(I preached this sermon yesterday, August 9, 2020 in response to the 1 Kings 9:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33. You can see the entire service at our church website – www.ststephenlc.org.)
I got to know Salla during my second year of Seminary. She was an exchange student from Finland taking a year to study in the US at Gettysburg Seminary. She was my opportunity to get to know Finnish culture, some language, and ideas, and I provided her with insight into American culture, language, and ideas.
I remember one exchange early on in her stay here. She said, “why do Americans ask how you are doing, but then don’t actually listen to the answer. I don’t understand.” I laughed a bit at this and then explained to Salla that this is a common American greeting. It’s not really an inquiry into how the other person is doing. It just flows with “hello.” I explained to her that in fact, most people aren’t looking for a real answer. They want to and expect to hear something like, “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” Or “I’m great, thanks, how about you?” Something rehearsed. I explained to her that under most circumstances, it would be rather awkward for Americans to truly express how they are doing. If you really want to know how someone is really doing, you’ll need to press them a bit.
Salla had a confused look on her face. “That’s weird,” she said. “In Finland we just great each other with a hello. If we want to know how someone is, it better be someone we know, and we better be prepared for a real answer. So, we usually don’t ask.”
In our first reading, we hear God say to Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah goes on to give his answer – “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.”
Notice how he never really answers the question? It’s like he has a pat answer ready to go. God asks – what are you doing Elijah? God wants to know. This isn’t the passing of pleasantries. God isn’t interested in the rehearsed answer. Elijah answers – I’ve been busy, lots of work lately, whoa is me.
I wonder if Elijah was even listening to the question that God asked. What are you doing here Elijah? What are you really doing here Elijah? God knew the circumstances of how Elijah showed up at that cave. Elijah had just had an epic battle with the 500 prophets of Baal.
Baal failed to show up, but God did, reigning fire on a wet sacrifice. And as a result, Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal – all 500. This angers the queen – Jezabel – who hunts down Elijah to have him killed. Hence, he ends up in the cave. But that’s not what God was asking. God’s not asking “how are you doing Elijah?”
Instead God asks – What are you doing here Elijah? Don’t tell me how you came to get here – I know. Don’t tell me how you are doing Elijah? What are you doing here now Elijah? That’s what God wanted an answer to.
Has God ever asked you the question – what are you doing here? Not in a literal sense of right here, right now. No, rather, what are you doing in life? What are you looking for? What are you afraid of? What are you searching for?
After this initial back and forth, God takes Elijah to the entrance of the cave and Elijah is privy to a wonderous and fearful nature show – a strong wind – strong enough to split mountains. Maybe a hurricane or tornado. But God was not in the wind. But it sure was noisy and powerful.
Then came an earthquake. Maybe a 10.0 on the Richter scale – strong enough to cause devastation. Maybe the same type of earthquake that would be felt on a fault line. But we are told, God wasn’t in the earthquake. But it sure was powerful and destructive.
Then came a fire. Maybe it was as large and destructive as the Camp Fire out in California 18 months ago that ripped through portions of California in an unbelievably savage way. I heard stories of the fire consuming a football field length of ground in 1 second. In 90 minutes, the fire traveled 17 miles. And the destruction was so bad that these areas have not recovered yet. Maybe the fire that Elijah saw was like that. But God wasn’t in the fire, regardless of how powerful and destructive it was.
But then comes what we are told is sheer silence. And God is there. And Scripture tells us that when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. He knew God was in the silence. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
What do you think is more terrifying? A strong wind, an earthquake, a fire, Or complete and utter silence?
Did you know that the quietest place on earth is a chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota. It is so quiet that the longest anybody has been able to bear it is 45 minutes.
According to the Smithsonian, which wrote an article on the chamber, “Inside the room it’s silent. So silent that the background noise measured is actually negative decibels. Steven Orfield, the lab’s founder, said: “We challenge people to sit in the chamber in the dark – one person stayed in there for 45 minutes. When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly. In the chamber, you become the sound.”
The quieter it is, the more things you hear. Hmm.
No wonder God showed up for Elijah as sheer silence. Elijah had a lot going on – just listen to his rehearsed answer. It’s almost breathless, isn’t it? It took Elijah to be in sheer silence in order to finally hear God. To listen to God apart from the distractions of chaos that surrounded him in his environment and within him.
God asks him again – What are you doing here Elijah? And Elijah sticks with his noisy and chaotic answer – as noisy and destructive and chaotic as the wind, earthquake, and fire outside the cave. But he finally hears God in the silence. He covers his face because he finally recognizes God is there.
Are you surprised that God shows up in silence? Terrifying silence? Maybe we shouldn’t be. After all, if we remember Genesis 1, we would recall that the entirety of the story of creation is about God creating order out of chaos. Bringing silence to the primordial noise and chaos.
Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis 1 is a particulary good translation – holding true to the rhyme and rythem of the Hebrew in which it was written. Fox’s translation reads as follows – “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of the Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.” This is God bringing order out of chaos. It’s who God is. Every day of creation is another example of bringing order out of chaos, giving purpose and function to that which is created.
What are you doing here Elijah? Is the question God asks. In light of understanding who God is – a God that brings order out of chaos, that gives meaning and purpose, maybe we could also hear God asking this – What is your purpose in being here Elijah?
And Elijah didn’t have an answer. He was running for his life – not looking for purpose and meaning – the purpose and meaning that God gave him. No, he was running himself ragged. He was just trying to survive. It had to be exhausting. And so God does what God has always done – gives Elijah purpose and meaning – God sends him out to bless and anoint. God sends Elijah out in to the chaotic world to do God’s work of bringing order out of the chaos – not hiding Elijah from the chaos. God doesn’t hide away from chaos – God shows up in the midst of it and brings order to it. Just like Jesus did in the Gospel – Jesus shows up in the midst of a chaotic storm, calls Peter out into the chaos, and then creates order in the midst of the chaos.
Back to the Old Testament. It is only in the sheer silence that Elijah can hear God – the chaos of his environment and within him was attacking him like a wind, an earthquake, and a fire. The wrath of Queen Jezabel might have felt like a strong wind, a destructive earthquake, and a harsh fire. But God brought order out of chaos – God gave purpose and meaning to the chaotic Elijah. Because that’s what God has always been doing.
What are the winds in our lives – those blowing around us, demanding our attention, blowing loudly, the wind bags we are forced to listen to whose words are destructive, splitting the mountains and foundations of our life? There’s a lot of wind blowing – destructive wind that creates chaos.
What are the earthquakes in our lives? Those things that shake the very foundation of life – the core of who we are – our identities, our allegiances, our loyalties. There’s a lot of shaking going on right now.
What are the fires in our lives? Those things that burn us to our very core – the things that are said that drive us to burning anger. The things that are done that fire us up. The stories we hear that rouse something deep in us that is unpleasant – like heartburn in our soul. There’s a lot of fires burning uncontrollably and plenty of people pouring gasoline on those fires right now.
But God isn’t in those things. No. God comes to us in Sheer Silence. Terrifying sheer silence. God comes to us and blots out the noise and distractions in our lives and in our world. God comes as we flail around. God shows up as Jesus – the Incarnate God made flesh. God who puts on skin and bones, who walks right into the storm and calls us out of the safety of our boat into the storm of life – the chaos all around us. Because Jesus brings order out of chaos in the world and in our lives. Can you hear it? Jesus doesn’t call us to stay in the safety of our life boats. No, he calls us out into the storms of life, to the edge where the wind, the earthquakes, and the fire are right there. He calls us out into the storms because Jesus comes to us in the midst of these things to be with us, to guide us, to let us know we are not alone, that we are loved. You see love isn’t about removing the winds, earthquakes, fires, and stormy waters from life. Rather, love is going with someone who is in the midst of them. We don’t worship a fair-weather God. We worship and follow Jesus – the God who shows up for the storm. Fair weathered gods would never do that. You would be on your alone when the storm comes – and it will.
God has a question for you – What are you doing here? Yes, you? What are you doing here? Listen for the silence. Listen for God.
Silence is terrifying because we can hear so many things. Like God the Father. Like the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus. It’s in the silence that we hear God call us with God’s purpose. God calls us to get up and go in spite of the chaos, the destruction, the death, the noise. God calls us to speak when the noise of injustice is so very loud. God calls us to show up when all around us is shaking.
Silence is terrifying because it exposes the truth that we hear about ourselves – that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t strong enough, we aren’t healthy enough, we are strong enough, we don’t believe enough, we aren’t enough. In silence, we hear it all. All the chaos that we tell ourselves. And it terrifies us.
And it is in the midst of that wild and waste, that Jesus comes and speaks to us telling us that we aren’t enough on our own. And that’s ok. Because we were never meant to do this on our own. We can’t. Jesus does it for us and with us. Jesus pulls us up out of the raging storm. God gives us purpose and meaning and direction. And blesses us to be a blessing to others. Not perfect. Not all in order. That’s never been what Jesus wants. Elijah wasn’t perfect. And yet, God came to him and sent him out anyway. Peter wasn’t perfect either – yet Jesus bids him to come out into the storm. And in both cases, God saves them, blesses them, and sends them out. Not alone. Not to go by themselves. Rather, they are sent by God, with God. And God does the same thing with us.
God asks each one of us – What are you doing here?