This sermon was preached in the days following tornadoes in Oklahoma.
Elijah was on the run. He had fled the wrath of his archenemy, Jezebel. The Queen had sworn to kill Elijah. The prophet had just defeated her priests and had proven their god, Ba’al, was nothing more than a lump of stone.
Jezebel was furious. So Elijah ran…
He ran into the desert. He left servant and friend behind. Eventually Elijah made it through the desert to a mountain called The Mountain of God. God told Elijah he would meet him there. As Elijah stood on the mountain a great wind came. It was a wind so forceful it sucked the trees and even the grass right up from the ground. The wind was so powerful it even shattered rock and tore the mountain apart. Then the scripture says:
“…but God was not in the wind.”
For the past few days since the tornado struck I have heard people make a lot of claims about God. People have said:
God has a purpose in this.
God is teaching us something.
God is using this to bring people closer to him.
One Baptist minister said, ‘God is punishing Oklahoma City.’
I want you to repeat after me: God was not in the wind.
I know God was not in the wind because a real theologian, my grandpa, told me so long ago. On April 28, 1960 a tornado hit South Oklahoma City. The tornado was wider than three football fields, traveled on the ground over 12 miles and had winds approaching 200 miles per hour. Incredibly no one was killed. But 57 were injured and a number left homeless. My family numbered among those left homeless by the storm.
We climbed out of the shelter to a different world than the one we left. Our outbuildings were gone including the kennel where my grandfather kept the dogs he raised. Our house looked fine to me. I remember walking inside and seeing the bills still neatly stacked on my dad’s desk. Then I looked up: no ceiling…no roof… just sky.
Feeling very upset I asked my grandpa, “Why? Why did God send a tornado to our house?”
My grandpa was a fine Christian who really knew his Bible. He said, “Junior, God was not in the wind.” And then I had my first real theological discussion in which the mystery of God and the power of faith became a part of my life. What I remember most about that conversation is this:
God was not in the wind!
Today we live in a culture that sees only cause and effect. It’s the kind of culture that seeks easy answers and reduces faith to a simple formula: Do good and you’ll be rewarded. Do bad and you’ll be punished. If you believe that then yes, you’ll probably believe God is punishing Oklahoma City for some bad Karma. But that is a pagan god (little g), not the God of the Bible. The Bible clearly says:
God was not in the wind!
But why do so many Christians believe that God somehow caused the storm? Most Christians, especially in Oklahoma, are part of the radical reformist theology that dominates Protestant Christianity today. One major belief in this kind of theology is the sovereignty of God. Don’t get me wrong – Methodists believe in the sovereignty of God, but not in the same way.
The sovereignty of God is the teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without God’s direction or permission. God works not just some things but all things according to the counsel of his own will (see Eph. 1:11). These folks believe that God’s all-powerful reign guides everything and that nothing happens that is not God’s will. So…if a tornado hits a couple of schools and children are the victims it must be God’s will. Our job then is to accept God’s will and learn something from it.
But…God was not in the wind!
So what do we believe? Well I need to warn you – Methodist beliefs are radical. They are so radical that a long time ago our beliefs were put on trial at the International Court at The Hague.
So let me give you a little key to use while I explain. Put simply, we believe:
God was not in the wind!
We believe that God created a perfect world…a world without pain, suffering, death, or tornadoes. We believe God created free beings to live in that world. Those free beings had the God-given ability to choose just how they wanted to live. And they chose to rebel against God…to sin.
We believe that sin left the world a broken place. And since that moment there has been cancer, and the flu and yes tornadoes all because the whole world is broken. You see in America we think about everything from an individual perspective. But Scripture tells us that sin is bigger than any individual. Take a little time this afternoon and read Romans 8 (verse 22 in particular) where Paul describes the groaning of all creation as nature itself longs for salvation and to be lifted from the brokenness of sin.
So what does all that mean exactly? It means:
God was not in the wind!
Are you starting to get it? That wind is not God’s mighty hand reaching out to correct and punish. That wind is one quivering shake of the whole body of creation writhing in pain from sin. The wind is not and was not God.
So, where is God?
First, back to our story about Elijah…Verse 4 begins by telling us that Elijah goes beyond Beersheba, another day, into the wilderness. In terms of geography, he is safe – he is in the land where Jezebel does not rule. In terms of time, he is safe – Jezebel’s death threat was supposed to be fulfilled by this time. But Elijah’s words and actions belie any sense of relief or safety. He sits under a large desert bush (NRSV and NIV: “broom tree”) and asks to die, telling God, “It is too much; now, Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Whether Elijah is talking about his dead relatives or the prophets killed before him, the point is pretty concrete. He wants to die.
