Carla J. Bailey August 27, 2017
Scripture 1 Kings 19:9–13
A few weeks ago, I told you there are 10 or 12 stories from Scripture that have shaped my faith. Jacob and God wrestling by the river is one. The beheading of John the Baptist and how that sorrow led directly to a kind of generous love that assured that all would be fed sufficient to their need is another. Today I tell you a third—a snippet from a story about the prophet Elijah.
It will help you understand this passage if you know its context. And please remember, like all of Scripture, this is a story—dramatic, full of passion and moral instruction—thick with meaning, thin with fact. Ahab was the king over Northern Israel. Elijah was a prophet in his kingdom. Those two things we know to be true. King Ahab was politically savvy and shrewd. He married Jezebel, after all, a devoted follower of the religion that worshipped Baal, a direct competitor of Judaism. King Ahab was a follower of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Ahab tried to keep the peace in both his household and his kingdom by trying to maintain respect for both religions. This was a time in the history of Israel, however, when Jews proclaimed there to be only one God, Yahweh. Moreover, God demanded total and uncontaminated claim on the hearts of all Israel. Elijah’s mission as one of Yahweh’s prophets was to eliminate Baal worship and bring all of the northern kingdom to Yahweh. Oh, and by the way, a terrible drought had visited the land, causing massive destruction and death. Worshippers believed the drought was a direct result of God’s unhappiness that people followed Baal.
Eventually there was a dramatic showdown between Jezebel and Elijah, one that even King Ahab could not prevent. Elijah challenged the 450 Baal priests to something of a duel of sacrifices. Who could bring about a miracle rainfall? Whose God was more powerful? Which God would pour fire down from the very heavens? The Baal worshippers took up the challenge. They danced and they cut themselves until blood streamed down their bodies. They did everything they knew to bring about the miracle of fire raining down from heaven. No success. When it came to Elijah’s turn, he built an altar with 12 stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. He dug a trench around the altar and poured precious water over the sacrificial animal. Then, without so much as one single dance step or lift of his staff, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, and fire rained down from the sky. Parenthetically, given the terrible drought in the land, the story might very well have grown up around the entirely natural occurrence of a lightning strike that caused a destructive fire around the worshippers, but that is not the point of the story.
Since Elijah won the contest, his side of the bet was honored—a bet is, after all, a bet. The witnesses to the contest murdered all 450 Baal priests. And then it began to rain.
Back at the palace, Jezebel was a mighty furious queen: at her husband Ahab, of course, but most especially at Elijah. She put a curse on Elijah and sent him a message that he would die for having destroyed the religion of Baal. When Elijah heard of the curse, it unnerved him, as such a thing would do. He ran away. He went to Judah, and then headed for the caves of Mount Horeb. There, he grew hungry and tired and just a little self-pitying. The story tells us that God spoke to him in the cave and sent angels to comfort him and give him food. That is where today’s passage picks up.
Hear these words from 1 Kings 19:9–13:
When Elijah came to a cave, he spent the night there.
Then the word of God came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for you, 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.”
God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for I am about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard the silence, 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 again that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The lives of Israel’s prophets were not easy, we know that. The books of the prophets tell story after story of God’s demands, of dramatic demonstrations of the consequences of disloyalty and disobedience. We know the prophets were prone to drama—that they lived lives of faithfulness to God that appear occasionally foolish if not foolhardy. They took huge risks. They spilled blood. They went to jail for God, risked their own lives and the lives of their families (those that had them). They performed miracles, caused plants to grow in the desert, stretched meager rations into feasts, challenged kings and wrote oracles.
One should not blame them then, when, from time to time, they began to think that every day of faithfulness to God should be a day of glorious splendor and thrilling spectacle. They were above the laws of the kings, those prophets, answerable to God alone, and they spoke for God and to God and they made amazing things happen. Is it any wonder then, that when life turned mundane, as it often does, when not much was happening of a dramatic nature, they grew a little, well, restless? Would it be terribly disrespectful if I speculated this morning that Elijah might have been something of a thrill junky?
