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What Are You Doing Here?

June 24, 2013

“What Are You Doing Here?” 1 Kings 19:1-18 © 6.23.13 Ordinary 12C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Evil queen Jezebel was embarrassed and angry. Elijah the prophet of Yahweh had made fun of her god Baal and killed his servants on Mt. Carmel. In doing so, he had undermined her power, since she ruled by the will of Baal. For his insolence and blasphemy, Elijah would pay with his life, as did everyone who opposed Jezebel.

The burly messenger she sent to threaten Elijah had frightened the man of God so much that he packed up quickly, summoned his servant, and headed south, where Jezebel couldn’t touch him. Burned out, fed up, and depressed, Elijah wanted to die, though he had no desire to be killed. He prayed for an end to his miserable existence, but Yahweh’s answer was to provide nourishment instead. And in the strength of that bread, the prophet made the forty day journey to Mt. Horeb.

Called Sinai in another biblical tradition, Horeb was a place brim full with expectation and mystery. This mountain was the place where Yahweh made a covenant with the people of Israel, and Moses had received the Ten Commandments. Here, too, that famous lawgiver had an encounter with the Holy One in a burning bush, a meeting that had resulted in his commission as the deliverer of Israel. Important and exciting things happen at Horeb: nations are born, laws are laid down, prophets are sent forth. So we have a hunch that Elijah is in for nothing less than a life-changing experience.

And that’s in fact how the story turns out. But even after God tries the spectacular approach and then a gentler, but no less awesome, tactic, Elijah is still not changed. He hosted a one man pity party. Listen to him! “I’m the only one left. The people of Israel have left me high and dry; they’ve all gone off after idols and killed the prophets. Now they want to get rid of me.”

God seems simply to ignore for the moment this self-serving, arrogant talk and tells Elijah to go perform certain tasks after he has walked back out of the wilderness and gone home. Then Yahweh responds to Elijah’s complaint, almost as an aside. The prophet would do well to check his list of the faithful again; he has miscalculated by 6,999.

This story of Elijah at Horeb is often read as if the still small voice, the faint murmuring, were the point of the narrative. God does in fact speak through silence and in the stillness of our hearts, in a voice which we must sometimes strain to hear. But such speech is not the concern of this text. Instead, what we have here is the story of a call to ministry reassessed and rediscovered. In other words, it has to do with vocation, both Elijah’s and our own.

As we look at what it may mean to be called as God’s people, let me suggest that we focus our attention on the question of God to the prophet. Twice God asks: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" It was a challenging query for him. It still is for us.

Notice first that the question was personal. Yahweh called the prophet by name and addressed him directly. This was not some abstract discussion about the purpose of human life in general, but about one person’s life in particular. That’s still God’s way with the people he calls to serve him, and that means each and every one of us. In baptism, God names us as his own and commissions us for ministry. As the noted church educator Sara Little once wrote: “To be ‘called,’ biblically, means to be summoned by God, named and appointed to a task…. All Christians share the same calling, to participate in the ministry given to the people of God. At baptism, Christians are ordained to ministry” (“The Christian’s Vocation,” The Presbyterian Outlook, 4/24/89: 14).

No one else can fulfill your calling or mine. Each of us has specific and unique gifts by the grace of the Spirit. As the classic writer Elton Trueblood put it: “…each human life stands at a unique point in the total web of human experience, and, as a consequence, each one has an approach to others which is not identical with the opportunity of any other human being. If I do not open the door for another, it may never be opened, for it is possible I may be the only one who holds this particular key….The responsibility of each individual Christian is to do that which no other person can do as well as he or she can…Each is important because each can add, by some unique and irrevocable act, to the cumulative evidence" (The Company of the Committed: 55-54, 67).

Yet while Trueblood was right, and the witness and task each of us has is important and special, it’s not the only positive witness or the only effective mission. We’ll save ourselves a great deal of heartache and frustration if we remember that. Serving Christ and the church can be a lonely and discouraging business. There’s so much injustice and wrong, so much pain and sorrow, so many folk in need of bread for the body and nourishment for the soul.

What can the efforts of a tiny handful of people really accomplish? Or even those of a whole denomination? We feel as if we’re chipping away with a pocket knife on a mountain as tall as Everest. Or just when one battle seems won, as with Elijah on Carmel, there seems to be some new force promoting and causing brokenness and sorrow and harm. It would be easy to despair of the future of humanity and our planet and claim with Elijah that there is no one else left who tries to be faithful to God.

