June 23, 2019
A man was having difficulty communicating with his wife and decided she was becoming hard of hearing. So he decided to conduct a test without her knowing about it. One evening he sat in a chair on the far side of the room. Her back was to him and she could not see him. Very quietly he whispered, "Can you hear me?" There was no response. Moving a little closer, he asked again, "Can you hear me now?" Still no reply. Quietly he edged closer and whispered the same words, but still no answer. Finally, he moved right in behind her chair and said, "Can you hear me now?" To his surprise and embarrassment, she responded with irritation, "For the fourth time, yes, I hear you!" That may hit a little close to home for many of us.
We are going to look at the story of Elijah the prophet. He listened and heard when God called to him in a still small voice.
Today's Old Testament lesson joins a story already in progress. To understand where Elijah was in the episode we read today, we need to look back a bit and see what had been happening in the life of this prophet of God. He certainly doesn't seem to be in a happy place, “ he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life...He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life,”...the Israelites have... killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.'
Afraid, wanting to die, hunted... this man was not in a good place. And what got him there, you might ask? What awful thing brought him to this low point? Surprisingly, he'd just experienced a wonderful, powerful victory.
When Julie and I were in Israel, one of the first places we visited was the Carmalite Monastery located on Mt. Carmel. This was the site where Elijah had that
great victory as God's prophet. This happened about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. Israel's King Ahab had married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. She had led Ahab and the people of Israel into the worship of her god, small g, Baal. She had most of the prophets of Yahweh killed. Most of Israel had followed and there were hundreds of priests serving the god Baal in the name of the king of Israel.
We know that God had forbidden the worship of idols, which Baal was. So God called Elijah to preach against the pagan practices being incorporated into the Israelite's religion. Mt Carmel was the site of a famous confrontation—Elijah against 450 priests of Baal. The challenge was to see whose God would respond to the prayers of their prophets. Briefly, an alter was set up, a butchered bull was placed upon it as an offering and prayers were raised up to the competing deities to see which one could indeed act in a miraculous fashion. The people were not allowed to light the fire, the god must light the fire to burn the offering in answer to prayer. The Baalites went first. The priests prayed all morning, jumping on the altar, shouting, doing all they could think of to get their god to act. Nothing happened. Well, something happened; Elijah taunted and made fun of Baal, saying their idol must be asleep, or busy or even in the bathroom.
They continued the praying well into the afternoon. No success. Finally, it was Elijah's turn. Elijah prepared the altar with the wood and the bull as had the Baalites. But to make the contest more challenging, Elijah had the people pour water over the sacrifice. 12 barrels of water were poured over the wood and the bull. Then Elijah prayed and God sent fire down from heaven. The fire burned Elijah’s sacrifice. It burned the wood and the stones and the sacrifice. The people saw and recognized the power of God. They discovered anew that idols had no power. Elijah's men then had all the priests of Baal killed.
It was a powerful victory for God and for God's prophet. One would think that nothing could stop the servant of the most high after this great victory.
However, when the queen Jezebel heard what happened to her prophets and priests, she put out a hit on Elijah. We read today about Jezebel's reaction to the death of her priests: “Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "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 we wonder, what could a mere mortal do to this powerful prophet of God? Look at what had just happened. But it seems Elijah didn't see it that way. Our author tells us that Elijah was afraid and he got up and fled for his life.
This is another incident that impresses me with the truthfulness of the bible writers. If this was a made-up story, the hero would never run and hide like Elijah did. We'd write the story this way, “And Elijah marched on to the castle of the king and queen, lopped off their heads and and set up a new king who followed the ways of God. And they lived happily ever after.”
But that is not what we find. This hero is found hiding on a mountain. He has given up, he is depressed, feeling that his work for God is over. The pressures have gotten to him and the ministry is no longer what he wants to do.
I've felt that way some times. There are pressures and outside influences and hierarchies that can bring a person down; even when they have seen God do great things.
