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God Speaks in Silence
January 17, 1993

1 Kings 19.11-15a

Incredible loneliness, disillusionment, desolation, and uncertainty must have weighed heavily on Elijah on his solitary retreat at the holy mountain. Elijah had been propelled by fear, driven by fear, to walk the long distance to Mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai; but there, I imagine he felt extremely lonely, discouraged and uncertain about his future. We're looking at Elijah last week and today in anticipation of the choir's presentation of Mendelssohn's Elijah, Saturday, January 30.  The anthem this morning was the text. You heard the sermon sung by the choir. After the anthem, we could have gone home. Really, I'm not going to say anything that you didn't hear in the way they sang that anthem. We heard it read. And now you'll hear it preached.

Last Sunday, we looked at Elijah's victory over the prophets of Baal, and victory over the drought. The fire of the Lord in response to Elijah's prayer burnt up the offering and brought a heavy, drenching, renewing rain. Elijah confronted his enemies, challenged them, took risks, called on the Lord in faith and the Lord saved his people. But Elijah’s jubilation was short lived. When Queen Jezebel heard what happened, she was livid and vowed to terminate Elijah. Elijah, understandably and wisely, was afraid. He feared for his life and fled into the wilderness. 40 days and 40 nights he walked. He walked through the land of Judah. He walked through the desolation of the Sinai Peninsula until he came and sought refuge on the holy mountain. Elijah went on a solitary retreat to Mount Sinai where Moses met God, to Mount Sinai where Moses received the 10 commandments.

Mount Sinai is a forbidding place. I know, because several of us climbed to the top of Mount Sinai in the wee hours of the morning. It is an awesome, majestic pile of rock. There are no trees, only little shrubs that can grow between the cracks in the rocks. There’s no grass, it's all rock. The weather is changeable. Terrific wind storms, terrifying wind storms can come without a moment's notice. It was to Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb, that Elijah ran. He found a cave and there without family, without friend, without follower he prayed and meditated.

The word of the Lord came to Elijah and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah 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.” And the voice said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Elijah went out of his cave and stood on the mountain side. There came a great wind so strong it split the mountains and broke the rocks to pieces. But the Lord was not in the wind. Elijah heard the wind but not the Lord. Then there came an earthquake in that mountain and shook. There was no hiding place. There was no safe place. There was no security. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. Elijah felt the earthquake, but not the Lord. Then there came a fire. I don't know how anything can burn on Mount Sinai, but there was some kind of phenomenon that resembled fire. But the Lord was not in the fire.

After the fire, there was silence. Bible translators have had a difficult time with the wording. The King James Bible and the Revised Standard Version read “a still small voice”. The new English Bible says “a low murmuring voice”, the New International Version, “a gentle whisper”. Now the New Revised Standard Version reads, “sheer silence”. There in the center of his interior, deep in his heart, down in the depths of his being, Elijah hears God. Wrapped in soothing silence, God whispers. In the privacy of Elijah’s interior being, Elijah communicates with God. Deep within him where he feels lonely, discouraged and uncertain about his future, Elijah is touched by God. Where he feels alone, desolate and afraid, Elijah is comforted, nurtured, supported and loved. 

Suzanne Guthrie wrote in the Christian Century magazine, “I know this voice. It is persistent. It walks through dreams. It awakens me from sleep. It haunts the days. It hides in every shadow. I look for it even as I run from it. I strain to listen even as I flap my hands to my ears, like a child given a command she does not want to hear. The Voice clarifies a dilemma I would rather ignore, the dilemma of having two equal fears—fear of the existence of God and fear of existence without God. If the foundation of existence is God, then everything about my life must change. If there is no God, no change is possible. My soul, like a deserted street, a wilderness of empty windows reflecting the darkness; my soul hears the prophet’s voice. If there is no God, there is no real loneliness. For if there is no God, there is no such thing as real longing. And so the Voice cries for me to turn every particle of my being toward the loneliness, to orient my life, so that I live in a way that accommodates God's existence.”

God speaks to each of us. Where we are afraid, lonely and disillusioned, God speaks. Sometimes God speaks in the strong wind, sometimes in the rain. Sometimes God speaks in the fire. But many times God speaks in the voice of gentle stillness, in utter sheer silence. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said we need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grow in silence. See the stars, the moon, the sun, how they move in silence. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us, says Mother Teresa. God speaks in the silence. God spoke to Elijah. And note what God said. If a familiar message, sometimes a very uncomfortable message, and usually a challenging message God said, “Go back. Go back. Elijah, you're my only prophet, Elijah. I'm counting on you, Elijah.” Jezebel and Ahab are up to their old tricks. They're disrupting and destroying. Elijah, I need you. I know you're afraid. I know you're afraid for your life. I know you fear for your safety, but go back. Go back. Face your fears. confront your enemies. Take risks. Elijah, go back.”

One of the temptations the devil offers spiritual people, one of the dangers of spirituality is to so enjoy the time with God that we neglect to do his work. The purpose of spiritual experiences is to prepare you to teach Sunday school, to serve on committees, to work in the food closet, and so forth. The purpose of meditation and prayer is not to become a recluse and withdraw into a lifetime of meditation and prayer. The purpose is for service and mission. Mother Teresa is a shining example. Her spirituality nurtures her service. She devotes her life to the poor, motivated and empowered by her silent experiences with God. When you connect with God in a deep spiritual experience, you can't stay there on the mountaintop. God's message is “Go back. Go back into the world and serve in the church. Serve in the world. Be my hands, be my voice, be my feet. Don't stay here on the mountain with me”, says God. “Don't stay here on the mountain with me, go back.”

God does speak. God speaks to you. Have you heard him? Have you heard God? Have you listened? God speaks in storms. God speaks through wind. God speaks in fire. But most often, God speaks in sheer silence in the depth of your being.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris