logo Practical Dreamers

God isn't just a big noise

Colin Gibson


A sermon preached at Mornington and Glenaven on Sunday 20 June 2004

I’m walking down Lectionary Street and the usual goods are on sale for the hopeful preacher.   What do we have here today?   First, a tattered pile of old letters tied round with faded ribbon — the top one addressed to the Galatian Church Property Committee;  then a dog-eared song-book written by David somebody or other — no music, just words;  next to it some sort of treatise by a foreign–sounding doctor.   The cover’s been torn off, but the title-page announces  ‘the Gospel according to Luke’.   But here’s a much older book;  the first of a two-volume set simply titled KINGS.   Must be a pretty old book, though — when I bang the covers together a cloud of dust rises from the pages.

I flick through each of them in turn, but only half-heartedly.   I already know which of them will claim my real attention.   You see, I’ve spotted a story in that dusty Kings volume, and its chief character is named ELIJAH.

Now lots of people have never heard of Elijah.   That may surprise some of us, the older ones, who were brought up on Sunday School stories about Bible heroes.   Nowdays, the best known Elijah is probably the actor Elijah Woods, who despite his name played the role of Frodo, the furry-footed hobbit in The Lord of the Rings.   But I was lucky enough to grow up with the Old Testament stories of the real Elijah: the prophet’s challenge to the priests of Baal, his confrontation with King Ahab and his evil Queen, Jezebel, after they had the hapless Naboth murdered to get possession of his vineyard; and most sensational of all, Elijah’s departure for heaven in a fiery chariot and a whirlwind.

I sang that old hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’, which reminded me of the momentous time when Elijah stood on Mount Sinai and heard the voice of God not in the wind, the fire or even the earthquake:  ‘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!’ Shall we sing it together now.

… … …

The choirs of those times were still tackling some of the music from Mendelssohn’s grand oratorio Elijah, though I confess now I can only remember the tenor aria,  ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee’ and the much livelier chorus of the frantic priests of Baal, imploring their god to light their altar pyres, ‘Baal, we cry to thee!

You may remember how Elijah then triumphantly called down fire to light his own altar — but I doubt if you were ever told the story of how later on the old man really got the hang of it and zapped two whole companies of the King of Israel’s soldiers.   This episode (it comes from 2 Kings 1) is wildly imaginative, very likely a later story-teller’s variation on the original Baal story, but it brings this tough old character alive in a way that nothing else in the Bible does:

Ahaziah fell through a latticed window in his roof-chamber Samaria and injured himself; he sent messengers to inquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron whether he would recover from his illness.  The angel of the Lord ordered Elijah the Tishbite to go and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and say to them,  'Is there no god in Israel that you go to inquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron?  This is the word of the Lord to your master:  "You shall not rise from the bed where you are lying; you will die."   Then Elijah departed.  The messengers went back to the king.   When asked why they had returned, they answered that a man had come to meet them and had ordered them to return and say to the king who had sent them, 'This is the word of the Lord: "Is there no god in Israel, that you send to inquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron?  In consequence, you shall not rise from the bed where you are lying; you will die."  The king asked them what kind of man it was who had met them and said this.   'A hairy man', they answered, 'with a leather apron round his waist.'  'It is Elijah the Tishbite', said the king.

Then the king sent a captain to him with his company of fifty.   He went up and found the prophet sitting on a hill-top and said to him,  'Man of God, the king orders you to come down.'   Elijah answered the captain, 'If I am a man of God, may fire fall from heaven and consume you and your company!'  Fire fell from heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men.   The king sent another captain of fifty with his company, and he went up and said to the prophet,  'Man of God, this is the king's command:  Come down at once.'  Elijah answered, 'If I am a man of God, may fire fall from heaven and consume you and your company!'  God's fire fell from heaven and consumed the man and his company.  The king sent the captain of a third company with his fifty men, and this third captain went up the hill to Elijah and knelt down before him and pleaded with him:  'Man of God, consider me and these fifty servants of yours, and set some value on our lives.  Fire fell from heaven and consumed the other two captains of fifty and their companies; but let my life have some value in your eyes.' The angel of the Lord said to Elijah, 'Go down with him.  Do not be afraid.'  So he rose and went down with him to the king, and he said, 'This is the word of the Lord:  "You have sent to inquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron, and therefore you shall not rise from the bed where you are lying; BAl;
you will die."  The word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken was fulfilled, and Ahaziah died; and because he had no son, his brother Jehoram succeeded him in the second year of Joram son of Jehoshaphat king of Judah.

