The Sacred Sound of Silence 1 Kings 19:9-12 August 13, 2017
In the verses in leading up to today’s OT reading from I Kings, Chapter 19, the ancient Hebrew prophet, Elijah, is having a proverbial “nervous breakdown.” He’s depressed. So depressed, in fact, he wants to die. In verse 4 of this chapter Elijah wails, “It is enough, O Lord, now take away my life.”
Perhaps you’ve heard this plaintive lament sung by the baritone soloist in the oratorio by Felix Mendelsohn, a marvelous musical composition that bears Elijah’s name. Or maybe you too have gotten to that point of the day, or week, or maybe your life where you want to say something similar to God.
In the previous chapter 18 of this portion of Hebrew scripture, which was written some 900 years before the birth of Jesus, Elijah is engaged in a classic cultic confrontation with the prophets of Baal, the most prominent of fertility deities among the ancient Canaanites, Israel’s sworn enemies.
Though greatly outnumbered, Elijah has emerged victorious over the prophets of Baal, prompting the wicked Queen Jezebel (dominant, controlling wife of the weak Israelite King, Ahab, and a devoted Baal-worshipper herself), to announce her intent to have Elijah killed.
So, Elijah – here in 1 Kings 19 – he’s running for his life. If he is frightened, he is just as exhausted. Being afraid can wear you down; it can wear you out! Not surprising then, Elijah falls asleep. “Under a broom tree”, the Bible says in verse 5.
When he awakens, an angel explains to Elijah that he needs something to eat and to drink. Which, dramatically, God provides for Elijah in a jug of water and some freshly baked bread that appears before him.
Some years ago, while on the staff of Care-Unit Hospital as a spiritual counselor I was asked to go to the room a young patient who was refusing to eat, claiming that it was God who was telling her to engage in this particular hunger strike.
Not only was this person being treated for addiction, but she was now having a psychotic episode. So, assuming my “pastoral authority” perceived at least by the person requesting my services – I was asked if I would meet with this patient to see if I could talk her into eating something.
I went to her room with a nurse’s aide, found the room bible, and turned to 1 Kings 19. I asked the woman to read this portion of scripture out loud, with me listening along, and by the time she had finished reading this notably dramatic Bible story, she agreed, if reluctantly to start eating, asking for, if I remember correctly, a cup of tea and a piece of toast.
For that woman, scripture seemed to have an “authori-tarian,” if not something of a magical quality to it, admonishing her to, as it were, heed as well God’s wise and practical counsel to Elijah. Not that I read the Bible quite as literally as that woman seemed to read it. For, if I find scripture “authoritative,” I hardly find it “authoritarian.” And there is a difference.
In fact, from a less literalistic reading of 1 Kings 19, there is revealed, nonetheless, some rather applied psychological advice. At least if one understands that the root word for our modern term “psychology” – psyche – that psyche is in fact the Greek word in the New Testament translated into English as “soul.”
Hence God’s just as practical “spiritual” counsel to Elijah, delivered as it is by an angel. It goes something like this: “You see, son, you’ve managed to get yourself burned out. So, you need the therapy of something as reasonable as some rest, not to mention something to eat and to drink.”
It is none other than St. Paul who, in the New Testament, who exhorts the Galatian Christians with these words: “Be not weary of well-doing.” in Galatians 6:9. Except, if you read the last part of the 11th chapter of another of Paul’s letters, 2 Corinthians, it sounds there like Paul – given his rather exhaustive litany of suffering and misfortune on which he elaborates in considerable detail – it would appear that Paul has himself gotten pretty “weary of well-doing.”
And so has Elijah here in 1 Kings 19.
And one of the insights into Elijah’s crisis at least: it concerns his grandiosity. As when he exclaims “I have been very zealous for the Lord…for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant; torn down your altar, and killed your prophets with a sword. I alone am left.”
Except, later in verse 18 of this same chapter, God chides Elijah; indeed, God reminds the prophet that there are in fact several thousand other Israelites who aren’t idolaters either.
