A Sound of Sheer Silence PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 16 September 2018
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 16, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Psalm 19:1-4a;  1 Kings 19:1-16

Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, but their silence fills the earth:  unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.—Psalm 19:3-4 [The Message]

…after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper. — 1 Kings 19:12c [The Message]

I’d been your pastor here less than a year when our nation and the world awoke to the tragedy of 9/11, September 11, 2001—2,996 people killed and more than 6,000 injured.  The 17 years since that tragic day have brought us more than 6,300 U.S. soldiers killed and some 52,000 wounded in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus more than a half a million civilian casualties in those two nations.  Each year at this time, there are countless remembrance ceremonies. This is part of what we do as human beings.  We remember.  We commemorate.  In times of great loss we come together looking for ways to make meaning out of it all.  And on rare occasions of remembrance a speaker may succeed beyond all expectations:  such as when Abraham Lincoln spoke at the Gettysburg battlefield resolving “that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  But meaning need not come in words… or in expected ways.

I suspect Elijah set off for Mt. Horeb (aka Mt. Sinai) seeking meaning from God.  Jezebel, the foreign wife of King Ahab, has systematically slaughtered all of Elijah’s fellow prophets of the Lord, and now she has sworn to have him killed as well.  The story says he’d given up all hope and was preparing himself to die in the wilderness, when an angel brought food and drink for a journey ahead.  So Elijah sets off to cross the desert to the mountain where God spoke to Moses, and I imagine he wants to ask why God had allowed all the prophets to be killed and what God is going to do to set things right.  “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord,” according to scripture.  And surely Elijah longs for sweet vengeance.

After forty days and forty nights without additional food, Elijah arrives at what the Hebrew text says is not “a cave” but “the cave.”  Is this cave perhaps the very cleft in the rock where Moses huddled as God passed by?  Elijah sleeps, and in the morning the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  What will this be like?  Will he, like Moses, glimpse God’s backside?  Perhaps it will be every bit as impressive and awe inspiring as Elijah’s past experiences—like when God sent fire from heaven to defeat 450 prophets of Baal.  Or when God sent a roaring storm to end three long years of drought.

So Elijah waits.  And then comes a wind so strong it dislodges boulders, rolling them crashing over cliffs to shatter into pieces at the bottom.  Now that’s more like it.  Questions of “Why?” don’t need to worry us to much if the response is strong enough.  Hit back hard… somewhere… anywhere!  All those dead prophets!  Here is wind enough to scour the earth of Jezebel and King Ahab and all their minions—a fitting retaliation for the death and terror they’ve inflicted on the people.  Such an exercise of power is something Elijah (and we) can readily understand and appreciate.  Hit back.  Meet threat with threat, force with overwhelming force, fear with fear to end all fears.  Blow them away, God, blow all our enemies away.  “But… the Lord was not in the wind.

After the wind comes a fearsome earthquake, and the mountain itself shudders.  This is even better, God.  Jezebel and Ahab, indeed all such tyrants, deserve to quake in their boots before divine wrath, to see their statues topple and their monuments shattered.  Our enemies should taste of the same fear and terror they have inflicted on us.  So let the very earth open up and swallow them—poetic justice indeed for those who have swallowed up the hopes and dreams of a people.  “But… the Lord was not in the earthquake.

And after the earthquake a fire—perhaps sheets of lightning blasting from the heavens to the earth.  Burning fire, purifying fire, the fire that spoke to Moses from the bush that was not consumed, the fire that went before the Hebrew people to guide them in the wilderness, the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah.  Divine fire!  Elijah himself has seen such fire before, pouring from heaven to consume his burnt offering and defeat Jezebel’s prophets.  Let this same fire now consume Jezebel and her husband King Ahab.  Let holy fire rain from the heavens and consume all our enemies, Lord, even if a portion of our own brave men and women are consumed in the process.  Surely such fire would a fitting ending to terror and tyranny.  “But… the Lord was not in the fire.

God is not in those grand displays of power and might.  But then comes… a sound… or is it a silence?  The Hebrew text speaks of both sound and silence at the same time, defying any straightforward translation. The King James Version resolves the paradoxical Hebrew as “a still, small voice.”  And in other translations it’s “a quiet whisper” (The Message), “a low murmuring sound” (NEB), “the sound of a gentle breeze” (JB), “the sound of a soft breath” (Basic English Bible), or “a sound of a gentle stillness” (Amplified Bible).  But this is poetry, and one commentator calls it “the sound that thunders in your ears in absolute silence.”  (Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this in an anechoic chamber.)  So the New Revised Standard Version translates it as “a sound of sheer silence.”  God comes to be with Elijah in a sound of sheer silence.

Perhaps the Psalmist knew this silent sound also—experiencing it in a sense of awe as he or she gazed into the vast dome of the sky stretching from horizon to horizon.  “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.”  Speech pours forth as “Madame Day holds classes every morning, [and] Professor Night lectures each evening,” the Psalmist sings.  Nevertheless, there is a profound silence.  “Their words aren’t heard, [and] their voices aren’t recorded.  But their silence fills the earth…”  This sound of deep, holy silence fills the whole of creation, showing the glory of God, proclaiming the very presence of God in all there is.

