“The Silent Voice of God”
1 Kings 19: 9-18 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook;
Northwood United Church; August 13, 2017
Forest fires blazing throughout our province are now estimated to be the size of Prince Edward Island and our province has declared a state of emergency. As people are evacuated from their homes, these fires have threatened people’s homes, their livelihood, indeed ~ their very future. And as these fires continue to spread, it is hard not to hear this morning’s reading in our own context. This morning’s scripture reading, written almost three Millenia ago, Elijah was looking for God: first he looks for God in the blazing fire that passed by, and then in the earthquake, and then in the wind. An angelic messenger had commanded Elijah to stand on alert for the Lord who was about to pass by. And as Elijah stood and waited for God, there was first a great wind that passed by. The wind was so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks, Elijah looked…but the Lord was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake that was tearing apart homes and roads, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Finally, there was a great fire, burning up hectares of forest in its path, but the Lord was not in the fire. It is interesting, we generally expect God to be in the big dramatic explosive parts of nature, don’t we? Along with tens of thousands of others, Jaida and I attended the Vancouver fireworks festival last weekend. As you know, one must arrive well ahead of the 10 pm commencement to get a good view of the fireworks. So, you arrive and you first watch the sunset (which is spectacular in its own right as the sun sets over English Bay) and then you get to enjoy the fireworks shortly afterwards. Yet, as we engage with the text, it tells us that God is not in the fire. Is God not to be found in the dramatic fireworks lighting up the sky? Is God not found in the fiery sunset?
I suspect that many people in our province are testing the validity of this text these days as they wonder where God is amidst the forest fires. As I read some of the blogs and posts from people in reaction to the wildfires, they seem to be questioning why God is allowing these fires to blaze throughout our province. They, in fact, see God in the fires and wonder why God is doing this to good, hard-working families. People wonder if they see God in the sunsets that light up the sky, revealing a God of beauty and awesome wonder. People wonder if they see God in the powerful events of nature, revealing an omnipotent / all-powerful God. And people wonder if they see God at work in the forest fires. Yet…this morning, we come up against a text that specifically teaches against this theological perspective. God, it teaches, was not to be found in the great wind tearing apart rocks and mountains; God was not to be found in the great earthquakes tearing apart roads and homes; and God was not to be found in the great fires burning up hectares of forest. The question that we are obviously left with is, if God is not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire … then where is God to be found? Before proceeding, it is helpful to explore a little more of Elijah’s back story. I often giggle inside when I hear parents’ desire to take their child to church as it represents a sanctuary from the violence, pain and destruction that is so commonplace in today’s world. This, of course, cannot be any further from the truth! If we flip our Bibles back just one chapter to 1 Kings 18, we read the story of Elijah murdering 450 of the prophets who were loyal to the foreign god known as ‘Baal’. In a battle to determine whose deity was more powerful, Elijah sleighed 450 of Baal’s prophets to show Yahweh’s supremacy. During my visit to the Holy Land, I recall being overcome by the statue of Elijah at Mount Carmel where this epic battle was to have occurred. In the statue, Elijah is presented with an angry face and he is holding a long knife used to butcher those other prophets. The prophet who we meet before this morning’s text, is a commanding presence who orders the people of Israel around, who represents God by not only speaking God’s word in a prophetic voice, but also seeks to prove God’s supremacy by butchering all the prophets who spoke for the opposing gods. As a result of this bloody exhibition, Queen Jezebel – who was loyal to Baal – becomes furious and orders Elijah’s death sentence. Elijah fears for his life, and runs 100 miles, from Jezreel to Beer-Sheba and hides in a cave hewn in the side of Mt. Sinai.
And in this morning’s text, in 1 Kings 19, we meet a very different Elijah from the murderous prophet of the previous chapter. An angel of the Lord comes to Elijah, who is now hiding in the cave. The angel commands Elijah, come out of your cave, for the Lord is about to pass by. Elijah obeys. Arises from his cave and looks for God. First comes a great wind. The wind is so strong that it splits rocks and mountains. But, God was not in the wind. And then comes an earthquake, tearing apart homes and roads, but God was not in the earthquake either. And then comes a great fire, burning the forest that stood in its path. Yet God was not in the fire either. Previously, Elijah had thought God to be one of power and destruction, which is why he murdered the 450 prophets loyal to Baal. Yet, Elijah finds that God was not to be found in the destructive forces. And after the wind, and after the earthquake, and after the fire, there came along one more thing. It might have been easy to miss if he wasn’t on alert. What came along is described as the “sound of sheer silence”. Other translations render it as being “a gentle whisper” (NIV), “the soft whisper of a voice” (NEB), and “the sound of a gentle breeze” (JB). This ‘sound of sheer silence’…spoke to Elijah louder than the fire, or the earthquake, or the wind. This ‘sound of sheer silence’ was truly the experience of the holy in his midst. It was so powerful, that he removed his mantle and covered his face, for he knew that that he was now in the presence of God. God was speaking in the silent moment. After the wind, the earthquake, the fire, God was there … in the silence.
