It should have been the moment of his greatest triumph. After all, he had just come from Mount Carmel, where he’d challenged – and completely routed – some 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal; God’s singular power and presence had been displayed for all to see, and if that weren’t enough, a long-standing drought had come to an end, just as God had promised and as he himself had proclaimed! By all reasoning, he should have been in high spirits, confident for the future and ready for his victory lap!
And yet, Elijah the prophet was far from feeling the thrill of victory. He was tired, scared and on the run; for you see, Elijah’s moment of triumph turned out to be brief and fleeting: this because Jezebel, a Canaanite princess (herself a worshipper of Baal and, if you recall from last week, a woman who did not suffer defeat easily or well) had vowed to take her revenge by killing Elijah. And since Jezebel’s husband was King Ahab (who, as you’ll also recall, was both powerful and spineless), this death sentence had immediately become a matter of royal decree. And so now Elijah has to run for his life: first escaping to the city of Beersheeba and then wandering a day’s journey further into the wilderness where he finally stops to rest.
Needless to say, this was not how things were supposed to turn out, and Elijah – who by now is lamenting his circumstances and feeling desperate – is also filled up with self-pity. Never mind that an angel is waiting on him with food and drink for the journey; Elijah is fairly well begging God just “to take him now,” since as a prophet he was such an utter failure; “no better than [his] ancestors,” he says.
As far as Elijah was concerned, the whole thing was so unfair: he’d done what the Lord had asked him to do; he’d stood firm in his commitment to God, against all odds and at great personal risk: that ought to count for something! But no… it was all for naught, this business of being God’s prophet; I mean, who was he to think that his words were ever going to make a difference when Israel’s abandoned everything they’ve ever believed in and the whole country’s being ruled by some corrupt, pagan regime!
And that’s pretty much how it goes for the next forty days and nights, until Elijah reaches a cave at Mount Horeb; and even there, when the word of the Lord comes to him, Elijah responds with another rant about how much had gone wrong and how “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” You can almost hear his frustration in the midst of his lament: he may be saying, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts,” but inside he’s saying, don’t give me “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I mean, have you even met Jezebel?
The whole scene is a classic example of what happens sometimes when life, shall we say, fails to live up to our expectations; when we do everything we think we’re supposed to be doing in this life, we do it right and reasonably well, and yet still manage to keep running headlong into pain and the injustice of it all. At the heart of this Old Testament narrative of Elijah’s retreat into the desert is the story about what happens when the struggle to “keep the faith” starts taking its toll.
And while most of us can’t claim to have battled 450 pagan prophets (!), I suspect we all understand something about that.
Think of the one who’s stayed strong and faithful in the midst of disease or some other kind of struggle, only to have it seem as though it’s overtaking him. Or the one who’s worked long and hard for a cause that’s good and principled, and yet finds that her words have ultimately fallen on deaf ears. Or those who simply and consistently have sought to do “the right thing” ethically and faithfully; all the while when that which is clearly unjust, unfair and downright immoral appears to garner greater acceptance. There just comes a point when, having been beaten down, burnt out and abandoned in the midst of life’s hardships and injustices, you wonder if it’s all worth it.
It’s what led the Psalmist in our reading this morning to cry out in despair, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” We’ve all been there; I can tell you with absolute certainty that there have been times in my life when I have. And like Elijah, given such circumstances we might just decide that maybe the first and best thing to do is just to run away from everything and everyone; if not literally, then at least spiritually, to a place where we can think, nurse our wounds and hide our hearts away from harm.
But of course, that’s not the end of the story as we have it in 1 Kings; and here’s where we find this incredible truth about God: and it’s that even in those times when we would seek to hide ourselves and our hearts far away from where anyone would even think to look, God finds us there. God does not abandon us in our despair, but instead is relentless in seeking us out even when we would rather not be found. Though we might have given up, God is not about to give up on us, and will challenge any and all assumptions we make about ourselves, about life and about him. In infinite love and care, he is, in the words of the hymn, the God “who will not let us go.”
It’s important to note here that when God comes to Elijah, it’s not out of anger nor is it to chastise Elijah for a lack of faith; it’s for what might be referred to as “unexpected encouragement” that defies our expectations. On the one hand, Elijah’s fleeing from royal assassins; on the other, God’s providing angels with hot cake and cold water so Elijah will be strong for the journey! And then there’s the most unexpected encouragement of all; the word that the Lord would soon be passing by on the mountain, and that Elijah ought to be standing there when he does.
