At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:9
Elijah was a man of many miracles, but for sheer spectacle there’s nothing before his last chariot ride that can rival Elijah’s throw down with the prophets of Baal. During the time that Ahab was king of Israel, Baal worship was the state religion, a fact that did not sit well with Elijah, and he determined to do something about it. He challenged 450 prophets of Baal to a duel. He told them to slaughter a bull, build a pyre and put the remains of the bull on the pyre. He would do the same thing and then each side would call upon their god to ignite the pyre. Whichever god did so would be the mightier.
Since Elijah was playing for the home team, the prophets of Baal got to go first. Despite their best efforts, and after several hours of trying, their pyre was still unlit. Finally, Elijah said “Enough! Let me show you what a real God can do;” and he cried out to the Lord, saying “Answer me, O Lord…” And answer him, the Lord did—in spectacular fashion: “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.” (1 Kings 18:38).
As the ashes of the burning pyre cooled, Elijah put the icing on the cake—in true Old Testament fashion: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.” (1 Kings 18:40).
When Ahab told his wife, Jezebel, what Elijah had done, she was furious, and threatened to have him killed. Elijah decided that discretion was the better part of valor and fled into the desert. There he wandered for the mandatory 40 days and 40 nights, finally winding up in a cave on Mount Horeb. It was in that cave that the word of the Lord asked him that deceptively simple question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It seems to me that the real impact of this story doesn’t lie in Elijah’s answer. It doesn’t lie in the spectacle of the self-igniting pyre or the death of the prophets of Baal. It’s not the great wind that splits the mountains and shatters the rocks, or the earthquake or even the silence so palpable and so intense that it can actually be heard. No, the real impact of the story is in the question itself. “What are you doing here?”
On one level this is a pretty easy question to answer. Each of us may have his or her own particular reasons for being in a particular church on a particular Sunday, but at the end of the day, those reasons are easy to articulate. “This is the church my parents belonged to;” or “All my friends go here;” or “ This is where I was conformed;” or “They don’t start serving brunch until 11:00 and I’ve got to be somewhere until then.”
On another level, however, this may be the most complex and difficult question we ever face. “Why are we here?” Why do we consider ourselves Christian rather than followers of some other creed or sect? What does it mean to be a servant of Jesus Christ? What exactly is it that Jesus Christ demands of me? We are continually called upon to face the reality that this may be a question without an answer. It may be a question the answer to which is different today than it will be tomorrow. Whatever else it is, however, it is a question the search for the answer to which is the essence of spiritual maturity. In the answer to this question we find the reality, the core, of our faith.
“Why are you here?” For Elijah the answer was easy. For us, not so much. May the Holy Spirit be your guide as you search for it.
Tony Stoik, Associate Conference Minister/Western Iowa