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The Thin Whisper of God

Sermon - 7/01/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Kings 19:1-16

The story of Elijah has a lot of fireworks, as some of you may recall from last Sunday, if you were here, or if not, perhaps you remember that story of the contest between the prophets of God and the prophets of Baal that occurs on Mount Carmel.  There's lots of fire and smoke in that story.  You may recall that story ends with the massacre of those 450 prophets of Baal.  

And then the story that follows is also a very familiar story, but I think we sometimes forget the context of it.  So I invite you to listen for the word of God in this story in the 19th chapter of 1 Kings, of Elijah on a different mountain:

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He 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.’

11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14He 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.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.


Last Sunday I spoke on the problem of redemptive violence that is apparent in this story, and why we should reject it.  I believe very deeply that the religious justification for the use of violence is never permissible.

If you want to know more about that, you can look it up on the web.  This morning, I want to focus instead not on the violence of this story but the opposite--the silence, the stillness.  What older translations called "the still, small voice of God".

How often do we actually experience that kind of stillness?  That we have the opportunity to shut out all the sounds of the world?  Have you ever gone spelunking deep into a cave, and when you go deep into a cave you notice that the sounds of the outside world become more and more distant.  Finally, you get deep enough and you only hear the sounds of the cave, perhaps dripping water somewhere.  It gets so quiet, and dark, you can hear your own heartbeat.

Is that kind of silence comforting for you?  Or is it eerie, and frightening?

There are many ways we use silence.  Silence can be approval -- the silent majority.  Or disapproval -- the silent treatment.  We use silence for respect in cemeteries.  Silence can be good -- silence is golden, we tell our children when they get too noisy.  Or it can be bad -- 'fools said I you do not know', Simon & Garfunkel sang, 'silence like a cancer grows, here my words, that I might teach you'.

Silence can be a spiritual discipline -- 'be still and know that I am God'.  We sometimes use silence in worship and in prayer.  How many in our prayer groups have had times of silence when you're just together with those other people in your group?  Silence can be a very powerful experience, a way of connecting with God and with one another.  

And so Elijah discovers God in the silence precisely at the point of the greatest crises in his life.  Jezebel is not too happy with him -- I mean, it's hard to get good help, right?  He's wiped out 450 of her top advisors, you know, where is she going to get new ones?  They're expensive -- you've got to train them, you have to send them to seminary, you have to get them credentialed and all of that J.  How is she going to come up with replacements?

So she's a little ticked with Elijah, and calls for his head.  When you're called to testify in a Senate hearing on why you fired 450 federal prosecutors, I mean, false prophets, you do the natural thing -- you resign so you don't have to testify!  You can just hear some press secretary announcing:  "Elijah has decided to depart for personal health reasons" J.  Right.  He wants to save his life!

And so he goes off on sabbatical somewhere down South, you know, at the beach.  And God asks him:  "What are you doing here, Elijah?".  And we know exactly what Elijah is doing there -- it's called self-preservation.  When you're threatened with your life, it's called 'fight or flight' syndrome.  And Elijah wisely chooses flight.

When I was in Boy Scouts (10 years or so ago J), we went on a 50-mile hike through the Mt. Jefferson wilderness area.  We camped out at a lake at the base of Mt. Jefferson, I think it's named Hunts Cove, with real steep hills -- cliffs -- on one side of the lake.  You know how boys are, or any kid, you take them down to the lake side where there's little pebbles, and what do you do?  You throw the pebbles into the water, right?  We were big boys, these were big pebbles -- these were boulders.  Our eyes got big, we climbed up there on the cliff, we got behind one of those big boulders and we pushed it off the side of the cliff.  And it goes rolling down the cliff and makes this big splash.  Oooh, that was cool, let's find a bigger one!

So we get a big, huge boulder, it takes all 4 of us to push this boulder and get it rolling down the side of this cliff -- boom, boom, boom, SPLASH!  The sound of the water splashing echoes off the side of the mountain, rolls across the surface of the water, and over the walls of the cliff down into the canyon, on down into the Ranger Camp L.  There we are blissfully having the time of our lives, permanently altering the landscape of the Mt. Jefferson wilderness area, one boulder after another, when two mounted posse come over the ridge, six-guns at their side and a glint of death in their eyes.

I did what came naturally -- I ran for my life.  Turns out they weren't such bad guys, they gave us a little lecture.  Actually, gave the other three a lecture, I was nowhere to be found J.  

Here is Elijah, running for his life, this great prophet of the Lord who announced the drought to the King, who raised a child from the dead, who commanded fire to come down from the heavens and consume that offering, who killed 450 prophets of Baal, this great, powerful prophet -- runs from Queen Jezebel.  And he takes refuge in Mt. Horeb.

Now, biblical scholars, you know that Mt. Horeb is Mt. Sinai.  It's the name by which Sinai was known in the North -- in the South they call it Sinai.  Elijah is from the North [so he calls it Horeb], so he goes to that place where Moses received the 10 commandments.  Where God appeared to him.  And if you'll remember in that story, as it was portrayed by Charlton Heston (of course all very accurately, you know, right out of the Bible J), when the time comes and God is about to appear, the sky grows dark, and there's lightning, and there's wind, and the earth shakes, just to make sure we get the point -- this is God speaking, not your random voice out of the heavens.

Elijah is also there on that same mountain.  And just like the story of Moses, there's wind, there's fire, there's earthquakes.  And then. . . . . nothing.  Nothing.  Silence.

Who was it, after the hurricane, hurricane Katrina, I don't remember now, I really don't want to remember, who said that hurricane and the flood was God's punishment upon the people of New Orleans for their sinful ways.  As if those dozen or so senior and disabled citizens caught in that bus fleeing from the floods deserved to die, to be drowned to death in such a terrible death.  All the people in the world who do terrible, bad things, and God would punish a bunch of senior citizens in a nursing home?  I don't think so.  I think that's a terrible way to speak of God -- it's blasphemy to make that kind of claim.  That is not how God works in our world.

I received a letter a few years ago from a gentleman in our community who announced that God was going to destroy First Christian Church.  Low and behold, this guy announces that because of some proclamation that I had made (I don't remember what it was -- something about God doesn't really hate Teletubbies J, if you remember that controversy from some other brilliant televangelist a couple years ago), got his ire and he informed us that we were doomed. 

Well, I sent the letter to the police.  You have to remember, I'm the guy that ran from the Rangers J.  I'm taking no chances.  They investigated, and reported back to us that it was a prophetic claim of a religious nature, not a physical threat, and therefore no crime was committed.  But if he should do anything, please give them a call J. Thank you very much.

There are those who think that's the way God works.  That God does such things.  But we are here to proclaim that is not the God we worship.  Nor is it evidently the God who met Elijah on Mt. Horeb.  And I think what is honestly happening here is that this is a correction to the previous story.  It says to all of those who think this is the way God works -- with fire and brimstone and all of that -- if that's your image of God, here, let me tell you another story, a different story about how God works in our world.

One of my favorite Christmas stories that we sometimes use at Christmas time, Haywood Brown, tells about the shepherds when the angels appeared to them. And the shepherds get all excited, they're going to go to Bethlehem to see this marvelous thing, they're getting all packed up and ready to go, and they notice one of their colleagues, Amos, hasn't moved.  They say "Amos, come on!  Pack up, we're heading to Bethlehem".  Amos says "I will abide".  "What do you mean, Amos, this is the greatest thing that has ever happened -- this is our chance of a lifetime".  Amos says "I will abide".  "Amos, are you crazy?!  The Messiah has come, come with us".  Amos says "Angels may be good for Messiahs and shepherds, but have you seen the effect on the sheep?".  

And sure enough, they look around and the sheep and just trembling in their hooves.  And they say "Amos, you're right, someone does need to stay here and look after the sheep.  Would you mind, since you're going to stay, would you look after my sheep too?" 

And so they go off to Bethlehem, and they come back the next morning, singing 'Angels We Have Heard on High' and all of that.  And they say to Amos:  "Amos, were there any wonders in the night here for you?".  And Amos says:  "My 100 sheep are now 101".  And they laugh at him -- "Amos, was there some great voice of God, some revelation from the heavens at this mighty wonder?".  And Amos says "No, but there came to my heart a whisper".

You've heard it said, behold the majesty of God in the stars, contemplate the complexity of God in a tree, see the beauty of God in a butterfly.  I say to you:  ponder the depth of God in the silence.  

After all of that noise and commotion, the violence, the thunder, the lightening, what does Elijah hear?  Nothing but sheer silence.  Actually, the Hebrew here has two words that contradict one another -- 'sound' and 'silence'.  Scholars think that the idea is a hushed sound, one scholar calls it "a thin whisper".  So quiet, it is barely audible at all.

Elijah's world suddenly becomes deathly quiet.  Nothing but the haunting rustle of the wind across the mouth of the cave, and it was anything but comforting.

I remember the other time I got into trouble (only the 2 times J).  Dad sat me down and asked me if I had done this terrible thing, chopping down the cherry tree or whatever it was.  And I said I cannot tell a lie, I did not do it.  And Dad then did the most terrible thing -- he said nothing.  We just sat there in silence.  If felt like saying "Take me out and whip me, do whatever you want to do, but please no more silence!".

In that silence comes the thin whisper of God.  Why are you here, Elijah?

Not all questions are asked to get information, are they?  Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story and says if your best friend comes to you and laments and is crying, his girlfriend has just dumped him, and he says "What have I done to deserve this?"  Do you give him a list of 10 things that he has done?  No, you comfort him, it's a cry for comfort.

If you walk into the kitchen and your three year-old has the stool out standing on his tip-toes reaching for the cookie jar, what do you say?  What are you doing?!  Do you expect a reasonable answer?  "I'm trying to protect the cookies from the cookie monster!".  

It's not a question to satisfy God's curiosity.  It's a rhetorical question to express God's displeasure.  What are you doing here, Elijah?  This is not where I called you.  And it reverberates in the silence on the mountain like . . . . . boulders rolling down a cliff.

And yet it is just a thin whisper.  And it's all Elijah needed to hear.  Sometimes a glimpse of the divine, sometimes just a hint of God is all we need to convict us, to convince us, to comfort us.  Whatever the case may be, it is enough to bring Elijah out of his cave and to face God.  To admit to God -- he was scared, he had chickened out.  And once he had gotten that off his chest, he received from God a new commission, and new call.  To go and to anoint Elisha and follow him.

Can we dare be so bold to face God's silence.  To answer God's whisper.  If we are, if we have enough courage to come out of our caves, out of the darkness into the light, to stand before God and to give an account of our lives, do you suppose we might find, like Elijah, that God still has a word for us?  A word to break the silence.  A word to call us forth.  A word to turn us around.  A word to send us on a mission.  To let us know when we are burned up and washed out and scared and frightened that God is not finished with us yet.

Listen.  Those who run from your fears, those who run the world, those who run from your calling, those who run from God, listen.  The silence of God convicts us that the whisper of God calls us.  Breaking the silence with the word that becomes flesh and dwells among us and in us, listen.

Amidst the storms of your life, the fires of the world, the earth-shattering news every day clamoring for your attention, listen.

There comes to your heart a thin whisper.  What are you doing with your life?  What is it that tugs at your heart in the middle of the night, in the silence?

Listen.  Maybe, maybe, it is the whisper of God. 


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