1 Kings 19:1-18
Today, we honor silence. Today, we prepare ourselves for silence.
Yesterday, an estimated 800,000 protesters, and all of us who watched, were stopped in silence, for seemingly endless minutes of brave silence, foisted upon all of America by one high school girl, Emma Gonzalez. No one knew what to do with those minutes. The cameras tried to stay on Emma, but they don’t know how to be so single focused. Shouts erupted on occasion, and the cameras would search them out. Nothing ended Emma’s silence, not her own tears, rolling down her face, not the cameras trying to urge her on. She bravely stared down a nation until her timer went off. Six minutes, 20 seconds. That’s all. But in six minutes, 20 seconds, seventeen of her schoolmates had been killed.
In their honor, Emma chose one of the most powerful speeches ever given – silence. Some are already saying that this will go down in history books as one of the most powerful protest speeches of all time. And it was mostly silence. Silence given meaning in a few short sentences.
Tomorrow will be forty days since the Parkland shootings. Remember that 40 days is a generic period of time in which something is undergone in order to prepare for a significant change or action. It took “forty days” to give birth to this massive response. The outrage of the youth of our nation, planted a seed and in “forty days,” 800,000 people marched on Washington – the largest single-day protest in the history of the nation’s capital. And that doesn’t count the huge protests in cities around the nation and the world! 12,000 here in Portland included some from our congregation. The “March for Our Lives” seems to be a perfect illustration of a forty days experience in our life times and in our newspapers. Yet it is too soon to know if it will change our lives.
The Bible reading today brings us to one last “forty days” experience. This one from the life of the prophet Elijah: “forty days to silence.”
Ahab and Jezebel are notorious names for evil and they get that reputation from their conflicts with Elijah. These rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel, Elijah’s home nation, set about trying to rout out Yahweh worship by murder. Ahab and Elijah set up one final contest on Mt. Carmel – nearly a thousand of his priests against one Elijah to see who could call down fire from their God in heaven. Long story short, Elijah won and killed all the priests of Ahab & Jezebel.
The praying, the confident faith, was both exhilarating and exhausting work for Elijah. Then imagine the physical cost of putting all those prophets to the sword, not to mention the emotional cost, the grief and anger all mixed up in a huge rush of adrenalin. Then Elijah, after all that, had to continue to concentrate on God and pray like his life depended on it – because it did – for rain. As soon as he saw a small cloud on the horizon, he took off running, and outran Ahab’s chariot all the way to Jezreel – 17 miles.
Elijah was emotionally, spiritually, physically spent! But when Jezebel promised to kill him, he ran again, this time over a hundred miles! But no place would be safe from Jezebel’s wrath. It is no wonder he sat down under a shrub and asked God to take him now. It would be better to die by God’s hand than to fall into Jezebel’s.
Elijah fell asleep. What else was there for him to do?
He awoke to a tap on his shoulder. An angel tap. The angel didn’t say much, but fed him and let him go back to sleep. I imagine he slept well this time. Having an angel visit could do that for a frightened heart. An angel, a messenger of God, one to watch over, or even to take to heaven – it didn’t matter to Elijah. Sleeping with the angel, he was already in heaven and at peace. Time passed. Elijah slept. And again, the angel tapped him on the shoulder. This would not be the sleep of death. More food. This time the angel said this food would last him for a very long journey – forty days – to the mountain of God.
Elijah knew this mountain from the stories he had been raised with. He was being sent out of the fiery hatred of Jezebel into the fiery presence of God.
And here is where Elijah’s forty-day journey leads him. Now is the moment for which the forty days set the stage. Elijah finds a cave on the mountain in which to sleep. And God speak to him. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“… I thought you sent me here. But, now that you ask, I have a bone to pick with you, God. You have given me all this work to do for you and no one cares. There is no one left on my side, or on your side, for that matter. They are all dead. I give up! The battle is lost. We have failed.”
God sends Elijah out of the cave. First there was a huge wind, then an earthquake, then fire. God was not in these. But then sheer silence…. (very long pause)
All of this trauma. All of this violence. All of this fear. All of this running. And what did he meet? Silence.
What happens when you encounter silence?
I thought about that when I watched Emma Gonzalez’ speech. The people were confused, uncomfortable. They had no idea what was going on. Did they need to encourage her to continue? Did she lose her place? The crowd tired shouts of encouragement. Then chanting. But they, too, finally fell silent. And in that moment the whole world was still.
What does silence do?
It makes us uncomfortable, at least at first. These days, even when people go for a run or a hike in nature, they do it with their tunes in their ears. We are almost never unplugged from sound. And usually the sound is of our own choosing. Our tunes, our playlists. Silence is not of our choosing, so it makes us uncomfortable.
What does silence do? It strips away our patterned life. The things we have developed to support us and make us feel safe.
I liken it to getting off a hamster wheel, which we have been running constantly, hearing or saying the same things to ourselves over and over and over and over and over again. It is getting off the sound track of our own messages to ourselves.
What does silence do? It allows another voice to be heard. Some would call it their true Self speaking. Others would describe it as Spirit. Elijah heard Yahweh of Israel, the God of all creation. And in that moment, he heard that he was not done. He had a few more years. And in that time, he needed to prepare a foundation for the next wave of leadership to follow him. Elijah needed to take on the role of mentor. Yes, God freed him from any more contests with kings and queens, no more grand miracles, a life of a recluse was okay. But he needed to bring someone along, to walk in his shoes for a time, so that the way of God and the way of Elijah would not be lost.
I have begun to call this the “four more years” mentality, like a politician who cannot be re-elected. If our term of office is almost complete, what will we do? Give up and die under a broom tree? To Elijah, God said no way! Get yourself up out of your sleep and train a coming-up generation to follow in your wisdom. You will be handing off this load. Trust the new generation to carry the weight.
The silence to which Elijah was called, allowed him to stop, to get off his hamster wheel and see that this was not his battle alone. There were thousands at his side. He had much left to teach. And the God who visited him would not leave him.
I really think this is what the third commandment is about: Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Holy means “set apart.” Get off the hamster wheel. Let go of your patterned behavior. Pause. And maybe, sometimes, the still small voice will come and feed you, renew you and send you off in a way you never imagined.
Today, we honor silence. Today, we prepare ourselves for silence.
This is the first day of Holy Week. For Jesus, the week was not silent. Every day he was in Jerusalem teaching. The theological leaders argued with him. None of them were silent. None of them let their opinions and their power go long enough to hear what was being said.
There would be no silence until Friday. Then, the soldiers at the foot of the cross watched in silence as this man died. Then, the women let the tears roll down their faces without shame. Then silence began – the silence of God who did not answer when challenged by Jesus; the silence which tormented those who loved him for 40 hours over three days, while Jesus lay in silence in the tomb.
In the grief and emptiness of that silence, a new power was born. God calls us to silence. This week, God calls us to transforming silence. What will emerge from this silence? Listen. We will see.