Chapter 19 of 1 Kings
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.
As the deer longs for the water brooks so longs my soul for you, oh God. When shall I come into your presence? Amen.
A Sound of Silence
You might want to read that scripture again. Maybe, even read it out loud if you are somewhere alone, without an audience. It is so powerful a visual, I want you to “see it,” feel it, fully experience it. Go ahead. Take a moment.
Incredible, isn’t it.
The scripture reading comes in the middle of a time of struggle and fear in the life of Elijah. He has managed to get himself crosswise with Queen Jezebel, who has ordered his imminent death. In desperation, he flees into the wilderness. He is in despair.
He comes upon a broom tree, leans against it, and moans, “I’m done. I have done everything as you instructed, God and they won’t listen. I give up. I’m ready to die. Just let me die right here.” He lies down under the tree and falls into a deep and troubled sleep. He doesn’t die. Instead an angel comes to him with a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He eats and falls back to sleep. Another angel appears, again with food and water; and this time with the admonition that he eat all of it as he will need sustenance for a 40-day hike to Mount Horeb. There, the angel promises, God will make his presence known to him.
When an angel tells you what to do, you do it. And Elijah did as he was told. Once at the mountain, he hears the voice of God asking, “Why are you here?” Elijah repeated his frustration and disappointment in God’s people; and his overpowering sense of failure. In response, God assures Elijah that he is coming.
Elijah stands on the mountain and waits. First comes a ferocious wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks. Then an earthquake and then a fire, but the Lord was in none of them.
Reading these verses, I found myself humming a song by Paul Simon who wrote many memorable songs. Probably the most was “The Sound of Silence.” I wonder if he was thinking about Elijah when he wrote, “In restless dreams I walked alone/ Narrow streets of cobblestone/ ’Neath the halo of a streetlamp/ I turned my collar to the cold and damp/ When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light/ That split the night/ And touched the sound of silence.”
It was in the sound of sheer silence that God made his presence known to Elijah. Not to say, that God has never used extraordinary ways to manifest his presence. Just last week, we celebrated Pentecost when the Holy Spirit introduced himself to the disciples in a ferocious wind and tongues of fire. We all know the world-wide destructive flood that God used to stop the toxic spread of evil in his creation. And perhaps the most gut-wrenching example was the expression of God’s anguish at his Son’s violent death, with an earthquake that opened graves and split in two the curtain of the temple.
Even today, severe storms, floods, earthquakes, and fires cause many to wonder if such events are signs from God. For Elijah however, God’s presence was not in any of those. It was within silence that God spoke and in so doing, restored Elijah’s purpose in life, his hope and direction with the words, “Go back to where you are needed.” Elijah got it.
Today, I wonder what we miss. What is God whispering in our ear that could restore our purpose in life, our hope, our direction? And we don’t get it? We simply can’t hear because it’s just too noisy? And the paradox is that most of that noise is what we ourselves manufacture because we are uncomfortable with silence. We don’t know where it will take us, so we turn to a neon god of loud, chaotic noise. “And the people bowed and prayed/ To the neon god they made/ and the sign flashed out its warning/ In the words that it was forming/ And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets/ Are written on the subway walls/ and tenement halls/ and whispered in the sounds of silence.”
I don’t know where you will seek the words of the prophets. Maybe it will be in subways or tenement halls, or church. Or maybe you will find them in the shade of a broom tree. All you need is courage and a burning thirsty desire, “As the deer longs for the water brook, so longs my soul for you, Oh God.”
When the silence finds you, – and it will, – don’t run away. Stay there! It is just a matter of time before you, like all the prophets before you, will hear God whispering, telling you where He wants you to be and the reassurance that he will give you whatever you need to get there.
Like Elijah, we might need courage in the face of fear, strength for a body weakened by sleepless nights, encouragement in the aftermath of failure, energy to replace lethargy and frustration, and a powerful hope that because we rest in the presence of God, all will be well. This hope will have the power of a ferocious mountain-splitting wind, a shattering screaming earthquake, and a burning fire to purge away all shreds of despair that would block God’s vision for us.
And all of that . . . in the sheer silence where even the whispers of God are heard.