At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "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." He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "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." Then the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him." --1 Kings 19:9-18
I remember having a conversation with my brother about this text when we were in college. He asserted, "The Bible says God is omnipresent. Then it says God wasn't in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. How can this be? Clearly both can't be true!" So as I read this text again today, and I look around a world ravaged by a pandemic, racism, and capitalism, I find myself asking the same thing Chris asked - "Where is God?" Sometimes it can seem like God really isn't in the hurricane blowing, the world trembling, the Wendy's burning. In the midst of such chaos, we long and wait for the silence. Chaos - bad. Silence - good.
At least so it seems. I'm curious here about Elijah. He is hiding in a cave when the LORD asks him, "What are you doing here?" Elijah explains (a little self-righteously perhaps) his loneliness and the fear that has driven him to isolation. (Sound familiar?) God replies, "Go out and stand on the mountain for the LORD is about to pass by." Cue crazy strong winds, earthquake, and fire. Then, only after all that chaos, that "bad", comes sheer silence and finally - finally - Elijah moves. Even then he only goes so far as the edge of the cave.
Now I don't blame Elijah. I also would much rather be deep inside a safe cave than on an unprotected mountain while the mountain itself is splitting into pieces and rocks keep zinging past my head. Not to mention the earthquake and fire - all of that sounds absolutely terrifying. Of course Elijah stayed in the cave! If I were Elijah I'd probably have gone deeper into the cave! His response is deeply human - he stays where it is safe and hides from the pain and chaos, never making it to the mountain where the LORD would pass by.
Usually, when I hear this text preached the message is about how God is in the silence - slow down and listen. And yes, surely, God is in the silence. Yet, I can't help but wonder what Elijah missed out on as he chose the silence of the cave to the rumbling outside. What if God really was in the wind, earthquake, and fire but Elijah was too scared to step into something that seemed so uncertain? I feel Elijah's urge to avoid pain and hurt deeply in my soul. I want God to make me feel better from the harsh realities of the world. I want an escape and I want calm. The problem with this "hide and wait it out" approach is that it doesn't demand us to change in any way. It is the easy way out.
When Elijah finally makes it to the entrance of the cave God asks him again (I like to imagine in a surprised tone), "What are you doing here?" and Elijah gives the exact same response - word for word. The world has literally been turned over and spun around but his worries and fears for his own life have not altered a bit. The LORD has passed by and he has missed it. Everything has changed, yet, nothing has changed.
The hope I find in this story is that the second time the LORD says "Go", Elijah goes (v. 19). He stops hiding. The world is still uncertain, perhaps even more so, but he steps forward into that chaos instead of moving further away from the possibility of pain. As teachers and families prepare for school to reopen, as the government lets benefits expire, as the chaos never seems to stop, I wonder - can we take a few steps closer to the edge of the cave? Can we find a way to stand on the mountain with rocks flinging past us? Can we listen not just for silence but for the cries of those hurting? Can we bravely step forward and let ourselves be surprised by the ways God is passing by right now, even in the chaos?