Elijah stands outside his mountain cave and hears this “sound of sheer silence.”  Whatever it is, it’s not what he (or we) might expect or want.  Elijah wants the “Lord God of hosts” or “the God-of-the-Angel-Armies” as The Message renders the Hebrew.  But no Angel Armies here.  Instead, God is present in the midst of sheer silence.  And the message Elijah hears from that silence is not one of sweet revenge.  Instead God gives him something to do that might begin make things right.  There will be a regime change, new leadership—King Ahab & Jezebel are out—for Elijah is charged to anoint two new kings.  But then he is to anoint Elisha, a successor to take his place, and he will move off the stage.  (According to scripture he actually accomplishes only the latter.  Elisha will be the one to anoint the kings.)

How like God this is!—to do something new and be present in unexpected and paradoxical ways!  One of the insights from Elijah’s story is how expectations and desires can (and usually do) limit ideas about who God is, where God can be found, and how God works in the world.  Expectations and desires can also strongly color all our efforts to find (or make) meaning in terrible losses as they have in the 17 years following 9/11.  I remember the sense of unity and coming together in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.  There were candlelight vigils as people came together in grief and commemoration.  There were spontaneous demonstrations of support for first responders.  And there were even glimpses of bipartisanship in providing victim aid.  “United We Stand” was more than just a token statement, and people around the world agreed when the French newspaper Le Monde declared “we are all Americans.”  But this quickly devolved into calls for vengeance, whether focused or not. We had to hit back somewhere… at someone… at anyone.

Within a month our nation had embarked on a campaign of vengeance, starting a war in Afghanistan that’s still under way.  This week The Washington Post noted that Wednesday was “the first day someone born after the terrorist attacks can enlist, at age 17, and begin a path to serve in the seemingly endless war launched in response to those attacks.”  A potent mix of fear and hyper-patriotism quickly became the order of the day, with the formation of the TSA and the Office (soon to be Department) of Homeland Security and then the start of the Iraq War.  From Homeland Security came ICE—the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—so much in the news today.  Within a year of 9/11, the tragedy had become a touch point for marketing, with “United We Stand” appearing above corporate logos, and even the Wall Street Journal decryied “the selling of Sept. 11,” in an article headlined “Is Commercialization the American Way of Commemoration?”

For 17 years I have watched as fear, divisiveness, and hyper-partisanship have increased their hold on the national psyche—fear of terrorists, fear of Muslims, fear of immigrants and refugees, fear of anyone different, especially those with brown skins.  Divisions between peoples and between ideas have been stoked based on politics, race, sexuality, religion, economics, education, whatever…  And indeed, I must confess.  I am aware that I have myself been sucked into all this—as have we all.  Even so, I pray and work for something different, something more attuned to God’s dream of healing and wholeness for all peoples, a holy kin-dom, a Beloved Community, the Common Good.

Of all the commemorations of 9/11 over the years, one in particular sticks out in my mind.  It happened in 2002, the first year anniversary.  PBS Frontline broadcast a show called “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.”  And during the show, one of my favorite authors, Brian Doyle, read from his essay, “The Leap,” about a couple who leaped hand in hand from the south tower of the World Trade Center.  He called that image of their hands reaching and joining “the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful.  It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death.”  [Doyle continues]  “It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them to believe that humans beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against such evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.”  ( http://litstudies.org/WRT114CNF/Content%20Essays/Doyle-Leap.pdf )

Truly, it is a striking image—of hand reaching to hand, of two hands joining, two human beings together—and no one knows who they were.  And it is indeed “the most powerful prayer… [and] evidence that love is why we are here.”  That image offers some glimpse of making meaning in all this for me personally.  It’s an image in my mind and heart—an image without words.  Sometimes there are just too many words, and we need more silence.

“… silence fills the earth,” the Psalmist sings, yet “God’s glory” is ever on display, filling creation.  Amid the chaos of our times, let us remember Elijah’s encounter with the living, loving God—not in the tumult of wind or earthquake or fire, but instead in “the sound of sheer silence.”  And let us now sit for a minute or two in silence, in the very presence of God… doing so in memory and honor of all the victims of 9/11—both those that fateful day and all those in the 17 years since… and maybe you might reach out and join hands with a neighbor .…………………………………..………………………….. Amen and amen.


Psalm 19:1-4a [The Message]

1-2 God’s glory is on tour in the skies,

God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.

Madame Day holds classes every morning,

Professor Night lectures each evening.

3-4 Their words aren’t heard,

their voices aren’t recorded,

but their silence fills the earth:

unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.


1 Kings 19:1-16 [The Message]

1-2 Ahab reported to Jezebel everything that Elijah had done, including the massacre of the prophets. Jezebel immediately sent a messenger to Elijah with her threat:  “The gods will get you for this and I’ll get even with you!  By this time tomorrow you’ll be as dead as any one of those prophets.”
3-5 When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba, far in the south of Judah.  He left his young servant there and then went on into the desert another day’s journey.  He came to a lone broom bush and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all—to just die:  “Enough of this, God!  Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!”  Exhausted, he fell asleep under the lone broom bush.
Suddenly an angel shook him awake and said, “Get up and eat!”
6 He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water.  He ate the meal and went back to sleep.
7 The angel of God came back, shook him awake again, and said, “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”
8-9 He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out.  Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb.  When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep.
Then the word of God came to him:  “So Elijah, what are you doing here?”
10 “I’ve been working my heart out for the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,” said Elijah.  “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets.  I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”
11-12 Then he was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.”
A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.
13-14 When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there.  A quiet voice asked, “So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here?”  Elijah said it again, “I’ve been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”
15-16 God said, “Go back the way you came through the desert to Damascus.  When you get there anoint Hazael; make him king over Aram.  Then anoint Jehu son of Nimshi; make him king over Israel.  Finally, anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.

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