“A Deafening Silence”
1 Kings 19: 1-15 ~ Rev. Scott Turnbrook ~ June 23, 2019
Have you ever built a fort and hide away? Or maybe even just wanted to? As a young boy, I recall building forts. Lots of them. We would commandeer all the furniture that was available to us…pushing together chairs and sofas, cushions and ottomans. We would cover the glorious construction with a huge blanket creating an impenetrable fort and simply hide away. Sometimes we were just enjoying the serenity of this solitary space that was ours; while, other times we were hiding away from the worries and fears that life presented ~ learning of my best friend’s coming move to another city, or dealing of the death of my dog, or processing the end of my parent’s marriage. Have you ever built forts and hidden away in your life? Metaphorical forts and real-life forts… I think we all have built a few in our days and this morning’s text offers some wisdom in this human tendency to hide away and seek hope.
A little background to this morning’s text is probably helpful. The lead up to Elijah’s refuge seeking in this morning’s text is nothing short of dramatic, violent, and bloody ~ certainly this is an ‘R’ rated passage. To those, who naievley view scripture as a wholesome and untouched form of literature compared to the violence of modern day, we are reminded that scripture is filled with the stuff of real life: violence, depression, even the ponderings of suicide. Leading up to this morning’s text, Elijah has waged an epic battle in the previous chapter. He violently upheld the honour of the God of the Hebrews against all the other gods. On Mount Carmel, Elijah, a prophet of Yahweh battled prophets loyal to Baal to prove God’s supremacy. The battle resulted in an inconceivable bloodbath. Elijah’s slew 450 prophets loyal to Baal (18:40) and likely 400 additional prophets of Asherah (18:19). The previous chapter is an inconceivably bloody scene in which Elijah, sought to demonstrate the dominance and power of the God he prophesied for. There was a backlash. Queen Jezebel, whom these prophets were loyal to, was enraged! She sets out to have vengeance and the text before us unfolds. Elijah’s life is in serious jeopardy. What have I done? What was I thinking? Elijah asks…Elijah runs off…he flees…he finds a fort / a cave … and hides away. He wants it over. He wants to die.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated our 25th anniversary as a united community of faith here in Northwood on Pentecost Sunday. And on that same day, we also recalled that it was the anniversary of the birth of the entire United Church denomination the following day that had occurred back on June 10th back in 1925. Two momentous celebrations for us a community of faith: the brave founding of our denomination ~ which would create the largest Protestant denomination in our country. And the founding of our local congregation ~ uniting North Surrey and Fleetwood United Churches. And we continue to think of some of the ‘hey-days’ that have transpired ~ don’t we? Perhaps we remember ‘back in the day’, some of the power our national church held. We remember back when the Moderator of our church was regularly consulted by the Prime Minister of Canada on policy decisions and our country’s course of action. We remember when policy statements made by our General Council were regularly picked up in the national press and discussed over many a dinner table. We remember the days when our Sunday Schools, and Youth Groups, and Child/ youth / and adult choirs were all full to overflowing. We remember the days when the church was an institution that held the responsibility of awesome social power and significant influence. United Church historian, David Lochead, once wrote of the United Church’s power ~ not of being a murderous sword like that of Elijah ~ but rather he described our church’s power in the early days as being: “the social conscience of the nation”. However, since the post-WWII baby boom, we know that the church has been on a radical decline. One wonders if we are no longer in the forefront of society and have increasingly been hiding away in the caves of society afraid of the attacks from the dominant culture in which we live. The mid-60’s (1967 to be exact) marked the turn from a time of consistent church growth to consistent church decline. Churches are closing and not opening; Sunday schools are shrinking and (in some cases) non-existent; and every measure of denominational participation, loyalty, interest, and affiliation is on the decline. One wonders of the church today: are we hiding in a cave? Are we fearful of the dominant culture tracking us down with violent intentions? Have we lost our way?
