Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from the crucified and living Lord Jesus! Amen. The prophet Elijah is one of my favorite people in the Bible. He’s definitely not a stock character. Instead, he comes to life and leaps off the page. He dresses weirdly, wearing camel skins and a leather belt like John the Baptist (2 Kings 1:8). He can be a bit fanatical—like the time that he killed 400 prophets of Baal in one afternoon (1 Kings 18). He’s not afraid speak truth to power when he confronts King Ahab for his many sins, although he is intimidated by the queen, Jezebel. Elijah is one of only two people in the Bible who never dies (the other being Enoch, of course). But the thing I like the most about Elijah is that we get to see him having a bad day. The writer of 1 Kings shows us that not everything is rainbows and butterflies for the Lord’s servants. Even prophets (and preachers) get down in the dumps sometimes.
So in our Old Testament lesson today, that we get a rather unflattering portrait of the previously unflappable man of God. When our text begins, Elijah is on the lam, fleeing for his life because of Queen Jezebel’s death threats (cp. 1 Kings 19:1-3). His victorious duel with the prophets of Baal is behind him—last week’s news. After soaring to great heights, now he has crashed. In the verses just before our pericope, Elijah begs God to put him out of his misery and let him die (v. 4). Instead God sent an angel to feed him a miraculous meal that gave him enough strength to make a 40-day journey to “Horeb, the mount of God” (v. 8), also known as Mt. Sinai. Elijah is from the northern kingdom of Israel. Mt. Horeb (Sinai) is in the southern kingdom of Judah—enemy territory. Elijah crosses the border to seek asylum in a foreign land, where, perhaps, he will no longer be persecuted for his faith. Then here, on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God in fire and thunder, Elijah crawls into a cave to pout and feel sorry for himself (19:9).
But Yahweh interrupts his pity party when he shows up and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Where is the emphasis in that question? “What are you doing here?” “What are you doing here?” Or is it more along the lines of “What are you doing here?” The Hebrew here helps. Literally, God asks, “What to you [is] here, Elijah?” In other words, “What is there for you here, Elijah?” Shouldn’t you be someplace else?
It’s a good question: What are you doing here? Do you ever ask it of yourself? I do. Sometimes when life or ministry are not going right, I ask myself, “What am I doing here?” What’s my plan? What’s my purpose? Is there any point to what I’m trying to accomplish? At the end of the day, despite all my efforts, I’m no further along than when I began. So what’s the point? Maybe I should just give up, crawl into a cave and pout. “Woe is me!” Have you ever been there?
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
So Elijah pipes up, blubbering through his tears: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (v. 10).
Elijah sounds like he’s throwing a temper tantrum: “Look at everything I’ve done for you, Lord! I’ve tried to serve your kingdom. I preached the Word. I risked my life to do the right thing. But now what do I have to show for it? My fellow preachers are dead. I’ve been branded Public Enemy Number One. And I’m the only believer left. Just me! Everybody else has either abandoned the faith or been killed. So how do you like me now, God?! What am I doing here?! You tell me! I was wondering the same thing!”
And God listens… and takes it… because his shoulders are broad… and he can handle it. He wants us to pour out our hearts to him in prayer (Ps. 62:8). He wants us to tell him how we feel—even if our feelings are wrong. Because he loves us, he welcomes our complaint.
But Elijah also needs a fresh perspective. He’s so focused on himself (notice how many times he uses the word “I” in his little speech?), that he’s no longer focused on God. So Yahweh tells him to go outside to watch and wait for what Yahweh is going to do next.
But Elijah isn’t ready to go outside yet. God already tricked him once into doing this blasted foolish ministry gig, and he’s not quite sure he’s ready for Round 2. So in successive order, God sends one theophany after another: a mighty wind, an earthquake, and a fireball. But with the delightful repetition of a children’s story, the writer tells us, “But Yahweh was not in the wind” (v. 11), and “Yahweh was not in the earthquake,” and, finally, “Yahweh was not in the fire” (v. 12). (Aside: “Not I,” said the cow. “Not I,” said the pig. “Not I,” said the dog. “Then I’ll do it myself,” said the Little Red Hen.)
