There, [Elijah] went into a cave and spent the night. The LORD’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”
The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance.
A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.” – 1 Kings 19:9-14 (CEB)
As Elijah lay in the cave, God asks him a question, “Why are you here?” Elijah responds by telling his story of woe: even though he has been faithfully enthusiastic for the Lord, the people haven’t listened, fellow prophets are being killed, and now he’s the only one left.
Elijah’s answer isn’t really why he was here, but more of how he got here.
Maybe Elijah thought how he got to this cave was also the why. Basically, Elijah’s saying, “I’ve been faithful.” But God? Maybe not so much. It’s the hard truth Elijah thinks God needs to hear.
I think this is about how well I listen when I’m feeling tired and defeated — and maybe a little betrayed when all the good work I’m trying to do for God leaves me burnt out rather than uplifted. At this point, I don’t so much want to listen to God as for God to listen to me.
Even though it seems like God wasn’t listening, Elijah obeys when the Lord tells him to go stand on the mountain because God’s coming near. Elijah does this even though this isn’t what he asked for. He’s like the disciples who go back out fishing after a night of catching nothing because Jesus told them to.
As Elijah watches for the Lord, there is a massive wind storm, then an earthquake followed by a fire. The narrator tells us that the Lord was not in any of these. Elijah seems to know it, too, because it’s not until he hears the quiet that he goes to the front of the cave.
Every time I read this, I wonder how Elijah knew? He experienced God’s presence in a great rain and lightning storm in his battle with the false prophets. How did he know God was not speaking to him this way again? How did Elijah know how to listen?
But has Elijah really been listening?
After all, God asks him the same question again and Elijah gives God the same answer. Now, Elijah has just beheld the majesty of God, it seems like that should cause us to pause and reflect— especially when God asks us the same question again. Maybe Elijah didn’t think before he spoke or just didn’t have any other answer to God’s question.
Which makes me pause and reflect on whether we can be too zealous to listen? Elijah was doing a pretty good job at this prophet gig, even raising someone from the dead. And so I wonder, was Elijah so sure of what he was supposed to do and how it was to be done that he didn’t think he needed to listen anymore? God had said, “Go!” and Elijah had gone.
I don’t know about you, but I can be like that, too. Here’s what needs to be done, and off I go. That probably works when the task is simple and straightforward. And doesn’t involve any people. But when circumstances change and other people are participating, I need to slow down and make sure I’m still listening to God.
We need to continue to listen because the world around us continues to change and God reveals new things to us, calling us again and again in each time and space we find ourselves in.
Again and again, God asks us, “Why are you here?”
Not “why were you once somewhere else” or “why aren’t you at that other place”. And really, God’s question isn’t asking us for an answer. Rather God is inviting us to listen to discern why we are here right now — and what we should do next.
Maybe it was in the silence that Elijah really listened to his own answer and realized that he didn’t know why he was in that cave on Mt. Horeb. Elijah may have done all God had asked of him, but the work wasn’t done. Israel still needed to hear God’s prophets. Maybe after Elijah uttered his same old answer, he was finally ready to listen to God.
And God responded.
The LORD said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abelmeholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand—all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.” – 1 Kings 19:15-18 (CEB)
We might skim over this because these are a lot of places and names we don’t really recognize. But in God’s answer, if we listen closely, we find that God is telling us there is a plan. What’s more, God’s plan and provision isn’t limited to Israel because God is God everywhere — even among those who don’t call themselves God’s people.
Finally, even though Elijah thought he was the last man standing, God names not only a companion and successor for Elijah but also shares that there are 7,000 others like him still speaking God’s truth in Israel.
7,000 is 7 x 10 x 10 x 10. Seven and ten are numbers of completeness. The repetition of the tens further emphasize this. 7,000 other faithful prophets isn’t just a number. It is a statement that God’s Word will be heard.
Hebrew names also have meaning. Elisha — the protégé God has chosen for Elijah — means “God is salvation.” In plain words and deeper meaning, God is telling Elijah, I AM. I AM who you thought I was. I AM the one who called you and has been with you. I AM the one who still calls you and is with you. Regardless of what kings, false prophets, or my wayward people do, I AM and I WILL BE.
So, what about us as we wait and listen this Advent?
We might not be hiding in a cave, but we know that it doesn’t seem like the world is going to plan. Pick almost anything, and it seems to be worse than it was a year ago or at least not heading in the right direction.
However, as I say these words, I realize I’m like Elijah telling God everything that isn’t working and not really listening to what God is saying to us here in this time and place.
Part of our Advent waiting is finding the time to listen to the silence. When we take a breath and allow ourselves to be in the presence of God, we can begin to truly listen. When we do, we will hear God reminding us how love is still working in the world; how God’s plan is still unfolding.
God is doing miracles all around us. God is I AM even when life leaves us hiding in a cave.
Just as God did in the sheer silence of that cave, Advent reminds us that despite anything else happening in the world, God is the I AM. And not just in some distant, spiritual way, but that God is with us as real as flesh and bone and as intimately as a nursing mother holding her newborn baby.
God is speaking to us this Advent season. Are we making room to hear? Are we listening for the Good News of great joy about to be revealed?
God of both the immense and the minute, we often don’t want to think about what we are doing here but where we are going to go next. It is also easier for us to tell you about our problems than to listen to your hopes. This is especially true in the Advent season when we are busier than ever and our losses can be magnified by all the holiday festivities.
In this sacred time of preparation, let us find time to seek you in the stillness. Let us rest in your presence and faithfulness… and listen. For you are still speaking your plan of salvation in the world and we want to hear your every word. Amen.