The still, small voice

Good morning, Friends! We are so blessed to be here. Thank you all for coming today!

I’ve got another Old Testament story for you today. This time, it’s about the prophet Elijah, who lived about 8 or 900 years before the time of Jesus. Elijah was really famous in his day, and no wonder!

  • Elijah caused a drought in Israel for 3 ½ years to punish the arrogance and idolatry of the king.
  • He called down fire from heaven at a contest to prove which god was real – the fake gods people had been seduced into following, or the one true God of Israel
  • When the king sent soldiers to arrest Elijah, he called down fire from heaven again, and burned them up
  • During the drought, he boarded with a widow, and when she ran out of food, Elijah saved all their lives with a miracle – the sack of meal never ran out, and the jar of oil kept refilling itself
  • The widow’s son died, and Elijah prayed to God, who brought the son back to life again
  • Elijah made the Jordan River roll back, just like Moses parted the Red Sea, so that he could walk right through the middle of the river without getting his feet wet.
  • When Elijah was fixing to die, God swept him up in a tornado, and he rode up to heaven in a chariot of fire

Elijah was one impressive guy! He made a lot of enemies – especially from among the kings and the priests of the fake gods. But Elijah was also someone who everybody respected – even the people who hated him, feared him.

For our cousins the Jews, Elijah ranks only after Moses. Elijah was the head of all the prophets in the Bible. To this day, at Passover, many Jewish families set an extra place at the table, just in case Elijah might come along there and eat with them.

As today’s reading begins, Elijah is going through some really tough times. He proved to everyone that only God is real. The terrible drought was ended. But Elijah also made a mortal enemy of the king’s wife.

She was a foreigner, and she tried to convert Israel and lead them away from God. She wasn’t going to rest until Elijah was put to death. This was a no-holds-barred fight, and Elijah thought the queen was going to win.

Elijah was so convinced that he was going to lose, that he prayed to God to take away his life. He was hard against it, and that’s where today’s story starts.

Now King Ahab told his wife, Queen Jezebel, everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all of Jezebel’s false prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there. Elijah himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to some bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.

“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” Elijah looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.

After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

1 Kings 19:1-13

This story is one of the all-time favorite stories for Quakers. This is the place where it talks about the “still, small voice” or the “gentle whisper” that Quakers are so moved by.

Now, there are so many different ways that people worship, in all kinds of different places around the world. Some people like to sing and shout and wave their hands in the air. Some people get so excited, they start speaking in tongues. Some people like to get together in huge stadiums to cheer and praise God.

For many centuries, one of the standard ways to worship, was to make a sacrifice. That kind of worship was popular during most of Bible times.

Some people think that worship means to listen to a preacher. Some people think it means to shout Amen! and Hallelujah!

A very large portion of the Christian world thinks that worship means going to Mass, and watching a priest say some special words, and eating bread and drinking wine, which they believe is the body of Christ.

So, there are all kinds of other ways that people worship. But today, in this story, we learn about something very different.

There is no question that we feel awe and reverence at times, when the power of nature gets up close and personal. I’ve been in thunderstorms where it felt like God was right close and in my face. You see lightning striking from cloud to cloud, or from clouds down to the ground, and it looks like the world and the sky are being ripped apart.

I remember a storm down by the ocean back when I was a young man. The house where I was staying was up on a hill, 3 miles back from the shore. From that far away, I could see the tremendous waves come crashing in. The tops of the waves and the spray were more than 30 feet high, and even that far away, you could hear them.

I rode down to the little town by the beach the next day, and whole streets of houses and stores had been completely swept away. Where the main street used to be, were piles of sand and stones, as high as a house. The places that were left, all had their roofs torn off and their windows and doors blown out. Cars and trucks were half-buried, poles and wires were down. It was incredible what the storm had done.

We don’t appreciate power, until we meet it in something we can’t control, or in something we didn’t create.

In today’s reading, Elijah is a prophet. He’s somebody who goes around pointing out where kings and societies have gone totally wrong, and somebody is going to be in trouble for it.

Elijah had just won an historic challenge, and brought back the rain. Everybody should have been cheering for him! But instead, the king and the queen, and the army, and everyone else was against him. Elijah was on the run. Just when he thought people were listening to him, they turned against him instead.

So Elijah says to God, “Just kill me, OK? Just end it. I’m all done. Take my life away.”

And instead, God did something else. God gave him a deep sleep. What Elijah needed most, in that moment, was to rest. Sometimes rest is the best gift of all.

Then God sent him an angel, with food and something to drink. That’s different. Angels don’t do that very much in the Bible. Usually angels come and say, “Joy to the world! Hosanna in the highest!” Or they say, “Guess what! You get to do something special.”

But again, God knew what Elijah needed most. He’d been running for his life. He needed something to eat and drink. Then he fell asleep again. The angel brought him another meal. It takes time to get your strength back. God understood that.

Then God sent him out into the desert — into the very same desert where Moses and all the former slaves had been, for forty years, trying to find themselves. Elijah wound up on the very same mountain where God handed down the Ten Commandments, all those years ago.

