A Sound of Minute Stillness
“What are you doing here?”
These five words comprise the oracle Elijah received from the Lord.
I wonder if he found it satisfying?
It seems likely that he hoped for more. He probably brought his own agenda to the conversation with God. He probably had something in mind that he hoped God would say; or at least a question that God would address. Instead he got six syllables and a question:
“What are you doing here?”
By this point in the story, Elijah is tired.
He has been on a mission: to wipe out the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth and to establish Yahweh as the undisputed God in Israel. To do so, he directly confronts the fearsome royal couple—known for their cold brutality. The other prophets are hiding in caves. God has miraculously provided for him through ravens and widows. He has resurrected the dead, travelled thousands of miles, covered all four points of the compass, and called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel. Having commanded the execution of 850 of his opponents, he outruns Ahab’s chariot in a marathon race.
Elijah is no mild, piously-religious man. Not known for kindness, he is more like the incredible hulk than Mr. Rogers; more like Richard Sherman than Pope Francis. All the boys in the land have big-biceped Elijah action figures on their bedroom shelves!
Now in our scene, in 1 Kings 19, Elijah is under direct threat for his life. He has headed south and, contrary to his macho image, is depressed to the point of suicide. He falls asleep in the desert under a bush, and an angel comes and cares for him in his sadness and exhaustion. The angel, in essence, says, “There, there. You’re tired and your journey is long and hard. Eat, drink, and sleep for a while.”
Have you ever needed to hear words like that?
This is an apropos message for me right now. I need an angel to feed me and encourage me to rest. Running hard for years in multiple ministry roles, I’ve had significant successes and painful failures. After thirteen years as a professor, I taught my last in-person class a week-ago Tuesday. My new job is a blessing and comes with a nice paycheck, but is a hard-left turn for me career-wise. In some ways, I feel I am back to where I was before I started seminary all those years ago.
Tina and I went last week to be evaluated by Psychotherapists and grilled with hard questions for three days. The results from the personality tools were different than what I have seen all the times I have done this before (I didn’t recognize myself) and the evaluators offered a blunt summary of my flaws that really stung. So, I stand before you today feeling a little like Elijah—minus the superhero part!
I should stop here and ask the question: How is your journey with God? Are you feeling affirmed and in-the-zone, or have you taken a few blows yourself? The journey with God is long and is often confusing and painful. We need angels to feed us and give us water, to lull us to sleep, and then to gently nudge us on our way.
Where are you in your journey?
What Elijah does next can be interpreted in a number of ways, but here is one thought. He wants a clear revelation from God, so he heads to the place where dramatic God-epiphanies famously happen: to Mount Sinai, the place God met Moses in the quakes and clouds and fire and smoke. Moses got a word from God there, one that fills the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—an expansive word that resonates down through history. Words. Pages. Paragraphs. Chapters. Books. “I need a word like that: I’ll go there!”
So, still in conversation with God, or God’s angel, he stands in the mouth of a cave and watches. The Hebrew is unsatisfying in its presentation of the events that follow. It’s hard to tell if they really happen of if they’re part of an imaginative dialogue between God and Elijah.
But the narrative conclusion is succinct and pregnant with meaning:
“Not in the wind is the Lord.”
“Not in the earthquake is the Lord.”
“Not in the fire is the Lord.”
Elijah looks for God in all the commotion, but that is not where God is.
It is just before all of this that God speaks those five words. Do you remember what they are?
“What are you doing here?”
Elijah fills the silence after the question with a recitation of his credentials, perhaps hoping to impress God: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant—Your altars they have destroyed and your prophets they have killed by the sword, and I alone remain, and they have sought to take my life.”
I am here because I am your man—your only man—the only one who has stood up for you. Remember me: I am the incredibly-spiritual hulk. Green skin, rippling muscles, calling down fire from heaven. I’m that guy. Remember?
Boy, do I do that! God says, “Why are you here?” and I answer, “I’m Rev. Dr. John Clay Bangs,” and add a few letters after my name.
Then I recite my resume at the Ground of all Being, tell the One who conceived of all that is about the classes I’ve taught, the churches I’ve led, and the places I have been for the gospel. “They gave me an award at graduation just last week,” I remind the one who knit me together in my mother’s womb. I explain to the Ancient of Days why that ought to mean something.
God is not usually impressed.
So, if God is not in the hurricane, the earthquake, or the forest fire, and not impressed by my resume, how might God speak and what might God say?
I love the next move in this narrative: After the wind… after the earthquake… after the fire… a sound of minute stillness.
It doesn’t simply say “minute stillness,” it says, “a sound of minute stillness. And it is this silent sound that catches Elijah’s attention. The place becomes full of the pregnant presence of the silent and unseen God. And it is out of that grand, full stillness that God finally speaks. Not in a tome like he did to Moses, but with five simple words.
Now I should come clean that God actually did speak a few words after those five.
The message is essentially, “Go back to where you were when you started, and do the work you have always known you are called to do.” In his case, that is anointing people and battling the prophets of Baal.
For me, maybe it’s, “I’ve given you this job at Fuller, and this little community of faith to tend to, and a wonderful woman and family to love. Do your job, minister as you can, and love your people.” Right now, I don’t need a dramatic revelation—as much as I crave one—I just need to do what I know needs doing.
This is the first time we have gathered since the beginning of ordinary time in the church calendar, and this is an ordinary-time message. Be ordinary. Do what you do, what you have always known you are called to do, and be happy and satisfied in the blessings you have. Do not look for big. Do not seek drama. Instead, find God in the ordinary moments—in the quiet, in “the sound of minute stillness.”
Now, you might think I dodged the Gospel text for today: the one with the legions of demons and the pigs flying off cliffs like lemmings to the sea. But I haven’t. Note that that text is also about the movement from chaos to stillness. The story begins with a man tortured by chaotic spirits throwing him about. His mind is unsettled and he can’t find a stable place. But in the end, he is at peace and in his right mind, standing on his own two feet, and finding God in the sound of minute stillness. It is also an Ordinary time message.
So, as we move to prayer and to the table, let me end with a question: What are you doing here? Are you looking for God in the big places, in dramatic revelation, are you squirming in the middle of just having to plug away at regular old things?
Let us together see what it might mean for us to find God in “the sound of minute stillness,” to settle in and to know that God is present for us in the mundane moments of life, and that the big divinely-uttered message to us might be: “Go back to where you started and do the work you have always known you are called to do.”