1 Kings 19:1-15 - "A Sound of Sheer Silence"

Today we are diving into the book of 1 Kings, a book I am sure you all know like the back of your hands. But on the off-chance that at the end of a long and smoky summer, there's at least one person who might need a bit of a refresher, let's take a quick step back.  

The books of Kings are, unsurprisingly, about the Kings of Israel and Judah. The story of the kings begins in the books of Samuel when the Israelites asked God for a king to "govern over them and fight their battles for them." God relented and gave them first King Saul, and then David, which is where 1 Kings picks up. During the reigns of King David and his son Solomon, the 12 tribes of Israel were united as one nation. But as punishment for David's disobedience to God, after Solomon's death, the people of the 10 northern tribes rebelled against the Davidic line of kings and set up their own kingdom, which they called Israel. Its capital was Samaria, whom the Samaritans of Jesus' day were descended from. Those hated enemies were once family. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the Davidic line of kings who ruled over the southern kingdom, now called Judah.  The two kingdoms sometimes coexisted in peace, sometimes as enemies until they each fell, first the North to Assyria and then the South to Babylon.

1 Kings 16 tells us that Ahab was king over the northern kingdom of Israel and he cemented an alliance with their powerful Phoenician neighbors by marrying the king's daughter Jezebel, who worshipped her god, Baal. Jezebel is depicted as the archetypal bad girl of the Bible—the woman who leads the good men of Israel astray. The prophet Elijah appears on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere. In chapter 17, he sets up an overwhelming and impressive demonstration of YHWH's superiority. On Mount Carmel, Elijah challenges hundreds of prophets of Baal to a test of who is truly god—YHWH or Baal? They each set up an altar and whoever's god sends down fire to burn it up will be proven to be the true god. Since this is a story in our sacred text, I think you guess the ending—the prophets of Baal do all that they can, but no fire comes down to burn their offering. But even when Elijah douses the altar and its surroundings with water, fire from heaven comes down and burns the altar, stones, and even the surrounding water in the trench. Immediately afterward, Elijah has the Israelite prophets kill all the prophets of Baal, and that is where today's reading begins—the furious queen swearing to get revenge against this wandering prophet who preaches that her god is not the true God. 

Will you join me in a prayer of illumination as we prepare our hearts to hear the word of the Lord today?

Gracious God,
we do not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from your mouth. 
Make us hungry for this heavenly food,
that it may nourish us today
in the ways of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven. 

Today's reading is from 1 Kings 19:1-15,

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done—how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "May the gods do the same to me, and more also if I do not make your life like of one of them by this time tomorrow." Then Elijah was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He got up and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place, he came to a cave and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 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."

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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak 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?" 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." 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We don't often get insights into the inner thoughts and emotions of biblical characters. We hear their stories and have to wonder at the rest. But in a rare moment, we find out what prompts Elijah's journey to Sinai—he was afraid, and fear can make people behave in the most unexpected ways. Fear made Elijah flee to the wilderness. You see, the wilderness was a place of deep, theological meaning for Israelites—throughout the Old Testament, it's the place where God meets Abraham, Hagar, Jacob, and Moses, to name just a few. This is one of many things that made this Israelites different than their neighbors in the Ancient Near East. The gods of their polytheistic neighbors—El, Ishtar, Marduk, and Baal—lived only in their temples. But YHWH? YHWH was a strange, nomadic god that kept showing up to the people in the desert. By Elijah's day, YHWH was supposed to live the temple that Solomon had built. The Israelites wanted their god to be like the gods of their neighbors. To be close to the presence of God, you were supposed to go to the temple. To be a prophet, you were supposed to be with the people. Instead, Elijah goes to the last place he should be, but perhaps the first place we should expect—he goes to the wilderness. 

Growing up in the lush Pacific Northwest, talk of wilderness conjured up images in my mind of the mountains and lakes of the North Cascades; of solitary backpacking trips and tree-covered mountains as far as the eye can see. But when I was in college, I studied abroad in the Middle East and we took a trip to Jordan to visit Petra. At the edge of the ancient stone city, I looked at out at the desolation that stretches as far as the eye can see and I finally understood the wilderness the Old Testament refers to—a hot, barren, desert. It is a wilderness of dust and rocks. 

