Silence, Believe, Speak August 9, 2020
A few years ago, Finland’s Tourist Board rebranded Finland’s tourist industry with a new slogan. It was an unusual slogan but it did not take long before it became one of the most popular slogans ever. The slogan was “Silence Please”! The “Silence, Please” campaign consisted of photographs depicting lone figures in the wilderness, snow covered fields, and pristine rivers. “Silence” was no longer boring and unexciting. It was even considered a natural resource amidst a modern world of noise and busyness.
Silence is actually good for us: it calms our bodies and minds, it makes us aware of our inner life and enhances our connection to the world.
Noise on the other hand does the opposite. The word noise in fact comes from the Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain. In the 1960’s researchers coined a term that pointed at the harmful effects of noisiness on the activity and balance of life. The term is noise pollution.
Our world is a noisy place. Noise is unhealthy and it distracts from what is important and wholesome. Noise comes in different shapes and forms: there is statistical noise that distracts us from seeing the real picture which may lead to incorrect conclusions! Political noise distracts us from policies and actions that may be harmful and detrimental. Social media noise according to some makes us anti-social. And then there is religious noise. It is dangerous and it aggravates differences.
Novelist, screenwriter and philanthropist Nicolas Spark writes: “It seems that silence takes a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.”
Author and academic Norton Juster writes: “Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”
These quotes are beautifully written and the way they depict silence makes silence a very attractive option – but in reality, silence is an awkward companion. In our connected and noisy world, silence feels unproductive, perhaps even empty.
Years ago, I asked people at the beginning of the sermon to be silent for 30 seconds. Some became restless, others did not know where to look, others pretended that they were reading. Thirty seconds on this rare occasion felt longer than listening to the sermon!
Elijah was considered to be one of the great prophets of Israel. He did wonderful things: he predicted a drought, he did miracles with a jar of oil that never emptied, he raised a widow’s son from death, and he triumphed over the priests of Baal when he encouraged his people to “…seize the prophets of Baal, do not let them escape.” And all of them were killed that day!
Elijah did remarkable things, but he was also a zealous and at times a violent man. OT commentator, John Gray says this about Elijah’s behavior: “It at times amounts to fanatical intolerance!” Fanatical intolerance! There were times when he felt alone in his zeal to the Lord! He felt that everyone was out to get him. He was righteous and right! And there were times when he was simply violent!
In a narrative that resembles the theophany to Moses, the other great prophet, Elijah heard: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
First, he heard a great wind, strong, splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces. Elijah, the violent zealot must have thought: “Here is God! This is my God -powerful and ready to destroy and punish!” But to his surprise he realized that the Lord was not in the wind!
Then there was an earthquake and what can be more powerful than a power that shakes the foundations of the earth? And yet, God was not in the earthquake!
Then there was a fire. A consuming fire that cleanses, wipes out and annihilates. Certainly, that is where God is! But again, God, to perhaps Elijah’s surprise, was not in the fire either!
It is a fascinating story. When I realized what the implications of these words are, I was amazed. You see, religious noise distracts us to seek and often find what we consider to be God, in destructive, violent, punishing, and yes let’s say it, angry actions. God, for many, is an angry tyrant! A bully who has to be pleased otherwise God will punish!
How often does the noise drown the rational, kind and gentle views of God? If there is a natural disaster, it is the noise of some religious leaders, zealots that attribute the destruction to God’s wrath! If something bad happens to people, then immediately some religious people would jump to the conclusion that such people are getting what they deserve! In a recent survey 63% of religious Americans believe that Covid19 is a message from God to humanity to change!
Many people of faith find it easier to believe that God is using the pandemic to tell people to change. And yet the Bible is very clear that God sent Jesus to the world to show us how much God loves us!
The religious noise becomes so loud that the good news of God’s love is not heard! This is of course not new! There has always been noise: There has always been noise of people yelling: Give us Barabbas, and crucify him! There has always been religious noise of people yelling: she is a witch, he is a danger to the church and an enemy of God! He is a sinner, God will punish her! So, let’s get rid of her or him! The challenge for Christ’s church today is to block out the noise of zealots and to listen for the gentle voice of God!
After the great, powerful and destructive wind, after the enormous earthquake and after the consuming fire, there was the sound of sheer silence! And when Elijah heard the silence, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. He knew then that he was in the presence of the Holy God!
You all know Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God”.
I suspect I speak for all of us that in our busy and hectic lives, we don’t take enough time to be still and wait for God. I suspect that you are as guilty as I am of always be ready to speak and slow to listen, always busy instead of taking time to be silent. Is it possible that we don’t hear God’s voice, nor experience God’s presence because there is never silence? The TV is always on, the radio is playing in the background and even when we go for a run we listen to music on our electronic devices! Not that these technologies are not wonderful tools. But they are not helping us to be silent!
Even during our worship services, we don’t have much time for sheer silence because we want to give you the best sermon, the best music, the best experience during the worship service.
Sheer silence and not the violent measures is the what God desired for his servants! One commentator says: “This seems to be an admonition to the prophet to expect, not the supernatural and spectacular inbreaking of Yahweh into history with the accompaniments of storm, earthquake and fire, but rather an intelligible revelation to find God’s direction in the ordinary silence and to communicate it regularly and constructively”.
God’s revelation of course culminates in the divine revelation in Jesus Christ!
After his silent encounter with the Holy One, Elijah was sent back with a specific task. He had to anoint people: Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and his successor Elisha (1 Kings 19:16).
Oil was used when people were anointed. And in ancient times oil was used to sooth, to protect wounds and aid their healing. Is it then farfetched to conclude that Elijah’s task was to be an instrument of healing instead of judgment and violence? I don’t think it is. I am convinced that God’s will for the church, for you and me, is to have a healing, a soothing influence to our world.
Our world is hurting at the moment. Our country is hurting, people are angry, scared, worried and the nation is divided. People are suffering. The world, the nation, we all need healing!
At a time like this, there are people preferring the noise of accusations and harsh words, hateful rhetoric and name calling.
As kingdom people, we are called to point towards the goodness, the compassion and love of a benevolent God who did not withhold anything to show us that we are precious in God’s sight! We are therefore called, not to present God as a destructive wind of judgment, or an earthquake that will destroy, or even as a fire that will consume. No, I believe our task is to present God as the One who wants to make whole, the who wants to heal. To present to the world a God that is present in revered silence, present in a holy and saving way.
Allow me to end with a last reference to the text. The Book of Kings mention that in the midst of a noisy and a violent world, God will leave seven thousand who will not bow the knee before Baal! This is a reference to what is also called the remnant. We find the concept of a remnant in the book of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, in Romans and in Revelation. The number seven thousand should not be taken literally. It points to a small number of people that will remain standing because of God’s grace. It is a small number who will find that it is not easy to be heard with all the noise of the masses.
The Apostle Paul defines this remnant of those who believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and those who call on the name of the Lord. For Paul, God’s love, grace and healing are to be found in Jesus who showed us the face of God. And the response of those who have seen God’s loving face in Jesus are called to bring the gospel, the good news of healing and wholeness to the broken world.
In essence this message is the same as the one anticipated in Kings. Our task is and remains the same: to worship a loving, gentle and forgiving God, to be mediators of God’s healing, to bring to the world the metaphorical soothing oil to protect and heal the wounds of those who cross our path every day. In order for us to do this in an efficient way, we need to be silent first! Amen!