The good news in this story is that Elijah received God's word. Elijah received a message that God was on the way to speak to Elijah on that mountain. But again, that story doesn't go according to how we might write it. The author wrote this, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord,” and if we were making up this story, we might write, and the Lord spoke to Elijah in the mighty wind and encouraged him to have faith that God is with him, that God's power is evident in the mighty wind. And Elijah left that mountain strengthened by the mighty power of God he witnessed. But that's not what we read, the author of 1 kings tells what actually happened, “but the Lord was not in the wind.”
We read on, “and after the wind an earthquake”. Now certainly this is a way to express the power of God. If the wind was strong enough to break rocks, imagine the image of an earthquake in the pen of the scripture writers. But we read, “the Lord was not in the earthquake.”
We read on again, “and after the earthquake a fire” and you now know where that leads, “but the Lord was not in the fire.”
We finally discover the voice of the Lord, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in a still, small voice; or sometimes described as a sound of sheer silence. The writer explains how he got God's message: “Then there came a voice to him that said, "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." Then the Lord said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.'” There, Elijah would meet and anoint Elisha as his heir as prophet of Israel, then he continued to serve God until God calls him home; another strange story we will read next Sunday.
Quite an unpredictable tale of a reluctant hero. And yet we should ask, what do we learn from it? That God often comes to us in unexpected ways. That God speaks. That sometimes God speaks in mighty, powerful ways like fire or wind. But more times for us today, God speaks in the quietness; the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. Have you been hearing God's voice? If not, what could be the reason? We live in a noisy world. Plus we tend to surround ourselves with noise; the radio, the TV, the cell phone. The emails, the texts, the phone calls. It is important, if we are to hear God, speak that we find silence. And I know, for some there is too much silence in the world. But so often God comes in sheer silence, in a still small voice that would be missed in the hustle and bustle of the world. The wind, the earthquake, the fire, the sirens, the horns, the airplanes drown out God's still, small voice. Elijah heard God's voice in the silence. We too need to find the silence that allows us to hear God's voice.
And that would be a good place to end... but I share my experience in the belief that others find similar difficulties hearing God. For one thing, I am uncomfortable with silence. I turn the TV on when I get home. I have the radio on in the car. I am comfortable working in the yard in silence but if the Twins are on I have my headphones on listening. I often wake up in the middle of the night. A good time to listen to God's voice you might think. I find I need to tune out God's voice, turn off my brain, or I never get back to sleep. The prayer concerns, the administrative tasks, the plans to make, the large issues of life like abortion and immigration fill my mind and make me more anxious. We need a time, a spot, a purposeful meeting with God's Spirit to hear God's still small voice. Prayer time can be when we turn on our brain and allow God to speak. And we need to understand that hearing God's still small voice is not going to be like it was for Elijah. Hearing God's voice for us is an inner leading. I know many people say it is hard to pray because our minds wander. But listen to those wanderings, those thoughts may well be God's way of speaking to you at that time for that purpose. If you are hearing an audible voice... odds are very great that that is not God. God will speak by a gentle reminder that someone you know may need a visit or a card. As you spend that quiet time with God, you may get the idea to invite someone over for coffee... don't ignore that idea. You may think of a task that you've been putting off, that may be God's way of prodding you to do it. Quiet time spent with God is key to hearing God's leading. Prayer is of course at the heart of listening to God. We can get too caught up in the proper format for prayer, how to line up our program of prayer just so. And that can be very profitable for our prayer life. But don't become so regimented that you don't listen. And don't avoid free-wheeling thought, because when we are in prayer is the best time for God to lead our thoughts. And ask for leading. That's what our next hymn does. Breathe on me breath of God is about hearing that still small voice. God's Holy Spirit speaks to us in the silence; fills us, purifies us, claims us and leads us in the ways of God. But it doesn't often happen in the noise of the world. Get off by yourself and listen. God comes in the stillness of the breath of God. Amen.
Hymn: PH Breathe on Me, Breath of God 316