“God’s Gentle Presence in You”
Psalm 42-43 & 1 Kings 19: 1-4, 8-15a ~ Northwood UC ~ June 19, 2022 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
Violence…power…destruction…murder…It is astounding to consider the number of deaths that have occurred in the name of religion. Going back in time, we might think of the wars associated with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; the many Christian crusades; the wars associated with the expansion of Rome following Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire…it seems that as we look back in time, many of our faith ancestors held a Bible in one hand and a bloodied sword in the other. Christians, of course, are not exclusive in expressing violence as an extension of faith. Sadly, many other world religions share this with us. Indeed, we have a violent faith heritage.
This morning’s text from First Kings takes us to the early part of the story of the prophet Elijah. I recall meeting Elijah (well sort of meeting him). It was in the form of a statue while I was visiting Israel. Elijah was a massive 12 feet tall figure; a fierce physique and an angry scowl on his face. In one hand he had a raised sword and in the other, he was victoriously holding the bludgeoned head of one of the prophets he had killed. And, for us, Elijah is one of God’s key prophets in the biblical story. You will recall the Transfiguration story where Jesus is on the mountaintop with God’s light shining upon him. And on the one side of Jesus is Moses, and on the other side is…Elijah. And this morning’s text is part of the early story of Elijah figuring out how he was called to live and be one of God’s prophets.
Looking at the ‘early Elijah’ (if you will allow me to call him that) his story is one of bloody violence and murder. He doesn’t seem like someone who God would speak through as a prophet. Now, here at Northwood, we love our church family; however, I have had lots of playful conversations with the Madigan-Nelson family about the wisdom of naming of their youngest son, Elijah. We joke, wondering if some of his boy-ish energy goes back to this prophet! The first Elijah in this morning’s text, certainly, is filled with lots of energy. More than that, this ‘early Elijah’ is filled with rage, and anger, and is brutally violent. And as we unpack this morning’s text, I think ALL of us will find ourselves somewhere in this story.
Getting to the text, Elijah has just battled and killed the competing prophets who were loyal to the pagan god Baal. Elijah did this to prove the powerful presence of the God of Israel; he did this to prove his faithfulness; he murdered and killed with (what you might argue) were the best of intentions…and now Elijah is about to face the consequences of his actions. Jezebel, a loyal pagan worshipper of Baal, is furious. Her prophets are defeated, and she is now coming after Elijah for revenge. And so, Elijah’s spiritual journey in the text begins. It is not a journey one takes for spiritual growth and renewal. It is a journey Elijah takes to save his very life. He, like Jesus…and the many faith ancestors before him, finds himself in the wilderness….a place for pilgrimage and growth. He is under a broom tree – imagine a tree that looks like a broom…very few branches and lush green leaves, very limited shelter from the scorching sun. And as the sun beats down…and as he recedes to a cave for shelter…the 40 days and 40 nights draw on…(and if we get the reference to Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness of temptation, we are doing well)…And here, in Elijah’s 40 days of wilderness, he finds the Lord speaking to him.
You see…I told you that there is something in this story for everyone! For there is an ‘Elijah’ in all of us: Have you ever found yourself resorting to violent measures, rather than responding in ways of peace? Shouting, rather than speaking? Raising a hand, rather than opening arms to embrace? Pursuing ways of death or destruction, rather than those of reconciliation and grace? If truth be told, we ALL have an ‘Elijah’ in us. We could all tell our ‘Elijah story’ of ways we have gone in this direction. And we are all summoned on this pilgrimage to growth.
And what occurs for anyone who takes a spiritual journey is a time of deep reflection and pondering. Both the Psalm and the First Kings passage that Jenny read are ones that invite us to grow in grace and peace….if we open ourselves to see God in our journey. So how will God arrive? Elijah assumes God will come in great power, but God doesn’t. Elijah looks for God’s arrival in the great wind…but God is not there. Elijah looks for God in the powerful earthquake…but God is not there. Elijah looks for God in the blazing fire…but God is not there. We think of this all-powerful / omnipotent God as one who will arrive in power: a great wind, a powerful earthquake, a blazing fire. Yet, what Elijah discovers is that God arrives in the sound of sheer silence. God’s power is a different kind of power than the world’s view of strength. In that moment of sheer silence, Elijah began putting aside his ways of violence and war, and began to follow a God whose presence is only to be found in the silent silence where God is revealed.
And isn’t this, truly, the way we experience the depth of God’s grace…in sheer silence….when there is nothing else taking us away from God? God’s power is beyond that which we might think of in human terms. God’s power is revealed, and discovered, when we shut everything off…and…listen. This is heard in the two Psalms that Jenny lead us in. That image of “a deer longing for flowing streams…(this is how)…our souls long for God”. In these moments when we turn away from all the noise and the distractions of life; in these moments when we turn away from the violence and the hatred in our world; in these moments when we listen to the sound of “sheer silence”, then…God we are able to sense God…fully present…meeting us in our fears; in our wilderness. And there…in the cave of our fears, in the sounds of sheer silence, God will guide and lead you in the way of gentle peace.
This Sunday is “Father’s Day”, and it is a day of mixed emotions for ALL. Many are touched by the loss of fathers that are no longer present, who failed to be present when we needed them. Some of us are touched by so many unfulfilled hopes. Even those whom we might lift up as ‘pillars of fatherhood’, the ‘perfect father’ (if you will)…I would guess that (even they) would say they wish they could have done a better job. Because we all measure the fathers of this world up to the one who some use the language to describe as being “our Heavenly Father”. And what I love about this day is that it provides an opportunity for us to celebrate and support ALL who fully engage in this task. The teaching we are given in this morning’s texts is of ‘turning away’ from violence and power, and in the sound of sheer silence experiencing the gentle power that is God. And, as I suggested earlier, this is NOT a calling set apart exclusively for fathers. Fathering Sunday reminds us of this call that we ALL have to be leaders as we further allow God’s gentle world of peace to unfold. The list of these gentle leaders is long…and every person on the list is necessary. Aside from fathers, those who exhibit ‘fathering gifts, include leaders in the church – like pastors, and Children’s and youth leaders, and all who gently create space for God’s gentle presence to be found; it includes leaders in the community – such as sports coaches, guides and scouts, and the myriad of groups that allow God’s gentle world to be shaped. It includes not just men, but all people who create space for God’s gentle presence to be found amidst a world of violence and pain. The question is ‘does it include you?’
Does it include you? You see, as I suggested earlier in this message, there are several versions of Elijah. The ‘early Elijah, is the violent murdering Elijah who battled the prophets of Baal with the sword. The ‘later Elijah’, is the one who stood beside Jesus on the mountain top as Jesus, Moses and Elijah were transfigured with pure light…and in the sound of sheer silence, God’s gentle presence was revealed.
The Judeo-Christian tradition have been pondering the meaning of finding God in sheer silence, and we will do so for some time well into the future. A Zen Buddhist parallel is the riddle of ‘the sound of one hand clapping’. What lead to the riddle of the sound of one hand clapping, as the story goes, was the Buddha teaching a group of followers. And while teaching, he picked up a flower. As everyone waited patiently to hear what he would say, one monk, Maha Kasyapa, looked at the Great One and smiled. And in this singular moment of silent, but profound, communication between master and student, he moved towards understanding.
May we find moments of sheer silence and deeply know the presence of God. May we create spaces of silence for the gently presence of God to be born in our church, in our families, in our community, in our world. And may God peace which surpasses all understanding be part of our being.