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God is Still Speaking
Progressive Christianity
United Church of Christ
Northern California Nevada   Conference of the UCC


Recent Sermons

Silence in the Wilderness

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
June 19, 2016

Elijah is one of the most ancient of prophets. Like Moses, his stories are told again and again. A place for him is set at every Passover feast (because he is expected someday to return). Some people thought John the Baptist was Elijah returning!

He performed great miracles. He wandered in the wilderness like Moses before him and Jesus after him. And like Moses, he had his doubts and fears.

As we celebrate the Fathers in our midst who have taught us and protected us, we remember that they too are human and have known their moments of doubt and fear, as we all do.

In our reading this morning we find Elijah alone on a mountain top. We know that great spiritual events often take place there. But to understand the impact of this particular encounter with the Holy, we need to hear the back story!

King Ahab and his wife Jezebel are ruling Israel for greed and power. They worship false Gods and Elijah has just destroyed the priests of Baal in a fiery competition.  The violence that is justified in Biblical texts is appalling. We must hear the stories with evolved, compassionate minds or we are in real trouble!

The story continues in I Kings 19. Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, and promised to kill him! Elijah believed her and fled for his life. He went to Beer-sheba, which belonged to Judah and left his servant there. Then he went as far as he could from home, a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He wanted to die: "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors."

Angels take care of him in much the way Jesus was cared for in the wilderness. He wandered for 40 days and nights until he came to Mt. Horeb. There he found a cave, and spent the night. Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai where Moses received those Ten commandments.
Elijah hears a messenger of God who asks: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."

Elijah is feeling pretty rejected, abandoned, hopeless.  After all he did “for God” he’s left with nothing. He is a failure! He has already asked God to just “Kill me now!” This is the context in which we hear today’s reading:

“The Angel of the Lord said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." 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”

Finally! After the wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, Elijah hears God in the silence. After all he had been through it may have taken this wilderness experience and this time in absolute solitude for Elijah to be able to hear the presence, the “sheer silence” that is God in our midst.

We live in wilderness times. There is plenty of wind (of words, of empty promises, of distractions, fear and foolishness) surrounding us every day. We sense that God does not speak to us through all this craziness, all the many ways we are blown about by media and mindlessness. We like to think of the wild wind of Spirit blowing us in just the right direction, but God does not always speak in this wind.

Even when things shake us up – the earthquakes of life -- disasters, violence, sudden and terrible events, we do not see or hear God in those events, at least not while we are going through them. God does not speak in the earthquake!

We’d hope that a purifying fire might reveal God to us, like Moses at his burning bush. But fire creates so much loss, so terrible an emptiness. God does not speak to us in fire.

Perhaps all these events prepare us for the silence of God. Perhaps we come to silence only when the worldly wail of cruelty and mindless disaster finally forces us to stop, to listen.

But Sheer silence can be terrifying. We want to hear the comforting words of love and support. Elijah was so very alone. He felt like a failure after all his successes. He was forced in his solitude to listen…to hear…Sheer silence! Only then could he hear the guidance God was giving him, what to do next!

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, talked recently on the great benefits she found in failure. Most of you know that she was a single mother, unemployed and “Living on the Dole” as they call it in Britain, when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. It is hard to imagine being that low!

She said that failure means a stripping away of the inessential. There she found the determination to pursue what she truly wanted to do. Rock bottom became the foundation on which she rebuilt her life.

She said that Some failure is inevitable in life, unless we live so cautiously that we might as well not have lived at all, in which case we have failed by default.

When we fail we discover strengths we did not know we had. We are tested by adversity. We discover our courage, our tenacity, and determination.

We find out who are real friends are too. We will never know ourselves or the strength of our relationships unless they have been tested by adversity.
Who is there when everything else falls apart?

We are living in a time of great adversity for our nation, and our world. The list of troubles that seem insurmountable continues to grow: wars, violence,  hunger, homelessness, global warming, ocean toxification…It is a wilderness time…Who will lead us?

As disciples of a living God, we are called to find our courage, our strength, our determination, our calling. We are people prepared by our experiences to face this time with equanimity, calmness and passion. We have learned together about service and trust and compassion. We have practiced and continue to practice patience and caring. We follow the Christ who weathered the wilderness times and taught us that we do not need to be afraid; that perfect love, even imperfect love, casts out fear.

We finally got our rainbow flag hoisted two weeks ago now. It feels like a huge “God Thing” that we managed to do it before the terrible tragedy of Orlando. Now we are prepared to walk our talk, to reach out in support to demand changes to our gun laws. What else is God calling us to do?

When we dare to listen to the Sheer Silence of God we will face our failures and find our courage. We carry the transformative spirit of God within us. We have work we are called to do.

I invite you into the Silence of God, the Sheer Silence that calls you. What terrible need do you feel called to address? What can we do together?

We are the church, God’s hands and feet and hearts and minds for God’s beloved world. Listen with your heart. Listen with your mind. Listen…

God’s Sheer Silence is whispering some new thing to us. We have work to do. Together! May it be so!