Signal and Noise

1 Kings 19:1-15a
Jacqueline Lapsley
June 19, 2016

At Labyrinth Bookstore, right down here on Nassau Street, there are these little books, only a few inches tall and wide, that hover by the cash register, promising enlightenment or amusement. Last winter, just a day or two before Christmas, when I was casting about a bit desperately for stocking stuffers, I fell prey to one such little book:  “Math in Minutes.”  “Math in Minutes: 200 Key Concepts Explained in an Instant.” “In an Instant” people!  Math revealed, in an instant. It seemed in that moment, standing at the Labyrinth counter, that it would be a mistake to NOT purchase Math in Minutes.  This would be a stocking-stuffer that would open the veil on the profound mysteries of math, mysteries that govern our world, but which remain largely veiled to me.

“Math in Minutes” is arranged by topic, but also increases in complexity as you go along.  So the first entry is on numbers.  It begins: “Numbers at their most elementary are just adjectives describing quantity.”  Excellent.  I am fully on board.  The entry on the number “1” is fine, and the next entry on “zero” is also okay, although, I began to feel a little uneasy when Math in Minutes explained that for a long time philosophers refused to acknowledge the existence of zero.  Did zero deserve the rudeness of not being acknowledged?

Things quickly ran off the rails from there:  the entries on trigonometric identities, tesselations, penrose tilings, were perplexing, to say nothing of differential calculus, linear combinations and transformations, and the ominous, “Monster Group.” The first sentence of the entry on “Null Spaces” goes like this: “Also known as the kernel of the matrix, the null space is the set of all vectors that are mapped to the zero vector by the action of the linear transformation.” Null spaces. The entry on “Null Spaces” was hitting a little … a little too close to home.

In the story I just read, Elijah’s fellow Israelites seem to be having a similar problem to the one I have with math.  Mathematics discloses profound truths about the invisible workings of the universe.  Likewise, ancient Israel’s traditions disclose profound truths about God’s desire for humanity to flourish in a complex world. Yet Elijah’s fellow Israelites seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never understood those traditions. How God desires a just and flourishing community, and how to work for it. God desires a convenantal relationship with humanity and with creation. The covenantal laws were designed to foster life—to make it possible for everyone to flourish in community, together.

But the people have abandoned that life-giving covenantal relationship and only Elijah is left to speak truth to power.  In the chapters leading up to this one, Elijah has been combating the corruption of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab’s unjust regime in Israel. Elijah has just had an encounter with King Ahab where Ahab essentially says to him, “Hey Elijah, why are you messing with the status quo?  Things are okay here—we don’t need your talk of God and justice.”  But worse than Ahab are Elijah’s fellow Israelites. They have become apathetic and fearful, and they too bow to the status quo. Elijah’s faithfulness—to God, to the covenant—has brought him nothing but isolation and exhaustion.  Jezebel is pursuing him to kill him, and indeed, he wants to die.

God has sent Elijah on this mission, so it has to annoy Elijah that God now asks him what he is doing there, out in the desert, simultaneously fleeing for his life and wanting to die at the same time. What is he DOING there? It is no wonder that Elijah vents: “I have been working my heart out for you, God. But your people are the worst—they’re afraid and unfaithful, and my life is in danger.”

In response, God does a “drive by” – offers Elijah a glimpse of the divine presence – just as God had offered to Moses long before in the same place. It was widely believed in the ancient Near East that God appears in storms, in the wind, in earthquakes, in fire—these were the places to perceive the power and presence of God. In fact, in the previous chapter when Elijah called upon God to take down those charlatans, the prophets of Baal, God WAS in the fire.  There God was in the fire and the prophets of Baal conjured only an empty silence.

