9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He 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.” 11He 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; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.13When 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, Elijah?” 14He 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.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
This is probably my favorite story in the Bible. The more time I spend with it the more I hear God speaking through it and each time there is a new wrinkle that wasn’t there before. For me, each new wrinkle is a reminder that God is a living God and that the Spirit speaks to us fresh and new every day.
We enter the story where, under a royal death sentence, Elijah has fled the northern kingdom of Israel and ultimately will find refuge at Mount Sinai. Now it would be great to be able to say the holy prophet Elijah sought out the holy ground of Sinai where his ancestors received the word of God. That’d be a great way of telling the story and of building up the piousness of Elijah, but that’s not even close to what happened. In this case Elijah is frustrated, mad and feeling a bit hopeless, so he does what any great man of God would do under such circumstances…he lays down under a tree and asks God to kill him.
It’s kind of pathetic when you stop to think about it. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going;” well it would seem that Elijah took the whole “get going” thing a little too literally. Elijah, the great prophet of God, sees things getting tough, see that all of his hard work and obedience to God isn’t paying off the way he wants it to so he runs away from his troubles, lies down under a tree, refuses to eat and hopes to die.
Fortunately, God has other plans and sends food for Elijah and has an angel tell him to go stand on Mount Sinai. Now with all that had gone wrong, as hopeless as he had felt, this ultimately should be good news. After being chased by a mob with no sign or help from God, Elijah clearly felt put out by God, forgotten by God, left behind by God, but then and angel of God appears (with food!, best kind of angel) and tells him to go to Sinai. The angel with food aside, the thought of Mount Sinai alone should have given him hope. It would have reminded him of a different image of God, a God who is not missing, absent, silent; but rather a God who is bold and very clearly present.
As Exodus 19 states:
Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:18-19)
On the mountain of Sinai, God was fully present and Elijah probably expected to encounter God in those three symbols from the Exodus story: wind, earthquake and fire. But quite the opposite happens to Elijah in his Sinai experience. In one of the Bible’s most surprising moments, the God of Creation, the God who destroyed the Tower of Babel, flooded the world and led Israel out of Egypt by a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night – that God let the fire pass, let the hurricane pass, let the earthquake pass and then was revealed in a still, small voice – basically, in silence – God’s voice in a still silent voice, where you would least expect it. Certainly, it was where Elijah least expected it. He thought he'd find God on the mountain top in some grand form: wind, earthquake, fire; but rather, he found God in the simplest thing.
We rarely give ourselves the opportunity to experience God that way – in silence. We surround ourselves with noises. Whether it is the Musac of an elevator, so we don’t have to suffer the 30 second ride in silence, the constant drone of the TV, or the non-stop chatter of our own minds reminding us of what we need to do next, not to forget, or to worry about some more – while we don’t like to admit it, it is all there because we are, at least somewhat, afraid of the silence.
Our story today, if we look at it closely, might also suggest the we surround ourselves with noise not just because we fear the silence, but because, despite the fact that we say we long to hear God, we busy our lives and fill them with noise so that they are neither still nor silent - and if we are lucky we can go through life believing that we are following God’s call without ever really having to hear God truly speak to us.
There is a story that, I think, comes fairly close to conveying this discomfort with hearing God, or more specifically what God might say to us: Once, there was a tourist who wandered too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon. He lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and scratching to save himself from certain death in the chasm below. After he went out of sight and just before he fell headlong into empty air, he encountered a scrubby bush, which he grabbed desperately with both hands. The tourist was terrified. He called out to heaven. “Is anybody up there?”. A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky. “Yes, there is.”
“Well, who knew?” thought the tourist. “Can you help me? Can you help me?”
The calm voice replied, “Yes, I probably can. What’s the problem?” The tourist replied, “I fell over a cliff, and now I’m dangling here in space holding onto a bush that’s about to come out by the roots. Help!” The voice from above said, “I’ll try. Do you believe?” “Yes, yes,” said the tourist. “I believe!” “Do you have faith?” “Yes, yes! I have strong faith!” The voice, still aggravatingly calm, said “Well, in that case, just let loose of the bush and everything will turn out fine.” There was a tense pause. Then, the tourist yelled, “Is anybody else up there?”
Whether we realizes it or not, we live out the truth of that little tale. We frequently think we want to hear the voice of God... until - we actually hear the voice of God, hear what God is calling us to do. Frequently, what God wants us to do, what God is calling us to do, is not something that we want to do, is not something with which we are particularly comfortable. So we busy ourselves and our lives, in ways that make it difficult for us to actually hear God’s call.
Let’s go back to this story and considering what deeper, possibly hidden meaning, might God have waiting here for us? What new divine wrinkle might we find?
Looking closer at the story I realized that, contrary to popular belief and a slue of renaissance era paintings and etchings, Elijah was not “standing on the mountain” before God as God had told him to do, as God called him to do. The texts say that after the wind, the earthquake and the fire, and then finally the still, small voice of God, after all of that... now this is a quote, Elijah “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” Three things to notice here about Elijah. 1) Elijah was not standing on the mountain before God as God called him to do - Elijah was cowering in the perceived protection of a cave. 2) Even after hearing the voice of God, Elijah was only willing to risk it out to the entrance of the cave – in effect still in the cave or at least where he could get back to it quickly and 3) even after hearing God’s voice, recognizing it as God, he wraps his face up as if he could hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden.
Elijah wants to trust in God, wants to follow God, but like the person hanging in the Grand Canon, his actions say, “Is there somebody else up there?”
God called to Elijah telling him to stand on the mountain, to face the challenges of the mountain by trusting in God and doing what he heard God calling him to do. Elijah hedged his bets. Oh, he climbed the mountain and he saw the fiery storms - but only through the opening of the cave. To that God responds, “What are you doing here?”
Like I said, there’s always a new divine wrinkle in this story for me and I’d like to conclude by offering a final lesson based on the new wrinkle. In divinity school we called this particular kind of lesson, preaching against the text - because the truth sometimes lies outside of what the text seems to be telling us.
I'm going to preach against the text a bit here. You see, I think God was in the fire, the wind and the earthquake. I mean...let’s face it, those three things didn’t occur naturally one right on top of the other. And, as we heard from Exodus, God has appeared in those three modes on this very mountain before.
I believe that God was in those three things, but Elijah simply didn’t see him in them because, instead of following God’s call, he was cowering in a cave. The same is true for us. All too often, our fears of where the call of God may lead us – to places we don’t really want to go – leave us calling out, “Is there anyone else up there?” Our inability to do what God asks, the relative safety we feel in hunkering down in the same old cave rather than following God to the mountain top, prevents us from seeing God in things and places we never thought possible.
All the while - all the while, God calls to us, just like with Elijah, “what are you doing here?” From our mountain tops of power in this world we rest protected from the harsh realities that pass us by. We rest in the perceived protection of our air-conditioned, carpeted, well insulated caves that we sometimes allow to separate us from the reality of the experiences God desires for us. From time to time we may click the remote to watch the majesty and tragedy of Creation through a small opening, but – like Elijah watching from the cave - we only catch glimpses of the grandeur of God and God’s creation. All the while - all the while, God is calling us to stand fully before God and - until we do - God will ask us, “What are you doing here?”
Have you opened yourself to the full possibilities of God? Have you trusted in God’s call to you enough to step out of the cave opening so that you can fully experience the Creation of which God has chosen to make you a part? When the fiery storms of life hit you and others, do you pack it in and settle for a screen sized vision of the reality of God’s Creation or do you step out on faith and experience life the way God desires it for you?
Vandalia Presbyterian Church, what are you doing here? Is this where God wants you to be? Does the life of this church, the worship experience at this church, really reflect God’s call in today’s world? Are you stepping out on faith and trusting in God? If you will, if you are, you will find God in places you could have never imagined.
As life constantly changes, as we peel back the layers of life we will discover God sometimes in the fiery storms and sometimes in the still small voice – but, if we can step out of our caves, if we can fully follow the call of God, what we can be assured of is that every time - every time we find God, it will be a fuller experience and we…we will find ourselves growing in ways that our caves could have never contained.