Then God put on a firework show. We know that part of the story. God said, “Go on out and stand there on the mountain. You’ll get to see me passing by.”

Now, remember that in Old Testament times, people believed that God was too holy for them to look at. Nobody could look at God and survive. God’s holiness would kill them!

But God says to Elijah, “Come on out. I’m going to show you something!”

First God sent a hurricane, a mighty wind. This wasn’t just a strong breeze. The wind was so strong, it cracked the mountain. Elijah had to cling to the rocks, to keep from getting blown away. He had to hide in a cave, the wind was so strong.

But Elijah knew that God wasn’t the hurricane. God was something bigger, and greater.

Then God sent an earthquake. Have you ever been in an earthquake? Then you know how it feels. The ground, and everything on it, shakes. You can’t control it. You just want it to hold still. The mountain cracked some more.

But Elijah knew that God wasn’t the earthquake. God sent the earthquake, but God was even bigger and stronger than the mightiest force on earth, a force that could shake the planet.

Then God sent fire. A wildfire, the kind we watched on the news from out West all summer. Sheer, uncontrollable destruction, all around Elijah. It must have been terrifying, to be caught in the middle of the wildfire, with no way out, knowing that it was only the mercy of God that was keeping him alive.

It doesn’t say how long all this went on for. Hours? Days? Nobody knows. Somehow, Elijah lived through it all. He was a survivor, of three disasters, three things that nobody lived through.

And then, it says, when everything was over, when everything around him was shattered and burned up and destroyed, Elijah heard a voice. A quiet, gentle voice. A voice so soft, it was like a whisper. A still, small voice.

And when Elijah heard that, he knew that it was the voice of God. Not the earthquake. Not the hurricane. Not the wildfire. Not the voices of total destruction. But a voice that was so faint, if you turned your head the wrong way, you could have missed it completely.

It’s so easy to forget, that sometimes God speaks quietly, in unexpected ways and places. We always want fireworks and special effects, but Jesus said it wasn’t like that.

Jesus said, “People are always looking for signs, but they won’t get any. I am the sign. I am among you, and the kingdom is within you. Whoever belongs to the truth, hears my voice. My sheep know when I’m speaking to them. Whoever has ears, will hear.”

Psalm 19 says the same thing. “The heavens are telling the glory of God. The sky overhead proclaims God’s craftsmanship. God speaks every day, and every night God speaks again. There’s no speech, no words. No voices speaking. But God’s voice goes out through all the earth, and God’s words are spoken through all the world.”

God is like that. God speaks in ways we can somehow manage to hear. There is no place where that still, small voice can’t reach, if we open ourselves to hear it.

People ask me, “What’s that mean? What do you mean, ‘speaking without words’?”

I always remind them, we say lots of things without words, every day. A gesture, or an expression, can say more than a hundred words. God uses gestures and expressions of the soul to speak to us. Even if we don’t hear them, we see them, we feel them.

God points things out to us, so that we understand what we couldn’t figure out before. Sometimes God takes us by the shoulders and forces us to look at things God is seeing, or things we didn’t want to look at before. I’m talking about prayer, and listening, and being open to God.

People say, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and God uses pictures, too. God uses visions and dreams. God shows us people and faces. God has all kinds of ways to get through to us, when our world is so noisy that we can’t hear or won’t listen.

Jesus said, “You don’t have to blow a trumpet when you pray. You don’t have to make a lot of noise, or make a show. You don’t have to keep repeating your prayer, over and over. God heard you the very first time.”

Jesus said, “You can go into your closet to pray, and God will hear you.” Jesus often went out into the country, alone by himself to pray. He was telling God things, but he was also listening to God.

Do you remember the story, how Jesus was out on the lake in a storm one time? The storm didn’t bother him. Jesus fell asleep. He knew that God was mightier and stronger than the storm. So he just took a nap.

They woke him up. They said, “Lord, aren’t you going to do something?”

Jesus didn’t try to fight the storm with a bigger storm. He looked at the storm and said, “Be still!” and everything got quiet. The storm was not the voice of God. God spoke through the peace and quiet.

As I said at the beginning, people worship God in all kinds of ways – with loud praise, with bowing and kneeling, with incense and fireworks and who knows what all.

Maybe quiet is one of the best ways there is, to worship God. Maybe we need to be listening, more than we need to be making noise. That still, small, quiet voice that Elijah heard, is the voice that speaks in our hearts.

That’s where God, speaks, really – not in our ears, but in our hearts. You can call it conscience, but conscience doesn’t speak with the same kind of love that God does.

You can call it intellect, but the intellect doesn’t show us the mercy of God, the compassion and caring and forgiveness of God.

God speaks in our heart. And that’s where we need to be listening. The voice of God is that quiet, patient, unceasing, humble, simple voice that only the heart can hear. It doesn’t give up, and it doesn’t leave us alone.

We don’t always listen to it, but it’s always there. And whoever listens to that quiet voice of love in their heart, is learning to listen to God.

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