190623 – The Sound of Silence

Yr C ~ Pentecost 2 ~ 1 Kings 19:8-15a

A person has a need, a deep spiritual need. They’re at the end of their rope. They’ve realized that their own energy and capacity is maxed out, and they need more than what they’ve got. They’ve had tremendous highs, accomplished incredible things, done tremendous good, but at this point they’re just done. The accolades have faded, the tides have turned, and now they’re shaken to their core. The appropriate word just might be despondent.

And so with nothing left in the tank they completely let down their guard and surrender to God. I would imagine that, “I’ve had enough, God! I give up!” is a prayer just about every person here has prayed.

And then, exhausted, they fall asleep. And in their sleep, when their guard is completely down and there are no distractions, an experience of the Holy happens. Presence is felt – spiritual nourishment is given – energy is restored. The person then goes through a time of spiritual transformation and growth, has even more powerful and transformative experiences of and in God’s Presence, and is refreshed, renewed, and given a new mission of living God’s way.

That pattern of spiritual renewal is exactly what the prophet Elijah experienced, and it can be true for us today too.

Elijah was perhaps the greatest prophet of Israel. Just before today’s reading he stands alone in a foreign land (albeit one where many Jews are living) and challenges 450 prophets of the god Baal. You see, the Israelites there were falling away from God and turning to the cult of Baal, in the land ruled by Queen Jezebel. Isaiah had to prove that Yahweh, the one true God, the God above all other gods, was worthy. So he challenges the Baal prophets to a prophet-off! The problem was if he lost the challenge he’d be killed, but if he won the challenge Jezebel would still probably kill him. But he had to fight.

It’s a colourful story. There were pyres erected, and bulls were cut up, and the challenge was that using only prophecy and spiritual power could the fires be lit and the bulls burned. 450 prophets of Baal danced and chanted themselves into a stupor and a big fat nothing happened. One lowly prophet of God, Elijah, prayed and called forth God’s power and lightning came and started the fire and burned it all up. Elijah won, and all 450 prophets of Baal were put to death.
Winner winner chicken dinner, right? Big man on campus, right?

The next day, Elijah was visited by a messenger of Jezebel who said the queen sent him to kill Elijah.
So Elijah fled for his life, thinking he was done for. He ran and ran, deep into the wilderness, expecting to be killed. Despondent, he laid down under a desert bush and he prayed, 1 Kings 19:4 “I’ve had enough, Lord! Take my life. I’m no better than my ancestors.” The last part is pretty cryptic but the first part is pretty relatable. “I’ve had enough, God! I give up!”

He slept, and an angel visited him, woke him, and provided food and water.
Refreshed Elijah travelled for 40 days and 40 nights – sound familiar? That’s a number signifying transformation.
And he comes to Mt Horeb, where Moses got the 10 Commandments, and just like Moses, Elijah experiences God’s Presence in a magnificent way.

Ok, that’s the background.
How did Elijah get there, and how do we get to a point where we’re ready to experience God so vividly?
There’s a pattern: openness and surrender, receiving spiritual nourishment, a time of transformation, and physically being in a quiet place where deep experiences have a greater chance of happening, and making yourself ready, preparing yourself, to hear.

Now let’s look at the experience.
How do we expect to encounter God? What would it be like to encounter the very Presence of God?
Here’s how it was for Elijah. 1 Kings 19:11-12

(Elijah is told) “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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

The King James translation says it was a still, small voice.

That ain’t how it works in the movies!
Generally, God is depicted as all-powerful, shaking mountains, causing earthquakes, chucking lightning bolts.
We expect God to dazzle and amaze, to knock our socks off with power, and fireworks, and throngs of angel choruses singing alleluia!

Silence is the opposite.
Silence is the absence of all those flashy things.
I guess it’s because we have a sense that God is so great, and so awesome, and so holy, and so magisterial that we can’t help but associate those things with showy and noisy displays of such awesomeness.
But clearly, according to this scripture and many others, God’s Presence is known in the silence.
In the silence!
It’s completely counter-intuitive.
It turns our perception and expectations completely upside down.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly how God usually seems to work!

It shouldn’t surprise us though.

