Archives For Theophany

Elijah’s Sons

Jason Micheli —  June 17, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x6831111.jpgFather’s Day

Gabriel

I discovered this photo the other night, scrolling through the computer and finding others like it that, having been snapped, disappeared into the cloud. Unseen by me. Or, the scab always tells the truth: I was too busy to notice.

I cried big, eyelash-less tears when I double-clicked on it and watched us maximize the screen together. I didn’t realize Mommy had taken the picture, or possibly it was X who stole into the bedroom and snuck it, hoping to catch one or both of us drooling in our sleep.

According to the date on the computer, one of them snapped it on a Sunday this winter, but there’s no time stamped with the date. I don’t know if this image captures an early AM after you crawled into bed with us on late Saturday night or if this is you having joined me for a post-worship afternoon nap. So it’s a mystery. The winter light through the shades, the ratty undershirt, our exhausted faces. You could bet either way.

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This picture, Gabriel, was taken a couple of weeks before that night the doctor called me when you, X and I were in the car, pulling into the driveway from swim practice. He asked- you overheard- if I was driving. ‘No,’ I lied. Then he asked if I was sitting down. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then I told you two to run along inside, and then I came in maybe 30-40 minutes later, having called your Mom and your Grandma and your Godfather, Dennis. And then you asked why I’d been crying and, afraid of not getting the words out or what they’d even sound like if I did, I then just rubbed your hair and hugged you.

Then I told you I loved you.

‘I love you more- too bad, so sad, you lose’ you said, scampering, innocent and unblemished to the shower.

The harder work of explaining cancer to you fell to your Mom. It always does.

Looking at this picture now, and not knowing the time of the day, I can’t help but wonder about it. Are we both really asleep with you on top of me? Or, is one of us (or both of us) just pretending? My guess is we’re both faking it and both know it, neither of us giving in, which is another way of saying we’re savoring the moment, stretching it out until it twists into a smile. My guess, that a picture can’t capture, is that you’re bearing down on my belly with your full dead body weight, waiting for me to gasp like the old man you accuse me of being. Maybe you went a sneaker route and are now, poker-faced with ostensible sleep- squeaking little farts onto me. That would, after all, explain the slight smile pursed at the corner of your supposedly snoring mouth.

I’m just now seeing this picture; I don’t recall the morning or the afternoon, but we’ve shared enough like them that I can wager a guess how the rest of this moment went down. You grabbed my belly or my ‘disgusting hairy armpits’ and tickle attacked me. And I rolled over- maybe flipped you over WWE style- and we roughhoused until you got hurt or overstimulated or I got red-faced and winded and Mommy started wondering aloud why she’s stuck living with so many boys in the house.

I cried when I first saw this photo, a God’s eye image of us as innocent, happy and- dare your Preacher Dad say it- #blessed. Even though I just saw this photo the other night, I don’t think I would’ve seen it before.

Not like I do now.

Mary Karr (you should read her someday) writes:

‘What hurts so bad about youth isn’t the actual butt whippings the world delivers.

It’s the hopes playacting like certainties.’

I know you don’t think I am, Gabriel, but my oncologist keeps assuring me that I’m young (‘and healthy!’). Both youth and health, I’ve learned are relative terms when it comes to stage-serious cancer, but I’m at least not so old that the truth of Mary Karr says stings because hope charading as certainty is what I see in the picture, unexamined confidence that we have all the time in the world with each other.

And maybe we do- God, I hope we do- but I can’t pretend to be certain anymore. Even you know that now, I think, in your way.

We’re in a different place now than we were when Mommy or X snapped that photo of us, unawares in more ways than one. You’ve gone with me to the cancer center and visited me in the cancer ward. You’ve seen the old people and the people who look like me and the kids who look like you there, all sick. The same day I discovered this picture you got angry with me, Gabriel, righteously angry, while I made dinner. I’d gotten sent to the hospital that morning for blood transfusions and I’d missed your class play I’d promised to attend. Facetime didn’t cut it.

‘I’m mad that you weren’t there. You PROMISED. I hate cancer. I hate that cancer has you. I hate that God makes cancer. I just wish there was no cancer.’

It’s not just you though, G. Just a couple of weeks ago, I cried a guilty twinge of tears when I heard your brother say:

‘My real birthday present this September will be Daddy being all done with cancer.’

The innocent, unqualified optimism that I can’t possibly promise to deliver upon made my heart go slack.

These last 4 months I’ve done a lot of ill-advised late night Googling about expected life spans with MCL and average remission rates and median times to first relapse and what’s so overwhelmingly tone deaf in all the literature is how none of the facts and figures stop to consider how your Mom and I have the two of you in our (wing) span. These years are ours not mine alone.

There’s a word that comes to mind, Gabriel, when I look at this picture. You ready for it? It’s called THEOPHANY. You don’t know the word but you enough of your Bible to know what it means.

THEOPHANY = ‘A public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my fancy Bible dictionary puts it.

Theophany- you know the stories G.

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.’

Theophany. It’s God making himself known, in the now.

Like:

When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more children than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.

And when the People of Israel cross over 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.’ 

And then there’s the story of Elijah. It’s in your Lego Bible.

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, 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.’ 

Elijah’s facing 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 Elijah 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?

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.

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I’ve preached sermons on that story at least 6 times that I know, Gabriel, and every time I’ve always emphasized the the silence, stressed that God’s presence is found in the small, grace-filled diorama moments of our lives not in the thunder and boom of events in the larger world. And every time I would end the sermons with predictable lines like:

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 doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt iIt 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 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.

Mostly, I think I’ve preached this way because I’m a product of Mainline Protestantism where we’re not sure if God actually works in the world anymore, but we’re definitely sure we don’t want to be mistaken for those other Christians who see God at work on the green screen of the weatherman’s map.

Looking at this picture of you, though, and thinking of that word THEOPHANY I’m now convinced it’s wrong to privilege one angle over the over because God is most assuredly in the fire and the wind and the earthquake as well the silence.

Lest God’s not God.

At the risk of sounding heretical (and, honestly, I’ve got bigger worries these days), a clearer way of putting this is that I think the narrator of Elijah’s story is wrong, no matter his/her dramatic aim.

God IS in the fire and the wind and the tremble.

After all, as God self-reveals to Moses: ‘I am He who Is.’

God, in other words, is the Source of Existence itself in that everything which exists owes its existence to God. God, please remember this in high school and college Gabriel, is the name we give to the question ‘How come________?’ God is our answer to the most important question of all: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Of course, that doesn’t mean God is the direct cause behind every boom and bolt and quake, anymore than every diagnosis, but as Creator, continuously holding all things in creation in existence, God IS IN them.

What Paul says of God and us holds true of all created things: ‘God’s the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’

Or, as my teacher taught me:

‘God is the infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.’

In all things: fire, wind, dewdrops, silence, cells. Everything = THEOPHANY.

So if God is in all things, necessarily, including where Elijah’s narrator repeatedly stresses God ain’t, then what are we to make of the silence about which the narrator makes so much?

Despite committing rather elementary mistakes in the doctrine of God, what does the narrator of Elijah’s story want us to see by stressing that God is in that still small voice?

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Humor me. See if you can wrap your head around this-

Richard Taylor, a philosopher, once invited readers to imagine a man (or a boy) hiking in the woods where he came upon, out of the blue, a translucent sphere. Obviously, Taylor points out, the man would be shocked by the strangeness of the object and he’d wonder just how it should happen to be there floating in the middle of the forest.

More to the point, the hiker would never be able to swallow the notion that it just happened to be there, without cause or any possibility of further explanation. Such a suggestion would strike him as silly. But, Taylor argues- and this is money- what the hiker has failed to notice is how he might ask that same question, just as well, to any other object in the woods, say a rock or a tree or a spiderweb or a little boy as much as this strange sphere.

He fails to do so:

‘Only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. We’d be curious about a sphere suddenly floating in the forest; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.’

Taylor says you can imagine that sphere stretched out to the size of the universe or shrunken to a grain of sand, as everlasting or fleeting. and it doesn’t change the wonder:

‘It’s the sheer unexpected thereness of the thing, devoid of any transparent rational for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.’

What’s all that mean, Gabriel?

It means every little detail and moment of our lives is a marvel no less than that sphere in the forest. It means every part of our lives together is a wonder  of which we could ask ‘Why this instead of nothing?’ It means everything around us is not necessary at all, not ‘natural’ unto itself and, as such, it’s charged, all of it, with the immediacy of God. It’s all graced. Back to that word again: its all THEOPHANY.

We just seldom stop to think/notice/marvel/wonder/praise that everything from the boom and bolt to your morning breath against my neck is as odd, and so a gift, as that philosopher’s sphere.

Looking at this picture, Gabriel, what’s so obvious to me now was missed by just as wide a mark back then, double-true for all the other moments we could have snapshots of but don’t. Funny how we take more pictures these days but give less praise, but that starts to sound like preaching and I’m on medical leave.

