One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Elijah meeting God in 1 Kings 19. Elijah meets God after his incredible victory over the prophets of Baal and his flight from the wrath of Queen Jezebel. Elijah is feeling depressed and defeated. He wonders if he can accomplish anything worthwhile. The whole world seems to be against him. He needs help.
God calls Elijah to go out on Mount Horeb, the mountain of God where Moses had met with God and received the Ten Commandments. Knowing that God had appeared to Moses and the people of Israel in a Pillar of Cloud and a Pillar of Fire during the Exodus, perhaps Elijah was expecting a spectacular display of God’s supremacy. There was a display of God’s power, but the interesting observation that the Bible makes is that God is not in those incredible events. We need not look for some amazing experience to feel God’s presence. On the contrary, God is found in “a sound of sheer silence.”
[God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 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.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:11-18).
Elijah experiences the silence of God and is reinvigorated so that he can continue to do the hard work that God has given him to do. Notice that Elijah is not strengthened by the displays of power – the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. The LORD “was not in” those things. This is not very surprising if we remember that Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal, which involved an astonishing display of God’s power through fire, did not solve all of Elijah’s or Israel’s problems. God can speak and act through extraordinary events like fire from heaven or walking on the water. But most often, God is already speaking to us through the silence that we can experience every day. That is how the most profound changes in the world begin to happen — when God changes us from the inside out.
“. . . a sound of sheer silence . . .”
As a new calendar year begins, I invite you to take a few moments of silence to begin each day, to listen for God’s voice and to experience God’s presence. If you would like to join others who are doing this, you are welcome to join us on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month at 7:30 for “Living by the Spirit,” the contemplative prayer group at Trinity.
“If we can silence, if only for a few moments, all those other voices emerging from the whirlwind of our daily lives (the voices of the newspaper, the radio, the television – the voices of the Internet, co-workers, and others) then we might begin to hear the voice of God that within us, with us, and beyond us in the sound of sheer silence” (Carl Gregg, “The Sound of Sheer Silence – and Merton Meets Elijah,” www.patheos.com). When we hear that voice, God begins to change our lives, and a little more of God’s light shines through us into the world.
This is God’s great work in us, not something that we do through our own efforts – although having a regular prayer practice and listening to God does take some effort. We all know that listening closely isn’t always easy. But our transformation is God’s work, not ours. “We do not have to transcend ourselves in the sense of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We have, rather, to respond to the mysterious grace of a Spirit which is infinitely greater than our own” (Thomas Merton, “Final Integration,” in Conversion: Perspective on Personal and Social Transformation, Alba House: New York, 1978).