Lesson: 1 Kings 19: 1-15
"What are you doing here?"
The message today is based on the story of Elijah which we've just read. This story is part of one of my very favorite stories – one of my very many favorites – and I love to tell it. First I want to share a little background about the 3 leading characters and the action in the previous scene.
Ahab was king in the northern kingdom, known as Israel, about 850 years before Jesus. In my reading, Ahab was a weak and fearful bully. Because he was uncertain in everything, he looked to those around him to define what was right. As a result, Ahab adopted the religious practices of his in-laws and of the neighboring monarchs. This was a weak man looking for someone else to decide what he ought to do. Ahab was busy allying himself with the neighboring king, looking to foreign soldiers, foreign religion, and foreign culture to prop up his own kingship.
Jezebel was Ahab's wife, the queen of Israel. She was a Phoenician, the daughter of the king of Sidon. Jezebel had a forceful personality … and she believed in power. Jezebel used whatever means she could find to obtain and consolidate her power, including marriage, intimidation, perjury, and murder. For Jezebel, religion was a means of power, a way of controlling both gods and people.
Elijah was a prophet – that is, one who conversed with God and who repeated God's messages to the people of his time. Elijah also had a strong personality, but he was utterly loyal to God.
Just before today's story there is an amazing drama which is worth its own sermon. Today I'll only skim the highlights to remind you of what had happened.
There had been of 3 years of drought and failed crops. According to the ruthless advocacy of Jezebel and Ahab, relief would come not from God but from Asherah, the goddess of fertility, and Baal, the lord of storms. The people of Israel were wavering. Many did not not want to abandon the God their ancestors had followed, but they were afraid of starving to death and they were afraid of being killed by the king's men.
At God's instruction, Elijah had issued a challenge. On the top of Mt. Carmel (which is in the far northwest of Israel and close to Jezebel's homeland), the prophets of the competing gods offered sacrifices. To us living today, it is no surprise that there was no response from Baal and Asherah. But we might have been surprised by the unexpected lightning strike at sunset – during a drought, remember! – which burned up the offering Elijah had made to the Lord: the offering, the wet firewood, and the stones of the altar.
The people who were watching were convinced by this demonstration who was the true God and who was the true prophet. The people, incited by Elijah, seized the prophets of Baal. Elijah himself killed them in the valley below the mountain.
The Bible does not say so, but I say that Elijah failed that day. There is no doubt of Elijah's loyalty to God nor of his zeal to see God triumph. But murder is murder, and in murdering his opponents Elijah "missed the mark". He accepted the false idea that power is the same as the ability to destroy, and so he destroyed the lives of the pagan prophets. Mistaking the true nature of power and the true power of God, Elijah acted like Jezebel when he should have acted as a representative of God.
1 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done and how he had put all the prophets to death with the sword. 2 Jezebel then sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "The gods do the same to me and more, unless by this time tomorrow I have taken your life as you took theirs." 3 [Elijah] was afraid and fled for his life. …
Yes, the prophet Elijah was afraid. And who wouldn't be? For he had identified power with killing, and who was better at killing than Jezebel? There were few who had more experience with assasination and murder than Jezebel did. Jezebel had power over Elijah, not so much because she threatened his life but because he was afraid for his life.
Elijah's fear reminds me of a statement I read many years ago.
As I remember the story,
a man was serving God in a Central American country
during a period of much unrest and killing.
You can't threaten a Christian with his life."
Which is another way of saying what we know from 1 John 4:18,
There is no room for fear in love;
perfect love banishes fear."
But Elijah had failed to understand that love is God's power,
and he was afraid.
So Elijah had sinned by putting too much weight on destroying evil and too little weight on the power of love to make the world better. But Elijah was a man who listened to God, and God had something to say to him.
5 … an angel touched him and said, "Rise and eat." … 8 … sustained by this food, [Elijah] went on … to Horeb, the mount of God.
Through the angel, God is inviting Elijah to come to the holy mountain. God's response to Elijah's failure in love is, first of all, to love him. Elijah cut off his enemies; God responds by including him. What kind of power is this? God's power invites sinners into the presence of God.
