In many of our churches, each reading of Scripture is prefaced with the invitation to listen for the Word of God. That invitation is especially poignant given our text for this morning: the story of the prophet Elijah listening for the Word of God. To set the stage, Elijah is fresh from a contest with the prophets of Baal, a contest to prove whose God is for real, a contest for a prophetic authenticity. Both sides built a sacrificial altar, and when the prophets of Baal prayed to their god to light the fire on their altar, nothing happened. When Elijah prayed to God, fire came down from heaven and ignited his altar. And then in an overzealous moment of triumph, Elijah led the prophets of Baal down by the riverside, drew his sword, and slew them all.
Now, fortunately, the story doesn't end there. In fact, Queen Jezebel, who was a devotee of Baal worship, heard what Elijah had done to all her prophets, and so she took an oath to do the same thing to him. The text says, "She sent a message to Elijah saying, 'So may the gods do to me and more also if I do not make your life like the life of one of them, one of my prophets, by this time tomorrow.'" Then the text says in one of the greatest understatements in the Bible, "Elijah was afraid." He was in trouble and he knew it. He tried everything so he decided to try prayer. Hiding, trembling in a cave, he again called upon God for help. And so he gets word to go out and stand upon a mountain and wait for an answer. Now, you can bet Elijah was dead serious about listening for the Word of God.
Let the text tell the rest of the story:
Now there was a great wind so strong that it was splitting the mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but God wasn't in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but God wasn't in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but God wasn't in the fire. And after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" And then Elijah explains the situation, and God promises, as God always does, not to leave Elijah alone.
End of story.
Message? God wasn't in the sound bites. God was in the silence bites. The word for which Elijah was listening wasn't in the sound bites of earthquake, wind, and fire. God's word came to him in the silence bite that followed. Since we're so long familiar with the King James version of Scripture, the translation of the Hebrew phrase as a still small voice has become treasured language in terms of how we understand God speaking to us, but the original Hebrew says sheer silence, utter silence. Could it be that silence, sheer silence, is very often the necessary prerequisite for hearing the still, small voice of God? Sound bites serve to get our attention. Politicians and advertisers and, admittedly, sometimes even we preachers, capitalize on that and use sound bites. And they may get our attention, but we pay attention in the silence bites. The noise of earthquake, wind, and fire got Elijah's attention so that he was prepared to pay attention in the silence.
As the poet John Ciardi has said, "We are what we do with our attention." We are what we do with our attention. Silence is pregnant with the presence of God. Pay attention.
I live in southern California, and I know something about earthquakes, wind, and fire. I was working in my front yard on a beautiful spring afternoon. Across the street a game was in progress on the high school soccer field. I could see the teams and hear the cheers of the crowd. Then the earth shook with a loud rumble. It sounded like a freight train. I was knocked to the ground. The soccer players and fans across the street became like a frozen frame in a movie, and there was sheer silence. Then neighbors began coming out of their homes. There were embraces and soft words of care. I noticed families leaving the soccer field holding hands, and I could hear a still, small voice in that silence bite.
Last fall when the devastating winds and fires roared down the mountains and into our communities, believe me, the sound of it was awesome, like a crackling campfire amplified to the thousandth power, and it was punctuated and accompanied by sirens and water-dumping helicopters flying overhead. Then there was sheer silence. I stood with a family in a canyon just north of my home where over 40 homes were destroyed. The silence was awesome. We talked quietly of holy things, what really matters, relationships, life's priorities, and values. And I could hear a still, small voice in that silence bite.
There is an apocryphal story of several applicants seeking a position as a ship's Morse Code operator. While they're waiting to be interviewed, the room is filled with the sounds of conversation, and so they're oblivious to the sound of dots and dashes emanating from an intercom. Then another applicant comes in, sits down, quietly waiting. Suddenly, she jumps up, walks into the private office, and after a few minutes, walks out with the job. The other applicants exclaim, "We were here first! How could you go ahead of us and get the job?" To which she replies, "Any of you could have gotten the job if you had just been quiet long enough to pay attention to the message on the intercom." "What message?" "The code said, 'A ship's operator must always be on the alert. The first person who gets this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.'" That coded message-something like a still, small voice in the silence bite.
From time to time, my congregation participates in a worship survey. It's a questionnaire designed to ascertain which aspects of worship are the most meaningful. Is it the music? Is it the prayers? Is it the preaching? And so on. Always, a large number of our respondents cite as most important to them a period of silence which we regularly observe after a prayer of corporate confession. One respondent commented, "I need this silence to listen for God."
And what breaks that silence? What breaks that silence? The words of assurance of forgiveness. There's nothing more creative, nothing more redemptive, than a divine word which speaks in the silence. A word of companionship in the silence of loneliness, a word of forgiveness in the silence of alienation and hurt, a word of hope in the silence of despair. Sometimes the silence need not even be broken by sound. How much noise does an embrace make? How loud is an understanding, compassionate gaze or clasp of the hand?
Believe me, there's no silence any deeper than the silence in a room where one is dying. It's a silence to be kept, not to be broken. When my daughter was dying of AIDS, she told our family gathered around her bed, "Don't say anything. I know you love me. Just be here with me and hold my hand." That's a silence bite. A holy silence bite. A moment when God does all the talking and we do all the listening.
Indigenous American Shabari Redbird, a Cherokee, described the tradition of her people called Vision Quest. She says, " In Visit Quest I renew silence in myself." She spends four days deep in the woods without food or water, and she says the experience renews her spiritually, gets her back in tune with nature, and reaffirms her oneness with creation and the creator that she experiences - these are her words - deeper and deeper levels of silence. Place that next to Jesus' habit of withdrawing to lonely places of prayer and silence at every pivotal moment of his life and ministry.
My friends, we do well to reserve a special place for silence in our relationship with God. To borrow the familiar words of the prophet Habakkuk, "God is in the holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before the holy one."
Christ came singing love. Christ lived singing love. Christ died singing love. Christ rose in silence. The greatest silence bite in history. So if the song of love is to continue, we must do the singing. And as we experience that silence bite, as we keep that holy silence, we're empowered to continue the song.
Let us pray. Dear God, embracing humankind, forgive our noisy ways, reclothe us in a quieter mind, in purer lives your service find, in deeper reverence praise. Breathe through the pulses of desire your coolness and your balm. Let sense be numb, let flesh retire, speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire. O, still small voice of calm. Through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Sovereign. Amen.