What Are You Doing Here, Elijah?

by Kelli Joyce, 1 Kings 19.9-18

May the words of my mouth

and the thoughts of my heart

always be acceptable in your sight,

O God, my strength and my redeemer.

This past Friday night I watched the 2001 Wes Anderson movie,

The Royal Tennenbaums,

for the first time.

It’s the story of how two long-separated parents

and their three adult children

all wind up temporarily living in the same house again,

and all the chaos that ensues.

As a result of conflict over who would be staying in what room,

Richie Tennenbaum, the youngest son,

ends up staying in a tent in the attic.

Toward the end of the movie,

Richie comes home to find another character,

with whom he has a *very* fraught relationship,

sitting on his sleeping bag and listening to music.

“What are you doing in my tent?” Richie asks.

“Listening to records,” she replies,

Providing a perfect example of how to answer a question

without really answering it at all.

Typically in the Bible,

Jesus of Nazareth reigns as the undisputed champion

of talking about whatever is on his mind

instead of actually giving people the answers they were looking for.

But today,

Elijah gives Jesus a run for his money.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks.

Well, let’s think about that.

Elijah is coming off of a bit of a roller coaster ride.

First, he’s on top of the world.

He prayed to the Lord God of Israel to send fire on his offering,

something the prophets of the false god Baal had failed to do,

and his prayer was answered.

Not only that,

but at his word and by his prophecy,

a three-year drought, and the resulting famine,

came to a decisive end.

Two big wins, back to back.

Some new hope.

But then the earthly powers,

the Baal-worshipping King Ahab and his wife Jezebel,

prepare to strike back, as it were.

Having been humiliated by Elijah so publicly,

they pledge to kill him.

Elijah runs.

He journeys through the wilderness for forty days,

until at last he reaches Mount Horeb.

Mount Horeb is also known by another name that might be more familiar:

Mount Sinai.

Our story today takes places on the same mountain where Moses saw the burning bush as a shepherd,

and where God gave him the Ten Commandments after he had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

On this mountain, in Exodus chapter 33,

Moses says to God, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

Here’s how God replies.

“See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;

and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock,

and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;

then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back;

but my face shall not be seen.”

So all of that is the background to God’s simple question.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The answer to that question is “nothing.”

The answer to that question is “hiding.”

And so instead of answering the question,

Elijah jumps straight to defending himself.

He tells God how hard he’s worked,

and how terrible the circumstances have been,

and how poorly it’s all turned out.

God, in turn, ignores Elijah’s defense,

and says “Get ready.

I’m about to show up on this mountain.”

What follows is,

quite literally,

spectacular.

Gale force winds,

followed by an earthquake,

followed by a raging fire.

But, the Bible tells us,

the presence of God was not in any of those things.

I love the way the Common English Bible puts this next part.

“After the fire, there was a sound.

Thin.

Quiet.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat.

He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance.

A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?””

Elijah hasn’t been magically transformed by his latest encounter.

He gives the same answer as before,

word for word,

which to me is a sign that he’d been rehearsing it in his mind

during that long 40 days of walking to the mountain,

in preparation for his airing of grievances against the Most High God.

Again, God says nothing in response to Elijah’s defense of himself.

Instead, Elijah gets marching orders.

Go.

Leave the mountain.

Anoint a new king for Israel,

and anoint your own successor as well while you’re at it.

And without another word,

Elijah goes.

(pause)

So what does all this mean for us?

What does it tell us about God?

What does it tell us about what it means to serve God in times of conflict?

Here’s what I think it means.

You can’t stay forever in the places you go to find safety,

and you can’t maintain your relationship with God

by looking only to places where you know God has acted in the past.

I’m tempted to try to do both of those things, personally.

When I go home to North Carolina,

I don’t want to leave.

It makes perfect sense that we would want to stay

in places where we feel like we’re on solid footing.

Going away to UNC was so difficult for me,

and then moving to Connecticut after that,

because where I wanted to be was here,

at College Park,

which has been my Mount Horeb for over a decade now.

It’s a blessing from God when we find our own Mount Horebs,

whether it’s a friend, or a church,

or a school, or a denomination,

or a town, or a book,

or a home and the people in it.

We shouldn’t dismiss or diminish their value –

they’re like the foundation of a house,

which forms the basis for the stability and soundness of everything that follows.

To truly honor the Mount Horebs that God has given us,

we have to be willing to continue following,

continue learning,

continue building,

continue growing.

And in times of trial,

we can return to the holy mountains of our lives for renewal,

to encounter God’s presence,

and to prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.

Which brings me to my second point:

God doesn’t always appear to us in the ways we expect,

or in the ways familiar to those who came before us.

God’s presence was not in the wind,

or in the earthquake,

or in the fire.

Elijah doesn’t get a glimpse of God’s back,

he gets a sound.

Thin.

Quiet.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

the God of Moses and Miriam,

the God of Joshua and Deborah,

the God of Ruth and Naomi,

the God of Elijah and Isaiah and Huldah,

the God who became human as Jesus,

born of Mary of Nazareth –

that God is the God who says

“Look! I am doing a new thing.

Even now it ‘s sprouting up;

don’t you recognize it?”

God appears to us in new and unexpected ways.

But if we can only recognize God in the familiar,

or in the flashy and the spectacular,

we will miss God’s presence in the quiet.

We will miss God’s presence in an ordinary baby,

born to an unwed mother in occupied Palestine.

(pause)

At the end of the day,

like Elijah,

I’m afraid I’m not really able to answer the question put to me.

I don’t know why God asked Elijah “What are you doing here?”

But I do know this:

God is always with us,

wherever we may find ourselves,

and in whatever circumstances.

Ask yourself:

“What am I doing here?”

And then ask yourself:

“What is God calling me to do next?”