If I try to recapture even dimmer memories of the prophet, there’s a moment when Elijah briefly touched Jesus’ life, at the time of the Transfiguration, when Jesus, so the gospel writers solemnly reported, was seen walking with the greatest figures of Hebrew sacred history — Moses and Elijah. — O and I nearly forgot to mention the famous widow who fed the holy man on one loaf and a single flask of oil for months on end.   That’s a real miracle of domestic economy!

Now, sadly, Elijah has drifted right out of the religious education of our children;  most kids in the secular world will never have heard of him or his vivid life-story.

Not so Jewish children; for Elijah still holds a very special place in the traditions of the Jewish faith, as a kind of folk hero.   Since in the biblical legend Elijah did not die but was carried straight to heaven, it was assumed that he could return to this world at will, and so he often figures in Jewish legends as a messenger between earth and heaven.   Other folk tales describe him as a sort of St Nicholas who intervenes to help the poor and those in danger.

Strict Jews believe that Elijah will return at the end of time, to decide all the questions of Jewish law the rabbis have never been able to agree on (that’s a very Jewish joke, isn’t it!); and to announce the coming of the Messiah (who for the Jews, of course, is not Jesus).  Elijah’s presence is always invoked at the ancient Passover ritual, when Jews hope he will return to decide whether a fifth cup of wine is to be taken — the sign of the imminent return of the Messiah.   And a chair is left for him at the circumcision ceremony for every Jewish boy, which he must attend, since any baby boy might turn out to be the future messiah.

But what are we moderns to make of this tough old Hebrew prophet, half historical human being, half a figure of religious legend and folklore.  Does his life-story, real or imaginary, carry any kind of truths for those of us who live nearly three thousand years later, in a science-based, secular culture and a global society?

I’m not going to pretend to discover any grand moral truths in the Elijah story, though I would have to respect any human being whose uncompromising stand for justice, whose ferocious defence of his own brand of religious faith has rung down through so many centuries.   In every age there are false gods worshipped by foolish people; in every age there are powerful rulers who arrogantly rob and exploit those weaker than themselves; in every age, thank God, there are Elijahs to stand up to them.

But let me highlight two moments in the Elijah story which really register with me.

Immediately after Elijah’s triumph over the priests of Baal (and remember that we’re told he personally slaughtered every one of the priests of Baal — 450 men — on the banks of the river Kishon) Queen Jezebel, herself a Phoenician and a worshipper of Baal, sent a death threat:  “May the gods strike me dead if by this time tomorrow I don’t do the same thing to you as you did to the priests’.   Elijah flees into the wilderness and after walking a whole day sits under the shade of a tree and wishes to die.  ‘It’s too much, Lord. Take away my life.  I might as well be dead.’

A suicidal biblical hero!  That may not be politically correct, but it confirms for me Elijah’s full humanity.   It’s psychologically plausible too.   Imagine if you can the enormous tension, the adrenalin charge of the day-long battle with the Baal priests; the crazed blood-letting that followed — and then the emotional exhaustion, the let-down, the sudden threat of death and the desperate journey into the desert.   The man is at the end of his strength: and what saves him from suicide?

