Elijah, And The Sound of Silence
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown – November 17, 2019
John T. Ames
Two weeks ago Caitlan preached on the wonderful story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. Felix Mendelssohn, the Jew turned Lutheran, in his magnificent oratorio, Elijah, took this to be the dramatic and musical climax of the story. Elijah, the baritone, laid down the terms of the contest: “bring two bulls. You prepare one on your altar and I’ll put one on my altar. You pray to your god and I’ll pray to mine. The god who answers by sending fire, that is the real god.”
Mendelssohn’s double chorus sings the songs of the priests of Baal – in fortissimo: Baal, we cry to thee! The basses love this chorus. Baal, we cry to thee! But there was no sound or any kind of response. Elijah prayed, and then suddenly the fire from God struck the altar and the offering was consumed in flames. And not only the sacrificial animal, but also the wood, the stones, the dust, and then we are told that the flames “licked up the water that was in the trench.” I love that touch. And the chorus sings: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.
This is a very dramatic example of God’s visible power. It is glorious to follow God when God acts so openly, so plainly on behalf of his people. Caitlan told the story and then went on to apply it to our lives and to the life of our church. It was good preaching. And I want to build on her sermon and talk about the next Elijah story – what took place after the confrontation on Mount Carmel. There have been times in our own experience when we’ve seen God at work – perhaps not so dramatically as this confrontation on Mount Carmel, but we have had experiences that proved to us that God exists, that God loves us and cares for us, that God offers comfort, direction, forgiveness.
But today’s story couldn’t be more different. Here is an even truer test of faithfulness. It’s relatively easy to be faithful when God is speaking, but what about those times when God is silent? It’s easy to have faith when God is acting, but what if God does nothing? It’s easy to believe when God is present, but what about when God is absent?
King Ahab slunk back to the court from Mount Carmel and with great embarrassment told his wife, Jezebel, what had happened – the contest, the impotence of Baal, Yahweh’s power. The true God had shown his power and this God’s name was not Baal. Jezebel’s face blackened with rage. She swore to avenge the death of her priests with the death of Elijah. By this time tomorrow, she said, I’ll have his head on a platter.
Elijah decided that the better part of wisdom would be to leave town. Trembling with fear, heavy with despair, and filled with self pity, he went into the wilderness; and since there wasn’t a Holiday Inn, he sat down under a broom tree, which provided the best shade available in the Syrian desert.
There he sulked: “It is enough,” he said to God. “I’ve had it. I may as well die here. It’s all over.” Elijah thought that after that great day on Mount Carmel everything would turn around, but just the reverse had happened. The power of evil intensified. Jezebel was out to kill him.
The next scene of the drama takes place on Mount Horeb – another name for Mount Sinai. That’s a long way from Syria where the first part of the story has been set. Elijah really was serious about trying to get away from it all. He went all the way to Sinai back to the holy mountain where Moses had received the law, where amid earthquake, wind, and fire God had first made himself known to the people of Israel. Elijah may have come to this holy place hoping for a repeat performance for some sign that Yahweh was still God, that Mount Carmel was no fluke. Elijah did what was natural, what we sometimes do. He came back to the mountain for reassurance in the face of doubt, for inspiration in the face of despair, for an instant replay of revelation. Elijah climbed the holy mountain and waited for God.
Then comes one of those holy moments of history. In the midst of this ancient folk story of faith, comes one of those passages in the bible that just grabs us with its beauty and its stark simplicity.
There was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, there was an earthquake, and 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 the sound of utmost silence.
Elijah came back to Sinai, hoping that God would reveal himself in the wind, just like the wind that had parted the Red Sea for Moses. But the wind came, and God was not there. He thought that maybe God would speak to him in an earthquake, like the earthquake that shook the mountain when God spoke to Moses. But the earthquake came, and God was not there no new law, nothing.
Elijah hoped that God would reveal himself through fire, just as he led Moses through the wilderness with a pillar of fire just as he had rained fire down on Mount Carmel. And the fire came, but God was not there.
All the ways that Elijah thought God might speak to him and nothing but God’s silence. God was not there. Imagine Elijah’s despair. Have you had times like that when God did not seem to acting right? The old words don’t mean anything any more. The wonderful hymns seem trite and silly. Sermons seem vain and void.
You long for the former faith; you go to church Sunday after Sunday, but it isn’t there. Prayers never seem to go any higher than the ceiling. The symbols are empty. You go the beach it is dirty and littered. The mountains which usually inspire are hot and dusty this year. It seems as though God has turned his back. God is not to be found in the usual places not in church, not in prayer, not in nature. Not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. God is not there. What the scripture records next gives us hope in those “dark nights of the soul” through which we pass. “And after the fire a sound of utmost silence. And Elijah covered his face with his robe.”
