Text: 1 Kings 19:11-21
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10 English Standard Version) Thus said St. Peter in his first epistle. He answers, in part, God’s question to Elijah in our text, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:13) We could also ask ourselves this week: what are we doing here?
The Lord’s question for Elijah was not coming from a place of ignorance. The Lord, of course, knew why Elijah was there at Mt. Sinai. The question was to make Elijah aware of what he was not doing. He was not out exercising his office as prophet – the office to which God had called him. He was not proclaiming the Word or teaching it. He had, in fact, closed his mouth from princes and kings to hide God’s Word in his heart. In the text, the Lord comforted Elijah with His Word and then sent him back out to do what the Lord called him to do in the first place. The Lord also calls us, His Church, to proclaim His Word in the world, even as He comforts us through the same voice of His Word and Sacraments.
Our text this week comes shortly after Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal. You remember how it was – Elijah on one side versus 450 prophets of Baal on the other. Those prophets called out to their god all day long and no one answered. Elijah, on the other hand, totally soaked his sacrifice, the altar, and a trench around it with water. After his prayer, the Lord sent fire from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, the altar, and even the water around it. It was a definitive answer from the Lord that He alone is God. The prophets of Baal were sentenced to death. Queen Jezebel, after hearing this, sent word to Elijah. She said, “So may the gods to do me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (1 Ki. 19:2) Hearing this, Elijah was filled with fear. He went and hid in the desert. Elijah prayed to God to end his life right then, but the Lord declined.
Elijah journeyed 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb, which is another name for Sinai, and he hid there in a cave. Even though he had witnessed the great power of God – even the power to raise the dead, as the Lord did for the widow at Zarephath – Elijah was filled with fear, and he hid. The Lord had called him to proclaim the Word to the world, to be steadfast and immovable; well, Elijah was immovable, just hiding in a cave. He feared persecution and earthly death more than he valued his duty to proclaim God’s Word. The threats against him were real, but let’s not be so sure to commend his retreat.
That’s hard to do because, well, we are tempted to do the same. At present our lives are not in danger because we are Christians, although this danger exists presently around the world. It may come to our country in time. No, at present, there are other things we fear as Christians. We fear a financial downturn, both personally and as a congregation. We fear a lowered social standing. There was a time when all the prominent members of the community were Christians, but that is fading. A time will come when those who wish to remain faithful to the true teaching of Scripture will be marginalized. Perhaps, this time is beginning. These are real fears because they represent changes to the ways we have lived and operated. When faced with these fears and others, even as Christians, we retreat.
We fear the prospect of a financial downturn among the congregation, so we “hedge our bets” by decreasing our giving rather than rejoice at the opportunity for a greater use of the resources God gives us. At times congregation members use their giving as their voice, and for fear we have listened to the voice of men above the voice of Scripture. For fear of how those outside the Church might respond, we neglect to speak to or address certain topics; or if we do, we are careful to choose our words so as to not cause discomfort. Faced with these fears, and others, we, too, retreat. We retreat here to our pews where it’s safe to be a Christian. We’re right to feel safe here because here we receive the forgiveness of our sins through the pure Word of God and the Sacraments. But, at times, we turn the sanctuary of God into a hideout. God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here,” not because He didn’t know, but to teach Elijah what he should’ve been doing.
We heard Elijah’s complaint to the Lord: that he alone was left to serve. He had been zealous for the Lord, but the people had broken God’s covenant. They had torn down His altars and killed the prophets. Now Elijah was left by himself and would rather die. While Elijah was there, there was a “great and strong wind.” (v. 11) Then there was an earthquake and a fire. All these things have been signs of the Lord’s presence before. This, by the way, is all happening on Mt. Sinai. When the Lord delivered the Commandments, there was also quaking and fire. This demonstrated the severity of the Commandments and the weight of God’s Law. But, here, after the wind, quake, and fire, came “the sound of a low whisper.” (v. 12) Here came God’s Gospel voice and said that there were, indeed, “seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (v. 18) Elijah was not alone.
The Lord comforted Elijah with the promise that, as He said before the Apostles, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against,” His Church. (Mt. 16:18) The Lord will always defend His Church from evil. He will always work through and in it, forgiving iniquity and passing over transgression, as we heard from Micah a few weeks back. Contrary to his fears, Elijah was not alone. The Lord was with him, and so were 7,000 other members of the Church. The world would not overcome him. Emboldened by this word from the Lord, God sent Elijah back out. He said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.” (vv. 15-16) In other words, Elijah’s got work to do. He was to go and proclaim God’s Word to kings and prepare Elisha to follow after him as prophet.
When Elijah was afraid, he retreated to the mountain of the Lord and attempted to make it a hiding place. Instead, it became a springboard of sorts. The Lord reassured him that, contrary to appearances, everything was not falling apart. The Lord was with him, and would continue to be him in his work of preaching and teaching the Word. Sometimes, we’re tempted to retreat like Elijah. We see the way the world reacts to the Word and we’d rather avoid it. But here’s the thing: just as the Lord remained with Elijah, so He is with us. He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. Instead, He remains with us continually – in the Word, in the Sacrament. Through these things, these Means of Grace, He works to forgive us our sins “daily and richly,” as we learn in the Catechism. By these things He bids our fears depart.
St. Peter said, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This is perhaps the answer to the question, “What are we doing here?” Why has the Lord provided for us to remain hearing His Word and receiving His gifts these many years? Because there’s work to do. By faith in Jesus, we, too, are called to be “fishers of men.” (Mt. 4:19) Though the world may threaten with disaster, let it not rob us of our cheer, “for He who is of death the master with aid and comfort e’er is near.” Amen.