“The Wilderness of Disappointment”

Father O'Malley was driving down to Boston when got stopped for speeding in Medford. The highway patrol officer smelled alcohol on the priest's breath and then saw an empty wine bottle on the floor of the car. 

He said, 'Father, have you been drinking?' 

'Only water', replied Father O'Malley. 

The policeman asked, 'Then how come I can smell wine?' 

The priest looked at the bottle and said, 'Good Lord! He's done it again.


Today, we enter into the wilderness of disappointment. We hear the story of Elijah and remember that God doesn’t always come in the way we want. God doesn’t always hand us the miracles we’d like to have. But God always come.



“The Wilderness of Disappointment”

1 Kings 19:1-13a



Despite how it looks, this was not the first ultra-marathon or endurance race. This is not that at all.

If you read the passage before the scripture that we heard today, you would see that it had not been so very long ago that Elijah’s story had been quite different. You would discover that not so very long ago he had challenged the queen’s prophets and defeated them. He had challenged them to a battle of the prophets; and Elijah, confident of his faith, confident of his God, had a great victory.

Elijah had seen his people start to slip. He saw the Children of Israel, God’s chosen people, begin to back slide, follow other gods. And he needed to show to them, remind them of the power and the presence of God. So, Elijah set up a contest. A contest between 450 prophets of Baal, the other god of choice, and Elijah’s God, Yahweh. A contest between an idol and the God of all creation. Elijah let the prophets of the god Baal go first. He watched as they built their altar and began to pray. And he stood close by, taunting them by saying things like, “maybe you need to pray a little louder; maybe your god is asleep. Maybe he can’t hear you. Call out a little louder!”

He was not, in terms of sportsmanship, being a very good sport.

Finally, when the Baal prophets gave up, Elijah was faithful. He called all the people around him and he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been built before but then torn down. Elijah was confident. And then, he made a trench around the altar. And he put the offering on the altar and called for the people to pour water on it. Elijah was standing on the word of God and when you stand on the word of God, you have no fear.

He had them pour water on it again and even a third time. And the scriptures tell us that, “the water ran round the altar and even filled the trench.” And then, Elijah prayed, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me that thou people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back.”

And then the fire of God fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust and licked up the water that was in the trench! God came through. God answered Elijah’s prayer and the people fell on their faces in fear and awe and prayed to God!

Surely, this was the highlight of Elijah’s professional career. It was the miracle of all miracles and it had come at Elijah’s bidding. It was amazing and something preachers only dream about, to be able to pray and receive such an answer! It became the moment that all other moments would be held up to and compared with. It was the day the prophet put everything on the line for his faith, for his God, and came out the victor! He showed them all. And even the king, Ahab, was impressed and followed him in his chariot as Elijah ran seventeen miles down the mountain and into the town of Jezreel, his first long distance run.

So filled up with the spirit, he just had to run! So empowered by God’s mystery, God’s presence, he just had to move! Oh, my Lord, Elijah had been to the mountain and he was running, he was on fire, just like his offering, for his God and he ran all the way home!

He must have thought, “attendance is finally going to increase at worship service, and folks are finally going to pay their pledges! We are rocking and rolling now.” Surely, the prophet must have thought everything would be different now; everybody would fall back in line now that God had shown true power and might.

But it didn’t work out that way. The folks slapped him on his back, thanked him for a great show but everybody just went back to living their lives, doing the things they had always been doing. And the queen was not impressed at all. She did not change her ways. She did not celebrate with the prophet. No, instead when Queen Jezebel got wind of what happened to her god and to her prophets she sent the messenger to Elijah that she had a contract out on him, that she wanted his head on a platter; and suddenly, it was as if everything that Elijah had just experienced, every bit of confidence and faith and miracle, disappeared, was lost. 

He forgot the power of the Almighty, forgot what had just happened, forgot the word of God, the strength of God, and Elijah was suddenly a different man. He got scared and this time he ran for a totally different reason. He wasn’t running because he was filled up with joy. He wasn’t running because he was exuberant. He ran because he was broken. Elijah, great prophet, great man of faith, ran over a hundred miles because he was disappointed and he afraid for his life. And he ran and he ran until he couldn’t run anymore and he fell under a broom tree and prayed to die.

“It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept beneath the broom tree.”

Boy, haven’t we all felt like that? And it does seem like it hurts the most when we have just come down from a great emotional high. That we’re riding high, feeling great, feeling confident in God, in ourselves, in the universe and then just out of nowhere, “WHAM!” and it’s like the air gets sucked out of us. It’s as if we’ve been flattened, the rug pulled out from under us. And if you’ve ever had that happened, then you understand what Elijah felt. And you understand how easy it is to find a broom tree to crawl under. You understand what it is to be so disappointed that you wish to die.

I think one of the hardest experiences for me to deal with as a person of faith is disappointment. I just don’t think I got the tools for facing disappointment while growing up in church. I sort of lived with the theology that if you obeyed the rules, if you lived with Jesus in your heart, then you would always be in God’s will and well, if you’re in God’s will, you can’t be disappointed, can you? Or so I thought. Then I grew up. And then I was not receiving all the desires of my heart as the Psalmist promised. So I did what any good Baptist would do, I decided I had done something wrong and I repented and I repented and I repented; but there would still be disappointments. And then it finally dawned on me that maybe disappointment is just a part of this life we’re given. Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with how good or bad we’ve been,maybe it’s just a part of life.

