"A Couple of Questions"

June 23, 2013


I Kings 19: 9‑14

Luke 9:18‑24


On her death bed the writer Gertrude Stein is reported to have asked: "What is the answer?"

Then after a long silence she spoke again: "What is the question?"

All of us are involved with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow—the immediate questions that face us daily at home and work:

“What do you want to do this afternoon?”

“Where are you going and who is going with you?”

“When does the meeting start?”

At the same time many—perhaps most—people tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter at all times—the life‑and‑death questions about meaning and purpose and value.

            What brings me great joy?

            Where do my commitments lie?

            When am I required to stand up for what matters?               

It’s been said that if you lose track of these deep questions  you risk losing track of who you are in your own depths.[1] A congregation, too, can forget these questions and remain dangerously stuck in the answers of the past.

One of the most important reasons to read the ancient words of the Bible is that the scriptures constantly ask us the important questions. These questions help us look beyond day to day concerns. These questions don't come with quick answers. Instead, they send us searching inside ourselves and out in the world.

This morning's lessons from the Old and New Testaments ask two of the most significant questions we face in life.

God's question to Elijah: "What are you doing here?"

Jesus' question to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"

In the scriptures God confronts each person with questions about the purpose of his or her life.

Remember the story of Elijah? He defeated a group of false prophets and for his efforts found his own life threatened.  Elijah fled into the wilderness. He found food and drink and was sent on by God to Mt. Horeb. There in a cave the "word of the LORD" came to Elijah. This "word" was not a definitive command or an answer. Instead God asks Elijah a deceptively simple question.

"What are you doing here, Elijah?"

"What are you doing here?" The question could be understood in all sorts of ways.

Do you mean here, right here, in this cave on the side of a mountain, in this sanctuary?

Do you mean here as opposed to some place else—say still in the desert, or out on the golf course?

Or do you mean what am I doing with my life as I live here and now? What is my purpose, my goal?

Depressed, fearful, and alone, Elijah blurts out a self‑righteous response: "The people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left."

Elijah's answer suggests that he takes this question in the largest sense—and that he is ready to give up.

The word of God is like a two-edged sword, cutting deeply. This is especially the case when it comes to us as a question. What are you doing here?

What purpose motivates your life now?  Are you holed up in a cave, feeling good in your misery? Are you ready to quit?  Are you licking old wounds, nursing grudges?

What are you doing here? The word of God still confronts us with questions about the purpose of life.

Usually people don't face those important questions without resistance.  I know I tend to avoid them, preferring the comfort of old answers. And, of course, one of the purposes of a sabbatical is to provide the time needed to find some new answers—which is one of the reasons why my sabbatical time comes to me as much as a threat as a promise.

There is a struggle going on between Elijah and God. Maybe there is a struggle going on between you and God.

In the account of God and Elijah, notice how God doesn't respond directly to the prophet's answer. God doesn’t affirm or negate what Elijah says. What occurs next, however, hints at a God who wants more than we are often willing to give.

It's as though God says: "O.K. Now wait here."

Look at how God seeks to get the prophet's attention: "Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting the mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, 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." 

Of course not. The Hebrew people would find it unthinkable that the God who created all things would be found within that creation.  The divine presence is always separate from its outward manifestations.

After all these fireworks comes the "still small voice," or as a new translation puts it a "sound of sheer silence." God is not in the silence either. But silence is often more effective at getting someone's attention. In drawing us out of our own caves, perhaps the silence of God works better than noise.

Now that I have your attention, God asks again: "What are you doing here?"

Elijah gives the same answer as before.

Will your answer also be the same? Or are you willing to discover new purpose for living?

The living God does not seek to change Elijah's feelings. God doesn’t seek to change the answer given. But Elijah is given a new task. God's purpose is greater than our despair. In the struggle God only seeks to be present with us.

"What are you doing here?" The question asks about how you understand yourself before God.

We heard another question this morning, one that asks about a different kind of understanding.

Jesus was also good at asking questions during his ministry. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We claim that Jesus is the full revelation of God. And the God we discover in scripture and in life is a God who asks questions.

So one day Jesus gets his disciples together for a kind of public opinion poll. "Who do people say that I am?" he asks. What's the word on the street? Is anyone catching on?

As it turns out lot of people have a lot of different ideas.  And it's pretty easy to report on those opinions. Some might seem a little strange, like those who think that Jesus is our old prophet friend Elijah, come again to set things straight.

Jesus asks the question again, but this time in a slightly different—and much more pointed—way. "Who do you say that I am?" And the question still reverberates in our souls as we try to figure out our answer.

After what must have been a silence you could drive a truck through Peter says: "You are the Christ." It was a strong, definite answer.

Frederick Buechner writes: “A thief hanging on a cross would later turn to a dying Jesus and say: ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and save us.’ It was both a halfhearted affirmation and a wholehearted plea. Save us from whatever we most need to be saved. Save us from each other.  Save us from ourselves.

“In our own time our answer is often more likely to resemble that of the thief than that of Peter. If you are the Christ—help! If Jesus is the Christ, he can help; if he isn't, he can't. The only way to find out is to give him the chance—whatever that involves.[2]

So the question "Who do you say I am?" requires more than a few words of definition. It seeks an active response of openness on the part of each woman and man. Are you giving Jesus the chance to help, to be the Christ, or not? It's not a final decision but a choice we make each day. It is a life of faith.

What are you doing here?

Who do you say that Jesus is?

These two questions were asked centuries apart from each other.  They were asked thousands of years ago. But these two questions are intimately connected for us and intimately connected to us.

The Christian response has been that in Christ we discover what we are doing here in a way that otherwise would not be possible.  In Christ we find the love of God that grabs our attention, grabs our souls, and doesn't let go even when our own grip loosens.

When you ask yourself "What am I doing here" you can't escape asking about Christ and what part he plays in your understanding of your life.

The questions of God come to us at all times, throughout our lives. But I wanted to raise them again this morning because it is the beginning of summer.

For many summer is a slower time. All of us get some extra hours of daylight. And most of us can find some time to sneak away and sit under a tree or out under a blue sky.

This summer, take some time to let the questions you heard today—and any other questions God is asking you—soak into your heart, perhaps to trouble your spirit a little.

Then go in search of your answers once more. The way will be filled with unique adventures.

What is the answer? It is the word the you will find in your heart.

What is the question? It is the word that leads from life to life, for it comes from the living God.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 77

[2] Wishful Thinking, p. 61.