8.9.20 | The Rev. Gwynn Crichton
What are we doing here?
Listening for God’s Voice
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks in the passage we read from First Kings today. I can’t help but feeling like God is asking me this question as well. “Gwynn, what do you think you are doing here at St. Paul’s in Richmond?” as I fumble around and find my way as a newly ordained deacon fresh out of seminary during a global pandemic in a city undergoing a historic social uprising. It is so humbling to be new especially in such a time as this. Not so long ago I was in the prime of my career as a senior conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy where I was well regarded as an expert in my field and knew what I was doing. How many of us can relate to this—as if we used to be seasoned experts at how to do work, family, school, retirement, and church, and now we are all novices at doing life again in this strange new reality. What are we doing here indeed, God?
In the narrative leading up to our passage from Kings this morning, the prophet Elijah has burst onto the scene, the closest we come in the Old Testament to a modern-day superhero, a man on a mission from God to compel the Northern Kingdom of Israel to repent and return to the Lord. Elijah is sent to confront the corrupt and evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for violating God’s covenant through their shameless idolatry and worship of the foreign storm-god Baal. Toward this end, Elijah performs miracles and wonders, spectacularly prevailing in a contest of divine will against 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in which he commands God to ignite the altar of sacrifice in a consuming fire, proving beyond a doubt to Israel the Lord Yahweh is indeed the one and only true God.
Yet, when we meet Elijah today in chapter 19, events have spun out of his control and gone south. Queen Jezebel is not one bit impressed with Elijah’s glorious defeat of her Baal prophets at Mt. Carmel. Defiantly unrepentant, she issues a death warrant for Elijah. In response, Elijah panics, fleeing for his life south to the Judean wilderness where, in total resignation and despair, convinced his mission has been a failure, he sits under a solitary broom tree and asks God if he might die. He then wanders through the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, arriving at Mt. Horeb (AKA Sinai), where God forged the everlasting covenant with the Israelites through Moses, back to the beginning where it all started, the touchstone of God’s love for Israel. It seems the time has come for Elijah to hit the reset button.
God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here Elijah?” Elijah answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant….and I alone am left and they are seeking my life to take it away.” Ironically, Elijah has become so zealous for the Lord that he is convinced that he alone is responsible for restoring the Mosaic covenant with Israel, forgetting the very Lord God whose mission has sent him.
Yet God is faithful to his wayward, over-functioning prophet. As he once revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Horeb, God now reveals himself to Elijah. Yet God does this in a shockingly unexpected way.
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.
The King James Version famously translates this as “a still, small voice.” Robert Altar translates it as “a sound of minute stillness,” and yet others as “a gentle whisper.” This Lord God of Israel is not to be reduced to dramatic, showy acts of supernatural power and might alone. No, this God is also in the stillness, the silence, the most subtle of sounds. This God has the power to transform, shape and convert the interior, intimate landscape of the human heart as well as ordering the cosmic forces of nature, time, and history. To be in relationship with this God of sheer silence and minute stillness, Elijah must listen deeply, pay close attention, attune his senses. “Be still and know that I am God.” Only in this way can he know God’s will and find his way back to himself and his mission to restore Israel.
Are we all not in a similar predicament as Elijah? After living such zealous, busy and full lives of purpose and responsibility, this pandemic has brought us up short, stopped us in our tracks, sent us fleeing into the wilderness, into hiding where we are afraid we will die. In this, we, like Elijah, have been sent back to the beginning, to come face to face with God and the state of our own souls, to be still and to listen. How are we to respond to this sheer silence?
In a national Episcopal Becoming Beloved Community Now Conference on racial reconciliation a couple of weeks ago where our own Chris Graham spoke as part of a Truth-Telling panel, one speaker reminded us that dismantling racism is not only matter of truth-telling, but of truth listening. Our instinct is so hard-wired to act, to do something, anything rather than sitting still, so convinced are we of our own righteousness and agency. And yet, as we stare into the abyss of the uncertainty of this pandemic and the deep brokenness of our nation and the world it continues to reveal, we are faced with the reality that there are no quick fixes or easy answers. We alone cannot force a solution.
Friends, we are at a threshold, at a crossroads, a once in a lifetime opportunity for a massive, social, political, cultural and spiritual reset. During this time of great moral crisis, it may be that the most significant, the most life-giving and liberating action is to listen deeply to the voice of God. Truth listening.
Rowan Williams says that ultimately, “Christian life is a listening life.” In today’s reading, the psalmist sings,
I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Such listening to God, when we take time to do it each day through prayer, reading scripture, meditation, contemplation and silence, means we become that place where the psalmist says, “Mercy and truth have met together; * righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Only in this place of listening for God’s voice, we let go of our idolatry and attachment to false gods, our ego and self-will, where our compassion grows, where we hear the cries of the poor, oppressed and marginalized, where we learn to forgive and love deeply as God’s beloved children made in his image, and where God acts in us and through us for the mending and healing of the world as Christ’s own hands and feet.
If we act rashly and compulsively without taking the necessary time to be still and listen for God’s voice, discern God’s will for us by honestly examining the true intentions of our hearts and souls, we are doomed to repeat the same dysfunctional and sin-sick patterns of behavior that have landed us in our current existential crisis. And God knows, we cannot afford this.
In deeply listening to God, we come to realize that the real question is: “God, what are you doing in and through us as the Body of Christ and how are we as your Church called to serve your will, to be part of your mission and purpose?” In the verses following our passage in Kings, God sends Elijah back into the wilderness to return to the northern kingdom with a renewed purpose aligned with God’s will rather than his own, reassuring Elijah he is far from alone as God provides 7,000 faithful followers in Israel that will restore the breached covenant between God and his people.
God is so faithful, friends. This episode from Kings shows us the truth that God’s love and mercy are ultimately sovereign and cannot be defeated by the Ahabs or Jezebels of this world, nor by coronavirus, systemic racism or the perpetuation of other injustices. If we are willing to sit still and listen for the Holy Spirit, we will hear God’s faithful, loving and redeeming voice through in the grace of Christ in our baptism calling each of us to be the place where God’s mercy and truth meet, where righteousness and peace kiss.
The questions for all of us are:
• Are we willing to ask what we are doing here and be truth listeners? If not, what is standing in the way?
• Are we willing to let go and make space to surrender our wills and agendas for a radical spiritual reset, to be made new again in God’s image and not our own?
• Are we willing to listen to God’s voice in the minute stillness and sheer silence calling us into the holy and divine mystery of life in God so that we may be faithful instruments of building God’s reign of love.