The good news in this story is that Elijah was not lost to his broom tree. The prophet was not lost to his depression and disappointment. He was not lost to his weariness. We see God come to him and surely, how can you not be moved by God’s tenderness to God’s servant?

God is compassionate beyond our imagination, merciful beyond our limitations, kind beyond our knowledge. God comes to Elijah in the form of an angel, feeds him gives him drink, tells him to sleep, gives him more food and drink, lets him rest again;and then sends him to a cave to await a fresh word of God.

God, the very one who could send fire to burn up an offering and alter, looks down upon the earth and saw his prophet feeling weary. God looked down and saw the suffering, felt the pain. And God rushed right away and found just the right angel and sent the angel down to comfort and nurture and take care of Elijah. And God does no less for any one of us.

After Elijah rested, after he was fed and nourished, he went on his journey to the cave. And he stood at the entrance and watched and heard these mighty acts of nature, mighty acts that he had associated with the power and the voice of God. Earthquake, fire, mighty wind.

“Are you in there God?” He asked. “Are you present and going to speak the way you always have?”

But the story reads that God was not in any of those expected venues. This time he didn’t show up with great miraculous powers or great awesome wonders, not in one of them. Instead, God came in a whisper, a still quiet voice, a voice you have to listen for very closely. And God spoke to God’s servant.

     Elijah ran in fear for his life, begging to die, hiding out in a cave, disappointed that God hadn’t taken care of the evil queen, disappointed that the people didn’t stay committed to the cause, and disappointed that it appeared that nothing was going to change; and he wanted, even expected God to show up in ways he wanted. But God showed up in a different way, a still, quiet small kind of way, reminding us all that even in the face of great disappointment, God shows up.

       Martin Luther King, Jr., was a 26-year-old young man in the mid 1950’s. He was just out of divinity school, a young father, and a rookie pastor just trying to figure out how to manage the details of parish ministry. The last thing he was prepared to do was to pick up the mantle of a major grassroots movement to confront and end racism in America. And yet after Rosa Parks decided to rest her weary body in the front of a bus, all hell broke out in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King was thrust into leadership almost without his consent. He quickly felt the grip of angry resistance as he was jailed for driving five miles over the speed limit, and after receiving a number of threatening phone calls that promised, "We're gonna blow your brains out." 
        One late night, as reported by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor, King sat in his kitchen, his wife and young daughter asleep in the next room. And he found himself, much like the prophet Elijah waiting on some word to show him what to do. King was scared, angry, disappointed in how the justice movement was going and he felt very distant from God. He began to pray: "Lord, I think what I am doing is right. But I'm weak. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage." And at that point - a moment of brutal honesty and need - King heard a voice. He heard The Voice: ‘Martin, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ It was the crystallizing moment of his life. And even three nights later, when a bomb exploded on his front porch, Martin never forgot the power of those words, the reassurance of that Voice, a Voice that echoed again and again and again in his soul through all the dark days of his crusade. God had promised never to leave him, never alone, never to leave him alone. (As told by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor, New York: Doubleday, 2001, pp. 20-21 and reported by Susan B. Andrews in her sermon, Visions and Voices).

There are many disappointments in this life, lots of things that we hoped for that didn’t turn out, lots of relationships that didn’t work out, jobs that didn’t happen, contracts that didn’t stand, money that didn’t come, friendship that didn’t last. And sometimes we stay in the wilderness a long time waiting for the disappointments to heal. The good news is that there are always things to learn in disappointment, always edges that can soften,wisdom to be found. Today as we have heard the story of Elijah, we are reminded that even when we are disappointed in God, we are still loved and cared for, still nurtured. And God will still come to us. If we just allow for healing, if we just be still and listen, God speaks and God shows up. We just may need to be still and quiet for a while.

From the poet Rumi, “No more words. In the name of this place we drink in with our breathing, stay quiet, like a flower, so the night birds will start singing.”

Do not be afraid or disheartened; God comes. God indeed will speak.




Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a dark time 

in her life when she was in need of a word from 

God, in need of direction. She prayed and prayed 

and without an answer became angrier and angrier 

and then she went to the highest place she could 

find and prayed some more. She finally ran out 

of words and began to sing, a kind of mournful 

plainsong change. She finally ran out of that and 

after that she had her answer. It was nothing 

specific even as she was hoping for a fortune 

cookie answer telling her exactly what to do, 

like take the next boat to Samoa and go and 

dig latrines. But there was none of that.

            “What I got,” she writes, “was the deep 

conviction that I was loved and what I was called 

to do was to love back in whatever way that 

allowed me to live the best and most, as a 

housewife and mother, as a nuclear physicist 

or gas station attendant or an ordained minister. 

The specifics don’t seem to matter to God, what 

matters is my relationships and my love in them 

and specifically my relationship with God.”


 Elijah heard God speak in a still, small voice. 

This must have been surprising for the prophet 

since the last time he heard from God it was in 

a great fire on a mountain. Write about a time when 

you felt surprised by the voice or presence of God.