Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s another moment when going back to where God has acted in the past is significant.
Elijah was one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Going toe-to-toe with the corrupt King Ahab and his frankly psychotic wife Jezabel, Elijah faces off against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He’s outnumbered 850 to 1, but God is with him and so Elijah is triumphant and the prophets of Baal end up dead.
And yet after that impressive victory, that awesome display of God’s power, 1 Kings 19 tells the story of a man who sounds scared and depressed and on the run. Rather than capitalise on the defeat of Baal’s prophets, Elijah’s fears and Jezabel’s death threats get the best of him, and he finds himself making his way to Mount Horeb.
Now, this is a tactical move on his part – he’s looking for God and he’s heading to a place where God made himself known in the key moment of Israel’s history. Because Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, the place where God first made his covenant with Israel, giving the 10 Commandments to Moses. By meeting him on Mount Horeb, God’s reminding Elijah of a whole history of protection, presence, love and relationship.
However, Elijah is apparently the only person recorded as going back to Horeb/Sinai, which suggests this isn’t quite the right plan… You get ths impression from God’s question after Elijah arrives at the mountain: “What are you doing here?” God asks, and Elijah pours out his woes: “I’ve done your work but now everyone’s turned against you and I’m the only one left who still worships you.”
And then God does something unusual.
He sends a powerful wind that starts to tear the mountain apart. But the wind isn’t God.
Then he sends an earthquake that shakes the very ground under Elijah’s feet. But the earthquake isn’t God.
Then he sends fire, like he sent on Mount Carmel at the time of Elijah’s greatest victory. But the fire isn’t God.
Then there’s something far smaller. Some translations call it “a still, small voice”. Some call it “a gentle whisper”. But if you dig into it, it’s something even quieter – the New Revised Standard Version says it was “the sound of sheer silence”.
It’s not God having a whole conversation with Elijah. The image I have of it is one of presence – God being there, almost to the point of hugging Elijah, crying with him, stopping the noise so that God can be with one of his children. It’s a tender moment in the middle of all the displays of power and violence of the last few days. It’s a moment for Elijah to experience God’s peace.
And then God speaks again – “What are you doing here?” And Elijah says “I’ve done your work but now everyone’s turned against you and I’m the only one left who still worships you.”
It’s the same conversation. What’s changed?
It’s still a nightmare situation. Jezebel is still trying to kill Elijah. But what’s changed is that Elijah is now more aware of God as someone who wants a relationship with his people. On the mountain where God effectively married Israel, Elijah is reminded that God cares for individuals, and speaks to them in a still small voice.
And that’s still true today. We don’t have a holy mountain to run to; we have something better. In John 14, Jesus says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
“Peace” is an important word in Jewish thought. It’s better known as “Shalom”, and although we translate that as peace, it’s about more just superficial peace and quiet, deeper than a lack of conflict. As the writer Cornelius Plantinga puts it:
“The webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice, fulfilment and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight… Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
This is what Jesus promises his disciples; this is a glimpse of what Elijah experienced on Mount Horeb – peace that comes from God’s relationship with each one of us and that gives us a glimpse of how God intends the world to be.
And that’s an active work on God’s part. In John 14 Jesus promises the disciples “the Advocate” – in Greek that particular name for the Holy Spirit is ‘paraclete’, which means “One who comes alongside to help.” A God who loves us, cares for us, and is alongside us when we’re scared and when life’s falling apart.
I remember a time when I experienced this quite powerfully. A few years ago, my father died. At one point during his long illness, I was on holiday in San Francisco. On our last night we went down to Pier 39. It’s a popular tourist spot, all carousels and smelly sealions, and we’d travelled there a couple of times on the famous trolley buses. It’s a nice spot and on that last night I found myself on my own at the end of the pier. Behind me were the sounds of shops and sideshows; before me was San Francisco Bay, dark, waves lapping, the lights of boats slowly drifting, the Alcatraz lighthouse blinking on and off and on and off… And time slowed to a crawl and I was at peace and didn’t want to leave and I just stared out at the Bay with a sense of the presence of God. God was with me in that bad year. There were many times after that I failed to recognise that, because fear and anger and grief can stop us seeing what’s right in front of us, but God was with me. A still small voice.
The sound of sheer silence.