We already know that the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear. The big challenge for us is that quiet is a pretty precious commodity! I don’t know about you but I find it just about impossible to find quietness anywhere. Ironically, I wrote most of this sermon at the men’s cottage day, sitting on the porch, trying to find a little quietness so I could write! Those guys are so noisy! All that laughing and talking!

The outer world is really noisy – and my inner world (my mind) is pretty noisy too!!!
Even when I manage to find a quiet space I soon realize that my mind is still going a thousand miles an hour making a terrible racket.
Can anyone relate?

And yet, when I do manage to even quiet my mind – and it takes discipline and practice. I haven’t figured out how to flip a switch yet so I have to keep working at it – when I do get quiet, and breathe deeply, and let all that noisy stuff go, I experience a sense of God’s Presence that I just can’t reach in any other way.
Or, more accurately, it reaches me, because I’ve finally got myself out of my own way.

A fourteenth century mystic named Meister Eckhart said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” Amen!

So, shall we pause right now for 10 minutes of silent meditation?
Some of you just thought, “Yeah, sounds awesome!”
And others just thought, “Oh crap, I hope he’s not serious!”

I’m not. But I should be. We should be.
We should be striving to cultivate more quietness and silence in our lives.
It’s not magic – as in if you get quiet enough you can guarantee a direct communication from God. But I can pretty much guarantee the opposite.
If your world and your mind are noisy it will be virtually impossible to hear God.

So how do we get quiet enough?
We do like Elijah did. We kill 450 prophets of Baal! No, but there is a pattern. Remember?

Openness and surrender, receiving spiritual nourishment, a time of transformation, and then physically carving out a quiet place where deep experiences have a greater chance of happening.

And then, just be.
“Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10.
Breathe. Let things go.
If you can manage 5 minutes you’ll be doing great!
Think of it like marathon training – increase your mileage bit by bit! Increase your quietness bit by bit.

And in the quiet you’ll feel God’s Presence, and God will speak, and all your problems will be solved, right?
I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

I’d count on a nudge, or a conviction, but it won’t solve your woes. God ain’t in the magic wand business.
God is in the ‘meaning of life’ business, the ‘inner joy and peace’ business, the ‘love’ business.

Think of what Elijah heard.
Elijah experiences God’s Presence in a profound and intimate way, in the sound of silence, he pours out his heart (even with exaggerations and trying to make himself look good – as if God couldn’t see right through that), and God apparently hears Elijah thoroughly.

Awesome! So Elijah has a direct audience with the very Presence of God and is fully heard.
And what does God do? How does God respond?
God sends him out on another mission – but in a whole new direction. Literally in the opposite direction from which Elijah came. It’s both spiritually and physically a new path.

To this despondent, exhausted, overwrought prophet God says, “I have work for you to do! Yes, you can retire, eventually, but first you need to go on a journey, and anoint the new leadership of Israel, and also find your successor. Then you can hang up the skates and call it a day.”

And in the verses that follow our reading God reassures Elijah that he is not alone, that God’s Presence will always be with him.

Elijah wasn’t ready to hear all that at the start. He just wanted to curl up and die.
It was only when he surrendered and let God refresh him and lead him that he got quiet enough to really sense and savour God’s Presence.
It was only after he let go of any expectation that God would blow up mountains, cause earthquakes, or reign down fire and lightning that he could realize that God was actually far deeper, underneath all that noise, waiting.

And how about us?
Those of us who are tired, hungry, exhausted, emotionally spent, and dejected?
Perhaps we can let go of trying to do it all ourselves, and open ourselves and let the Spirit move us and shape us.
Perhaps we can be inspired to stop waiting for mighty winds, earthquakes, and thunderbolts, and can begin to learn to seek out God in the sound of silence.
And perhaps we can be courageous enough to try all that before we’re at the end of our rope!

God’s still, small voice is definitely speaking.
Our great spiritual task is to learn to listen – and that means learning to be still – and that’s really, really hard for us.

Brennan Manning said it better than anyone else – when it comes to praying, really praying, really coming face to face with the awesome Presence of God and revelling in the sacred silence, it actually isn’t as hard as we think.
In fact, you need only remember these five immortal words: “Show up, and shut up!”