In his book, Questions God Asks Us, Trevor Hudson’s book, asks a number of questions that are posed of us by God in the Bible. So often we feel like we have to have the right answers – but in reality, sometimes all we need to move ourselves deeper in our faith and in our relationships with God and one another are good questions. Today, I want to spend some time looking at the question asked by God “What are you doing here?
As I was reading about the 1 Kings passage in which we hear this question asked today, I was trying to imagine 21st century situations in which this question might be asked. In thinking about different possibilities, it hit me – are we putting the emphasis (em-fas-ees) on the right syllable (sill-aa-bull)? That is, are emphasizing the right word in the question?
See, if I ask the question like this – What are you DOING here? … the question is inquiring more about your current actions than your physical location. But if the question were asked like this, What are you doing HERE? … the focus is less on your actions and more about your location. In other words, why is it that you find yourself in this place, at this time?
Now, I can imagine a time and a place for both of these questions. I can speak with experience, that with children – at least with my children, the first option is more commonly used. You walk in and find your children coloring on the walls – and you ask in an less than pleased tone – What are we doing here? Maybe that’s not all you say, but you may lead off with the question. What are you doing here?
Perhaps your friends or loved ones have walked in on you dancing around the house to some music, or maybe you’re doing yoga in the basement – and when you’re found, the question is asked, “what are you doing here?” … another way to ask the question would be, “What’s going on … what’s happening here?”
And let’s not act all innocent – surely I’m the only one who has ever been in the midst of a day dream and had this question asked of them.
The other question – “What are you doing HERE?” might also be a common question you hear at home. Perhaps you ask your teenager what they’re still doing at home at 9:30 in the morning because they slept in, missed the bus, or are hoping to skip … I mean, they’re feeling sick, and so they aren’t going to school that day.
Maybe you supposed to be at a doctor’s appointment, and a significant other or a spouse sees you haven’t left the house and reminds you of your tardiness with the question, “What are you doing here?”
God’s questions to us are often God’s way of letting us know God’s will. The questions are not always meant to be answered; often these questions of God are offered as rhetorical questions, but they are meant to help us understand God’s will.
As we take a look at our scripture today, I want to keep the two inflections of this question in mind. What is the question that God is asking Elijah, and what is God expecting as a response?
As we look to our scripture, it helps for this story to be put into context. In 1 Kings, chapter 18, Elijah is proving to the prophets of Ba’al that their false god is just that – a fake. He has two bulls brought and placed on altars for sacrifices. He tells the prophets of Ba’al not to light the altar on fire, but to call on their god to provide the fire. As you can imagine, their god – Ba’al – seems to be MIA. No fire is provided for their sacrifice.
Elijah, in a similar manner, prepares the second bull on his altar – but then he drenches the altar, the wood under the animal, and the surrounding ground with water. And yet when he calls on God – God sends down a fire to the altar that consumes even the water.
The prophets of Ba’al fall on their knees, they are amazed at Elijah’s God. However, Elijah isn’t pleased with their newfound humility – he calls for them to be taken down the mountain side and killed.
It is here we pick up with our scripture today – Elijah – who was a prophet for King Ahab – has just killed all of these prophets of Ba’al who were in King Ahab’s territory. Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, learns about the actions of Elijah, and declares she will do to Elijah what he had done to the prophets – that is, she declares his death sentence.
Elijah is rightly scared – and we’re told he flees to Beersheba, which is in the land of Judah. Elijah believes that if he can escape Jezebel’s territory – going into the land of Judah – he would be safe from her threats.
Elijah, having reached Beersheba, leaves his servant behind and goes on by himself into the wilderness.
I want you to imagine Elijah’s demeanor. Put yourself in his shoes. It is likely he feels quite alone in the wilderness – as a fugitive – worried for his life. Elijah is likely anxious of what may become of him in the near future. He is broken, lost, and exhausted.
To add insult to injury – the scripture says Elijah sits down under one solitary broom tree. Rein Bos, a professor of Homiletics in the Netherlands, says that broom trees don’t usually grow solitarily.[i] They generally grow as a clumped plant in close proximity with other trees. Elijah, already feeling alone and in a desolate place, sits under a solitary, lonely tree.
To add to our understanding of how he currently feels, we hear his words, “It is enough,” he says, “now Oh Lord, take away my life.” He fled the land of King Ahab to protect his life, but now believes that his life is not worth living. For Elijah, he has reached a new low in his life, and is ready to give up on life itself.
After he falls asleep there under the broom tree, he is awakened by an angel who tells him to eat – and as he looks over, he sees that a cake has been baked on hot stones, and there is a jar of water. He eats, he drinks, and he falls back asleep. Again, the angel awakens him, and a second time he is told to get up and eat. The angel says, “eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
What could be worse? He is ready to give up on life – he’s already at his all-time low – what more could the journey hold? For what is he being told to prepare?
The scripture says he does as he is told. He eats and drinks – and the nourishment of the bread and water give him the strength to go out further into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Now, you can interpret this length of time however you want – whether it be literal or figurative – what the scripture is telling us it that Elijah continued to travel for a very long time.
During that time period, Elijah finds his way up Mount Horeb and finds refuge in a cave. It is here, in this cave, that God first asks the question, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Perhaps it was a rhetorical question, like God’s questions so often are – but Elijah feels a need to answer. His response is, “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 by the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
God call Elijah out of the cave. He tells him to stand on the mountain and be ready, for the Lord is coming this way. Elijah goes out of the cave, and standing there on the mountain a great wind came. Elijah could hear the wind, see the trees swaying back and forth. The wind was so strong that rocks were breaking into pieces – but Elijah did not hear the Lord in the wind. Then an earthquake hit the ground, and you can imagine Elijah falling to the ground under the shaking mountain – but in the earthquake, Elijah did not hear the Lord. After the earthquake, a fire came – like the fire that consumed the bush in front of Moses – but Elijah did not hear the Lord in the fire.
Finally, after these three earth-shaking events – Elijah stood there in the silence. And it was in the silence that Elijah heard the voice of the Lord – and again, the question was asked, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Have you ever been in a similar place? Can you put yourself in Elijah’s shoes? Have you ever been so beaten down, having weathered storm after storm, that you wanted to flee your home to get away? Have you ever wanted to be in isolation in the wilderness?
Elijah fled – he was at his wits end. And when he reached that furthest point from home, God met him in a cave, on the side of a mountain, and asked, “What are you doing here?”
Where is the emphasis in God’s question? Is God asking what Elijah is doing – is the concern about the physical actions … or is God asking about Elijah’s location – why is he so far from home?
Elijah was a prophet – God had a distinct calling on Elijah’s life. He was called to live and serve in a time and a place where there were as many people serving other gods as there were who knew the one true God. Elijah’s calling was to help the people know Yahweh – the creator God – and to turn from their demigods.
Elijah’s calling was not too different than many of ours – for we too serve in a time and place where people answer to others gods each and every day. Perhaps they are not worshipping Ba’al – or other physical deities – but many in our society worship the gods of money, time, materialism, and cultural expectations.
Elijah, like so many of us, was exhausted trying to combat these other gods and he fled. He was seemingly unable to continue to put up with the fears, the worries, the hardships, and the expectations.
So I believe when God first asked Elijah, “what are you doing here,” God’s question was asked to in regard to Elijah’s physical actions.
We know from other scriptures that retreats are a welcomed entity for God’s servants. There are times when we need to just get away. Christ himself took extended periods of time away from serving so he could be re-energized, refocused, and renewed. It was not wrong for Elijah to need time to recover. He fled to find revitalized strength.
But he was given new strength in the bread and the water in the wilderness – yet he did not turn back home. Elijah kept running.
On the mountainside, Elijah was led to discover and hear the voice of God. Yet, Elijah did not hear the voice of God in the normal theophonies – the big events through which God had previously spoken to other prophets – Elijah is led to hear the Lord in the still quiet whisper. And hearing God’s voice, the question is asked a second time, “What are you doing here?”
I think the second time the question is asked, the emphasis is on location. God is saying to Elijah, I’ve provided for you the strength you need. I’ve provided for you a new way to seek my guidance – to reassure you that I am with you – even in the still quietness of life. So why are you still here?
I don’t know why life seems so hard at times. I don’t fully understand why it is that we sometimes struggle more than we want or expect. I do not comprehend why the world around us continues to beat us down, even while we work so hard to build it up.
But this I do know – God remains constant. God continues to provide. God continues to speak to the faithful. And we are in good company when we flee – for even the prophets of our faith ran when they were beaten down and challenged by the world around them. But we cannot stay in the wilderness – we cannot remain in the cave on the mountainside. For having received God’s renewal, God’s strength, and having heard God’s voice – we must return to live out our calling in the world.
I wonder if this isn’t one of the early stories of a faithful experiencing a psychological wrestling with God. If Jacob physically wrestled with God, Elijah is wrestling with his mind and emotions. And I find comfort in knowing I’m not the only one who wrestles with God in this way. And I am comforted by the reminder and the good news of this story, that even in our times of trouble, God does provide. Sometimes we must endure the raging wind, the burning fire, and the raucous earthquake to make space for God’s voice to be heard in the whisper of the quiet.
Today, God asks us, “What are you doing here?” May it serve as a reminder that God has called us each, to serve faithfully, willingly, and obediently. And that while running away for retreat and renewal is a good and necessary thing – we must return. We must go back and continue to be God’s servants – God’s hands and feet – God’s comfort and love – God’s compassion in this broken world.
We gather here to be renewed, to regain our strength, and to be reminded that we are all called into the world, to be a living witness of Christ to the community in which we live.