My devotional sent me to the book of 1Kings this morning, to the story about Elijah the prophet who, running for his life, fell exhausted and prayed for death. The story leads to one of the most recognizable passages in scripture, about how Elijah retreated to a cave, and experienced first a great and powerful wind which shattered the mountains, then an earthquake, and then a fire, but the Lord was not found in any of them. Rather, He came to Elijah in a gentle whisper, and that whisper changed everything.
It was the fire that stood out to me today. My dear friend had just experienced a house fire a couple of days before, and I was looking for divine wisdom or encouragement about what silver lining might possibly come after a fire, on her behalf.
What I found instead was richer than any silver lining, and it has to do with my friend, yes, but also all of us. It seems fair to say that we as a church, country and world are experiencing one of the most traumatic and upending years in our history. There has been shattering, quaking and fire, both literal and figurative, which have left us exhausted and depleted. I’m probably not the only one who could say it seems we’re coming to the end of ourselves.
So, what could make the difference for us? What could we learn from Elijah’s story that could enable us to go on in our vocations or in our every-day lives, even if we, like him, are tired, fearful about our future, and in the dark about how to move forward?
When Elijah landed in the cave, propelled by a miraculously provided meal of bread and water, the word of the Lord came to him and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s a good question. Maybe you, like me, are wondering the same thing. What exactly is going on here, and who are we really and what’s our role in it all?
Elijah summed it up. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Can you hear his panic? Everything had gone so desperately wrong. Elijah had tried to do the right thing even when it was so hard. Motivated by working for the good and finding no reward, but instead, failure, dishonor, and danger. Can you relate to the feeling of pouring yourself into something for all of the right reasons, having it all fall apart, and then demanding God to act, to DO SOMETHING? I can.
So, the Lord directs Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain to experience the presence of the Lord. God knows it’s what we need the most when we’ve come to the end of ourselves. And Elijah witnesses a powerful wind which tears the mountains apart, an earthquake, and a fire, and he seeks God in each of these things but does not find Him there.
Are you looking for God in the violence and calamity? It seems like a silly question, but there are lots of people who are doing just that. They identify with a God of force and destruction. They’re gearing up for battle on social media and elsewhere, defending their ideologies and their God with might and power. They seem to have forgotten the Jesus who, when faced with his own battle, told his followers to put down their swords. But that’s another story.
No, God wasn’t found in the violence or the fight, but rather, in the gentle whisper that followed it all. The volume of the calamity that preceded the whisper may have enabled Elijah to attend his ear and listen for that voice, but when he heard it, it changed everything. Encounter with God does just that, and it’s often the only thing that can. The scripture says that when he heard the whisper, Elijah pulled his cloak over his face, went out, and stood at the mouth of the cave. Humbled, quiet, and changed.
And the Lord said again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And he answered, again, with the same words but maybe in a completely different way. I imagine him sighing as he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Elijah is poured out, receptive, and humble as he speaks the truth that has not changed. God responds with specific directions about precisely what Elijah should do next, in what direction he should travel, and who he should anoint. Quieted, Elijah can now hear the Lord and follow where He’s leading.
The difference is found in the whisper, in the quiet, in the encounter. Our world today is so loud. We want to fight the storm and become a storm ourselves. We want to stand on a battle line on the side of good and load up our weapons. We roar and burn and clash.
But what if we listened instead? What if we quieted ourselves long enough to listen to the gentle whisper of God, covered our faces, and humbly laid it all before Him, these worries and challenges which don’t look like they’re changing anytime soon. Maybe we’d hear Him then. Maybe we’d bow our heads and receive a new lens, new ears, a new place to stand.
Maybe then we’d know what to do next.