Sermon ~ Sunday, August 13th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Did You Hear (See) That?
1 Kings 19:9-18
Have you ever had the experience of purchasing or leasing a new (or new to you) automobile and on your way home from the dealership you see four others identical to it?
Back in the dealership’s lot when you first laid eyes on it, the color and design and classy lines jumped out at you and said. “I’m yours! Just you and me baby! We’re going to be a stylish, unique pair, all eyes will be on us!”
But then, again, on your way home and for the next few days, weeks even, you see vehicles just like yours. They are everywhere!
A few years ago when we bought the green Honda CR-V we noticed two or three people apparently bought the same car at the same time we did. We brought our Subaru Forester home, suddenly we see our twins going by all the time! There can only be one explanation: We must be trend setters!
Actually there is another explanation: this experience is similar to what is called “frequency illusion”, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This is a cognitive bias which describes a curious psychological fact: after learning some bit of new information we start noticing it everywhere else.
Okay, interesting, but what does this have to do with Elijah and his experience of God on Mount Horeb?
Elijah was a great prophet, through whom Yahweh had performed some pretty amazing things, like the poor widow of Zarephath and her jug of oil that never ran out and subsequent resuscitation of her dead son. Then there was the challenge to the prophets of Baal and the fire from the sky to ignite the sacrificial fire which had been drenched in water. And if this wasn’t enough, the deaths of all the prophets of Baal, after which a prolonged drought came to an end. That last one might have been a bit too much. In fact it was for Queen Jezebel.
The Jewish king Ahab had married Jezebel who was a worshipper of Baal, and when she heard about the death of Baal’s prophets, she threatened to take the Elijah’s life which sends the prophet running for his life into the wilderness. Elijah travels about a day’s journey where he sits down under a tree and despairs for his life. Complainingly he prays: “It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (v. 4)
Yet, even on the run and with all his complaining, Elijah continues to experience God’s care and help. That night under the tree, an angel comes to him as he sleeps and provides him with food and water which miraculously sustains him for 40 days and nights! After these 40 days and nights Elijah makes his way to Mount Horeb and there he seeks the shelter of a cave. Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, is where God had appeared to Moses, considered the birthplace of Israel’s religion.
This is where our reading picks up the story. And it might be familiar one to some of you. Inside the cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah begins whining again about the state of his affairs. I paraphrase, “You know how faithful I’ve been Lord, so why is this happening to me?”
God tells Elijah to go out of the cave, stand on the edge of the mountain and wait, there Lord will pass by. In other words, “Elijah you want reassurance, I show you reassurance!”
There’s a great wind, so powerful rocks were shattering, but no sign of the Lord.
Next there came a shaking of the earth in a mighty earthquake, still, no Lord.
After the shaking, a fire and after the fire “a sound of sheer silence.”
Can one hear silence?
Can silence, as we say, be deafening?
Mighty winds . . . witnesses frequently describe tornadoes as sounding like freight trains.
Earthquakes rumbling deep in the earth are amplified by the earth like a huge speaker.
Next a fire. . . I personally have heard the sound of a forest fire crowning through the tops of spruce trees and it is a frightening sound!
Elijah, like many of us, might have expected God to show up in fury and power, the awesome spectacle of any of these. After all look at how he had experienced God up to this point. Some pretty amazing, in your face sort of ways!
There is that great scene in the movie Forest Gump where Lt. Dan has joined Forest on his shrimp ingredients boat. After not catching any shrimp for days, Lt. Dan asks Forest, “Where to H is this God of yours?” And in a voice over Forest says, “Its funny Lt. Dan said that, because right then, God showed up.” And they are caught in the wrath of a hurricane.
God showing up . . . There is a term for such manifestations or experiences of the Holy, they’re called theophanies. Elijah had had some fairly spectacular theophanies to be sure, but what Elijah seemed to need to learn was that God is not always found in the bright flashes of light or loud roaring of storms, spectacular events and portents in the heavens, but also in the quiet spaces in between. Perhaps more often in the quiet spaces in between, for there are far more of these in life.
Elijah like many of us needed to learn to create prayerful times and spaces filled with silence, set a part from the din and confusion of the storms and earthquakes in our lives.
Related to this is the tremendous influence that past experiences have on our ability to discern and experience divine activity in the present.
Elijah had experienced God in some pretty awe inspiring ways. But here God comes to him in the quiet after the storm, after the awe. Not maybe what he expected.
In our gospel reading, the disciples couldn’t believe what they were seeing in those early morning hours in the midst of a storm. They thought it was some sort of ghostly apparition. They had never experienced Jesus in that way.
We see what we have been “conditioned” to see. The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon speaks of something we recently learned or experienced. Past experiences do have a way of shaping, coloring, the lenses though which we view our world.
For instance even though it has been over 26 years since I in any way made my living in the logging trade, I notice trees. And when I look at them I see white pine, red pine, eastern hemlock, red, white, black spruce, cedar, balsam fir where others see simply “pines” or “Christmas trees.” While I’m getting better and can make myself see trees for their intrinsic beauty and value, I still see potential board feet of lumber and cords of pulpwood. And when I look at a forest of trees I see the way the trees lean and the best location to fall them and the location of haul roads so as to do the least amount of damage to the residual stand.
I see what years of experience have conditioned me to see.
My thought for us today is: How do our past experierences bias our expectations of how God will reveal God’s self in our lives?
What have we done through prayer and study to shape and change those patterns of attention?
Do we fail to see God at work in our lives, in our church because we believe that God’s presence is always and only made manifest in certain ways, places and persons?
Have we taken the time and energy to open our eyes and ears; to be receptive to new movements of the Holy Spirit in our midst; or do we miss them because past experience limits our vision and hearing?
While God’s faithfulness and loving kindness never ends (Lamentations 3:22-23)and God is changeless. (Ps. 90:2 & 102:26-27) God is also about writing a new covenant on people’s hearts (Jere. 31:31-34) and doing new things (Is. 43:19).
When we look upon the forest of humanity around us or out upon the raging seas of life, what do we see, what to we hear? God is just as apt to be in the spaces between the trees and in the calm that follows the storm.
In the end God didn’t give up on Elijah even when Elijah prayed that God would. Elijah continues to prophesy to the rulers and people of Israel.
With a renewed or even new vision, as we are able to see God moving in new ways and doing a new thing imagine what will the church be capable of!
May we be so attentive to the movement of the Spirit in our midst that we will be saying to one another, “Say, did you hear that?”
LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS SERMON recorded live and read by Pastor Neil Wilson: