Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Listening for the Divine Whisper"

Text: 1 Kings 19:3-15a

Psalm 46

 

      Before we read this morning’s primary Scripture lesson, I’d like to give you some context. Elijah is a Biblical name many of us are familiar with. The name in Hebrew is Eliy-yahu which literally means “my God is YHWH,” “my God is God.” But just who was this Eliy-yahu?

He was a prophet of Old Testament times, living in the 9th century B.C. Unlike prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel who left us writings which are part of our Bible, Elijah was not a writing prophet. His prophetic medium was the spoken word. And the core of his message paralleled his name: There is only one true God. All other deities are imaginary.

            During Elijah’s time, the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were effectively at war with each other. These opposing kingdoms were being ruled by power-hungry kings who were doing anything but God’s will. To the contrary, they were leading God’s chosen people into a life of idol-worship, bowing down before and serving gods of their own imaginations. One of these deities was named Ba’al, understood to be the great god of sky. Often associated with Ba’al was another deity named Asherah, a female goddess of fertility. The worship life of many in Israel involved offering sacrifices to Ba’al and Asherah in the hopes that the land would pro- duce abundant crops. There was also widespread practice of temple prostitution; again, an attempt to assure fertility of the soil.

            Within this historical context rose Elijah, trying to get through to the people and their leaders: There are no such things as Ba’al and Asherah. They’re make believe. There is only one God who is God of sky, soil, rain, sun, and everything else above and below; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who delivered a commandment to the people through Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me, nor shall you worship idols or images.” Yet Elijah, like most every prophet before or since, was swimming against the current. Idol worship of Ba’al and Asherah was wildly popular and deeply entrenched. In fact, the people who worshiped these imaginary deities turned it into a great cosmic contest. Which god is greater? Your YHWH, or our Ba’al? Rewind circa 1960’s. Larry’s backyard. A boyhood conversation betweenfriends: “Do you think David’s dad could bet up Gino’s dad? “Do you think your dad could whoop Coach Letteri?”Who’s stronger, Larry’s dad or Paul Salerto’s dad?” I’ll bet such boyhoodconversations happened in a lot of back yards.

            Chapter 18 of 1st Kings recounts a story in which almost a thousand prophets of Ba’al and Asherah decided to put the gods to a test; sort of a childish my god can beat up your god contest. In the interest of time, I won’t recount the details of this strange ritual of testing. It would be worth your while to read all of chapter 18 later today. It may make you LOL. At any rate, when all was said and done, and the dust had settled, the imaginary god Ba’al never answered the thousand prophets. On the other hand, the one true God YHWH did answer the prophet Elijah. This contest ends with the prophets of Ba’al being put to death at a brook called “Kishon.”      

     Following this episode, Elijah finds himself a fugitive, being held responsible for the deaths of the thousand prophets. Jezebel (another name you’ve maybe heard) was wife of King Ahab, power hungry monarch of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom. When she learned of the massacre of Ba’al’s prophets, she was furious, and vowed that just as they perished, so too would Elijah. This morning, we meet up with Elijah on the run. He’s frightened. He’s exhausted. He’s discouraged. And he’s about had it with this job as YHWH’s prophet.

            (Read 1 Kings 19:3-10) 

            Have we ever found ourselves in the midst of some trial or difficulty, and we pray and pray to God to give us an answer, and no answer comes? We may have found ourselves bargaining with God; making promises to God; pleading with God; crying out to God. Yet for all the bargaining, promising, pleading and crying out, it seems God was offline; nowhere to be found. We meet up with Elijah as he’s experiencing such a season of despair. He’s been taunted, mistrusted, and per- secuted for his belief in one God. He’s tried to remain faithful and true. He’s done everything he can to be obedient. And now he’s running around in the Sinai wilderness knowing that just like the prophets of YHWH before him, death will be the only compensation for all his trouble.

            Eventually, Elijah’s despair turns to resignation. “I give up!” He reasoned that to die would be the best thing. Listen to his bedtime prayer: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah’s clearly at the end of his rope. As this morning’s episode unfolds, God sends angels to help nourish and build up Elijah physically for the long journey to Mount Horeb [which many scholars believe is the same as Mt. Sinai, where Moses was given the tablets of the Law]. Somewhere between verses eight and nine, Elijah makes the forty-day journey and beds down in a cave on the mountain. There God speaks: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah wastes no time telling God. Lord, now I have tried to serve You faithfully. I’ve declared Your word in the best way I can. I’ve done everything you’ve asked. But these people of Yours just won’t listen! They’re worse than ever! And now, they’re trying to kill me! I’m going crazy here! What am I to do Lord? Will You please answer me?!

            At this point in the narrative, we find a parable of life inserted in which I believe God teaches Elijah – and teaches us – a little something about prayer. “ ‘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. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here Eli- jah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your commandments, 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.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way….’”

            As Elijah had been waiting impatiently and in desperation for an answer to his prayer, had he quieted down to listen? Had his prayer life become too much focused on bargaining, promising, pleading, and crying out; too little focused on the simple act of listening? On another level, was Elijah looking for answers in all the wrong places? It was not until he got in touch with that still, small voice that he received the answers he had been seeking in the milieu of all the pain and turbulence of his life circumstances. Elijah’s needs did not change. His prayer did not change. In verse 14, he prays the identical words; expressing the same sentiments of fear, exhaustion, and discouragement. But the second time around, he gets out of himself and begins to pay at- tention. He begins to get online with God. He discerns and focuses on the voice of the One from whom the answer would come. And so it did. God clearly instructs Elijah on what he should do next. The Lord said to him, “Go, return to your way. Then we read in verse 19: “So (Elijah) set out from there…..” His prayer had been answered, and he was off to continue his life’s work as YHWH’s prophet, along with all the challenges which laid ahead.

            How often in our prayer lives does it seem that God has gone offline? Legendary folk artist Joni Mitchell sings in her ballad “The Same Situation”: “I send up my prayers, wondering who’s there to hear.” Have we ever felt that way? Metaphorically, do we find ourselves looking for God’s answers in the wind; in the earthquake; in the fire; in all the turbulence and tumult of life? We may pray without ceasing, and that’s what we’re encouraged to do. But praying is a two way street. It involves both speaking and listening. I know that in my own case, I too often catch myself doing all the talking in my prayers. One lesson rising out of this passage is that we spend way too much time in prayer with our mouths figuratively open and our ears shut. Another is that we often strain to hear God’s answers above the noise of the world instead of serenely expecting God’s answers in a quiet corner. In our turbulent times, we’ve been programmed to live with commotion that frequently drowns out that still, small voice which discloses a word of truth, wisdom, direction. There’s caterwauling outside of us, and inside of us, which makes it seem like we’re sending up our prayers, wondering who’s there to hear. I think someone once said that a whisper is better heard than a shout. As regards prayer, I believe that’s true.

             In Psalm 46 which we read earlier, after the Psalmist writes about the earth changing, the mountains shaking and trembling, the waters roaring and foaming, he draws us to that which speaks over and under all the restlessness of life: “Be still, and know that I am God!” As we seek God in prayer, bringing our concerns from the center of life’s tumult and clamor, let’s get quiet….. and listen for the divine whisper; for that still, small voice which brings God’s answers to our deepest prayers. For it is in silence that we most clearly hear. Lord, quiet us………. that we might hear. Amen