Perhaps the child-like appeal of this story is fitting because, after all, Elijah acts rather childish in this narrative. So do we, when we’re mad at God or melancholy about our circumstance. We can all be rather childish at times. Isn’t it wonderful that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these? Isn’t it great that, as the forgiven children of God, we can go to our heavenly Father with all boldness and confidence?
At long last, after the fire, Elijah heard “the sound of a low whisper” (v. 12)—“a still, small voice” (KJV), the sound of silence (cp. NRSV). With all the pyrotechnics and special effects, God put on quite a show! But that’s not the way he revealed himself to Elijah. Nor is that the ordinary way that he reveals himself to us. Instead, he comes with “a gentle whisper” (NIV). He comes to us by his Word.
So Elijah wraps his mantle around his face, because he knows that he is on holy ground, and no one can see God’s face and live (cf. Ex. 33:20). And he stands just outside the entrance of the cave—in case he needs to duck back inside to avert sudden danger or doom.
And then—just like a children’s story—Yahweh asks his question again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 13; cf. v. 9).
And like a refrain, Elijah repeats again: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (v. 14).
Well, there you have it, folks! Elijah hasn’t learned a thing. He’s stuck—in his anger and fear and injured pride. And God is about to “un-stuck” him.
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus,” Yahweh tells him (v. 15). Damascus?! That’s clear on the other side of Israel—more than 100 miles away! Going to Damascus means traveling through Israel, the very place where he is wanted, the very place where there’s a price on his head, the very country from which he fled!
Yahweh tells Elijah to go and get back to work:
“Go, return on your way. There’s work for you to do! I need you in Damascus. I need you to anoint new kings over Syria and Israel. And I need you to anoint Elisha as a prophet after you, because who’s going to carry on the work when you’re gone? And, yes, the journey to Damascus means you’re going to be in danger on the way. And, yes, there really are people out to get you. But I love you. I care for you. And I will be with you every step of the way! So don’t be afraid.
“And, oh, by the way, you’re not the only believer on the face of the earth. You’re not the only one left. I have preserved 7,000 people in Israel who never bowed to idols or worshiped the pagan god of Baal. And what about your friend, Obadiah, who hid one hundred prophets when the king tried to kill them? Did you forget about them? Elijah, you thought you were the last one, but there are thousands of others just like you—people of faith fighting for the kingdom of God. They haven’t given up yet. So you can’t either. On your feet! Back to work!”
We can learn a lot from Elijah. His self-pity and melancholy gave him a distorted view of the world around him. The darkness in his cave blinded him from seeing what God was doing. He failed to recognize that Yahweh was still at work in the world, doing his thing, saving souls, and bringing people to repentance and faith. Elijah was not the only one left. He was a fool for thinking so, and he was selfish for wanting to give up the cause and abandon all the others to their fate.
Sometimes we also fall prey to self-pity. It can be caused by trouble at work, dissatisfaction with our marriage, or frustration at the feeling of just being “stuck.” Our health or memory fails us. Or we simply look at the world around us and how hostile the culture has become against Christianity, and we despair.
But what are we doing here? There is work to do. God hasn’t given up on us, so how can we give up on him?
But we have a God who loves us, who comes to us in his Word. Instead of blasting us with a whirlwind, an earthquake, or a firestorm, he speaks the Gospel of peace. He lisps to us in a whisper, like a mother babbling to the baby on her lip. He dies our death. He forgives our sins. He gives us his own Body and Blood as food and drink to strengthen us on the way. “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7). But when Christ is with us—and in us—there is nothing we cannot do (Phil. 4:13).
“And behold, I am with you always,” Jesus says, “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). We are not alone. We are not the only ones left. “Go, return on your way…” (1 Kings 19:15). Trust in Yahweh. Follow Jesus. Do the work that God has given you to do, wherever he has placed you. Live like Jesus lived everywhere you go. Love like Jesus loved. Go, return your way with sins forgiven and the Holy Spirit in your heart. Christ is with you always, whispering in his Word. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit. Amen.