“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
This is the question we still haven’t addressed. Elijah, as we’ve seen, has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He’d been a hero, so to speak, the man through whom God showed his supremacy over the rival worship of Baal.
So why does he now feel like such a failure?
He’d made a 40-day pilgrimage to Mount Sinai. This isn’t a small detail. No one travels forty consecutive days unless they have a purpose. Why Sinai? Well, isn’t it obvious? Sinai had a special place in the heart of every man, woman, and child who called Israel their home. It was there that—through Moses—Israel had encountered God in the most direct way possible. But as many times as I read this I can’t quite decode Elijah’s emotional state. Is he going to Sinai to try and get closer to God—trying to recreate some feeling or some memory of Israel’s past connection to God? Is he like us when we try and recapture the emotional highs of our spiritual past, perhaps the “glory days” of youth group? Or maybe he’s angry—deeply, and profoundly angry—and he’s gone to Sinai to shake his fist in his Creator’s face.
Perhaps there’s a little bit of both found here, for Elijah’s words sound almost like a prepared statement:
10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:10)
Success can only carry us so far. Elijah had indeed accomplished much—yet felt so inadequate as he faced toward the future. He had drifted, to use our summer-long image; he had anchored so much of his faith in his own achievement that when the memory of victory no longer sustained him…well, that’s just it: he had nothing left.
You and I face a similar danger: we base our identities on our performance. Or, said another way, God seems only as real as he is spectacular. God seems near to us when we experience his miraculous provision, or when we are drawn to his throne through the intensity of a worship experience. When these fade—as emotions inevitably do—we are left with an endless search to recapture the emotional highs of the past. Another worship album. Another book. Another spiritual project. Another Church. And another. And another. And another. Until one day we’re stripped of anything left at all. Unless we anchor ourselves to something else, our faith will flicker and die.
11 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13a)
Elijah is surrounded by the spectacular. But God is not “in” these events, we’re told. Not in the winds, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. He was found only in the “gentle whisper,” what other translations call the “still, small voice.”
There’s a powerful lesson here, about the voice of God. Our faith is rooted not in the monumental experiences of life, but it is rooted instead on our devotion to our Creator’s voice. The strength of our faith will invariably be a reflection of our connection to God’s Word—yes, the Bible. For it is there, in those pages, that we find that the “still small voice” speaks across time and across cultures to peel back the layers of the obvious, and unveil for us the very heart of God.
God now repeats his earlier question to Elijah, and Elijah once again gives his same response.
And a voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied again, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:13b-14)
Hearing him repeat himself almost makes me imagine Elijah, during his 40-day trek to Sinai, rolling these words over and over in his head, perhaps fantasizing about his chance to confront God directly. But God now consoles him with some concrete instructions:
15 Then the Lord told him, “Go back the same way you came, and travel to the wilderness of Damascus. When you arrive there, anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. 16 Then anoint Jehu grandson of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from the town of Abel-meholah to replace you as my prophet. 17 Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha!18 Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Kings 19:15-18)
Elijah isn’t alone. He never was. And neither are we.
You may feel like your best days are already over. And, for some of you, maybe it feels that way because your kids are grown, and they may or may not have turned out the way you would have desired. But God promises you there’s something more to be done, that the horizon will always be a moving target. Elijah could stand confident knowing that 7,000 others had his back. You and I can stand confident knowing that we are one of a “great cloud of witnesses.” God gave us each other for each other, that through our fellowship he might be known. No cultural crisis is so great that it overshadows the call to draw near. It’s not over. It’s not over. It’s not over.