And sure enough, the Lord does come: but not, as it turns out, in the power of a wind so destructive it was “splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces,” nor in the middle of an earthquake after that. No, God’s voice isn’t one of fiery judgment and divine retribution. When God speaks, it’s with silence. In fact, in one of the richest images that’s found in the Old Testament, we’re told that the voice of the Lord comes in “a sound of sheer silence,” or as it’s often translated, “a still, small voice.” Actually, I’ll give you still another translation, from the original Hebrew, which directly translates in English to a “crushing silence;” that is, a quiet so all-encompassing that it envelops and overwhelms everything else around it.
If that’s hard to imagine, think of it this way: I grew up in East Millinocket, Maine, which was and still is a paper mill town; and as such, we became accustomed to the constant hum of the paper machines, the clanking of conveyors and the roar of trains and trucks coming and going at all hours of the night; you just got used to it. But every year about this time our family would head off to camp at the lake, where all you’d hear at night was the occasional call of a loon, or the sputtering of an outboard motor in the distance. It was quiet – very quiet (!) – and for the first couple of nights every summer, it would actually be hard for us to sleep, because it was too quiet! The silence, you see, was nearly overwhelming!
Well, it was in this kind of overwhelming, crushed silence in which God spoke to Elijah – it was God’s voice speaking at the exclusion of all others – and this was a voice of mercy, compassion and love, a voice that spoke directly to Elijah’s heart. And it was in hearing that quiet voice at the exclusion of all the others that Elijah could begin to find healing and hope.
These days as I listen to music on the radio or on an MP3 player, I find myself paying closer attention to the way the background music has been arranged. I find it absolutely fascinating how a particular rhythm track or the use of a single instrument can make or break a song, or keep some random melody in your head forever. I’ve always been a big fan of the Beach Boys, for instance; listen to those old songs, and at first what you hear are all the typical trappings of early 1960’s surfing music (you know, those wonderful guitar licks and the rolling drums and the walking bass); but then, if you listen a little more closely, you start to discover that Brian Wilson (who was the Beach Boys!) actually made use of all sorts of sounds to make his arrangements totally unique – things like whistles and wood blocks, bicycle bells, barking dogs, even, at the end of the album Pet Sounds, the sound of a train going by, the perfect finish for an album all about lost innocence. It’s all there on the recording, but I’ve found that to really hear these sounds and appreciate what they do for the music, you’ve got to turn the volume down, lean in, and listen closely and carefully! To quote another sixties music icon – remember Donovan? – he put it this way: “The softer you sing, the louder you’re heard.”
Well, it seems to me that amidst the crises of our lives we hear God best in much the same fashion.
There are times that the worse things get, the more we despair and the further we let loose our anger, the louder it all seems to become; to the point where we’ll be overwhelmed by the noise of our own frustration and self-doubt. It’s no wonder our first response is to get away from it; to cover our ears and hide our hearts. How interesting it is that takes attuning both our ears and our hearts to truly hear that one voice we’ve needed and wanted to hear all along: the one that seeks us out and comes to us right in the middle of all the noise and chaos and simply speaks in a silence that is still, small, and crushing, my child “what are you doing here?”
The good news is that God does speak to us in a still small voice that pentrates even the conflicting sounds of life’s chaos and confusion; our challenge, I think, is to do what we can to turn down the volume on all the competing noise, so that we can lean in and just listen closely, carefully – and might I add, prayerfully – for that which is spoken in the silence. Granted, it can be quite a task in a world that both literally and spiritually seems to want to blanket itself in ambient (and not so ambient) sound! But it’s worth the effort, for in the center of that crushing silence is a voice that offers us comfort and hope when we’re at our most despairing; strength and renewal when we feel like all our energies have long since passed; and love and mercy that bolsters us for the journey ahead. Because you’ll notice that when God speaks to Elijah in that still small voice, the very first thing God says is… to keep going; and to do what you’ve always been meant to do.
It is true what you’ve heard: God is still speaking. Who knows? Perhaps God is speaking to you or to me right now.
May we have the grace to hear his still, small voice… and may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry