Friday, 19 January 2007

The silence of God

1 Kings 19:1-18

There are many times when it seems that God goes silent on us, when it seems that God has abandoned us. There is silence when we pick up the bible and get absolutely nothing out of it, or we come to communion and it is a sheer ritual that we are going through, or we pray and it seems we are talking to a blank wall. There can be silence when we struggle with why our partner has cancer or our child has been born with cystic fibrosis or why we have destructive desires or impulses that we simply do not seem to be able to control. There can be silence when we ask God why we have flogged our guts out and nothing has happened. There can be silence when we ask, why am I so desperately alone?

In our reading today, Elijah encounters the silence of God.

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah has had a mountain top experience. God met with him on Mt Carmel in the most astonishing way. God came in the fire that fell on the sacrifice. The people had declared for the LORD. God certainly was not silent.

But in our reading today, 1 Kings 19, it is very different

Despite 1 Kings 18, nothing seems to have changed. The people, despite their declaration, are still worshiping false gods. Jezebel, the queen, still wants him dead.

And Elijah is crushed. He is crushed by exhaustion, discouragement, loneliness and his own sense of failure. He runs away. He goes into the wilderness. He gets rid of his servant. He sits down and he prays: “I’ve had enough Lord. Take my life”. Basically, Elijah is resigning – not just from the job, but from life.

And notice how very gracious God is to him

God provides for him: sleep, water and freshly baked bread. And God does not provide for him once, but twice. Once it seems to restore him; the second time to prepare him. Someone who is exhausted is not really going to be able to hear God very easily

God moves him on. In fact God takes him to Mount Horeb – the beginning of the Israelite nation as a nation. The place where God called Moses; the place where God gave his people the law and his word. God takes him back to the roots of his people (on the retreat ..)

God meets with him

But this meeting is very different to previous meetings.

In v9 God finds Elijah spending the night in a cave.

He asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah tells him: “I’ve been faithful and hard working. But it is pointless. Nothing has changed. The Israelites have rejected you. I’m the only one left, and they want to kill me”

So God tells Elijah to go out onto the mountain to meet with him: “Stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by”. But it seems that Elijah doesn’t go. He stays in his cave. He’s become a teenager
So because Elijah won’t come to God, God goes to Elijah.

There is a great and powerful wind, there is an earthquake, there is fire (I don’t know how – it might have been an earthquake and electrical storm).

But the bible tells us that God does not meet Elijah in the wind, earthquake or fire.

The writer says (vv11-12) “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.”

Instead, God meets with him in the ‘gentle whisper’; or in what the NRSV translates as ‘sheer silence’. And from what I have read I think this is a more accurate translation.

It is a theme that is taken up by many of the first Christian preachers and writers:

Yes, of course God meets us in the dramatic
· When God met Moses on Mount Horeb, there was wind, an earthquake and fire
· When the Holy Spirit came on the disciples, there was wind and fire.
· When Jesus returns we are told that there will be earthquakes and fire

And many of us will have met with God in the dramatic: in the miraculous, in the astonishing answer to prayer; in the way a bible passage has leapt out at us; in his guiding; in the overwhelming experience.

But on this occasion, God does not meet Elijah in the powerful or dramatic.

He meets him in the silence. He meets him in the cave.
Elijah becomes aware that just as God is not in the sound and the fury on this occasion, God is in the silence.

Perhaps I should emphasize that differently, God is – in the silence.

And when it seems to us that God has gone AWOL, we do need to hold on by faith, if not by experience, to the fact that God is with us, even in the silence.

Elijah crops up in the New Testament. Some people thought that John the Baptist was Elijah come back to life. John the Baptist makes it pretty clear that he is not. There are certainly many parallels. Both were pretty wild people. Both called people back to God. Both were on the hit list of queens. Jezebel wanted Elijah dead, and Herodias wanted John the Baptist dead. Both seem to encounter doubt. Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and John the Baptist when he is in prison. And both pointed forward to the same person: Jesus.

But Elijah crops up as a living person in the NT. When Jesus is transfigured, he is seen talking on a mountain with two people: Moses and Elijah. And they are talking together about the death of Jesus.

And in his death, Jesus encounters the silence of God. He cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me’. But unlike Elijah, Jesus encounters not the apparent silence of God, but the actual silence of God.

‘Not many people have done that’. In fact, Jesus is the only person on earth who has experienced that. To encounter the actual silence of God is quite literally about total separation from God; it is about hell. He is the only person, this side of death, who has done that.

And because Jesus has experienced the actual silence of God, no other person need ever experience it: this side or the other side of death. God has promised that he will never be absent from the person who seeks him. The good news is that Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. He is with us when it is all going so well, but he is also still with us in the silence, in the seeming absence.

This really is the Job experience. We have been screaming at God, protesting our innocence, demanding he meet with us, asking him why we have to go through what we go through. I do hope that you struggle and fight and wrestle with God – because that shows that knowing him really matters to you.

And I know that God makes himself known to us in His word, but this is slightly different: this is about God making Himself known to us in our experience.

That is the point at which Job shuts up.
It is also the point at which Elijah shuts up: “When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave”

And now, Elijah is ready again to say yes to his calling, to hear God’s word, to be given a new task and to obey.

And it is when we realise that God is with us even in our pit, despair, frustration, sense of powerlessness, our loneliness, failure; it is when we begin to be aware that God is with us even when he seems silent, that we too are released to move on, to serve again and to live again.

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