After making his request, Elijah lies down and sleeps under the bush, but his sleep is interrupted by the touch of a stranger who commands him to rise and eat. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’ak, is the same word for messenger used in verse 2, when a mal’ak was sent with Jezebel’s death threat. Thus, there is some tension with this first appearance of the angel. It is not until the mal’ak comes to Elijah “a second time” (1 Kings 19:7) that the text specifies this is an angel of the Lord, and the tension is relieved.
The food that is before Elijah is described as a “cake baked on coals, and a jar of water” (verse 6). The only other place in the Old Testament where we find the Hebrew word used for coals (resapim) is in Isaiah 6:6, referring to the coal that touched Isaiah’s lips to purify him, when Isaiah expressed his dismay at his ability to accept God’s commission. The word used for jar (sapphat) is another uncommon word, appearing only in 1 Samuel 26:10-16 and 1 Kings 17:12-16. In the latter set of texts, it refers to the jar of oil belonging to the widow of Zarephath.
Elijah doesn’t realize it but God is already answering his prayer and seeing to his care. And God is preparing Elijah for their meeting.
After Elijah eats and drinks the first time, he lies down again, and once again, an angel touches him and commands him to rise and eat (verse 7). During this second encounter, the angel explains the reason why Elijah must eat, “because the way is too much for you.”
The Hebrew points us back to Elijah’s complaint in verse 4 that it was “too much” (rab), when the angel uses the same language in his frank assessment of what lies ahead.
What lies ahead is “Horeb, God’s mountain” (19:8). This is the same mountain, after all, where Moses communed with God, saw God’s backside, and received the Ten Commandments. This is the same mountain, too, where Israel entered into covenant with God.
Elijah is here confronted by “the word of the LORD” with a divine question to answer: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 9b). Elijah’s answer (verse 10; cf. verse 14) that, despite his extreme zeal (an emphatic construction) for the Lord, Israel has abandoned God’s covenant (the location at Horeb should be recalled), destroyed God’s altars, and killed God’s prophets (Elijah’s repeated use of “your” referring to God should not be missed). Elijah claims to be the only one left but is quick to add that he is now public enemy number one.
This exchange leads directly to the divine command that Elijah should go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, because the Lord was about to pass by (verse 11).
We want God to come when we are in trouble. Right? We want a big powerful God who can defeat our enemies and make nature right again, save us from death and save us from our own worst mistakes.
We want a God with special effects! And that is what Elijah thinks he’s getting. There is an earthquake, fire, and of course…the wind.
But God was not in the wind…
The danger of course is that we tend to confuse the special effects with God. If God is in the special effects and if the special effects are big enough then we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to be responsible for our choices. In our sinful nature we tend to worship the boom and the roar of thunder but miss the “who” of God. The wind feels like an answer. And we want an answer because an answer means we control God. An answer means we know what to expect. We want a God who is predictable and controllable. So…we bow down to the wind.
But God is not in the wind.
Scholars have debated the text that follows since it first appeared – ancient Hebrew is a very difficult language. But I think the new Common English Bible captures it best:
“After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.”
That “sound” may be a “voice” – the Hebrew word can mean either – and it seems to be soft and quiet.
Elijah has taken his cue: he wraps his face (to avoid seeing God?) and goes to the entrance of the cave. There he hears a voice or sound (again Hebrew qôl) that speaks to him (verse 13).
The divine question regarding Elijah’s presence is repeated, word-for-word, as is Elijah’s answer (verse 14). God then simply tells Elijah, “Go back the way you came.” God gives Elijah a list of things to do. When a crisis comes, God tells Elijah to do the simple, necessary things. “Do your job and trust the rest to me.”
So today…we pray, we take an offering, we collect some baby diapers for the little ones and get back to work. Trust the rest to God.
Where was God when the tornado came? Not in the wind! God had been at work inspiring and strengthening people to study to become meteorologists. God had already been at work training doctors and nurse, ambulance drivers, firemen and policemen.
God was not in the wind. But God listened to every prayer and held every little hand while the wind raged.
God was not in the wind. God was in the quiet after the storm. God guided neighbor to find neighbor. God whispered in ear of the rescue dog, “here, over here…”
God rode in every ambulance, walked by the side of every member of the National Guard, and stood by every hospital bed.
And God whispered a million times to a million hearts and caused them to respond to the hurt of our neighbors. Hearts like yours and mine.
But God…was not…in the wind.