Like many of you, my wife and I spent last Thursday evening watching Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And like many of you, we were disappointed when the San Antonio Spurs lost after a valiant effort against the Miami Heat. Our disappointment, however, was nothing compared to the despair of those who had grown up rooting for the Spurs. In the aftermath of the loss, Spurs fans wept on sports radio and sank into deep depressions. Interestingly, many fans wondered if they had done all they could to ensure a Spurs victory. Keep in mind that these are not members of the Spurs organization; they are simply fans who engage in elaborate rituals they are convinced influence the outcome of basketball games. I heard one such fan explain that he watched Game 7 wearing a Tim Duncan jersey, a David Robinson jersey, and three championship hats all at the same time, just to make sure he was doing all he could to contribute to the team.
Now it’s easy to make fun of people like this, but I think all of us have a tendency to be superstitious about one thing or another. When I served as a hospital chaplain, I noticed a common superstition among nurses in the Emergency Room. Though usually a place of chaotic activity, there were occasional evenings when the ER at Saint Francis Hospital was quiet, as if people had forgotten to suffer catastrophic injuries that day. I quickly learned, however, that no one was permitted to point out the relative lack of busyness, because as soon as someone said, “Boy, it sure is quiet tonight,” it seemed that ambulances and helicopters would start arriving and people with missing limbs would arrive at triage. So on quiet nights, nurses, doctors, chaplains would wander around the ER holding their breath and refusing to say what was on everyone’s mind. I don’t know about other people, but this quiet would lead me to worry about what could come through the doors of the ER, and what I imagined was generally much more dramatic than reality. In other words, the enforced silence spoke even more loudly than the normal chaos of the Emergency Room. I think that many of us feel this way about silence: it makes us uncomfortable, and forces us into a place where we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Often silence can overshadow even the most chaotic moments in our lives.
Today, we hear a famous passage from Scripture that shows us how loud silence can be. Over the past several weeks, we have heard the story of Elijah and his pitched prophetic battle with Ahab, Jezebel, and the prophets of the false god Baal. We heard how he embarrassed his opponents by demonstrating God’s power and how he executed God’s judgment upon prophets of Baal. We heard how he persuaded a poor widow to assist him and how he brought her son back from the dead. All of the stories we’ve heard have depicted a self-assured man full of prophetic power and charisma, a man who laughs in face of danger and is confident that he is going to succeed. But today, we hear about a very different Elijah. In the passage we read from Kings, we hear that Elijah is running away, escaping from Jezebel, running for his life, uncertain about whether he is going to live or die. In fact, at one point, he collapses under a tree and asks God to take away his life because the pressure of his prophetic role is just too much for him. After this, he takes a 40-day journey and eventually arrives at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he hides in a cave.
It is at this point that God comes to Elijah and says, “What are you doing here?” God’s question has a very accusatory tone: “Listen, you have been given extraordinary prophetic powers and the authority to preach the word of God! Why exactly are you hiding in a cave?” Elijah’s response is to feel sorry for himself and his lot in life: “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.” Elijah, in other words, says, “Even though I tried as hard as I could, the people whom you gave to me have utterly failed to keep your covenant; they’ve all gone over to the worship of Baal. I have nothing left to live for.” God’s response is interesting: he does not comfort Elijah in his self-pity or reject him and tell him that he’ll find someone else to be a prophet in his place. Rather, God instructs Elijah to stand on the mountain before LORD as the LORD passes by. The text then tells us that there was a great wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, but that God was not in any of these spectacular phenomena. In the meantime, Elijah continues to hide in the cave. It is only when it is quiet, when the earthquakes and fires have subsided, when there is a sound of sheer silence that Elijah finally steps out of the cave onto the mountain and hears the voice of God.
The traditional way to read this passage is to point out that God is not always present in those phenomena known to insurance companies as “acts of God,” but can also be found in silence. This is clearly the interpretation embraced by the writer of the hymn: “Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm. Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire O still small voice of calm.” There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation; we all need to be reminded how important it is to be quiet in God’s presence. At the same time, I think that this traditional interpretation misses the point of this story. For instance, Elijah does not emerge from the cave until the earthquake, wind, and fire have passed, even though God had instructed him to stand on the mountain earlier. I wonder if Elijah is not necessarily “looking for God in the silence,” but is emerging from the cave only when he thinks the coast is clear. Moreover, it is telling that God and Elijah repeat their exchange from a few verses before as Elijah stands on the mountain. Elijah responds to God with the same self-pitying complaint about being rejected by Israel. If Elijah had been looking for God in the silence, then his response to God would probably have evolved from self-pity to self-confidence. Elijah’s exchange with God reveals a man who feels abandoned and lost, a man who is living a life without purpose and is afraid of what will happen to him next.
In may ways, Elijah’s experience is captured well by the words of Psalms 42 and 43. Most scholars agree that these psalms were originally paired together, which is the why we read both of them this morning. One of the reasons that they were thought to be paired is this common verse that appears three times: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?” This is a poignant summary of what Elijah was feeling on Mount Horeb; he was lonely, disquieted, and felt a crushing weight bearing down upon him. He had every reason to be hopeless. Each time this verse appears in these psalms, however, there is a response. Even in the midst of despair, the psalmist interrupts himself by saying, “Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” Put your trust in God. Put your trust in God. Put your trust in God. These are the words the psalmist utters every time his doubts creep in, and these are the words that Elijah needs to hear. He had become so preoccupied with his inability, with his frailty, with his failures, that he forgot to put his trust in God, the God who created him and called him to be a prophet. God reminds Elijah of this in their encounter on Mount Horeb. Though our lectionary ends the passage with God instructing Elijah to go through the wilderness of Damascus, the passage actually continues with God instructing Elijah to anoint new and faithful kings over his people. God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to be a prophet and partner. And finally, God tells Elijah that there is still a remnant of Israel that has not worshipped Baal and remains faithful. In other words, God speaks out of the silence and tells Elijah that he is not alone, that God is with him, that he has received prophetic power, and only has to put his trust in God.
There are times when all of us can relate to Elijah. There are times when we all feel lonely, frail, and incapable of doing what God has called us to do. There are moments when all of us ask that plaintive question: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?” There are moments when we forget how much God loves us, moments when we fail to honor the image of God in ourselves, moments when we turn away from God and hide in caves we have constructed for ourselves. Sometimes these moments are fleeting, and sometimes they can last for years. Sometimes the caves that we construct can be easily dismantled, and sometimes they are huge, hulking edifices that no one can penetrate. We escape to these caves of addiction or infidelity or depression or anger or jealousy or resentment when the world and its expectations overwhelm us. Yet, when Elijah hid in a cave to get away from his prophetic responsibility, God did not abandon him or give up on him; God reached out to him from the silence over and over and over again until Elijah understood how much God loved him and his people. In the same way, God will reach out to us over and over and over again even when we hide in caves of our own making, even when we cannot hear God’s voice through the earthquakes of our lives. God does not give up on us because that is not in God’s vocabulary. When we come to the powerful realization of how much God loves us, then we, like Elijah, will be empowered to go forth and reach out to a world desperately in need of God’s redeeming love. This isn’t always easy, but Elijah teaches us that God’s love empowers us to leave our caves, step into the silence, and put our trust in God.