Food and a good sleep!   A practical angel gives him a loaf of bread and a jar of water, lets him have a good long nap, then wakes him up and tells him to have some more, before he journeys on.   ‘Get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you.’   Now I don’t care very much whether we share that ancient people’s belief in spiritual beings of the winged and feathered sort, and think that an angel from God’s pizza parlour really alighted beside that despairing man;  or whether, noticing that this is the widow’s life-saving food all over again, we deduce that it’s Elijah’s memory of that act of generous humanity that saves him.   Explain it as you will.   But don’t we all know deep down that the simple giving and sharing of food is one of the most spiritual things we can do?   Families eating together at a table know it;  friends meeting for a cup of coffee know it;  aid workers distributing food parcels to starving people know it;  women taking some baking or a pot of soup to a sick member of their congregation know it;  eating fish and bread after a cold Easter service standing on the sandy shore of Otago harbour we know it;  gathered to break bread and share wine at every communion time we know it, and know it profoundly.

Well that’s one moment;  the second comes later, when Elijah, having been strengthened for the journey walks another forty days to reach the sacred mountain Sinai (where Moses before him had had a conversation with God).  He enters a cave to shelter for the night, but God speaks to him and asks him, ‘Elijah, what are you doing here?’ — and this is where our lectionary reading kicks in.

Suddenly the word of the Lord came to him: 'Why are you here Elijah ?'   'Because of my great zeal for the Lord the God of Hosts', he said.   'The people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, torn down thy altars and put thy prophets to death with the sword.  I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.'  The answer came: 'Go and stand on the mount before the Lord.'   For the Lord was passing by:  a great and strong wind came rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a low murmuring sound.   When Elijah heard it, he muffied his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.   Then there came a voice:  'Why are you here Elijah?'   'Because of my great zeal for the Lord the God of Hosts', he said.   'The people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, torn down thy altars and put thy prophets to death with the sword.   I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.'
   The Lord said to him, 'Go back by way of the wilderness of Damascus.   Enter the city and anoint Hazael to be king of Aram;  anoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to be prophet in your place.   Anyone who escapes the sword of Hazael Jehu will slay, and anyone who escapes the sword of Jehu Elisha will slay.   But I will leave seven thousand in Israel,  all who have not bent the knee to Baal; all whose lips have not kissed him.'

First imagine the din!   A rock-splitting hurricane wind, the earth-shattering rumbling of an earthquake, and then fire — a thunderbolt, perhaps, of the kind that earlier kindled Elijah’s sacrificial fire and ‘burned up the sacrifice, the wood and the stones, scorched the earth and dried up a trench filled with water.   Even a more terrific noise than a symphony orchestra playing at full bore or a heavy metal band with the volume turned right up.

And then silence gradually reclaiming the hill and the desert below … and in that silence the soft whisper of a voice.   Or as the King James version has it, ‘a still small voice’, or even more impressively as modern scholars translate the Hebrew, ‘a divine voice came out of the sound of sheer silence’.   Now I’m not a great one for believing in conversations with God, even biblical ones: too many crooks and scoundrels and tyrants have claimed to hear the voice of God whispering what they want to tell their victims.   Too many religious crackpots and fundamentalists declare that they have been granted the privilege of a divine word or two.   And the actual message Elijah receives is a truly horrible communication, unworthy of any morally credible God:  the prophet is to anoint Hazael king of Syria,  Jehu King of Israel  and Elisha as his own successor.   Any of the Baal believers who escape death at the hands of Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and anyone who escapes Jehu is to be killed by Elisha.  That will exterminate all the unbelievers and leave 7,000 faithful God-worshippers alive in Israel.  (Is it any wonder that the secular world thinks Christians worship a terrorist God?)

But let me go back to what is really precious here.   God’s voice (however we understand that term) comes out of the sound of sheer silence.   Not the noise, not the spectacular display, not the microphones turned up full, but sheer silence.   It might be the dreadful silence of despair, when we think God has deserted us.   It might be the silence of stunned loss, when we ask how could God have let this happen.   It might be the silence of intense prayer and meditation when we strain with all our being to hear any faintest sound of the divine presence.   It might be the great gap, the apparent absence of God’s voice in the roaring noise of daily life.   But out of that silence still comes the small voice, the softest whisper of God.

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people—maybe more—
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share,
And no one dare disturb the sound of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made,
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming,
And the sign said: ‘The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls,
And whispered in the sounds of silence.’



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