayer meeting on how we can approach getting more people involved in prayer. The meeting was great, but my burden was for the empty seats, for those who were not there. Why are they not there? Are we doing something wrong?
On reflection, it seems to me that we are seeking half of an Elijah experience.
I think we would all like to be with Elijah on Mt. Carmel, at least after he succeeded. When the fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, altar, water and all, it was a moment of power. We cannot possibly compare any feeling of excitement or of the spirit of the Lord that we might have in a meeting to the power of the spirit demonstrated that day. And there was Elijah, the lone prophet of God, demonstrating the power of God to a large audience. (1 Kings 18).
I have long taught chapter 18 of 1 Kings as a story of how, even when we are in the midst of accomplishing great things, we can be overtaken by discouragement. Elijah came down off the mountain, running in front of Ahab’s chariot. He stood in triumph over the prophets of Baal. He had seen the power of God in the fire on that altar. Yet, when Jezebel sought his life, he ran. 1 Kings 19:3 records: “In fear, he fled for his life . . .”
I think this passage can certainly teach us about fear even when we are triumphant, about how one mountaintop experience doesn’t necessarily mean we will never again see the valley. But I think there is something more here. I think God had something special to teach Elijah, the lone prophet, the man of powerful faith. It was a lesson best taught after running across the desert.
And so Elijah fled from Mt. Carmel where he was triumphant to Mt. Horeb where he traded his audience for a cave in which to spend the night.
And God came to him, to ask him why he was there. “They’re after me Lord! I’m so zealous for you! I pray in power, and I prove that you are the true God through miraculous acts. But all the others are dead! I’m all that’s left, and now they want to kill me too.” If you have a powerful prayer life, ask yourself how many times you have been there. Perhaps it is not you alone, but only my prayer group, only my church, only my denomination, or only my movement. And the next thought is, “They’re coming to get us!”
So there was Elijah waiting for God’s answer to his complaint. I suspect he hoped for something like, “They’ll never kill you. You are under my protection.”
But God has something else in mind. “Go and stand on the mount before the LORD.” (1 Kings 19:11 REB). I am going to look twice at this incident, first from the point of view of Elijah.
Elijah is presented with a strong wind, an earthquake, and then a fire. Each time, we are told, the LORD was not in these powerful events. Then Elijah hears “a faint murmuring sound.” And God again speaks. Elijah repeats his complaint. He’s alone, and they want to kill him.
There’s a phenomenon in Biblical discourse when God is speaking, and we find it often in the gospels in Jesus’ discourse as well. It is the unanswered question. Here Elijah presents his complaint. Humanly we expect some kind of response to Elijah’s perceived need. But nothing like that is about to happen.
God responds to Elijah with a threefold mission:
I want to look for a moment at the third point. Why was Elijah unaware of the faithful in Israel? Why did he feel all alone? I believe it may have been because he was so busy with his mission–a good mission, but one that could occupy one’s full attention–that he couldn’t see what else was going on. Elijah didn’t go out on the mountain to stand before the Lord and listen.
I believe this is a great danger for those who are very powerful in prayer. It is easy to be so distracted by our Mt. Carmel experiences that we lose sight of the bulk of our mission and of God’s people. We need to go to Mt. Horeb with Elijah and receive our mission from God. Preferably, we need to do this before we have to be driven to it. We need to go, stand on the mountain, and listen.
While we’re on the mountain, we need to recognize the rest of God’s church out there. Perhaps they are not on a major campaign of prayer, but many are faithful. We are not as alone as we may want to think.
It’s on the mountain that we can learn how to listen to God, and learn one of the most important things to teach others.
Often, when someone wants to know how to pray we concentrate on teaching them what to say. And it is important for people to be able to speak to God. But there is something more important–standing on the mountain and listening to what God has to say. If there is any one thing which will help people’s prayer lives to grow, I believe it is learning to listen.
Recently I requested prayer from a friend in my church who knows how to listen. I explained the situation to him briefly. My aunt had been diagnosed with Leukemia and was not expected to live long. (As I write this, death is, so to speak, overdue for her!) She was and is ready to go. I shared two or three sentences. My friend put his hands on my head and just stood there. He was listening. When he began to pray, his prayer was so in tune with what was on my heart that he might as well have been reading my mind.
Don’t feel that you have to kneel and start talking. Start by listening!
We can learn to listen in two steps. First, we need to learn to listen to one another, and second we need to learn to listen to God.
I’m sure many will question the order of those two statements. Let’s look at 1 John 4:20: “But if someone says, ‘I love God,’ while at the same time hating his fellow-Christian, he is a liar. If he does not love a fellow-Christian whom he has seen, he is incapable of loving God whom he has not seen.” (REB) I would like to extend this text to describe listening. If you cannot listen to your brother or sister, the person in a prayer group with you, who is physically present and audible and visible, how can you listen to God whose presence is much more subtle? I submit that if we have not learned to listen to one another, we will not learn to listen to God.
Praying alone is important but praying together is also essential. It is especially essential when someone is trying to learn to pray. Very often a person who is beginning to pray doesn’t know God. By knowing God I don’t mean praying the sinners prayer or reading and affirming the doctrines, but feeling deep within oneself who God is and knowing that you can relate to God, tell Him things about yourself, and listen for an answer. In modern society, I think this also reflects a lack in our knowing one another. We’re missing both sides of 1 John 4:20.
In a small prayer group, you can overcome both of these things. You learn to express yourself, and your needs, hopes and conflicts to one another. You also learn to listen as other people in the group express themselves. Slowly you learn to also express these needs in prayer to God. In the small prayer group you can even pause as you’re sharing and pray about that one little thing. Just like any conversation, it doesn’t have to be long. “Oh by the way, did I tell you . . . ” only it’s a prayer that follows, instead of a story for your neighbor.
If we are to build up the seven thousand in Israel, or the seven million or a billion–whatever number the Lord sees fit to send, we need them to reach out to the Lord in prayer. They don’t all have to climb Mt. Carmel and face 450 prophets of Baal alone. But they all need to have a prayer relationship with God. The most constructive thing we can do to start that is to get people listening. The easiest way to begin listening is to listen to one another.
Listening involves getting onto the other person’s program, learning to hear their language, their symbols, their needs. Just like Elijah on Mt. Horeb (thought I’d forgotten Elijah, didn’t you?) who needed to switch over to God’s program and hear what God had for him to do. None of us are God, so we can’t use the abrupt method used in the conversation with Elijah. One of the best ways of teaching how to listen is just to do it.
This is why, if you are a pastor or a leader in prayer, you need to get people into groups to talk to one another, study together and pray together. Learn to make listening a part of our daily worship and building up our relationship to God.
Listening also doesn’t involve trying to make the other person like you. Listening is being attentive to that person’s interests. If you take the time to hear what they are saying, you may find that you are more similar than you thought.
Prayer in this sense can be a non-theological undertaking. We have plenty of movements to correct peoples’ theology, to improve their styles of worship, to introduce new music (or to get rid of it!), to make them understand doctrines. How about a program of just plain listening? Listening to one another (whom we can see physically) and listening to God. Building relationships that will last.
Who knows what we’ll hear to surprise us as we stand on the mount and wait for the soft murmuring noise . . . that resolves itself into the voice of God?