QUESTIONS GOD ASKS: WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?
1 Kings 19:1-13
A man dialed a wrong number and got the following recording: “I am not available right now, but I thank you for caring enough to call. I am making some changes in my life. Please leave a message after the beep. If I do not return your call, you are one of the changes.” There are times when we just need to make a change, am I right? Sometimes we find ourselves in some (unhealthy or unproductive) situations. Sometimes these are situations of our own creation and sometimes things just happen.
Sometimes difficult things happen to us with no warning and no chance to prepare. We may find ourselves suddenly alone after the death of a loved one, we may have a life change that causes us to move or lose our home or independence, we may have an accident and find ourselves lost in a jungle of medical bills, we may be struggling to deal with the difficulties of a broken relationship – whatever it is, we just aren’t ready for it. We look around and ask, “How did I get into this situation? I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to play this game right now.” Have you ever found yourself in such a state? I think we all have. That is one of the reasons Stephen Ministry is such an important ministry within the church. A Stephen Minister can often be a solid presence and a source of help during such times.
You have heard a lot about Stephen Ministry this morning – you heard care receivers talk about what having a Stephen Minster meant to them, Tina shared more about Stephen Ministry. But it is hard to really grasp the value of this ministry unless you experience it. It simply offers support and encouragement during difficult or confusing times.
Our passage today on Elijah is appropriate for this Stephen Ministry Sunday because it highlights for us how, even very competent and successful people can experience “down” times and times when life seems to spiral out of control. Further, this passage shows some positive steps that can be taken toward health and wholeness.
Surely, you remember the story of Elijah that unfolds in chapters 17 and 18 of 1 Kings where Elijah, with God’s help shows up the prophets of Baal and convinces nearly the entire nation of Israel to return to God. Just to refresh your memory, the story goes like this. King Ahab is the king of Israel at the time and he is married to Jezebel. Jezebel and Ahab have turned their backs on the God of Israel, and are worshiping the idols of Baal. Elijah is no friend to Ahab and Jezebel because he is a prophet of YHWH, a prophet of God. He points out that what Ahab and Jezebel are doing is wrong and he challenges Ahab’s crew to a contest. Ahab calls together all of the Israelites at Mt. Carmel where there is to be a showdown between the 450 prophets of Baal and the false god Baal on one side and Elijah and God on the other. Each side has been given a bull to sacrifice and a pile of wood. They cut the bull up and place it on the pile of wood, but no fire is lit, the prophets are to call on their god to light the fire. The prophets of Baal go first – calling on the name of Baal and limping around the altar, the call out from morning until noon and nothing happens. They cut themselves, as is their custom, they rave, but there is no answer and no fire. Then it is Elijah’s turn. “Gather around,” Elijah says, and the people of Israel come closer. Lovingly, he builds the altar and makes preparation. Then he stuns the crowd by having four jars of water poured over the offering and the wood. “Do it again,” he says. And “do it a third time.” The altar is basically floating by that point and no one would reasonably expect that a fire could possibly be started. Elijah then calls upon the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Almost instantly, the fire of the Lord consumes the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licks up the water that is in a trench that has been built around the altar proving that the Lord is indeed God! And all the people of Israel respond in agreement, “The Lord indeed is God!”
So, Elijah should be flying high from this huge victory (returning the nation of Israel to God). One might expect him to celebrate or gloat or something. But very shortly after this victory, the events in our passage today occur. Jezebel threatens him. And that’s all it takes. One defeat to undo all of the glory. And Elijah falls into despair. Despair low enough to send him into the wilderness, despair enough for Elijah to ask God to take his life away. When someone is so low, the deep discouragement felt can sometimes prevent them from seeing things accurately or from making good decisions. One noted preacher, in connection with this passage, has written that “Despair is always color-blind; it can only see the dark tints;” no light gets through. That is how it seems and that is where Elijah is at this point, and that is where we sometimes can find ourselves.
It is times like these when we could all use a compassionate, caring listener. Someone who can help us find some perspective. Who can help us find our way out of the dark place in which we find ourselves.
God sends unexpected help to Elijah during his time of great vulnerability. An angel brings him food and water and watches over him. Stephen Ministers may or may not be angels, but they certainly can be an unexpected help in a time of trouble. They provide a gift that is rare in today’s world – it is like food and water for the soul – they provide the gift of unconditional positive regard and a confidential listening ear for those they care for. They can help to shine a light in those dark places.
I was at our presbytery this past week, which took place at Cedarkirk camp, and we were reminded of the importance of rest in our lives to our health and well-being. As I thought about Elijah, I noticed that rest is one of the other important elements of his return to health. We all need a sabbath time apart, to rest and rebuild and refresh and we especially need it when we are going through a crisis or difficult time.
The next part of this passage is one that may be familiar – verses 11 and 12: “(God) said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” And from the silence came a voice, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” (v. 13)
What a question, full of meaning and ambiguity. Of course, God knows what Elijah is doing there. He is hiding, running, escaping from Jezebel, from conflict, from life. “What are you doing here?” God asks. I have much for you to do and your work is not yet complete. Elijah has gone into the wilderness, escaping (he believes) from his troubles, he has had a time of rest, a time when he has received some care and nurture – the food and water the angel brought – and now it is time to come out of his cave and return to the world, to return to life, to the work God has laid out for him.
The time has come and God sends Elijah right back to work, refusing to let him quit, sending him back out where his activity has meaning. The longer Elijah lingers in the cave, one has to think, the more difficult it becomes to get back into the swing of things. The same holds true for us, isolation and inactivity are enemies. To thrive our lives need meaning and purpose. Think of the disciples of Jesus who were sent right back to work after that first Easter. They had isolated themselves in that upper room after Jesus’ death – fretting, and worrying – until they received the Holy Spirit and they went out into the world as an unstoppable force to change the world. Like Elijah and like the disciples, God calls us out from our places of despair – out into the world where we can find purpose and meaning. Perhaps you are not in such a place yourself right now, but you know someone who is. You can help by suggesting a Stephen minister, or by being a supportive and hopeful presence yourself. You can help by encouraging someone to take care of themselves physically – through rest, and healthy habits. You can help by encouraging someone to take even some baby steps out of the gloom and into some positive activity or by taking those steps yourself, taking God’s hand and allowing him to bring you out of darkness into his healing light.
Lord, you know us even better than we know ourselves. You care about us and you place people in our lives who minister to us in your name. Sometimes you call us to do the same for others. Open our eyes to opportunities to encourage and care for others, and open our hearts when we need to seek such care for ourselves. Thank you for guiding us to a place of health and wholeness in our lives. Through Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.