A few weeks ago, we met Elijah the showman—a man so confident in God that he was willing to have a public throwdown with the prophets of Ba’al.
Today we have a slightly more relatable Elijah. Today we have Elijah, the whiner. Not many of us have had public throwdowns in which we have heroically defended God’s honor. But I guarantee that most of us in this room have whined at least once.
The last few weeks we have skipped all around the Elijah story, but this leg of the story happens right after the show down with Ba’al’s prophets. You might remember that Elijah then kills the prophet’s of Ba’al, which infuriates Queen Jezebel, who sends a messenger to warn Elijah that he has 24 hours until she is sending someone to kill him.
So, Elijah runs.
He spends an entire day running into the wilderness until he finally collapses, exhausted. He lies under a little tree and decides to give up. He asks to die. He doesn’t want to go any further. He’s had a good run as a showman prophet and now that things are going downhill, he’s ready to check out.
Now, anytime I get a little cranky, my husband’s first line of defense is to feed me a snack. This works about 85% of the time. Apparently, God has the same plan for Elijah. Elijah falls asleep under the tree, but an angel wakes him up and feeds him some cake and water.
What a tender acknowledgement of Elijah’s humanity! Before God engages Elijah directly, he gives Elijah what he needs to regain his strength. He has asked Elijah to do extraordinary things, but God remembers that Elijah is just a man, and a man who needs some cake.
Once Elijah is revived, he finds a cave and hides there. For 40 days.
Finally, Elijah hears God’s voice. And God says, slightly exasperated, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
What would we answer God if he asked us the same question? Would we answer, “What? This is where you called me to be!” Would we say, “I know, I know, I’ve gotten way off track.” Would we say, “Don’t look at me, Lord of the Universe, I am only here because of outside circumstances!”
Elijah gives a personally reasonable response, even if it is a teensy bit whiney. Elijah patiently explains to God that he has been extremely faithful to God, even though the Israelites are total losers who have turned their backs on God and now they are trying to kill him, so he’s just going to go ahead and live in this cave thank you very much.
We might expect that God would tell Elijah, “Oh grow up. No one ever said being a prophet was easy. Put on your big boy britches and get back out there!”
In fact, at first God doesn’t answer Elijah at all. He just tells him to go stand on the edge of the mountain because he is about to pass by. Remember this isn’t just a mountain, this is Horeb. This is Sinai. This is the mountain where the Lord shows up in big ways. This is the ten commandments mountain.
So, Elijah goes out to the edge of the mountain.
Now, Elijah has gotten used to experiencing God in dramatic ways. After all, God shot fire from the heavens to prove to the Israelites that he existed and was more powerful than Ba’al. So, I bet Elijah expected a big showing when The Lord himself was going to appear!
Elijah waits and a huge wind comes. But the Lord is not in it. Then a huge earthquake, but no God. Then fire! Surely God was in the fire, Fire is God’s move. Nope. No God.
Finally sheer silence fell on the mountain. Elijah wraps his face in his cloak because he knows hte Lord is passing by and he wants to be protected.
What a powerful moment. Elijah is reminded that God is not only with him when fire is raining from the sky, but God is with him even in those moments in his life when he cannot hear or experience God. God is in the silence, not just the dramatic. God is in the everyday, not just the holy experiences.
Surely, this is a transformational moment for Elijah, right?
Well, God asks Elijah the same question, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
And Elijah gives God the exact same answer as before. Word for word!
I think we get so distracted by the beautiful imagery in this passage, that it is easy to miss that Elijah’s anxiety has not diminished. The encounter with God was surely powerful, but not enough to transform Elijah’s personality or current problem, which is that the king’s wife is going to kill him.
Our reading stops there, but what happens next is that God gives Elijah an out! He lets Elijah quit! He tells Elijah to head back and that God will appoint a new king to replace Ahab and Elijah will get to appoint Elisha to be the next prophet! God gives crabby Elijah what he wants! Elijah knows what he can handle and God honors Elijah’s limitations.
Isn’t that great news?
We hear so often of the Christian martyrs and remember Christ’s death on the cross, that sometimes we think being faithful to God means working ourselves to death. We think being faithful to God means beating our heads against brick walls. We think being faithful to God means handling whatever we are dealt, no matter how terrible.
But God created us to be limited beings. We are not infinite, God is. And because we are finite, there are challenges that are too much for us. And we are allowed to complain to God about them. Sometimes we will have to follow through, but sometimes God will completely understand our need to quit.
Now, please, don’t all of you quit your church committees at once; Eric will kill me. And, it turns out, Elijah didn’t quit, after all!
God did give Elijah the out, and Elijah did immediately find Elisha, but he didn’t then move to Florida and start wearing Hawaiian print shirts. Elijah worked alongside Elisha, finishing out his duties as prophet. Something about being heard by God, and having his limits recognized, came him the energy and courage he needed to finish out his ministry.
When you imagined God asking you, “What are you doing here?” Did you imagine parts of your life that are making you miserable? Are there responsibilities you need to give up so you can fully live? Do you need encouragement to finish out what you have started?
Admitting your limitations will not make God turn his back on you. In fact, it wasn’t until Elijah admitted his fears that he experienced the full presence of God. God’s relationship with Elijah was not a reward for Elijah being a “good boy”. God’s relationship with Elijah was because God loved Elijah, for who he was, in all his crankiness.
And you too, are loved, exactly as you are. With your bad habits and unpleasant disposition and extra ten pounds–God loves all of that. God loves all of you. And God will continue to call you, but that call is a conversation, not a set of marching orders.
So, what are you going to say when God asks you, “What are you doing here?”