Sermon: What are you doing here?
Preached on 19th February 2012
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
19:1-16, 2 Peter 1:16-end, Psalms 2,99
When I preached at the Epiphany Eucharist I commented on the coincidence that I was preaching on the story of the longest journey the wise men ever made the day before I set off on the longest journey I was ever likely to make. Now that I’m in the aftermath of that time of ministry Down Under, there’s something equally coincidental that I’m preaching on the aftermath of Elijah’s ministry: his triumphant showdown on Mount Carmel with the priests of the pagan gods.
I can’t claim that my time in Australia produced anything like the fireworks Elijah created on Mount Carmel when fire fell from heaven, the false prophets were killed, and a three year drought was spectacularly broken with heavy rain. Although there was heavy rain while I was there, I missed the worst of it and I’m pleased to report that, far from leaving a trail of destruction, I had two encouraging conferences, first with the clergy and then the ordinands in the Diocese of Brisbane. Coincidentally, I based my first address to the clergy, many of whom were exhausted after a year of clearing up and rebuilding homes and communities after the major floods in Queensland a year earlier, on this same story of Elijah that we heard this morning.
I want to suggest that this story has something to help all of us on the last Sunday before Lent, the season when we are invited to be more focused on our discipleship, whether we have been Christians for years or are just exploring the Christian faith.
So, let’s look at the story.
Prior to this, Elijah had begun his public ministry by turning up one day, seemingly from nowhere, telling King Ahab very boldly, ‘As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these three years, except by my word.’ That is some way to launch out in the public eye. He had an air of confidence and foolhardy boldness that he should speak God’s word of judgement to a king who had been leading the nation astray in both religious and economic ways – there’s a contemporary ring to the story because while Ahab brought political stability and material prosperity for the wealthy in his society, it was at the expense of the poor and the faithful who suffered badly, and it was that which brought God’s condemnation through Elijah.
And drought ensued; serious drought. God sustained Elijah by the precarious means of ravens which brought him food and a widow who was about to eat her last scraps of food and prepare to die. To reach her, Elijah had to travel about 100 miles through land devastated by drought that would be enough to make anyone’s faith waver. We see too many similar pictures on the news today.
After three years of this he confronted the king again. Elijah’s reputation was fearsome and the king blamed him for the nation’s problems, a charge Elijah threw back in the king’s face. There was the celebrated confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel when Elijah taunted the prophets and called down God’s fire. It ended with complete triumph for Elijah who slaughtered all the prophets. Torrential rain followed.
It seems God was working miracles overtime in Elijah’s life. This was the moment of his great success in life. But…
One angry outburst from Jezebel, the queen against whose religious influence all this has been directed so successfully, and Elijah was terrified and fled 120 miles where left his servant and went on alone into the wilderness. And once there, a fit of depression took over. Elijah was suddenly and terribly alone. Sometimes great success is followed by loss of confidence and loneliness.
Despite it all, he continued to pray, demanding that God take away his life – in today’s language, it’s almost a plea for assisted suicide because he’d had enough of barely surviving, he wanted to die. But God refused the request and sent an angel with more food. As an aside, when we are depressed, we need to care for our physical needs before we can deal with our spiritual needs properly.
Elijah then walked for forty days in the wilderness to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, where Moses had spent forty days in God’s presence, received the law and emerged with his face shining from the encounter with God’s glory.
It seems Elijah was consciously trying to recreate Moses’ experience for himself, to walk in his shoes. Moses’ experience at Mount Sinai included thunder, lightning, thick cloud, earthquake and noise like a trumpet. Now Elijah wanted the reassurance of a similar display of God’s tremendous power. Earthquake, wind and fire were recurring symbols and signs of God’s mysterious presence. At the creation a wind from God swept over the face of the earth, God’s presence was known in the pillar of fire in the wilderness, when God finally spoke to Job it was out of the whirlwind, and a rebellion in the wilderness ended with an earthquake. Psalm 29 is a vivid account of God’s power revealed through nature.
Elijah knew all this and was going back in Moses’ footsteps to recreate the scene where God appeared in all this might and terror. Elijah’s confidence in himself and in God had been badly shaken by Jezebel’s cursing; he feared for his life and suffered from what we would call depression. Surely now would be the time when God would reassure and comfort him through a sign of his presence?
It seems not. God appears to be silent, at least in the ways that Elijah was looking for. We heard of him in the wilderness, sitting under a solitary broom tree and asking to die. He was alone, totally alone, physically and emotionally. “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” But who said he had to be better than them? God hadn’t said it, and Elijah thought he was the only one still faithful to God so there hadn’t been other people of God to say it. So it must be an internal pressure he has been driven by. No wonder God didn’t answer this prayer - Elijah needed to be freed from this unattainable goal, not destroyed by it, just as we sometimes need to be freed from expectations that are destroying us.
Then God asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah’s answer was a mixture of utter fidelity to God tinged with despair, if not self-pity. God didn’t answer the complaints, but sent him out to the mountain to face the experience he wanted. There was a great wind that split mountains; an earthquake; a fire - all the destructive power Elijah wanted, and it was terrifying – he started by standing on the mountain but two verses later was deep in a cave. But the Lord was not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. And then there was a sound of sheer silence, noiselessness: a silence so intense you could hear it. The exact antithesis of the earthquake, wind and fire. Elijah heard this silence of God, covered his face lest he see God - and came out of the cave.
And then a voice asked the same persistent question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” - “what are you doing here?”, “what are you doing here?”, “what are you doing here?”, “what are you doing here?”, “what are you doing here?” We do not know the intonation of the question, or of his answer which was the same as before, but I imagine more subdued because in the presence of God our self-assertion crumbles. The silence of God that is God’s presence confronts us with questions about ourselves, often uncomfortable questions. And once we face our own need, then God can speak because God meets us where we are, not where we pretend to be. So God gave Elijah directions and reminded him that he had got his perspective wrong, he was not alone, there were at least 7,000 other faithful people who needed him.
In closing these thoughts on Elijah, recall the story of Jesus’ transfiguration which is portrayed in our stained glass window and which the church focuses on today, the Sunday before Lent. Another mountain, another person facing the rejection of the people and the certainty of death. Jesus went up this mountain to pray and it was Moses and Elijah who appeared to him - so Elijah did get to share a mountaintop experience with Moses after all. But now they were speaking with Jesus about his departure to be accomplished at Jerusalem. I wonder if it is not just because Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, but because they had both known the pain and loneliness of fidelity to God in the face of the infidelity of the people, that they could strengthen Jesus. Sometimes, people who have struggled to remain faithful to God when the going gets tough, who have known God’s silence, God’s seeming absence, are the best companions on our journey when we find it hard to be faithful and are in despair or exhausted.
So, as we stand on the brink of Lent, how can Elijah’s experience help us today? His story, told in the context of his own culture, is timeless because we all experience loneliness, depression, exhaustion, and we too hanker after certainty about God’s presence with us when the going is tough. Sometime, like Elijah, our moments of triumph suddenly end and we come crashing back to hard reality. Elijah needed to face his own doubts, fears and questions, and to be open to God coming to him in ways he never expected. To enable that to happen, God began by asking him “What are you doing here?” because Elijah needed to be honest about himself so that God could meet him in that situation of self-doubt and despair.
Lent is a time of paring back so that our real needs and questions can come to the fore and be faced; questions about God’s call on our life, our commitment, our behaviour, our money, our time, our successes, our failures. Lent is nearly here and perhaps we can begin by asking ourselves “What are we doing here?” and then asking God to meet with us during Lent. As we prayed in our first hymn,
Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, radiancy divine,
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day. (Charles Wesley)