Jezebel would not have understood. Jezebel understood what Elijah did in the valley below Mt. Carmel. Jezebel understood the logic of removing anyone who stands in your way. But she would not have understood God's response of including people who take wrong turns and of inviting them to the table. Only the truly powerful can behave this way. Jezebel would not have understood.
Elijah accepted God's invitation to go to Horeb.
Once on the holy mountain, Elijah set up camp in a cave.
There, God challenges Elijah:
Why are you here, Elijah?"
Of course, God knows why Elijah is there.
God is not looking for a recitation of recent history;
this is a challenge to self-examination.
Elijah responds, as any of us will when we are unsure of ourselves,
not with self-examination but with self-justification.
10 "Because of my great zeal for the Lord the God of Hosts," he said. "The people of Israel have forsaken [your] covenant … and put [your] prophets to death … I alone am left, and they seek to take my life."
Elijah's response is completely true, as far as it goes. His justification is perfectly reasonable, within its own worldview. But Elijah is speaking entirely from his human point of view; he is not seeing the way that God sees. How will God respond to Elijah's self-justification?
11a The answer came, "Go and stand on the mount before the Lord."
God's response is to tell Elijah to move, both literally and figuratively. Literally, God tells Elijah to go to the mouth of the cave. He needs to stand up; he needs to act out his willingness to listen to God. Figuratively, God tells Elijah to move on to the next step in his understanding of God's will.
Now, on that holy mountain, God leads Elijah in a drama of discovery. Like the order of worship, like the reading of psalms, like a life-changing conversion experience, God's drama draws Elijah out of his cave and puts him face to face with the will of God.
11 … a great and strong wind came rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a low murmuring sound. 13 When Elijah heard it, he muffled his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave …
Can God appear in the wind, the earthquake, the fire? Of course! On this very mountain, years before, God had appeared to Moses in a burning bush. But Elijah already knew God as cleansing fire; he needed to hear God's quiet power. And Elijah did hear it. The man who was accustomed to converse with God knew that this was the voice of God, and he went out and stood before the Lord, listening.
13 … Then there came a voice: "Why are you here, Elijah?"
God knows why Elijah is there. God is not looking for a recitation of recent history; this is a challenge to self-examination. Elijah responds, as any of us will when we are unsure of ourselves, not with self-examination but with self-justification. Elijah responds with the same speech he had given before. It is still true, it is still reasonable, it is still wrong. But Elijah is speaking entirely from his human point of view; he is not seeing the way that God sees. How will God respond to Elijah's failure to understand?
15a The Lord said to him, "Go back by way of the wilderness of Damascus …"
God's response is the same and not the same. God's response is to tell Elijah to move on, both literally and figuratively. Literally, he is to leave the holy mountain and go back to work. Figuratively, he is to move on to the next step in his work. For God has not sent him back to Mt. Carmel, but to a new place and a new approach.
In the reality of Elijah's failure, God included him. God welcomed Eliljah to God's holy mountain, challenged him to self-examination, set him face to face with God's will for him, and then sent him to undertake a new task.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that we, too, can be failures like Elijah.
The subtitle for this sermon could be, "Our Relationship With God In the Reality of Failure". I didn't think that I needed to preach to you about failure; probably you are uncomfortably aware of failure. The question is, what can we expect from God when we miss the mark, or miss the point?
In the reality of your own failures, God includes you and God invites you into the holy presence. How is God inviting you to the mountain? Perhaps God's invitation to you is to come before God in this worship service, or in attentive reading of the Bible, or in quiet prayer. In the reality of missing the mark, God responds by loving you and including you.
If you accept that invitation, you know that God will challenge you to examine yourself. God will listen to your response – or your self-justification. When you are done, God will call you out of your cave to stand face to face with the will of God for your life. God may send you, like Elijah, to a new place and a new task. Or God may tell you (as Jesus told the man he saved from the mob of demons) to go back home, to do new work among people who know you.
In the reality of our own failures, God is including us and inviting us into the holy presence. God is challenging us to examine ourselves. God listens to our self-justification, and then sends us to the next step of our lives.
What are you doing here?
Scripture quotations from The New English Bible, © 1970, 1961, Oxford Univ. Press and Combridge Univ. Press.