Steve Lindsley
(1 Kings 19: 4a, 9-15a)

Let me begin the sermon today with a preface of sorts – a preface that I crafted earlier this week before we made the decision to suspend church activities and move worship online.   Sermons, at their best (and even at their worst) are meant to be for the people of God wherever they are in life – the intersection of whatever is happening inside them and whatever is going on the world around them.  And part of the beauty of sermons is that the same sermon can say one thing to one person and entirely different thing to another – a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit if there ever was one.

And so with that, let me offer this up:

If you are burned out, today’s story is for you.
If you are living at the intersection of multiple anxieties, this story is for you.
If you are experiencing isolation or separation, be it coronavirus or family or group dynamics, this story is for you.
If worry and uncertainty are the backdrop of your day, this story is for you.
If you struggle feeling God in the places you’ve felt God before, this story is for you.

This story is for all of us, because I am certain that every one of us has been at one or more of these points in life, perhaps even right now.

This story I’m talking about is Elijah’s story, the one I read earlier; the story of a prophet who went from the top of the mountain to the depths of the valley in the blink of an eye.  This prophet who could not understand how God’s clear and undeniable victory at Mount Carmel would fail at convincing even the most hardened skeptic, the most mortal of enemies, that God was Lord of all.  Elijah expected vindication, and instead got criminalization.  He expected to be welcomed with open arms, and instead had to flee for his life.

If you’ve ever known what it’s like to give your absolute best and still have it not be enough, this story is for you.

Elijah is so distraught, so demoralized, so devastated by this tragic turn of events that he runs away, he removes himself from the situation, he engages in a whole different kind of “social distancing,” if you will.  He heads off into the wilderness, a full day’s journey; because the wilderness is where dreams go to die, it is where dreamers go when their dreams are crushed; a vast desert of emptiness and escape.

The wilderness is also, ironically, where we find God.  Or, more accurately, where God finds us.

And in this story, God finds Elijah in a cave.  A cave.  Because, one assumes, the wilderness was not wilderness-y enough; nothing like a hole in the ground.

And it is into this hole in the ground that God speaks to the prophet: What are you doing here, Elijah?  Like a parent who discovers their child in a place they are not supposed to be: what are you doing here??  More than “what,” though, it seems God is asking why – why are you here, Elijah?  Why are you here, when this is the last place you should be?  Why are you holed up in this cave, when you should be out there speaking my word to the people?  What are you doing here, Elijah?

And the prophet responds: I have been very zealous for the Lord, 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.”

It sounds rehearsed, and it very well may be.  And in the end it can be summed up in four words:

I alone am left.

If you’ve ever felt alone in life, this story is for you.

God responds to Elijah’s lament with three theophanies.  Like the burning bush we talked about two weeks ago; the appearance of a deity to a mortal.  Here, the appearance first takes the form of a great wind, then a huge earthquake, then a fire.  They are all big and brash, bold and bombastic.  And they are met, each of them, with this interesting qualifier: That the Lord was not in the wind. And the Lord was not in the earthquake. And the Lord was not in the fire.  

And then this “still small voice.”  Or is it a “sound of sheer silence”?  Or “a gentle and quiet whisper,” or “a thin sound,” or “a low whisper,” or “a gentle blowing wind,” or “a sound of quiet”?

It depends on which translation you’re reading, because each of these are different translations of the original Hebrew, some of the most confounding Hebrew in the Old Testament.  It is almost as if the text is intentionally vague, not letting the reader really know what is going on here.

If you’ve ever not known what is going on, this story is for you.

We assume that the Lord is in this “sound of sheer silence,” or whatever it is.  We assume that because, unlike the wind and fire and earthquake, we are not told that the Lord is not.  But interestingly we are not told that it is, either.  

But we assume the Lord is in the voice because we are drawn to the idea of God coming to us in a voice, telling us exactly what we want to hear, laying it all out so we don’t have to read the signs that can sometimes overwhelm us, and instead be content in the silence of it all, living our quieter lives with a quiet-voiced God.

But it never says if God is in the voice or not.  We are left wondering exactly where is God.  And maybe that’s the point.

