The Sound of Sheer Silence

This sermon was preached at Asbury United Methodist Church in Livermore, CA on August 7, 2011. The lectionary text I used in the sermon was 1 Kings 19:9-18.

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Our passage for this morning shows us an Elijah that is very different from the Elijah we heard about a few months ago during the Children’s and Youth musical. Remember that Elijah? That Elijah was on Mount Carmel, taunting the 450 prophets of Baal when Baal didn’t send down fire, saying: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost or wandering or traveling somewhere…or maybe he is asleep!”

That Elijah called down fire upon his water-soaked altar, showing that the LORD was the one, true God.

That Elijah commanded God’s people to seize all 450 prophets of Baal, dragged them to the Kishon Brook and killed them.

That Elijah was one prophet you didn’t want to cross…

But that Elijah seems to have gotten lost in just a few verses. The whole killing of the prophets of Baal went down in 1 Kings 18, and now at the very beginning of chapter 19, Elijah is running for his life. Jezebel found out that Elijah had killed all of Baal’s prophets with the sword, and she was NOT happy. She sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”

And that’s all it took. Verse 3 says it all: “Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life.”

And that’s where we find Elijah at the beginning of this story – terrified. Running for his life. Holed up in a cave on Mount Horeb. Mount Horeb, or the mountain of God, is one of the other names for Mount Sinai – where the 10 Commandments were delivered to Moses. The photo on your bulletin cover today was one I took after climbing to the top of this mountain back in 2005 – this might help give you some idea of the landscape where this encounter took place.

Elijah spends the night in the cave – and then the word of the Lord comes to him, asking “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I always love when God asks questions in the Bible…as if God doesn’t know exactly what Elijah is doing there…that he is running for his life, that he is terrified, that he doesn’t know what to do or where to go…and Elijah responds with a quick summary of what is happening: he’s been very passionate and zealous for the Lord, but everyone else has turned away and now he’s the only one left, and they want to kill him.

And instead of reassuring Elijah, instead of answering him or consoling him, God says “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

And this brings us to the part of this passage that is probably the most familiar to you…you know, the “still small voice” – God’s not in the wind or earthquake or fire, but in the still small voice…? We’ll get to that…but first, listen to this passage from Exodus 19:16-19:

“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.”

Here – on this same mountain we have another story of God making Godself known to Moses. And what happens is that God shows up in huge, earth-shattering ways. God descends on the mountain of God in fire…God causes the mountain to shake violently…God is speaking in thunder. So we know that God does work in breathtaking and impressive ways…

But not this time for Elijah — on this same mountain, years later, the text tells us that there was a great wind, so great that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks into pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Not this time. And then after the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Not this time. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire…not this time anyway.

And after the fire…

…a sound of sheer silence.

And that’s all the text says. A sound of sheer silence. We’re meant to assume that God is present in the sheer silence, because it doesn’t say that God wasn’t in the sheer silence. A little confusing…and it must have been a bit confusing for Elijah.

You may have noticed that in the New Revised Standard Version, there wasn’t any mention of the “still small voice.” The Hebrew has a few different meanings – which is why there are such a variety of interpretations. The NRSV is one of the few versions to actually translate the Hebrew phrase here as “sound of sheer silence.”

Most of us are familiar with the “still small voice” which is actually from the King James Version. But many others refer to it as a gentle whisper, a sound of a gentle blowing, a sound of gentle stillness AND a still, small voice, and my favorite new translation, the Common English Bible says “After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.”

Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle and went to the entrance of the cave, hopping to make some sense out of all that just happened. And the same question is again asked of Elijah: What are you doing here, Elijah? And after his encounter with God, after his experience of the awesome power and presence of God, after a moment of sheer silence, after hearing the quiet, gentle whisper…he remains unchanged.

His response is the same exact response he gave earlier, filled with fear and desolation. And then we see God giving him instructions to go and anoint others who will carry out the remainder of his ministry, and the mantle is passed on to Elisha.

I used to love this story. The story of the “still, small voice” – of God being found in the quiet moments, in the silence. But it’s not all that comforting of a story, actually. It’s the story of a broken and fearful man, trying to serve God but struggling. And then when God finally shows up, Elijah doesn’t get comforted…he remains unchanged…and his ministry ends. Good stuff huh?

And I think it’s a hard story to hear because it hits a little too close to home. How many times have I been broken, weary, tired and frustrated…? And how many times have I looked for God in the wind, and in the earthquake and the fire…only to be disappointed? And how many times have I missed God in the sound of sheer silence? Plenty. More than I’d like to admit. And I’m guessing that there are some of you this morning that can relate to Elijah as well.

Just over 9 months ago, Sarah gave birth to our twin boys, Micah and Judah…born 20 weeks early. They didn’t have a fighting chance, and only lived for an hour. That experience of losing children broke my heart – I felt weary, tired, frustrated, angry…so angry at God. One day I drove my scooter up to Morgan Territory and yelled and cursed at God the whole way up. I remember sitting there at the pond, upset and angry and asking God why…and I didn’t hear anything. There was silence. A sound of sheer silence. And I felt like God wasn’t there.

But when I hear this story today…even though Elijah may have had a similar experience with that silence…I have to go back and read verse 11 again: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” I have to take God at God’s word when God says “the Lord is about to pass by.” For in that moment of desolation and fear for Elijah, God was present. God was in that silence. God was there, a gentle blowing whisper…and whether Elijah felt it or heard it that day on the mountain, and whether I felt it or heard it that day sitting by the pond, God was there.

In those moments of silence…in those moments when we feel God isn’t there…we have to take God at God’s word: the Lord is going to pass by. God is going to be with us in those moments. Psalm 139 reminds us of this as well:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

Last summer during iPod & God, we discussed a song by Green Day called Poprocks & Coke. We could think of it as a modern day Psalm that could also speak to the reality of God’s continual presence with us as well:

Wherever you go, You know I’ll be there
If you go far, You know I’ll be there
I’ll go anywhere, So I’ll see you there
You name the place, You know I’ll be there
You name the time, You know I’ll be there
I’ll go anywhere, So I’ll see you there
I don’t care if you don’t mind, I’ll be there not far behind
I’ll be there for you…

This is what we celebrated earlier in the service as we ate the bread and drank the wine. We remembered and celebrated the presence of the Risen Christ that is with us always. We may not always see it…we may be looking in the wrong places sometimes, instead of simply sitting in the silence and listening for that sound.



We may feel as though we are unchanged sometimes…we may feel like nothing is different…we may try to answer God’s questions with the exact same responses…

But we can trust and hope in the promise that the Lord is going to pass by…that God will be with us.



  1. says

    This morning a regular devotional I receive via email mentioned the sheer silence you speak of as the title of your sermon above, so when I googled that phrase I was led to your post. Thank you so much for sharing, and may I offer my condolences over the loss of your sons. I appreciate your honestly in sharing your anger and frustration with God when you lost your boys. So often we pretend all is okay, try to put up a false “spiritual” front, and ignore the pain. As we see here with the story of Elijah, those capable of the greatest spiritual exploits are also painfully human. God loves us anyway, and never leaves us. Thanks for that reminder today- I needed it.
    I will keep you and your wife in my prayers as you continue through your pregnancy.

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