23 June 2013
Ashland Presbyterian Church
1 Kings 19:1-16
Listen to the Silence
One of my favorite books of all time is Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. In this world of the not-so-distant future where firemen are employed for burning books instead of putting out fires, one fireman, Guy Montag, finds himself enthralled by the books he’s supposed to burn.
Possibly my favorite scene in the novel occurs as Montag is on his way, via futuristic subway train, to the home of an eccentric secret book collector, Faber, to show him his latest find. On the ride Montag, convinced he’ll have to give up his find (which happens to be a Bible), sets out to try to memorize the book, or as much as possible, before the book is taken from him. His efforts to commit “consider the lilies of the field” to memory, however, are continually thwarted by the train’s sound system, blaring a particularly nonsensical and annoying ad for toothpaste. Montag is finally driven to an eruption of frustration, screaming “Lilies!” at the speaker system to the amazement of the shocked and frightened passengers on the train.
Later, at Faber’s, he shows the curious old man the Bible, and after running his fingers longingly over the book and reading through several passages, Faber finally asks Montag, “why are you doing this?” At his wit’s end and not even understanding himself, Montag finally answers, “Nobody listens anymore.”
Failure to listen, or perhaps inability to listen, is hardly limited to media-distracted characters in futuristic novels. Our own scriptures are full of examples of individuals who don’t seem to be able to hear what God or any human being is trying to tell them. Jesus frequently is driven to cry out “Anyone who has ears, listen!” to his sometimes-distracted and confused audiences. The story of Jonah features a character who hears God’s command to preach to the city of Nineveh all too clearly, but is rabidly unwilling to listen to that call. And in today’s scripture, inability (or unwillingness? It’s hard to tell sometimes) – the failure to listen, as opposed to simply hearing – befalls one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah.
By any account it would seem Elijah is on a serious winning streak. He prophesies a drought in Israel – to the face of King Ahab, no less – and a drought settles in over the land. He performs a miracle to provide a widow and her son an endless supply of meal and oil, and raises the son from the dead to boot. He wins a spectacular contest against four hundred and fifty prophets of the foreign idol Baal, calling down fire from heaven to consume an offering where the Baal prophets had failed. He decrees the end of the drought, and rain returns to the land.
Yet one little threat from the queen, the devious importer of deities Jezebel, and Elijah becomes unhinged. The prophet who had performed such deeds of power is reduced to a scared little boy, running away in the face of a threat.
He runs away all the way to the mountain called Horeb, better known in Israelite history as Sinai. He runs all the way to the mountain of God, legendary in Israelite history as the mountain where Moses communed with God and received the Law.
At this point I’d be better served by sitting down for a moment and playing the appropriate section from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. The rushing mighty wind, the earthquake, the fire; all of these were tokens of the past, of God’s encounters with Moses on this very same mountain. Yet this time, the text is at pains to tell us, the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire.
What follows next is most commonly known as a “still small voice,” as translated in the King James Version of the scriptures. The Hebrew words are not that easy to translate; it could be a “sheer silence,” as the NRSV says, or it could also be translated as “the sound of a breath,” or a Simon & Garfunkel fan could even get away with translating it as a “sound of silence.” Whatever it was, it was so arresting, so striking, so different from the display just before that Elijah was drawn from his hiding place, out onto the side of the mountain itself, where God asks Elijah a question that God has already asked once, a question that has as much of accusation about it as inquiry: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Somehow, after that magnificent, awesome, display, after the wind and earthquake and fire and then the silent sound that somehow revealed God in ways the wind and earthquake and fire did not, after the tumultuous events that brought Elijah to the very mountain where Moses stood before God and received the Law; after all of this, somehow, some way, Elijah Did. Not. Get It.
He parrots back the same answer he gave the first time God asked the question: “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.”
Certainly a very pious-sounding answer. Sounds a little like the psalmist in today’s reading, demanding that the Lord “Vindicate me … and defend my cause” and questioning why he was abandoned. But perhaps we ought to retrace Elijah’s steps, his activity since first appearing in the seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings. Is Elijah’s complaint valid, or is it possible that Elijah was missing something?
We first encounter Elijah proclaiming to King Ahab that a drought was about to settle upon the land. Immediately God provides a hiding place for Elijah, with water to drink and ravens to bring him food. When the water dries up God sends Elijah to the home of a widow, where the last bits of meal and oil miraculously persevere and provide for the widow and her son, and where Elijah performs the miracle of raising that son from the dead. Next Elijah again confronts Ahab, in the contest with the prophets of Baal; Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume an offering, and has the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal killed. This act brings about the threat from Jezebel that sends Elijah on the run. But first, Elijah announces the end of the drought; with the Baal prophets vanquished and the people repentant, the rain is on the way, says the prophet. And one last detail; as Ahab returns, 18:46 tells us that Elijah ran all the way, ahead of the chariot.
