June 23, 2013  — Pentecost 5

Rev. David Boyd


I love this story of Elijah retreating into the cave. Elijah is portrayed as a mighty prophet, perhaps a bit like the Man of Steel. Elijah was seen as superhuman. He is one of the few who was taken bodily into heaven, whatever that means. He is to appear before the second coming, or the first coming for Jews. He expressed God's power and zeal, God's faithfulness and compassion, with an energy that was unflinching. And yet... and yet. He was very human. Over and over I discover again and again, reading between the lines of the stories of Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures, that he was human, a mere mortal who had a vision of God's compassion that animated his whole life.

In today's story, we hear that Elijah had crawled away because Jezebel wanted to kill him and because Ahab and Jezebel had turned towards other gods, Baal most prominently. Elijah had had enough and just wanted to rest. Who could blame him? He alone had been the prophet of Yahweh. All others had abandoned the God of Israel for Baal and other Canaanite gods. Ahab and Jezebel embezzled and fraudulently took what was not theirs to take. They were corrupt and power-hungry. The last straw for Elijah was the contest that occurred on Carmel. Elijah, alone for Yahweh, contests with the priests of Baal; and he wins. The drought ends and God is vindicated. But Elijah is left exhausted.

We've all been there. We've all had times in our lives when it's just been enough and we want to rest. We want to crawl away to a cave somewhere and find solace and silence. Perhaps we've gone through a difficult loss in our lives. Perhaps we've had a series of set-backs. Perhaps we've been overwhelmed by something in the news or in the community. Perhaps we've given our lives to justice and freedom to find oppression and injustice at every turn. Perhaps we've worked hard at educating people about climate change and here we are at 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere and nothing has changed; in fact, things are worse and getting worse. I'm sure we've all had moments of feeling exhausted and we have nothing left to give.

And we retreat to a cave somewhere. That's a human response. It may be a real cave. Now that our children have left home, I've taken over a basement room as my man-cave. I retreat there to think and ponder, to read and write. But it may be a figurative cave to which we retreat. We may retreat into a good book, a good novel that inspires hope again. We may retreat into a place in our minds or our hearts where we are protected and don't need to face the harsh realities of the world. We may retreat into music or art. And more challengingly, we may retreat into booze or drugs or sex or something else that is destructive.

I'm reading another Louise Penny novel; one more and I'll have read the whole lot! In this novel, some of the legends of ancient Greece feature as a backdrop to the investigation of a murder. These great legends are stories of our humanity. We each in our own way are heroes where we are called to live and share the gifts of our lives. We face adversity and set-backs and sometimes descend into darkness or into the depths of the earth; somehow, through the intervention of the gods or the fates, hope is restored and we rise up to re-engage the world. This myth and legend is true in every culture and religion. The story of Pegasus, Persephone, and Hercules are stories that inspire. The story of Elijah, instead of inspiring despair and depression, inspires hope and new energy.

For what happens to Elijah in the cave? He's told to expect the Word of God no less. Not an angel this time, but the direct Word of God! Elijah may even see God, something not even Moses was allowed to do. First there was a strong wind; wind is metaphor for Spirit in the Bible. But God wasn't in the wind. And then an earthquake; God's Word is proclaimed in some of the psalms like the sound of an earthquake. But God wasn't in the earthquake. And then a fire; the pillar of fire led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and the sacred fire was an important thing for the Israelites. But God was not in the fire. And then came a sound. A sound of sheer silence. The New Jerusalem Bible has it as being a murmuring sound. The King James Version has a still small voice. The New International Version has a gentle whisper.

The Hebrew is a little obscure in this verse. Part of the phrase can mean either silence of whisper. Part of the phrase can mean thin or fine or sheer. And the other word of the phrase can mean sound or voice. The idea conveyed through the story, however, is that God, Yahweh, is not like Baal, relying on thunder and might to make a point. Israel's God is heard in the voice of sheer silence, in the whisper, in the thin sound of the holy or the sacred.

I think this is a very human thing, to want large displays of power as an indication of God's presence. But that's not what Elijah finds. It is in the quiet determination of God's compassion that changes occur. Elijah is brought up short a bit in his estimation that God works wonders and miracles only through the spectacular. But that's the way of Baal. The God of Israel works through political processes and behind the scenes. God speaks in a gentle whisper, a sound like sheer silence. Paul Simon got it right when he wrote the song, The Sound of Silence:

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.
What is the seed of the vision that is planted in our brains? Quietly, wordlessly sometimes. Is it of communication without speaking, without hearing? Maybe so! It's a beautiful vision. We aren't there, yet, but we are close in so many ways. The gospel is that God accompanies us through life even when we sometimes look for God in other places, in the dramatic events of the world. God is there, but in the whisper for peace, in the silence of new communication, in the glimmer of hope. We might want it louder. I sure do in this environmental crisis. I want God to shout out about climate change and to say in words writ large, S T O P ! And maybe God is shouting, "Stop!"; it's just that we can't hear God above the noise of the severe climate events that are happening more and more frequently—noise that we've contributed to in a huge way. In spite of our own folly, God is speaking. Are we listening?

Our God is at work in this world, in our lives, quietly, determinedly creating hope where only despair exists, bringing new life out of death, speaking words through silence that call us more deeply into our humanity where we find new courage to live with integrity. To be sure, there is hard work ahead. But lest we arrogantly think it is only up to me, let us remember that we are in this together. Christ is with us, we are Christ's body. We are together in this and we can only succeed by being together. We share our glimmers of God's presence, we share our whispers of God's love and it is enough. And then we take these glimmers and whispers into the world to work with God in creating a new heaven and new earth, one where our children's children will have a chance to thrive and prosper and where all creation will not groan, but sing the sounds of silence.