Scripture: 1Kings 19:1-16
Well, that’s our story this morning. Looking back to the preceding context, we learn that:
On account of the King’s injustice and unfaithfulness, God has worked through Elijah to bring a drought to the land…… hoping to get their attention before things get worse.
As things do get worse, Elijah has confronted the government and its manipulation of religion for its own purposes of power and control.
Elijah has confronted that religious construct—the prophets of Baal—and effectively hamstrung it…… demonstrated its falsehood, and rendered it impotent.
From this triumph, Elijah goes again to the king and ends the drought, providing further proof of the power of the One True God.
And for his labors, Elijah gets death threats from the queen [1Kings 19:2]—threats so grave and so serious that he becomes genuinely afraid [1Kings 19:3] and flees to the wilderness to escape.
But it is all too much for him.
Elijah is exhausted.
He is depressed.
He cannot see a way out of this predicament.
He cannot envision a future wherein he even survives.
So he wishes himself dead [1Kings 19:4b], asks God to do the deed, and falls asleep to dark and fell dreams.
He is awakened by what the text calls an angel [1Kings 19:5b-6], which is how the Old Testament tells of a human-like form that essentially manifests the words and presence of God. Some stories are a bit ambiguous as to whether the angel in question is actually God-in-human-shape, or just some heavenly being representing God. But I don’t think it mattered much either way to the one actually having the experience.
The angel seemingly manifests a cake and some water—and it does this not once but twice, recognizing that Elijah has clearly endured more than he can handle [1Kings 19:7b]. Still, never underestimate the value of a nap and snack.
So nourished, Elijah journeys for many days until he reaches to Horeb—also known as Mount Sinai, and explicitly here called “the mountain of God” (1Kings 19:8b).
“What are you doing here?” Elijah is asked. And he vents [1Kings 19:10]: I’ve done all the right things; I did everything God told me to do; and now I’m alone and about to be killed and it’s just awful.
Based on where Elijah has come to (Mount Sinai), and based on what happens next in the story (an encounter with God), it seems that at the heart of Elijah’s question is one that is still familiar among us today, especially during hardship: “Where are you, God?”
Where are you, while these bad things are happening me?
Where are you, while people are out to get me?
Where are you, while I despair and lose hope?
Where are you, God?!?
So the angel tells Elijah that God the Lord is about to pass by……
But not in the wind so strong it tore the mountains themselves into the sky.
Not in the earthquake that threatened to rend the foundations of the very earth apart.
Not in the fire that consumed everything before it.
God was not in any of those. God was in the “sound of sheer silence”…… the “still, small voice.” And when Elijah heard it, he knew it was God [1Kings 19:13a].
In his despair and nourished by God’s own provision, Elijah has journeyed to the place where Moses spoke to God…… where Moses looked upon God…… and where Elijah has now had an equally profound encounter.
But it was still not enough. God is more attentive and attuned to us than we can even imagine, so God asks again—this time verbally: “What are you doing here?” (1Kings 19:13b). And despite the moments-ago encounter, nothing has changed for Elijah. He offers the same ranting response—verbatim.
So God changes tactics; that’s what God does—God adapts. Instead of giving him what Elijah thinks he wants, God gives Elijah what he needs: direction, purpose, and the means to matter…… all of which make life worth living once again.
It is worth adding that in the immediate aftermath of this episode, a youngster named Elisha becomes Elijah’s disciple. It is clear from the story that part of what gives Elijah purpose is training the next generation of faithful leadership.
The Haunting Question
Ultimately, that’s the story. But what hangs with me—what haunts me—is God’s question: “What are you doing here?”
It’s a question that God had to ask twice. The first time, God’s response suggests that Elijah thinks he is there in this wilderness place for God—for an encounter. So that’s what God gives him, even though—I suspect—that God knew full well it will not satisfy. God likely knew that Elijah had not run away to this desolate place to find God, but to escape……and maybe (like Job) just to be heard.
God’s response following the second asking proves more fruitful—it demonstrates that Elijah could not imagine a future anymore. Why is Elijah there? Because he needs a job to do, even if he thinks (in this moment) that he can never do another job ever again.
Note too how Elijah uses the same words both times; like God’s question to him, Elijah’s response is identical. He—incredibly—isn’t sufficiently shaken from his depression…… even by so direct an encounter with God. The only change that comes through this story is his willingness to “go back in” and keep doing the work.
“What are you doing?” is a haunting question for me because I don’t think it’s intended only for Elijah: Why are we here? ……right here; right now. Why are we here?
Most of us are here because we think we want an encounter with God.
We hope that the music we sing will enrapture our soul.
We pray with the desire to feel God “pick up” on the other end of the line.
We listen to scripture and sermon hoping to discover some hidden “key” that will help us make sense of things.
But I suspect that most of us are actually here because somewhere deep inside us (as with Elijah), we intuitively know that we need a commission—we need to hear God say: “I still believe in you. I want to accomplish great things through you. Now hold your head up, get back in there, and let’s get some things done together.”
That’s a pretty powerful gospel right there.
In a lot of churches this morning, a New Testament gospel text will be read alongside this Old Testament reading. According to the lectionary schedule, that happens to be (what we often call) the story of the Gerasene demoniac, found in Luke 8.
I think you’re probably familiar with this story too.
Jesus crosses over to the far side of the Sea of Galilee. As he literally steps off the boat, he is confronted by a filthy, naked man who reeks of death. A man whose condition has driven him from the city…… to the countryside…… to the isolation of caves and tombs.
Through this encounter, the man will be purged of his demons (which go into some nearby pigs) and he is restored to life. But the folk of the city will not be able to handle this rebirth—”they were afraid” (v.35); and they will try to drive both him and Jesus away [Luke 8:37].
This man—often called “Legion” after the name the demons gave for him—he is introduced in the story as “a man of the city who had demons” (Luke 8:27 NRSV). If you think about it, it seems to me that reference could describe a lot of us. When did they descend upon him (I wonder?)…… and on us…… (who knows?). Most of us didn’t even recognize their presence until we were somehow under their power, and desiring to be free.
My brain comes up with all kinds of connections and questions here:
It’s hard to not draw parallels to the simultaneous addiction and isolation that comes when social media is abused.
It’s difficult to not think of the ways the “talking heads” of our culture infect us with divisive ideologies that do harm to our neighbors, ourselves, and our planet.
Legion’s demons go into some pigs that end up drowning; where do our demons go when they leave us? And what do they destroy along the way?
And perhaps most importantly: How do we so encounter Christ that he can cast out our demons and restore us to health and life?
But recognize too that healing and restoration to life does not solve all the man’s problems. Those who knew him from “before” can’t accept the change in him, even though it is for his wellbeing. This stands as yet another important reminder to us: It is a lot easier to be the person the people around you expect you to be. But it’s a lot more fulfilling to be the person that God knows you can become.
In the midst of this conversation, it is also worth remembering that God does not stand aloof or far off from us. The “heavens” in which God was believed to live were not a place somewhere out in space, as Jesus often reminds folks. The word he uses refers to the air that is all around us…… the atmosphere both near and far. When Jesus says the Kingdom of the Heavens is “at hand” [Matthew 3:2 NIV], he is saying that it is right there, all around you, presently available to be experienced—just like the air that encompasses your body each moment.
That is how far—or rather how near—God is to you. And even in the Old Testament, God is trying to be found by us. I love the opening verses of Isaiah 65, situated nearly at the end of that book. This chapter speaks of the judgment and justice that God will oversee in the lives of the ancient Israelites, but the initial verses paint a picture of God as the father of the prodigal, eager and even desperately trying to call his child home. God through Isaiah says:
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices” (Isaiah 65:1–2 NRSV)
Connecting this to the stories of Legion and Elijah…… God is trying to be found by us……
whether we are nearly suicidal from isolation and exhaustion,
practically torn apart from the demons that control us,
rejected by those who know us best,
or whatever state we may be in.
God is trying to be found by us.
What are you doing here?
What are you doing here?
What are you doing here?
There’s work to be done. God still believes in you. God wants to accomplish great things through you. Now hold your head up, get back in there, and let’s get some things done together.