Based on 1 Kings 19:9-18
How did I get here?
That was the question I asked myself as I stared out at a field of cows, grazing passively while my heart thumped in my chest. I’d followed the directions to be the best of my ability. Go down Linton Rd., turn at the old store, turn again at the old oak tree with the broken fence. Those directions hadn’t led me to the church, a tiny church in the middle of the country that had no physical address; at least, not one that would work in a GPS. No, the directions had led me here, to a place of staring at cows, my heart thumping wildly. I wondered to myself, “How did I get here?”
See, I was on a dirt road and, not having driven much on dirt in my life at that point, and in a rush to get to the church where people were waiting for me, I’d taken a corner too quickly. My wheels lost their grip and my little Volkswagen Jetta spun out, turning me in a 270 degree circle until I found myself, heart pounding out of my chest, staring at some very contented cows who were eying me curiously.
I wasn’t sure that I was in the right place as I backed the car up to begin to turn in the right direction. Not only was I not sure if I’d followed the directions, but having left the creature comforts of a university to join the ministry, I had a little nagging in my soul, wondering if I’d made the right choice to quit that cushy job and head out into the middle of nowhere middle Georgia to pastor three small churches while I went to school full-time. The question in my soul was more profound than how I landed on a dirt road, looking at cows; I wondered again how I’d ended up about to become a pastor, heading to visit with the third of the three churches to introduce myself and get to know them.
How did I get here?
That’s the question I imagine Elijah asking in our scripture this morning. He’s in a cave, on what 1 Kings calls Mount Horeb, which is also known as Mount Sinai, the famous mount where Moses received the 10 commandments and the rest of the law. Tradition and linguistic references in the Hebrew suggest that Elijah is standing in the very place where Moses experienced God’s Spirit passing by; what’s called in English a cleft of rock in the Moses story, a cave in the Elijah story, but is just about the same word in Hebrew.
So here Elijah is, a prophet of God, standing probably where Moses once stood, looking out at the desert. How did I get here? I can imagine Elijah wondering. How did I end up here?
Elijah’s been on a forty day hike that’s brought him to this place. An angel had told him to get up and leave where he had rested one night. After forty days and forty nights, Elijah ends up on Mount Horeb, Mount Sinai, perhaps led there by the angel or God’s Spirit, but there on the mount, regardless.
It’s been an odd journey for Elijah. Not long before this moment, at the end of his forty day desert hike, he was standing triumphant atop another mountain, Mount Caramel. In one of my favorite scenes in the Bible, Elijah engages in a dual of sacrifices; the prophets of Baal pitted against the prophet of God. The premise is simple: whichever God can alight the sacrifice on the altar is the real God. Since King Ahab, the King of Israel, had married Jezebel, the people had begun to worship both Baal and God. Elijah has called the people to task for worshipping other gods, which has led to this moment of dueling sacrifices.
So here he is, atop Mount Caramel, while the prophets of Baal dance around the altar, singing, praying, calling up Baal to reign down fire and consume the sacrifice. Elijah is so amused by their efforts, their crying, their wailing, their pleading, with Baal to do something, that he begins to mock them. He says that perhaps their god is on a journey, or perhaps he’s asleep and needs to be awakened or, in my favorite translation of this moment, from The Living Bible, Elijah says that perhaps their god is “out sitting on the toilet.”
Then, after the prophets of Baal have had a long time with no response, Elijah says a simple prayer and a fire rains down from heaven that is so big, it consumes the entire altar, even the stones. Elijah is victorious!
But he is not safe. A few days later, Jezebel sends word to Elijah that she has made it her life’s mission to kill Elijah. Upon receiving that message, Elijah flees into the wilderness to get away, to save his life! He must have been scared out of his mind.
It’s there that the angel finds him, gives him food from heaven, and then tells him to go on a journey.
And that journey, only a month and a half or so after his huge victory on Mount Caramel, has landed him on Mount Sinai.
How, Elijah must have wondered, did I get here?
As I read the backstory before our scripture this morning, the very famous scripture about God being in the sheer silence, or the still small voice that many of us know from the King James Version, I couldn’t help but empathize with Elijah’s ups and downs. He had just seen God hugely victorious, proving definitively that Baal is a false god and that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one, true God. God has had the victory and vindicated Elijah’s work as a prophet!
One would expect that now Jezebel would be sent away, that King Ahab would repent and remove all the prophets and priests and worship centers dedicated to Baal, that all would be well and Elijah would be safe.
Instead, Elijah’s life is in danger, he’s been sent on a journey to Mount Sinai, and Jezebel and the Baal-worshipping leadership of the country are still in power.
Deep in the recesses of his soul, Elijah must have been wondering how he got here. Not just to Mount Sinai, but to this point in his ministry. Why didn’t God seize upon the opportunity to have full victory? To establish righteous rule over the country once again? Why would God bother to prove Godself to the people up on Mount Caramel if God wasn’t going to follow-through and eliminate Baal worshippers from the leadership of the country?
It must strike Elijah as odd, so much so, that there are moments in the story that seem tinged with bitterness on the part of Elijah. When the “word of the LORD came to him” at the cave, asking why he was there, I hear Elijah’s response this way: “Why are you asking me that? You led me here! I’ve been very zealous for you, it’s not my fault the people are forsaking you and your ways. I’m all that’s left, and you missed your golden opportunity!” And we must admit, it appears that way. God moved and acted for justice up on Mount Caramel, but God didn’t continue the act to what we could consider completion: the removal of all the Baal-based leadership. God, we might say, had a major victory but did not win the war.
And so Elijah is justifiably wondering what he’s doing up on the mountain, why he’s there in the first place, because he should be back in Israel, celebrating God’s victory over Baal and the leadership attached to that god, celebrating with King Ahab the restoration of right worship by the people.
The war should be won by now, and Elijah should be resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s up on a mountain, probably cold, probably exhausted from the journey, bitter about God’s lack of follow-through, wondering to himself,
“How did I get here?”
An executive of a company found himself asking that same question after only a few months on the job. He’d sold his house, moved his family, and set up a new life in a new location for this golden opportunity of a job. The interview had been fabulous, the people wonderful, and the job not only paid well and had great potential, but seemed to fit his skills and desires perfectly. He had started the job with great excitement, and the people who worked for him and with him were very excited, too.
But there was a rumbling in his soul that something was off, something was wrong. He’d tried to ignore the rumbling, but it wouldn’t go away. There had been a couple of shady things that had happened, but nothing too offsetting, so he’d kept at his task, work piling up on him, demands from the CEO weighing down upon him, but still loving the job, loving the people, feeling as though he was doing the work to which he was called.
Then, after only a few months, came the request. It came innocently enough, in a regular meeting between himself and the CEO. The request was to do something unethical. The executive protested, remarking that the requested action was unethical, thinking that perhaps the CEO simply did not realize the problem. She did, however, and still ordered him to act.
The executive did not, choosing instead to maintain his integrity, and within a matter of weeks, his integrity had cost him his job.
The position had lasted a total of six months. A job that had begun with so much promise, so much potential, so much hope, had ended in despair as this former executive looked upon his crushed dreams.
He, too, wondered the same question that we imagine was on Elijah’s heart: How did I get here?
That central question, How did I get here, is a question of justice. In all three examples: my call to ministry, Elijah, and our executive, the person asking the question is asking God a question of justice. We could better phase the question this way, as a prayer to God: “why did you lead me here? Is it right, is it just, that you’ve led me here? Are you doing right by me?” That’s the core of the question: God, are you doing right by me? Are you taking care of me? Are you providing for me? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, God?!
Elijah’s response to the word of God is just that way: are you sure you know what you’re doing, God?! Leading me here to Mount Sinai, not seizing the final victory, not winning the war back in Israel? Allowing Jezebel to remain in power and threaten my life? Are you sure you know what you’re doing?
It’s at that point, the point of questioning in bitterness, that God’s presence comes in the midst of the stillness after the wind and the earthquakes and the fire. The best interpretations of the sheer silence, this hard to translate phrase in the Hebrew is the stillness that we experience right after a storm has ceased. You know that feeling: just after the storm has passed, just as the sun has begun to break through, there’s a certain stillness, silence, calm, peace, that pervades the world, just for a moment. That’s how Elijah experiences God’s presence.
Elijah goes out of the cave to meet the presence of God in person. Standing there, we can imagine the amazing experience he must be having, the glory of being in God’s presence, the peace and comfort he must have known! I can also imagine that Elijah expects some answers, too. How did I get here? What are you doing about all the stuff back in Israel? Are you taking care of me? Are you sure you know what you’re doing?
Instead, God gives what feels like at least an anticlimactic answer, if not a non-answer. Elijah is go to back to Israel, find Elisha, anoint him as Elijah’s successor, while God takes care of the kings and handles the politics.
So, basically, Elijah’s had his life threatened, taken a forty day hike in the desert, climbed a high mountain, come directly into the presence of God, only to find out that God’s going to do exactly what Elijah wanted God to do in the first place. And, oh yeah, he’s getting replaced.
Imagine how you would feel in that moment. Perhaps angry? Perhaps frustrated? Perhaps exasperated? You want an answer, and you don’t really get one. Instead, you’re getting replaced and it seems your journeying was for naught.
Elijah, we would expect, must still be wondering, “How did I get here?”
In our three examples: my call to ministry, Elijah, and the executive, the ultimate outcomes are all different. I can answer affirmatively the question “How did I get here?” when it comes to ministry because I know God called me, I have experienced God’s provision, I feel the depth of connection between who God made me to be and what I do for a living. Parker Palmer says that vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. I have found my vocation and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
For Elijah, the answer is a mixed bag. God’s answer comes true in terms of what happens with the Kings and the anointing of Elisha to replace Elijah, and for a moment the people do reject Baal and worship only God. But eventually the people return to their idolatrous ways. It would appear that all of Elijah’s efforts had some initial success, but little long-term success. Which leaves us with the question we imagined Elijah asking, Are you sure you know what you’re doing, God?
