I’ll have to admit, it is easy to put words in the mouth and heads of Biblical characters, especially when they react in a way that we don’t think they should. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, to use your imagination. We all do, and I’m guessing you had a picture in your mind of this encounter with Elijah and God on the holy mountain. We use our imagination to fill in the gaps and answer the questions that come to mind as we read. I had to do that this week, to help me answer the question God asked Elijah, because I wondered why he would be afraid and flee Israel after such an incredible display of God’s power.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
(Brief pause with shoulder shrug, looking up.) “God, you know why I’m here. You just had this awesome display of might that showed you truly are the one and only true God. The fire from heaven should have convinced all that were watching. But they did nothing to her. Jezebel still sits on the throne, and the people fear her more than they fear you. In the moment they could have done something about her, they failed to act. I knew what her so-called prophets were capable of, and that was nothing, they all saw that. But I know what she is capable of; I’ve seen what she has done to the others, the murderous plots she hatched. I stood alone at that moment, afraid I would have to contend with her by myself, so I fled, traveling hundreds of miles to get here. Even with your awesome display of power, when they could have fully turned to you and run her out of Israel, they let their fear get in the way. I’m the only one left who truly believes in you, and those that don’t, they seek my life.”
“Stand on the mountain,” says God, “for I am about to pass by.” Then comes the powerful wind, strong enough to crack rock. But God was not in the wind. After that an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And then an all consuming fire spread over the mountain, but God would not be found in the fire. And then silence. I had the choir members read different versions of that phrase this morning because it is a hard passage to translate, to get to the deep meaning of Hebrew. The best we can do with the Hebrew is to combine a whisper, a silence, and a stillness with a dash of thinness and smallness. Alan Jackson in his song, “Song for the Life” reflects on how he has learned to listen for a sound like the sun going down. That image helps me grasp what this sound might have been like.
Elijah had already had an encounter with God in the fire from heaven that shook the foundation of the earth on Mount Carmel when Elijah had overthrown the false prophets. He had also seen God at work when God opened the heavens and the wind and rain came thick on the land that had been stricken by drought. Now God had to get Elijah’s attention with silence. Elijah covers his face and steps out of the cave to encounter God. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“What are you doing here?” Why is it you are here, in this sanctuary, this morning? Are you here because this is what you feel is expected of you? Are you are here because this is what your family always did Sunday morning, an unwritten obligation you feel you have toward God? Are you here because you ‘should’ be here, because you fear that there may be guilt involved if you don’t? Or maybe the fear comes from feeling that if you weren’t here, you might not please God. Maybe for you coming to church is part of a to-do list of getting on God’s good side, thinking that if you do the right things for God, maybe God will do the right things for you. “What are you doing here?” Or, are you here to have a personal encounter with the living God of scripture?
That’s who Elijah meets that day on the mountain. The personal, living, real God revealed in scripture comes to Elijah. Here, we find God revealing himself not by the manipulation of natural forces, even though those forces are set into turmoil by God’s appearance, but by the word, the spoken word.
That word is calm, comprehensible, personal, and purposeful. The first two times God speaks to Elijah, God asks him why he is there. The third time, God reaffirms Elijah’s call as a prophet, sending him to Damascus, where he will anoint a new king. God tells Elijah to get back to work. Is Elijah still frustrated? Probably. But God will not let him give into his frustration and fear and will not let him hide from his call. God has called him to be a prophet, to speak God’s word.
And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone in living out that calling. First and foremost, God is with him. God is a personal God who does not abandon Elijah, no matter what forces he must face. But also God reveals there are still 7000 who have not bowed to the false gods that Jezebel brought to Israel. God’s call on Elijah is both personal and communal. From this remote encounter with God will come major changing events for Elijah and the people of Israel. If we were to read on, we come to the calling of Elisha, Elijah’s successor, and the eventual demise of Jezebel.
“What are you doing here?” First and foremost, we are here to have an encounter with the living God who enters into history and lays claim to each of us so we can discern God’s purpose for our lives. The sound of sheer silence is not just another way of talking about seeking peace and getting centered in the midst of life’s pressure. It is about hearing the word of God who speaks to us plainly and clearly through his Word in scripture by the Holy Spirit. It is about reaching out to a personal God who is reaching for us to save us and walk with us and calling us as his own. And that same God is molding us and shaping us as individuals so we can live into the purpose God created us to be and do. And there is no saying, “I’ve done my time” or “I am afraid to try.” You cannot hide from your calling, and you cannot run from it, because God will remind you of it, even if he uses the intensity of silence to get your attention.
We not only encounter God here as individuals; we encounter him in the community of faith. God works within and through this community to fulfill his purposes. God does work in history through singular, jaw dropping events like what happen on top of Mt.Carmel when fire rained down on the sacrifice. But, God also works in time and in the course of history through the interworking of many called individuals who are part of the community. God’s call doesn’t rest on just a spectacular few. Everyone is significant in God’s redeeming work in history. As one commentator paraphrases George Eliot, “the greatest good may come from those who lead hidden lives,” like the 7000 people quietly going about their lives in resistance to the false gods of Jezebel. There is no ignoring the least of these, as God may have the biggest plans for them.
And we are here to be sent. Elijah didn’t stay on the mountain; he went and did what he was called to do. And he didn’t leave God’s presence; God went with him and before him. Sometimes I think we feel that this is God’s house and this is the only place we will experience him. Individually and as a community, we are called to go out into the world and share the grace and love that God has shared with us. The kingdom that God wants us to experience and share exists out there. That is where we live into our calling. God puts the words into our mouths to share with a broken world that needs to hear about his love and grace they can experience in Christ. It is God who puts the fire in our hearts that leads to our call. The way Fredrick Buechner puts it, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Friends, what are you doing here? I cannot answer that question for you. But I do know God has a purpose for you and a purpose for us. You may need to spend some time listening in the silence for that still small voice of God. Lent is a time to take a quiet journey to hear God’s call upon and purpose for your life. If you have been waiting for that earthquake, that fire from heaven, or that voice to come booming across the valley in the wind to tell you who you should be and what you should do, stop and consider the silence. Pray and listen. The living God is calling you. Amen.