The Sound of Sheer Silence
Reflecting on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Two Days after Transfiguration Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 78:17-20, 52-55
Old Testament: 1 Kings 19:9-18
Epistle: Romans 11:1-6
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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 (1 Kings 19:9-13).
Throughout Elijah’s ministry he has faithfully listened to God, and faithfully proclaimed God's message to the people in very tumultuous and troubled times. He has heard the voice of God because he has been listening for it, and he has had to confront false prophets who have listened instead to the voices of the tyrant King Ahab and his ruthless wife Jezebel. In faithfully answering God's call, Elijah has put his life at great risk, but he has remained steadfast precisely because he has heard the voice of God and has been obedient.
That is precisely what makes our Old Testament lesson so uncharacteristic of Elijah. He has heard the divine voice when others have been unable. He knows what God expects of him and the people of Israel, when so many, including the king of Israel, do not. Yet, in 1 Kings 19, Elijah seems lost, unable to hear the voice of God, unable to discern what God truly has in mind for him and God’s people.
In 1 Kings 18, just prior to our Scripture lesson, Elijah has just won a tremendous victory over the priests of the god Baal. Queen Jezebel and King Ahab had instituted Baal worship into Israel, and it had strongly taken hold. Elijah spent most of ministry opposing the worship of the Philistine storm god, and as Elijah is atop Mount Carmel with 450 priests of Baal, as well as many Israelites, Elijah challenges the pagan priests to a final showdown. He tells them to choose a bull and place it on an altar for sacrifice. Elijah will do the same. Further he challenges the priests not to put fire on the bull, but to call on their god to burn up the offering himself. Elijah will do the same. The rules are the same for both sides except while there are 450 priests of Baal to call on their God; there is only one Elijah to call on the God of Israel.
To make an incredibly dramatic and long story short, the 450 prophets of Baal, despite their prayers, pleas, and signs of devotion, are unable to bring the power of their god down from heaven. While all this is going on, the sympathetic Elijah is heckling them.
When it comes to Elijah’s turn, he simply prays a short prayer, after he has had the sacrifice dowsed with water. The heavens open, fire floods down from heaven, and the God of Israel consumes the sacrifice.
Needless to say, the people of Israel who witness this are impressed. They slaughter the priests of Baal, and it appears as if Elijah has finally won the final victory.
That is where we pick up 1 Kings 19. When Queen Jezebel finds out what has happened, she sends a note to Elijah telling him that his life will be like the lives of the dead priests of Baal within 24 hours. Here Elijah had thought the battle was finally over. With the decisive victory on Mount Carmel, Baal worship in Israel was, once and for all, at an end. But along comes this note from Jezebel, that all is not over. She has put a bounty on Elijah’s head. The battle continues.
A once mighty and fearless Elijah is now discouraged and scared. He flees, but not just in any direction. He flees to a special place, a place to hear the divine voice once again. He journeys to Mount Horeb, more famously known as Mount Sinai, the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. If there is ever a place where he can hear the voice of God, Mount Horeb is it.
Elijah receives Jezebel’s message and interprets it as the end of his ministry. If he can win the kind of decisive victory he won on Mount Carmel, and the battle not be over, what more can he do? Elijah dismisses his servant at Beersheba, signifying that he is abandoning his ministry altogether
Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb and is confronted by the God of Israel and asked to explain his actions. Elijah goes into “woe-is-me mode.” All his zealous faithfulness for Yahweh has been in vain. The Israelites, he says, have forsaken the covenant and of all in Israel, he is the only one who has remained faithful. Elijah interprets Jezebel’s threat as the end of his ministry and the victory of Baal. The God of Israel is about to teach him in dramatic fashion that what he has interpreted as defeat is in reality Elijah’s inability to listen and hear what God has to say to him. Any prophet who sees things going badly in his ministry and as a result wants to abandon it, and perhaps surrender his very life, must have assuredly forgotten from whom his real strength comes.
What then happens is one of the most significant accounts recorded to us in all of Scripture. God tells Elijah, “Go and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (At this point, I would be truly scared and wonder if I would rather face King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.) All of a sudden a great wind blows, so strong that mountains split with pieces of earth flying in every direction. But we are told God is not in the wind. Then a great earthquake rocks Mount Horeb, quaking and shaking, surely Elijah runs for cover. But, we are told God is not in the earthquake. Then there is a raging fire—heat, brilliance of flame—but God is not in the fire.
Finally, Elijah hears, what the King James Version translates as a “still, small voice,” and what the NRSV beautifully translates as a “sound of sheer silence.” At that point, Elijah, the man who had so faithfully heard the voice of God in ways no one else could hear, pulls the mantle of his cloak from his shoulders up over his face. He now knows that he is in the presence of God, in a way not brought by wind, earthquake, or fire. In the sound of sheer silence (silence can indeed be loud!), he encounters the presence of God. “Elijah, Elijah,” says, Yahweh, “go back to Israel. You are not the only one left. I have 7000 people who have refused to worship Baal and are my faithful servants. Listen once again. Hear my voice in ways that few can hear.”
Sometimes God is made known to us in the bells and whistles of the dramatic. At other times God is found in the sound of sheer silence. Sometimes God is made known to us is subtle, silent ways—unspectacular ways through the quiet workings of people's lives. Sometimes God speaks through the thunder of miraculous events like walking on water and resurrection. At other times God speaks to us in the ordinary events of a child born in Bethlehem or a man, like so many Jewish men of his day, crucified on a cross.
God is speaking to us. God is leading us. That we cannot doubt. The issue for us is are we listening? Sometimes it is difficult. We get too caught up in the clutter around us. We also forget that in the midst of life’s difficulties, God is still leading and speaking and calling. When the people of God are the most faithful is when the forces of evil will launch their worst assault.
We need to hear God and God cannot always be found in the noise. God can and does speak to us in the unexpected ways. God speaks to us in the silence. The essential thing is hearing what God says to us. Words and actions that do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness. God truly speaks to us—that we do not have to doubt. What we must be sensitive to and what we must know is that we must be in tune. We must be in tune when God speaks to us in the bells and whistles of the dramatic and in the sound of sheer silence.
PRAYER: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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