It can happen to any of us, when like Elijah, –
- in our well-doing – we take ourselves too seriously;
- when in our grandiosity, when we start “keeping score” – you know, thinking that we’re the only person at work, or at church, or in a marriage, or a family, even a friendship;
- when we believe we’re the only one doing a decent job.
When we start believing that no one else is working as hard or cares as much, nor is nearly as faithful and committed as we are.
Not that there aren’t some people who don’t take themselves seriously enough, who tend to be more care-less than care-full. Then there are those of us who tend to try so hard and care so deeply.
There is a book entitled Balanced Living – Don’t Let Your Strength Become Your Weakness which talks about the tragic dimension of hyper – careful, meticulous, and chronic – over-functioning. Not that any of us fall into that category.
This book asks the question: “How seriously do you take yourself?”
It’s important to take ourselves seriously – but not too seriously. And if you don’t believe that is so, ask Elijah. Or as someone has said, “Lighten up, so that like the angels, you may fly!”
Here’s yet another lesson before us today. It comes from the portion of 1 Kings 19 that was read earlier. “But the Lord was not in the wind…nor in the earthquake…nor in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice.” Or, as Hebrew scholars translate it more literally, “a sound of gentle stillness.”
For we tend (most of us, it would seem) – at least in the present-day America I know – we tend to live otherwise – if you will, in a more characteristic and predominantly eruptive, harsh and noisy, in-your-face, “Sound and Fury” kind of world. As in, for instance, the violent “wind, earthquake, and fire” images from the scripture lesson before us.
Much of this has been brought on by social media of all sorts. We know this. Just a push of a button and we can have all the “sound and fury” of nature, as well as all the world’s pain and destruction as we want, or don’t want right in front of our faces.
Even too much religion, I’m afraid – even of the kind we may call Christian (certainly in the cyber-sized world of these days) – too often such religion would seem to trade even more so on the dramatic and disruptive, perhaps even the ill-mannered rather than on the subtle, the softer, kinder, gentler and more sensitive. Would trade on the more coercive, rather than on the necessarily cooperative, much less comforting and sustaining; perhaps even on the morbid as against the introspective; not to mention the entertaining over the substantive.
Except for the truly sacred – according, at least, to this Elijah story – is more often found; or rather, the profoundly sacred more often finds us in that rare “sound of gentle stillness.”
As in the words of Phillips Brooks beloved Christmas hymn: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.”
I believe that nowhere has such a dimension of genuine, of authentic, certainly of deep and transformative moral and spiritual living, nowhere has such quality of character been captured more vividly than in a brief poetic rendering by the writer, Brian Doyle, a short piece which I first read last fall in an issue of The Christian Century (p. 11, October 12, 2016).
He begins by describing his sixth grade teacher in parochial school – Sister Everard as: “stern and somber and orderly and firm and rigorous and organized and blank and unemotional. I never saw her smile.”
Brian Doyle continues, “Nor laugh or cry or lose her temper or snicker or groan at the reckless silliness of her young charges.”
To summarize, Sister Everard was to the young Mr. Doyle “as stern and rigorous and dry as a skittered leaf.”
Until one day the narrative continues, when the Monsignor interrupted the Sister’s class to call her outside for a conference in the hallway. When she returned, she approached a girl in the class whose father was terminally ill. “All the rest of my life, I think I will remember the way the girl didn’t look up at Sister. Nor did Sister say anything.”
Brian Doyle continues, “Her hand gentle on the girl’s shoulder. We heard someone start to sob, but it wasn’t the girl, it was Sister Everard. No one moved an iota or an atom or an eyelash…as the girl who had just discovered that she was now a fatherless child, as she held Sister Everard’s head under her chin, as Sister sobbed quietly, a sound we had never heard before nor would ever hear again.
“Finally, the girl and Sister walked out of the room together, while the rest of us sat silently until the bell rang a few minutes later. We sat so still and quiet; so still and quiet you could almost hear the silence.”
And he concludes, “Some silences have great weight.”
I Kings 19 reads, “But the Lord was not in the wind…nor in the earthquake…nor in the fire,
“[But] after the fire, a sound of gentle stillness.”
Indeed, “The Sacred Sound of Silence.”
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, August, 2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 8-13-17” name of the sermon.