I don't preach on the Old Testament as often as I should. I have reasons (some good, some not-so-good) for this. I think one reason is that I naturally go where I think there is a good story, and I love the gospel stories. But this week I am preaching on one of the Old Testament stories: Elijah on the mountain with God, and the earthquake, wind, and fire.
This story has everything: drama, danger, sound effects! But then there's this small detail: the Lord did not appear in the earthquake, wind, and fire. The Lord appeared in the "still, small voice:" afterwards. Or, in other translations, the Lord appeared in a sound of "sheer silence."
I feel like I have known this story most of my life, and I know what it means. And I agree with what it means.
It means that God is not necessarily present in the big dramatic moments, the places where you expect God to show up. It means that God is actually more present in those small moments, the places where you have to listen carefully, or watch carefully. It means that that God is present in those teeny flowers on cacti in the middle of the desert, where everything seems barren, but it isn't. It means that God doesn't use a megaphone.
I think that it's convenient that the Holy Scriptures agree with me, so I'm a little suspicious. This is a great lesson, and I think that it's true, but it conveniently wrests a small part of the story of Elijah out of the rest of its context. What is Elijah doing on the mountain, after all? What happened first? What happens next?
Interestingly, God asks Elijah the question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" It seems to invite me to cast my net wider than just a few select verses that agree with me. What IS Elijah doing here? Aside from the fact that God actually told him to stand on the mountain, what is Elijah doing in a cave in the wilderness?
He has just had a spectacular success, actually. If you know the story of Elijah, you know that Israel was in the midst of a famine. You also know that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had introduced worship of Baal to Israel, and it appears that at least some of the people of Israel had enthusiastically acquiesced. So Elijah and the prophets of Baal had a contest to see which god was the strongest: they were each going to offer a burnt offering to their god and (just to make the contest most interesting) the god who sent down fire to burn up the offering would be the winner.
The prophets of Baal prayed and prayed and prayed. Nothing happened. Then Elijah prayed. But before he prayed, he poured water over his offering. Just to make it more interesting. And as you might have expected (or maybe you did not), The Lord, Yahweh, came down and consumed Elijah's offering.
It was a great victory. Yahweh and Elijah won. But what did Elijah do?
He ran away. Queen Jezebel was after him, and despite the victory, he never felt more alone. The adrenaline rush he may have experienced from beating Baal was so short-lived. The prophet who had confidently poured water on his sacrifice, who had seen fire come down from heaven, was suddenly afraid.
No wonder God asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
And yet it makes sense to me, a human being. This is possibly because I haven't seen fire come down from heaven. If I have been any contests with Baal, and won them, they have been much more -- subtle. I know that there are contests out there all the time, there are temptations to go with the idols and not to worship Yahweh, but to be perfectly honest with you -- the signs of victory are as well -- much more subtle. They are much more like the "still small voice" than they are the earthquake, wind, or fire.
God asks Elijah, "What are you doing here?" and here is what Elijah answers. He tells God that his enemies are after him, and that he is afraid, and that he is the only one left. That's how he feels. But God reminds him that this isn't true. There are plenty of others who have not worshipped Baal.
You know what I like about this? God doesn't say, "Hey! I burned up your sacrifice and defeated the prophets of Baal for you, didn't I? What's the matter with you? Short memory?" No -- instead he says, "Elijah, you are not alone."
To me, this is the real antidote to fear, to know that we are not alone, to know that God has given us to one another, every day, in the challenges we face as disciples of Jesus. We seek the face of God, but we find it in one another -- not perfectly, but we do. That's what he promises.