For our executive, it seemed that no justice was done. The CEO remains in power, there is no public knowledge about the company’s unethical behavior, their regulatory agencies have turned a blind eye, and so things continue as usual with the company. The executive has found a new job and is happy and stable, but still wonders what the point was of his time there. Shouldn’t God have moved for justice already? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, God?
Justice isn’t always clear to us. Sometimes, we don’t see any justice at all. Sometimes, it seems like the injustices around us are far more apparent than the ways God is moving for justice. In our own community, we know of injustices created by unfair laws and regulations that make work difficult, we know of folks who have trouble getting and keeping affordable healthcare, we know of senior citizens who struggle with their medical bills and prescription drug costs. And on a deeper level still, we know of drug abuse, children who go hungry, children who experience abuse, adults who cannot find work.
Perhaps we even know some of these injustices personally, in the ways they impact our families, those we love, or even ourselves.
Then, there are the afflictions of suddenly poor health that affect us but not others, which seems to have an injustice to it. The sudden rise and fall of finances while others have financial stability seems to also have a certain injustice to it. The instability of family life, the untimely death of loved ones, the sudden loss of a job; all of it has a feeling of injustice to it. Why me? Why must I suffer? How did I get here, where my health is poor or my family unstable or my job gone. Are you sure you know what you’re doing God?
Injustice is all around us. And we’re not wrong to question God, we’re not wrong to wonder what’s going on, we’re not wrong to seek God out for a redress of our grievances. All of that is characteristic of a healthy prayer life, for emotional honesty is the bedrock of prayer.
And so, we go to God in prayer saying, “How did we get here? And why do we not see justice unfolding before us at your hands? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, God?”
After Elijah’s encounter with God, and upon hearing God’s answer, he dutifully left the mountain, went back to Israel, and did as God had commanded. Elijah didn’t question what God had told him; no, he seems mysteriously healed of his bitterness and frustration and simply goes right back to work, doing what God had commanded him to do. God hadn’t really answered his question, How did I get here, but he still went about his work, dutifully attending to the tasks that God had set before him.
When we encounter injustice, like Elijah did, when we have those burning questions in our soul like “how did we get here?” the task before us is to emulate Elijah, dutifully going about the work to which God called us, even as we are emotionally honest with God in our prayer lives.
For there is not always a definitive answer to the questions of justice we ask. Sometimes, like with my call to ministry, there’s a clear answer that brings clarity and peace. Sometimes, there’s a mixed answer, like with Elijah. Sometimes, there’s no answer at all, like with the executive.
But, in going down the mountain to dutifully get to work for God, what Elijah demonstrates to us is this: complete trust, confidence, in God’s justice.
Elijah can return to work, go about the work to which God had called him, because something about being in God’s presence created trust and confidence within Elijah that God does know what God is doing, that God is just, that God is acting.
So while there may not always be a clear answer to the question of how we got here, there is always a clear answer to the question of whether or not God knows what God is doing. The answer is a stillness, silence, calm, peaceful, whispering voice that says, “Yes I do.”
Whatever injustices you face this day, however you are experiencing a questioning in your soul, the task before us is to walk the journey that God has set before us, trusting that God knows what God is doing. Elijah set out, on a forty day hike, while fasting, headed to Mount Sinai. He walked the journey that was before him, not knowing what it was about, questioning God the whole time, but obediently walking the journey before him anyway. And that journey led him to what he needed: a place of trust that God knows what God is doing.
So today, if your soul is questioning God, that’s ok. Walk the journey before you.
If your soul is at peace with God, keep walking the journey before you.
If you’re awaiting justice, if you’re wondering when God is going to act, if you’re doubtful that God knows what God is doing, keep walking the journey before you.
Walking the journey before us simply means keeping the faith: staying true to our spiritual disciplines, continually seeking out God, choosing to trust that God knows what God is doing, knowing that as we experience God’s presence, we will find the healing we need and the confidence we seek.
In one of the darkest times of my life, in one of those moments where hope feels lost and I deeply questioned God, wondering personally if God knew what God was doing, I discovered lyrics that I clung to. They speak to what Elijah must have experienced on the mountain, as God’s presence came there, to be with Elijah, calling Elijah by name and bringing peace and trust. The lyrics say,
“So when your hope’s on fire, but you know your desire, don’t put a glass over the flame, don’t let your heart run cold. I will call you by name, I will share your road.”
When your hope is on fire, when all around you seems to be going wrong, when injustice seems to be winning, when you’re in that deep place of doubt and despair, don’t put a glass over the flame, don’t let your heart run cold. Keep walking the journey in front of you, for God is calling you by name, God is sharing your road.
So go, walk boldly the journey before you. Ahead of you, down that road, when the storm clears, is the peace that passes all understanding, the stillness after the storm, the quiet voice that says, “I know what I am doing. My peace I leave you, my peace I give you; be not afraid.”
God is active in the world, moving for justice. Be not afraid.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.