Sometimes, as pastors, we can feel the urge to explain the mechanics of a spiritual experience, to explain why God appeared in such a way. In this case, resist that urge. Instead, join in the journey with Elijah to the mountaintop, invite the congregation along with you. This is a passage of apophatic pray and ecstatic experience. This is not a passage of dogmatics. Instead, we must allow ourselves to hear the question God asks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” For we have all been Elijah, so we must all answer this question. We have much to learn from the prophet who failed.
After playing an integral role in God’s amazing work and displays of power, Elijah runs for his life at Jezebel’s threat. After calling down the Lord’s fire from heaven and bringing an end to a three year draught, Elijah does not bask in glory of God. He did not trust the power of this same God to deliver him from the queen’s threats. No. This prophet of YHWH flees in the face of opposition. From Jezreel in the Northern Kingdom to Beersheba in Judah, Elijah crosses borders hoping to be spared and protected. He travels more than 100 miles to escape Jezebel’s grasp. Put simply, he is not ready to die for God’s cause. Once there, he abandons the faithful servant who had travelled all that way with him. He journeys into the wilderness alone. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
In exhaustion, he collapses beneath a bush. He does not even bother to build shelter or erect a tent. This is a man who believes there is nothing to live for. Surely the shame of fleeing God’s calling weighs upon him. Surely the belief that all he worked for had failed. He just falls beneath a bush and prays for death, crying, “I am no better than my ancestors.” To which ancestors is he referring? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the hallmarks of faith. He is of course speaking of the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness who also doubted the faithfulness of YHWH to deliver them. The ones who grow weary of the food from heaven and cry for meat. The ones who demand that Aaron construct a golden calf for them to worship while Moses, the prophet is on the mountaintop. Elijah no longer sees himself as the one upon the mountain; rather, he sees himself as one of the faithless in the valley below. He hears his voice echo the cries of the unfaithful yet liberated generation, the ones cursed to die in the desert. So he asks for the same fate. It is as if he says, “Let me die in the wilderness. It is where my bones belong.”
Instead, an angel cares for his physical needs—twice. Just as with Israel in the wilderness, physical hunger is abated by heavenly bread, and water is divinely apportioned in a desert. This is an important reminder that God is not merely concerned with our so-called “spiritual” well-being. Without the physical care of the body the journey to the mountaintop is impossible. Elijah ceases; he rests, cared for by God. Empowered by this care, Elijah makes a journey of forty even farther south. Like the days of Noah’s flooding rain; like the years of wandering for the doomed generation of freed Israelites; like the days Christ will later spend in the desert fasting; like the days the apostles waited for the Holy Spirit to fall. The number forty carries important significance throughout Scripture. In Elijah’s forty days, he approaches the mountain of God, where Moses encountered the burning bush. Like Moses, Elijah will receive a unique revelation of God.
The symbolism of mountains cannot be overstated. Upon mountains, God confront our most sacred idols. For Abraham, it was Isaac. For Moses, it was his nagging past and self-doubt. Israel felt a need for a god they could see, and Elijah must face his fear of failure and death. It is also on the mountaintop where God most fully reveals who God is. Abraham’s blade is stayed; Moses is given the Divine Name and sent to free the slaves; Moses also receives the Laws and sees the Promised Land before he dies, and he saw the glory of the Lord. Jesus was transfigured before James, John, and Peter. From the mountainside, Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God. It was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus offered up his will to the Father and is led away to death. The journey up the mountain holds a deep and beautiful hope, if we are willing to let go of what holds us at the base.
On the mountaintop, we are all asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophetic marker is invoked: “The word of the Lord came to Elijah.” Unlike the oracles or acts of ministry that typically follow this device, God instead questions the prophet. Rather than indicating the identity of a person as a prophet, it instead questions Elijah’s ability to carry that mantle. The prophet answers for the first time, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah tells his truth; he ran because he was afraid to die. Elijah confronts his idol. Emphatically, God responds. Here, God reveals what kind of God Elijah has been serving. Just like Moses, Elijah is going to experience the presence of the Lord passing by. The only response God offers to Elijah’s great turmoil is presence. Great signs threaten to dislodge the prophet from his cave. Wind, earthquake, fire. Surely God will appear in powerful ways just like on Mount Carmel! YHWH, however, does not need showmanship with his beloved Elijah. God draws nearer than a whisper. “Sheer silence” falls upon the mountain. A silence so profound, that it could somehow be heard. Elijah immediately recognizes the presence of God and covers his face. The question is repeated: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The prophet responds the same as before. Elijah speaks truth. This calling has claimed all but his life, yet Israel remains unfaithful. The prophet could not overcome the king and queen. This is why Elijah is doing on the mountain. He has failed, and in his profound honesty, the prophet admits that he blames God for this failure.
The tragic honesty with which Elijah confronts God offers an important corrective to the polished faith that many Christians practice. There is no pretense between Elijah and God, only raw and beautiful relationship. Elijah had failed by all measurable accounts. His membership had dropped below a sustainable number. Participation was low. And yet, what power has failure before God? God does not chastise Elijah for his failure or his insubordination. Instead, God reaffirms his calling. God sends Elijah back north. This time to Damascus, outside of Israel’s borders. If Israel will not listen, then God’s prophets will preach in the fields. Perhaps when we feel as though our ministry has failed, rather than patching strategic holes, we need to answer the question, “What are you doing here Elijah?”