A Sound of Sheer Silence

by David Baer, November 5, 2017

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Text: 1 Kings 19:1-18

There was a little game I used to play as a kid, when I was riding in the car with a certain elderly relative. I would count to three in my head, and then she would say something. And sometimes someone else would respond, sometimes not. But sooner or later we would lapse into silence again. And I would count to three, and she would say something. It never failed. I could never make it past three before the silence would be broken.

We all feel a little differently about silence. As a kid, I had a rich imagination, and if left to myself I would be perfectly happy thinking about all kinds of things. Silence gave me the space to explore that inner world, and I craved it. But this relative of mine, like many other people, craved stimulation and interaction, and for her silence was a barrier, an obstacle to what she wanted.

How do you feel about silence?

There are different kinds of silence. In one of the psalms, we hear God speaking, saying, “Be still, and know that I am God” (46:10), shouting down the noise of earthly kingdoms that turn away from worshiping their Creator to make war on one another. Sometimes silence means stilling the distractions that will always try to shout down God’s voice if we allow them. But sometimes silence is a tool the powerful use to keep control over others. In the First Letter to Timothy, someone–Paul or, I believe—someone writing in Paul’s name—says that women should keep silent in churches, and not presume to teach men (2:12). That never made sense to me—if it weren’t for the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning and brought the news of the resurrection, there would be no church! Thanks be to God that those women refused to be silent about the good news! So silence can be welcome, but an imposed silence can be used to oppress folks who lack power, like women or victims of abuse. It makes a difference whose silence it is, and what purpose it serves.

This fall we are working our way through the story of God and God’s people, starting with the creation back in September. When we last checked in a week ago, God’s people had settled into a kingdom of their own in the promised land. Their ruler, King Solomon, achieved power and prosperity for himself (and the kingdom too) beyond all imagining, and he constructed a great Temple for God in the capital in Jerusalem. Today we skip forward in time—the kingdom has been torn in two, in part due to Solomon’s own brutal policy of forced labor. The larger northern kingdom is known as Israel, and that is where our story takes place. It is a kingdom marked by political instability, where rulers look to make alliances with foreign powers to secure their position. King Ahab has married Jezebel, a foreigner, who introduced the worship of Baal. She was opposed by the prophet Elijah, who called the people and their rulers to be faithful to their God.

Elijah was a master showman. You might have heard the story of how he faced down the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel in a showdown he himself had orchestrated. Those 400 prophets couldn’t get their god to answer them, to take the sacrifice they had placed on dry wood. But Elijah poured water over his wood three times, called on God, and God’s lightning blasted down from heaven and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, and the water. The people were so amazed that they fell on their faces—or else they were thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion. That was the kind of event to get your attention. In his zeal, Elijah commanded the people to round up the prophets of Baal and put them to death. Whatever you think of what he did that day, the good and the bad, you can say this: it was an unforgettable event.

But Queen Jezebel heard about what Elijah had done and threatened his life. And so Elijah ran. I was curious about that, because Elijah so far has been exceptionally courageous, facing down kings and false prophets. It seems out of character for him to run from danger. But run he does, all the way down from the northern kingdom of Israel, through the southern kingdom of Judah and across the southern border into the desert where God’s people wandered before they came into the promised land. Elijah sits down, announces that he’s had enough, and asks God if he can just die.

But God doesn’t let him die. God sends angels with food to strengthen him for an incredible journey. The exodus took forty years, and Elijah takes a symbolic forty days and forty nights as he goes backward, out of the promised land and back to God’s special mountain, called either Horeb or Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Elijah is going back to the beginning of everything.

And then there’s another curiosity. God isn’t exactly happy to see him there. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks. And Elijah delivers his complaint, “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.” Is all of this true? Is Elijah really all alone? God doesn’t answer. Instead, God says, “Go out on the mountain, because I’m about to pass by.” Then there’s a great big wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, great and terrifying natural forces. But God isn’t in any of them.

Instead, after all these disasters have passed, there’s something that we have a hard time translating from the Hebrew. It’s a “qol d’mmamah daqqah,” literally “a sound of thin or fine silence.” It’s paradoxical isn’t it? How can silence have a sound? But it’s this sound of fine silence, or sound of sheer silence, that causes Elijah to wrap up his face, a sign that he knows he is in God’s presence. God asks him again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah gives the same complaint. But this time, out of the voice of silence, comes a new mission. Return on your way, God says. I want you to anoint these men as kings, and I want you to anoint this man as a successor to you. And, by the way, you are not alone—there are 7000 in Israel who don’t worship Baal. It is the voice speaking out of the silence that gives Elijah a new direction and purpose in his life.

This week I heard the story of a man named Daryl Davis. Davis is an African American who has sought out individual members of the Ku Klux Klan to engage them in dialogue. Here’s how one report describes his work:

Davis began his crusade by asking himself the existential question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” After a chance meeting with a member of the KKK following a gig, Davis began to reach out to members of hate groups, and he found that the more willing he was to hear them out, the more open they became to embracing him. More than two dozen white supremacists have since renounced their ideology of hate in part because of Davis’ peace offering. And as part of that process, they have symbolically handed over their Klan robes and paraphernalia to him.1

The loudest, most powerful voices these days seem to be offering messages of hate, but here is someone who, in his own quiet way, is changing hearts and changing the world for the better.

I wonder whether, like Elijah, we sometimes look for God and for meaning in the extraordinary, noisy events that surround us. And I wonder whether it doesn’t lead us to feel discouraged, to feel that our ordinary moments are of no use. God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. God was present in the stillness that came when all those things had ceased. God certainly speaks to us in worship, in events, in the big moments. But God uses folks like you, when you take the time to share a few moments with our children, when you offer up a song. God speaks through you when you sit with an older person who is lonely, even if you don’t say anything. God’s grace and love are so powerful, so creative, that silence and stillness can just as easily carry them to us as light and sound—and sometimes more powerfully.

So may you listen for God in the silences that punctuate your day. May you listen and be renewed in your purpose and calling as God’s child. And may the big and ordinary moments of your life speak with God’s grace. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Adam Howard, “Documentary about Black Man’s Attempt to Befriend Ku Klux Klan.” NBC News. 8 Mar 2016. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/documentary-about-black-man-s-attempt-befriend-ku-klux-klan-n534006. Accessed 11/5/2017.

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