Text : 1 Kings 19:9-18; St. Mark 9:2-9
This is a wonderful and very human story about the Prophet wresting with what to do next with his life. He was desperate. He needed a word from the Lord because he did not know where to turn. I’m sure none of you have ever been there before, but just in case you have a friend who has, it might prove helpful to look into this story together.
The background is that Elijah had just come from an incredible victory. You will recall how he takes on the prophets of Baal in a kind of winner takes all contest. They build two altars. One altar to the LORD and one to Baal and the challenge is to see whose God shows up. The prophets of Baal chant and dance and cut themselves and nothing happens. Elijah mocks them. “Shout louder, maybe he is asleep or has gone to relieve himself.” (You have to be pretty confident that you are in the right to make bathroom jokes about another guy’s god).
They continue throughout the day to no avail. Elijah kicks it up a notch and even has a trench dug around the altar to the LORD. Then he has buckets of water poured over the sacrifice. He uses so much water the trenches fill up. When he calls out to God, fire comes from heaven consuming the sacrifice, and even consuming the water in the trenches. The score; YHWH 1, Baal zip. The victory goes to the LORD and the prophets of Baal are slain. Actually it is Elijah who takes them down to the brook Kishon and slaughters them with the sword. That last part we usually leave out of the Sunday school curriculum but that is how it happened.
But as often happens after a great spiritual victory, Elijah goes into a kind of depression. Any pastor or priest will tell you, the Monday after Easter Sunday is not a good day to call. It feels like just as Jesus comes out of the grave that we are climbing in it. I’m sure there are biochemical reasons for this phenomenon. I don’t pretend to understand it but I certainly have experienced it.
In this case Elijah’s depression is augmented by self-pity. “Poor me. I have been zealous to follow God and the knuckleheads in this church either don’t or won’t do what is right. I’m the only one who is truly following God. I’m the only one who hasn’t bent the knee to Baal.”
Elijah is in desperate need of an attitude adjustment and the LORD gives him one but in a way that is entirely unexpected. After his first whine the LORD says that He is going to reveal Himself to Elijah so the prophet gets prepared. Given what he just experienced with the prophets of Baal surely he expected a repeat performance or something that was equally as dramatic.
Have you ever been there? You find yourself in doubt or confused or in a spiritual kerfuffle and you need God to do something? Typically what we seem to hope for is a great and terrible OZ moment. We want fire exploding and smoke billowing and a deep bass voice to speak with awe-inspiring clarity.
I imagine the prophet was looking for a similar thing. He braces himself. A great wind came. It was so strong that it split the mountain and shattered the rocks! But the LORD was not in the wind. That is particularly ironic because in Hebrew the word for “wind” is also the word for “Spirit,” so you would expect the LORD to be there. But He was not.
Next came a great earthquake. Isaiah and Haggai both prophesied that the LORD would shake the heavens and the earth so you would expect God to be there. But He was not.
Next came fire and given what the LORD just did with the prophets of Baal, you know He HAD to be in the fire. But He was not.
What God did next is what got the prophet’s attention. The King James Bible said that what came next was “a still small voice.” But the Hebrew text says what came next was the “voice of silence” or as the RSV translates it, “ a sound of sheer silence.”
Have you ever experienced that? You need a word from the LORD, but all you hear is nothing. You want God to say or do something, anything, and all you get is crickets.
We know that the LORD is a loving Father and so we can be assured that He is not trifling with Elijah or with us, so why the voice of silence? I think we get it for a couple of reasons. First, it reminds us that He is indeed the LORD. He is not a butler who waits on our every need. He is not a therapist who researches the source of our feelings. He is not a new age coach who gives trophies to everyone, including the losers, as to maintain our self-esteem.
He is God Almighty. He does things in His time and in His way. Especially when we are deep in self-pity and we think we need Mr. Rogers, what we actually need is General Patten and the silence gets us ready for the General’s arrival. Again, God Almighty does not work on our agenda or on our timetable. Silence reminds us Who He is and who we are. I think that is the message Peter got at the Transfiguration when he didn’t know what to do and so he started to run his mouth and the LORD, in a loving way, told him to shut up. “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
Second, silence captures our attention and changes our perspective. Elijah was making it all about him. It was a “poor me” time. I imagine he wanted the LORD to come along and agree with him and tell him what a fine fellow he was. Note at this point he was still in the cave. But the sound of silence got his attention. He got up and wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (He wrapped his face in his mantle because he knew that a man couldn’t look at God and live). The silence brought him out of himself and out of the cave and prepared to hear the word of the Lord. It actually prepared him to receive a word he did not necessarily want to hear. Instead of receiving the LORD’s pity and a pat on the back, he was told to get over himself and to get back to work. “Go back to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king over Aram.”
