I couldn’t stop thinking about them. The people who were killed and wounded in Orlando. Maybe it’s because I have a family member who is gay, and I’ve seen how deeply this has affected her. She’s scared, she’s shaken, and she feels so alone. It’s hard for me to fathom what it feels like to know that who you are makes you the target of such violent hatred. I can’t even imagine.
For some, that fear is very, very real. This week I was down at Austin Seminary for my Doctor of Ministry course. During one of the Chapel services the preacher gave a fervent and heart-felt invitation to “Fear not.” For some, that was the word they needed to hear. But for others, it felt thin. They felt afraid, and it didn’t help to tell them not to be. In fact, it just made them angry. They need to have the right to feel their fear and anger.
There are things that shake our world, and Orlando was one of them. I know some are more shaken than others; and for some it hits very close to home. I am touched by the outpouring of love and concern people all over the world are expressing. I was moved to hear about the vigil Stephen Applegate organized on behalf of the Ministerium with other religious and civic leaders. I wish I could have been here for that.
Instead I attended a prayer service at the seminary, led by the Queer Alliance and Hispanic Student Association. I can’t begin to tell you how moving it was. The raw honesty with which students spoke. The grace with which they welcomed all of us. The tender ceremony they created. Instead of lighting candles, they had little cups with different colored sand. One by one we would pour the sand into a vase until, at last, there was a rainbow of colors, far more beautiful than any one alone.
I bring all this up because it has been in my heart and on my mind. It was in my heart and mind as I found my way into the scripture text we just heard. And I want us to explore that together.
Because there are times when fear is very, very real. And that is where our passage begins this morning. The prophet Elijah is terrified.
In his fear, Elijah runs away into the desert. There, he prays that he might die. He has had enough of the battles, enough of the confrontations. He is exhausted from the fight. And who can blame him?
And yet, out in the desert, God does not leave him alone. An angel comes to him, and brings him food to eat and water to drink. God doesn’t let him curl up and die; instead, God sends this messenger to sustain him. The angel touches him – I love that detail – the angel touches him and gives him food for the journey ahead. There’s a long road ahead, he’s not done yet, and he will need every ounce of energy he can find.
That’s the first good news I see in this text. God will not abandon us to our fear. God sustains us. Let me say that again: God comes to us, and sustains us.
Sustained and strengthened by the angel’s visit, Elijah goes on to Mount Horeb, which is known as the Mount of God. In some parts of the Old Testament it’s called Mount Sinai – the place God appeared to Moses on the way to the Promised Land. The place God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. It’s a place of ‘Theophanies,’ a place where God appears. That’s where Elijah is headed. He is not running away anymore, he is running toward God.
When he reaches the mountain he finds a cave and spends the night there. There the word of the Lord comes to him, just as it came to Moses. Only this time God doesn’t give a new law or commandments. Instead he asks Elijah a question:
“What are you doing here?”
It’s an odd question, in a way; surely the Lord knows perfectly well why Elijah is there. But perhaps Elijah has to name it for himself. Why has he fled to the Mountain of God?
Because he feels totally and utterly alone. No one else is left, it seems. No one.
The covenant is broken. The covenant of God with the people of God, formed on that mountain, is utterly and hopelessly broken. It is as if it is just himself, and God.
Then the Lord tells him to go out of the cave, and stand on the mountainside, because the Lord is about to appear. But before Elijah even gets to the mouth of the cave, the wind starts to blow, like a hurricane, awful, destructive.
But the Lord is not in the wind.
Then an earthquake strikes, a powerful shaking of the very ground.
But the Lord is not in the earthquake.
Then a fire, a terrible, ravaging fire.
But the Lord is not in the fire.
And then… then the sound of utmost silence.
When Elijah hears the silence – isn’t that a strange phrase? Hearing silence? – when Elijah hears the silence, he wraps himself in his mantle, covers his face, and goes to the mouth of the cave.
He hears “the sound of utmost silence…”
Other translations read, “a still, small voice.” But that’s not what the Hebrew says. It literally says, “the sound of utter silence.” No voice. Nothing.
As I was working on this sermon I kept hearing in my mind the haunting song our Youth Choir has sung. It’s based on an inscription found at a concentration camp in Nazi Germany:
I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when God is silent.
I believe in God, even when, even when God is silent…
When terrible things happen in this world people of faith are not wrong to ask, “Where was God? Where was God?” Why is God silent? How do we believe in God even in the silence?
And yet, in our scripture, the silence is exactly where God is.
I find that so comforting. Because sometimes the silence is all that can hold us.
After Elijah hears the silence, a voice comes, again asking: “What are you doing here Elijah?”
His answer is the same; nothing in the world has changed. The people of God have rejected the covenant, killed all the prophets, and only Elijah is left. The awful reality is still the exactly the same.
The silence doesn’t change the reality. But he has experienced God’s presence in the depth of the silence, and that is enough.
Now God has a new command for him. “Go!” Go back down the mountain. Go back into the desert. Go back to Damascus. I will bring new kings to the throne of Israel and Judah. There will be another prophet, Elisha, to work beside you. You are not alone. My covenant is not over.
“Go,” God says. Go back into the world that is fraught with problems and full of reasons to fear. It is good you left it for a time. But just as I have been with you in the silence, I will be with you through all the storms ahead. Go, there’s work to be done. Go, don’t give up. Do not give up. I will be with you, and I will sustain you. Now go!
This was the word I needed to hear this week.
I needed to know God would see us through the terrible storms; that God wasn’t in them, wasn’t causing them, wasn’t bringing them on; but that God would be there with the people who were suffering most.
I needed to hear God in the silence, and find comfort.
And then I needed to hear that word of command: don’t give up. The journey is long, but I will sustain you.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church, Granville, OH