The Power of Silence

Faith Impulse

Image from Dorothee Büürma
Dorothee Büürma

Pastorin, Erwachsenenbildung

A Sermon on 1. Kings 19: 1-15 and Revelation 3: 14-22

Dear readers,

The reading from the Old Testament is the basis for this sermon.
For Christians, the texts from the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament are often more important because they tell us about Jesus Christ, but it is also good if we occasionally become aware of which writings Jesus knew in his ministry as a rabbi, as a teacher, and used as the basis for his teachings.

I would like to begin by explaining the text of the reading in its context:

Today's passage includes part of the story of the prophet Elijah, who lived in the 9th century BC. He came from what was then the northern kingdom of Israel, from a region where people lived without landed property. In the area ruled a so-called god Baal of Tyre, who gave the land much rain and thus fruitful harvests. The population worshipped him.

The name Elijah already shows that this prophet was different: Elijahu - YHWH/ The Lord is my God!    

Elijah wandered a lot and did various miracles with God's help:
He raised a dead man to life, he gave a hungry woman flour and oil supplies that never run out, he made wet firewood burn with God's help, and ended a time of drought in the land.

Despite all these miraculous deeds - or perhaps precisely because of them, and because of his faith in YHWH, the God of Israel, Elijah was persecuted by the powerful in the land. Again, with God's help, his life was saved.

But today's text shows us: Elijah is worn out. The many miracles, the persecutions - the pressure and the burden become too much for him.
He is worn out. He can't take it anymore. So he lies down under a bush and just wants to die. Elijah is stuck in a kind of depression or burn-out. He can't get any further on his own.

But here, too, God is close to him - an angel brings him fresh flatbread and a jug of water in the middle of the desert under the broom bush. Elijah eats, drinks and sleeps a lot. Then, strengthened, he sets out for Mount Horeb, as God commanded him. For 40 days and nights Elijah is on the road through the desert (sounds familiar, doesn't it? Later in the New Testament there was also someone who was in the desert for 40 days and nights... The story of the prophet Elijah has parallels in the life stories of Jesus).

Mount Horeb is located in the desert, its name means "desolate, decayed". A place that is obviously a sign of death becomes the mountain of God. In this very place, where death and the end seem so near, God comes very close to Elijah.

Not in a storm, not in an earthquake, not in fire (all signs in which God had appeared to the prophets so far - think of Moses!) - but in the stillness of a gentle, subtle whisper, God's voice is heard by Elijah.

This silent presence of God is reason for Elijah to repent, it gives him new strength. He sets out on his way back and devotes himself to God's new assignments.

His life story ends later with the appointment of the successor (Elisha) and the rapture of Elijah to heaven - in a chariot of fire.

"In Judaism, the belief arose early on that Elijah had not died but had been taken up to heaven alive. He has since been considered the most important prophet after Moses. The prophet Malachi announces the return of Elijah as the forerunner of the Messiah. According to Mal 3:23-24, even before the coming judgment day of God, Elijah will persuade all Israel to repent to God and his commandments and to reconcile among themselves. 

And the Gospels prove that around the turn of the times during the Roman occupation, the expectation of the Messiah and the expectation of Elijah were particularly pronounced. Some Jews saw in Jesus of Nazareth during his lifetime the Elijah who had come back, presumably because some of Jesus' healing deeds resembled the miracles of Elijah and Elisha recorded in the Bible.

In Judaism, this expectation still plays a role today. Since Elijah did not die but was raptured, he repeatedly appears in Jewish tradition as a mediator between God and man, and his return as the forerunner of the Messiah is expected."

Elijah is also particularly revered in Islam and the Bahai religion.

To be honest, what impresses me most is not the story of Elijah's life. Nor is it his miracles.
Rather, it is the passage that we heard as a reading today. It is the passage where Elijah recognizes the limits of his own ability. Elijah is at the end of his strength, his knowledge and even his trust in God. He seems so human, so vulnerable, so "normal".
And exactly in this situation, which seems so hopeless to him, he notices God's presence in the silence of the whisper.

So often I have heard people doubt: Where is this God in whom we are supposed to believe? He doesn't do any miracles anymore... If God really existed, I wouldn't have to suffer so much... God wouldn't allow so much injustice to happen in the world... And praying doesn't help either, because everything is still bad... These or similar statements are certainly familiar to you. Maybe you have already had such thoughts yourself...