It is after a day in this desert, that Elijah asks the Lord to take away his life. Admittedly, this is a strange thing for a person fleeing for their life to say. Elijah may want to die, but he does not want to be killed. As he sleeps under a broom tree, an angel wakes him and tells him to drink water and eat a cake baked on hot stones, the same cakes the Israelites ate in the wilderness, for Elijah is on own exodus journey. He does what the angel commands and then falls back asleep again. I love this brief moment of humanness. In the midst of crisis, our bodies need nourishment to sustain the journey we are on. When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I was constantly asking the family members of the patients- have you slept? How much water have you had today? Have you eaten nourishing food? Our bodies cannot be ignored. Before Elijah is able to encounter the divine, he needs to encounter the ordinary. The angel wakes him up again, and so Elijah eats and drinks enough to carry him on a long journey to Mount Horeb on the Sinai Peninsula. 

Perhaps Elijah came to Mount Horeb because he knew that YHWH had been there before. It was on this mountain that God first met Moses in a fiery bush; that in the Exodus, God passed before Moses so that his face shown with the glory of the Lord. Surely, Elijah must have thought, YHWH will do something miraculous for me here.

As he sleeps in the cave, the word of the Lord comes to him and asks, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like a pretty loaded question. "What are you doing here?" "What are you doing here?" "Elijah, what are you doing here?" 

Loaded question aside, this is one of my favorite characteristics of God—God takes us seriously. The same God who makes fire come down from heaven and knows the hearts of God's people does not need to ask Elijah why he is there. But God asks anyway, giving Elijah his agency and the ability to tell his own story, which is exactly what Elijah does. He tells YHWH that he has been zealous for the Lord, but Israelites have forsaken God and now he is the only one left, fearing for his life that they might take it away.

Those who have been paying close attention to the text will realize that Elijah's version of events isn't quite what we just read. In a matter of days, he has forgotten about the hundreds of faithful prophets and the great display of God's glory on Carmel. Instead of a threat from the queen, in Elijah's version of events, it is all the Israelites who are seeking to take his life. But this is no Biblical Fake News, this is a human being in crisis. 

If you've ever been in crisis or in the depths of depression, you know that it sometimes feels like there is more than one kind of truth. There is the logical recounting of facts, and there is the "truth" that sits so deeply in your soul, it feels as though must be true. "I am all alone" "Everyone is against me" "My best will never be enough." Sometimes the truth is inescapably clouded by the voices in our heads. In Elijah's despondent state, this is what feels true to him. God doesn't correct his version of events with a logical speech or an admonishment that points him to the facts. God continues to take Elijah seriously- depression, crisis, fear and all. God tells Elijah to go stand at the edge of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by. 

The narrative deploys a series of metaphors to demonstrate the impossibility of describing God's presence. In my theology class in Seminary, we joked about all the terrible metaphors people try to use for the Trinity—an egg, water, the sun, or a clover. Despite good intentions, each one ultimately ends a heresy, which makes 1 Kings is so fascinating.  Each metaphor represents a manifestation of power in the natural world, yet each is impossible to define as tangible objects. The first is the wind which breaks down mountains and rocks, despite the fact that it remains unseen and unformed. But YHWH is not to be equated with the wind. Next is an earthquake, which again unleashes its destructive force while remaining unseen and unformed. But YHWH is not to be equated with an earthquake. Third is fire, a powerful force in nature that may be seen, but remains formless, while emitting intangible heat and light. But YHWH is not to be equated with fire. And then, there is the sound of sheer silence. 