But let’s not give in to that temptation. Are we feeding the world when we help fund the Food Pantry and volunteer there? No, but we’re making sure we are doing what we can in the place we live and for our neighbors. Are we preventing all blindness with Project 20/20? Again, no, but we are making a difference with the hundreds of glasses we and the good people of this community have contributed. What’s important is to be faithful in the place you and I are, to offer comfort and help and hope to our family, friends, and neighbors and not turn away from those in need just because our efforts may be merely a drop in the bucket, a pebble off Everest. Our ministry is added to that of so many other faithful folk, and together we make life better, we contribute, as Rob Bell says, to “human flourishing.” Our efforts may be small, but they are valuable.

So, then, the call of God is a personal one, lived out in the midst of a supportive community which God sustains. But the summons of God is also to an active mission, not merely waiting on God to intervene. I just hinted at that. The Lord inquired of Elijah what the prophet was doing, then described the shape of his work. Elijah was to accomplish the politically subversive task of anointing two new kings, even one in a nation not his own! He was also charged to select his successor, who was named Elisha. All of these men, apparently, were to be rather violent agents of divine judgment.

Whatever the specifics of Elijah’s task may mean for the contemporary church, this much is clear: our work, individually and corporately, is to make things happen. Individually and together, we can be a compelling force for the transformation of society. People who are passive do not change things. Those who risk and venture out, who dream dreams and see visions, who go and do, capture the imagination of others. The church is a community of imaginative obedience to God when we affirm and practice our oneness in Christ; when we insist on a thoughtful approach to Scripture and to ethical questions; when we find creative, peaceful ways of solving disputes; when leaders are genuinely committed to be servants of God; when we tell with joy and confidence the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ; and, when we affirm that the future belongs to God, making it full of hope.

Yet Elijah was not charged only to effect change in his world. He was also to make sure there was someone to carry on the work after he was gone. That’s our task as well. That means the church is at once a progressive and a conservative body, an agent of change and a bearer of tradition. Those may seem to be inherently in conflict, but not for Presbyterians. It’s always been interesting to me that our tradition embraces change at its heart. We are “Reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God.” That’s the approach to Christian life we pass on to each new generation. We can do that in a class, by mentoring, by example, but however we do it, we need to make sure it happens. As John Westerhoff, the noted educator of an earlier era said, “the church is always just one generation away from extinction.” Our task is all the more urgent in these days when more and more young people are not finding in the church an authentic spiritual witness to Christ and are turning away.

So the call of God is personal, and the mission he gives, an active one. But finally, his summons is to be visible. I read the inflection on the second statement of Yahweh’s question differently than that on the first. When Elijah arrived, God’s inquiry was meant to cause Elijah to reflect on his mission. So we could place equal emphasis on all the words as: "What are you doing here?" But the next time God comes, he’s interested in moving the prophet out once again into mission, so I believe the question should be read: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In other words, are you still hanging around? Go, leave, move it!

In the two ways of putting the query, we have the creative tension of Christian life. We come to a holy place—a sanctuary—to discover our mission, to be commissioned, to be confronted by God and his word. But we don’t cling to the holy mount or hide in a cave. The proper venue for ministry is where we live most of our lives. As one writer puts it: “The church must be willing to leave its protected position, granted it either by common consent or cultural indifference, and commerce in the realm of conflicting ideas, engaging people not as heathen, atheists, unbelievers, or whatever, but as those who God has reconciled and called to himself” (Wallace Alston, The Church: 129). To venture out and try to be Christian, to live out our calling in our life’s work, in the schoolroom, in our recreation, in our relationships with family and friends, may be risky and scary. Sometimes the answers aren’t clear, if there are answers at all. The pressure to conform to the culture is great. It would seem that the 16th century reformer Martin Luther was right. He who had been a monk thought monks who had withdrawn from the world had it easy. The truly burdensome demands, he felt, were on Christians who were challenged to apply “the vision of faith and freedom in the setting” of sometimes dreary daily work (Hans J. Hillebrand, “Martin Luther on Christian Living,” Weavings, May/June 1988: 9). We hear the call of Christ here in worship, but it’s daily that we take up the cross and follow him.

“What are you doing here?” It was a question addressed to a man who wanted to take a vacation from vocation or as someone once said of me, go into “emotional retirement from ministry.” He was ready to give up and die. But God nourished him, sustained him, and renewed him so that he went back home with a fresh sense of mission and a vision of and for the future.

It’s the same God who comes to us today, with the same searching question. And still he calls us to be his own in the world, promising his presence that is with us both to challenge and to comfort as we go on our journeys.

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