“God’s Still Small Voice” Colchester Federated Church, June 23, 2019, (1 Kings 19:1-15) Second Sunday after Pentecost

Our story today comes from the Old Testament—the Lectionary passage is from 1 Kings Chapter 19 detailing the prophet Elijah’s plight.  To provide the brief version of events, Elijah is a prophet who called out the sins of those in power (King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.)  He even challenged 450 rival prophets of the gods Baal and Asherah to a contest.  It was Elijah alone representing God vs. those other prophets on Mt. Carmel offering sacrificial bulls on an altar.  Each side evoked the name of their deity and whoever’s altar was consumed by fire meant that their deity won the contest.  Elijah won and all the prophets of Baal and Asherah got killed (this isn’t an uncomplicated story.)  So Ahab (the king) goes back and tells Jezebel (the queen, who by the way is devoted to Baal) what Elijah has done.  Jezebel sends messengers threatening Elijah’s life.  And Elijah is afraid.  He gets up and flees for his life, and his flight into the wilderness is the setting of our story this morning.

Elijah just had this huge triumph on Mt. Carmel.  1 Kings conveys that he’s persecuted for doing God’s work and his life is threatened.  So he’s on the run and arrives at Beer-sheba.  Elijah leaves his servant there and goes a day’s journey into the wilderness, finding a solitary broom tree.  God’s loner prophet collapses under a solitary broom tree out in the wilderness and he asks God if he can just die.  He’s done.  It’s just too hard to go on.  Elijah falls asleep.  An angel touches him and says “Get up and eat.”[1]  Elijah finds a cake and a jar of water.  This happens twice.  So let it be known whenever we have reached the end of our rope sometimes we need to simply take a nap, eat some food (preferably cake), drink some water, and life will seem a whole lot better.  That’s what the angel did for Elijah in the wilderness and it sustained him for forty days and forty nights so we had better believe that this regimen will work for us too.

Elijah moves on from that solitary tree, his strength restored by the angel and that nap and food and water.  He makes his way to Horeb, the mountain of God (AKA Mt. Sinai where Moses received God’s commandments.)  That’s where the story gets even more interesting and it may be the most familiar part of the story for us.  Because Elijah and God have a conversation.  Elijah hears the command to go out and stand on the mountain before God, for God is about to pass by (just like God did for Moses when Moses hid in the cleft of that mountain.)

So here’s what happens: “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.”[2]  Elijah listens to the silence, goes to the entrance of the cave, and communicates with God.  Hearing that he can’t stay up here on the mountain and must go anoint new kings and even a new successor (Elisha).

Now Elijah doesn’t experience God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire.  Elijah experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.  The original Hebrew has yielded different translations of this idea.  The King James Version’s translation is perhaps the most famous, relating that the Hebrew phrase translated into English is “a still small voice.”  The New Revised Standard Version (which we heard) is “a sound of sheer silence.”  The New International Version relates that it’s “a gentle whisper.”  The Common English Bible reads, “After the fire, there was a sound.  Thin.  Quiet.”  We could go on and on.  Isn’t it fascinating that all of these English versions of that Hebrew phrase are different?  (How anyone is a Biblical literalist is beyond me given the complexity of Biblical translations from the original Hebrew and Greek!)  This just goes to show how mysterious this moment with the prophet Elijah on the mountain of God played out.  The sound of sheer silence.  A gentle whisper.  There was a sound.  Thin.  Quiet.  A still small voice.

One takeaway is that God didn’t show up for Elijah in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire.  Those huge moments and displays of power didn’t register as God’s presence within him.  His holy moment with God was that gentle whisper, that still small voice.  What the commentary of The New Interpreter’s Bible ponders is that Elijah may be hearing the calm that comes after the storm.  For “perhaps the narrator means to contrast this hushed sound with the sound of the rumbling before the storm . . . the structure of the text implies that it is in this stillness that Elijah somehow encounters the Lord.”[3]

