This week in The Gathering (live-streamed at 9:30 am) and Sanctuary worship service (live-streamed at 11:00 am), our scripture reading will be I Kings 19:9-18.
In this passage of scripture, the prophet Elijah is looking for God. Well, actually, he’s mostly running away from his problems.
He has just been through a long series of very traumatic and difficult events. In fact, Elijah has fled for his life and finds himself in the wilderness: alone, frustrated, disappointed, exhausted, depressed, and feeling as if no one was on his side. He makes the long journey to Mount Horeb — another name for Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. When he arrives, he goes into a cave to stay.
Have you been there? Have you ever just wanted to crawl into a cave and hide?
Elijah’s experience is part of our common human condition. It is just that way with us sometimes. Elijah came to that place after a time of intense and productive activity, relational conflict, physical exhaustion, a major success, and then a huge disappointment.
When the text says that Elijah “got up and fled for his life,” some commentators suggest that the meaning of the Hebrew is more accurately “he got up and went for his soul.”
If you have had the experience of touring a cave, you know that when they turn the lights off and everyone falls silent there is no darkness like that darkness — and no silence like that silence.
Elijah was in the cave, very much needing hope, encouragement, the presence of God, and guidance for his life. He needed to know that he wasn’t alone.
Suddenly, there were the dramatic events just like God’s appearance to Moses on that very mountain, ages before: a strong that wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones, followed by an earthquake, then a fire. Wind, earthquake, and fire — surely God is to be found there, right?
But God was not present in those dramatic, noisy, destructive forces.
After the fire, there was a profound, thick silence that Elijah could almost hear. The translators struggle to communicate the Hebrew describing Elijah’s exact experience. Listen to some of the ways his experience of God after the fire is described:
a still, small voice
a sound. Thin. Quiet.
a sound of sheer silence
a gentle whisper
a sound of gentle stillness
a quiet, subdued voice
a gentle breeze
a soft whisper
hardly a sound
the soft whisper of a voice
a gentle and quiet whisper
a sound of a gentle blowing
a quiet, gentle sound
nothing but the sound of a calm breeze.
And in that silence, Elijah knew the presence of God — and he heard the question he’d been asking himself as he sat in the cave, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And in that silence, Elijah heard the reminder that there were others in Israel faithful to God, that he was not alone; he felt the call to go back and attend to the needs of the people of Israel.
And then he returned, as God had instructed him.
Do you hear the Good News in that story? Even Elijah — good, faithful, successful Elijah — had his wilderness experiences, just like we do. He felt at the end of his rope, just as we sometimes do. Elijah needed to experience God — and so do we.
But, do we really expect to experience God . . . today? Maybe we’ve become so accustomed to the ideas about God appearing with clouds, thunder, lightning, trumpet fanfares, fire, smoke, etc. that we’ve just decided the presence of God cannot be experienced by us. Maybe God can be experienced in this way by people like Moses, Elijah, or Paul — but not us.
Have we relegated the experience of God to something that happens only in a Cecil B. DeMille movie or in the ancient stories of the Old Testament? Our tendency is to get busy, to make a things-to-do list, and to fix our own problems. Or, maybe we drown out our problems with noise, using TV, radio, and headphones to keep the silence away.
Maybe what we need more than anything else right now, however, is to, as Elijah did, “get up and go for our souls.” Perhaps this silence we really need more than anything else right now has become a bit more accessible in this time of physical distancing.
In fact, some people have written about the practice of Sabbath in relation to our current stay-at-home living. I think it is a fascinating way to reframe what we are experiencing — and to see an opportunity for a deeper spiritual experience in it.
Eugene Peterson published an article about sabbath a couple of decades ago in which he pointed out that the practice of sabbath as it was intended is captured in the meaning of the Hebrew word. He wrote:
“The Hebrew word, Shabbat, which we take over as is — untranslated — into our language, simply means, “Quit; stop; take a break.” Whatever you are doing, stop it. Whatever you are saying, stop talking. Sit down and take a look around you. Don’t do anything. Don’t say anything. Fold your hands. Take a deep breath…
“We must stop running around long enough to see what God has done and is doing. We must stop talking long enough to hear what God has said and is saying. All our ancestors agree that without silence and stillness there is no spirituality, no God-attentive, God-responsive life.”
— Eugene H. Peterson, Perspectives, June-July 2000
Do you have a place for this kind of silence in your life? Do you take some time to sit quietly and open your mind to that “still, small voice?”
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
1 Kings 19:9-18
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
The Lord’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have tons down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!” 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand — all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.”