1 Kings 19. 1-13
9th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal's prophets with the sword. 2Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: "May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven't made your life like the life of one of them."
3Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. 4He himself went farther on into the desert a day's journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: "It's more than enough, LORD! Take my life because I'm no better than my ancestors."5He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush. Then suddenly a messenger/some say an angel tapped him and said to him, "Get up! Eat something!"6Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. 7The Holy One's messenger returned a second time and tapped him. "Get up!" the messenger said. "Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you."8Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God's mountain.
9There he went into a cave and spent the night. The Holy One's word came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" 10Elijah replied, "I've been very passionate for the Yahweh, the God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!" 11The the Spirit of the Holy One said, "Go out and stand at the mountain before the Yahweh. The Holy One is passing by." A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Holy One. But the Holy One wasn't in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Holy One wasn't in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Holy One wasn't in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave's entrance. A voice came to him and said, "Why are you here, Elijah?"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 12824-12828).
Why are you here? Today. Right now. Why are you here in this church? In worship? Why are you here? (Pause) Any Ideas? Thoughts? Feelings? Hold all that question….We’ll come back to it. A bit about this story…..
You may remember that in the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” that Glinda the Good Witch asks the little girl, Dorothy Gale, just after she has miraculously arrived in Oz in a whirlwind from Kansas, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” And this question begins Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. It becomes a test of who Dorothy can trust as she journeys through this strange new land, test of leadership. Midway through the required yearlong study of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, my fellow study group friends and I developed a similar question, “Was he a good king or a bad king?” You see, it was important to know this about the ancient kings of Israel that came after Saul and David and Solomon. It was not just a history questions but also a theological question. Yahweh originally did not want to the people to have a king like their neighboring tribes had because ultimately the leadership of the Hebrew people came from Yahweh. Finally, Yahweh grudgingly allows the prophet Samuel to appoint a king because the people are threatening revolt with the caveat that the test of a “good king” was whether that king took his cues from Yahweh and followed in the ways of the Holy One. So to remember the ups and downs, the adventures of the ancient kings in leading Israel and following Yahweh you had to ask, “Were they good or bad? Following in God’s ways or not? Where were they faithful or where did they do astray?”
Ahab was not a good king. Why? Because he let himself be led astray from following the One God, Yahweh, by his wife, Jezebel, who worshiped the fertility god, Baal. .Jezebel tried to turn all of Israel away from Yahweh to Baal. So the Yahweh called the prophet, Elijah, to prophesy to the king and his wife and all the Israelites. We meet Elijah in our text today at a point when Yahweh has vindicated Elijah in his fight against the prophets of Baal. In fact all the Baal’s prophets have been killed. Jezebel is so angry that she threatens Elijah’s life. So, he runs for it, runs for his life! Straight into the presence of Yahweh on the mountain. Even as he longs to die because his exhaustion after fighting the good fight, God won’t let him give up. He is sustained with food in the wilderness brought by God’s messenger. And this food gives him the strength to continue and to ultimately face meet the Holy One face to face at Horeb, the mountain of God where God met Moses in the burning bush.
God asks, Elijah, on the mountain in that cave. “Why are you here, Elijah?” Can you hear the frustration, the anger, in the prophet’s answer? “You know “darn” well why I am here! I’ve been doing your “darn” work, following you and now that crazy queen is trying to kill me! What do you mean, “Why am I here? I’m here because people aren’t listening. They want to take the easy way out and follow the flashy gods of false culture. I keep preaching. I keep showing up. And it's literally killing me. That’s why I’m here!”
What does our enigmatic God say to this rant? Nada. Nothing. God simply shows up….to be present to Elijah….but not in the drama of earthquake, wind or fire. In silence. In simple presence. In quiet. With a whisper. And then God says again, “Why are you here?”
