Every Monday a group of us meet to study the Bible. It’s an informal, open meeting that lasts about an hour and the invitation is to each and every one of you to join us. Why not come along? Currently we’re looking at the Psalms – these biblical poems and prayers that Martin Luther called “The Bible in miniature”. Usually they have instructions for musical instruments and choir directors. Some of those we’ve read are in fact magnificent hymns of salvation where King David reflects on his life and recalls the specific situations where God came to his rescue: “The danger of death was all around me…In my trouble I called to the Lord…He listened to my cry for help…it came in to His ears.” (Ps.18:4,6).
I love that. My cries came into His ears! Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Prayer pulls the rope below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God.” Clearly our prayers matter and because He’s not deaf God brings the answer. It may not be the answer we want, or even what we were expecting. But because He is faithful and just and loves us with an everlasting love, He answers our prayers. Sometimes though we need to grasp the rope boldly and pull continually with all our might. It’s faithful persistence, an uphill climb, but even the most faithful, living within the fabric of community, churches and their own family lives and circumstances, the struggle with sin, find themselves weak occasionally.
That’s certainly true of David and Elijah. With the prophet, long gone are the showmanship, authority and confidence that he had paraded against Jezebel and her 450 false prophets of Baal. She’s wants her revenge, for Elijah had executed them all. Now, she will kill him. The message she sends says within 24 hours. God’s prophet was a very frightened man. His response is to run away as far and as fast as he can. At the point when this passage begins Elijah is in the wilderness. In his misery he prayerfully complains to God, “I’ve had enough. I want to die.” That most famous of psalms, 23, says that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” – God pursues us…it’s like the Footprints poem where the man looks back to discover only one set of footprints, not his own, but the Lord’s who carried the man when he was at his lowest ebb. Consistently God tends to our needs. Here, an angel tends to Elijah’s needs. Food and water miraculously appear – giving him enough strength to walk 40 days to Mt Sinai – the Lord’s holy mountain. He finds a cave and, exhausted, spends the night there. He’s depressed. He’s sought to defend the honour of God and now everyone is out to get him. When the Lord asks him what he’s doing there he replies: “The people of Israel have broken their covenant with you…killed all your prophets…I am the only one left…and they are trying to kill me!” (1 Kgs.19:10).
Elijah’s told to go to the top of the mountain and the Bible describes what must have been spectacular displays of power. SThere was a mighty wind; there was an earthquake; there was fire – however God was not in any of these things [C] and doesn’t use any of these things to display His power. Instead comes the really important part of this story – “the soft whisper of a voice” – expressing something that is gentle and kind, loving and embracing – almost as if God is saying, “Can you hear me now Elijah?” Elijah discovers the all-too-true reality of God’s presence. There’s no need for fireworks and great fanfare. There’s no need for visible signs. “The still small voice of calm” is a phrase that has entered deeply into the spirituality of many Christians, as it seems to convey something of the nature of God. Psalm 85:8 says: “I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying, for He speaks peace to His faithful people.” He whispers inaudible words of assurance that we don’t hear with our ears – but in our heart. Sometimes the gentle breeze on our skin is enough to feel His grace. We sense His quiet presence through inexplicable inner nudges. We “hear” God’s voice and feel strong convictions in our soul that set our hearts on fire and move us to action (in my case to be ordained). And when he comes out of the cave, that’s what Elijah re-discovers about the Almighty: “My God is my protection, and with him I am safe…He saves me from my enemies. Praise the Lord!” (Ps.18:2-3). Likewise when we feel uncertain of who we are, that’s what we need to learn too. That even when things take a turn for the worse and the future looks bleak the Lord is our strength, our song and our presence.
A man once lost a valuable watch. He searched his house diligently for it, but did not find it. He retraced his steps and knew he last had it in his study. So he went in, shut the door and kept very still. Soon, in the silence he heard the barely audible ticking of the watch. We definitely need to listen to expect the unexpected! Divine silence does not necessarily mean divine inactivity. Elijah’s story reminds us of one of the most powerful ways that God comes to us. His work need not always be accompanied by dramatic revelation or manifestations. Occasionally we need to be still and quiet enough to hear in our hearts and minds the voice of God. It comes to us at moments of intense joy as well as in sadness, when we feel most alone. His voice can lift us out of despair, reminding us that our lives have meaning and purpose. A later prophet called Zechariah tells us that God’s work “is not by might nor by power, but by His Spirit” by His still small voice, silently shepherding our souls (Zech.4:6). God can take time off from running this vast universe to come down into this church right now to be with you, with a message directly for your ears only, because He loves you and wants you to have a personal relationship with Him lasting throughout eternity.
I think this is what makes Christianity unique among religions. Jesus declared: “This is eternal life – that they may know the only true God” (Jn.17:3). I can’t highlight Scripture enough! Of course God speaks most clearly to us in this day through His Word! The more we learn it, the more ready we will be to recognize His voice when He speaks, and the more likely we are to obey what we hear. After Elijah was refreshed and strengthened he obeyed by going back to work. God’s command was, “Look, I’ve still got work for you to do. Anoint the next king of Israel…And by the way you’re not on your own. There are 7,000 people who are loyal to me and have not worshipped false gods.” (1 Ki.19:16,18). Now refreshed, he moves on to build and to serve and to strengthen God’s kingdom.
We must do the same. If we feel disappointed because we can’t see any rewards for our efforts, or we feel ambushed by a sudden and unexpected crisis of faith – don’t despair – for in the emptiness of our hearts the still, small voice is calling us to be transformed by the power of the Spirit, to be in the kingdom. Don’t let it be drowned out by the noise of our world, by illness, by our busy lives, by TV, by our family’s demands or by the tasks we have to do. You are not on your own. Rely on the Lord’s promises. “I will never fail you. I will never forsake you.” (Heb.13:5). That’s some promise! May God’s still small voice renew us, giving us new vision and a greater sense of purpose.
Love in the Messiah. Blessed be the Word.
Our Father, we give you thanks for your goodness, we give you thanks that you give us your Word. We pray through our dullness of mind and heart, through the inattention of our ears, that you forgive us for all those things that stand between us, all those things that stop us listening to and hearing all those things that you say to us. We pray through Christ’s holy name that you will change us because of today’s worship and instruction. Amen.