“There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?… Elijah… pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:9,13)
One of the readings in this week’s Common Lectionary took us to the story of Elijah fleeing to the wilderness around Beersheba following Jezebel’s death threats against him. Elijah hides overnight in a cave. While he cowers there, God speaks to him by name, asking him ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He is then instructed (v.11) to “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” It seems Elijah was reluctant to obey and to leave the darkness and he only goes as far as the mouth of the cave (v.13) after the wind, earthquake and fire of God’s presence tear through the valley. And there, at the mouth of his refuge, he is questioned again: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
On a cursory reading of this chapter, I suppose I had always imagined God’s insistent, repeated question to have been delivered in an accusatory, forceful, demanding, confrontational tone – calling Elijah out for a moment of cowardice and faith-failure. Reading more carefully though, I think I may have misinterpreted. As Elijah sits in fear in the darkness of the cave God’s question comes: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ It seems God is right there, in the cave, and with Elijah. God sharing his darkness. And again, as Elijah reluctantly stands in the twilight of the cave mouth and peers out, there is a gentle whisper, not an angry accusation: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ It seems God is right there, in the cave mouth. God sharing the twilight and the uncertainty and the fear. God speaking gently.
What a precious story this is. It shows that the God of wind and earthquake and fire is also the God who sits with us in the overwhelming darkness of our total fear. He is the God of the majestic and the awesome, yet also the God of gentle whisper, who stands with us in our paralysing, twilight moments of uncertainty. Be with me, God of wind and earthquake and fire. Be with me God, in my darkest moments of despair and fear. Be with me God, when I stand uncertain and unsighted in the twilight of anxiety. Be with me God.