I’ve said this before but, 1st Kings is not a book that you cuddle up next to as you try to go to bed at night. It is a book of the Bible where lots of people are looking for power and forgetting about God. Elijah is a zealous prophet right in the midst of it all.
A little 1st Kings refresher for you all…you see the king of Elijah’s home kingdom is Ahab. Ahab decided after he became king to make the worship of Baal priority in Israel rather than the worship of God. He even made the worshiping Baal the court religion and had a temple built in kingdom’s capital city of Samaria. One of the reasons Ahab made worship Baal a priority was because his wife Jezebel was from another land and Baal was her God. Jezebel was a strong willed woman who clearly dominated her king husband and decided it was time to worship the Caanite god of the elements who brought rain, and who controlled the ground and war.
The prophet Elijah is called by God to prove Ahab and Jezebel wrong when a drought hits Israel. A few chapters earlier before today’s reading there is a showdown at Mount Carmel where God’s power is revealed and the Kingdom of Israel sees who is the true God. When the people realize this power, Elijah orders the priests of Baal to be killed, and the drought ends. Jezebel has heard of this awful violence and she vows to kill Elijah. He is afraid, so he flees and seeks the wilderness in another kingdom far from Jezebel and Ahab.
Elijah is ready to get away from all the chaos. Chaos that he was a part of, chaos that others brought upon him. He leaves Mount Carmel and travels deep in the land of Judah fleeing the world he has known, ready to never go back to it. After 40 days of fleeing and wandering he finds at Mount Horeb and decides to spend the night there. But he will not get much sleep.
God knows Elijah’s calling goes beyond the journey and the choices he has made so far and God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah tells God that he is overwhelmed with all that is going on and responds, “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.”
God hearing Elijah’s response, commands Elijah to stand outside the cave and on the mountain for God is about to pass by. Elijah waits, not sure what will happen. It seems the chaos he was fleeing continues, but there is no sign of God. A great wind strong enough to break rocks surrounds him, but no sign of God. An earthquake shakes the earth he is standing on, but no sign of God. There is a great fire burning around him, but no sign of God. Then came the sound of sheer silence…
There was something so special about this silence, something holy about the stillness after such great chaos. The same combination of the Hebrew words for sound and silence shows up in Job, and is considered in Job to be describing something that is barely an audible sound. In the Psalms the same Hebrew word for silence is used to refer to an end of a storm. Maybe that is what Elijah is hearing, the calm after his own personal storm. Maybe he knows what he is hearing or experiencing is a significant turning point in his zealous journey. This moment is so special to Elijah that it causes him to take his mantle or his cloak and wrap it around his face, for he was sure once he stepped out of the cave he would see God.
Silence really is powerful. It can consume the whole spectrum of emotions. In a moment of honesty, as we wrap up five months of our kids always at home, silence has been a rare commodity in the Reed household. There is always a point in the day when some member of our house craves it and demands it. A moment to relax the ears and take a deep breath.
However over these last five months I have felt the full spectrum of emotions that silence brings; while there have been moments when it brought relief to my sanity, the moments of silence in early hours have also consumed my mind. It is these early hour moments of silence my thoughts have become overwhelmed with my own anxieties that 2020 has brought and the uncertainties that still linger. Yet in those moments when my mind is overwhelmed with anxieties and uncertainties it is in that same moment of silence that I remember to take many deep breathes and place my self in a conversation with God, a conversation that centers me back to a peaceful place.
To be honest for longest part of my life I always found silence extremely awkward. Then in the summer of 2006 I was a chaplain at UAB hospital and was challenged in thinking about silence in a different manner. Early on in our training we were taught three key aspects of offering pastoral care to patients.
When you visited people in their hospital room, the first important step was positioning of your own body. You want your body to be in a position where it is known to the other person you are in conversation that you care about, the way you stand or sit is intentional so you are able to show an outward sign of an inward and spiritual respect of the moment you are having with someone else. The second aspect was observing and paying attention to all the nonverbal ways the person was communicating with their body and their surroundings. The third aspect was to engage in listening.
I found that all three of these aspects so important for engaging in spiritual conversation and dialogue with other people. However by staying true to the practices of positioning, observing, and listening I found so many moments of silence when we all just sat in the room and absorbed the moment. The first few weeks were difficult, and I had to fight hard the urge to talk. I had to remind myself to sit with them in the silence and listen. After awhile I began to appreciate the silence as a holy moment with others. Sometimes all that was said was a few words, and other silent moments led to long dialogue of anxiety, uncertainty, hope, and joy.
We remember this text for its famous line about wind, earthquakes, fire, and the silence, and rightly so; but what might get lost in this text is the conversation that is happening between God and Elijah. As Christians we know that conversation with God happens most during the time of prayer. Prayer is a special time to have a conversations with God when we listen to God and also a time when we share what is on our hearts and minds.
In her book “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers”, Anne Lamott writes that “prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being physically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.”
I do not doubt that Elijah had been praying to God throughout his zealous journey, but for some reason this moment of holy silence transformed him the most. Maybe it goes back to postering ourselves for conversation. He found a moment to position himself in a place of spiritual respect to receive the moment, he observed God’s presence and listened as God spoke to him. By positioning, observing, and listening he was able to realize the winds, the earthquakes, the fires, and the chaos of the world were distractions, and for a moment he blocked them out and focus on the holy moment happening in the silence…the holy transforming sheer silence.
Did you notice what followed the silence was the same conversation that happened before all the distractions and the holy silence. “”Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” “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.”
And to paraphrase God’s response God said “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, go and serve me with a new purpose”… In the holy space, God was still speaking the same message, Elijah used the holy space to center himself to listen. In the holy silence God called Elijah to do new things and to serve God in new ways.
God provides us with holy space in our ordinary daily life, whether it is space that is full of motion, energy and volume or space filled with stillness and silence. In that holy space may we find hope and promise that God’s presence is with us always, guiding us, nurturing, renewing us, and calling us. In the midst of chaos, distractions, and overwhelming moments may we remember that God’s presence and conversation is with us always, even if it is in a still small voice of hushed silence or moments when God’s “spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”. God’s love through Christ is present with us always and using everyday moments and making them holy. May we position ourselves, observe, listen and be transformed by our Triune God’s presence in our life; a holy presence that is our light showing us the way to love the world, a holy presence teaching us truth, and a holy presence giving us life and purpose. Alleluia Amen