June 23rd 2019, Pentecost 2
1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a Luke 8:26-39
Today’s OT reading from 1 Kings 19 reveals a very human side to one of the Bible’s ‘big men’. The prophet Elijah had just won what we could call a ‘competition’ with the prophets of the pagan god Baal in which he built an altar to YHWH, the God of Israel, slaughtered a bull on it, stacked it with wood and then doused it 3 times with water. The, the story tells us, ‘the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones and the dust, and even licked up the water’ (1 Kings 18:38) After that, he slaughtered the priests of Baal. As if that wasn’t enough, through Elijah’s prayer, a drought that had lasted 3½ years was ended. I think we could call that Elijah’s Big Day. So it is with surprise that we read on in chapter 19 that King Ahab of Israel then told his wife, Jezebel, what had happened, and this same Jezebel, a woman mark you, then proceeded to threaten Elijah: ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by tomorrow!’ (19:1,2). And Elijah turned tail and ran. He ran and ran and ran and then, far away, and laid down under a tree in the middle of nowhere. All the energy, the strength, the faith drained out of him. Jezebel’s words struck fear deep into his heart and this lion of Israel became a mouse. Have you ever felt like that? Overwrought, drained out, wrung out, fearful, on the run?
We didn’t hear in the reading, it’s in verses that were missed out, that God sent an angel and got him to eat, drink and sleep before sending him on his way again. It’s a beautiful story (19:5-9), surprisingly human, and reminds us of how attending to bodily needs for food, water and sleep can restore us in our worst moments. None of us, even Elijah, can ignore our basic needs.
Now we come to the heart of this story, to a place that draws me and maybe you too. Elijah tells God all he has done and how he now feels very alone, and under threat. God 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 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?’” (19:11-13).
This story speaks to me on several levels. My own spiritual journey started with lots of noise and certainty! I knew what was right and wrong, good and bad! And I made a song and a dance about it! Hands in the air praising God! But there have been times of depression too, often after the high points. But I find myself now in a much quieter place. I am struck by God’s graciousness in attending to Elijah’s needs and I think of how often just eating, drinking and sleeping makes me feel better. And how often have cruel words cut my heart and made me doubt myself, give in to my worst fears, shattered my fragile ego? And have I sometimes been the person who spoke them? I see God present in this story from high to low, but the centre of this story, the place it leads us to, is that moment of sheer silence. It is the place where Elijah hears the question, ‘What are you doing here?’ (13), and he is able to be honest with himself and with God, and to receive direction for the next step.
Up until now, we’ve looked at this story from the outside: what happened? What do we make of it? What do we learn about God and Elijah – and so on. Now I want us to think: instead of thinking about God, how does this help us to actually encounter God? How does this lead us to God? The question then comes to me, can I be silent enough to hear the voice of God? And to you, can you be silent enough to hear the voice of God? This is the place where our reading of this scripture leaves the page and gives us an invitation, if we will let it.
We live in a busy, noisy world with near-constant background noise: TV, the internet, social media, mobile phones all intruding. Some people find silence so difficult that the TV or radio is on pretty much 24/7. Even if we manage to turn everything off, find a quiet space, we will experience a constant chatter going on in our heads as we replay events, conversations, arguments, films; the plans we are making for today, tomorrow, next year; the things we need to buy from the supermarket and so on. It’s never-ending. But with all that going on, how will we hear the whisper of God?
As many of you know, I visit the community at Taizé in France every year with a small group from this church. Taizé is a bustling place (someone said it was like a refugee camp!) where thousands of young adults, and some older adults, gather every week for prayer and reflection. There is lots of talking in different languages, silly games, lots of laughter. Three times a day we meet in church for prayer, reading and song for around 45 minutes. In the middle of that time there is silence. 8 minutes of it. It is a powerful thing, several thousand people silent at the same time. It is right at the heart of our prayer together. More than that, it is prayer.
And this experience of Elijah’s was also prayer. It wasn’t the sort of prayer that we may be used to, the shopping-list of things we need. Elijah was silently, consciously present with God. I wonder how long he stood there, his mantle wrapped around his face at the entrance to the cave, held in that sheer silence, that shining stillness that was filled with God? Minutes? Hours? Long enough, anyway, for him to attend to the whisper, the voice of God.
Before we enter this kind of prayer, we need to know two things: that God is always present and always loving. Always. Psalm 139 asks God, ‘Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?’ (v.7). When we come to prayer, it’s not that we have to sort-of call God down, or search Him out, it’s much more this: realising that he is here already, has always been, and will always be. God is present, yes: but am I present to Him? Not only that, God is always loving, forgiving and accepting towards us. Listen to this, from Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German mystic: When I open my heart to receive you in times of peace and quiet, this is as it should be, but if I close my heart to You when I have lost my way and my life is a mess, I have failed to know the truth, for these differ only for me but not for You, for Your heart opens to me with a single and undivided love.
So I invite us to find a few minutes of stillness, of silence in our day. It’s not easy. Ideally, no-one else is around, but it might be on a train or a bus, or in the kitchen or living room and other stuff is happening. Not all of us have the luxury of a truly quiet place where we are alone. Best to sit straight, legs uncrossed, feet on the ground. Notice the breath, slowly in and out. We might recall that it is God who gives breath to all creatures. Some people believe that the Hebrew name for God, YHWH, is actually the sound of the breath. If that is so, then with every breath we are pronouncing the name of God. That it is the first name we speak when we are born, and the last name we speak when we die. That thought may be enough to help us enter a place where we are consciously present with God. Almost inevitably, there will be thoughts swirling around in our minds, constant chatter, video clips playing of this and that. It’s the way we are. We are not used to stillness, our minds will resist, our egos will resist. What nonsense is this? What are you doing? Stay in control! You need to be thinking, you need to replay the arguments you lost, you need to worry! Don’t let go! Can you hear the fear in that? The more we pay attention to these distractions, the more they will dominate. Just let them go. Don’t give them the attention they crave, picture them like birds, not settling down on a branch, but flying through and on. If they do settle, give the tree a shake!
Some people – myself included – find it helpful, in approaching the prayer of silence, to use a prayer word. The simplest one is just, ‘Jesus’, said in your heart with each breath. You can even place your hand over your heart to help bring that prayer down from the chattering mind into the heart. Perhaps you have a favourite phrase or word that brings you to God, if so, then use that. Whatever it is, stay with it, stay with that prayer, for perhaps 10 minutes. You might end by saying the Lord’s Prayer or something like that.
What are we expecting from that prayer, the prayer of silence? Well, nothing dramatic. Unless you call gradually becoming more conscious of the presence of God dramatic. Which you might do. Just sayin’. Gradually, you will find this prayer will leak out and you will begin to breathe the prayer at odd places in the day. Didn’t St Paul say something about ‘praying continually’? (Ephesians 6:18)
I have a sheet giving some more information about the prayer of silence, you can get one from me if you like. As I finish, I will end with another short extract from Meister Eckhart, and then a prayer from Psalm 46:10.
I often think it is my work / to find You, and in the / tangle of my life I stumble / into brambles of doubt / and pits of uncertainties / and wonder where You / are hiding, and then I / remember: You seek / and I am found.
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know