(a sermon for June 23, 2019, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Kings 19:1-15)
The time had finally come for us to go home.
We knew that; we’d actually been preparing ourselves for that inevitability for quite some time. But given the stress of those last few weeks – trying to pack up everything we own so that most of it could go into storage, dealing with countless last minute details and a few tearful goodbyes, to say nothing of seeking to bring some semblance of faith-centered closure to a five year ministry that had been… difficult – we were not only physically exhausted but also emotionally and spiritually drained. And if that weren’t enough, quite literally as we were packing the last of what was going with us into the cars, our cats – four of them, mind you (!) – choose that moment to decide to make a break for it and scatter throughout the neighborhood! It took several hours of Sarah and her best friend Breana coaxing the cats back with an opened can of tuna fish (!) and a night spent at a local hotel, but it did happen: early the next morning we did leave Ohio and were finally on our way back to Maine.
And… all these years later I still remember what a terrible, horrible, awful trip it was.
To begin with, as fate would have it, this was the weekend just prior to the 4th of July, which meant that there was nary a decent hotel room to be found anywhere from the Berkshires east; at least not one that didn’t cost an8 arm and a leg, or more importantly, one that was “pet friendly.” (And which – I guess after all this time I can confess this – eventually led us to literally “smuggle” those four cats into a Motel 6 somewhere in Chicopee, MA!) Moreover, it was inordinately hot and muggy that weekend, the traffic was bumper to bumper and interminably slow all the way to Maine, and the whole trip – hour after hour, mile after mile – was accompanied, by the noise of roaring engines, blaring horns, wailing sirens and hip-hop music being played at excessive volume and bass!
I have to tell you, however, that the worst part of it all was that there was way too much time for thinking… thinking about what had brought our family to this moment; thinking about what went wrong and what I could have done differently; thinking about disappointment, and failure, and – if I’m being honest – about the fear and, yes, the anger I was feeling at that moment about a hard present and an uncertain future. Now, could this have been, at least in part, the inevitable result of all the stress my family and I’d been experiencing, of too little sleep and too much caffeine, to say nothing of having had all this cacophonous road noise filling my ears and brain for two days straight? Maybe… but let me tell you what I remember the most about that trip: we finally got to northern Maine and to camp about dusk, and we were so tired we didn’t even unpack; we just made up the beds, crawled under the covers and collapsed. And I remember lying there in the darkness – too exhausted to do anything else but sleep, but so keyed up from all the driving to close my eyes – and in that moment the only thing I could hear was… the quiet. “A sound of sheer silence,” as scripture so eloquently puts it; a lack of sound so profound and so all-enveloping as to be overwhelming; almost crushing.
And I’d never before heard – or not heard – anything like it.
What’s interesting about our text for this morning, the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God at the cave on Mount Horeb, is that it really should have been should have been the moment of Elijah’s 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 Elijah himself had proclaimed! By all reasoning, this prophet of God should have been in high spirits, confident for the future and ready for his victory lap!
And yet, as we pick up the story today, Elijah is far from feeling the thrill of victory. He’s tired, scared and – thanks to a death threat from a vengeful, Baal-worshiping Queen Jezebel and her power yet spineless husband King Ahab – he’s on the run for his very life; first escaping to the city of Beersheeba and now hiding out in the wilderness. Needless to say this was not how things were supposed to work out; and Elijah – who by now is lamenting his circumstances and feeling pretty desperate – is also filled up with self-pity. Never mind that an angel is waiting on him with food and drink for the journey; never mind that the Lord himself comes to ask after him: all the while Elijah is ranting about how much had gone so wrong, and 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. And he’s thinking, this whole thing’s 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, right? But no… as far as Elijah is concerned this business of being God’s prophet, it’s all for naught… it’s a losing game.
Not exactly the stuff of heroism, is it; nor of the kind o leadership that’s truly of “biblical proportions.” But we do understand, don’t we? We get it… because most of us at one time or another have been there.
It’s been said, you know, that this story from 1 Kings is one of relatively few occasions in scripture where we get insight into the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters in the biblical story; mostly we have to rely on things like translation, history, tradition and the overarching message of holy scripture so we can “read between the lines.” But not this time; we really do know what’s happening with Elijah, because you and I understand all too well what things like crisis and fear and discouragement and utter despair can do to someone; we get how life will at times become so exhausting, so disheartening, so incredibly soul-searing that you end up feeling like you’ve been trampled upon and are too weak to stand. You and I look at Elijah, and we know that there just seems to come a point when, having been beaten down, burnt out and abandoned in the midst of life’s hardships and injustices, we wonder if it’s all worth it. It’s what led the Psalmist to cry out in despair, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:5)
It’s truly, in the words of the poet, “the dark night of the soul.” But it’s also the place where God comes with power and with love.
And so it is for Elijah; and it’s important to note here that when God comes to Elijah it’s not out of anger nor is it to chastise him for a lack of faith; rather it’s for what might be referred to as “unexpected encouragement” that defies our expectations. As it turns out, God does not come in the power of a wind so destructive it was “splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces;” nor was the Lord to be found of an earthquake after that; and 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,” as it’s often translated, “a still, small voice;” I’ve even seen it referred to as “a whistling of gentle air.” 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. Or to put it another way, it’s 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, leaving him so exposed and so vulnerable that, we’re told, he immediately wrapped his face in his robe because it was all too overwhelming for him to face. I mean, can you imagine it? Can you even envision how it would be for you and me to stand there with all the noise suddenly silenced and every one of our fears and doubts on full display to God in all his glory? But it’s precisely in hearing the voice of God in that crushed silence that Elijah could begin to find his healing and hope.
And so it is for you and for me; indeed, so often what it takes is get past the cacophonous noise of our lives – that unending barrage of sound that comes both from outside and within – so that we might start to hear the voice of the Almighty speaking directly to us in the midst of the quiet. And while when we finally do hear it the effect might be jarring – even crushing, if you will – when we stop to hear God’s voice, to listen and yes, to actually, pay attention to what’s being said, it’s there we find the peace we’re looking for and we’ve so needed, and might I add, renewal for the way ahead; because it’s also worth noting in this story that when Elijah finally comes out of the cave to, this time, really listen to God, what does God do? God sends him to Damascus on another assignment! As Richard Nelson has written, “God’s therapy for prophetic burnout [usually] includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a [new] future that transcends the prophet’s own success or lack of it.” In other words, friends, in the silence God helps us to move forward in faith, in service and in love.
Now, I would like to tell you that on that dark night of my own soul so many years ago that having experienced a truly “crushing silence” that I was suddenly aware of the voice of God speaking to me, and that immediately everything was okay and life went on much better than before; that certainly would have been a better ending to my story today, but the truth is that I still had a rather long and occasionally arduous journey ahead of me. But I will tell you this much: that night I slept better than I had in weeks; months, even. And the next night, once again retiring to the evening quiet of our “pond,” it was the same thing all over again. In fact, all through that summer, I came to look forward to those times of dwelling in the “crushed silence,” because it was there, away and apart from all the noise, I could let go of anguish and the fear and the despair; it was there where I could weep; it was there I could pray… and there where I could listen. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it was there where I was being encouraged to move forward and to be led along the very first steps of a journey that, while still involving a few twists and turns, would by God’s grace and mercy eventually lead me… here.
It is a noisy world out there, beloved, and sometimes it’s just more than we can take! My hope and prayer for each one of us today is that we would seek to come away and apart from the cacophony so that we might truly hear and listen to our God of the crushed silence, who even now is calling our name and offering up peace, comfort… and life for today, tomorrow and always.
In praise of the one who speaks in that still, small voice, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry