Written by Pastor Ed
The Sound of Sheer Silence
August 13, 2017
I Kings 19: 9-18
Matthew 14: 22-33
If you Google songs about silence, there is one that seems to always be at the top of the list, and one of my favourites as well. “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
Silence! Have you ever been in complete silence? It’s actually very hard to achieve. Perhaps in a cave, or shut up in a room with soundproof barriers you could achieve it, but even when there are no human produced noises, there is the sound of nature, even the wind that is there. Then again silence is not something that many people are comfortable with.
I recall a chapel service when I was in seminary, led by Professor Clarence Bauman, in which we simply sat in silence, that is, no one talked, for 20 minutes. It was the first time I think that I had ever experienced that length of time in worship without anyone saying anything. I was tempted to repeat that this morning, but then thought perhaps that wasn’t the way to go.
Our main story this morning is that of Elijah, who meets God on Mt. Horeb in what most of us probably remember as the “still small voice” but which the NRSV translates as “the sound of sheer silence,” a rather fascinating phrase. So how did Elijah come to this point?
Well, when we meet Elijah at the beginning of our reading, he is already on the mountain. But how did he get there? Well, if you back up to the beginning of chapter 19 you discover that Elijah is fleeing for his life from Queen Jezebel, who is just a little upset with him. He takes off and finds himself in the wilderness, sitting under a broom tree, and depressed. He says, “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (19: 4b) And then after eating several meals, he travels a long time to the mountain of the Lord, Horeb, which we also know as Sinai, where he meets God who asks him, “What are you doing here?”
To which Elijah gives his tale of woe. “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.” Woe is me, I’m ready to give up, I never wanted to be a prophet to begin with – I quit!
Now what is rather amazing, and yet perhaps not, is that all of this follows perhaps Elijah’s biggest triumph. He has just recently had his big showdown with the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel, you know, the one where they each built an altar and called down fire from heaven. The 450 priests of Baal built their altar and sacrificed their bull and then called on Baal to send fire, but no fire came. Elijah even mocked them, saying maybe their god had gone to the washroom or was asleep and needed to be wakened. But no fire came.
And then Elijah prepared his altar, dumped buckets of water all over it, and when he prayed fire came from heaven and burned up not only the sacrifice, but the altar as well, and licked up all the water. It was a magnificent show, and the people praised Yahweh, and they killed all the priests of Baal. And with that the drought ended, the rains came and the land was saved. And that’s what got Jezebel all worked up, for she was the one who had brought the worship of Baal into Israel, or at least promoted it.
What should have been his finest hour, thus became Elijah’s undoing. It was the slump after the triumph, the pity party after the festival. I mean, if that show didn’t convince everyone, well then it’s no use, I’m ready to give up, forget about it.
And so God meets Elijah on the mountain, much as God met Moses. But, whereas we might expect God to come thundering as Elijah, showing off God’s great strength and reminding Elijah of what God had just done on Mt. Carmel, maybe even throwing in some fire and fury to give Elijah some backbone, or scare him into continuing, God comes in the “sound of sheer silence.”
What is it about silence that allows us to hear God or recognize that God is present? For the disciples in the boat, after Peter has dared step out and then loses his nerve and starts to sink, you might have expected Jesus to have a good laugh or maybe dance a little jig or berate Peter for being so foolish, but he simply calms the sea, and in the calmness the disciples acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God.
Elijah tries to defend himself. He is stricken with the same question he was asked earlier, “What are you doing here?” the clear implication being that “here” isn’t where you’re supposed to be, and responds in the same defensive and poor me language as before. But God says to go back, go about your business, oh, and anoint Elisha as your successor, you’re right, you’re done. By the way, God reminds Elijah, you’re not alone. There are 7000 others in Israel who have remained faithful, so stop with the “I’m all alone” bit.
In our busy lives and amid the noise of the world around us, finding the silence in which God speaks can be difficult. We can get so caught up in the doing that we forget about being. I think sometimes as Christians, and yes, even as pastors, we think that the most important things are what we do, and when they don’t turn out the way we think they should, it’s easy to get discouraged and feel like we’re the only ones left who are serious about God. And we’d like to see a little show of fireworks to wake people up. Or maybe to wake us up.
But God is often found in the gaps between the noise; in the silence amidst the storm. I have had the privilege on several occasions to participate in morning and evening prayers with the monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Part of their ritual is a reading of a certain number of Psalms in each service, and the monks at St. John’s have developed a unique style of antiphonal reading, which includes silence between each stanza. It’s a bit hard to explain, but whereas if we do a responsive or antiphonal reading, one group begins to read immediately after the other stops, they insert a pause, and then between Psalms there is a longer pause to consider what has just been read.
At first it’s a bit disconcerting for those of us who are used to rushing through. But after you get over wondering when you’re supposed to start, and just go with the flow and rhythm, which you soon get used to, you begin to encounter the Psalms, and God, in a new way, in the silence of the gaps.
Someone once said about music, “It’s the silence between the notes that really counts.”
One of the things we have lost, I’m afraid, in the contemporary worship scene, with worship bands, praise songs, and all the bells and whistles that often go along with that, is silence. Now, there’s nothing wrong with praise, or with worship bands. Those are certainly ways of expressing our worship of God and have a place. But I think there is also a place for being silent before God and listening for that still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, when God can speak to us, encourage us, and in which we recognize that it is indeed God who comes to us in those moments.
I said I was tempted to make you sit for 20 minutes in silence, and I’m not going to do that. But I would like to invite you to sit for 5 minutes in silence, or at least without any talking going on. If you’re not used to that, it will seem like a long time. If you are used to it, you will be annoyed that it’s too short. It’s only a taste, and I invite you over the next week to find those times and places to listen in silence to what God may be saying to you, asking you, “What are you doing here?”