April 25th, 2010

Pulpit Exchange with Exodus Missionary Outreach Church

(Click here for reflections on “the visible unity” of the church in this week’s Bible reading/devotions.)


“Today is an invitation to turn your desperation into motivation.”

1 Kings 19:9-18

April 25, 2010

A great question

“And the word of the LORD came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”  (1 Kings 19:9).

“What are you doing here?”  It’s a great question.

I asked myself that question about two weeks ago in my home.  My wife, Linda, and I decided to remove an interior wall so we could enlarge our living room.  Because of stories I tell in my sermons, people in my congregation know that I am not Bob the Builder.  (They especially know I’m not Bob the Plumber, but that’s a different story.)

When I removed the sheetrock with my Sawz-all and knocked out the studs with my sledge hammer, I looked at that hole in the ceiling, walls, and hardwood floor where there used to be a wall, and asked myself, “What are you doing here?”

As the dust flew for days when I rented a sander to refinish the floors and got down on my knees to sand the edges and corners, I asked myself, “What are you doing here?”

When I was called to Corinth Church, I remember stepping into that raised pulpit in a big, granite church building to preach for the first time.  Linda and I had come from a small, rural church.  The first time we stepped into the building before we were called, she exclaimed, “Ha!”  (As in, we would never fit here.)  That was almost 18 years ago.  As I began my ministry, I wondered if I was in over my head.  “What are you doing here?”

Today I stand today in the pulpit usually occupied by a small man with a large reputation in Hickory and even across the country.  Rev. Longcrier is not only someone whose life has been redeemed by God’s grace from drugs and prison, he is a passionate man of action and accomplishment.  He is articulate and strong as a pastor and leader.  I feel humble today standing where he stands to preach each week.  “Bob, what are you doing here?”

Elijah knows how I feel.

Hard Times

It’s one thing to ask yourself, “What are you doing here?”

It’s something else when the word of the Lord comes to you and says, “What are you doing here?”

Let’s review Elijah’s story.

Elijah was a great man, head and shoulders above every other man of his time.  He was a prophet to the nation of Israel under a king named Ahab and his wife, Jezebel.  Were those good or bad times?  The Bible says that Ahab “did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:33).  Ahab and Jezebel openly worshiped Baal. 

The people of Canaan worshiped Baal as the God of storms, the God of reproduction.  They worshiped Baal with “sacred prostitution” (two words that don’t belong together) and self mutilation.  Since the king and queen were Baal’s chief proponents, Elijah had a tough ministry.

To judge the nation, God said to Ahab through Elijah, “There will be no rain, not even dew, in Israel for the next few years” (1 Kings 17:1, paraphrase).  Talk about hard times.  We think we’re in the Great Recession.  When all people do for a living is farm, when the only way they eat is off the land – there’s no Food Lion or McDonald’s, there are no unemployment benefits or TARP money or welfare – if it doesn’t rain for seven years, those are hard times.

Elijah himself was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:4) and drank from a little brook.  Then the brook dried up.  I am sure Elijah said to himself, “What are you doing here?”

God sent Elijah to a widow with a young son (17:9).  She was prepared to give him the last loaf of bread in her house.  Times were tough.  But God provided a supply of flour that was not used up, and a jar of oil that never went dry as long as Elijah stayed in her home.

Then her little boy died, and she asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?”  But God raised that little boy from the dead.

Times were still tough.  Ahab and Jezebel, of course, blamed the messenger, calling him “the troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17).  It was all Elijah’s fault.  Jezebel tried to hunt down all the Lord’s prophets, but Obadiah hid a hundred of them in two caves (1 Kings 18:4).

Elijah challenged the false gods on Mount Carmel.  With an NBA playoff atmosphere and the whole nation gathered around, 450 prophets of Baal asked their God to answer by fire, and nothing happened.  The prophets of Baal shouted, they danced, and they slashed their bodies with swords.  Elijah taunted them: “Maybe your god is on a trip, or doesn’t want to be bothered, or is in the bathroom” (1 Kings 18:27, paraphrase).  Frantically the prophets of Baal pleaded with their god.  But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29).

