Summary: God twice asks Elijah, "What are you doing here?" This is a good question for us to be asking ourselves - why have we come into the presence of God... even if, like Elijah, we are suffering from burn-out and trying to escape the craziness of life.
What Are You Doing Here?
One of my new favorite devotional books is titled: An Eclectic Almanac for the Faithful. And I have to admit, I only picked it up at first because of its intriguing title. However, it has become a storehouse of prayer fodder and ideas for contemplation. Take for instance this past Thursday’s installment about Jean-Baptist Marie Vianney. Vianney lived in France in the first half of the 19th century. The son of peasants, Vianney felt called by God to enter the priesthood, though many clergy did not believe that he held the proper level of education and abilities. Yet, eventually he was ordained and assigned to a remote village where even in isolation he became world renowned as a spiritual director. His child-like faith drew many people to his ministry and often he heard confessions for 18 hours a day! Yet, even in his success, some of his colleagues continued to view “him as ignorant, a charlatan and mentally deranged” prompting the bishop to declare: “I wish that all my clergy had a touch of the same madness!” At least three times in his career, Vianney was on the edge of burnout and sought rest and healing at a local monastery – and each time he was eventually persuaded to return to his parish – where after 40 years in ministry in the same remote parish he died. For his dedication and perseverance Jean-Baptist Marie Vianney has been declared the patron saint of parish priests and ministers.
The story of his life prompted the editor of the book to write the following prayer: "God, this has to be your doing – that a seminary misfit should become your choice as model for your clergy. Yet you need to clarify whether burnout is an official part of the job description. Amen." (Jones, W. Paul. An Eclectic Almanac for the Faithful. Upper Room Books, Nashville. 2006. page 275-276.)
I can tell you, that no where in any pastoral job description have I seen burnout as an official part of the job description! However, I can tell you from past personal experiences, as well as observation of other people in the offices of the Lord’s work, burnout sooner or later does become part of our ministry. And not just for clergy. Many of you gathered here today know the burnout experience! You’ve celebrated the times of passionate service to the Lord and you’ve experienced times of forced labor in the name of God. It’s okay! All of God’s servants have been there! Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Paul, even Jesus sought a way out of doing God’s work. “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.”
Read the scriptures and time and again you will see God’s teachers and prophets passionately serve God in one chapter only to run away from God’s work in the next.
Today’s story of Elijah is no different. Now, we sort of jumped into the middle of Elijah’s story in today’s reading, so let’s back up and get a bigger picture of what’s happening. Elijah first comes on the scene back in 1 Kings, chapter 17 when he comes to speak to King Ahab. Now, Ahab is described as the one “who did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.” Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord, worshipped idols and built altars in Israel to Baal – the false God of Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. So, God sent Elijah with a message for Ahab – the message was that there would be not dew or rain for YEARS until the Lord spoke the word and once again sent rain upon Ahab’s kingdom. And so it was. There was no rain. There was a lot of Baal worshipping. And there was NOT much worshipping of the God of Israel. In fact, Jezebel (Ahab’s ‘lovely’ wife) killed all but 100 prophets of the Lord – so you can bet many feared professing their faith in God too loudly or too boldly. And still no rain fell.
Meanwhile, Elijah continued to do as God commanded. And miraculously a widow, her household and Elijah were fed. The widow’s son was raised from the dead. And the woman and her household professed their faith in God.
Eventually, Ahab and Elijah meet again. Ahab is still not ready to return his faith to the God of Israel. So there is a challenge set up. A challenge between the prophets of Baal and Elijah – to see whose God was more powerful. The prophets of Baal along with Baal were proved to be powerless as the God of Elijah brought fire to a water soaked altar. The people of Israel cried, “the Lord is God! The Lord is God!” and then they killed the prophets of Baal. And then God sent rain upon Israel and the drought was broken. All is well, right?