'The Sound of Silence'

And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
—I Kings 19:12
Introduction: Talking During the Prélude A
One of the things that has bothered me for eleven years now is the amount of noise in the sanctuary during the prélude. For one thing, I would like for all of us to appreciate this time before the service as a time to meditate or pray. For another, the musician has no doubt prepared a beautiful piece of music that even those who don’t wish to pray might be able to appreciate. These are the reasons that this summer, we’re going to have the announcements before the prélude to help encourage people in a new way to spend this time alone with God and in gratitude for the gift of music.

This is not a diatribe against the people of this congregation. It’s a common problem in most Protestant churches—one that seems to have gotten worse as time advances. I remember as a kid I was told that it was okay to talk before church until the music started, but after the music had started I had to be quiet (a monumental task in my case). But in that church along with most others, the prélude has become something over which conversation has to be carried on.
I. Talking During the Prélude B
The best story I’ve ever heard about this phenomenon was told by a guest at a little dinner party I attended once in Atlanta. Another guest was the organist at a big downtown church, and he described a piece that he had chosen both because of its dramatic beauty, and as an experiment to see what would happen when he played it. He may have been disappointed when the beauty was marred, but I’m sure he was thrilled that his experiment worked.

I wish I remembered the name of the piece, but perhaps my description of it will help you appreciate it as much as I did. It was a piece that started out very quietly—so quiet that the people in the congregation who preferred chatter to music could easily hear each other if they spoke quietly, perhaps even in whispers. But as the volume of the organ went from pianississimo (really, really soft) to pianissimo to piano, they unconsciously began to speak a bit more loudly. But the piece didn’t stop there. The dynamics moved into the moderate range, and then slowly built on that until the volume became forte (that is, loud), then fortissimo, and then fortississimo (really, really loud). By this time, people in the sanctuary were actually yelling at each other in order to be heard, though the change in the volume of the music had been so gradual that they didn’t notice it as their own voices adjusted to compensate for the organ.

But then, when the organ reached its climax, when all the stops had finally been pulled out, when it had gotten as loud as it possibly could get—all without the clueless congregation even noticing that it had been getting louder—the sound of the organ suddenly stopped for a brief second. In musical notation, this is simply called a rest, but in this case, the rest was intended for dramatic effect.

And boy was it dramatic.

I’m sure there must’ve been several people in the congregation who were listening appreciatively to the music. And most of those who were trying to talk over the organ were at least aware of what had just happened, and were able to put the breaks on their own speech when the music suddenly stopped. But one lady in the back was so engaged with her conversation partner that she was caught completely off guard. And so when the room that had heretofore been filled with the strains of really loud pipe organ music suddenly became totally silent, into the silence was suddenly shouted the beautiful and theologically significant words, “Bill likes his fried.”
II. Listening for God
Human beings have a fascinating ability to ignore sounds that we can actually hear. Sometimes it might even be considered a talent, like when there’s construction noise nearby, or a person has noisy neighbors. But sometimes—maybe even most of the time—we would do well to be more attentive to sounds: to the voices that speak to us or the birds outside our window or the music that surrounds us. And if this is true of the sounds that we all have to admit are there, then how about the sounds of the Spirit—sounds that are not heard with the ears visible on the sides of our heads, but are heard with the soul.

Elijah was certainly an individual who could hear the voice of God’s Spirit. It was, after all, God’s Spirit who had told him to confront the royal family and its religious minions. The Bible doesn’t tell us that it was God’s Spirit that told him to flee. Once he’d escaped the clutches of Jezebel and Ahab, however, he asked God to do what Jezebel didn’t. He asked God to take his life. God’s answer wasn’t to take, but to give him life. God kept Elijah alive until he arrived at a mountain known to Israel as the place where Moses encountered God in the burning bush, and on which God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock to protect him from the divine glory as it passed by. Once again on that mountain, God’s glory was about to pass by. And as Elijah waited for it, there was the rush of a wind so loud that it split rocks. But God wasn’t found in that. Then came the sound of an earthquake. But God wasn’t found in that. Then came the roaring of a fire. But God wasn’t found in that.

And then, after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, there was nothing. Sheer silence. And our contemporary translation does get it right. We’re used to calling it a still small voice in the old Authorized (King James) Version, which is a rather poetic oxymoron. Our Pilgrim ancestors read a translation that used a very similar oxymoron: a still and soft voice. Another contemporary translation popular among conservatives calls it a gentle whisper. This is not correct. The Hebrew means literally the sound of thin silence. To me, this is exactly the sound we hear when a composer brings a musical piece to thunderous climax followed by the silence of a sudden rest. That silence is certainly no less a part of the music than the noise that precedes it. I might even say it’s the most important part of the music, for it’s exactly this striking tranquility that the thunder was leading to.

But our fascination with the world often prevents us from hearing the silence of God. TV, radio, our smart phone, or even (as is the case with Bill’s wife) fried foods—these are all distractions that rob us of any opportunity to hear the sheer silence that might just be of God. Elijah didn’t have electronics, and we have no reason to believe that he even knew Bill’s wife. But he had his own reasons not to hear the voice of God. He was a prophet accompanied by noise. Some might’ve called it clamor, others acclaim, but whatever it was, Elijah’s career up to the point where we find him on Mt. Horeb can be characterized by noise. Threats, fire and brimstone, violence... of all the prophets in the Hebrew Bible Elijah might well have been the noisiest.

And that’s the real strength of this Mt. Horeb narrative: We read here the ways that Elijah might have expected to encounter God—perhaps even ways that he had experienced God in the past. In each case, Elijah listened for God. Surely God’s voice was to be heard in the rush of the windstorm. But it wasn’t. Surely God was speaking in the quaking of the earth. But God wasn’t there. So that must’ve been God in the roar of the fire. But it wasn’t. Where was God?

Then came the silence. No small voice. Not even a whisper. Just sheer silence.

It’s not like this sound of silence changed everything. We see Elijah’s response to God after (not) hearing it to be basically identical to what he said before he heard it (or didn’t hear it, as the case may be). But in the silence he hears a different answer this time. He complained about being the only one left who was faithful to God, but this time God told him he wasn’t alone, that there were at least seven thousand others just like him. Maybe they weren’t as famous. Maybe they didn’t have direct access to the king and queen. But these people were just as faithful.
III. Before & After
And it’s at this point we see a change. Elijah is still the same prophet. I’m sure he was just as cantankerous after Horeb as he was before Horeb. But he refocused his energy. Before Horeb his ministry was characterized by the threats and violence of a loner. But at Horeb, God reminded him that he wasn’t really alone, and God let him know who his community was.

And so he began to seek out his community. He began to realize that his responsibility wasn’t just vertical—between him and God; but was also horizontal—between him and the others who had remained faithful to God. Here’s the way Charles Spurgeon put it in a sermon he preached on a Thursday evening in the summer of 1873:
You have, perhaps, noticed that Elijah's later ministry became, on the whole, much more gentle and tender. He seems to have devoted himself to the work of perpetuating the ministry among the people by founding schools for the young men who were called the sons of the prophets… Judgments had apparently failed… now other methods were to be tried—gentler, softer, quieter methods which would prove to be more efficient. I think that was the message of God to Elijah through the still small voice.
One of the old sayings that I have always detested is, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” What a slap in the face to one of the most dedicated and underpaid professions in this country. In Elijah I think we learn a bit about how teaching is itself a ministry, a calling—one, in fact, that the prophet struggled with before taking up the mantle of the teacher. As far as prophecy went, Elijah could and Elijah did. He became a teacher when he realized that he’d done all he could all by himself, and that the future of a nation was more important than individual success.

One of the reasons for this was that, for all the success that Elijah enjoyed, it was short-lived. He scared some people, and they reformed for a while—or at least they pretended to. But he discovered that neither threats nor disaster changed hearts. They may have changed surface behavior. But deep inside, people remained the same.

In the silence that followed the windstorm, earthquake, and wildfire, after he’d issued his standard complaint that made him look good, that made everybody else look bad, and that made God look rather indifferent, Elijah was given a mission. The lectionary doesn’t include this part of the story, but I want to share with you the best part of Elijah’s response to the sheer silence of God:

Elijah went in search of a young man named Elisha and found him plowing a huge field. There were twelve teams of oxen plowing that field, and Elisha was plowing with the twelfth (that is, the last) team. And here’s the really beautiful part. We don’t know if Elisha knew who Elijah was or not, but Elijah went up to this hot and dirty and sweaty young man and placed his own mantle on his shoulders, and then apparently began to just walk away. On Father’s Day, I think we need this story, because it was Elijah’s way of saying to Elisha, I am adopting you as my son. And Elisha ran after him. He knew what Elijah’s claim on his life meant, and so he asked permission to go and kiss his parents good-bye. Elijah granted it, and Elisha began to call Elijah father, and Elijah began to prepare Elisha to wear the mantle that had been laid upon his shoulders.
Conclusion: Nobler? Stronger?
In the Reformed tradition, we have a hymn about this spiritual father-son pair. It was in our old UCC hymnal, but we seldom sang it because it’s pretty specifically designed for an ordination. It began,
     God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ heirs,
     Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast.
     Each age for its own solemn tasks prepares:
     make each one nobler, stronger than the last.
[Denis Wortman, UCC version]

Denis Wortman (1835-1922)
There were perhaps two ages of Elijah’s life—the one before the still small voice, and the one after. I would not say that the first age was neither noble nor strong. But I would say that the second was indeed nobler, stronger than the first. The first was an individualistic and bombastic age of anger and threats. The second was not by any means devoid of anger, but it was characterized more by instruction and mentoring and spiritual fatherhood than it was by threats.

Are we any nobler or stronger than those who went before us? I think the jury’s still out. But if we are not, if we are taking a step backwards in our relationship with God and in our attitudes toward each other, then it is not the fault of the still small voice, God’s sheer silence. That’s because we are so seldom in a position to hear it. The church and the world around it are simply too full of the phenomenal. We want to be blown away. We want to feel the earth move under our feet. We want to be on fire for something. And sometimes that’s the way God works.

Those feelings and phenomena and noises are things that make people feel good about the path they’re already on. And those are things that might shut other people up and keep them from revealing what’s really in their hearts. But it’s in silence that we are able to examine our lives. It’s in silent and prayerful consideration that we can best find our path forward with God. It’s in my keeping silent that I can hear my neighbor’s voice, and it’s in their silence that they can hear mine.

Of all the miracles of the Bible that we doubt, and of all the wonders that seem impossibly beyond our reach, here is one we can believe, and here is one that we can cultivate in our own lives and experience in reality: God comes to us in silence. We may not hear God’s gentle whisper, but prayer, contemplation, and study can show us the path ahead, even if it’s a different path than the one we’re on… even if it’s the way of the cross.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, jr.