Rebecca Heilman
(1 Kings 19 – selected verses)

You would expect for me to say that the loudest place I ever lived was New York City. And while it was loud on a Friday afternoon at rush hour, NYC didn’t compare to Lusaka in the African country of Zambia. I believe I’ve told you this before. I was a PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer who decided to do a year of service in the capital city of Zambia immediately following college. I lived in a sort of suburb or what they called a compound teaching 5thand 6th grade. I lived with a host family on the property of the Presbyterian church, which was located in the center of a market. It was never a quiet place, even at night. There was always music, yelling, honking, rumbles of market deals, squabbles in the square, and lots of children playing. While I absolutely loved my time there, I also had to adjust to the noise and from night one on, I could not sleep without earplugs. But still that only blocked some of the noise. On the nights of the national team’s soccer match, if there was a win, a roar of noise shook the walls of our house. And on the night of their presidential election, there were celebrations after celebrations in the streets. And during the daily rolling blackouts, every time the lights came back on, so did all the TVs, radios, and cheers of voices for electricity. Zambia was not a quiet place to live. When someone passed away, the sounds of women wailing and weeping was enough to make anyone join in. It was liberating to cry like that. And when a baby was born and baptized, a joyful noise rung in the air. On a more subtle, personal note, each early morning, and only after the sun had risen just enough to see, I would hear tiny laughter outside of my window, often calling my name. I confess, there were mornings when I woke up frustrated that my earplugs couldn’t keep out the noise for just five more minutes of sleep. I would sometimes wake up grumpy, already hearing the loud market goers moving around our church. Another day of constant noise. I would help my host mother heat up some water and sit on the front steps with my cup of tea and listen to the sounds around me. During that “me time” in the mornings, the little laughter ran up to touch my hair or ask me quizzical questions. I eventually grew used to my neighborhood and the sounds. But it took me even longer to hear God in it. That’s the thing about God, God speaks through ways we least expect. And while this story today is about God showing up in silence, I think it’s also a story about how we listen for God.

Elijah, as a prophet of Yahweh, is very good at walking the walk and talking the talk. He is not afraid to go up against 450 prophets to prove that Yahweh is the one God. He is not afraid to call on God to show God’s power through fire and rage. And he’s not afraid to slaughter those prophets right then and there once he proves them wrong. But Elijah is afraid of Queen Jezebel. And so he runs. He runs for the hills, fleeing for his life, until he arrives to a cave on Mount Horeb, the same holy ground where Yahweh gave the law to Moses. God said to Elijah, “Why are you here?”[1] And Elijah replies, “I’ve been passionate for you because your people have abandoned your covenant. I am the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”[2] Either unsatisfied with Elijah’s answer or taking pity on his whining or wanting to remind Elijah of God’s power and presence, God tells Elijah to stand at the mountain because the Lord is passing by. Elijah moves to the edge of the mountain then the wind shakes through the trees, stones break apart with a rumble, and fire erupts, but God isn’t in any of those grand, tumultuous things. God turned out to be in the thin and quiet, almost like sheer silence.

The theologian, Richard Elliot Friedman, in his book, The Disappearance of God, works his way through the Hebrew Bible arguing that God fades as God goes.[3] God took on clear and in your face appearances or images in the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, such as walking through the Garden of Eden, appearing as a burning bush, or speaking directly to the Israelite people. As time went on, Friedman argues that God takes a step back both to allow humans to take a step forward and because it’s what we asked for.[4] We asked for kings, prophets, and temples. According to the Hebrew text, Solomon was the last person God “appeared” to. After those verses in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings, the Hebrew word for “appear” no longer used and we move into the genre of prophets.[5] And the last public miracle in the Hebrew Bible is the challenge right before this text between Baal and Yahweh on Mount Carmel, where God shows up in fire. Then God shows up at least one more time in the clearest way possible, as thin and quiet, almost like sheer silence. It’s almost as if God is foreshadowing how the rest of God’s presence will feel in the Hebrew Bible. After this passing by in front of Elijah, God fades from the Hebrew Bible and shows up in visions and dreams through prophets and individuals. And there are periods in exile that God feels almost non-existent. Suddenly, God was no longer in our face and so faith became a must. And listening for God, in the loudness or the silence became much more essential.

