What Are You Doing Here?
This message was delivered to Mountain View UMC (South Knoxville) on Sunday, June 23, 2019.
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”1 Kings 19:1-15a
There are so many ways to look at this morning’s passage …
For instance, Elijah … this man … this prophet of God … this man who has been doing everything right up until now … and he’s done some mighty big things … he’s prayed up a 3-and-a-half-year drought and then he’s prayed an end to it. He’s looked King Ahab in the eye and told him Israel was falling and it was his fault, that he was the “troubler of Israel”. He’s lived off only what the ravens could feed him, healed, performed miracles, and even raised someone from the dead. He’s called fire down from heaven not once, but twice, and he personally … eliminated by way of the sword 450 priests of the false god, Baal, that Israel has been worshipping. All for God. All in an effort to try to impress upon the people of Israel that they need to give up their evil ways, their idol worship, and turn back to the one true God.
And then all of the sudden purportedly because Jezebel swears to exact revenge on him for the incident with the 450 priests, he seems to lose his faith and runs away in fear. He’s afraid for his life … so afraid, he goes out into the desert alone, apparently without any provisions, and asks God to just end it all … “just kill me now” … What could cause a man like Elijah to lose or at least forget his faith and trust in God?
Perhaps you’ve had moments like Elijah is at. I know I have. First, it took me 57 years to let myself actually hear God and once I did hear him it would be another nearly three years of work and study and prayer and testing before I would finally become approved for licensing. That was the fall of 2017 and I was so excited. So certain I was on the right track and everything would fall into place. I started organizing myself and my life and even my family’s life in anticipation. I resigned from committees here, began building up a personal library of reference books, planning out and for a year’s worth of sermons …
And then, the following spring, the District Committee on Ordained Ministry interviews came around and one of the first questions they asked me was, “How would you feel if you didn’t get an appointment this year?”
I’m telling you; I have never had a better poker face than the one I did at that moment in time. And I don’t think I’ve had a longer, harder, more emotional talk with God than the one I had on the way home from that meeting or second guessed myself and even my faith more than I did for the next several months.
I’d been doing everything right and ended up going nowhere and, where Elijah was scared for his life, I was afraid for my faith and in all honesty, embarrassed. There must be something wrong with me, with my faith, with my hearing when it comes to hearing God.
Where Elijah muttered, “God, just end my life now,” and laid down and took a nap, I simply threw my hands in the air, said, “Whatever, God, your will be done,” and took a kind of sabbatical. Elijah was reacting out of frustration and, to some degree, probably exhaustion. I was also frustrated and, to a large degree, disappointed. Neither of us saw any tangible fruit from our plans. I would hazard a guess that at least a few of you here today have had similar experiences.
Two times, angels woke Elijah up and gave him nourishment, strength for the journey. I received morsels of nourishment as time went on, too. Sometimes it was just encouragement from friends here at Mountain View or abroad, family members who knew and understood my faith journey, sometimes it was a book, sometimes a song or a video or an audio recording. All of them were well timed and heaven sent. If you were to think back on your “Elijah in the desert” moments, you’d probably be able to identify the bits and morsels of those cakes baked on hot stones and sweet cool water you received, too.
Elijah’s moment doesn’t end with those two angelic visits, though. After his second meal, he gets up and starts a 40-day, 40-night journey to Mount Horeb where he found a cave, goes inside, and once again … takes a nap.
Our passage tells us that the word of the Lord came to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah’s immediate response was to tell the word of the Lord why he was there: “I’ve been doing everything for the Lord; no one listened to me; they broke all Your rules; they tore down all Your alters; they killed all your prophets but me and now they want to kill me.”
The word of the Lord told Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain and wait for the Lord because the Lord was going to pass by. Elijah waits in the cave through a wind so strong it causes the rocks to explode and mountains to split, through an earthquake, through a fire, and then … when there is nothing but absolute sheer silence … then Elijah covers his face with his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave. He sensed that God wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but he knew God was in that silence … that stillness …
A voice comes out of that silence and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And, again, Elijah says why he’s there, “I’ve been doing everything for the Lord; no one listened to me; they broke all Your rules; they tore down all Your alters; they killed all your prophets but me and now they want to kill me.” At that point, the Lord tells Elijah to go back to the wilderness of Damascus, followed (if you read past today’s last verse) by some pretty explicit instructions Elijah is to carry out.
When I read that last verse from today’s passage, I got this image of God shaking his head and sighing, and a feeling that He may have had a resigned tone in his voice when he told Elijah, “Go back to the wilderness of Damascus.” Not that I might have answered differently than Elijah because we all tend to do that … to say why something isn’t working rather than say what we are doing about what isn’t working … but seeing the passage in writing, the semantics of God’s question versus Elijah’s answer becomes important, at least to me. God kept asking Elijah what he was doing and Elijah never really answered God.
How many times do we do that? How many times do we get these nudges and whispers in the stillness about what we should be doing and start making excuses for or justifying why we can’t or just ignoring the nudge altogether? “God, I’ve been doing everything right, doing it all for you, and no one gets it but me!”
In a podcast called Strangely Warmed, Taylor Mertins and Josh Retter discussed this passage and suggested that Elijah’s problem was he had been going along thinking he was the plan. We’ve each been there, right? That big thing we took on, we were on top of it, we had it all worked out, we knew just what to do and when to do it and how to do it and who to do it with …
The thing is, Elijah never was the plan and we are not … any of us … individually … The Plan. Even collectively, we are not the plan. The UMC is not the plan any more than the Baptists are the Plan or the Episcopalians are the Plan or the Jewish or Muslim or any other faith is “the Plan”. We are all only pieces of the plan, and too often we forget that.
And there is a danger for us in forgetting that. We get too comfortable in the “alikeness” of our groups. We seek out people like us instead of filling the empty seats with people not like us. Pretty soon, we’ve strayed from God’s plan and started making our own plan. It’s because of that kind of thinking, that we often end up under the broom tree with Elijah, frustrated, frightened for the future, and exhausted.
If suddenly there was a wind so strong the rocks exploded, an earthquake and a fire, after which there was a sheer and utter silence … If a voice came out of that silence and asked you today, “What are you doing here?” what would you answer be?
Let’s pray …
God of earthquake, wind and fire,
You reveal yourself through the ordinary and extraordinary,
In the day to day of busy lives
And in signs and wonders
That shake us to the core.
The glory of your majesty can be heard
In the gentle whisper of a Springtime breeze,
And in an earthquake’s dark and frightening roar.
Let our ears and minds be ever open to the possibility that you are speaking to us, and our hearts attentive to your call. Amen.
(By John Birch)
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever He may send you;
May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm,
May he bring you home rejoicing at wonders he has shown you,
May he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.
The message above was delivered to Mountain View UMC on Sunday, June 23, 2019.