It has been my experience, limited as it is, that the life of faith, even for senior ministers of large downtown churches, comprises at most only a couple of truly dramatic moments when the combination of courage, faithfulness, danger and the public eye all converge to create a moment of powerful witness for God. Think for a moment about some of the more legendary images of such public drama. William Sloane Coffin described riding the freedom buses in the early days of the civil rights movement as a life-changing experience. We who remember those Freedom Rides that ended in violence and bloodshed at bus terminals across the South would say they were acts of courage and public witness that changed us, too, however temporary those changes now feel. Do you remember the young man in China who faced down and stopped that tank in Tiananmen Square? I’m guessing, if he is still alive, his life has not held many more such incredible public experiences. We do not have to think long and hard to come up with other adrenalin-soaked examples.
Yet in our individual lives, some of us might be hard-pressed to think of a time when what we believe converges with an opportunity to take a dangerous public stand or action. And I’m fairly certain none of us have successfully corralled God into raining down fire at just the precise moment we needed to put an end to a drought. While I think it is important to be at the ready for those moments if they should come, to do the daily work required to make our faith muscles strong and agile and to prepare our hearts for any demand a public witness may place upon us, still, if we think a life of faithful discipleship will provide opportunity after opportunity for such spectacle and drama, we will be disappointed. The temptation is great to try to create such moments. The temptation is even greater to want our public figures to be at the epicenter of such moments. We think those kinds of leaders will fill our pews. They’ll open a floodgate of donations. They’ll restore our institutions to their glory days.
The life of genuine discipleship is quite a bit more modest and steadfast and quietly inconspicuous. There is very little drama in small acts of kindness. Hardly anyone notices that you don’t participate in malicious gossip. When you withhold your criticism, no light flashes above your head. When you close your eyes and pray for the person who is damaging your reputation, it is rare that you then receive praise for doing so. When you accept responsibility for your mistakes, when you help a child find her father in the coffee hour, when you write a note of support, send a contribution to an organization providing medical care in the aftermath of Syria’s civil war, or a care package to a refugee, when you intentionally choose to sit next to an immigrant on a bus or the person who hurt someone you love in a pew, scarcely anyone notices.
This community in which we have worshipped together is filled to the brim with high-achieving, high-functioning individuals. We are or have been, many of us, movers and shakers. We are accustomed to people listening when we speak. We influence decisions, we converse about world matters with genuine knowledge. We’re people familiar with the wind, earthquakes and fire of our convictions. It’s the silence we’re not very good at. It’s the silence Elijah was not good at. But it was the silence that was necessary before Elijah could hear God’s question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah was full to overflowing with the story of his most recent dangerous, triumphant accomplishment—how he was zealous for God and how he succeeded in overcoming God’s enemies, and now, in spite of his amazing achievements all for the glory of God alone (you know—Soli Deo Gloria), look what happened! There he was, off hiding in some cave, alone and being pursued and threatened, and why? Just because he did his job? He wanted the drama of vindication, a full-throated public apology, some spectacle at least to match what he pulled off back there!
Some years ago now, a colleague of mine got into serious trouble in the place where he was serving as a minister. The repercussions were painful, extremely public and bitter. There was a lot of earthquake, wind and fire, until there was not. Once the dust settled, and he was left without a job, without the prestige of the position he had enjoyed, even without his ministerial credentials—when things got very quiet, in other words—he called me for support. He told me that the experience had caused him to lose his faith in God. “Really?” I thought to myself. “Did you think God would reach down to rescue you from embarrassment? You, who gave years of public witness to the truth that God does not act to rescue individuals in that way, you who preached and lived and taught that the life of faithful discipleship is not so much demonstrated in the big dramatic moments but in all the minutes and days and even years of quiet acts of unacknowledged trusting, loving work? Was your faith in God so shallow that it cannot now withstand the quiet?”
The important question in this story about Elijah, the one that should leap off the pages of our Bibles and directly into our hearts, is never the one we are always tempted to ask—Where is God for you in all this? What has God done for you? What is God doing right now? Those such selfish questions—shallow inquiries. No, the only question that really matters is the one that God asks after all the drama has settled down, when it is very, very quiet and we are alone with our resentments and angers and self-righteous rationalizations, our defenses and wounded egos, when it is pointless to look back and rehearse, again and again, this is what I did, this is what they said, this is how it went! The question that matters is only this—What are you doing here, Elijah, now that the drama is over? What are you doing here, Carla, now that your particular style of ministry has been rejected? What are you doing here, Plymouth, now that the earthquake, wind and fire have all ceased?
God’s question is always about this moment now, this single, most important moment in your lives, in mine, this now. What are you doing here? What are you doing here now? Amen.