I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I was born 60 years ago tomorrow! Don’t worry if you didn’t get me anything – I’ll accept cash as an alternative! Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, JFK was US President and at the top of the pop charts were Elvis at number 3, Frank Ifield at number 2 and the Searchers at number 1, with ‘Sweets for my sweet.’
You’ll all be too young to remember but a year later, Simon & Garfunkel released a song called ‘The Sound of Silence’. The first verse goes like this:
‘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,
Within the sound of silence’
Art Garfunkel later said that the song was about “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly intentionally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.” More of that later.
A turning point
Our reading from 1 Kings is quite remarkable. It represents a turning point. And the pivotal question is this: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks it twice, with something dramatic happening in-between, and gets the same reply both times.
We don’t get to hear God’s inflection, so it depends on where you put the emphasis in that question: What are you doing here? What are you doing here? What are you doing here? You get the idea!
Horeb was the same mountain where Moses had his earlier encounter with the Burning Bush and where he later received the Commandments. The first time was many decades after fleeing alone from Egypt in fear for his life after he’d killed a man. The second was whilst he was on the run again from Egypt, this time with all the Children of Israel. Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights whilst he received those instructions on how a community could best live together.
Elijah had just been involved in a spectacular victory over the prophets of the god Baal, on another mountain, Mount Carmel. Elijah had put his own faith on the line and called on God to bring down fire from heaven in front of all the people. God had done his stuff and the people all acknowledged that “the Lord indeed is God”. Falsehood defeated, truth had won, faith restored, job done.
All, that is, except for King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who failed to see the error of their ways in worshipping Baal. And instead, Jezebel puts a contract out on Elijah and promises that he’ll be dead in 24 hours.
In fear for his life, Elijah escapes into the desert, depressed that he’s failed to change Ahab and Jezebel. He reaches some sort of crisis point – spiritually, physically and vocationally. He sits himself by a tree and wishes to die – which, ironically, would save Jezebel the job. After a divine Deliveroo service brought him food, not once but twice, Elijah walks for forty days and forty nights to that same mountain, possibly the same cave, where Moses had met with God.
What are you doing here, Elijah? Why meet me here – is it for some good reason now or is it with all these links to Moses and the past? Why are you here, when there’s still a job of work to be done somewhere else? Elijah, the confronter, is himself confronted.
Perhaps we are faced with the same question. What are we doing here, here in this church, in this town? Is it for some good reason now or is it with all the links to the past? Should we be somewhere else?
And we know what happens next, don’t we? God sends a great wind, an earthquake and a fire. But God was not in any of those – though he could have been. It wasn’t long since the ‘fire of Yahweh’ had consumed Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel in that face-off with the prophets of Baal. Baal was the Canaanite god of storms. And Baal would be expected to come in wind, earthquake or fire. The God of Elijah could have done the same – but now he chooses to come in the peace after the storm, in the sound of sheer silence. Other versions say: as ‘a still, small voice’, ‘a soft, murmuring sound’.
God asks his question twice and gets the same answer both times. Elijah could have said: “I’m running away from Jezebel.” Instead, he boasts: “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.”
And, indeed, he had been zealous. Elijah hated the worship of Baal in his own country and had done all he could to end it.
Not who I AM
But Elijah gives the same answer twice. He has not thought through the powerful show that God has just put on for him. Wind, earthquake, fire – and then sheer silence – left Elijah unmoved and unchanged. God had just given him a very practical demonstration that he wasn’t looking for an arm-wrestling contest with other gods to see who was the most powerful. God wanted to show something different. But Elijah didn’t get it.
We, (you, me and Elijah) are meant to recognise something. Our God can do the flashy and the showy. After all, he defeated idolatry on its own terms at Mount Carmel. And that’s fine if you’re tempted that way. But actually, God says, that’s not who I AM.
Elijah might well have sung along to “hello darkness my old friend” but unlike Simon & Garfunkel’s silence, God’s silence is a place where people are able to love each other. In the delightful words of our psalm today: it’s a place where mercy & truth meet together, where righteousness & justice kiss each other.
You have to listen
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it like this. We’re to learn from this story that the supreme power cares for the powerless. That the creator of life loves life. That the voice that called creation into being is still and small, barely a whisper. That you have to listen to hear God.
And, indeed, this story marks something of a turning point. The earlier display on Mount Carmel is really the last of the very public fire and brimstone acts of God in the OT. For the most part, from this point on, miracles continue but they tend to be private or non-destructive affairs.
God is working his purpose out. And if Elijah doesn’t get it, then God will find someone who does. Elijah badly got his numbers wrong. He was so self-focussed that he didn’t realise that there were seven thousand others out there who shared his faith. He might have felt lonely, but he wasn’t alone.
So, God maps out for Elijah a retirement and succession plan, a plan which includes Elisha. Elisha who performs many of the same miracles but with a very different way about him. Moses walked down that mountain with 2 tablets of stone, Elijah with a P45.
Rabbi Sack’s goes on to say that we have alternative approaches set before us. In turbulent times, should religious leaders be confrontational? Should they both proclaim their truths and denounce what they see as falsehoods? Should they give a stark choice between one way or another?
Or should the model be one of compassion and guidance? In an unreligious age should religious leadership provide an example of love of truth – and of solidarity with those for whom truth has somehow become eclipsed? To flip Art Garfunkel’s comment – should they provide a space where people have the ability to communicate with each other, an ability to love each other?
Perhaps exactly the same challenge should be posed of our political leadership too, both here and around the world.
Small and inconvenient
Being zealous might win a battle but it won’t win the war. It creates fear, not love. Faith will always fail if it seeks to impose truth by force; always turn people away from the very God we would want to be served. Ultimately, Elijah had to learn that the threat to his ministry came not from something outside him but emerged from within. The author JK Rowling once said that our “conscience speaks in a very small and inconvenient voice, and it’s normally saying to you: think again, look more deeply, consider this.”
So, what are we doing here? What kind of faith and leadership do you and I model?
Who are you here?
I read somewhere that God’s question could equally be translated: “Who are you here, Elijah?” Alone here on this mountain, away from the crowds and the razzamatazz, who are you? Who are you really?
That’s a question that each of us, sooner or later, may have to respond to. Away from the spotlight, away from what you show to the outside world, who are you here? I pray that God will give each of us enough silence to listen out for and to hear those still, small voices – both among us and within us – that will give us the answer.
And you know I do wonder, if whether in the still, small voice we’re meant to think of Jesus. And whether, at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah finally got to put a face to the name. Amen
‘The sound of silence’ was delivered at St James, Heywood (and earlier on-line) on 13 August 2023 by Ian Banks. It was based on 1 Kings 19:9-18.
- Pinches, G. (2023). The Preacher. Issue 190. July 2023. Hymns Ancient & Modern.