I wonder – I wonder if this story that is for all of us is not about what the presence of God is in or is not in, as much as it is about what will get Elijah out of the cave.  For that is what God most wants here; of that there is no doubt.  The prophet has holed himself up in the ground, hiding in depths of the wilderness, hiding away from a world that needs to hear God’s voice – not the still silent one, but the one that speaks love to the loveless, justice to the suffering, hope to those without. 

God needs God’s voice back in action. So God tries to blow Elijah out of the cave with a great wind, shake him out with an earthquake, smoke him out with a fire.  And none of them work. Rather, it is the still-small-voice-of-sheer-silence-and-gentle-low-whisper that finally gets Elijah to come out of the cave.

There’s a scene near the end of the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine, the story of the dysfunctional but loving Hoover family and their quest to get daughter Olive from their home in Albuquerque to California for her lifelong dream – competing in a beauty queen pageant.  The trip is fraught with challenges and obstacles, exhausting family tensions – a father muddling as a life coach and motivational speaker, a mother who just tries to keep it all together, a brother-in law recovering from a suicide attempt, and a high-school son, Dwayne, who reads Nitcheze and has taken a vow of silence until he can accomplish his goal of becoming a fighter pilot.

They are cruising along in the yellow family VW Microbus and are almost to the pageant when it’s discovered quite by accident that Dwayne is colorblind – which means he’ll never get to be a fighter pilot.  The realization of this hits Dwayne like a freight train.  Crisis ensues.  He is thrashing about in the backseat, barely able to contain his rage.  Olive looks on in alarm.  Mom, Dad and Uncle yell at each other: Pull over!  He needs to get out.  Pull over!

Dwayne bursts out of the open van door before it fully stops and runs aimlessly into the California desert wilderness.  If there was a cave out there, he surely would’ve holed up in it.  He is a good hundred yards away from everyone; he collapses to the ground, hunched over, screaming and sobbing.

One by one the three adults go to him and try to comfort Dwayne, they tell him that they’re sorry, so very sorry, but they have to go, Olive has to get to the pageant, come on Dwayne, we’ll figure it out, come on.  And one by one, clearly breaking his vow of silence, Dwayne tells them in less-than-flattering language to go away, that he never wants to see them again, to just leave him alone.

I alone am left.

What do we do, the adults ask themselves, standing by the van looking down at a devastated Dwayne a hundred yards away.  They barely notice Olive walking down the embankment toward her brother until she’s almost there.  Olive stops just behind his shoulder.  Then she steps forward and slowly kneels beside him and puts her arm around him.  With great care, she lowers her head onto his shoulder.  The two sit there for a while like that, until Dwayne says softly, “Okay.  Okay.”  And they get up and walk back to the van.

God asks: What are you doing here, Elijah?  What are you doing here?  And Elijah responds the exact same way as before: I have been very zealous for the Lord, 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.”  Except this time God tells him what to do, and he comes out of the cave.

We come out of the caves we hole ourselves up, not because of the loud and bombastic, not from the ever-present voices that cajole and rationalize and reason.  We come out of our caves when we are given space.  And that space – that still small voice or sound of sheer silence or whatever you want to call it – that is the point of it all.  It is not that God is in the still small voice, as the voice is what compels us to go where God is.  It is not so much that God is in the still small voice, as the voice is what compels us to go where God is.

I wonder, in these strange times we find ourselves in, as we are worshipping God in a way we never have before; I wonder as we ponder this new normal, what God may be compelling you to do.  How will you live into your calling as a child of God; how will you live into your calling as the body of Christ today? 

And that is why…

If you are holed up in a cave right now, this story is for you.
If you are burned out,
If you are living at the intersection of multiple anxieties, this story is for you.
If you feel some level of isolation or separation, this story is for you.
If worry and uncertainty are the backdrop of your day, this story is for you.
If you struggle feeling God in the places you’ve felt God before,
If you struggle connecting with God,
This story is for you.

This story is for all of us.
A story that reminds us every time we hear it
That we are not alone.
That the voice we hear
It is the voice that compels us
To come out of the cave
And go where God is.

To live into our calling, whatever that calling may be.
To be church in these strange times, to be church in every time,?
To be church.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Featured image from https://www.talesfromthedesert.com/portfolio/marys-cave/