Finding Your Cave: Listening Spaces
I Kings 19:9-13
March 10, 2019, Rev. Kathy Donley
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY
Elijah may be one of the wonder-working prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but his humanity is on full display here. He is a fugitive. He is on the run, fleeing from Queen Jezebel who has promised to kill him. He hasn’t had much to eat in the last month and now he is hiding in a cave. He is exhausted and weak and afraid.
This cave that he has reached offers physical safety and protection. He can hide there. But it is surely no accident that he fled to this particular cave on Mt. Horeb. Mt. Horeb is also known as Mt.Sinai -- this is holy ground. It is the place where Moses talked with God and received the ten commandments. Elijah has come to a place known for encounters with God.
If he goes to this particular place hoping that God will show up, he is rewarded. Two times, God asks what Elijah is doing there and two times, Elijah gives the same answer.
His answer is “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.”
Maybe Elijah is having a pity party. Maybe he is a bit preoccupied with his own role, thinking that he is the only faithful person left in the world and they’re going to kill him anyway.
Maybe he is simply answering God’s question as directly and honestly as he can.
God responds by revealing God’s own self in a somewhat surprising way. There is an earthquake, wind and fire – all natural elements that some might associate with God -- but God is not in them. And after that, God is present. . . present in something hard to translate. The phrase is mysterious. The familiar translation known to many of us from the King James version is” still, small voice.” Other possibilities include “a soft murmuring sound” “the voice of a light whisper” and the one we heard this morning “the sound of sheer silence”. This time, God is not in the big, loud events but in the sound of sheer silence. Whatever the Hebrew actually means, the main point may be to contrast God’s presence with the loudness of the earthquake, wind and fire.
Elijah is certain that God is present in the silence. We know this because he covers his face. It is an attitude of awe and respect. No one, he believes, can look at God and live.
Elijah finds God in the silence. If God is still to be found in silence, that is a hard truth for some of us. We live in a noisy world. Our lives are loud. Silence is often perceived as an absence, a lack, an emptiness. Our culture teaches us to value fullness – we fill up time with activity. We fill up our space with stuff. We fill up silence with sound -- music, radio, TV, podcasts, phone calls. It seems that every gadget comes equipped with beeps or buzzes or bells these days. How many electronic sounds do we hear in a day – ringing cellphones, text alerts, doorbells, car horns, that signal the microwave makes when it’s done? If God is in the silence, how would we ever know?
Silence is often perceived, in our culture, as an absence, a lack, an emptiness. Noise and sounds, on the other hand, are associated with productivity and busyness. We are taught to find identity and value in what we produce, so we seek the noise of productivity. Instead of washing the dishes in silence, we multi-task—washing the dishes and listening to the news. We could perhaps enjoy a certain kind of silence within a car driving to work, but instead we are productive, we drive and return phone calls, using a hands-free device as required by law, of course.
Silence is often perceived as an absence, a lack, an emptiness. Sometimes we think that if we cannot hear God, God is absent. But perhaps we need to challenge that assumption. There are empty silences, awkward silences, painful silences. But there are also pregnant silences, right? There is the silence of an engaged audience where everyone is so caught up in the action on the stage, that as the saying goes, “you could hear a pin drop.” Sometimes, we have known that quality of silence here, as the Spirit moved among us in the midst of worship.
In the midst of the silence, God again asks Elijah what he is doing there. And again, Elijah says, “I have been working hard for you and now I’m the only one left and they want to kill me.” This seems to be Elijah’s prayer – we repeat our prayers sometimes, especially when we need God to understand how afraid we are. And this time, God responds in practical ways. God tells Elijah he is not alone. There are 7,000 others who have kept the faith. And God gives Elijah a plan of action. He is to go back to where he was with directions to anoint three people God has chosen. Elijah does go back, back to the conflict, back to the trouble, back to the risk. This prayerful encounter with God moves him out of his despondency. His sense of purpose is restored and he takes up his mission again.
That almost makes it sound easy. For most people, a life of prayer, of intentional listening for God is very difficult. And we should remember that, even for Elijah, this did not happen in a moment. Forty days and forty nights elapsed while he was running for his life. Forty days and forty nights before he heard from God.
Forty days and forty nights is pretty close to the timeframe between now and Easter. It might be enough time for us to learn to cultivate silence, to carve out a place in our noisy world where we can listen for God. That is our invitation, our discipline this season. We trust that there is great faithfulness in listening deeply in wonder and silence. We are what we do with our attention. Silence is pregnant with the presence of God. May we choose to pay attention. Amen.