I ask you, us, God’s question, ”Why are you here? Why are we here?” Here in a church, in this church, in this worship service. It can still be iffy to meet in crowds because of the pandemic. And church is not a flashy, cool place to be, not always a credible place to be in our culture. Why are we here? Why are you here?
And I’m sorry …. “Because my friends are here, because I have always gone to church, because I want my kids to learn moral and values” (as some parents said to me in Sunday School volunteer training years ago) are not fully sufficient answers. You can meet friends in many meaningful organizations and groups. If you aren’t teaching your children morals and values 24/7 then an hour or two at church even every week won’t likely do as much as you might think. Just because you’ve always come to church is nice, but it doesn’t really get to the point, does it? Why, really, why are you here?
Why are you here? Hearing any whispers?
This past week, Hal sent an article to Plymouth staff, and our board and committee leaders from the Faith-Lead group at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. It was titled, “Focus on Why.” It’s essentially about how to invite people into the life and ministry of our churches. In bulletin inserts and weekly emails, we tend to only give the “what” that we do assuming that people will intuit the “why.” But if we only say, we need more volunteers for this food pantry service project, or to staff the youth pancake supper, or to teach Sunday school, or even more people to come to worship, we really don’t reach the core of people’s busy lives. “Why” should they come to these events, volunteer for these ministries, join us in worship? The article’s author writes, “I want people to hear that the ministry we do is critical. I want them to hear that God is incredibly active in what we do. I don’t actually care about pancakes or giving up time on a Saturday morning. What I do care about is why people give up their Saturday morning to help at the pantry. I care about why kids need to experience a national youth gathering to grow in their faith which will be funded by a pancake supper. I care about why people need to take time in their life to worship to live a fuller life with God. How will we notice God at work through activities if we don’t even know why we are doing them?”
My friends, we cannot answer the “why” of all our events and ministries in order to invite more folks to join us, if we do not know “why” we ourselves are here to worship, to participate in learning, to work for social justice, to nurture our children and youth.
Why are you here?
Elijah was so caught up in the drama and exhaustion and risk of his work – and all of which was very real – that he could not hear the voice of God, feel the presence of the One who sustained him and be grateful for that sustenance until he was stopped still in his tracks. His first answer is full of drama. And fear. Then, after the earthquake, wind and fire, God asks him again, “Elijah, why are you here?” The question echoes through the silence of that cave. “Why are you here?” As the story continues from the endpoint of our text today, Elijah actually gives God the very same answer he gave the first time. Yet I hear it with a very different emotional tone.
"I've been very passionate for Yahweh, the God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they want to take my life too." [Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 12841-12843).]
Did you hear the difference as Elijah speaks into the silence. “I was following you, God. I was scared, God. I am tired and angry, God. I don’t know where else to be, God. I don’t have anyone, anything, else to count on. I want to be with you, God.” Could any of those be the reasons we are here this day in this church, in worship?
After Elijah answers this second time, God, gives the prophet specific instructions of who to go to for help with his mission. Go to the leader of this tribe and that one, make this person your successor prophet. And I have preserved this many people in Israel who are faithful to me and will work with you in opposition to Jezebel and her prophets of Baal. However, before these instructions, Elijah, has to stop and really listen to the question of the Holy One….”Why are you here?”
As we prepare for re-opening our church programming in more ways – we hope – in the fall, as we follow the guidance and vision of our very prayerfully and intentionally developed strategic plan, as we welcome and get to know new staff who will minister with and among us, let us keep God’s question before us, “Why are you here?” Like the ancient kings of Israel and their prophets, will we be “good” leaders in the kingdom, the realm of God… following in and listening to God’s ways no matter how risky or counter-cultural? Or will we be “not so good”, “bad” even, going with the flow of culture, doing things like we’ve always done before, afraid to risk, not questioning if we are straying from the presence and the sustenance of God? Like Elijah, each of us must answer the question, “Why are you here?” Why do you keep coming back to God’s community? Why do you keep seeking the company of the Holy One? Why are you here? Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.