Then Elijah said, “Let’s see who God really is.”  They poured four buckets of scarce water on the sacrifice, then they did it again, and they did it again. 

Elijah prayed, “O LORD, Show them who’s God” (1 Kings 18:37, paraphrase).  And the fire of the LORD came down and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the dirt, and the water. 

The people cried out, “The LORD – he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).  They killed the 450 prophets of Baal.

Elijah prayed, and the skies opened with rain such as had not been seen since Noah’s flood.  Elijah ran away and hid.

Why?  Because Jezebel was not too happy about all her dead prophets.  She sent him a text message that said, “I’m coming after you, Elijah.  You’re going to end up like my dead prophets by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2, paraphrase).

Times were still tough – especially for Elijah.

Uncomfortable places

Do you know what made times even tougher for Elijah?  At this same time, down south in Judah, the Bible belt of Israel, a revival was going on.  The king of Judah was Jehoshaphat, and the Bible says “His heart was devoted to the ways of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 17:6).  He taught the people the word of the Lord. 

Jehoshaphat fought and won great battles.  My favorite story happened when the Ammonites and Midianites swarmed to invade Judah.  The king prayed, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).  The choir led the way to the battle, where God had already fought for his people.

 There was no drought down in Judah.  There was no famine.  Times were good.

But Elijah wasn’t in Judah.  He was in Israel where there was no rain and no food,  no faith and no hope.  I am sure Elijah often asked himself, “What are you doing here?”  He wanted to be in Judah where great things were happening.  They like prophets down there.  They listen to prophets down there.  Their queens don’t send out hit men to take out the prophets of God.  This is a hard place.  I want the easy place.

God rarely places his servants in the easy place.  It is apparently the prerogative of the Almighty to put all of his servants in the hard place some of the time and some of his servants in the hard place all of the time. 

We want the easy place, the smooth road, the place where everybody likes us and everybody looks like us and thinks like us.

God says, “I’m not going to put you where it’s easy.  I’m going to put you where you’re needed.” 

Thirty years ago, God called Linda and me to the United Church of Christ.  If you knew us and knew our denomination, you would say that’s an odd combination.

Let’s just say on most issues of the day, I lean to the right.  On most of the issues of the day, my denomination leans to the left.  I sometimes ask myself, “What are you doing here?”

It has a lot to do with what I’m doing here, today, at Exodus Missionary Outreach Center.  Our American system we call “freedom of religion” allows us to gather and worship with people who are just like us.  We all assume we’re right about most things, so we find churches full of people who are as right as we are.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed more than forty years ago, the result is that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.  That hasn’t changed.  We’re not just segregated by race.  We’re segregated by socio-economic class, by political party, by how we baptize, by what kind of music we like.

In other words, we all go to churches where when we say what we think, everybody around us, “You’re right about that.” We go to church where people agree with us.  We go to church where people share our blind spots.  We go to church where we’re comfortable.  I’m not sure church was ever supposed to make us comfortable.

I don’t know what to do about that system.  Maybe nothing can be done.  I just know that it’s important for the body of Christ to reach out and connect with those who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, who don’t sing like us, who don’t preach like us, who might even take us out of the comfort zone of our familiarity.  That’s why I’m here today and that’s why I’m looking forward to that Wednesday night in June when these two church families will sit down to eat bread together and lift our voices in song. 

The body of Christ on earth is bigger than Corinth.  It’s bigger than Exodus.  We need each other to understand more of the heart of God and show the world that we believe in Christ because we love each other.  That’s what we’re doing here.

A sound of silence

Elijah’s story continues.  With Jezebel in hot pursuit, Elijah is terrified and runs away (1 Kings 19:3).  Imagine that.  This comes on the heels of the great victory at Mt. Carmel.  First he won and then he “run.”

