I think we can all understand Elijah. Things were not going well in his ministry. Now don’t misunderstand me, Elijah was doing all those prophet things right. He prophesied drought—and there was drought. He told the widow in Zarephath that as long as he stayed in her house, a drop of oil and a handful of flour would feed them. And it did. He even raised her son from the dead. Yes, being a prophet was going GREAT.
But then there were the political implications. Elijah got into an all-out war with King Ahab and 450 prophets of Baal (the other God worshipped in the region)—a story worthy of selling out Madison Square Garden. A contest to see whose God could spontaneously combust a sacrificed bull (that had been doused in water). Baal didn’t show up, but The Lord did! And Elijah in his triumph seized his competitors and killed them all. And as icing on the cake, Elijah then asked God to stop the drought—and lo and behold, rain came.
You can’t shake the system this much without creating enemies—and Elijah was put on the hit list by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. And even though his business was exceeding every expectation—even though his metrics should have been in the sky—even though he had bested his adversaries and come out on top—Elijah got discouraged and afraid. He was up against the might of the state (and a very cruel ruling couple). And Elijah fled into the desert—going 40 days and 40 nights, finally hiding in a cave on Horeb, the mount of God.
I wonder if Jesus had a passing thought about the stories of Elijah after he had healed the Gerasene demoniac—after he had put someone who had been so out of control that they had chained him down and made him live in the tombs—he was literally one who was “walking dead.” Jesus healed him in another fantastic story—and what was the thanks that he got—“Please, could you leave town.” Yes, there are a lot of ways that discouragement and fear can creep into our lives.
So Elijah hid. He left town. He isolated himself from everyone else. I thought to myself, what would that cave be like today? Well, it might be like Elijah pretended he didn’t hear those racist jokes told by people he knew. It might be like Elijah retweeting anti-vaxxer memes, so as not to rock the boat in some communities. It might be like Elijah hiding his head in the sand about warnings of a change in our climate. It might be like Elijah waving away the stories of female colleagues about how sexism stunts their opportunities, and sometimes puts them in physically dangerous situations. It might be like any of us seeing injustice in a thousand guises and closing our eyes, thinking that if we can only hang out in our safe cave just a little longer—it will all blow over.
But you can’t hide from God. God said to Elijah “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Those might be the scariest words in the Bible. Because it is getting caught in the act of not being faithful. Because it is God, using that tone of voice I know we all have heard—from our parents, or our beloveds, or our children, or our friends—that disappointed tone, that “really?” tone, that accusatory tone—“What are you doing HERE, Elijah?”
And Elijah tries to justify his hiding—with all of those familiar tricks. Blame the other person, “I have been zealous for YOU.” Ask for pity, “After all I’ve done for you, I alone am left.” Show how dire the situation is: “They are going to kill me!” And God responds by showing up, not in wind, or in earthquake, or in fire, or even in sheer silence. But as a voice, a small, still, voice, asking again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And Elijah tries it once more. Blame. Pity. Direness. And then the Lord says, “Go, return on your way …” and Elijah goes.
So, when we find ourselves, personally or as a church, in a situation that causes discouragement or fear; when we find ourselves, personally or as a church, in a situation where we have hidden in a cave, or a gated community, or a Polly-anna “well that doesn’t happen here;” when we find ourselves, personally or as a church, in a situation where we are spouting blame or asking for pity or trying to define how bad things are—we need to stop.
We can’t think we should wait until there is a mighty wind. We can’t think we should wait until there is a powerful earthquake. We can’t think we should wait until there is a raging fire. Because God wasn’t in all that pyrotechnics. The question that God will continue to ask, regardless of how much we try to dodge, or explain, or plead, or whimper—is simple, “What are you doing here?”
Because there is work to do, says God. My work to do. And you, Elijah, of all people, know that I can do powerful things through my chosen ones. You, people of United, of all people, know that I have protected you, and healed you, and brought you up out of the pit, and placed opportunities right in front of your face, and gifted you with a beautiful place.
God wanted Elijah to “Keep On.” Yes, he might be tired of fighting the battles, but Keep On. Yes, he might feel lonely, but Keep On. Yes, he might be afraid, but Keep On. Yes, he might have to come out of his cave and face death itself, but Keep On. Yes, he had done so much in the past, but Keep On. Yes, he might not know the future, but Keep On.
And Elijah left the cave, and Kept On doing the work of God, and speaking the word of God, and living out the justice of God, and holding fiercely to the love of God. We have seen examples of this same Keeping On in our own history—in the tenacious way that people have stood up for voting rights, and for civil rights, and for women’s rights, and for LGBTQ+ rights, and for Black Lives matter, and for #metoo, and for treatment of those who wish to come to this shining city on a hill—and we know we haven’t achieved perfection, we know we haven’t gotten to the promised land of equality for all, but we need to Keep On.
And we need to do whatever we can to support those around the world who are brave enough to stand against tyranny in any form. I know they are far away. I know we can’t imagine how we could be of help. I know these days may seem discouraging and make us want to find some cave we can live in for a few more years. But God’s whisper will not leave me alone, “What are you doing here?”
In the past two weeks, protests have been happening in Hong Kong as they try to keep their own autonomy (as was promised when they folded back into China). The first protest was called to oppose an extradition bill that would have allowed residents and visitors to be sent for trial to China’s opaque and Communist party-controlled courts. After the police used teargas, rubber bullets and pepper spray against protesters, the demands have expanded to include an investigation into police violence and to call for an end to government crackdown on demonstrations.
Millions have gone into the streets. And Hong Kong Christians have been very visible—singing hymns, as they say, to protect the protestors (since religious gatherings cannot be legally broken up). Even though only 1 in 10 people in Hong Kong are Christian, one song has become an anthem for the protestors of all faiths. It is called “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.”
I would like us to sing it in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Hong Kong, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters throughout the world who may be discouraged and afraid, and as a way of reminding ourselves that God asks us to “Keep On,” each and every day.
Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
Sing Hallelujah to the Lord
Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.