God was there in the silence. “The still, small voice” is the translation that rings in our ears, but in fact there was no voice at all. The Hebrew words are a poet’s words: the sounds of silence, a hush utter quiet. But God was there, unexplainable, unexplained, God was there. And Elijah knew it; and, overcome by the Presence, Elijah covered his face with his robe.
Faith is not really faith until the darkness comes, until we hear God in silence. There are times when God seems to turn his back; when we speak, and God is utterly silent. This is a deep mystery. We can only ask questions and talk about our side the human side of God’s silence which is what we call faith. Faith is the patience to hang in there when all seems wrong, when days come and go and God seems strangely absent. Faith is waiting for God when God no longer comes as of old. Faith is keeping the eyes and ears open, to hear and see when God does come often in the most unexpected and unusual ways. Not in sounds, but in silence. Not in action, but in stillness. Not as of old, but as of now.
Elijah wanted assurance that God had not deserted him, that God still expected him to be faithful, that God still needed him, that God appreciated his devoted service. Elijah did not get answers. Elijah waited and he prayed, and he got crushed in the silence of God’s presence. And this, after all, is what we need as well not signs and wonders, not fire from heaven or singing angels not answers, but God.
The absence of God in the earthquake, wind, and fire created the crisis of faith which was necessary for Elijah to look for God in a new place to wait for God and to watch for him. The silence of God is the beginning of prayer. God’s silence evokes from us new yearning for him! And from our yearning, new faith is born. It is after this scene that Mendelssohn places his great affirmation of faith in the beautiful tenor aria: If with all your heart you truly seek him, you shall surely find him.
Here on Mount Horeb, in God’s revelation of himself to Elijah through silence, we have the beginning of a whole new way of knowing God. This scene at Mount Horeb is another transition moment in the history of faith. From now on, we see God working not through wind, earthquake, and fire, but through people. God was absenting himself from nature to force us to see him acting in history. It was the birth of the prophetic vision.
And finally, God spoke to Elijah. “What are you doing here?” And Elijah began his carefully rehearsed speech. “Lord, I’ve been faithful all these years. I’m the only one left. There is just me, and they are out looking for me. I might as well die.”
Who has not felt at times like Elijah discouraged, depressed, ready to throw in the towel. Who of us has not felt like praying: “I’ve had it, Lord. I’ve had all the Jezebels I can stand. I’ve had enough of gutless wonders like Ahab, enough of wishy washy Christians who are faithful only when it’s convenient or inexpensive, enough of this sorry world where evil prospers and the good die young, enough of corrupt and self seeking politicians, enough of violence and immorality. There’s nothing more I can do. I’m giving up. Let the Jezebels of the world have it.”
Then God spoke again to Elijah. This time he gave him another job to do. “Get up off your bottom and get back to work. Go back to Damascus and anoint Hazael King of Syria. Then come back and anoint Jehu as King of Israel. And a young man named Elisha will go with you. I want you to train him, for he will be your successor. Oh, and by the way, you are not alone. There are at least seven thousand others who are faithful in Israel. The game is not up; I’ve got plenty of supporters, and I’m getting tired of all your whining and self pity. Get back to work.”
God’s grace came to Elijah this time in a challenge to recommitment and in the reminder of the value of the community. It was a word of good news that corrected Elijah’s cynicism and despair and gave him hope again. Elijah had become a member of that large club whose motto is: “He or she serves best who merely sits and complains about what others do.”
The church is getting smaller and poorer. Where are the young people? Most people here have already had cataract surgery. It’s just you and me left, Lord, and sometimes I’m not even too sure of you.
But God spoke again to Elijah: “Go on back, Elijah, and get busy. There is work to be done. Moreover, there are seven thousand others who have not bowed their knees to Baal. So back he went, back to his job, recommissioned and reassured with a call and a community. The prophetic vision was reborn.
Hope lives. Elijah alone of the characters in the Old Testament did not taste death as a man, but was taken up into heaven amid a whirlwind. That ancient story points to another hope a resurrection hope that in time God would send another messenger a messiah who would come and conquer death.
Maybe the two hopes together a hope in the word of God that endures forever and hope in life that is eternal are the reason that Elijah is called simply: “The Prophet;” and why Malachi, the last prophet, said that Elijah would appear again, preparing the way for the Messiah. Maybe that’s why every year at the Passover meal, pious Jews leave a door open for Elijah’s return and set an empty plate for him at the Seder table.
Maybe only the prophet who saw God in the fire on Mount Carmel and who waited for God in the silence of Mount Horeb can adequately prepare us for the one who came hidden in human flesh, the one in whom and through whom we see God.