It’s called a theophany.
At least that’s what the biblical scholars call it. Theophany: ‘a public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my bible dictionary puts it.
as in, the LIGHT that strikes the apostle Paul blind on the road to Damascus. As in the VOICE that tears open the sky at Jesus’ baptism and declares ‘This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.’
It’s God making himself known, in the now.
When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more descendants than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.
Or, when Job shakes his fist at the sky and shouts indictments at the universe, God appears as and answers from a WHIRLWIND, a TORNADO. Theophany.
And when the People of Israel gather at Mt Sinai after having only recently crossed the Red Sea, the Lord appears to them as SMOKE and CLOUD and FIRE and finally in an EARTHQUAKE. And when it’s all over, the People of Israel are left promising: ‘We will do whatever the Lord says.’
It is, as one scholar describes it, an enactment of God’s power and it evokes fear and awe and certainty.
But when it comes to Elijah, God is not so reliably typecast.
When it comes to Elijah, God’s not there- not in the WIND, not in the FIRE, not in the EARTHQUAKE.
With Elijah, there’s nothing. Just silence.
Elijah’s come to Mt Horeb. You might know it as Mt Sinai. It’s the place Moses goes to when he’s despairing and wants to give up his mantle and throw in the towel. It’s the place where Moses says to God, with bit lip and barely suppressed anger:
‘I want to see you. Show me…show me your glory.’
For 40 days and 40 nights Elijah’s been walking to Mt Sinai, but for those same 40 days and 40 nights Elijah’s also been on the run from Ahab, the King of Israel, and from Jezebel, his Queen.
Jezebel- she’s not from Israel nor does she worship Israel’s God, and she’s not long in the throne before she begins instituting the worship of Baal as Israel’s national religion.
For the first time in Israel’s corporate life together paganism is the official policy. It’s a golden calf in every home. It’s no idol left behind. It’s temples and altars and seminaries and nearly 1,000 priests and prophets. It’s a royal veto of the 1st commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’
God responds by first sending a drought to Israel.
And then God sends a prophet.
Only Elijah isn’t your ordinary kind of prophet. Elijah doesn’t preach sermons about justice to the poor. Elijah doesn’t paint word-pictures of the coming day judgment day. He doesn’t wear camel-hair coats or symbolically break clay pots.
Elijah doesn’t do anything symbolically.
Elijah challenges the system heads-on. He goes before Ahab and Jezebel, and he challenges them to a duel, to a showdown on top of a different mountain, Mt Carmel, to see which god is true and which god isn’t.
In one corner- 850 prophets and priests of Baal.
In the other corner- Elijah (just Elijah).
And with them up there on top of Mt Carmel are all the People of Israel, summoned there by Elijah so that on that day they could watch and they could choose, once and for all, who they would follow.
The contest there on Mt Carmel: two bulls, two piles of wood. One is for Elijah and the other is for his opponents. Both sides will pray to their gods and the one who answers with fire, that one is the true and living God.
Not only is Elijah’s prayer answered with fire, the fire is decisive. It falls from the sky and consumes even the stones and the soil. And after Elijah has defeated them, it rains.
The drought is over.
The Queen’s idols are shattered, and her false prophets are shamed.
Now, you’d expect- at that point- the people gathered there on the mountain to denounce their idols, to confess their sin, to return, to the God of Israel.
You might even expect them to rise up and overthrow the King and Queen who’d led them astray.
No one cares.
What should be the highlight of his career, his biggest moment- it instead turns out to be his biggest disappointment, his lowest point.
Just when he should be celebrating, he has the rug of his faith pulled out from underneath him and he lands hard on his doubt and his hard questions.
For the first time he can’t hear God all that clearly, and for the first time this prophet doesn’t know if God hears him.
God’s gone silent on him.
So, where does he go? He goes to the one place he can think of where he can ask God directly:
Why is this happening to me?
Why me and not them? Why me when I’m the one who’s been faithful?
Why have you let me down, God?
I thought if I served you, you’d watch out for me.
Isn’t that what relationship means?
Elijah goes to the place where God has spoken before, to the place where God has appeared as FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and CLOUD and EARTHQUAKE.
He goes to the place where God gave Israel direction and certainty, to the place where God gave Moses comfort and guidance.
Elijah goes to Sinai in search of that word- theophany. You see, Elijah wants God to come in FIRE and WIND and TREMBLING. He wants God’s VOICE to tear open the sky and speak in a BOOM that sweeps all of his doubts and questions away.
Just like Moses did, Elijah wants to put his foot down on Mt Sinai and demand:
‘I want to see you.‘
But what he gets is SILENCE.
