Saturday, June 23, 2007

Earth, Wind, and Fire--a sermon for Ordinary 12 C

Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
Earth, Wind, and Fire
1 Kings 19.9-15a
June 24, 2007 11.00am, Ordinary 12C

1 Kings 19.9-15a (The Message)

Elijah walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep.
Then the word of God came to him: "So Elijah, what are you doing here?"
"I've been working my heart out for God," said Elijah. "The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me."
Then he was told, "Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by."
A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn't to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn't in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn't in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.
When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there. A quiet voice asked, "So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here?" Elijah said it again, "I've been working my heart out for God, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me."
God said, "Go back the way you came through the desert to Damascus.”

It was a dark and stormy night, both inside and outside Elijah. Inside, there was a chaos of pain, disappointment, and fear. He had triumphed brilliantly over the prophets of Baal, calling down the all-consuming fire of God onto his altar while theirs stood untouched, and so all 450 of them were killed. And yet the Israelites did not seem to be turning from their idol-worshiping ways, the queen was still wicked, and now she wanted him dead, so he had run away, to the desert, to die alone in his confusion and despair. Elijah fled to the desert—back to the wilderness from which his ancestors had come, back to the basics, the foundation of his faith: the mountain where God spoke with Moses and established the covenant that Elijah so fiercely defended. Inside Elijah, the night was dark and stormy indeed, as his thoughts and feelings and faith swirled about like a tornado.

Outside, there was a chaos of earth, wind and fire, all tumbling about. A dark and stormy night, chaos within and without, the end near.

And then….nothing. Some translations of this story say there was a sound of sheer silence. The King James says there was a “still small voice.” The translation we heard says a “gentle and quiet whisper.” In any case, it was very quiet. It was the opposite of the chaos that had been going on. It was the opposite of the chaos inside Elijah. It was the exact opposite of a dark and stormy night.

And into the silence, God spoke. Gently, quietly, perhaps in a whisper that could easily have been missed had it not been so quiet all around.

This is not the kind of silence we encounter much these days. There’s almost always some sound—our lives are filled with electronic sounds of fans, air conditioners, microwaves, televisions, radios, and lights, with people sounds of talking and laughing and singing, with natural sounds of birds and wind and rustling corn leaves and cicadas. Sheer silence is an unusual thing, and it often signals something unusual or important—when even the birds and insects make no noise, something’s coming. In Elijah’s case, God was coming.

God didn’t show up in the whirlwind, fantastic though it was, and useful as it would prove on Pentecost morning. God didn’t show up in the earthquake, though God had used them before and would use them again. God didn’t even show up in the all-consuming fire, though Elijah had just proved God’s supremacy over Baal with fire a few days before, though the tongues of fire would come on Pentecost, though the fiery pillar was the most recognized symbol during the Exodus, though God had come in fire on Mount Sinai once before. All of these special effects are great, they’re flashy, they’re high-budget and spectacular…but that’s just what they are—special effects, not the real deal. Most of the time God doesn’t give us a burning bush, a fiery pillar, a tornado, or a literally earth-shattering sign. Most of the time, what God is waiting for is for us to listen…to be quiet enough to hear the still small voice, the gentle whisper. Into the silence, God speaks gently and quietly—and sometimes hearing that voice can be more earth-shattering, more groundbreaking, more special than any flashy effects.

We Presbyterians aren’t good at silence. Perhaps even as people we’re not good at silence—with all the constant background noise, with all the talking we like to do, it’s hard for us to just be still, to just listen, with no agenda, no purpose, no pre-determined outcome, and no noise. Our lives are filled with auditory chaos, and many of us probably keep it going even when we pray—at least in worship, when we pray we spend a lot of time doing the talking and no time doing the listening. Silence can be uncomfortable. It takes practice to be able to be silent. But when the silence came, Elijah knew what was happening—he knew he was in the presence of God and it was time to listen up. Do we know what that silence is like? Do we know how to let the chaos subside and to be still in the alternative?

It seems a little odd to be standing here talking about silence. Earlier this morning we had a service in the style of Taize, which seems a little more appropriate. In a Taize service, we sing simple songs together, over and over, until they become a part of us. They become our prayers. And then the music subsides and we sit in silence, in the presence of God and each other, for ten minutes. Ten minutes can feel like a long time, or it can go by in a flash. What’s remarkable is the depth of silence. It’s so different from everyday life. And even the singing seems to come from a place of deep peace. The whole experience of just resting in God is one that I treasure. We normally gather for this service on the first Thursdays of the month, and it’s such a treat to find calm in the middle of a chaotic week. It seems the perfect way to experience Elijah’s story today.

Here I am, still talking about silence. There’s no way I can ever say the right words about the importance of silence, about how God speaks…partially because God speaks differently to each person. Moses, after all, got lots of special effects—burning bush, pillars of fire and cloud, fire surrounding the mountain he was to climb, the parting of the sea. Abraham just got a voice. Elijah got a sound of sheer silence followed by a quiet whisper. Jesus had both booming voice and quiet on the mountaintop. No matter how God speaks to us, though, we need to be listening. If we’re looking for miracles of earth, wind, and fire, will we notice if God speaks in silence and whispers? If we’re consumed by the chaos that is both within us and around us, will we hear the still small voice?

I think that, instead of me standing here talking about listening for God in the silence, we should practice. I promise to watch the clock so you do not need to worry about how long it will be. Just close your eyes, relax, let go of the chaos inside, let the alternative to the dark and stormy night creep in, and listen. Perhaps you will hear the very voice of God. (2 minutes silence)

Thanks be to God. Amen.


  1. Oh...I thought you were actually going to QUOTE some Earth, Wind, and Fire lyrics. I'm all about "Serpentine Fire."

  2. you know, I thought about it.

  3. Excellent,Teri! Our pastor took a different twist on this text Sunday, and it was good, but your's speaks...into the silence! I'm sure it preached good to those hearing it. It most certainly hit me, a few hours south west of you (northeast Iowa). I love reading your sermons...your thought flow gets mine to flowing too! Thanks Teri, for sharing into this blogosphere. --Karla