Fire and Whispers

1 Kings 19:9b-12
Rachel Rhodes
January 23, 2022
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I’ll be the first to admit that I like when God is predictable…when God can be found in the places I expect God to be.  I prefer when God hasn’t gone all rogue on me, and instead can still be found at the summit of a 7 mile hike, or on the edge of an ocean looking out over the horizon, or in morning devotions, or in the stunning descants of a church choir, or in a chapel or sanctuary where I have always experienced the presence of God and always known God to dwell.  I give thanks when God can still be found in the liturgy on a Sunday morning or a hymn we sing during communion or in the wonderful gift of in-person worship, which we certainly don’t take for granted anymore.  I love it when God can be found in the very places and people and experiences where I expect God to be…where I need God to be.  After all, there are times when all of us need to hear a Word from the Lord…times when we need to feel the comfort and presence of the Divine…times when we need to know that God will be there when we call.  And so, it’s a gift to know that there are places and spaces where we can always count on God to be.

My hunch is this is why Elijah set out for Mount Horeb that day.  His life was such a mess, he needed to know God was still there. He needed the assurance that God was where he left God. He needed a reminder that he was not alone in this world. He needed to talk to God.  And he knew he could count on God to be on Mount Horeb. It was the mountain of God, after all.

Now, to be clear and to put this text in a little bit of context, Elijah’s life hadn’t always been such a mess.  Sure, the prophet gig wasn’t easy, but he’d had a pretty good run…confronting kings, performing miracles, raising people from the dead, calling down lightning from heaven!  Not bad for a few days on the job.  But here in chapter 19, we find Elijah absolutely despondent.  He is intimidated by his opponents, he is filled with self-doubt, he is complaining that things are not going his way, he is tired, he is fed up, he’s ready to give up ministry altogether, he is perhaps even suicidal.  And so Elijah heads for the mountain of God…the place where Elijah knows God will be…where he can count on God to be.

He wasn’t long on the mountain before the word of the Lord came to Elijah asking, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  Elijah is pretty exasperated in his response, complaining about how hard this work has become. It’s not the most cordial encounter, but remember, Elijah is about ready to throw in the towel.  And Elijah is told, “go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord because God is about to pass by. God is about to show up.”  And so, Elijah, knowing he’d come to the right place, went out to stand on the mountain.

And there was a great wind that came, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord.  I can imagine Elijah standing on the mountain, a smile breaking out across his weary face, hands outstretched…ready to receive the power of the Lord  “Yes, Lord…I knew you’d show up, I knew you’d be here…bring your power…bring that wind…blow them all away!  Fill me again with your power.”  But God was not in the wind.

But fear not, Elijah, after the wind, a great earthquake is coming.  It shook the very ground on which Elijah stood…”Yes, Lord…bring that quaking ground…put the fear of the Lord in your enemies…I can still be your servant…let’s scare them good!  Show them the strength of your power…shake them right out of their shoes!”  But God was not in the earthquake.

Oh, God, you got me…you got me…you saved the best for last, for after the earthquake came the fire…you remember the fire…the fire that spoke to Moses on this same mountain…the fire that protected the Israelites and guided them safely out of Egypt…the fire that God had sent through his prophet Elijah just one chapter earlier.  When the Lord wants to really make an entrance, really make a point…the Lord always comes in fire—“Lord, your enemies didn’t accept the fire that fell on the altar—so bring it all back…send your fire to consume the wicked…God, I know you are in this fire!  Thanks be to God!”  But God was not in the fire.

And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard it, he hid his face with fear and trembling and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. God had arrived…not in the way he expected…not in the way he would have predicted or perhaps even preferred…but that was precisely the point…

On the most predictable mountain God reminds Elijah that there will be nothing predictable about God.  It is, in fact, God’s unexpected, unpredictable-ness that Elijah needs to learn to embrace.

You know I can show up in earthquakes, Elijah. You know I can show up in fire, in wind, in thunder and power. You have seen it. You know I can show up on mountaintops and at sunset and in sanctuaries and in joyful hymns, but did you know, did you even consider that I can also show up in the silence?  Or in the whispers…in the still, small voice you try to drown away when your life is a mess and you have nowhere else to turn?

Did you know, Elijah, that I also show up in the midst of terrifying diagnosis, and in every relapse with addiction?  Did you know I am there every day in the quiet and lonely confusion of dementia, and in the heartbreaking days as couples navigate separation?  Did you know I am in every quiet kitchen where soup is being prepared for the hungry, by an aging church member who is determined to offer what she can?  Did you know I show up in the grace of a landlord when the rent is late…and in the gentle care of doctors when the treatment doesn’t work or the heartbeat isn’t there or, God forbid, the suffering is too terrible to even put into words…did you know, Elijah?  Did you know?  Sure, I can help you show them my power in lightning and in raising people from the dead…but do you know how miraculously I show up in isolation, and through a mask, and in the quiet whispers and sheer silence you barely acknowledge?  Even if you know it, do you believe it?  Are you willing to see it?

Because I am in the silence as often as I am in the thunder.  I am in the quiet whisper as often as I am in the joyful sound of a choir on a Sunday morning.  I am in your darkest and most desperate hour as often as I am in your most shining and most powerful moment.  This may not be where you expect to find me or how you expect to find me, but let this be a reminder to you…you have no control over where I will or will not be.  I am not a god who can be tamed or managed or controlled or put on a shelf for awhile or told to hush.  I am the God who will show up where you least expect it, sometimes where you don’t want me to be, and always where I need to be.  So, Elijah…can you hear the whispers?  Do you believe them?  Do you believe me?

Do we believe them?  Have we heard them?  I don’t know about you, friends, but when I look back on the moments when I have known the power of God’s love or felt God’s steady and unmistakable presence in my life, it has been in whispers far more often than it has been in fire.

Certainly, I have known God’s presence in the powerful, earth-shattering glory of a Christmas Eve or an Easter Sunday, but I have also known the power of God’s sheer silence in an ICU…as a father signed the papers to remove his son from life support.  I have known the power of God’s whisper around a dinner table with friends as heartbreaking news was shared and together we wept.  I have known the power of God’s still, small voice when a doctor was finally willing to admit, “I don’t know the answer”…and I have known God’s powerful presence over a computer screen, of all things, again and again these past two years.

To be honest, if you had asked me 2 years ago exactly what I thought might inhibit the work of God or prevent God from being present in our midst, I don’t know that I could have come up with a better list than what we have endured these past two years.  And yet, God has been so present… not in the ways we expected…not in the ways we would have predicted or perhaps even preferred…but isn’t that precisely the point…

That again, and again, and thanks be to God again, we are reminded that God always has the power to show up in fire…but in order to be with us, for us, near us, God will also show up in the whispers…where we least expect God…sometimes where we don’t want God to be…but always where God needs to be.  In fire…in whispers…

…in the sound of sheer silence…

Thanks be to God.