Here’s what I can say, G.

Only after the fright and upheaval, the pain and the uncertainty…of cancer do I see what was so clearly there. Is here.

I see it clearly enough it makes me wonder if Elijah ever had sons of his own.

My guess is he’d have had a hard time getting a date, but here’s what I think I missed about Elijah’s story all those other times. Or, at least here’s what I wonder. I wonder if Elijah would’ve heard God in the silence- in the still, small voice- had it not been for all the tumult that preceded it.

Maybe it’s not the case that God’s not in the fire and the boom but in the silent moments, as I’ve always preached.

Maybe the boom and the bust, the fire and the fear, calibrates our eyes to what’s there all around us. All the time.

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Christian Wiman writes that

‘Love is the living heart of dread.’

He’s got cancer too so he understands what others who just countenance optimism and perseverance miss. When love’s concerned, hope and dread aren’t that far removed from one another.

Dread is exactly what I feel sometimes and even when I look at this picture too, thinking of all the percentages and odds you can Google late at night.

Except thinking of that philosopher’s sphere and remembering that word, theophany, makes me realize that whatever we have to come- you, your brother, your Mom and I- are more marvels than we can count.

But that shouldn’t keep us from trying.

This is from friend, Janet Laisch. Here she takes a look at the Transfiguration’s depiction in Christian art. ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848Most of us would like to see an image like the one above–a beautiful person through whom God’s light emanates and makes His presence in our lives known here on Earth. This mosaic depicts the Transfiguration, said to have occurred on Mount Tabor in Israel near the Sea of Galilee (map shown below),  as described in the book of Mark, and depicted in art beginning in the sixth century
Mark wrote about the transfiguration,

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
galileeSaint Catherine’s Monastery (image shown below) at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the very location of the first theophany when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush as described in Exodus 3 and to Elijah, though only in a soft whisper as accounted in the book of Kings.
It is inside Saint Catherine’s monastery that the earliest, from 565-6, surviving image of Christ’s transfiguration can be found.
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In the apse, just above the high altar a team of mosaic artisans laid tesserae, cut semi-precious stones, glass and gold and set them directly into wet plaster to adhere to the wall.  Each character from the Transfiguration can be identified from left to right:  Elijah stands with his fingers blessing Christ, a young clean-shaven John kneels, turning his head toward Christ, a gray haired and bearded Peter is laying down, turning his head toward Christ, a young, bearded James kneels and turning his head toward Christ, and Moses stands on the right blessing Christ.  Christ invited the three apostles closest to him to ascend Mount Tabor, knowing they would experience together God first-hand.
In the center, Christ is enveloped in a mandorla–an Italian word for almond which results from two circles overlapping –and used in Christian art to symbolize the sacred moments when the human and divine meet and which transcend time and space. Within it, the blue bands become darker as they move toward Jesus. As divinity increases, there is no way to depict its brightness, except by darkness.The darkest color represents the “uncreated light” of God; God is dark because He existed before He created light for all the world.
From Christ and from the mandorla, rays of light emanate, touching the prophets and apostles. Christ’s ring finger and thumb form a circle– the alpha and omega– the beginning and the end. A dark blue band surrounds this scene decorated with medallions of the twelve Apostles. The three Apostles included in the Transfiguration have been replaced by medallions of Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered by another series of fifteen medallions with busts of the Prophets, including Jesus’s human predecessor, King David in the center.
ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848038This mosaic should be understood according to its placement in the church–above the high altar where the sacrament of holy communion occurs. Congregants experience Christ as truly present during Communion through bread and wine.
Through communion and prayer at the high altar, this scene served a purpose to inspire a Holy vision or at least to enable the viewer to contemplate the event and feel invited to partake in it.
Furthermore, the Transfiguration image should be understood in context of the images surrounding it just as one story in the bible has greater meaning when understood in the context of the continuity of the old and new testament, this image has greater meaning than a single image.
335-066It is Christ’s sacrificial role that is particularly important (see image above). Four symbols along the vertical axis represent God incarnate:
(1) Jesus Christ in the mandorla
(2) directly above is a cross in a medallion–symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
(3) overlapping this cross is an image of a lamb –recalling John’s description of Christ as a sacrificial lamb in Revelations 5:6
(4) and directly below Peter is a medallion of King David, to whom Jesus is a descendant by blood through Mary.
The juxtaposition of God’s incarnation and transfiguration stories is popular in manuscript illumination as well, particularly after the iconoclasm controversy resolved. In an illuminated manuscript from circa 1025, (image shown below), the vellum image is divided into two registers. In the top register, the artist depicted the nativity when God became incarnate and in the bottom register, the Transfiguration. In both registers Jesus is larger than the other figures, establishing His greater importance through size.
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Too, this mosaic (image above) is on the east end of the church where the sun rises and where Christ will come again. There is a direct link between this theophany and Christ’s Second Coming. God becoming man is necessary before the second coming when Christ will raise from the dead and make Creation whole again through our unity with God. Humankind can only ascend and become deified as gods– with a lowercase g– and mirror God’s image because God had descended to the earth and lived among us.
Looking again at the mosaic at the Monastery, the apostles witness that which the old testament prophets had until the Transfiguration only looked forward–God standing before them in human form. Thus, the continuity between the old and new testament is represented (see image below).  Place your finger on Elijah who stands to Christ’s left and stop at the image of John the Baptist in a medallion. Here John the Baptist is the new Elijah–they are two prophets who went against the grain of society.
Now look at Moses and trace your finger to the right stopping at the image of Mary, Mother of Jesus in a medallion. The first theophany is highlighted twice more in the mosaics of Moses loosening his sandals (image below) and Moses receiving the law tablets (image below). If we understand the continuity of the old and new testament, we may see the relationship between God’s first theophany and the incarnation of God at Christ’s birth.
Mary’s womb like the burning bush contained God’s light and so God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush is analogous to the birth of Jesus Christ.
And too the appearance of God on Mount Sinai is analogous to the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.
335-066Another surviving Transfiguration apse mosaic can be found at the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna (image above), Italy dating from 533-549, though it is depicted symbolically rather than figuratively. The man standing in the center is not Christ but rather the Bishop of Ravenna who strategically aligns himself with the story (image below). He is symbolically deified. To his left and right are a total of twelve sheep representing his “flock” or church members.  Above them is the transfiguration scene, with Christ symbolically represented as a cross in a circular “mandorla.”  Like the previous mandorla, it along with the gold background symbolically represent a timeless, eternal image. The artist does not attempt to convey a realistic space. To the left of the cross is a single lamb, most likely Peter, the only apostle who spoke to Jesus during the transfiguration and to the right, James and John are depicted as lambs.  Above the cross on the left is Moses and the right Elijah. From the top, a hand descends symbolically as God’s theophany when He spoke and enveloped them in a cloud.
The Transfiguration and the end of time are combined in one scene. The lush green background filled with lambs references the end of time when God’s Creation is made whole again.  Above the scene there are two city gates, on the left is Jerusalem and on the right is Bethlehem with six lambs ascending the hill, referencing the continuity of the Old and New Testament through the juxtaposition of these old and new testament cities. Above from left to right are the four evangelists in symbolic form, the eagle John, the winged man, Matthew, Christ Pantokrator-a compound Greek word meaning all accomplishing, the Lion Mark, and the Ox Luke.  This image aligns the Transfiguration with the end of time when Creation is restored.

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Unlike earlier representations, Renaissance and Baroque examples typically depict God’s appearance as a cloud at the Transfiguration (see three examples below). “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Also the colors are reversed from earlier mandorlas since these examples show brighter color resulting closer to Jesus. These later images remind us too of Christ’s apotheosis when He is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father.
Transfiguration_RaphaelRaphael painted the Transfiguration in about 1520. The account of the Transfiguration is followed in this work of art as it is in the bible by the episode of Jesus healing a boy with an evil spirit.

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Gherardi,_Cristofano_-_Transfiguration_-_1555The Mandorla in the Transfiguration images also aligns this story with the promise of Christ’s Second Coming when all the world will be healed. Representations of the Second Coming show Christ surrounded by the mandorla, familiar Transfiguration iconography.  At the transfiguration, Peter does not want to wait for the Second Coming as he prefers to stay on Mount Tabor where he feels an intense unification with Christ. Mark wrote,”Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  God became man so that we can begin the process of becoming whole again on Earth.
Fortunate people recognize when they have experienced such a theophany at work in their lives so they too can become the person God intended for them to be. If any of us experience a theophany, God’s intense presence in this lifetime,  like Peter, why would we ever want to go back down the mountain?

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images-21 Kings 19 

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.

Theophany-

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.’

Theophany.

It’s God making himself known, in the now.

Like:

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.’ 

Theophany.

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.

images-1But instead there’s nothing. Nothing changes. No one trades allegiances. No one is moved by what they’d seen. No one’s life is transformed. No one’s converted.

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?

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.