Monday, January 25, 2010

Questions and Answers

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

In his cave of despair, hiding and afraid and eaten up with doubts, Elijah was questioned by God. Not coddled. Not comforted. Questioned.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The question is ambiguous. The meaning of the question can be changed by playing with it, putting the emphasis on a different word with each asking.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Was God’s questioning a rebuke: An implied accusation that the prophet had abandoned his calling and lost his nerve? Or was the question an invitation: A chance for Elijah to examine his faith and learn again the meaning of his own name – “The Lord is God.”

Maybe it was both. The truly interesting thing about this question is that God asks it twice. The first time it is asked, Elijah answers with lament and self-pity. God responds to that with the “still small voice” we spoke of yesterday.

And then God asked the question again. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” We might expect that by now Elijah has a different answer. He’s covered his face at the sound of God’s whisper. Now he’s seized with a Holy awe and ready to re-engage the godless Ahab and Jezebel. Now Elijah knows who he is and what he’s called by God to do.

Not so. Elijah gives the same pitiful answer. He’s still complaining, still feeling like God has dealt him a bad hand, still consumed with dark emotions.

And this time God simply says “Go back the way you came.” Get up. Get going. We’ve got work to do. God gives no explanations and offers no apologies or assurances to Elijah. God gives instruction and asks for obedience. So it is in the life of faith.


I’m feeling somewhat defensive on God’s behalf today. The images of destruction and suffering coming from Haiti have set me back on my heels a bit. Things like that can do that to me. I wish they didn’t but they do.

I believe the meaning of Elijah’s name. I believe “The Lord is God.” God is ruling all things, changing seasons and counting the hairs of our heads and keeping track of the smallest sparrow that falls from the sky. He never slumbers nor sleeps. He never gets caught off-guard as if he didn’t see something coming, whether earthquakes or bank failures. Our God reigns – unhindered and absolutely sovereign in all things. I believe that.

But I wouldn’t mind some help in making sense of massive suffering. Like Elijah, I’d welcome a word of reassurance, a sentence of explanation, a promise of future good to which all things inevitably lead. Just a word will do, even if it’s whispered and seizes me with a holy terror. I’ll take it anyway. Maybe you would too.

We won’t get it. As best I can tell from Elijah’s experience on Mt. Horeb and from other stories - the suffering Job and the indignation of Jonah – God will not provide footnotes and explanations to his ways in this world. We might feel like we’ve got some questions for God. But it always God who questions us.

What are you doing here?

In the family you belong to, in the company you work for, in the city where you live, in the church you attend . . . what are you doing? The question may carry rebuke: there’s something you should be doing that you aren’t. The question may be invitation: have you discovered what God has for you?

But in the end, as with Elijah, it always calls us back to simple obedience. Get up. Go back. Get to work. As for Haiti, get on your knees and pray. Get out your checkbook and give. If you feel led, get on a plane and go. Leave the cave of despair, let go of the need for explanations, and obey in radical trust and faith.

What are you doing where you are right now and what will obedience look like in your life today?
Almighty God, you call us to lives of obedience and faith. Living this way is sometimes hard for us as questions get in the way – things we can’t understand, things that make faith difficult. Meet us as you met Elijah and call us from the cave of fear and doubt to bold acts of obedience. In places near and far away, “your kingdom come” we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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