The Hebrew here is unique and confusing, so it gets translated in many different ways— a still small voice, a gentle breeze, a whistling of gentle air. While those translations make a bit more sense, they miss the contradictory nature of the situation. Elijah hears a sound of nothing, of silence. How can you hear a sound of silence? Simon and Garfunkel certainly took a stab at it, but based on Elijah's reaction, I have feeling it was something more than, "hello darkness, my old friend." Elijah does not respond to a rushing wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but to the silence. It is in the silence that he is so exposed and vulnerable that he immediately covers his face with his robe for it is too overwhelming to face. 

I almost missed this the first half a dozen times I read the passage, but Elijah doesn't go out of the cave until the silence. Elijah has stood before the glory of the Lord in front of hundreds of prophets of Baal, but on his own, even when he is invited by God to see the glory of the Lord, something not even Moses was permitted to do, he stayed in his hiding place. It was only until the sound of silence that Elijah made his way to the entrance of the cave where finally, God asks him again, "Elijah, what are you doing here?" Even in the presence of God, Elijah's despair remains, and he can do nothing more than give the same answer as before, "I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away."

I imagine Elijah, standing on the mountainside with his face in his cloak, like Frodo Baggins at the end of The Two Towers, a scene that I watch almost every time I write a sermon, no matter the topic. As Frodo looks out at the destruction of Osgiliath, he is weak and weary as he says, "I can't do this, Sam." I imagine Elijah came to the mountain expecting YHWH to respond like Samwise—a speech of hope as the music swells, "there is good in this world Mr. Frodo and it's worth fighting for." We expect God to give a speech that inspires Elijah into his own Old Testament hero's journey. But this is not what Elijah receives. 

"I can't do this, God" and God basically says, "okay." Our passage ended at verse 15, but if you read the next verse, God tells him, "You shall anoint Elisha as the prophet in your place." When Elijah cries out that he is alone, God brings up another to take up his burden and calling.

I wonder what Elijah must have been feeling in that moment. Was it relief to have his burden lifted? Was it surprise that God would answer this way? Was it disappointment that perhaps he was not quite as important to God's plan as he thought? I have to admit, I think that would have been my response. In my self-imposed agony, I have cried out to God more times than I can count. There is something selfishly comforting about making myself out to be a martyr. "I can't do this God!" But when God says "okay," I can only imagine myself slack-jawed, "wait? You don't need me? I'm not essential to your plans?"

It's only when God has told Elijah that there is another to take his place, that we don't hear another complaint from Elijah again. Elisha becomes his disciple and they both follow God's commands for the rest of their recorded time on earth. When the burden is lifted, when God answers his pleas in the most unexpected way, Elijah is able to do the work God has called him to. He no longer has to be a prophet to the people as if the salvation of Israel rests on his shoulders, but he is able to do so freely. There is something incredibly powerful in finding out you aren't quite as important as you thought you were. 

Elijah came to Mount Sinai because he knew God had been there before and he wanted the same miracle, the same experience of God he'd heard that others had. But God cannot be summoned by going through the right sequence of motions with a predictable outcome each time. No, God will show up in the way and time that God knows best. That should be both deeply comforting and slightly terrifying. When we turn to God in prayer, we do not know exactly what we can expect. Perhaps God will call you like Moses, into deeper waters, sustained only by God's grace. Or perhaps like Elijah, when you come weak and weary into God's presence, God will give you a way out of the wilderness and into freedom. 

But pay attention to the silence, for that may be where you find God. Don't get so wrapped up in paying attention to what the Bible says, that you forget to pay attention to what it doesn't say. It doesn't say that Elijah lost God's favor for wanting to give up. It doesn't say that God was disappointed in Elijah. It doesn't say that Elijah was a failure of a prophet. Elijah was loved by God and free to tell his own story, even when that meant choosing to step away from the work that was crushing him.

I don't know where you have looked to find God in the past—if it was in big signs or clear answers. I don't know what it is that you are feeling towards God today—gratitude, anger, fear, despair, or confusion. What I know is that God takes you seriously—what you're feeling, what you're thinking, what you're doing. It all matters to the God who created you and sees you clearer than you can see yourself. All I know is that when you come to God with all that you are, God will be there. Sometimes you just have to listen to the sound of silence.