I’m embarrassed to admit it but I have been there and I have that T-shirt. When the Episcopal Church began to circle the drain and other parts of the Church were breaking with Holy Tradition, like ordaining women to the episcopacy, it looked to me like the Anglican Communion was about to explode. It was easy for me to go into the “I-am-the-only-one-who-has-not-bent-the-knee-to-Baal” mode. With that self-pity came great discouragement and to get out of the discouragement I would look for some kind of miraculous sign. Perhaps not wind and earthquakes and fire but perhaps a revival in our church or some kind of new calling for myself to pursue or at least Lord let me win the lottery so I can buy my own island and go live on it! Crickets.
But over the years what I have experienced is that silence is followed by a command to go back to work. I have heard the word of the Lord through Beth or through a spiritual director, through Holy Scripture or through a bishop’s admonition, was that my calling is not to be successful, it is to be faithful. I needed to get over myself and get back to work.
This message of finding God in the silence and being called to be faithful is one that I believe we desperately need to hear today. I came across a quote that I posted on Facebook because I believe it to be so true. “My concern is that many of our churches in America have gone from being sanctuaries to becoming stadiums. And every week all the fans come to the stadium where they cheer for Jesus but have no interest in truly following him.”
This quote goes deeper than just addressing style of worship because it is certainly possible to be a fan of liturgy without being a follower of Jesus. Not trying to judge others, but I’m pretty sure I have seen it.
At the same time it is a cautionary note to much of the American church that seeks feelings over faithfulness and temporary highs over truth. It is a cautionary note to those who are continually looking for God in the bold and the miraculous rather than in the quietness and trust, which the Bible says is our strength (Is 30:15).
When I was reading about God not being in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, I thought back to YouTube episodes that I have seen of a televangelist taking off his jacket and waving it over the crowd and scores of people falling down. Is that what is to pass for the Christian faith?
I thought of sermons that I have heard which claimed that we could make demands of God because of His promises. Demands! And of course the demands had a lot more to do with attaining personal health and wealth than with extending the kingdom of God.
I thought of a lot of so called “worship” that I experienced that was more about manipulating people’s emotions than it was ascribing to God the glory due His Name. Google “worst worship song ever” and scores of examples will pop up. It would be funny if the stakes were not so high. Jesus did not die, rise from the dead and ascend to the Father to give us parlor games and emotional highs. God’s confrontation of Ezekiel to get over himself and to get back to work is the Word of the Lord to us today.
There are two pieces of good news that serve as the rest of the story. The first is that the Lord tells Elijah that He will leave 7,000 in Israel who have not bent the knee to Baal nor kissed him. This was in response to Elijah’s claim to be the only one left.
Not only does this again tell Elijah to get over himself but it also affirms that the LORD is in charge of the church and so we don’t need to be engaged in a lot of hand wringing. The Internet is full of predictions about the demise of Christianity and while we should be concerned about growth and create better ways to spread the good news of God in Christ, we need to remember whose Church it is. Jesus said, “I will build MY Church and the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against it.” I will take His word over the nattering nabobs of negativism. We can say about the Church what Mark Twain said of himself. “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
The other good piece of news, that tells the rest of the story, is that Elijah did what the Lord commanded him to do. He got over himself and he went back to work. He anointed the kings that he was told to anoint. He went on to perform miraculous signs. He personally raised up another prophet, Elisha and he went on to be the prophet of prophets. He is so venerated that the Jews today await his return. A cup of wine is poured for him at Passover meals in case he would return. But of course we know that he did return already because he returned at the Transfiguration as testimony of the divinity of Christ.
The challenge from this story of Elijah for each of us is to ask how our story will end. Will we have the kind of Christian life where we continually look for God in the wind and the earthquake in the fire or will we meet God in the silence and get back to work?
Last week Fr. Chris told us what our work is to be. It is to see the needs around us, to speak, that is to tell our story, and then to serve as Jesus did. This work of seeing, speaking and serving, could describe Elijah’s ministry, and is the “gracious evangelism” that we suggest is one of the four hallmarks of a healthy church. The other three hallmarks being radical love, joyful discipleship and sacramental living. But a church can only be as healthy as its individual members.
As we enter this week into the silence of a Holy Lent may God reveal Himself to us as Jesus revealed Himself to the three disciples and as God revealed Himself to the prophet. May we find God in the silence and may this revelation of God guide us love and good deeds, to see and to speak and to serve. Amen.