"The sound of sheer silence"

a sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-15


ast Sunday night I spoke about the nature of the prophet’s task, and how it had much to do with “speaking truth to power.” That night we read the story of how King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had played a game of power politics by which they framed Naboth and had him killed so that they might claim his vineyard for their own (1 Kings 21). In that narrative, we heard of how the prophet Elijah had engaged in the oftentimes costly business of speaking truth to power.

Well perhaps oddly, tonight’s reading from the 1st book of Kings is actually part of what precedes the story of Naboth and his vineyard; it is comes two chapters prior to that particular showdown. But Elijah had already been vocal in his criticism of the royal household, and in particular of its neglect of the inherited faith of Israel. He had publically faced down the so-called prophets of Ba’al, and unveiled their religious practices as being empty. This had all been a humiliation to the royal family, and particularly to Queen Jezebel who was a committed advocate of the religion of Ba’al.

More, than that, Elijah had incited the people to kill the discredited prophets of Ba’al, and now Jezebel is spitting poison – “‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’” And so Elijah has packed his bags and fled for his life.

Into the wilderness he flees, and finding a place to lie down Elijah resolves to simply die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” What is he regretting here? The violence he has incited? Perhaps, for now rather than winning a great victory, he seems to have done little more than enrage the royal family. It is lost.

When he wakes, though, Elijah is met by a messenger – an angel – who offers him food, and urges him forward. Twice this happens, and Elijah sets out on a long sojourn deep into the wilderness, all the way back to Sinai; to the very mountain where Israel had been birthed so many centuries before. And just as Moses had been met on the mountain, so too Elijah.

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’” (1 Kings 19:10)

What are you doing here, Elijah? “Fleeing for my life… I’ve done what I thought I needed to do, yet I’m the only faithful one in all of Israel. My days are numbered.”

“Go, stand on the mountain,” says the Lord. Stand and wait. Stand and hear, stand and see. And Elijah is met by wind, by the shaking of the earth, by fire; yet as he sees and hears these manifestations of power, he is told that the Lord is not in the wind, not in the quaking earth, not in the raging fire.

Where then is the Lord, for whom Elijah has been so zealous as to engineer the violent overthrow of those prophets of Ba’al? Where is the Lord for whom Elijah has given his all, or at least what he imagined to be his all?

“After the fire, a sound of sheer silence,” or as the King James Version translates it, “a still, small voice.” Slow down, Elijah. Listen, and listen as you’ve never done before. And covering his face with his mantle, Elijah listens and is again met with that question: What are you doing here, Elijah?

In this, N.T. Wright understands Elijah as being met with a challenge:

‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ How much of your problem is self-caused, the reverse side of zealous energy? If your weapon in God’s service has been destructive anger, don’t be surprised if, when things get tough, it turns back on yourself. In any case, depression, as usual, has distorted your perception of reality. God has the situation well in hand: new kings and prophets are to be anointed, and will sort things out. Elijah is not the only true Israelite. (N.T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, Year C)

God has the situation in hand, and Elijah you aren’t the only true Israelite. There are others back at home – and the text goes on to say that there are 7,000 more who have not caved in to the regime and religion of Ahab and Jezebel – and things are being set in motion. You have a role to play here, Elijah. You need to go back home, and to be a part of what is about to unfold. But it doesn’t all hinge on you; it really doesn’t.

And Elijah does return, and he does play his role, and in time he will again confront the royal household for their power games and destructive ideologies. And he will not let the death of Naboth go unnoticed.

But he can only do that because he has been stopped short on the holy mountain, and had his foundational presumptions about the nature of God redefined. Elijah is a fiery kind of a character, and he would have assumed that God would be all about roaring wind and raging fire. He needed to be stopped, to stand in the face of the mystery that is “the sound of sheer silence,” and to be brought to the realization that not only was he not the only true Israelite, but that in fact his understanding of God was partial at best.

This is a story that speaks to the very heart of the great Christian contemplative tradition. It features again and again in the literature of the Christian monastic and mystical traditions, this call to set aside our assumptions as to what God should do and to dare to step into the roaring stillness, open to the still, small voice.

When Catherine, Callaway and I were in Greece a couple of years back, we stayed for a few days on the island of Hydra. At the peak of that island stands a small monastery, dedicated to the prophet Elijah, and one morning Catherine and I hiked the 90 minutes up to pay a visit. There we found just two monks – though apparently there was also a third – living in isolation in their simple surroundings, spending a lifetime seeking to be open to the sound of sheer silence. It is, I’m sure, a sometimes mundane existence. One of the monks shyly welcomed us, and beckoned us to enter the monastery courtyard. The other monk was actually on a cell phone, and judging by the passion in his voice he was sorting out some problem or another; maybe something to do with a grocery order or perhaps drinking water? After all, the only way up and down the mountain was on foot or by donkey, so you hardly wanted to have your order right. On the day we visited one of the monks had just been doing a bit of laundry, and three pairs of black socks hung on a line in the sun.

And yet, we had this powerful sense that something was going on there; that behind the laundry line and in spite of the cell phone and maybe on account of the challenge of the long climb up the hill, these men were doing something of extraordinary importance. This is what Catherine later wrote:

As you raise your arms to hang your socks on the line
are you aware of the weight of the world on your shoulders?

That, you see, lies at the heart of the monastic vision; to spend a lifetime open to the sound of sheer silence, and from that place to pray for the world… to pray for us.

What are you doing here, Elijah? What are you doing there in that monastery, my brothers? What are any of us doing here, in this place?

Sit in silence for a while, and see what you might hear.

Preached by Jamie Howison at saint benedict’s table on Sunday June 20, 2010.

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