Do you know where he ran?  Down south, to Beersheba in Judah (1 Kings 19:3).  It was safer there.  He sat down under a broom tree. (I always wondered where brooms come from – now I know – a “broom tree.”)  There he prayed to die.  “I have had enough, Lord.”  (Have you ever prayed a prayer like that?)  “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

We’re so much like Elijah.  He had won a great victory on a great mountain in front of a great crowd.  He had prayed for a seven-year drought to end, and it poured down rain.  He only has one critic left, and she’s all he thinks about.  He allows that one person to define his worth.  He wants to die. 

He falls asleep and an angel wakes him up (19:5).  The angel sounds more like your Mama than a counselor.  Elijah is depressed.  A counselor would say, “Tell me how you feel when you hear the name Jezebel.”  Your Mama would say, “Get up and eat.”  He looks around, and the angel has brought him bread and water.

Elijah, don’t sit there moaning about who doesn’t like you and how bad life is.  Take responsibility for your life.  Get out of bed.  Eat something.  Get stronger.  Get moving.  You can do it.

So off Elijah goes, further south, walking for forty days.  He finds his way to Horeb, the mountain of God.  This is another name for Sinai, where God had appeared to Moses and the children of Israel with an earthquake and thunder and lightning and smoke.  That was where God gave them the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19). 

When Elijah arrives there, he enters “a cave” (v. 9).  The Hebrew Bible says he went into “the cave” – perhaps the same “cleft of the rock” where Moses saw God.

“And the word of the LORD came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9)

Forty days of walking hasn’t given Elijah a very good answer.  “I’ll tell you what I’m doing here.  I’m as far away from there as possible.  As far away from that woman as I can get.  Look, God – I have been very zealous for you.  These people you sent me to – they don’t like you.  As a result, they don’t like me.  They kill prophets.  I’m all alone.  They want to kill me” (v. 10, paraphrase).

Poor old thing.  He’s still deep into his pity party.  “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go eat worms.”  Did you know that’s a song?  I didn’t know it until this week.  The first verse goes on, “Big, fat juicy ones, eensy weensy squeensy ones, see how they wiggle and squirm.” 

Another verse is even stranger:  “I bite off the heads, and suck out the juice, And throw the skins away! Nobody knows how fat I grow, On worms three times a day!”

“Nobody likes me.”  Come on, Elijah!  You’ve got spiritual Alzheimer’s!  God fed you with ravens.  He spared the prophets through Obadiah.  He answered by fire on Carmel.  He destroyed the prophets of Baal.  He sent you rain when you prayed.  An angel fed you again when you were depressed.  God has been there all along.  He has never left you alone.  He didn’t forget you – you forgot him.

God says, “Get out of the cave, Elijah, because the Lord is going to pass by” (v. 11).  Elijah is at the same place where the Lord passed by Moses 500 years earlier, at the same mountain where God had thundered and shaken and smoked.  Elijah goes out of the cave to how see God will show up.

A “great and powerful wind,” powerful enough to cause landslides and shatter rocks pounds the mountain (v. 11).  “That must be God,” Elijah thinks, “but the LORD was not in the wind.”  An earthquake shakes the ground under Elijah’s feet, “but the LORD was not in the earthquake.”  A firestorm sweeps across the face of the mountain, “but the LORD was not in the fire.”

When we need God, we expect him to show up in the same way in the same places he showed up before.  He rarely does.  He’s always surprising us.

“And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (v. 12).  The Hebrew Bible reads, “the sound of a thin silence.”  The problem with calling it a “whisper” is it implies words were spoken.  I don’t think there were any words.  Have you ever been in a place where the silence was so dramatic it was loud?  That’s how God shows up on Horeb. 

The Bible says Elijah pulled his cloak over his face and went out of the cave (v. 13).  That’s interesting, because he had been told to go out before.  He may well have gone out, but with a wind blowing around boulders like they’re leaves, an earthquake shaking the ground like a baby’s rattle, and a firestorm turning mountain vegetation to ashes, wouldn’t you have gone back inside the cave?

Elijah hears the question a second time: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Whatever message Elijah was supposed to have received went right through his head and out the other side.  He gives the same answer in verse 14 as he did in verse 10: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me….”

