11AM - The Sound of Silence
This reading from I Kings 19 begins with the prophet Elijah spending the night in a mountaintop cave. This was not some exotic AirBNB he’d chosen as a get-away. No, Elijah was running for his life. He’d challenged the powerful king and queen by destroying their false prophets, and now they wanted to destroy him. So Elijah ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction, and wound up on Mount Horeb hiding out in a cave where he had an encounter with God. Now bible stories always build on one another. To understand what is happening in this moment, you have to know what came before it. And in this case, to understand why Elijah was hiding in the cave, you have to remember other stories from years earlier about Moses.
Moses was a prophet and a great leader of the Hebrew people. But he too had moments of fear and hiding. After killing an Egyptian, Moses fled into the hills and began tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. He thought he was safe at last, when God appeared to him in a burning bush and sent him back to Egypt to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery. Now in addition to God speaking to Moses, God also revealed God’s power in other, more dramatic ways. When the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, God caused a mighty wind to separate the waters of the Red Sea so the people could cross in safety. As they wandered in the wilderness, God appeared like a pillar of fire to guide them. And when God called them to gather around Mount Sinai, God shook that mountain with a mighty earthquake.
All those details are important to remember as we return to Elijah hiding away in his mountaintop cave. Oh, one additional detail, Elijah isn’t just on any mountain. He’s actually on one that has two names – Mount Horeb, or better known as Mount Sinai. He’s tucked away on the very same mountain where God met with Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. So is it any surprise that when God came near to Elijah, there was first a powerful wind, a mighty earthquake, and then the appearance of fire? But Elijah’s story goes beyond Moses’ story. God wasn’t in the wind, earthquake, and fire. God drew near to Elijah in a way that is difficult to put into words. The bible translators have stumbled over this for centuries, because the Hebrew words used in verse 12 can be translated in several ways: a thin, small voice...the sound of sheer silence...a calm and quiet that speaks to us nonetheless.
Years ago Simon and Garfunkel wrote their famous song, “The Sound of Silence.” The first verse has these words: "Hello darkness my old friend; I’ve come to talk with you again, because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping. And the vision that was planted in my brain still remains within the sound of silence." A vision planted in our brain – a certainty, a deep trust that exists within our spirits, held within the paradoxical sound of silence. Elijah felt something in that moment of sheer silence. It was like he felt the very reality of God, the nearness of the One who is the Creator and Sustainer of all life. It was enough to shake him out of his funk and get him to stand up and step out of his cave at last.
A famous contemporary example of this happened in January 1956. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 27 years old, a new pastor helping to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Late one night he got a threatening phone call saying he would be killed and his house would be bombed. He got up and went to the kitchen, made himself a cup of coffee, and sat in silence in that early morning hour. He said a prayer that was basically, “Lord, here I am trying to do good, but I’m losing my courage.” King later said out of that silence he heard a voice say to him, “Martin Luther King, stand up for what’s right; stand up for justice and I will never abandon you. I will never leave you alone.” That moment changed Dr. King’s life. Three days later his house was bombed. For years to come his life was always threatened. But he never looked back.
King sensed God’s closeness that early morning at his kitchen table. Out of the silence a voice spoke to him and gave him the strength to carry on. Elijah was deeply troubled, hiding up there in a cave on Mount Sinai. Yet to him as well out of the silence a voice spoke, a conviction came upon him that gave him back his courage and sent him out of the cave and back to doing the Lord’s work.
Now, in my first sermon this morning, I brought up some topics that are all over the news media right now. We may not know each other real well yet, but it is my firm belief that the last thing Christians in America need right now is pablum being preached from the pulpit. So this morning I talked honestly about how the things happening in Washington these past few weeks have sent shock waves through the country and we need to talk about this as people of faith. I noted that it has long been true that if you walk into a public space and there’s a problem, only a police officer should have a weapon to keep everyone safe. But the Supreme Court, in striking down New York’s 100 year old law restricting the carrying of concealed weapons now has called into question all of our safety in public places. It also puts police at risk as they try to immediately sort out which person with a gun in their hand is the real threat.
In the same way, the common knowledge in this country is that there should be an orderly transition of power from one democratically elected leader to another. But the January 6th hearings have exposed willful attempts to break that 200 year old precedent as one man tried to hold onto power at any cost. And lastly, the overturning of Roe v. Wade set aside a 50 year precedent that acknowledged a woman’s inherent ability to make decisions about her own body. The recent ruling made it seem like abortions are just impetuous matters of convenience, when nothing could be farther from the truth. It tried to legislate that all life begins at conception, when many people of faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims – do not all hold that belief. It took a complex issue and drove full speed through a red light of mutual forbearance, dividing our country further and literally putting thousands of women’s health at risk.
I know these are complicated topics and we may not all agree on the details. My fear is that all these current events, plus concerns about Covid and a possible recession, may prompt us to want to join Elijah hiding in his cave. My fear is that we too will lose faith, grow discouraged, and give up. So my prayer is that Elijah’s story becomes our story – that we quiet down our troubled spirits and sense the reality of our loving God. This reality is like a deep silence but it speaks words of comfort. It is like a quietness in a place where heaven and earth come together. It is the reassurance that we stand on solid ground, on the rock of our salvation. And in that place, God’s response is spoken to us too: “What are you doing here? Step out of your cave and live in hope.”
Christian hope is not some wishy-washy virtue. It’s not shallow or superficial. As the writer Rebecca Solnit beautifully put it, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. Hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope shoves you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.” Christian hope chases us out of our caves, whether we’re Woods Church or Elijah. It is this hope that commits us to a better future and thus makes our present moments livable.
On that day long ago, Elijah rediscovered a fundamental trust in God in that moment of sheer silence. He heard God’s call to leave the cave and go out into the world – to anoint a new king who would replace the faithless tyrants on the throne; to anoint a successor so that God’s work with the people of the covenant would continue through all generations. God reassured Elijah that he is not alone, that there are literally thousands ready and able to serve the Lord. This vision for the future was implanted into Elijah’s heart and soul; the sound of silence spoke deeply to him and the same still calls out to us. It comes to us when we accept a call to ordained office, serving faithfully as elders and deacons at this church. It comes to us when we build houses through WoodsWork, or teach Sunday School, or visit a shut-in, or pray for someone who’s in pain or grieving. It comes when we believe that this nation is strongest when the common good is honored by all and our nation's laws are designed to serve all.
I’ll give Rebecca Solnit the final word today. In an early book of hers she said: “The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.” The stars are silent witnesses to the power of our Creator God. We make the constellations. We tell the stories of Moses and Elijah and Christ Jesus. We grab hold of hope and wield it to make a better world for all. So let us stand up with Elijah and go forth together to serve our God. AMEN
 Cf. interview with Dr. Albert J. Raboteau, “On Martin Luther King’s Kitchen Table Experience,” CPX: PublicChristianity.org)
 Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 2010.
 Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, 2008.