One of important things to lift up is the dynamic of what occurs while Elijah was in the cave. What happens is a deep reminder of the truth of God’s nature. God’s way, at it’s core essence, is NOT power over; God’s way is NOT violence towards that which threatens. God’s way is found in the gentle sounds of sheer silence. Let’s look at how God arrives for Elijah? In the text, there are four elements that are presented as places where Elijah looks for God to arrive. The first three are the traditional theophanies ~ places where Elijah looks for God’s presence through ways of power and might. They are places we might continue to look today ~ places of power and might. Elijah looks for God in the great storm…yet God is not there (see Ps. 18:12 and Nah 1:3). Elijah looks for God in the great earthquake…yet God is not there (see Jud 5:5, Ps 68:8 and Nah 1:5). Elijah looks for God in the burning fire…yet God is not there (see Isa 30:27). God is not in the storm or in the earthquake or in the fire. And this surprises us, doesn’t it? How many of us look for God in the form of a powerful warrior that will squash the bad guys; we look for a God who will triumph over the powers of evil by arriving with an even greater power and might. Truth be told, we want our God to be more powerful and commanding than all the other (‘small g’) gods. This was why it was so surprising to the crowds to have Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem occur on the back of a humble donkey. The Roman Legions arrived on the back of war horses and the Jewish Messiah arrives on a colt ~ something must be wrong with this picture! What are the ways of this God, they wondered? We have been taught to look for God in ways of power, dominance and control, yet we are reminded in this text that this is not the way of God. What follows the storm, the earthquake, and the fire is something so very odd…something very surprising…in the sound of sheer silence they become aware that God has been there all along. To that arrival, Elijah covers his face knowing that he was in God’s presence. That sheer silence created space to realize that the grace, the compassionate care, the Way of God was there.
I wonder what this text has to teach us about discovering who God is for us as a church. Perhaps, this text reminds us that our role as Christ’s body alive in the world ~ the church ~ is to not be the dominant, powerful force that we once were…and that we would like to be again. Perhaps it never was our role! Perhaps the role of the church today, more than ever, is to be one of remembering and rediscovering who we were at our genesis. And in a time of deep, quiet listening, perhaps we might recover who this is as an institution. The church, in its earliest form, was a group that hid away from the dominant culture in order to live out the radical Way of Christ. They were fearful for their very lives; fearful for their existence. And what the church did was to present an alternative way of being in community ~ Jesus’ Way. It wasn’t dominance…it was compassionate care: where the last was first, where voice of the powerless was heard, where the mouths of the hungry were filled, where hope was dispersed for all. The early church’s function was the creation of true family ~ kin ~ where we saw in all others a ‘kinship’ by virtue of our being Children of God; not by our social connections or even our familial ones. We were kin through God’s depth of love.
I truly believe that sometimes we need these divine moments of sheer silence to be reminded of the true nature of God and of our calling to be God’s people because the world continues to fight for our loyalty: judging trends in the church in negative fashion; challenging us to judge the way we run our churches with the same lens we might run a business. The wonderful writer Anne Lamott views this as akin to being stuck in “amaze” that the world has constructed for us. In her 2007 book Grace (eventually): Thoughts on Faith, she writes: “When I was a child, I thought grown-ups and teachers knew the truth…It took years for me to discover that the first step in finding out the truth was to begin unlearning almost everything adults had taught me…Their main pitch was that achievement equaled happiness, when all you had to do was to study rock stars, or movie stars, or our parents, to see what they were mostly miserable. They were all running around in mazes like everyone else”.
The beautiful good news in this passage is that in these sheer silent ‘cave-moments’, when we have hidden away and barricaded ourselves for fear of the forces on the outside…the good news is that even then God will meet us! To be clear, God will not be found in powerful earthquakes or fires or windstorms. But God will be found when we take the quiet time to discover God’s true presence. For Elijah two areas of provision occurred in this time of discernment. To his hunger and thirst for God, he received food and water…and not just ANY food and water. Elijah receives a cake baked on hot coals. Interestingly, the word used for “coals” was quite rare in its usage in the Hebrew Bible. The “coals” were the same ones that that were found in Isaiah’s call (see Isa. 6:6) when the Seraphim flew over to Isaiah with the burning coal and touched his lips that he might speak the words as one of God’s prophets. And in his thirst, Elijah was provided with a jar of water. The jar, also has a unique usage, the same word used in the story of the Widow of Zarephath who cared for Elijah (see 1 Kings 17: 8-16) amidst his hiding from the anger of Ahab. The message is that in the sounds of sheer silence, we discover that God will provide for us…care for our hungers and thirsts…truly help us find a way forward. Perhaps, helping us to recapture (in an even deeper sense) who we have always been. Can you take those silent moments? And trust God will provide?
I think, at core, what we deal with in this text is our human yearning to demand what to expect as being ahead for us. Standard issue for every parent-to-be is the book What to Expect When You Are Expecting. It is given to timid parents as they fear for what is ahead and is read voraciously to prepare for what is ahead. If they were to produce a similar book for other stages it would be equally popular: for grads moving out of high school; for people as they age and health threatens; caring for a loved one with dementia; how to deal with losing a partner. Consciously, or not, we find ourselves hiding away in the caves of our fear wondering when this powerful God will come and change everything ~ with an earthquake – shifting our reality, with a fire – burning our troubles, with a storm – blowing our troubles away. What we find is that in the true moments of deep listening with ears of faith we uncover God’s presence in sounds of sheer silence. Tending to us, providing for us, liberating us for the journey of life.