In the passage we have this morning, Elijah, one of Israel’s prophets, is on the run, fleeing for his life. This is Elijah who has experienced the presence of God working through him in powerfully dramatic ways.
Most recently, he’s come face to face with the King, Ahab.
There is a drought in the land … and maybe that’s one of the factors that has had the people, the King included, abandon the covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not only that, the king’s wife, Jezebel, has been ordering the rounding up and slaughter of the prophets of the Lord. So there’s been a great turning of people’s hearts to worship Baal.
Elijah has a plan to bring the people back to Israel’s God, and he sets up this great contest to prove the impotence of Baal, and the power of Israel’s God. And it works … or at least, it seems the point is made when fire comes raining down from heaven in response to Elijah’s bidding, in contrast to the complete lack of response the people get from crying out to Baal all the day long.
But the whole thing back-fires when, in a rage, Jezebel calls for the death of Elijah. So he’s out of there. Which is where we meet him in this passage we have this morning. …
Elijah 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 for 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.
It’s a hard go for Elijah … like it might be for any one of us when your heart’s in the right place. You care that people aren’t being misled. You want the best for them. And you have a sense that your efforts are in line with God’s desire, that you’re being faithful, even taking risks as part of that faithfulness. And you’ve had enough experience in the past of God, or Grace, or Goodness -- however you might name it-- being there for you, coming through for you. So what then, when suddenly, it seems you’re on your own. Where’s God when things are tough, even terrifying? What happened to the grace, that undeniable presence that was so there before? Maybe if I had shut down, or let go of my devotional life, or my concern for others … maybe then I could expect not to be helped or accompanied in some way … but here I am doing all the right things and yet, where’s the support, the strength, the relief, the protection?
Even if intellectually we know that’s not the way it works … even if we trust that God’s way is not our way… that we’re not in this tit for tat relationship … sometimes this is the thinking that creeps in … that we’re owed a better deal than what’s happening. And so we’re thrown into confusion, self-pity maybe, even depression, when it seems we’ve fallen off God’s radar.
Seems to me, that’s what’s happening for Elijah. And understandably! If God was somehow there making a way in the impossible places where Elijah has already been, surely now is one of those times … especially after all he’s done for God’s sake. Where’s that powerful presence now when Elijah needs it to preserve his life?
Meanwhile, he’s managed about a hundred miles on foot. And then while he lay down in the desert under the one lone tree, exhausted and was sleeping, there was this delivery of food and water. And then twice, an angelic visitor touches him to who waken him and encourage him to get up and eat, reminding him of that basic wisdom that you need to eat in order to keep going.
The strength to run a hundred miles, the nourishment that slips in while he’s sleeping, the wakening touch, the words of encouragement … this is not fire raining down from heaven … there’s nothing loud or dramatic about it … but it is not nothing!!
His journey takes him all the way to Mt Horeb, otherwise known as Mt Sinai otherwise famously known as the place of Moses’ dramatic encounter with God. Here’s how that’s described in the Book of Exodus:
Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.
We’re not told as much, but maybe this is why Elijah is headed there, of all places … for surely here, of all places, he’d be guaranteed a connection, an experience of encounter with the presence of God. So there he is tucked in the cave of the mountain, just like Moses was; waiting for God to pass by. But as we read, God was not in the mountain-splitting, rock breaking wind. And God was not in the earthquake. And God was not in the fire. In none of these tried and true ways. But there, in the sound of sheer silence.
How often have I heard this story … those very lines? It’s the contrast that has always struck me …that God was not in the roar and ruckus, but in the quietness. But this time, this umpteenth time, it’s not the contrast that strikes me. It’s the utterly unexpected. We can picture Elijah prepared for what he knew was coming. But it’s not what happened. And so he and we glimpse something of the freedom of God, to show up in ways beyond our control … in God’s own way … even in sheer silence!
That can be a tough one, God’s silence, as maybe you yourself have known. It was there in the song Gordon recently recorded, as he sings “God, why don’t you speak to me? Why don’t you speak to me?”
I well remember for myself, in the early days of my studies at seminary, at VST, when I was on the edge of coming out to myself … hounded by my own question to myself: “am I gay or am I straight?” I didn’t really know, or at least that’s what I told myself …perhaps it was my one last line of defense! So where did I go with it? To God … the ultimate source and destiny of my being. “Please tell me … You made me … you must know.” But there was only silence … nothing coming back. No answer, no hint, no reassurance. Sheer silence. Which made me mad, and engage! “It’s not fair that you know this intimate thing about me that I don’t know about myself.” I resented what felt like an abuse of power!
It was my first semester in biblical studies and our first assignment was to read through the Old Testament … all of it. So one evening I’m in the book of Job … hearing him rail against his friends who can’t make sense of his suffering except by blaming Job and sticking up for God, presuming to speak for God. Having heard enough, Job basically tells them to shut up … that he’ll speak with God himself. Except that he hears nothing. “I cry to you and you do not answer me!” he howls. Until finally … finally we hear God speak … for four whole uninterrupted chapters ! Amidst it all, never do we hear an answer to Job’s question “why this suffering? And yet, come the end of it all, Job is strangely satisfied. Why? Because he realizes he was trying to grasp the Ungraspable … cross into the Unknowable; and yet having leaned into the silence, he lured God out of hiding.
That night, Job quite literally saved my life. As for him, there were no answers for me. And there didn’t need to be. Instead there was the realization of companionship … of the presence of God who was already bearing with me as I lived with the question of myself, knowing that in its time, I would be revealed to myself, come into my own.
The sound of sheer silence … it’s not nothing! Just as that food and drink that arrived amidst Elijah’s sleep in the desert, or the strength that sustained him those hundred miles, or the patient accompaniment that saw me through those particular months –God’s silence is not nothing. It is not vacuous but a mystery to be opened to … that opens us.
Where do you go to listen for God’s silence?
Well then Steve Garnass Holmes imagines God speaking to us with this:
In roar of rush and tumble
tangled in there,
in life bent wrong,
in rusty knife-edged days
cutting deep and rough,
in empty, looted places,
long hope-starved roads,
not separate from them,
in wrecks and ruins and regrets
not much, I know,
since even my mildest voice
shatters planets, flattens suns,
but in temple-deep silence
at the root of your thickest pain
enough to be distinct
from noise or nothing,
neither shouting nor a closed eye:
a wordless syllable, slight, and yet
enough to have created light,
enough to let you know
I'm trying to let you know
How do you listen for God’s whisper in the distress, in the chaos?
 Steve Garnaas Holmes, “A Whisper,” posted on June 24, 2019