311 Third Avenue NE, Hickory NC, 28601 (828) 322-6058

Speaking of Silence

  • Sermon Details
  • Pastor Name: Wil Posey
  • Date & Time: June 26, 2016
  • Location: First Church, Hickory, NC


It’s good to be back. All of last week I was gone to Lake Junaluska along with the rest of the pastors here—Bob, Troy, and Rhonda—and four members of the church for Annual Conference. This is something we go to every year, but it’s not every year that three staff members—me, Rhonda, and Troy—get ordained! No one can remember that ever happening before, for this congregation or any other in Western NC. Part of that means standing on the stage in front of the bishop and every other pastor in our conference and answering a set of questions every Methodist pastor has answered for hundreds of years.

I’ve been thinking about that and about today’s scripture lesson, and it’s made me think a lot about questions—about those questions we were asked, and other ones too.

We usually ask a lot of questions of God, and we ask lots of questions of the Bible. What does this mean? What am I supposed to do?

We have to be careful opening the Bible. We might think we’re the ones doing the question asking only to find that God’s waiting to ask us a question that can change your life.

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?” 10 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.”

11 He 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle 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?” 14 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.” 15 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. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.

1 Kings 19:8-16, NRSV

This story makes us think a lot about how we hear from God. You may have already known the story, so you knew God was going to speak out of the silence, or some translations call it the “still small voice.” Whether we know the story or not, we’re supposed to be surprise at how Elijah heard God in the sound of sheer silence, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. These are the ways we’ve come to expect to hear from God in the Bible. Several hundred years before this story takes place, when the Israelites were wandering in this same desert where Elijah is, they follow God who stirred up a pillar of cloud during the day and fire at night. And that’s how they knew God was guiding them. On this very mountain where Elijah is standing, maybe even in that very cave!, Moses had stood hundreds of years before and met with God when the mountain shook and fire lit up the sky.

Wind, rumbling earth, and fire…these are like God’s greatest hits. You’d expect when they start up, everyone would flick open their ZIPPO lighter and wait for the magic to happen; only this time, we find that’s not the moment when God takes the stage. Instead God speaks out of the sound of sheer silence.

Sometimes when we talk about hearing from God, we’re talking about “a calling”. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about how they believe God is calling them to work with the poor, to be a teacher, to be a foster parent, or to go into the ministry in some way. When we talk about “a calling” that’s a way to describe how God wants to talk with each of us, and even has a direction for our lives that God wants us to follow.

One of the times I talk about calling is when I describe how I’ve sensed God calling me into ordained ministry. For me that started on the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. I was in middle school at the time, maybe 7th or 8th grade. Our group was out there to do Vacation Bible School, some building projects, and vaccinate livestock. I remember one day we were at a sheep camp in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. Me and Leighton, one of the grandsons of the pastor there, became pretty good pals and one afternoon in the strength of our Vienna sausage and pretzel-stick lunch, we set out in the path of the prophets and wandered off into the desert wilderness.

When we were pretty far away I turned back and saw the group still vaccinating sheep in the sheep pen. Then in front of me was wide-open desert. Leighton was checking out some kind of rock or bone he found. The dry heat melted away the noise from the sheep camp, the roads were far away, even Leighton was quiet, and it was a moment of sheer silence. I can still think back and remember how in that moment I knew deep down that going into ministry was where right God wanted me to be.

That’s part of my story—there’s more too it. A weeklong mission trip while I was in Middle school changed my life. If you’ve ever had that sort of feeling, that God might be calling you to ministry, I’d love to talk with you and explore what God might be doing in your life.

Of course, not everyone is called to ordained ministry, the same as how not everyone’s called to be a nurse. We’re all called by God to serve, each in different ways, no one way more or less important than the other.

Talking about “calling” may create anxiety if we haven’t heard an audible voice from on high say, “Hey, you, come do this.” How do we hear God? For me, and most everyone else I know who has talked about sensing a call from God, we hear that calling through reading Scripture, serving others, by paying attention in prayer, and talking with more seasoned Christians who can help us hear from God.

That’s a pretty long kind of side note, but I think an important one since so much of the Bible is about listening for God and figuring out together what God’s saying to us.

When we’re intentional about starting to listen, we begin to hear from God. Sometimes when we hear from God, God doesn’t start with instructions—go, do—but with a question.

In the story, God asks Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah had been on the trail for 40 days and 40 nights, which is Bible-speak for “a long time.” Before there was jet-lag, I guess you just called it walk-lag. Whatever you get after walking that long and climbing a mountain, that’s what Elijah had. So he spends his first night in a cave, but rather than a restful night’s sleep, it gets interrupted with a question.

I’ve never out-run a chariot on foot like Elijah did, or climbed a mountain after walking for over a month, but I’m guessing if I did, after all that I’d prefer the first question someone asked me to be something like, “Can I get you a pillow?” That’s not God’s style.

God asks, “What are you doing here?” and Elijah fires back at God what seemed to him so obvious: that is, this is all your fault! It’s the blame game. I had a parent tell me once that all his kids are perfect, but there’s some other kid running around his house who goes by the name “NotMe”, and if he could ever catch “NotMe” all his problems would go away. Because he’d ask, “Who made this mess.” And they all knew, “Not me!”

The prophet we find on the top of Mt. Horeb isn’t quite the same as we met on Mt. Carmel. You remember the scene there: a bold and brash prophet steps up to the plate and invokes the name of the Lord who sends fire down to consume a soaking wet of offering. This was a prophet on top of his game, strutting his stuff, full of faith, taking on the false-gods of the world, and proving God’s power. But after the big win on Mt. Carmel, Queen Jezebel bares her teeth and snarls a death threat at Elijah, so he tucked tail and ran. So here, on a different mountain, we have a whiney prophet, pouting in a cave, saying, “ Woe is me.”

And God asks the question, What are you doing here? If Elijah’s honest, he’s afraid. And that fear completely clouds his perception of reality. God asks Elijah the same question twice, and twice Elijah gives the same stump speech, but we need a fact checker on hand.

He says all the Israelites have forsaken God’s covenant. That’s true, and it’s very bad, but after God defeated the prophets of Baal, the story says all the people fell on their faces and realized they’d been wrong. Elijah also says the Israelites have torn down God’s altars. Well, kind of, but it’s not what you think. See they did tear down some altars, but that was part of the long-range plan to move all worship to Jerusalem, so not technically a strike against them. Then Elijah says, and they killed your prophets with the sword! Again, that’s not quite how it happened. Jezebel is the one who killed God’s prophets, not the Israelites. And he says, I alone am left. Again, not right. There are at least 100 more prophets hidden in a cave. He knew that. Obadiah had already told him that. Elijah says they’re seeking to take his life away. Again, not true. Jezebel is the one trying to kill him. The Israelites are probably still wandering where the heck Elijah went after that epic win at Mt. Carmel.

It’s funny how fear can cloud our vision. Fear makes everyone your enemy, including all the wrong people. Elijah was afraid of his own people, and forgot it was Jezebel whom he was running from. He wasn’t able even to name his enemy anymore. Isn’t that interesting the way Jezebel is able to deflect and even project Elijah’s fear on other people, turning Israel into Elijah’s scapegoat?

We’re, unfortunately, all too familiar with that strategy, aren’t we? We get taught to fear immigrants and refugees, Muslims, people identifying as LGBTQ, folks from the wrong side of town, and the list goes on. It becomes an irrational fear of the other that clouds our perception of reality.

Scott Bader-Saye wrote a book titled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. He was in Hickory last year and gave a lecture on that same subject. He talked about how in some ways fear can be a good thing. It reveals what we love. We love our children and fear for their safety in the car, so we buy the safest car seat we can. The danger is when fear gets out of control and becomes the fuel that drives us.[i]

It’s all the worse in an election year. Fear becomes the commodity that politicians cash in for votes and approval ratings. Fear becomes the lever used to turn people against one another. Fear makes us suspicious, makes us blame others, makes us angry, makes us dangerous. Fear doesn’t leave much room for faith, hope, or love. That worries me.

Surprisingly, God doesn’t rebuke Elijah for his fear, doesn’t even correct him. On the mountainside we see the humanity of God’s servants, even great heroes like Elijah. Even after a game-changing display of power by God, Elijah still gets afraid for his own personal safety. And even though Elijah hits God with a load of blame and pushes back against God with self-righteousness stiff-arm, God doesn’t fight back. God comes to him again, out of the sound of sheer silence, and again embraces him with the same question:

What are you doing here? I think it’s a question for us too.

Standing at the entrance of the cave is a place where nerve endings are raw and exposed to the world. The slightest twinge could send you in a downward spiral of depression or catapult you over the edge where you lash out at anyone who gets within reach. Who knows what an earthquake or a fire or a mighty wind would do to your soul as it sits on your shirtsleeve? It is mercy and grace that God comes to us in the sound of silence.

Sometimes we too stand on the edge of the mountain raw and exposed, and we feel lucky to have a mantle or a coat collar that we can turn up to protect us from the elements.

On the edge of a mountain. A place of change. Of fear. Of not being able to see what comes next. Perfectly alone. Have you ever been in that place? Where you’re standing on the edge, maybe in front of a mirror, maybe in a seat in worship, and you hear the question, maybe from your own mind or maybe it’s from God, or maybe you don’t know where it’s come from, but you hear it whispered in your soul: “What are you doing here?”

I’ve heard people answer this question when they’re undergoing treatment for substance abuse, and from people who are stuck in an unhealthy relationship. The question is a signal that says “here” isn’t where I’m supposed to be. They know it’s time for a new direction.

On another hand, sometimes it’s a question that clarifies our intentions and refines our purpose. That’s what it does for us at this church. We say we are here to invite all people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, growing together in love and service to God and neighbor.

And so here we stand with Elijah, on the precipice of transition, where God asks the question, “What are you doing here?” He gives some kind of answer, but just like it is with us, God sees through that. God knows Elijah is afraid, that he doesn’t know what to do, that his fear is so thick he can’t even see his next steps.

So God speaks to him out of the sound of silence, to the depth of his soul. God gives him direction.

This is one of the most difficult things. Standing on the edge of a mountain, not sure exactly what we are doing here, or where we’re going from here. And sometimes we don’t even know how we got here in the first place.

This is where we anxiously wait for God to speak, hoping for something obvious—an earthquake, fire, or wind would be nice. In some cases, we’d probably settle for a fortune cookie. And instead we get silence, and a question, “What are you doing here?”

Thomas Merton wrote this prayer that’s almost an answer to the question: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. …. Therefore I will trust you always …. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

I like that. It’s honest.  It’s a prayer that in a moment of not knowing what to do trades in fear for a willingness to step forward in faith. When God embraces us with the question, “What are you doing here?”—wherever “here” is—I hope we might be able to answer, “Seeking to please you.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.






[i] Scott Bayder-Saye, “Guns, Violence, and Fear: a theological response to the idolatry of fear”, Lenoir-Rhyne University Faith Speaker series, Grace Chapel, 3/26/15.

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