What Are You Doing Here?

As I told you in Thursday's church eNews, I observed two ordination anniversaries this past week—34 years as a deacon and 30 years as an elder (in the Methodist church, both of these require at least some seminary). And one of the things that’s bothered me since I became a minister is the amount of noise in the sanctuary during the prélude. For one thing, I would like for all of us to appreciate this time before the service as a time to meditate or pray. For another, the musician has no doubt prepared a beautiful piece of music that even those who don’t wish to pray might be able to appreciate. In my last church, the problem was bad enough that we actually gave the announcements before a note was played in order to make the prélude more a part of the worship service.

I think this is a common problem in most Protestant churches—one that seems to have gotten worse as time advances. I remember as a kid I was told that it was okay to talk before church until the music started, but after the music had started I had to be quiet (a monumental task in my case). But in that church—along with most others—the prélude has become something over which conversation has to be carried on.

The best story I’ve ever heard about this phenomenon was told by a guest at a little dinner party I attended once in Atlanta a while back. Another guest was the organist at a big downtown church, and he described a piece that he had chosen both because of its dramatic beauty, and as an experiment to see what would happen when he played it. He may have been disappointed when the beauty was marred, but I’m sure he was thrilled that his experiment worked.

I wish I remembered the name of the piece, but perhaps my description of it will help you appreciate it as much as I did. It was a piece that started out very quietly—so quiet that the people in the congregation who preferred chatter to music could easily hear each other if they spoke quietly, perhaps even in whispers. But as the volume of the organ went from pianississimo (really, really soft) to pianissimo to piano, they unconsciously began to speak a bit more loudly. But the piece didn’t stop there. The dynamics moved into the moderate range, and then slowly built on that until the volume became forte (that is, loud), then fortissimo, and then fortississimo (really, really loud). By this time, people in the sanctuary were actually yelling at each other in order to be heard, though the change in the volume of the music had been so gradual that they didn’t notice it as their own voices adjusted to compensate for the organ.

But then, when the organ reached its climax, when all the stops had finally been pulled out, when it had gotten as loud as it possibly could get—all without the clueless congregation even noticing that it had been getting louder—the sound of the organ suddenly stopped for a brief second. In musical notation, this is simply called a rest, but in this case, the rest was intended for dramatic effect.

And boy was it dramatic.

I’m sure there must’ve been several people in the congregation who were listening appreciatively to the music. And most of those who were trying to talk over the organ were at least aware of what had just happened, and were able to put the breaks on their own speech when the music suddenly stopped. But one lady in the back was so engaged with her conversation partner that she was caught completely off guard. And so when the room that had heretofore been filled with the strains of really loud pipe organ music suddenly became totally silent, into the silence was suddenly shouted the beautiful and theologically significant words, “Bill likes his fried.”

One of the lessons this particular piece of music was intended to teach, you see, was that silence is as much a part of the composition as noise—the spaces in between the notes speak to the listener no less than the notes themselves. So keep this in mind as I read to you a passage of scripture. This is the story of what happened to Elijah after he’d proven to be the downfall of the prophets of Ba’al—the god who was the favorite of Israel’s royal couple, Ahab and Jezebel. We find it in the 19th chapter of the First Book of Kings:


Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
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?”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.


Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy your consolations; through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Human beings have a fascinating ability to ignore the sounds that surround us. Sometimes it might even be considered a talent, like when there’s construction noise nearby, or a person has noisy neighbors. But sometimes—maybe even most of the time—we would do well to be more attentive to sounds: to the voices that speak to us or the birds outside our window or the music that surrounds us. And if this is true of the sounds that just about everybody hears, then how about the sounds of the Spirit—sounds that are not heard with the ears visible on the sides of our heads, but are heard with the soul.

Elijah was certainly an individual who could hear the voice of God’s Spirit. It was, after all, God’s Spirit who had told him to confront the royal family and its religious minions. The Bible doesn’t tell us that it was God’s Spirit that told him to flee. But once he’d escaped the clutches of Jezebel and Ahab, he asked God to do what Jezebel didn’t. He asked God to take his life. God’s answer wasn’t to take, but to give him life. God kept Elijah alive until he arrived at a mountain known to Israel as the place where Moses encountered God in the burning bush, and on which God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock to protect him from the divine glory as it passed by. What the story tells us is almost amusing. It’s almost as though God expected to still find Moses in a cave on that mountain, because when God encounters another prophet, God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And then God does for Elijah what God did for Moses, but apparently not in the same way. Moses is told to hide in a rock as God passes by, but Elijah is told to leave his cave to experience the same thing. And so he waits through wind, earthquake, and fire. But Elijah doesn’t encounter God in any of those. But then there was nothing. Sheer silence. (And, by the way, our contemporary translation does get it right. We’re used to calling it a still small voice in the old Authorized [King James] Version, which is a rather poetic oxymoron. Our Pilgrim ancestors read a translation that used a very similar oxymoron: a still and soft voice. Another contemporary translation popular among conservatives calls it a gentle whisper. This is not correct. The Hebrew means literally the sound of thin silence. To me, this is exactly the sound we hear when a composer brings a musical piece to thunderous climax followed by the silence of a sudden rest. That silence is certainly no less a part of the music than the noise that precedes it. I might even say it’s the most important part of the music, for it’s exactly this striking tranquility that the thunder was leading to.

And in the sound of sheer silence came a familiar question. It’s the same question Elijah had just heard, but in my mind the emphasis is placed on a different word. The first question was “What are you doing here, Elijah?” …meaning what are you doing in the place where I found my servant Moses. But after all was said and done and the question was repeated, I think it sounded more like this: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” …meaning that there was someplace else he was supposed to go. He’d had his mountaintop experience. He’d found God. But now it was time to back down into the valley to serve God’s people and to speak God’s word.

And the Day of Pentecost is a lot like Elijah in this story. Elijah walked for forty days to get where he was going. And after the resurrection, Jesus walked for forty days with and among his disciples. Elijah ended up on a mountaintop, and the disciples found themselves in an upper room. Elijah found God not in wind and fire, but in the sound of silence. The disciples waited in silence and discovered God’s Spirit in wind and flame. And in both cases—Elijah’s and the disciples’—God’s servants were sent down to proclaim the word of God.

And so whether our lives are in chaos or peace—whether we’re surrounded by silence or a cacophony—let us hear God’s twofold question to us this morning. First, what are you doing here? And while each might thing our own answer is unique, in my opinion it’s not. I am here because God has called me to be here. I may think it’s because I’m the pastor or maybe you think you came because it’s a habit or because you got up in time this morning, but in reality we’re all here because God has called us to be here this morning. So what are you doing here? You’re here because it’s where God wants you to be. But what’re you doing here? You’re here to worship and to be around your brothers and sisters in Christ. But there are other brothers and sisters whom you haven’t met yet. And they’re not here; they’re elsewhere. Just as Elijah had some time to gain strength for the journey ahead, and just as the disciples had time together to be filled by the Spirit, so we have had this time together to be energized or strengthened or pacified for the week to come. Just as Elijah left the mountain and Peter and the others descended from the upper room, so we, too, will leave this place to serve God in the world. May we bring peace to those whose lives are a confused mess, and may we bring a bit of chaos to those who are comfortable with the status quo. We are called by God to speak the word, and filled with the Spirit to do God’s work. May we be about it.