But here, Elijah, famously, doesn’t get fire.  He doesn’t get an earthquake, or wind, or storms.  The glimpse of the divine he gets is “a sound of sheer silence,” as the New Revised Standard Version has it.  The King James Version has “a still, small voice.” This is one of those translation conundrum: A thin silence? A small silence? A soft silence?  The sound of silence? Thank you, Simon & Garfunkel.  The phrase slips away from us… How to convey the paradox of it?  One scholar (Duhm) calls it a “vibrant silence.” “A vibrant silence.” It is not silence as the absence of sound.  It is the vibrant silence saturated with the full presence of God.  “Elijah heard the vibrant silence.”

Last week I was at the car dealer waiting for my car to be repaired. I found myself in a nice waiting room—free WiFi, decent coffee, okay bagels.  But the first thing I noticed were the two televisions, from which a stream of nonsense—vacuous words and hollow laughter—emitted from the mouths of conventionally attractive people. I thought at that moment of the whales, and other sea life.  We have taken our own noise-filled world, and replicated it, so that the whales are also forced to live in a home as insufferably loud as our own.

The noise we encounter in daily life is auditory, but it is also visual noise, and even olfactory noise. Bus riders in S. Korea now have advertising literally squirted up their noses—the synthetic smell of Dunkin Donuts coffee is released into the ventilation system of the bus just before it arrives at, you guessed it, Dunkin Donuts.

In his latest book, The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford points out that the world has become so noisy that we pay extra for the commodity of silence. When you pay for a “Business class” lounge in an airport you get snacks and Wifi, sure, but the main thing you get is quiet. A respite from the endless blaring of CNN, or worse, Fox News, and the endless advertising. Silence of all kinds has become a luxury good—it is available to those who can afford it. How can we hear God in the silence when there is so little of it?

Elijah runs away from all the noise of his own culture.  He runs from the noise of his epic battle with the 450 prophets of Baal. Now you know THAT was loud.  The text says those prophets “cried aloud” and  “raved” ALL … DAY … LONG.  And that was just their twitter feed.  The ravings of the prophets of Baal are still with us.

Isn’t this why Elijah sticks his face in his jacket?  He is tired of dealing with the anxiety, the fear, the noise of not only his enemies, but of his own people?  He wants to block out the 24-hour news cycle of terrorism, sexual and racial violence, degradation of creation, and on and on. What is the silence of God, even a vibrant silence, in the face of so much noise?

“Elijah heard the vibrant silence.”  What does he hear in that God-filled silence?  Perhaps it is what all his fellow citizens have forgotten. Perhaps it is the message of the Scriptures, the life-giving divine Word that God gave to the people that they might flourish in the land. Perhaps what he heard in that vibrant silence was a deep reminder that God’s relationship with Elijah, with the people, with the world, is the ground of all life, of all flourishing life. Perhaps Elijah can hear in that vibrant silence the sound of all of us connecting with God, connecting with one another, and with the world around us.  That vibrant silence gets inside of him.

He steps to the edge of the cave. Again God asks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  It must annoy Elijah to be asked the same question as before. And then something surprising happens. Elijah says the exact same thing he did before:  “I have been working my heart out for you, God. But your people are the worst—they’re afraid and unfaithful, and my life is in danger.”  Wait, what? He heard the vibrant silence, and he says exactly the same thing?

It seems that nothing has really changed in his situation; Elijah still faces the same problems.  But he has the sound of vibrant silence within him.  The sound of a God-given vision of the common good. The sound and vision of a world in which all flourish.  And with that, he goes on his way to face the same situation he fled in the first place.

God tells Elijah what’s next on the to-do list.  He is to assemble a team of folks to help him in taking on Ahab and Jezebel and the powers that threaten the community. So despite the fact that he is still tired, still undone by the noise of his anxious people and his frightening enemies, Elijah gets on with his work. He gets on with the work of calling his community to a covenantal life of justice, of telling them what the Scriptures reveal about God and the world. The “vibrant silence” feeds him as surely as food; it gives him the strength to move on from the cave, to continue his task of calling his people to form and sustain a just society, to make a world in which all can flourish and thrive.

God meets Elijah in the desert not to offer simple solutions to the problems in front of him. The same god-awful mess awaits him, but the vibrancy of that silence strengthens him for the journey.

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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