Probably the Christian churches have stoked the fire for these thoughts over the centuries. If we at church always emphasize only the miracles, if we adore saints because of their supernatural powers or experiences, if churches strive to have the bigger, more decorated or nowadays perhaps technically more modern buildings - 
If everything to do with God and faith always has to be impressive, then we feel really small in our everyday life. Then this creates a gap between God and people, and we lose sight of the presence of God in the small, quiet things in life.

Even our lectionary isn't overly helpful in this regard. Often the highlights of the Bible are used as readings on Sundays and chosen as sermon texts. The rather lengthy intermediate passages are omitted or greatly shortened. 
One gets the impression that the Bible contains mainly miracles and great things. And one loses sight of what biblical texts actually are: Narratives from human life, with its ups and downs - and the presence of God in everything. 

My eyes fall back on the changes in our society and in our own lives due to the pandemic: Suddenly, great things were no longer possible. Lockdowns forced us back into our own 4 walls. Experiences of God could no longer be made in community. Many people are more introverted now - psychological consequences of this are an increase of depressions, of symptoms of other mental illnesses, or as I read in an article yesterday also a strong increase of suicide attempts. And I see parallels to the situation of Elijah in our text today.

When you yourself can't change anything about a situation that makes you unhappy and limits you, it makes you sick and weak.

Or a survival strategy develops, which my colleague Frank once described with the term "Wurschtigkeit". Nothing matters. You develop a routine and mainly take care of what you have: House, garden, the nuclear family.  The focus remains within one's own 4 walls and one separates oneself from the outside world. 

The theme of finiteness is described in the Bible in the apocalyptic writings. Today we have heard a reading from the book of Revelation. At the beginning of this book, Jesus, in a vision, instructs the author of Revelation, John, to write letters to 7 churches. To each church he writes instructions on how the church should behave. And each letter concludes with the words, "Whoever has an ear for this, listen carefully to what the Spirit of God is saying to the churches!"

Today we have heard the last of the 7 letters as a reading.

And I am especially struck by Jesus' statement: "I know your deeds. You are neither cold nor hot. Oh, if only you were cold or hot! ... You say: I am rich, I have everything in abundance and I lack nothing. Yet you don't know how unhappy you really are..."

Here, too, this "insignificance" is described. 

It doesn't matter anyway!

If the own view looks only inward, if one perceives only oneself and the own interests, then one is lukewarm in this vision. Then one becomes unhappy. 

Because a fulfilled life does not only depend on one's own expectations and achievements. 

In both ways of reacting or behaving, which have increased in our society in recent years, one thing clearly comes up short: the sense of community.

In African cultures there is a beautiful term: Ubuntu. It means "I am because we are." 

One's own identity is strengthened through community with others. Life is not lived on one's own, but as part of a larger context.

The prophet Elijah also recognized this when he was sent back by God's quiet voice to the people he no longer had in mind, who very much wanted to listen to him and follow God's ways.

What do you think God's whispers have to say to us? What is the Spirit of God saying to our congregation?

For that, we probably need to endure silence. For that, we must not lose hope even in quiet times.

It doesn't help to look to the past and wish things were the same as they were at another time, when more people came to worship, when many children and young people were part of the congregation. Every time in the history of our church had its own challenges. Not everything was better in the past than it is today. It was just different.

If we embrace the silence and open our ears, we may hear the voice of God speaking to us as well.

Then we hear messages of hope that may not translate into a mass conversion to Methodism, but that strengthen people in their faith. Often many small experiences of God draw wider circles than a big mega-event. 

The great miracle at Pentecost did not result in many other great miracles, but also in many individual experiences of faith and hope. Which led to further individual experiences.

I, too, perceive experiences of God again and again in conversations with people, often in private dialogues. I would like to close with such an example, because it touched me very much:

Before Easter, I was very involved in the planning of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Many emails were sent and Zoom meetings were held as part of the planning. Great things were planned and the action was promising. But one sentence, as a side note in an email, touched me the most. The writer joined the „FluchtKreuzWeg“ (Stations of the Cross) through the Platform for Human Rights. And her statement: "I never thought that one day I would say that I voluntarily go to a church event like a Stations of the Cross! And I'm actually really looking forward to it!" 
God touches people where we least expect it.

God's Spirit speaks to us even in small ways and even through emails! And I'm excited to see how and where we allow ourselves to be touched and spoken to by God's Spirit in the coming weeks!

We just need to open our ears and our eyes!


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