But now, he was being pursued. He was on the run. And he was upset. He went to Mt. Horeb which is also Moses’ Mount Sinai. God says, “What are you doing here?” Elijah, in his despair looking for God, doesn’t know. What he does know is that he’s lost. He’s ready to chuck it all, give up—this same slayer of prophets. He sees himself as YHWH’s last hope. So God repeats, “What are you doing here? Away from your work, alone, hiding in a cave? What are you doing here Elijah? How did you get here?”
I’m reminded of an episode of the West Wing. President Bartlett asks his childhood priest to be with him as he agonizes over whether to commute a death sentence. The late Karl Maldin plays Father Cavanaugh and says the following words:
“You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, 'Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I'll take you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?' Then father Cavanaugh says to President Bartlett: “God sent you a Rabbi, a Quaker and a Priest. What are you doing here.”
Elijah hears storm, but God isn’t in the storm. Elijah feels and earthquake, but God isn’t in the earthquake. Elijah sees a fire, but God is not in the fire. What Elijah is left with is sheer silence. Still God asks what Elijah is doing there and he still says he doesn’t know. He’s looking for a majestic God to match his own majestic deeds. Finally God says, “I sent you a storm, and earthquake a fire and even silence. Elijah, what are you doing here?”
But Elijah repeats, “I, only I am left.” He’s not satisfied with the answer from God in a still small voice. He is thick, like the disciples, like Peter, like us. He doesn’t realize that there are 7,000 people who have not worshipped Baal (I Kings 19:18). His arrogance and his faithlessness is paramount in his repeated admonition that God has abandoned him, especially after God has spoken to him and showed up in the silence! I actually like Elijah’s stubbornness here. It’s a more honest portrayal of the struggle to recognize God. Sometimes we need to be told things and shown things many times before it sinks in.
What God was trying to tell him was that God isn’t only present in acts of triumph. God is also there in the in-between times, if you pay close enough attention.
Here’s one thing Elijah learned, or could learn. The presence of God is not always obvious. Elijah was not humble. But that’s what God wanted him to be. Elijah was arrogant, violent and self-destructive. God wanted something better.
Eventually, Elijah came off the mountain. He continued his work. I like to think he changed. I like to think he got a taste of humility holed up in that cave. I like to think that his humility replaced his egotistical arrogance. He was not the only one left. There were 7,000 others who needed his presence, even leadership. That’s what ultimately spelled hope for Israel.
Think of the other Biblical characters who had mountaintop experiences. Noah set his ark down on Mount Ararat and could see everything before him, but he had to leave the ark and descend the mountain in order to start a new world. Barefoot Moses spoke to God from a burning bush on mount Sinai, but he needed to descend the mountain to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Shining-faced Moses ascended that mountain again and received the 10 commandments, but he had to come down off the mountain to deliver the message of God’s law to the people. Old man Moses went to the mountain and saw the promised land, but had to come down the mountain to send Joshua into the land. The real work begins on the other side of the mountain.
It’s so easy to praise God on the mountaintop. But praise takes on a different meaning in the valleys. Ask brother Job from the ash heap. Ask Jonah from the belly of the whale. Ask Jesus from the cross. Ask Paul and Silas in the prison. Ask anyone mourning the loss of a loved one or struggling with depression.
Elijah was saved by God, not because of his triumph on Mt. Carmel. Elijah was saved by his humility in that cave. And from then on his stature changed. His countenance changed. His view of God changed.
Many of us can remember those experiences we have had that have changed our perceptions of God. For some of us, it is in going to a third world country and seeing God through the eyes of the poor. For others, it is from being in the cycle of addiction, realizing that our lives had become unmanageable and realizing that a force more powerful than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Still others have fled church and have had a hermeneutic of suspicion of church people. And then we have experienced truly redemptive church community.
Whatever your experience, we have seen God, we have felt God, we have heard God’s small voice. And we have been changed. Like Elijah, it is in our humility that we truly find life.
The hardest part of the marathon was between miles 12 and 19. I had been running for a few hours and I had a lot more to go. It wouldn’t be until mile 19 that I would see my family. My pace slowed. My knees were acting up. I could feel a blister developing on my foot. Bill Rogers said that a marathon makes you humble. He’s right. The good thing is that it’s not a solitary event. I realized that I could not do this by myself. And God sent along people to cheer me on. I saw people with shirts that said “Team 413”. It took me a while to figure out that this stood for Philippians 4:13 which says, “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me.” I saw those people along the course as reflections of God. God is that force that helps you when the chips are down. When body and spirit are lagging, companions help you along. It’s the antidote to thinking “I am doing this by myself”. The reality is that “I, only I am left” is the epitome of hubris.
Where do you feel God’s presence? Do you experience God in triumph? In tragedy? In chaos? In serenity? I suppose it’s different for each of us. Sometimes, we need—like Elijah—to sit still for once in order to become conscious of God. I’m not sure it was his stillness that allowed Elijah to find God. I think it was the fact that he was at the end of his rope. Many of us have been there and done that. The key is to remember that God is always there. God is always there reminding you of who you are and what you need.
We need that, don’t we? We need that still small voice. We need to be quiet enough and awake enough to hear it. To experience it. Peter, James and John saw a transfigured Jesus, but they almost missed the import of the moment because they wanted to capture it and freeze it by building a booth. What they needed to do was find a way to praise God on the other side of the mountain. That’s where the real work of faith begins.
Amidst the great power of tornados, earthquakes, storms, war, persecution, even injustice. The good news is that God is here. God is here in crews that cleanup after a tornado or an oil spill. God is here as people accompany us amidst tragedy and turmoil. God is here as we welcome pilgrims from Thailand and Burma seeking a safe place to live, work and worship. And it takes us to be humble to really see and hear and experience God. This doesn’t mean think less of yourself. It means tap onto a great power that will accompany you on a journey toward health, hope and redemption. And remember that when everything seems to be conspiring against you, you are not alone. God is there, as close as sheer silence after a storm. And God will never, never, never abandon you. That’s a race worth running.