That’s a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, a lot exertion both emotional and physical. And not, in today’s lingo, a lot of self-care.
For that matter, just what has been the relationship between Elijah and God in all this? God directs Elijah to his hiding place, and then to the widow’s home. From there we get, when you break it down, an awful lot of Elijah telling God what to do – raise the widow’s son from the dead; send fire from heaven; and, in verse four of today’s chapter, let me die – “it is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” At Mount Horeb God engages in the most dramatic and striking attempt to communicate with one of his own since Moses’s adventures on that same mountain, and Elijah Still. Does. Not. Get It.
For Elijah the consequences of his failure to listen in the silence are sharp; no less than the end of his prophetic career resides in God’s words. Elijah is to go out and anoint, among others, his own successor Elisha. Elijah still has a couple of good moments left, but in effect his days as a prophet are numbered. His rather vain imagining that “I alone am left” also comes in for sharp rebuke; The Lord points to a large number in Israel who have not gone after the worship of Baal, contrary to Elijah’s complaint.
Even in the doing of good, we can go wrong. If we learned anything from Jephthah last week, hopefully we noticed that being “moved by the Spirit of the Lord” doesn’t keep anyone from saying foolish things and making horrible promises. Here, God’s anointed prophet nonetheless behaves in ways damaging and wearying to himself even in doing the Lord’s work. His zealousness for God not only doesn’t protect him from the consequences of his own rashness.
In the end God has to remind Elijah who is really in control. After providing fire from heaven at Elijah’s beckoning, God reminds Elijah on Horeb that the fire (or the wind or the earthquake) is no guarantee of God’s voice. God will not be restricted to the old ways of speaking to God’s people. Wind and earthquake and fire might have been signs of God’s presence and God’s word in the past, but that is no guarantee God will speak through those now. To hear God, Elijah has to listen to the silence, and somehow he can’t do it. Unlike Ray Bradbury’s befuddled book-loving fireman Montag crying out to escape from the noise, Elijah seems unable to break away from the spectacular and awe-inspiring to find his way to meaning in the “sheer silence” of God.
Where does this noise come from in our lives? We certainly know pressure from work, pressure from family responsibilities, pressure from trying to keep up with bills and take care of others and ourselves, and maybe even pressure from the work of the church, teaching a class or singing in the choir or serving on a committee or spending an evening serving for CARITAS, or any number of other worthy and needed tasks in the life of the church. We are concerned, and rightly so, that the praise we sing to God in here and the worship we offer to God in here are reflected in the ways our church or we as individual members of it live in our town and participate in the life of our broader church. And yet, we must – must – find some way to clear the clutter and silence the chatter that keeps us from hearing from God.
The pastor and author Frederick Buechner points out that this endeavor is not even the same thing as prayer. Buechner writes:
What deadens us most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort, … than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.[i]
Oh, how difficult a task that is! Women, you need to sign up for that retreat this fall! Men, you need to demand one! As hard as it is, finding that time is so essential for one’s spiritual health and relationship with God. If the lack of it was enough to bring trouble to one of the most revered figures of the Old Testament, how can we really think we can live without it?
Jesus demonstrates this need again and again in the Gospels, sending the disciples into town or off on a boat or somewhere else in order to have that time of silence, of quiet, of listening for God in the silence or quiet.
This time of silence with God is not necessarily about dramatic revelations or earth-shaking commandments. The silence may well be just that; the silence may hold no words at all. Still, to be present in that quiet, that retreat from the noise and clutter of the world, is to hold open the opportunity for the presence of God to comfort us or to change us.
One of the songs of a singer/songwriter named Bruce Cockburn contains the following lines:
Sometimes you can hear His Spirit whispering to you
But if God stays silent, what else can you do, except
Listen to the silence; if you ever did you’d surely see
That God won’t be reduced to an ideology[ii]
Indeed we humans are rather proficient at reducing God to an ideology, or a weapon with which to bash our enemies, or a “get out of Hell free” card. We fail to listen, and our God increasingly starts to look and sound like a projection of our own preferences and attitudes. We fail to listen, and we lose touch with the source of our strength, the One whose love and grace towards us are the only reason we can hope to be or to do … well, anything. We fail to listen and we flounder and sink, our own strength betraying us.
God speaks in many ways – in scripture, in worship, in music, and maybe even in fire and earthquake and wind, and yes, in silence. Our challenge is to hear, which sometimes requires us to step away, to step out into the sheer silence, and listen. God give us the strength to find and hear that sheer silence that it may teach us and refresh us and renew us for God’s work out in the noise of the world.
Hymns: “Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim” (PH #477); “O Savior, in this quiet place” (PH #390); “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah” (PH #281)