The Sounds of Silence
A sermon on 1 Kings 19: 1-18 by Nathan Nettleton, 2 October 1993

A healthy devotional relationship with God is required if we are to sustain our discipleship in the world.


We've all heard it said a million times, that if a crisis is serious enough, even the most convinced atheist will begin to pray. You'll have heard sayings like “If all else fails, pray.” Unfortunately, we Christians often don't score a whole lot better when it comes to prayer than a lot of these crisis-praying-atheists. If you're anything like me, you sometimes go weeks at a time without praying and then a crisis happens and you feel too embarrassed to pray. You think, “O God, I can't pray now, I don't want to be one of those people who only prays when it hits the fan!”

It is strange in a way, that we evangelical Christians are often so poor at getting our act together in this matter of personal devotional life, because we are the ones who make the most noise about how our faith is a personal relationship with God, and yet often we appear to be having a fairly estranged relationship where we've stopped talking to each other. Sometimes it's because we don't really know what to do, sometimes it's because we're just slack, sometimes it is because we are ridiculously busy, and sometimes it is because we are afraid of being seen as so super-spiritual that we've forgotten how to live and relate in the real world. Whatever the reason, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and see what's going on.

One bloke who wasn't afraid to be seen as a bit spiritual was the prophet Elijah. The story just before the one we have had read for us is the most famous of the Elijah stories and you need to know what happened in it in order to understand this one. Elijah has been on Mount Carmel in the big confrontation with the prophets of Baal. I'm sure you've heard the story. They set up two altars and sacrifices, one for Baal and one for Yahweh, the God of Israel, and they get everything ready for the burnt offerings except they don't bring any matches, and the big contest is to see whose god can light his own barbecue. And the 400 prophets of Baal do a six hour dance routine and cry out to Baal all day but the fire never comes. Elijah gives them a hard time saying things like “Shout louder, maybe your God is curled up under the doona, or maybe he's slipped out for a thickshake, or maybe he's on the loo reading the daily papers.” Anyway Baal never sends the fire for the sacrifice. Then it's Elijah's turn. The bookies have got him at 400:1 but that doesn't bother Elijah. In fact he's looking for bigger odds still. So before he calls on God, he gets the local fire brigade in to give the altar and the wood and the offering a good hosing down. Once everything is good and soaked, Elijah announces to the crowd that Yahweh is about to demonstrate who's the best and fairest god in the league, and then he sends up a quick prayer and there is a flash of fire from the sky and the offering, the wood, the stones of the altar, and the leftover water are consumed by fire and reduced to ash.

All the people fall on their faces before Elijah and Yahweh and declare Yahweh to be the only true God, and then at Elijah's suggestion they have the four hundred members of the losing team slaughtered at the bottom of the mountain. The next day we get to the story that was read for us before. King Ahab speaks to Queen Jezebel, who was number one ticket holder for Baal, and tells her what Elijah has done. She spits the dummy and sends a message to tell Elijah that he's got no more than 24 hours to make sure his affairs are in order before she sends him of for a premature face-to-face with this God of his. If Elijah is one of our crisis-only pray-ers, then it is time for him to start praying. But Elijah of course is a man of action and so he performs the time honoured response to such threats, as it says in verse 3; "he got up and fled for his life."

He flees a day's journey into the wilderness and then sits down under a broom tree and tells God he wants to die. Of course if he had really wanted to die he could have stayed at home and it would have been arranged for him, but regardless of that, there is no doubt that he is feeling pretty low. Within two days of his great triumph on Mt Carmel Elijah is deep in despair and contemplating the attractiveness of death.

Now if you think about it, that is perhaps not all that unusual. In times of major conflict, a few victories, even spectacular ones, don't always make up for the feeling of being everyone's enemy. Victories can feel pretty hollow when you feel like the results will have worn off by tomorrow, and Elijah obviously has no faith in the people of Israel sticking to their worship of Yahweh after the Mt Carmel showdown. Being one of God's people in a hostile world is not all beer and skittles. There are going to be times when standing firm for the values of the Kingdom are going to make you pretty unpopular and, although we probably won't cop too many death threats, none of us like feeling totally unwanted.

The conflicts and social demands of our discipleship can take a pretty heavy emotional toll. It is easy to start feeling like you're fighting for a lost cause and pouring out your life for an impossible goal. I know in my work at the House of Hope I can go real quick from feeling elated at some accomplishment to feeling an overwhelming sense of futility and discouragement and wanting to chuck it in and go get a normal job. Smile, someone always says, things could be worse, so you smile and sure enough they get a lot worse!

Often the things that make discipleship so draining are a lot like what is happening for Elijah here. I find that the things that most get to me are the big disappointments that follow hot on the heals of a real accomplishment and undo its effects. I knew this guy called Whacka a few years ago who was really starting to get his act together after a lifetime of heavy drugs and in and out of prison and everything, and then suddenly, just as I was beginning to invest a lot in him and really believe he was going to make it, he held up a chemist and got caught and its back to jail and start all over again. It's so deflating. Just as you start getting excited about something and throw your heart and soul into it, it slips through your fingers. Elijah must have felt magic after the Mt Carmel showdown. He's got the best-on-ground medal round his neck and life couldn't be better. After years of calling Israel back to Yahweh, he's had the big breakthrough and everyone has fallen on their faces and acknowledged that he was right all along. He's a hero. But where are the fans the next day when he's under threat? Where is the great revival now? His hopes were mountain-high yesterday are on the scrap heap now, and that is the worst feeling. The higher you get your hopes, the further it is to fall, and the harder the crash at the bottom.

Experience seems to show that people respond in one of two ways to these kind of inevitable disappointments. And if you don't think these kind of disappointments are inevitable when you're following Jesus, just look at Jesus. Judas was one of his best mates for three years and then he chucked it in and betrayed him. How shattering was that for Jesus?

Anyway, as I said, people respond in one of two ways. Either they get hardened and cynical and callous. Perhaps they drop out completely, or perhaps they keep going through the motions of being God's people, but they don't really put anything into it any more. There is no passion, no energy, no heart and soul commitment. They don't give anything of themselves any more because they know if they do they'll get hurt and they don't want to be hurt any more. They don't take any more risks, they don't lay themselves down for others any more because they're sick of being walked on. You develop a professional detachment; don't get too involved, don't invest too much in anybody, don't put yourself on the line for others, don't expose your own vulnerability.

It is a perfectly understandable response. I find myself heading off down that road repeatedly. After every bruise in fact. I tell myself that if I don't look after myself I'll be no use to anyone. The trouble is that if I spend all my energy protecting myself, I'll still be no use to anyone.

But there is an alternative. You can keep pouring yourself out for the world so long as there is something filling you up. You need to find a source of renewal and replenishment that will keep the love and joy and commitment alive in you so that you can love enough to be hurt without being wiped out and incapacitated by it.

You can get shallow, or you can go deeper. You can give up and put up the protection, or you can search for new reserves that will see you through. Elijah, at this point of our story, is hanging right at that point of balance, unsure which way to go. He feels like giving the game away and becoming a cynical bitter old man. But the messenger of God appears with a better idea. An angel touches him and says, “Elijah, get up and eat.” So he eats and goes back to sleep under the tree, and the angel comes a second time and says “Elijah, get up and eat, you need your strength, otherwise the journey will be too great for you.” This makes good sense. I think sometimes we forget how closely linked our physical strength and spiritual strength are. I don't recommend you try what Elijah did here though—have one meal of bread and water and then walk for forty days. But Elijah responds to this message from God, and makes the journey.

At the end of this marathon journey, Elijah camps in a cave at Mt Horeb. And it says that the word of the Lord came to him there, saying “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The basic answer of course was “Running away.” But he answers, “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.”

And God says, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” The moment of revelation approaches. The Lord who Elijah has served so zealously is about to step into Elijah's presence. A great wind came, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, (and after last week's terrible news from India we all know the power of an earthquake,) but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, the sign of revelation a few days earlier on another mountain, but the LORD was not in the fire. Earth, wind and fire have shown their mightiest, most awesome displays, but the Lord is yet to be encountered. And then came a sound of sheer silence.

The most awesome sign of all comes almost imperceptibly. After the fire from the sky on Mt Carmel, you expected God come with the big display. After cyclone, and earthquake and bushfire, you expected God to go right over the top in some earth-shattering display of power, and perhaps he does, in the awesome sound of sheer silence. The common translation here, “a still small voice” is an attempt to make sense of the Hebrew phrase that doesn't make sense and was probably never meant to. The sound of thin silence, or transparent silence, or sheer silence. It doesn't make sense, and that's the point. Something happened, something big, and Elijah knew all about it, but there are no words to describe it and the best attempts are words of paradox: And then came a sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And God commissions him and sends him back to anoint a new king and a new prophet and assures him that there will remain a group in Israel who will not bend the knee to Baal. He will not be alone. He might be in a small minority, but there are others and there is work to do. There were always others and there was always work to do, but Elijah was punch drunk and he couldn't see straight until he took time out and was ministered to in the sound of sheer silence.

You know, as awesome as that sound of sheer silence is, you can't hear it in the middle of the earthquake or the fire. And for the most part we live our lives in the earthquake and the fire. There is always something big going on. We are constantly immersed in noise and chaos and turmoil and hustle and bustle. We are constantly running from a Jezabel or going head to head with the prophets of Baal. And that is the world where our discipleship has to be lived out. Jesus does not call us out of the world to sit on Mt Horeb and stay there. We are sent into the world as Jesus was, to live as God's servant people in the midst of the turmoil and suffering.

But none of us can keep that up unless something is constantly sinking our roots deeper, refreshing our spirits, building up our capacity to give love and to absorb pain, and expanding our breadth of character. We need to retreat from the struggle and turmoil to the places of silence where God will be heard, and we need to be doing it regularly and consistently. We have this example of Elijah, and the examples of Jesus showing us the need to retreat from the crowds, from the busyness, from the conflicts, to find a quiet and lonely place to meet God in the sound of sheer silence. It is in the interplay of courageous discipleship and contemplative prayer and meditation that we are transformed in the image of Jesus to become men and women of depth and integrity.

But let me add something to this story. As we said right at the start, it is in the times of crisis that we are going to be most acutely aware of our need for prayer. It was the same for Elijah, it was in his deepest crisis that God had to drag him aside and make him listen. The devotional practices of prayer and meditation and contemplation are absolutely crucial to our ability to survive the times of crisis, but the times of crisis are no time to be learning them. These are not abilities that you can master on the spur of the moment in the midst of an emergency. If you want to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound when the need arises, you need to start training on small outhouses and build up your ability through constant disciplined practice.

The devotional disciplines are like most skills. Only the very basics come naturally, the rest requires learning and regular practise. You might be a sure and safe mark of a football in the local park, but if you want to make that same skill reliable when Steven Kernahan and Greg Williams are bearing down on you, you're going to have to put a lot of work in on top of your bit of natural ability. Devotional skills are no different. If you haven't got them happening before the crunch comes, they are probably not going to stand up too well when it does. And anyway, it is often not possible to take time out in the middle of a crisis, but if you had time out not long before the earthquake struck, you'll be in good shape to survive it when it does.

You and me and Elijah are all seeking to serve the same God, and despite a few regional differences, we all do so in service of the same hostile world. You and me and Elijah are all going to experience more than our fair share of bruises and burns as we serve that world. And you and me and Elijah are all going to need to spend time enveloped in the sound of sheer silence if we are going to have the depth and resources to serve that world without being left shrivelled up and cast aside. Don't wait till it hurts too much before you sink your roots into our gracious God in the sound of sheer silence.