We encounter so much noise every day of our lives.  From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep at night.  Noise from the TV or radio that we may willingly turn on.  Joyful noises and sad noises—noises from those we love.  But also noise we can’t help but hear when we walk around in the world.  Right now there’s construction happening near the parsonage and the construction noises have been constant of late.  Sometimes when they are especially loud and startle my dog he will bark to show that he’s hearing what’s going on, and is not happy about it.  So that adds additional noise since foxhounds are known for their “melodious bark.”  All these noises have made me realize that I’m used to the sounds of traffic living where I live here in town.  And I’m even used to that crazy loud emergency siren that feels like we’re about to have nuclear fallout or something in Colchester.  Though the construction noises have been new, and when we hear different noises in our environments it can make us realize that we’re used to certain sounds and not others.  That the world isn’t always quiet, it’s certainly not always silent.

We may realize that we’re not used to the sound of silence.  For those of you who live further out in the country the noises you hear may be the wind in the trees or the birds chirping or crickets or possibly silence.  Do we even think about the noises we hear every day of our lives?  Do we even think about how God shows up?  Because it’s important to note that Elijah encounters God as a still, small voice.  A gentle whisper.  As the sound of sheer silence.  Elijah listens and hears God at work in the world.  Though it may not be in the way that even he expected to hear God.  There is power in that gentle whisper.  There is power in that sound of sheer silence.

Perhaps no Christian group understands the power of silence more than Quakers (the Society of Friends).  Quaker was actually a derisive name other people called this group of believers because of their silent devotions and spontaneous, unprepared speeches.  Some said that these Friends (moved by the Spirit), would begin to quake.  When they formed in 1668, there were 60,000 followers of “the Inner Light” in England—bound by a Christian expression without dogma, without church buildings, and without paid clergy.  George Fox (who founded the Society of Friends) had a vision when he was twenty years old and saw the inner light.  For George Fox, the light symbolized the Spirit, silence, experience, and equality.

Quakers still gather in silence three hundred plus years later.  By turning inward, they attune themselves to each other.  The silence of a Quaker meeting replaces our Protestant custom of the sermon.  Sacraments aren’t needed because the conduct of life itself is a sacrament for Quakers.  George Fox taught: “walk joyfully on the earth and respond to that of God in every human being.”[4]

A student at Union Theological Seminary in New York shared with the great Theologian Dorothee Soelle an experience of her first visit to a Quaker Meeting after a friend had invited her to attend.  Soelle wrote about her student’s encounter in The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance.  What happened was everyone sat in silence on wooden benches in rows facing each other.  Ten minutes went by and the student became nervous and asked, “when is the service beginning?” and the response was a whispered “it has already begun.”  The student waited for the minister to enter, but everyone sat so calmly and peacefully that she didn’t ask any more questions.  The silence lasted for forty minutes until one man stood up and spoke.  After he sat down, a woman got up and spoke.  By that point the student was really confused and still couldn’t figure out who the minister was.  After a few more minutes of silence, everyone began to greet one another and the meeting was over.  When she turned to her friend and asked, “Where was the minister?” her friend just burst out laughing.  For Quakers, every person is clergy and the gathered silence is the worship of God.  This way of living has been the foundation for Quakers, this is “waiting for the Lord.”  It’s practiced in silence and this waiting is a mystical preparation.[5]

Now I’m not attempting to preach myself out of a job this morning by saying that we should turn our worship into a Quaker Meeting and spend our time in silence waiting for the Lord.  Though Elijah’s encounter with God on that mountain and seeing how other Christians use silence to experience God can give us something to ponder in the midst of noisy days.  We can ask ourselves where and how do we experience God present in our lives?  We can challenge ourselves to cultivate space for silent reflection because that could end up being incredibly transformative.  We can even appreciate how God’s still small voice can be heard when we gather together week in and week out here at CFC—as we worship the Source of our lives together, knowing that sometimes God shows up in unexpected ways.  And in the sound of sheer silence.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19:5, NRSV.
[2] 1 Kings 19:11-12.
[3] Choon-Leong Seow, Commentary of 1 Kings 19:8b-18 in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume III, 142.
[4] George Fox, as quoted by Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, 172.
[5] Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry, 169-173.