Today’s sermon is offered as the height of irony. The art of preaching is based on the spoken word. Fortunately for you, we are Episcopalians, so our sermons are usually under fifteen minutes – and in the times of livestreaming, we shorten them down to less than ten. In other traditions, the spoken word of the sermon can last thirty minutes to an hour. In fact, I used to worship at a church where scheduling lunches after worship was nearly impossible because depending on how much the preacher got going, lunch could be a noon, at one, or even approaching two in the afternoon.
I say this is the height of irony because our scripture lessons today seem to point to one instruction: to stop talking. Poor Elijah has sunken into a funk. He shuts down the prophets of Baal in a dramatic, showy display of confidence and trust in God. But as soon as Queen Jezebel threatens to retaliate by taking Elijah’s life, Elijah flees and becomes so despondent in the wilderness, he would rather the Lord take his life. Though God shows infinite compassion, tending to Elijah’s needs for food and shelter, when Elijah dejectedly goes all the way to Mt. Sinai, God finally asks a loaded question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah’s response is to start talking – a lot. He goes on and on, justifying what a great prophet and servant he has been, how he has defended God’s honor, and punished sinners. Then he complains about how despite his valiant work, his life is threatened, and he is the only one left defending God.
As if to demonstrate how Elijah needs to stop talking and start listening, God makes a dramatic point. A great wind passes by Elijah’s cave, then an earthquake, and even a fire. But not until there is the sound of sheer silence does God appear. Once again, God, in the sound of sheer silence asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Now this is the point at which Elijah should have gotten the hint: answers are not in the noise of wind, earthquakes, and fire – not even in endless talking. Answers are found in the profound silence of God. But Elijah does not get the hint, and proceeds to answer God with the exact same verbose explanation.
With the exception of those who live in religious orders, most of us struggle with the sheer silence of God. Our prayers to God are full of words – petitions for loved ones, diatribes of lament over our fractured political state, or words of anger at God when we feel abandoned, anxious, or overwhelmed. Even our own liturgical tradition is rooted in words. We are quite good at talking to God. Our challenge is not in finding words; our challenge in relationship with God is in not using words – in making room for the sound of sheer silence. Anyone who has been to a Taizé worship service knows that in the long periods of silence – three to five minutes even – the first couple of minutes are filled with the shuffling discomfort of those gathered. In our resistance to silence is a resistance to God: perhaps a fear that we will not be able to hear God, or worse, a fear of what we will hear from God.
Professor Christopher Davis says, “One of the hardest lessons we have to learn is that God is in the quiet, the gentle influences that are ever around us, working with us, for us, and on us, without any visible or audible indicators of activity. We must learn to listen for the God who is quiet and gentle.”[i] In Elijah’s story, God makes this point dramatically – offering some of the loudest acts of nature to contrast the sound of sheer silence. Now the good news is God does not see Elijah’s inability to stop talking as justification to abandon Elijah. In fact, not only does God quietly tell Elijah he is not alone – there are still seven thousand in Israel who are as faithful as Elijah. But God also provides a solution for Elijah – kings and a prophetic successor, Elisha, who will take up the mantle when Elijah can no longer keep going.
The promise is the same for us. Even if we are unable to stop talking at God – Lord knows in the middle of this pandemic, with what feels like the world crumbling around us, we have a lot to say to God. Our invitation though, is to take a pause, maybe even a deep breath, and listen for the sound of sheer silence. In that silence, God is finally able to speak to us, showing us the signs of encouragement all around us, pointing us to signs of God’s faithfulness in what can feel like abandonment, and helping us physically turn to God when our bodies are much more trained to stay in tense resistance in some attempt to control the chaos all around us. This week, the Lord reminds us that we cannot always talk our way out of the cacophony of life. Sometimes only the sheer silence of God’s presence can speak to us. When God asks us this week, “what are you doing here?” our invitation is not to justify ourselves with words, but to ponder anew with God in the silence. Whether we speak or manage to stay silent, God is there: but today, God offers us the gentle reminder that we will find hearing God a whole lot easier if we can simply stand with God in the sheer sound of silence. Amen.
[i] Christopher Davis, “Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18,” August 9, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4556 on August 7, 2020.