OK, Elijah, since you don’t seem to get it by hints, here’s my direct word.  God gives him three messages.

First, you are getting a new assignment.  “Good,” Elijah thinks.  “You’re sending me to Judah?”

“No, go to the Desert of Damascus” (v. 15).  That’s like saying, “You don’t like the Army?  I’m sending you to the Marines.”  “You don’t like ministering in prison?  Preach your next sermon on death row.”  Remember, you don’t go where you’re comfortable.  You go where you’re needed.

Second, you need some new allies.  “Darn straight,” Elijah thinks.  “Who are they?”

How about about Hazael king of Aram and Jehu king of Israel (v. 15)?  Both these men would become worse than Ahab in their destruction of God’s people.

“Oh, and anoint Elisha your successor.”  We know Elisha as a man with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, but Elijah didn’t know that.

So there are your new allies, Elijah – two power-hungry killers and a nobody.

Third, Elijah, you are NOT alone.  “I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal” (v. 18). 

Whenever I think I’m all alone doing God’s work God’s way, it’s either because of self-pity, self-importance, or self-righteousness.

The question

God is still asking us, “What are you doing here?”  There is so much to learn from this question.

Here’s what I take from Elijah’s story.  God will meet you right where you are.  He knows where you are and he will meet you there.

If you are lonely, he will meet you there.

If you are discouraged, he will meet you there.

If you are hungry, he will meet you there.

If you are afraid, he will meet you there.

If you are running away, he will meet you there.

If you are ready to come home, he will meet you there.

If you lean to the right, he will meet you there.

If you lean to the left, he will meet you there.

After a great victory, he will meet you.

In the pit of despair, he will meet you.

If you are as good as Jehoshaphat, he will meet you.

If you are as bad as Jezebel, he will meet you.

God will meet you anywhere, anytime you open your heart to him.

But he will not leave you there.  He will ask you, “What are you doing here?”  He will use his tools to shape you.  He might use sandpaper or it might be a sledge hammer.  It might be somebody who doesn’t like you or who makes you uncomfortable.  It might a drought or a monsoon.  It might be a victory or it could be a devastating defeat.

God did not leave Elijah wallowing in self-pity, self-importance, and self-righteousness. God doesn’t say, “Oh, I feel so bad for your poor, persecuted self.” 

God says, “Get up and eat.  Move.  Act.  Choose.  Believe.  Hope.  Make the rest of your life better than the first of your life.”

Jesus says, “Today is the day of salvation.  Today continues your transformation.  Today is an invitation to turn your desperation into motivation.

Jesus says, “I died that you might live again.  I shed my blood that the record of your sins can be wiped clean.  I live so that you will know that nothing can separate you from my love.”

The Holy Spirit says, “Seek out people who make you uncomfortable.  Love them, because I love them.  Give them a cup of cold water.  Wipe their feet with your tears.  Humble yourself.  You have more to learn, a long way to grow.  I’m not finished with you yet.”

What are you doing here?  You, my friends, are his masterpiece in progress.  Wherever you are, he will meet you there.  But he wants to move you beyond your preoccupation with has been and into the possibilities of what can be by God’s grace.   He wants get you out of yourself and into his action of loving this world to Jesus Christ.  “Get up and get going.”  Amen. 

2 Responses to What Are You Doing Here? »

  • clement geitner says:

    Bob: It’s surprising that as I finish reading your Exodus sermon, I conclude that God is still speaking to us. He has to be still speaking if he can meet us in all of the situations you cite and in so doing, ask “what are you doing here” with your last paragraph being the ultimate answer. Incidently, I can see three seperate questions wrapped up in those five words:

    WHAT are you doing here?
    What are YOU doing here?
    What are you doing HERE?

    The last seems to be the thread of your remarks given the Elijah travails, the Bob and Linda move to Corinth and the pulpit exchange. That is, until the final paragraph where the WHAT and the YOU is woven back into the context. Good structure. On the otherhand,there is ample material for several meaningful sermons in those five words. Nonetheless, I am left with the impression that God still speaks to us today and only we can break off the dialogue. Clem

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