John Ciardi, an American poet from the 20th century, wrote that “we are what we do with our attention”. In this text, we are reminded of the importance of focusing our attention on God’s still small voice. We are challenged to find the holy in the silent whisper voice of God, that while we do not always listen for it, is still speaking. God did not speak in the wind. or in the earthquake, or in the fire. Rather God was found in the holy depths of silence that are as close to us as the next breath we take, yet also as far away from us as each moment that we take for granted. We learn that God is not found in the grand distractions of life ~ the great earthquakes, the threatening winds, or the blazing fires. But rather, God is to be found in the small still voice which is speaking words of love, care and compassion, if we slow down long enough and attend our ear to hear. Indeed as John Ciardi insightfully writes: “we are what we do with our attention” and if we seek to be God’s children, we then need to pay attention to that small still voice that speaks after the storms, the earthquakes, the fires that occur in our lives. For, God is indeed to be found there.
To be sure, finding God in the silences is a difficult theological assignment. I think this is a profoundly difficult call for us because, let’s be honest, we generally would prefer a powerful, interventionist type of God. We would prefer a God who would rain torrential downpours upon the forest fires causing them to stop. We would prefer a God who would strike down the horrible people of our world with a lightning bolt. We would prefer a God whose power would be feared by evil doers, and who brings success and power to the righteous. Yet…we are reminded this morning that is not the way of our God. We are children of a God who created a garden and gave us freedom, despite our human misgivings and tendencies to follow the ways of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. We worship a God who we know through Christ as one who welcomed even the little children on his knee, who healed the lepers, ate with sinners and tax collectors, and even rode a donkey to a Passover celebration where he would willingly give his life for us. In the silences, we know a God who is forgiveness, amazing grace and unending peace. Indeed, our gentle God speaks in the silences, speaks to the outcast, and speaks the gentle words that ‘we are not alone’ even after the fire, or the earthquakes or the winds have passed us by.
So, no God is not found in the fires, or the earthquakes, or the winds. But if we listen carefully…God is there in the quieter moments after the storm. God is not IN the forest fires blazing in our province. But God is there IN the silent moments. God is speaking through the first responders ~ giving them energy and stamina as they are tirelessly working; God is in the churches and the community centres and the private homes who have welcomed evacuees. God is in the generosity of people who are sharing their resources and prayers to help their fellow citizens. God is, indeed, in so many places as we consider the fire situation.
I wonder…what tragic events are occurring in your life ~ what winds and fires and earthquakes are rattling in your life ~ where now, more than ever, it is so important for you to listen to God’s quiet voice speaking words of hope, healing and love. I wonder what tragic events are occurring in the lives of others around you, where God’s still small voice is speaking words to you calling you to be God’s agent of hope, healing and love? God’s still small voice is speaking. The theological question for us becomes: are we listening with ears attuned to hear God’s still small voice?
As we come to an end of our reflection time, I want to remind us of an old story told. Several applicants were seeking a position as the ship's Morse Code operator. While they were waiting to be interviewed, they sat in a noisy waiting room. It was filled with the sounds of conversation, the comings and goings of officers, and Morse Code sounds emanating from the intercom. Each applicant, one by one, sat waiting for their turn to be interviewed. One applicant, however, jumped up, pushed her way to the front of the line and barged her way into the private office. After a few minutes, she walked out as the successful candidate for the job. The other applicants exclaimed, "Hey we were here first! How could you jump ahead of us and get the job?" The successful applicant replied: "Any of you could have received the job if you had just been quiet long enough to pay attention to the message coming through the intercom." "What message?" they said. "The code said, 'A ship's operator must always be on the alert. The first person who gets this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.'"
God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. God’s silent voice is speaking. Do we have ears attuned to hear it?