A while ago I spent a week at Taize with some of our college-aged youth from Aldersgate.
As many of you know, Taize is a Protestant monastery in France. It was founded after WWII to be a visible sign of reconciliation after the violence of the war.
We spent a week there with young people from all over the world, thousands of them. For a week we worked together, we studied the bible together, we slept on the ground and three times a day we worshipped and prayed together- morning, noon and night.
And of those three daily worship services a good 20-30 minutes of each was devoted to silence. There was never any sermon. There was no special musical offering. There was not even a long, elaborate communion prayer.
There was just singing- lots of it, and even more silence. And the silence was never introduced. We were never told: think of this during the silence. We were never directed: pray about this, meditate on that.
The silence was just allowed to happen.
And from the first day we were there it was obvious that they believed God does things in the SILENCE.
Towards the end of our week at Taize, the brothers of the monastery divided the thousands of us who were visiting into country groups. Each country group met with a monk to talk about their experience in the community, about they’d learned and what they would take home with them.
Those of us from the US- there weren’t many of us. We all fit onto 3 narrow benches, and we formed a small circle in the afternoon shade. The monk who came to guide our conversation- his name was Brother Pedro- and he had storm-colored hair that was parted neatly to one side and green eyes that seemed alive with fire.
And far from wearing a brown monk’s habit with a rope tied around his waist, Brother Pedro wore chinos and boat shoes and the same turquoise button down Land’s End shirt that hangs in my closet at home.
Brother Pedro was from Barcelona. He’d grown up during the dictatorship in Spain, he told us, and he’d come to Taize as a young man- not really sure why he’d come or what he was seeking. And he’d never left.
Having introduced himself, Brother Pedro went around the circle, asking us to share how the week had impacted us.
More than a few said that they liked seeing with their own eyes how the love of Christ really does transcend language and culture and country. Others offered how they’d been deeply effected by the trust the brothers show to the thousands of visitors who come each week- no doors are locked, no rules are given. A couple of people suggested that this must be what the first church was like, with everyone sharing their life and their possessions and their prayers together.
Because I was the only pastor in the circle, I didn’t say much. I didn’t want the group to defer to me and not share themselves. But afterwards, when everyone had gotten up and begun to walk to the dinner line, Brother Pedro came up to me and he asked me what I’d take home with me from the week.
Without thinking or knowing why, I said: ‘the silence.’
He smiled and his green eyes lit up.
And he put his hand on my shoulder and he said:
‘When I first came here, when I was a young man, I didn’t believe in God. Or, at least, I didn’t believe God has done such a good job of being God.
But then I experienced the silence. And that’s when I learned that if God can speak in the silences, then there’s never a time when God isn’t speaking to us, present with us, working for us.’
He must have been able to see I didn’t follow him completely because he said:
‘It’s not that God is speaking or working only when it’s obvious to us. The silence here…it taught me that God is always at work, and if he’s always at work then he’s also always with you.’
Elijah comes to Sinai wanting a theophany.
He comes to Sinai seeking FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and EARTHQUAKE, a display of God’s power and glory, an obvious and clear sign that God is present, that God would get back to work in his life, that God would be with him as he had been before.
But what he gets is SILENCE.
You know- Elijah, he’s worked miracles.
He’s shattered idols and faced down kings and queens.
But maybe God speaks in SILENCE to Elijah because Elijah needs to know, he needs to learn, that God’s always speaking, always working, always with him.
Even when he seems silent.
Maybe Elijah needs to know that—
Just because you can’t see him clearly at this point in your life, it doesn’t mean he’s not there.
Just because he doesn’t feel as close to you as he did at a former time, it doesn’t mean he’s not with you.
Just because your life feels stretched more than it ever has before
Just because you have more questions than you ever did
Just because your doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt
It doesn’t mean he’s not with you.
It doesn’t mean he’s not at work.
It doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.
Just because God came to Job in a whirlwind and a tornado, it doesn’t mean he can’t come in the quietness of a manger.
Just because God made the earth tremble at Mt Sinai, it doesn’t mean he can’t silently shake the foundations with a Cross and a Tomb.
Just because you’d like nothing more than a mountaintop theophany in your life, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work quietly and invisibly in your life.
Now, there’s more than a few of you in this congregation who’d like nothing more than to march straight up Mt Sinai, put your foot down and demand that God do something NOW about:
The pregnancy you worry over
The marriage even your best intentions can’t make work
The job you still can’t find
The kids whose decisions make you bite your nails
The diagnosis your wife or your son just received
And it’s not as immediate, it’s not as sudden, it’s not as exciting or visual as EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE- but maybe all we really have to do for a theophany is LISTEN.