1 Kings 19.9-18
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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 with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He 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. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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 with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.
I wrote a B- sermon this week on the palpable silence of 1 Kings 19. In praying over the text I felt God nudging me to write about the need for the absence of sound in our lives in order to really hear what God has to say. I had stories picked out about times in my life where I was particularly silent and how transformative they were for me.
The whole worship service, in fact, was planned around the topic of silence, about the need to listen more than speak. And last night, after returning home from the wonderful Ice Cream Social that we had, I turned on the news and realized that my sermon had to go; that I need to start over, because the Lord was speaking and it was time for me to listen.
A few months ago, the overwhelming majority of the City Council in Charlottesville, VA voted to remove a confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee is somewhat of a beloved figure here in the state of Virginia; people love him without really knowing much about him. And so when the city decided to remove a statue in his honor, people went ballistic. On one side there were people who were thrilled that the city was finally willing to be bold enough to take steps in a new direction, willing to ask themselves hard questions, and willing to publically declare where they were. And on the other side, there were people who were outraged that a man of great respect and honor in history was going to be torn down as if he never really mattered.
And then people stopped talking about it. Weeks and months passed until this weekend when the fever pitch of outrage began to resonate in new and frightening ways.
Groups from all over the country met in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of the statue, to stand in affirmation of the City Council’s decision, and some with hope to hold the peace.
When I turned the news on last night I saw what I thought was the National Guard entering Charlottesville to keep the peace, but in fact what I saw was armed militia’s from across the country, bearing arms and other weapons in order to name and claim there side.
I saw what I thought were clergy standing tall in protest but then I saw them pushed and spit on and berated by the throbbing crowds. I saw what I thought was a group of young people marching to protect the lives of the protestors, but in fact it was a group of neo-Nazis carrying torches and chanting anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The news then broke to a reporter meeting with different individuals, and she asked them all the same question: “What are you doing here?”
The first man was about my age wearing an army helmet with a rifle hung lazily over his shoulder. He was staring directly into the camera while the reporter asked her question and he responded without hesitation: “I am here to stand up for my freedom. People keep trying to destroy my white heritage and my white church. I am here to stand for free market economics. I am here to destroy the Jews.”
“What are you doing here?”
The next man was older with a long scraggly beard hanging below his neckline. Every thing he said came out as a shout and because it was on the radio they had to bleep out every time he shouted the N-word. He was clearly angry, but his anger was unintelligible.
“What are you doing here?”
The next man was young and was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, but before he was able to answer the reporter’s question, angry protestors were pushing forward to him in order to prevent him from speaking.
“What are you doing here?”
Yesterday afternoon a young white man got into his car and drove it into a car of protestors in favor of removing the statue; one of the bystanders was murdered and dozens were injured.
“What are you doing here?”
Before Elijah’s encounter with the Lord, Queen Jezebel sent a messenger to the prophet telling him that she intended to kill him that very day. Elijah ran for his life and he journeyed into the wilderness. Prior to the cave, Elijah collapsed under a shrub and prayed for God to take his life because he felt worthless, but God sent an angelic messenger who cared for him until sending him on his way. And that’s where our story begins.
Elijah came to a cave and spent the night. In the morning the voice of the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The prophet responded with, “Lord, I’ve been a good prophet. I’ve told the people what they were supposed to do, I even struck down the false prophets, but now I’m all alone and people are trying to kill me.”
God, evidently disappointed with Elijah’s answer, commanded the prophet to stand on the mountain. First, there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard the silence, he went to the mouth of the cave and the Lord asked him again, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
Elijah was a prophet, but he was also a revolutionary. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. He was a defender of the Lord and an enemy of corrupt leaders within his own community. He even killed false prophets. His revolutionary credentials are what make him so important in the New Testament where people were constantly wondering if Jesus was the new Elijah.
What made Elijah revolutionary was his commitment to a world where widows, orphans, and strangers were protected against terrible economic situations and a world out of control. Elijah was like the person more concerned with whether or not the people at Rising Hope have something to eat than what President Trump recently tweeted. Elijah was like the man at the hospital arguing with the intake nurse that someone had waited too long before being treated. Elijah was like couple that did not hesitate to become a foster family for those in need.
And yet Elijah fled. Most of us would’ve done the same. When we feel overwhelmed by the world, by the responsibilities, by the commitments, we run. We flee from helping those who cannot help themselves. We run from the hectic nature of this world to vacation destinations and terrible reality shows. We flee from breaking news reports about the possibility of nuclear geopolitical tensions in a stiff drink or the bottom of a bottle.
It is there, in the caves of our own making, we wait for a word from the Lord. Like Elijah, we wait for God to tell us exactly what to do, or we wait for God to fix all of those external problems, or we wait and hide because we’re not sure if God’s even out there any more.
And that’s when God shows up not with an answer, not with a solution, but with a question, “What are you doing here?”
Being in the presence of God, whether mundane or majestic, is all about being inspired and transformed. Who we were fades into something new and wonderful because God is the one changing, morphing, and moving us.
But Elijah was the same after the experience of silence as he was in the cave; his response to the divine question was the same. He was not changed. The earthquake, wind, fire, all of them were distractions. God was not in any of them. They are a reminder that when we are desperate we are tempted to look for God in all the wrong places, when God is the one looking for us!
We look for God in the big bombastic language of a preacher promising prosperity, or in the raise at work that we think will finally make us financially comfortable, or we look for God in the broken relationships that will never be what they once were.
God’s question to the prophet is important because Elijah’s answer was wrong. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “O God, I’ve done everything that I can and now I’m the only one left.” Elijah was not alone. There were still thousands of individuals who remained faithful to the covenant. And then God commanded Elijah to “go” because there was still work to do.
And this my friends is grace: Despite Elijah’s fears and failures, his inability to remember the God who called him to be a prophet in the first place, God did not give up on him. God still had work for him to do.
But Elijah could not hear the call to go, until he experienced the sheer silence. For it was in the sheer silence he remembered who he was, and whose he was.
I like to think that we live in a better world than the one we inherited. I like to look at the history books of the past to see how far we’ve come. I am grateful that our church has people in in who do not look like, I am grateful that there are no longer water fountains that say “Colored” and “White.” I am grateful that our children sit in classrooms full of people from all over the world with every shade of skin pigmentation.
But when I turned on the news last night, I realized that maybe we haven’t really come that far at all. Maybe we’ve congratulated ourselves too much for being progressive, because friends there is still work for us to do.
God in scripture is a God for the margins. God, again and again, stands with those who are persecuted and martyred and belittled. And throughout the bible, God implores all of the prophets to be mindful of those who are without, those who are suffering, and those who are forced to the margins of life.
We can distract ourselves from the suffering of the people around us, we can go to the right grocery store and the right shopping center in order to avoid the differences of our community, but we worship a God who was born into the suffering of the world, who was born to parents who do not look like anyone in this room.
There are and will be times in our lives that are so overwhelming that we can lose perspective. Like the powerful prophet, we can be pushed too far from our identity and we can retreat into caves of denial.
We can tell ourselves that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen here, but it does every day in some small way, shape, or form.
We can tell ourselves that the angry white folk in Charlottesville are fringe racists, but they are here in this community too, they are our parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors. They are mumbling in their cars whenever they pass a black man on the street, and they spit words of hate at black women in parking lots.
We can tell ourselves that we’re in a better world than the one we inherited, but Charlottesville is but one sign that we’ve still got work to do.
We’ve got work to do because our God is not done with us yet. God is working through people like you and me to make the Kingdom come on earth. God is interrupting our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship, with moments of silence to really confront who we are and whose we are.
God is asking us the same question that the reporter asked the protestors, the same question that Elijah heard in the cave, and how we answer the question defines who we are and whose we are.
“What are you doing here?” Amen.