Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Sound of Sheer Silence

The Prophet Elijah's experience at the mountain cave marks both the low point and the high point of his career. [1]
He had made a habit of upsetting the king of Israel. The king's name was Ahab, and the Bible says that – like his father, Omri – he did evil in the sight of the Lord; never more so than when he made an advantageous marriage to Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon, a woman who was a devout worshipper of the storm god Baal.
The Bible says that Jezebel led Ahab astray, encouraging him to throw his weight about and behave unjustly, as well as to worship her favourite god. Most people in Israel went along with this, but not Elijah. He felt that the one true God was calling him to denounce Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately for him, Jezebel was a gutsy opponent. She threatened to have him put to death, and Elijah knew she meant it. So he fled into the desert, and ended up hiding in a cave. That was the low point of his career.
So what about the high point? Elijah had got himself into a dangerous contest with four-hundred-and-fifty followers of the god Baal. He had challenged them to get their god – who was the god of thunder and lightning – to set light to a sacrifice without any fire. They had chanted, and danced and slashed themselves with knives, vainly hope that the god Baal would hear their prayers and rise to the challenge. But, of course, nothing happened.
Then it had been Elijah's turn. For good measure he had poured twelve jars of water over his sacrifice, and then he had simply prayed to God to let it be known that he was for real. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning had descended from heaven, and burnt up not only the sacrifice but also the altar stones. It had been a fantastic moment, a moment of triumph. A huge crowd of Israelites had watched the contest and, when they saw the lightning consume the sacrifice, they seized the followers of Baal and helped Elijah to slaughter them. Not one escaped.
There's little doubt that Elijah intended this brutal act to be the high watermark of his career – the start of a new era in the history of Israel when people would at last begin to fear and serve the one true God. But he had made a huge miscalculation.
He had imagined that the true God could be identified with the savage justice of people like suicide bombers, or torturers or witch-hunters, people who are so sure of the absolute rightness of their cause that they believe it justifies every kind of cruelty and viciousness. Yet that's not the case. When they realised the enormity of what they had done, the mob who had helped Elijah murder his opponents melted away, and he was left alone to face the wrath of Queen Jezebel, who – quite rightly on this occasion – sentenced him to death for his crimes. If Elijah had expected God to intervene to save him again, he was quickly disabused of that idea. Success turned to ashes as he was overcome with fear and fled into the desert to cower in a lonely cave.
This is where we find Elijah at the beginning of this week's Bible reading – feeling very much alone in a world where loyalty to the one true God seemed to be a thing of the past. 'I alone am left,' he says, 'And they are seeking my life, to take it away.'
I guess we can all empathise with Elijah. There are times when we, too, can feel that following the one true God is a lonely path. The ethos and the values of our times can seem very alien to the ethos and values of Jesus Christ. Often – as his followers – we can easily feel as though we belong to a minority of one in the places where we live, or work, or meet. Our hard work for the Gospel can sometimes seem to be bearing scarcely any fruit. Even the things which we think we have achieved for God, the success stories, the little victories, can soon seem to turn sour or fade away.
Yet, it is at just this kind of low point that Elijah actually experiences the true spiritual highlight of his life – the moment when he comes face to face with the living God.
He hears a hurricane splitting the rocks as it howls through the desert canyons and he hurries to the mouth of the cave, expecting to meet the God who had answered his prayers with thunder and lightning. But God is not in the hurricane. And then the earth shakes beneath his feet, but God is not in the earthquake. Finally, fire sweeps through the desert, burning up the bushes and dry grasses like so much kindling, but God is not in the roaring energy and fierce intensity of the fire, either.
What was Elijah to think? Here he was in desperate need of God's power and strength. He needed comfort and consolation. He needed inspiration. He needed re-energising. He needed empowering. He needed something dynamic and awe-inspiring to happen. He needed to feel the Spirit moving and working in his life. But, instead, all he got was the sound of sheer silence. It could have been the final anti-climax, but instead it was in the deafening silence that Elijah encountered God and found a new direction and a new purpose for his life.
Someone once said that being confirmed is a bit like Elijah's encounter with God. If we come expecting the earth to move, or tongues of living flame to descend upon us, or a whirlwind to sweep through our lives, we shall be disappointed. We shall be like the old story of the colony of bats which had infested a church for years on end. They were a terrible nuisance but it was against the law to do anything to get rid of them, until the vicar had a brilliant idea. He got the bishop to confirm them, and they were all so disappointed by the experience that they were never seen in church again.
If only the bats had read this story and realised that God does not meet us in the kind of fireworks and pyrotechnics that Elijah had used in his contest with the followers of Baal. God meets us and surrounds us, and fills and inspires us, in the sound of sheer silence.
That is not to say, of course, that the kind of in-filling by God's spirit which comes with the sound of silence is empty or ineffective. Elijah emerged from his encounter with the silent God to become the greatest prophet of Israel after Moses. He is one of only five people in the Bible who is supposed to be able to walk through, or over, water without getting wet, and one of only two people in the Bible who is said not to to have died but to have been translated straight into the presence of God at the end of his life. [2]
I guess that story, like so many of the stories about Elijah, contains a great deal more legend than fact. And, like so many of the stories about him, wind and fire are part of the narrative once again, as they surround Elijah and carry him up to heaven. How interesting, then, that his most meaningful encounter with God was one where these things were strangely absent.
Elisha, the Prophet's disciple, gets to inherit Elijah's mantle – to continue God's work in Israel – and we, too, can inherit the mantle of Elijah. Like Elijah and the disciples, we shall find that doing the will of God is not all beer and skittles. Part of what it means to inherit their mantle is going through times when we may feel very much alone in a world where other people do not seem to share our values, or having to confront suffering and setbacks, or coping with the consequences of mistakes and errors of judgement. But there's a good side to inheriting the mantle of Elijah. We, too, can encounter God, not just in the sound of sheer silence, of course, but also in Jesus.
Like Elisha before them, Peter, James and John get to experience something very special, something out of this world – a kind of vision in which God allows them to see the continuity between great figures of the past like Moses and Elijah, and the ministry of Jesus. Yet, no sooner do they think that they have glimpsed and heard this truth, than it's gone. They look around, and all they see is Jesus, not dazzling white any more, not surrounded by the heroes of the past, but just back to his normal self. This is where God is to be found.
I think the message of Elijah's encounters with God, and the disciples' experience on the mountain top, is that God is more likely to be found in ordinary, mundane experiences than in extraordinary ones. It is in the sheer sound of silence, or when we look round and things are only the way they normally are, that God is most real to us. It is then that God encounters us – in the people we meet, in the things that happen every day and in the times of stillness when we can just sit and be.
[1] 1 Kings 19:9-13
[2] 2 Kings 2:7-14
[3] Mark 9:2-10

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