Jun 23, 2019
“What Are You Doing Here?” - I Kings 19:1-15a
Have you ever been discouraged? Afraid? Tempted to give it all up? To throw in the towel? I’m sure that’s happened to most of us at one time or another. But it might surprise you to discover that you are in really good company. That’s right. It’s also happened to some of the greatest spiritual giants of all time. Moses, Elijah, Mother Teresa to name just three. Yes, all of them went through times of discouragement and depression. And today, our scripture reading gives us an up-close and personal look at one of them as he goes through some tough times. It’s none other than that great prophet Elijah.
Let us pray. Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the mediation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It seems Elijah has gotten himself into some really hot water. He has challenged the prophets of Baal and won a decisive victory. He wipes them out. And those prophets were the ones who worked for the evil Queen Jezebel. As you can imagine, she is not at all pleased when she learns about it. No, she flies into a rage and demands his blood.
At once, she sits down and writes a letter to Elijah. She holds him personally responsible. And she wants him to know what fate is in store for him. She wants him to sweat and to stew. With a smile on her face, she seals the letter and stamps it with the Queen of Israel’s seal. And she gleefully imagines Elijah sweating and stewing and suffering.
With trembling hands, Elijah receives the message and reads it silently to himself. Just as the seal indicated, it is from the evil Queen Jezebel. It is short. It is direct. And there’s definitely no mistaking its meaning. “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of my prophets by this time tomorrow.”
Elijah’s face turns pale. His heart beats rapidly. He’s filled with fear. He doesn’t know what to do. All he knows for sure is that it isn’t safe for him to stay where she can get her hands on him. So, he gets right up and flees for his life. He’s on the run, and he’s all alone.
He travels a full day’s journey into the wilderness where he collapses under a solitary broom tree. He’s exhausted. Weary to the bone. And that’s when the real discouragement kicks in. That’s when he finds himself facing a full-blown depression. With tear-filled eyes he cries out to God. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life.” That’s right, he’s so utterly discouraged he wants to die. He’s burned out.
That’s when the miraculous begins to happen. For it seems that even though Elijah is ready to check out, God isn’t done with him yet. Out of nowhere, an angel touches him and speaks these words. “Get up and eat.” He rubs his eyes to see that a breakfast has been prepared. He gobbles it down, rolls over, and goes back to sleep. He’s still depressed.
But Elijah has barely closed his eyes when the angel of the Lord appears a second time. Again the angel touches him and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He blinks his eyes and sees that another big meal has been cooked up for him.
Even though he doesn’t have much of an appetite, Elijah does as the angel instructs. He gets up and eats and drinks his fill. But he’s still totally bummed out. But even given his depressed condition, the Spirit of the Lord somehow manages to propel him on a forty-day journey to Horeb, the mount of God. We know it as Mt. Sinai. It’s the very place where Moses received the law and the covenant from God.
There he finds a cave, crawls into it, and begins to hibernate. He’s still terribly depressed. But it’s right there and then that the Lord confronts him with a question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And without thinking, Elijah lets God have it with both barrels. “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the 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.” Did you get that? Elijah brags about what he has done, throws his fellow Israelites under the bus, and then moans and complains. Even after directly encountering God, he’s still bummed out.
But God doesn’t give up on him. “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the LORD is about to pass by.” But before Elijah can respond something extraordinary happens. Something absolutely breathtaking. A great wind rises out of nowhere. A wind so strong that it splits mountains and breaks rocks. But Elijah stays curled up inside the cave. He’s still deeply depressed.
But God isn’t finished. To prove it, an earthquake breaks forth out of the blue. But Elijah seems to be unmoved. He’s still in the cave in a fetal position. So God continues. This time, it’s with a great fire. It lights up the entire sky. But Elijah just covers his eyes and crawls further back into the cave. He’s still burned out and bummed out. And that’s when the sound of sheer silence breaks out. It seems God is still persisting.
And for some reason, that’s what finally gets Elijah’s attention. When he hears that great silence, he wraps his face in his mantle, goes outside, and stands at the entrance of the cave. That’s when God asks him that same question again. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And believe it or not, Elijah has the nerve to give him the same old pitiful answer. Again he brags, throws his fellow Israelites under the bus, and then continues to complain. In spite of all that God has done, Elijah remains depressed. Angel visitations, catered meals, a cyclone, a fire, and an earthquake have not moved him. Even the very voice of God fails to cause him to come out of his fear and depression.
Let’s face it, it’s all enough to remind one of that old joke. It seems a sailor was shipwrecked on a desert island. There he begins to pray to God to save him. Suddenly, a boat approaches, but the man tells it to go away. “God will save me,” he proclaims and keeps on praying. Some time later a second boat arrives. Again, he sends it away saying that God will save him. He keeps on praying. To his amazement a helicopter shows up. But he turns down the ride saying, “God will save me.”
After some time, the man dies from exposure. When he gets to heaven he complains to God. Just like Elijah does. He complains to God for not saving him. God just smiles and replies. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?”
You see, God doesn’t give up on Elijah. And did you notice? God doesn’t blame or criticize him. God seems to understand his depression, fear, and discouragement. And God doesn’t offer him any simplistic or easy words of advice. No, God gives him a mission. Gives him a reason to carry on. Gives him exactly what he needs to continue his ministry.
A missionary to Africa tells the story of an elderly woman who was reached with the gospel. She was blind, could neither read nor write, and was depressed. But she felt God’s call. She became convinced that God had a purpose for her. So, she went to the missionary and asked for a copy of the Bible in French. When she got it, she asked the missionary to underline John 3:16 in red and to mark the page it was on so she could easily find it. Then she took off. The missionary was curious to see what she was up to, so he followed her.
To his surprise, she headed for the school. There, when the dismissal bell rang, she made her way to the front door. As the boys came out, she would stop one and ask him if he knew how to read French. When he said, “Yes,” she would ask him to read the verse that was marked in red. Then, she would ask, “Do you know what that means?” And then she would tell him about Christ. You see, it seems that God indeed had a purpose for her.
And God still has a purpose for each of us. It’s been said that you can tell if God has a purpose for you by answering one simple question. “Are you alive?” And if you answer, “Yes,” to that question, then God indeed does indeed have a purpose for you.
And there’s really no telling what God can accomplish through us. It might be something truly great. For God has a way of making even the impossible possible. And God does all of this through ordinary people like you and me. George Eliot put it this way. “The greatest good may come from those who lead hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.” What a powerful encouragement for each of us. “The greatest good may come from those who lead hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Like Elijah, our work for God is not yet done. And even when we are frightened and discouraged and depressed, God doesn’t give up on us. God comes to us in all seasons. In adversity, in abundance, and even in our boredom. Yes, God is present in flight, despair, sleep, wilderness, noise, and silence. Even in the midst of fear, isolation, and failure.
And may we remember God’s words to Elijah. “You are not alone. God cares. Now get back to it.” And like Elijah, may we also hear and respond to those precious words given by the angels. “Get up and eat.” For we, too, are invited to the table. Invited into God’s loving arms. A God who never gives up on us. A God whose power and whose love are too great to ever give up on us and our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.