But we’re not always good at listening. According to the University of Missouri, “Numerous tests confirm that we are inefficient listeners. Studies have shown that immediately after listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, understood and retained 50 percent of what was said.” So you’re only taking about 50% of this sermon home with you today. That’s okay! But I’ve got more bad news maybe for me – “Within 48 hours, that drops off another 50 percent to a final level of 25 percent efficiency.In other words, we often comprehend and retain only one fourth of what we hear.”[6] There are numerous reasons why this is, 1) We find the subject uninteresting, I hope that’s not true right now. 2) We criticize the person’s delivery or appearance. 3) We focus on something we disagree with. 4) We focus only details and facts and on and on and on.[7] Listening can be a challenge for us. I hardly remember what my economy professor taught me in college and I hardly remember how participles work in Greek and I hardly remember what Douglas asked me to pick up on the way home.

Listening can be a challenge for us. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, When God is Silent, Christianity is an overly talkative religion. “…Some Christians have trouble listening to God. Many of us prefer to speak. Our corporate prayers are punctuated with phrases such as ‘Hear us, Lord’ or ‘Lord, hear our prayer,’ as if the burden to listen were on God and not us. We name our concerns, giving God suggestion on what to do about them. What reversal of power might occur if we turn the process around naming our concerns and asking God to tell us what to do about them? Sometimes I think we do all the talking because we are afraid God won’t. Or, conversely, that God will.”[8]

Listening can be a challenge for us. As white people and a majority white congregation, we are especially challenged to listen to our black, indigenous, neighbors of color. It’s easy to fill the space with our voices, our stories, our guilt, our worry of insulting instead of understanding and accepting how we have caused pain through systemic and overt racism. It’s easy to fill the space to talk ourselves and others out of a racist comment we heard around the dinner table or with a friend at the grocery store. And conversely, it’s even easier for us to remain silent when we’ve been a part of racist system for years. Austin Channing Brown, the author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitenesswrites, “In too many churches and organizations, listening to the hurt and pain of people of color is the end of the road, rather than the beginning….Too often, dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come.”[9] I nearly threw my kindle across the room when I read this. Listening to truth and vulnerability directly from the lips and pages of modern-day prophets can be challenging for us. But Channing Brown in getting at something here and it’s right there in the text as well.

Elijah hears God through the thin and quiet, almost a sheer silence. It must have surprised Elijah, maybe shocked him to the bone. What an astounding nature of God to speak through silence. Just when we expect God to speak through loud thunders and claps of wind, God says otherwise and shows up in a noticeable soft wisp. Elijah isn’t expecting that. And he isn’t expecting what comes next. Seconds later, God asks Elijah the same question that God starts out with, “Why are you here, Elijah?”[10] And Elijah gives the same answer as before, “I’ve been passionate for you because your people have abandoned your covenant. I am the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”[11] Yahweh, ignoring all pity, whines, white guilt and fear, gives an imperative Hebrew word, “Go back.”  Elijah doesn’t argue. He is stung by the presence of God and he listens, goes back and does all that God instructs him to do.

Austin Channing Brown writes, ““In too many churches and organizations, listening to the hurt and pain of people of color is the end of the road, rather than the beginning…. Too often, dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come.”[12] Folks, listening is the first step. It’s the step we take to be alongside our Black, indigenous and siblings of color. It’s the first step to understand and to hear their stories. It’s the first step of learning and being curious about how we participate in systems of oppression. It’s only the first step. From there, we take action like Elijah. We open spaces and leadership positions. We think about and wonder about how we can participate in affordable housing. We support black businesses and organizations that are working towards breaking the shackles of racism. We use the power, given to this church and to our skin color to raise awareness on the local community level and seek change.

I know this seems like a lot to ask. Just like Elijah, we might feel the urge to run, to run from the messy and chaotic feelings with great fear. We might want to run for the hills. And if we feel the urge to do that, I invite you to keep your ears open. God speaks in noticeable and astounding ways. God speaks through stories and faces. Through silence and through grief. God speaks through children and through anger. Through tears and through laughter. By listening we are called to action, hearing the great whisper in our ears welcoming us to work towards a peaceable kindom.

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.


[1] 1 Kings 19:9.
[2] 1 Kings 19:10.
[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent (Lanham: A Cowley Publications, 1998), “Silence,” Kindle.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Dick Lee and Delmar Hatesohl, “Listening: Our Most Used Communications Skill,” Extension University of Missouri, accessed March 8, 2021,
[7] Ibid.
[8] Taylor, When God is Silent, “Silence,” Kindle.
[9] Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), Kindle.
[10] 1 Kings 19:13.
[11] 1 Kings 19:14.
[12] Ibid.